No, Athena Didn’t Turn Medusa into a Monster to Protect Her

One of the most famous stories in all of ancient Greek and Roman mythology and literature is the tale of the origin of the Gorgon Medusa that the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (lived 43 BCE – c. 17 CE), who is better known in English simply as “Ovid,” tells in his long narrative poem Metamorphoses, which he composed in the Latin language in dactylic hexameter verse in around the year 8 CE or thereabouts.

According to Ovid, Medusa was originally an extraordinarily beautiful mortal woman who was known for her gorgeous hair. Then, however, the god Neptunus (whom the Romans equated with the Greek god Poseidon) raped her in the temple of the goddess Minerva (whom the Romans equated with the Greek goddess Athena) and Minerva punished her by turning her into a hideous monster with snakes entwined in her hair and making it so that any mortal who saw her would instantly turn to stone.

A claim has circulated online for years now claiming that modern people have misunderstood this myth and that, actually, Minerva turned Medusa into a monster and made it so that anyone who saw her would instantly turn to stone in order to protect her so that men would never prey on her again. This claim, however, is not supported by any evidence in any ancient source and, in fact, Ovid’s account expressly says that Minerva cursed Medusa in order to punish her for her involvement in desecrating her temple, even though her involvement was totally nonconsensual. Furthermore, the context in which Ovid tells the story strongly suggests that he intended his readers to sympathize with Medusa and question the justice of Minerva’s punishment.

The claim that Athena turned Medusa into a Gorgon to protect her

This claim about Athena supposedly protecting Medusa is pervasive on the internet. To give one fairly representative example, someone on Quora asked the question “Did Athena curse Medusa to protect her or did she do it out of spite?” The majority of the responses to this question claim that Athena turned Medusa into a monster in order to protect her. The most-upvoted answer to the question (which currently has seventy upvotes as of the time I am writing this post) claims:

“Contrary to some people’s belief, Athena was protecting Medusa when she ‘cursed’ her. You see, Medusa was a loyal priestess who just happened to be attractive enough to catch Poseidon’s eye. After Medusa was raped by Poseidon, all Olympians other than Athena ( and possibly Artemis), decided to blame the victim. Athena knew who the true culprit was, but couldn’t punish him, so she had to come up with something that to the others would look like a punishment when in turn it was actually a protection method; take away Medusa’s looks and have her turn anyone who looks at her to stone.”

“Because of this, in Ancient Greece, Medusa’s head was used to mark women’s shelters. Medusa was never cursed. She was protected.”

“P.S. if I made any historical errors, please point them out.”

While I will admit that the story the user tells in this answer is creative, it is not based on any kind of evidence from any kind of ancient source. In fact, it directly contradicts what the real ancient sources plainly say.

I think it is perfectly acceptable for modern storytellers to change and invent new versions of ancient myths—but, when they do so, they should be clear that this is what they are doing. When modern people try to claim that modern creative reinterpretations of ancient myths that they personally prefer are genuinely ancient stories and that the stories that are actually attested in the ancient sources are misinterpretations, they are spreading misinformation about the past.

Background: Hesiodos’s version of the Medusa story

I won’t discuss the full history of the myth of Medusa in depth in this post, since I already wrote a very detailed and in-depth post specifically about the history of the myth back in October 2020. If you are curious and want to learn about the history of the myth, I would highly recommend reading that post, but I will summarize the parts that are relevant to my argument here.

The earliest attested version of the story of Medusa and Poseidon comes from the Greek poet Hesiodos of Askre, who most likely flourished in around the early seventh century BCE or thereabouts, in his long narrative poem Theogonia, lines 270–286. Hesiodos first says that the sea goddess Keto had sex with the sea god Phorkys and she gave birth to the three Gorgons: Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa. He says that Sthenno and Euryale were immortal, but Medusa was mortal. Then he says, in lines 278–279

“And the Dark-Haired One [i.e., Poseidon] lay with herin a soft meadow amid spring flowers.”

