This story is a re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of how came to have the power to turn men to stone.
Back in the days when gods and goddesses still roamed the earth and eavesdropped on human conversations, when there were still monsters and scary creatures in the forest before machines scared everything off and took away their hiding places, there was a young girl who lived near the edge of the woods with her family. She was unafraid of the monsters of the forest, even though there were said to live there the Gorgons, sisters of ugly mean faces and snaky hair. This little girl was beautiful and, it was often said, would surely draw a prince or a god into the forest with her charms and would become a queen herself. The young woman’s name was Medusa.
Medusa was a proud young woman. With long, flowing hair and a small, athletic body, she loved to run around and play in the woods. She prayed often to Athena, the orphan goddess, protector of ships and armies, to keep her safe and mold her into a strong young warrior like herself. Raised in a family of sisters, Medusa had no use for young men. Her playmates had been the trees and the animals, rather than little boys with bows and arrows and slingshots.
One day Medusa went hiking through the woods and toward the sea. When she arrived at the shore, she saw on the top of the cliff, a temple with Athena’s likeness in front. She climbed the cliff to the temple. Medusa offered her usual prayers and blessings to Athena. While she was doing this, a very handsome, robust man entered the temple. Medusa had never seen this man before and she started to leave the temple. The man stepped in front of her. He took her hand and kissed it and admonished her not to be afraid.
“I’m not going to harm you,” the man said, stroking Medusa’s soft brown curls. “I am Poseidon, God of the Sea.”
Medusa became more afraid than ever. She had heard terrible stories about the gods, including Poseidon’s brother, Zeus, who was said to have taken many different forms to “seduce” virgins. Medusa tried to back away from Poseidon, who stepped closer again and said “I am surprised that you would journey all this way to the sea to pray to Athena, when I am right here.” Poseidon moved his hand along Medusa’s arm, up to her shoulder and around her neck. She cried for him to stop, but Poseidon took Medusa’s face and pulled it closer to his own and began to kiss her.
Medusa tried to pull away, but Poseidon was too strong for her. She squirmed and cried and his hands continued to move along her body until he had brought her down to the floor of the temple. As Medusa tried to pull away, her tunic ripped and Poseidon took that moment to take advantage of Medusa, pinning her to the floor under the weight of his body.
In the meantime, Athena, pleased by the continued sacrifices and prayers Medusa had offered her, was on her way to meet her young disciple. When she arrived, she found Poseidon and the young woman on the floor the temple. Athena was furious. She drove Poseidon out of the temple, and turned her attention to Medusa, cowering on the steps beside the altar. Medusa struggled to cover herself with her torn dress. “This is how you show your faithfulness?” Athena demanded. Medusa hung her head and cried. She tried to speak among her loud sobs, tried to protest that it was not her fault, but Athena was unmoved.
“I shall see to it that no man desires you again. You shall desecrate no more of my temples!” Athena pulled Medusa to her feet. Medusa tried once again to defend herself, but Athena would not hear of it. She stroked the young woman’s long hair, and Medusa, remembering Poseidon’s touch, cried out louder.
As Athena’s fingers ran through the locks on Medusa’s quivering head, they turned into hissing snakes. Athena stroked Medusa’s cheek and her smooth creamy skin turned a faintly green tint and rough to the touch. Medusa called out for Poseidon to come back and help her. “He’s a coward,” Athena scoffed. “And besides, his domain is the sea. He has no power in my temple.”
Athena then led Medusa out of the temple and to the sea. “Look for your lover down there!” She pushed Medusa into the water and left. Medusa saw her own reflection in the water and screamed. She had been turned into a Gorgon, one of the most feared creatures of the woods. She sat down on the shore and wept some more, calling out for Poseidon to intervene. This was his doing, and Medusa was sure that if he explained it to Athena, the goddess would forgive her and return her to her original beauty. After two days, the sea god still not returned to help her. Medusa was tired and hungry and didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t return home. She was ashamed of what had happened to her. And now, further disgraced, she had been turned into a hideous monster, forever reminded of what she had done. She couldn’t stand the thought of anyone else seeing her. Once they saw what a monster Medusa now was, surely the people of her village would try to kill her.
