‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’
That is what Perseus asks.
His invocation is not even a whisper; it is silent thought. The cap of Hades – one of Perseus’s many gifts from Olympus – may render him as invisible as death itself, but it does not muffle sound. It will not stop the gorgons from hearing him as he sneaks about their cave.
The creatures’ ears are pointed like a bat, just as their teeth are tusks like a boar, their toes talons like a bird. Their backs sport great corvid wings and their hair is a tangled mop of vipers. Perseus has seen two of the gorgon sisters already and they are monstrous. Had they been mortal, he would have taken his sword – its blade curved and keen as a waxing moon – and cut them down without a second thought.
But that is why he pauses now. That is why he asks for the Muses’ counsel. For the third gorgon sister, the one Perseus has found asleep by a fire in the cave’s deepest hollow, the one he has been instructed to kill, the one they say has the power to turn anything she sees to stone, she is not like her sisters. She is beautiful. Her tresses are the coiling and uncoiling of grass snakes, but they frame a young face, soft skin the colour of wet sand. She is winged too, but there is a tenderness in the way they wrap about her. A feathered cloak.
‘This is Medusa,’ explain the Muses in whispered song. ‘And she has been twice punished by the gods.’
The Muses song reaches back through tarnished ages and deep into the endless oceans, to the palace of Phorcys and Keto, gods of the sea. All manner of creatures are born to them beneath the waves: sea serpents, gorgons, wizened Graeae – but Medusa is unique; she is their only mortal child.
Away from the crushing depths of her parents’ home, she is raised by her gorgon sisters – Euryale and Sthenno. It is a halcyon youth. The gentleness of her sisters is as boundless as their strength, and Medusa is loved. Her mortality acts like waves to a pebble; it smooths her sisters’ severity, their extremity – those hallmarks of a deathless outlook – till they are more like mortals than gods sometimes.
Even their days become more human. They farm, they fish, they follow the cycle of the seasons and make offerings at the nearby temples.
And for a time, all Olympus watches with fascination. The deathless are obsessed with mortals – their antlike comings and goings, their mayfly lives – after all what other entertainment is there to fill eternity. But the gods’ obsession does not translate into comprehension. They can only understand Euryale and Sthenno as playing parts, like actors, and before long the scene grows tiresome. Their deathless attentions turn to some new mortal drama half the world away.
All except for one.
As Lord of the Deep, all the sea is Poseidon’s to command. All those born from it are his subjects to do with as he pleases. Even these gorgons who live on the land.
Her sisters might disgust him, but Medusa, she is a woman grown, with beauty and divine blood. There are few, Poseidon would say, more worthy of his lust.
But when Medusa lifts a conch to her ear and hears him calling her name, she drops the shell back into the sea. When the waves scrawl her name into the sand, she turns her back on the beach. She does not desire him; she fears him.
Poseidon’s temper is tempest; how dare one of his subjects – a mortal no less – reject him.
So he forces himself upon Medusa. It is as she makes offerings in the temple to Athena, the virgin goddess, and the attack is like a rip current in the shallows. Sudden and unexpected. The temple is supposed to be a sanctuary. But Poseidon pays as little thought to profaning another god’s temple as he does a mortal’s body; his cares are satisfying lust and inflicting punishment. It is only mortals who must fear blasphemy and sacrilege. Mortals like Medusa. And so begins her second punishment.
The night after the attack, as Euryale and Sthenno soothe their sleeping sister and rail against the Lord of the Deep, the goddess Athena slips into their cave. You see, the desecration of her temple is an injury to her pride; it is the only currency in which the deathless deal. So her response must be extreme. Punishing. All-encompassing. Without mercy even for the victim. Athena pours the blood from her bruised ego into the gorgon till it floods her veins and pools behind her eyes. Forever more, Medusa’s sight will petrify. Whatever she looks upon will turn to stone, even the sisters she so loves.
When the Muses bring their story to a close, no time has passed for Perseus. He still stands over the sleeping gorgon.
The hilt of his sword is cool against his palms. It is Zeus’s own weapon – a harpe. And for the first time, as he raises the blade – curved and keen as a waxing moon – he wonders why the gods have aided him with so many gifts.
Is it because he is Olympus’s hero. Is he here on a divine quest to slay a monster?
Or is it because he is Olympus’s tool? Is he here to inflict Medusa’s third and final punishment?
Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast
Written by Andrew Hulse