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.
During my research for my post on Medusa and the Gorgon, I constantly ran into the idea that the Gorgon was a faint echo of an early Mycenean sun-goddess, depicted face-front with radiating (snaky) hair. I could see how that idea might arise, but Athena as sun-goddess struck me as a bit of a reach. After all, Athena wears the Gorgon on her breast as a symbol of the triumph of cunning (metis) over elemental powers. (Deacy: 47)
It must be tempting, though, to invert the Greek beliefs that shaped patriarchal culture, with its binary of sun/reason/male vs. night/emotion/female. Especially in the form of its most complicit goddess, Athena, who upheld father-right against the Furies’s desire to avenge a matricide. (Although kicking Bachofen and his followers comes about 150 years too late.) Feminizing the Greek sun, and connecting it to those elemental powers, may feel like sweet revenge.
I was originally going to call this piece Poseidon’s Scary Girlfriends, with Demeter the Furious and an unnamed Harpy joining Medusa. But when I began researching Medusa I found so many layers of interpretation that it seemed worth going back to the original sources and seeing what went into the myth.
In fact, it seems like there are almost two different myths, one involving a headless demon that terrified all who saw it, and another about the mortal Medusa, who either was a snaky-headed monster or became one.
Poseidon has three main aspects: sea-god, earth-shaker, and giver of horses. As sea-god he could stir up the waves or calm them, while as the earth-shaker his power was terrifying. Only as the god of horses was Poseidon a clear friend to humans.
There was a discussion recently on the Mythology Stack Exchange about whether Poseidon had been the first head of the Greek pantheon. It’s an interesting question….
You can argue this one in a number of ways. While the name Zeus is clearly Indo-European (one of the very few that is), the name Poseidon, along with his title Earth-Shaker, appears in Mycenean texts from very early times. On the Messenian coast, at least, he seems to have kept his status, and like Zeus he is the father of kings and heroes. (Indeed, the number of his offspring is second only to Zeus’.)