The imagery of the Greek Gorgon can be traced back to Persian and Near Eastern art, but the myth of the beautiful Medusa seems to come from a different source. A story found in various forms in Greece, India, Ireland and Wales tells of a woman who either becomes a horse or has a strong equine connection, gives birth to twins and suffers greatly.
However, Demeter, Saranyu, Macha and Rhiannon are goddesses, while Medusa is considered a monster. Still, her story is so similar to these others that it obviously descends from the same Indo-European myth.
Hesiod’s Theogony, written in the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, gives the origins and genealogy of the Greek gods. He places Medusa in the line of the ancient sea-gods. There is no divine punishment in his story, nor does he give any reason why Perseus would kill Medusa. Either he felt his audience would be familiar with the story, or else he felt that Medusa, like all the monstrous offspring of Ceto and Phorcys, were fair game for heroes.
And again, Ceto bare to Phorcys the fair-cheeked Graiae, sisters grey from their birth: and both deathless gods and men who walk on earth call them Graiae, Pemphredo well-clad, and saffron-robed Enyo, and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear- voiced Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One (14) in a soft meadow amid spring flowers. And when Perseus cut off her head, there sprang forth great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus who is so called because he was born near the springs (pegae) of Ocean; and that other, because he held a golden blade (aor) in his hands. Now Pegasus flew away and left the earth, the mother of flocks, and came to the deathless gods: and he dwells in the house of Zeus and brings to wise Zeus the thunder and lightning. But Chrysaor was joined in love to Callirrhoe, the daughter of glorious Ocean, and begot three-headed Geryones. Him mighty Heracles slew in sea-girt Erythea by his shambling oxen on that day when he drove the wide-browed oxen to holy Tiryns, and had crossed the ford of Ocean and killed Orthus and Eurytion the herdsman in the dim stead out beyond glorious Ocean.
(Hugh Evelyn-White: 270-94)
Hesiod’s version seems to imply that Medusa was killed because, being mortal, she could be. And, by killing her, Perseus brought the boons of the great horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor into the world. The birth through the neck also suggests the birth of Athena from her father’s head, both “delivered” by a violent blow, from either Perseus or the smith-god Hephaistos.
So Medusa gave birth to a horse, and her lover Poseidon was the father of horses, who could occasionally take horse form himself. Medusa occasionally took on horse form as well. The bas-relief below splits the difference, making her into a sort of centauress:
Demeter: in Arcadian myth, Poseidon saw her when she was searching for her daughter, Persephone, and desired her. She tried to flee from him, even disguising herself as a mare and hiding in a herd of horses. He became a stallion, and found her and mated with her. From this union, Demeter bore a daughter, Despoina, “the mistress”, and the immortal wonder-horse Arion.1
Saranyu: this Indian goddess was married to Vivasvat, a form of the sun-god, but she left him because she could not bear his heat. She left behind her double to mind the children, but her husband realized what had happened and went searching for her. She had disguised herself as a mare, so he approached her as a stallion, but she turned from him and his semen went into her nostrils. From this was born the twin gods the Asvins, sometimes known as the Nasatayas, the nostril-born.
Rhiannon: the Welsh goddess married a mortal man, and for a long time they had no children. His advisors said he should divorce her, but finally Rhiannon became pregnant. Her old antagonist Gwawl stole the newborn boy, however, and her maids made it look like she had killed him to escape blame. The boy was left with a family whose new-born foal was stolen, as if in exchange. For seven years, until the boy was found, Rhiannon had to do penance, waiting by the mounting-block to be ridden like a horse by any who came.
Macha: there are several Machas in Irish myth, but this one came from the hollow hills to live with a mortal man, telling him never to mention her in public. He went to the races, however, and foolishly boasted that his wife could run faster than the king’s horses. The king took exception to this, and had Macha fetched and made her run against his horses, even though she was pregnant with twins and about to deliver. She did beat the horses, collapsed at the finish line, and gave birth to twins before dying, cursing the men of Ulster with her last breath. While both her children were human, one of the hero Cúchulainn’s horses was named Grey of Macha.
The similarities aren’t hard to see. The goddess takes horse form, gives birth to twins, sometimes one human and one horse, and often has a troubled relationship with her husband/lover. The Celtic goddesses seem to come closest to Medusa in some ways, since all three suffer extravagantly, while Demeter and Saranyu don’t suffer any long-lasting effects from these episodes. (Macha and Medusa die giving birth, after all.)