Hesiodos says nothing whatsoever about the sex between Poseidon and Medusa being a rape. If he did believe it was a rape, he says nothing that would indicate this. Moreover, he specifically says that they had sex “ἐν μαλακῷ λειμῶνι καὶ ἄνθεσιν εἰαρινοῖσιν” (“in a soft meadow amid spring flowers”)—not in Athena’s temple.

He also says absolutely nothing about Athena turning Medusa into a monster or about her even being involved in this part of the story in any way whatsoever. Instead, Hesiodos seems to have simply believed that Medusa and her sisters were all simply born as snaky-haired monsters.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons showing the so-called “Pseudo-Seneca,” a bronze portrait head dating to the late first century CE discovered in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, believed to be an imaginative representation of the Greek poet Hesiodos of Askre. (No one knows what he really looked like.)

Ovid’s version of the Medusa story

Countless ancient Greek authors after Hesiodos told their own versions of the Medusa myth in both lost and extant works. The earliest known version of the myth in which Poseidon rapes Medusa in Athena’s temple and Athena turns her into a snaky-haired monster as punishment, however, comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Ovid was writing nearly seven hundred years after Hesiodos and in a very different cultural and historical context. He was not interested in simply retelling classic myths exactly as he had heard them, but rather in putting his own creative spin on them. As such, he frequently departs significantly from his source material, inventing new details, twists, backstories, and other elements out of whole cloth.

As one may guess from the title, the central theme of the Metamorphoses is physical transformation. In it, Ovid tells many memorable stories about people and deities turning into animals and plants and even, as I discuss in this post I wrote in August 2020, men turning into a women and women turning into men. The story of Medusa’s transformation into a hideous snaky-haired monster fits well with this overall theme. As a Roman author writing in Latin, Ovid uses the Roman names for all the deities, calling Athena “Minerva” and Poseidon “Neptunus.”

ABOVE: Frontispiece illustration for an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses printed in 1731 in Leipzig, showing what the illustrator imagined Ovid might have looked like. (No one knows what he actually looked like.)

Ovid does not tell the myth of Medusa in perfectly chronological order. Instead, he begins the story when Perseus has already slain Medusa and is flying away with her severed head. Eventually, the errant hero comes upon the princess Andromeda, the beautiful unmarried virgin daughter of King Kepheus and Queen Kassiopeia of Aithiopia, chained to a rock above the sea.

Perseus is absolutely captivated by Andromeda’s beauty, so he lands and asks her who she is. She explains to him that her mother Kassiopeia boasted of her beauty and that, as punishment, the god Ammon ordered for her to be chained to this rock so that a sea monster known as the ketos will devour her.

The ketos rises out of the water and Andromeda’s parents come rushing to her side, crying and wailing at their daughter’s fate. Perseus tells them that, if they promise that they will give him Andromeda’s hand in marriage, he will save her from the ketos. Andromeda’s parents agree and Perseus slays the ketos with his sword.

ABOVE: Roman fresco from the Casa Dei Dioscuri or House of the God Dioskouros (VI.9.6) in Pompeii, dating to the first century CE, depicting Perseus freeing the princess Andromeda after slaying the ketos

King Kepheus and Queen Kassiopeia make good on their promise and they give Andromeda to Perseus as his bride. At the wedding, the Aithiopian nobles ask Perseus to tell the story of how he slew Medusa. Perseus is, of course, more than happy to oblige this request. After he has finished telling the story, one of the nobles asks him why Medusa had snakes in her hair. Perseus replies in the Metamorphoses 4.794–804 with the following words in the original Latin:

“Since you are asking for a worthy tale,accept the cause of your inquiry: That woman [i.e., Medusa] was most renowned in beautyand the envied hope of many suitors. And, in her whole, there was no partmore admired than her tresses. (I met with a man who reported that he had seen her himself.)It is said that the Lord of the Sea [i.e., Neptunus] raped her in the templeof Minerva. The daughter of Iuppiter [i.e., Minerva] turned away in disgust and covered her chaste gaze with the Aegis and, in order that this act would not be unpunished,she transformed the hair of the Gorgon into hideous serpents.And now, in order to terrify her lightning-struck enemies with dread,she wears the serpents, which she made, on her hostile breast.”

