Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Were Athena and Medusa the same individual?

Athena and her Aegis with the head of Medusa attached.
Both the Medusa and the Goddess Athena have attributes to how fearsome their eyes were; from this I did start to wonder how many other attributes they shared. At face value they seemed to have started a lot and it even seems that Athena had the same abilities as the Gorgons herself.

One connecting attribute is snakes. Snakes are one of the most recognisable modern associations with the Medusa and yet they are also associated with Athena as well. This can be seen by the term Orataina sometimes given to Athena (Orpheus h.32.11, Pausanias iii.208) meaning she-snake. The link is goes further with the story of Erichthonis, Athena’s foster son who had snake tails for legs or was accompanied by snakes, or itself a snake appearing near Athena’s shield. However the usual contradictions and variations of Greek religion and mythology should be remembered. Representations of Gorgons can appear without any snakes as Athena can.  (Wilk. 2000 p.37)The common image of snake haired Medusa was only a later development. Wilks pointed out that the snake only appeared around the waist or head in earlier depictions; from the 4th century onwards did snakes appear in surrounding the head, but only on coins did snakes completely replace Medusa’s hair. (p.46)  On top of this several deities shared aspects with others, Athena and Ares were both deities of war. The olive tree was associated with both Athena and Zeus.

Another link could be the myth of origin of both medusa and Athena being from Lake Tritonis. Morford says that the origin of the title of Athena Tritogeneia was obscure and may have referred to either a lake in Boeotia in Greece or a lake in Libya. (1999 p.110) Athena appears in a story as being an inhabitant of Lake Tritonis as well as its daughter with Poseidon. Similarly the Medusa has also been described as an inhabitant of Tritonis, either as a savage or as a Queen murdered and decapitated by Perseus for her beauty.  Despite sharing a location the Medusa and Athena are still clearly separate figures. In the Perseus story Athena even assists in killing the medusa. A play called Ion by Euripides has Athena kill Medusa herself. (Wilk. 2000.25)Also it seems the placing of Medusa in Libya may have simply been a literary construct as Wilk argues it was “undoubtedly” originated from the Novelist Dioysius Skytobrachion from 2nd century BCE Alexandria. Although Herodotus also mentions the origins of Medusa as Libya he makes no mention to Athena in the same section. (Herodotus. The Histories.2.19)

Despite the sources so far pointing to the contrary, academics have pointed out similarities between Athena and Medusa to the point of suggesting that both had similar origins. Many have argued the origins stretch to prehistory and a possible matriarchal society where according to Bower the Medusa was worshipped as a Goddess. Phinney sees the Medusa as a “faded Mother Goddess.” (1971. Perseus's Battle with the Gorgons. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association p.446)For Annis Pratt the story of Perseus serves as an example of masculine dominance “in which the beautiful and powerful women of pre-Hellenic religions are made to seem horrific and…decapitated or destroyed.” (cited in Bower. NWSA Journal. Vol 2. No.2. 1990. 220) Despite the strong sense of gender conflict in Pratt’s argument, the head of Medusa is given to another “beautiful and powerful” female deity, Athena.

 When the Medusa is placed on Athena’s aegis, she seems to adopt Medusa’s powers as well. The story of the priestess Iodama being turned to stone when she saw Athena was attributed to the Medusa on her aegis. (Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece.9.34.2)This includes Athena` indirectly giving a lock of Medusa’s hair to Sterope to frighten enemies and the Gorgon’s blood given either to Aesculapius or Erichthonis, which is capable of both giving life and death. Bowers calls this a paradoxical “coexistence of her pre-Olympian and Olympian history.” (Bower. 222) Another theorised idea is that the Medusa and Athena are a fragmentation of a pre- Indo European Goddess, which represents death and life.  Both Root and Dexter argue that the “Medusa represents a dark, chthonic side of Athena.” Medusa is only made capable of giving death. Although Athena can also bring death as Dexter explains “life and death…ceased to be viewed as a continuum worthy of equal veneration. Thus the death-bringing aspect of the Goddess became an object.”  (cited in Root. 2007.25-27) Such separation as seen above was never complete, although some signs of continual separation may be seen. Both the Medusa and Athena were also associated with birds, particularly those associated with death such as owls and vultures. As seen by the figure below early depictions of the Gorgons were winged.

(Attic Black Figure Vase. 600-550 BCE. Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.)

It has also been pointed out that after Homeric time Athena’s associations to birds of death (apart from the owl) ceased.  Although it has been argued that such links between the Medusa and Athena appear on her aegis. Root argues that Athena and Medusa originated from "early neolithic snake and bird Goddesses." (Root.2007 p.25)Medusa's presence on Athena's aegis is not only a continuation but also a submission of one aspect of the "neolithic goddess" over another.

Concluding this section it could be argued that at one time the Medusa and Athena could have been the same individual in prehistory. Although this is theorised it the similarities between the two have caused others to analysis this relationship as well. It appears even the Ancient Greeks connected the two through their origins in Africa. However a major subject that has run through many modern discourses on the subject is the demonization of at least part of the "neolithic Goddess" hence the creation of the monster Medusa.


1. Apollodurus. Library

2. Bowers, S.R. Spring 1990. Medusa and the Female Gaze. NWSA Journal Vol.2 No.2 pp.217-235

3. Herodotus, The Histories.

3. Luyster,R. Summer 1965. Symbolic Elements in the Cult of Athena. History of Religions Vol.5 No.1 pp.133-163

4. Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece

5. Phinney. E. Jr. 1971. Perseus's Battle with the Gorgons. Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association. Vol. 102 pp.445-466

6. Root. I.B. 2007. Redeeming the Gorgon: Reclaiming the Medusa Function of Psyche.

7. Wilk. S. 2000. Medusa: Solving the mystery of the Gorgon.

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