Demeter was of course in mourning for her daughter when Poseidon caught and raped her. Apart from Saranyu, this does seem to be a story of a goddess who suffers. Demeter and Rhiannon’s stories seem to be about alchemizing this suffering into some sort of redemption. (And brought them closer to their worshippers, like Isis sorrowing for her husband, or Mary as Mater Dolorosa.) Grotanelli’s paper makes some interesting points here, seeing the Macha myth as a vindication of the suffering mother.
Miriam Robbins-Dexter (293) sees these myths as echoes of a ritual in which the king mated with a mare (perhaps symbolically), after which the horse was sacrificed. Of course, like much Indo-European “myth” this has to reconstruced from many varying sources, some of which involve the sacrifice of a stallion instead of a mare, and some of which have no sexual content whatever. Still, it does explain why Macha, Medusa and Rhiannon suffer so extravagantly, and why the first two die.
Medusa and the Celtic goddesses are a little removed from the hippomorphic part of the myth, although there are examples in Greek art of Medusa depicted as a mare, and the way that Rhiannon was punished by being treated like a horse, and Macha made to race like one, suggest that the idea was there in the background. (Grotanelli points out that Macha and Saranyu are both notably fleet, to which I would add Rhiannon, whose horse outruns all others with ease.)
Their children vary a bit, although all retain some horsy connection. Demeter and Medusa have actual horses as children, while Saranyu gives birth to the Asvins, who like the Greek Dioskouroi were horse-breakers as well as fighters, and were sometimes spoken of or depicted as horses themselves.2 The Asvins combine in their own selves Medusa’s two offspring: the warrior and the horse.
The Celtic versions are more fragmented, with Rhiannon’s son born the same night as the foal he is swapped with, and the wonder-horse Grey of Macha seemingly having nothing to do with the actual Macha.
Medusa and the Indian goddess Saranyu share the upward displacement of birth, although in Saranyu’s case it’s voluntary, while Medusa had no choice in her beheading. Depending on the myth, either Saranyu inhaled her husband’s semen, or it just went in her nose, but once again we see that a goddess gets a better deal. Saranyu gives birth in the normal manner, while Medusa, the monster, must give life in as unnatural a way as possible.
Is Medusa a Goddess Too?
None of this “proves” that Medusa is a goddess, but it shows that she has more to her than just snaky hair and a paralyzing stare. However, her status as “monster” rather than as goddess or supernatural woman means that her fate is grimmer than those of her sisters in myth. All of them suffer, but Medusa could be said to have the worst of it, with no redemption, not even the satisfaction of her curse coming true.
Miriam Robbins-Dexter sees her as an echo of a Neolithic bird/snake goddess, killed by a young patriarchal hero. I’m leery these days of saying that someone was once a goddess until demoted, unless I can find some actual evidence that this was so. All we know about Medusa suggests that the Greeks always saw her as a monster.
There is no evidence of any cult of Medusa, and it may be that she, like many other monstrous or at least odd-looking creatures in Greek myth, was seen as created for heroes to strive against. See the passage I quoted from the Theogony at the beginning of this article: Medusa and the Geryones seem to exist so that Perseus and Hercules can kill them. (One interesting take on Medusa inverts this, suggesting she is a heroic mortal whose story has gone wrong, striving against the gods and losing.)
It may be that in earlier times some myth of a beautiful but frightening woman who was Poseidon’s lover and bore him a foal and a son existed. That Medusa’s father is the Old Man of the Sea makes this more likely, as any list of Poseidon’s lovers includes both strange women and sea-creatures.
(Among our other horse-women, Poseidon also impregnated Demeter, Macha’s father was Sainrith mac Imbaith, “Strange son of the sea”, and Rhiannon’s second husband was the god Manawydan ap Llyr, Manannan son of the sea, making Saranyu the only one with no watery male in her story.)
In modern times, Medusa has taken on another status: for feminists she is symbol of female rage, and for many pagans she has become a goddess. She had no cult in ancient times, but she does now.
Doniger, Wendy, 1998: “Saranyu/Samjna: the Sun and the Shadow”, in Devi: Goddesses of India, eds. John Stratton Hawley and Donna M. Wulff, Motilal Banarsidass Publ.: 137-53. (Google Books)
Grottanelli, Cristiano 1986: “Yoked Horses, Twins, and the Powerful Lady: India, Greece, Ireland and Elsewhere”, Journal of Indo-European Studies 14: 125-152.
Robbins-Dexter, Miriam 1989: “The Hippomorphic Goddess and her Offspring”, Journal of Indo-European Studies 18: 3/4: 285-308. (academica.edu)
The Debility of the Ulstermen (Macha’s story)
The First Branch of the Mabinogion (Rhiannon’s story)
Various sources on Despoina and Demeter
A retelling of the Saranyu story and a selection of sources