Ovid’s Perseus very expressly and unambiguously states Minerva’s reason for transforming Medusa into a snaky-haired monster; he specifically says that she transformed her “neve hoc inpune fuisset” (“in order that this thing [i.e., the act of desecrating Minerva’s temple] would not be unpunished”). In other words, according to Ovid, Minerva turned Medusa into a hideous monster in order to punish her for the fact that Neptunus raped her in Minerva’s temple.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a first-century CE Roman door decoration of the head of Medusa from the city of Pompeii

Why Ovid’s Minerva punishes Medusa

To understand why Minerva inflicts this harrowing punishment on Medusa, it is important to understand the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Ovid’s story. In general, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not regard their deities as moral paragons for mortals to imitate. On the contrary, the most common view of the deities held that, as a result of their immense powers, they were more-or-less not bound by human standards of morality.

As far as mainstream Greek and Roman religious thought was concerned, going around abducting and raping mortals—including mortal women, adolescent girls, and, in some cases (such as the myth of Ganymedes, which I discuss in great detail in this post I wrote in November 2021), adolescent boys—was simply completely normal, everyday behavior for any powerful male god. Stories about powerful male deities engaging in this sort of misconduct were absolutely ubiquitous throughout the Greek and Roman cultural spheres.

People, of course, recognized that abducting and/or raping people is morally wrong, but they also recognized that, if a powerful god like Zeus or Poseidon is doing it, no one can really do anything to stop them or hold them responsible for their actions. In other words, gods will be gods.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of an Apulian red-figure dinos, or wine server, dating to between c. 370 and c. 330 BCE, currently held in the Eskenazi Museum of Art in Bloomington, Indiana, depicting the god Zeus in the form of a bull abducting the Phoenician princess Europa

At any rate, if any ancient Greek or Roman person ever expected some deity to try to do something to stop male deities from sexually abusing and raping mortals, Athena/Minerva was probably one of the last deities they would ever expect to do such a thing. As I discuss at much greater length in this post I made in July 2021, ancient Greek and Roman sources generally portray Athena/Minerva as a staunch, unwavering defender and enforcer of the male supremacist patriarchal cosmic order that allows powerful male deities like Zeus and Poseidon to rape mortals with impunity in the first place.

The Athenian tragic playwright Aischylos (lived c. 525 – c. 455 BCE) in his tragedy The Eumenides, which was originally performed in Athens at the City Dionysia in 458 BCE, portrays the young man Orestes, who has killed his own mother Klytaimnestra in revenge for her having murdered his father Agamemnon, as being put on trial in Athens for the crime of having murdered a blood relative.

The god Apollon defends Orestes by arguing that he is not guilty of having murdered a blood relative because a person’s mother is not a true parent. He asserts that the father deposits his seed inside the woman’s womb and she merely nurtures the seed long enough for it to mature into a baby.

Thus, Apollon contends that the father is the only real parent and that the mother is nothing more than a mere vessel for the father’s seed. As the ultimate “proof” of this, he cites the fact that Athena was born from the head of her father Zeus without a mother, claiming that this demonstrates that mothers are unnecessary for creating offspring.

The jury is split exactly even; one half of the jurors vote to acquit Orestes, while the other half vote to convict. Athena casts her own vote to break the tie and she votes in favor of Orestes, explaining that she was born of her father without a mother and that therefore she considers the murder of a husband a more grievous crime than the murder of a mother. She declares, in lines 734–740:

“The following deed is mine: to cast the final judgement—and I will place this pebble [i.e., vote] for Orestes.For there is no mother who gave birth to meand I glorify all things male, except for marriage,with my whole spirit, and I am completely my father’s.In this way, I will not hold in higher esteem the fate of a womanwho murdered her husband, the overseer of her household.”