Medusa began to wander the countryside. As she passed by people, they would point and whisper, commenting on her grotesque appearance. She tried not to look. When she saw people in the distance, she would cover her face, but the snakes where her curls had once been would hiss at passersby and Medusa could feel their stares and hear their words.
Medusa finally fell down beneath a tree and fell asleep. As she slept, she had terrible nightmares about the snakes and the sea and the villagers chasing her away. She began to weep in her sleep. Loudly she wept and ground her teeth, and the noise became so great, that it drifted below the earth and awoke the great god Hephaestus, asleep in his smithy. Hephaestus came up to the ground above him to see what was causing so much noise.
Hephaestus started when he saw the hideous young woman lying asleep under the tree. He touched her on the shoulder to rouse her. When she opened her eyes and saw him standing above her, she remembered Poseidon and the cause of her misery and she jumped up. She looked at Hephaestus standing before her, and noticed his leg. The god himself had been born with a deformity of his leg, cast into the fire as an infant by his angry father, and was all but lame. He nodded at her. “I am a great craftsman, but because of my appearance, I must live beneath Mount Olympus, not upon it. Tell me your story.”
Medusa told him from the beginning. Of her great love for Athena, of the forceful power of Poseidon, of Athena’s anger and Medusa’s shame and embarrassment. And of how ashamed she was to be seen by others. Hephaestus, unlike his half-sister Athena, was moved by Medusa’s story. “I cannot undo what she has done,” he told Medusa. “But I will help you. Stay here.”
Like Athena, daughter of Zeus alone, Hephaestus, son of Zeus and Hera, was known for his handicrafts. He went down to his smithy to prepare a special gift for Medusa, a golden mask, almost as beautiful as her own young face. He was almost finished when Athena arrived. “I, too, have heard the crying of the wicked girl,” she said. “She tells me that you said you would help her.” Athena ran her finger along the smooth surface of the still hot mask. The mask was not fully set and Athena began to twist it into a grotesque shape. “Do not undo my work, Hephaestus. This girl has defiled my temple, and I will not stand still for it.”
“But Athena,” Hephaestus begged, “can you tell me that you are not moved by her cries? She is so unhappy. Don’t you believe Poseidon might bear some fault?”
“That is not my concern. Help her if you must, but do not undo my work. Do you understand me, Hephaestus?”
Athena left and Hephaestus went back to his forge. If he could not make Medusa a beautiful new face, he decided, he would make her a magical one. Hephaestus worked all day and into the night on a new mask. When he returned to tree where Medusa was waiting for him, the young woman was asleep on the ground, her snaky hair waving and hissing. Hephaestus roused Medusa once again. When she sat up, he knelt down beside her and showed her the mask. “I cannot make you beautiful again, my dear. But I know what it is to be ridiculed. This mask will save you from the unkind stares of strangers.”
Hephaestus explained that when Medusa put on this mask, anyone who stared at her would be turned to stone, their own hideous expression frozen forever, and than when word of Medusa’s powers spread, she would be left alone to live her life in peace. And, it was true. Tales of Medusa’s mask spread quickly, and soon, she could walk the countryside unbothered. When the Gorgons heard of Medusa and her magical mask, they sent for her to be their protector. Unable to return home, Medusa agreed to live among the Gorgons and to be their Queen. This she did until many years later when Athena, angry at Hephaestus and Medusa for conspiring to undo her work, would send the great warrior Perseus to kill Medusa once and for all. But for a short time, Medusa was, indeed, a Queen among her own. And the powers granted to her by Hephaestus, the crippled god, were a caution, passed down to children and grandchildren through generations, against staring at people different than yourself.