Greek Mythology: Why did Athena Punish Medusa?

Medusa was raped in the Temple of Athena. 

As a result of that incident, Athena cursed Medusa to take on a monstrous form.


The myth, as old as time, goes back to the start of an infamous rivalry between Poseidon and Athena. Athena, daughter of Zeus and Metis, is the Greek goddess of both warfare and wisdom, revered as the patron deity of Athens. As Perseus' half-sister, she embodies strategic warfare and intellectual genius. Conversely, Poseidon was the formidable god of the seas, storms, earthquakes, and horses. Known for his moody temperament and egotistical nature, Poseidon often clashed with his fellow Olympian gods.

The rivalry between Poseidon and Athena reached a pivotal moment during a contest to determine which deity would be the patron god of Athens. Their future subjects would then select which god provided the most favourable gift. In a display of his power, Poseidon struck his trident into the ground, creating a spring of water. In contrast, Athena gave the city the gift of an olive tree, a symbol of peace and prosperity. The Athenians, impressed by Athena's wisdom and foresight, chose her as their patron deity, much to the chagrin of Poseidon. This is where the dangerous rivalry between both gods stemmed from. 

Lladró's new addition to their Greek pantheon in 2024 is their majestic Athena Sculpture, made in matt white porcelain with ochre and gold lustre finishes to accentuate the goddess of wisdom and warfare. Perched on her left is her owl familiar, and she is equipped with her iconic spear and shield of Medusa.

Fast forward some time, Medusa, once a radiant priestess in the sacred temple of Athena, found herself ensnared in a tragedy that would alter her fate forever. Medusa was a dedicated priestess of Athena, having sworn to remain chaste to serve the virgin goddess. Before her downfall, she possessed a striking beauty that aroused jealousy among the goddesses and desire among the gods. She caught the attention of Poseidon - the arch-nemesis of Athena. As many gods would attempt their luck with the gorgeous maiden, Poseidon was no different. After Medusa's rejection grew tiresome and humiliating for him, he followed her to the temple of Athena. It was there that Poseidon violated her within the very confines of the temple she devoted her life to. It was an unspeakable act of betrayal.

Guess who witnessed the vile act before her very eyes? Yes, it was Athena. The goddess, consumed by rage but powerless against Poseidon’s might, redirected her anger towards Medusa. Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare, cursed Medusa, transforming her into a hideous figure with scaly skin, snakes for hair and a gaze that could turn any onlooker into stone. She punished Medusa for breaking her vow of chastity as a priestess by engaging in a forbidden relationship with Poseidon within the sacred confines of her temple.

This act of punishment reflected Athena's wrath and also served as a means to protect the sanctity of her temple and the chastity of her priestessesThis act of divine judgment also raised questions about the goddess’ sense of justice. Some interpretations of the myth even suggest that Athena’s curse was not only a reaction to Medusa’s violation but also a measure to protect the priestess against the indiscretions of men. However, it did result in the tragic exile of the once pious priestess to the remote island of Sarpedon, where she lived a solitary and isolated existence. All that she encountered was the relentless pursuit of heroes trying to kill her as some sort of achievement.

Subsequently, King Polydectes commanded Perseus, a Greek warrior, to bring him the very head that had killed so many souls. It is unclear why Perseus accepted this life-threatening mission, as there are two conflicting accounts. One account suggests that Perseus required a gift to give King Polydectes as he was getting married to Perseus' mother, Danae. Another retells that King Polydectes intentionally sent him out on a suicide mission as a distraction to prevent Perseus from overpowering him and stripping him of his authority.

Moving on, Perseus goes to the temple of Athena to pray to the god for aid in his nearly impossible quest. To his benefit, various gods, including Athena, heard his cries for help, and they granted him five notable gifts there. These magical gifts consisted of a helmet, which made the wearer invisible, a sword, a well-polished shield and a magical pouch. The ultimate gift granted to Perseus by Hermes was a pair of winged sandals that allowed him to fly.  As the conventional tale goes, Perseus, guided by the gods, sets out on a perilous journey to kill the gorgon and end her monstrous existence.

Finally, the hour of the showdown had arrived. Perseus entered the desolate island at the end of the earth, where Medusa lived and crept up on the gorgon. Utilising the gift of his shiny shield, he observed Medusa’s reflection and then swung his sword, decapitating her head. Subsequent to his victory, Perseus placed her head into his magical satchel and took it back to King Polydectes. Perseus stopped in Ethiopia on his voyage back to save and marry his fiance, Andromeda. As Perseus returned to Seriphos with Medusa's head, he arrived at King Polydectes' court. There, he strategically revealed the gorgon's severed head, compelling the king to gaze upon its petrifying gaze. Consequently, the king dies and no longer reigns; therefore, his mother is saved from a forced marriage.

The tale concludes with Perseus gifting Athena, the gorgon's head, who adorned her shield, the aegis, with it. This was because Athena played a key role in helping him slay Medusa. In ancient Greek mythology, snakes symbolised death and destruction, which is why Athena turned her hair into coils of serpents and adorned her shield with it to enforce her power of victory through death and destruction of the enemy. As in every good tale, there are many interpretations of why Perseus killed King Polydectes. Why do you think Perseus killed him?


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