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a Paestan red-figure bell-krater dating to c. 330 BCE, depicting the hero Orestes at Delphoi, flanked by the goddess Athena on his right and the god Apollon on his left

Ovid himself similarly portrays Athena as a die-hard supporter of male supremacist patriarchy, including not only in the story of Medusa, but other stories as well. In his Metamorphoses 6.1–145, he tells the oldest extant complete version of the story of Minerva and Arachne, in which a Lydian woman named Arachne boasts that she can weave even better than the goddess Minerva herself and ends up challenging Minerva to a weaving contest.

Minerva weaves a beautiful tapestry depicting the contest in which she defeated Neptunus and won the patronage of Athens and scenes of mortals who dared to challenge the deities suffering horrific and gruesome punishments. Arachne, by sharp contrast, weaves a tapestry which depicts twenty-one scenes of powerful male deities committing egregious sexual crimes against mortal women, including Iuppiter (whom the Romans equated with the Greek god Zeus) raping Leda in the form of a swan, raping Asteria in the form of an eagle, raping Europa in the form of a bull, raping Antiope in the form of a satyr, and raping Danaë in the form of a shower of gold.

In Ovid’s version of the story, Arachne’s tapestry so greatly surpasses Minerva’s by every possible measure that even Minerva herself cannot deny that Arachne has defeated her. Minerva, however, is enraged by the fact that Arachne has had the audacity to criticize the male deities for their sexual crimes against mortal women.

It is for this crime of daring to speak out against the male deities’ sexual misconduct that Minerva totally destroys Arachne’s tapestry and strikes her across the face four times with her shuttle. Arachne hangs herself in humiliation. Minerva brings her back to life, but she curses her to “hang forever” from her web and transforms her into the first spider.

ABOVE: Minerva and Arachne, painted in 1706 by the French Neoclassical painter René-Antoine Houasse

In Ovid’s version of the myth of Medusa, Minerva does not care in the slightest that Neptunus raped Medusa against her will. In fact, it is not clear whether Minerva even regards a god raping a mortal woman as any real crime at all. Instead, what offends Minerva is the fact that the rape occurred specifically inside her temple.

With a few noteworthy exceptions, people in ancient Greece and Rome generally believed that a mortal having any form of sexual contact inside a deity’s temple or another sacred space was an egregious act of desecration and a sacrilege against the deity to whom the temple belonged.

In line with this broader cultural perspective, throughout the Metamorphoses, Ovid portrays deities as inflicting severe retribution on any and all mortals who are involved in any form of sexual contact in their temples. For instance, he tells another story (in the Metamorphoses 10.681–707) in which the mortal heroes Hippomenes and Atalanta have perfectly consensual sex in the temple of the goddess Kybele and, as punishment, the goddess transforms them both into lions.

ABOVE: Illustration made by the Dutch engraver Crispijn van de Passe between 1602 and 1607, depicting Hippomenes and Atalanta having sex in Kybele’s temple (left) and being transformed into lions as punishment (right)

Much like Kybele in Ovid’s story of Hippomenes and Atalanta, Minerva is offended by Neptunus and Medusa having sexual contact inside her temple. In her mind, it is the sexual contact itself and the location that are the problem—not the fact that Neptunus forced the sexual contact onto Medusa without her consent. If Neptunus were to rape Medusa anywhere else other than inside her temple, Minerva would not care.

Minerva sees both Neptunus and Medusa as guilty for defiling her temple because they were both physically involved in sexual contact—even though Medusa had no choice in the matter and was forced against her will. Minerva cannot punish Neptunus because he is a full-fledged Olympian god who is of equal status with her, so she lets him off totally scot-free. She can punish Medusa, though, because she is a mere mortal woman, and so she does.

This is the reasoning that leads Minerva to punish Medusa while letting Neptunus go free. There should be no doubt, however, that this reasoning is fallacious and that Minerva’s actions in this story constitute an absolutely heinous injustice. Quite simply, Minerva blames and punishes a completely innocent victim.

ABOVE: Illustration by M. Baron for the book Heathen Mythology, published by Willoughby & Co in 1840, depicting Minerva catching Neptunus raping Medusa in her temple

Why I think Ovid intends for his readers to sympathize with Medusa

To understand what Ovid is doing from a literary perspective with this story that he tells about Medusa’s origin (which, again, as far as the surviving evidence suggests, he seems to have most likely made up himself out of whole cloth), it is once again useful to closely examine the story’s cultural and literary context.

I am personally convinced that Ovid composed this tragic backstory for Medusa at least partly in order to make his readers feel some modicum of sympathy for her. There was a long, venerable tradition in ancient Greek and Roman literature of taking straightforwardly villainous or monstrous characters, especially female ones, and giving them more complicated, sympathetic backstories and motivations.

The Athenian tragic playwright Euripides (lived c. 480 – c. 406 BCE) arguably does this in several of his surviving tragedies, including, most famously, his Medeia, in which he takes the character of Medeia, who was traditionally seen as an evil barbarian sorceress, and turns her into sympathetic spokeswoman for the struggles that most women in the Greek world at the time faced.

We know that Ovid in particular was very interested in fleshing out the female characters of mythology. He wrote an entire work known as the Heroïdes, which is a collection of pseudo-letters composed in elegiac couplets. Each of these letters is written from the first-person perspective of a famous mythological or historical woman and is addressed to a man with whom the woman either has been or wishes to be in an erotic relationship. The letters attempt to explore and flesh out the various women’s lives and personalities.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikipedia showing the front matter of a 1732 printed edition of Ovid’s Heroïdes edited by Peter Burmann

Within the context of the Metamorphoses, Ovid frames the entire story of Perseus and Medusa inside of a story that he himself expressly describes as one about an unjust god ordering for an innocent, beautiful, unmarried woman to be punished: the story of Andromeda. Ovid first introduces Andromeda with the following description in the Metamorphoses 4.670–671:

“Illic inmeritam maternae pendere linguaeAndromedan poenas iniustus iusserat Ammon.”

This means, in my own translation:

“There the unjust Ammon had ordered that the guiltless Andromedashould face punishment for her mother’s tongue.”

Notice that Ovid expressly describes Ammon as “iniustus,” which means “unjust,” and Andromeda as “inmeritam,” which means “guiltless” or “innocent.” This clearly establishes, before we ever arrive at the story of Medusa’s origin, that deities can and do inflict horrible, unjust punishments on completely innocent people. This primes Ovid’s readers to recognize, when we come to the story of Medusa’s origin a little bit later, that Minerva’s punishment against Medusa is unjust—just like Ammon’s punishment against Andromeda.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of an ancient Corinthian black-figure vase painting dated to between c. 575 and c. 550 BCE, currently on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin, depicting Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the ketos

It is noteworthy that Ovid has Perseus tell the story of how Medusa became a snaky-haired monster after he has already told the whole story about how he himself killed her. Up until this point in the narrative, most of Ovid’s readers have most likely viewed Perseus as a simple, clear-cut hero who slays monsters and rescues princesses and Medusa as a simple, clear-cut monster who gets what she deserves. Suddenly, though, Perseus’s account of Medusa’s origin calls this simple paradigm into question. It’s a really brilliant bait-and-switch.

Not only does the revelation of Medusa’s true origin force the reader to consider that Perseus has effectively murdered an innocent woman who was already a victim of divine rape and an unjust curse, it also forces the reader to recognize that Medusa and Andromeda are fundamentally similar: they are both innocent, young, unmarried women whom deities have unjustly punished because of things that other people have done.

The only crucial difference between them is their appearance. Minerva has made Medusa so monstrously ugly that she turns whoever looks at her to stone. Meanwhile, in an inversion too perfect to be anything other than deliberate, Ovid says that Andromeda is so beautiful that Perseus would have initially mistaken her for a marble statue if it were not for the breeze in her hair and the tears falling from her eyes. Thus, one of them is so ugly she turns other people to stone; the other is so beautiful that she looks like she is stone herself.

As a result of this, Perseus beheads Medusa and rescues Andromeda. If, however, Medusa were the beautiful one and Andromeda the ugly one, he would most likely have done the opposite to both of them. It reveals that, in his mind, whether a woman deserves to live or not is solely determined by how she looks.

ABOVE: Painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the ketos by the Italian Renaissance painter Titian, painted roughly between 1554 and 1556

Perseus’s account of Medusa’s origin is also the very last passage at the very end of Book Four. Perseus tells the story and then the book simply ends. Ovid deliberately never gives any of Perseus’s listeners at the wedding any opportunity to respond to the story, instead leaving it up to the readers to consider how they feel.

Ovid begins Book Five by having Phineus, the brother of King Kepheus, to whom Andromeda was previously promised in marriage, burst in with a spear to interrupt the wedding feast, insisting that Andromeda is rightfully his and demanding that Perseus hand her over.

A ruthless and bloody battle quickly ensues, which Ovid describes in great detail. Early in the battle, Perseus kills a sixteen-year-old boy from India named Athis. Ovid describes the boy’s death as follows in the Metamorphoses 5.47–58, as translated by Horace Gregory:

“From India there was a boy named Athiswhom it was said that his mother brought to birth—since she was a creature of the river Ganges—beneath the waves of Ganges’ purest waters.He looked like a young god just turned sixteen,which made him seem much handsomer than ever;he wore a purple cloak fringed with deep goldas though he were a king of Tyre,a gold chain at his throat, a gold tiarato bind his hair which smelled of sweetest myrrh.At javelin toss he struck the furthest targets;yet as an archer he had greater gifts,and as he drew an arrow to his bowPerseus plucked up a heavy smoking torchfrom the lit altar and with one quick blowsmashed the boy’s face into a net of bones.”

Athis’s male lover Lycabas sees his beloved fall and, utterly devastated, lashes out, but Perseus quickly kills him too. Ovid describes in the Metamorphoses 5.59–73 (again in Horace Gregory’s translation):

“When Lycabas of the Assyrian kingdomsaw the boy fall, saw the sweet face of friend,bride, lover, changed to a blood-soaked horrorat his feet, he moaned aloud for Athis,whose last breath sighed through fissures of his wound.He then snatched up the bow that Athis droppedand shouted, ‘You have me to fight, my friend,nor long fame follow murder of this childwhich brings you greater shame than your poor valour.’And as he spoke, his arrow snapped from bowstring,yet merely pierced a fold of Perseus’s cloak.At which Acrisius’ grandson charged at him,waving the sword that brought Medusa’s death,and drove the scimitar int Lycabas’s heart.And yet Lycabas, dying, eyes in darkness,sought out his Athis as he fell beside himdown to death’s shades, where they were one forever.”

The battle ends with Perseus showing the head of Medusa to Phineus’s men, killing two hundred men in one fell swoop by turning them all to stone.

In a literary sense, Ovid’s surprising reveal about Medusa’s origin at the very end of Book Four acts as a bridge to connect the Perseus of Book Four, a relatively morally uncomplicated hero who slays monsters and rescues princesses, with the much more morally ambiguous Perseus of Book Five, who slaughters literally hundreds of human beings, including even teenaged boys, without mercy.

ABOVE: The Petrification of Phineus and of His Companions, painted in 1718 by the French Neoclassical painter Jean-Marc Nattier

Why having Athena/Minerva turn Medusa into a monster to protect her doesn’t make Athena/Minerva much, if at all, better

Sources written in the Greek language after Ovid generally don’t endorse his version of Medusa’s origin, instead mostly keeping to the older, more traditional story that Medusa was simply born a hideous monster. Ovid’s version of the story, however, seems to have enjoyed somewhat more acceptance in the Latin west and, thanks to his pervasive influence in western Europe from the Renaissance onward, it has become accepted as the standard version of the story throughout the English-speaking world today.

There is no ancient source that ever describes Athena/Minerva as transforming Medusa into a monster in order to protect her. This is entirely a modern reworking of the story that is meant to portray Athena/Minerva in a way that is more palatable to twenty-first-century feminist audiences.

Really, though, this reworking of the story does not actually make Athena/Minerva much, if at all, better. As the self-described “antiquity enthusiast” Meg Finlayson, who has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees in classics, points out in this tweet they made on 2 September 2022, in this reworking, Minerva still transforms Medusa into a snaky-haired monster who turns anyone who sees her to stone without her consent, which is still a heinous and fundamental violation of her bodily autonomy.

If you want to change this story to make it portray Minerva/Athena even remotely positively at all, you’re going to need to go beyond merely changing the characters’ motivations. You’ll actually need to change the events of the story, have Medusa pray to Minerva/Athena and specifically beg her to transform her into a hideous monster with the power to turn anyone who looks at her to stone, and then have Minerva/Athena grant her this wish.

As Finlayson points out in another tweet, however, Ovid actually tells a story in his Metamorphoses 12.146–209 that is similar to this: the story of Caeneus, which I have previously discussed in this post I made in August 2020. In Ovid’s version of the story, Caenis is a young, extraordinarily beautiful Thessalian girl of marriageable age. Many suitors long for her hand in marriage. One day, though, she goes out walking alone along the seashore. Neptunus sees her and is filled with rapacious lust. He swiftly leaps out of the sea and brutally rapes Caenis right then and there on the beach.

After he has finished raping her, Neptunus is so pleased that he offers to grant Caenis one wish. Absolutely traumatized by her experience, Caenis wishes for Neptunus to turn her into a man so that she will never have to have sex with a man ever again. Neptunus grants her her wish, he turns her into a man, and, from that day onward, Caenis becomes known by the masculine name Caeneus.

Caeneus becomes a formidable hero and warrior renowned for his many deeds. He fights in the battle between the centaurs and the Lapiths and, when the centaur Latreus mocks him for having previously been a woman by calling him “Caenis” and telling him to go back to weaving wool, Caeneus kills him without even receiving so much as a scratch himself.

As Finlayson observes, in this story, the main character, a victim of divine rape, makes a specific wish to be physically transformed so that they will never be raped again and a deity grants their wish. This is precisely the event that the Medusa story as Ovid tells it lacks.

ABOVE: Woodcut illustration from 1563 by the German illustrator Virgil Solis, showing a havily sanitized version of Neptunus raping Caenis on the beach

What about Medusa’s face supposedly being used to mark “women’s shelters”?

The Quora answer that I quoted at the beginning of this post claims that Medusa’s face was used in ancient Greece to mark “women’s shelters.” I am going to assume that, when the author of that answer uses this term, they mean formal shelters for women who are victims of sexual and/or domestic violence. If this is indeed what they mean, then I am very sorry to say that such formal shelters are a purely modern invention and they simply did not exist in ancient Greece.

Moreover, there is no evidence for the face of Medusa having ever been used in ancient Greece to specifically represent abused or victimized women in any form or capacity. Indeed, as I have explained above, the very earliest attestation of a story in which Medusa is even definitely a victim of rape at all is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, dating to around 8 CE. Prior to this, there is no definite evidence for anyone at all regarding Medusa as a rape victim.

Medusa’s face was genuinely an important symbol in ancient Greece, but the Greeks used it as an apotropaic symbol—a symbol meant to generically ward off evil, similar to how some Greek people today use the mati eye symbol to ward off the evil eye.

ABOVE: Photograph from Wikimedia Commons of a Greek terra-cotta antefix bearing the face of Medusa, dating to around the fourth century BCE, now on display in the Pushkin Museum