Please see author’s note at the end.
“Perhaps you should take one of your sisters. The sun is near setting.”
“Mother, I’ll be fine. I’m going to Athena’s shrine. The goddess will protect me and I’ll be home before dark.” Medusa smiled at her mother as she packed the food and coins of her offering into a leather bag.
“Mother’s right, you know,” said a voice behind her. Stheno. “You are not safe on your own.”
“I’ll be fine, sister,” Medusa answered, firmly. “I go to pray to Athena. I don’t require an escort for that.”
“There are too many who desire you,” replied Stheno. “When you are alone, you are undefended and can be taken. A beauty such as yours can bring a marriage that will take care of our parents for the rest of their lives.” She smiled, ruefully. “You are valuable, Medusa.”
“Let’s not forget she is mortal,” added Euryale. Medusa’s second sister entered the room and stood beside their mother. “Unprotected and weak.” Euryale never had liked her little sister very much.
Medusa frowned. Stheno was right about one thing, of course. If Medusa could make a good marriage, it would ensure comfort for their parents in their old age. Stheno and Euryale might not be mere mortals such as herself, but neither were they desired by any wealthy or powerful suitors. The gods had, on the other hand, seen fit to gift Medusa with such beauty that she was sought by many men, all offering protection and plenty for her whole family. It was hard to say which of her features was the most admired. Her hair was certainly what one saw first. Thick, lustrous waves that, unbraided, reached her feet, her hair had been likened to strands of purest gold. However, once one was able to look past her glorious crown of braids, her eyes, clear blue like crystals, would strike people dumb with the beauty of her gaze. Small wonder, then, that no fewer than three score serious offers for her hand had been presented.
It was for this reason she was going to the shrine of Athena this afternoon. It was time to make a choice and Medusa wanted the guidance of the goddess of wisdom. Of course, she could allow one or both of her sisters to accompany her, but while her sisters saw the decision as a matter of business, Medusa clung to the secret wish for love. Of course, she couldn’t sacrifice her parents to her longing for romance, but she did hope to choose the man who would appreciate her for more than her appearance. Her father would make the final decision, but as his own gift of love to Medusa, he had promised her the right to first make her choice and present the man for her father’s approval. She so wished to select the man with whom she might actually find love.
“Not so weak,” said their mother, smiling sadly. “Medusa goes to find her fate and, in so doing, find ours.” She reached out and took her youngest daughter’s hand. “My darling beauty, I would keep you safe with me always, but I mustn’t do that. You must go now, alone, and we will trust your safety to the gods who so generously formed you.”
Her walk through the village and up the hill to Athena’s shrine wasn’t long. Medusa was accustomed to the attention her appearance drew, but the villagers had known her so long and so well, she was rarely bothered on such a brief excursion as this. Relaxed and confident, she made her way to the central building of the temple. She never noticed the handsome stranger that followed her in.
“I greet thee, Athena, seat and source of wisdom,” Medusa said, as she scattered dried sage over the coals of the lighted brazier before Athena’s statue. She knelt and withdrew her offerings and spread them on the marble steps. “I come seeking your council and favor.”
Closing her eyes, she sat quietly, waiting to hear if the goddess would grant her any response. Minutes passed and, gradually, the smoke from the burning sage faded and drifted away. There would be no guidance today. With a sigh, Medusa opened her eyes. Then, she gasped in surprise a fear.
A man, a stranger to her, knelt before her, watching. He was quite close and Medusa marveled fleetingly at how quietly he was able to move that he came so near without her knowing. She scrambled backward, her sudden fear making her clumsy. The man reached out to catch her, stopping her from falling back entirely.
“Don’t fear me,” he said, smiling. “You never need to fear me. I am a protector, a giver of life, by nature. You are safe.”
Medusa managed to get to her feet and continued backing away.
“I don’t know you. I came here to pray and you sneak up to me as a thief,” she said. “Forgive me if I fail to see my safety in this.”
The man laughed and, again, drew very close. Standing, he was quite tall, well-muscled, and rather long of limb. There hung about him a fresh, cool, smell that made Medusa think of when she was a child and her father took her to see the blue-green expanse of the Aegean.
“You don’t recognize me,” he said. “Look more closely, my dear, and you will know me.”
Medusa did look, still not recognizing, until she met his gaze. When she looked carefully into his eyes, so like aquamarine, she suddenly understood. Her own eyes grew round with surprise and a return of fear.
“You are Poseidon,” she whispered. “Why are you here? We are many miles from the sea.”
“I happened to be traveling and passed through your village just as you came to this temple,” he answered. “Very brave for a maid such as yourself to come by herself.”
“Athena will protect me,” Medusa said. She lifted her chin with a touch of defiance.
“She spoke to you, then?”
Medusa looked away and didn’t answer. He was a god. He already knew Athena had not.
“You are under my protection now,” he said and cupped her chin in his hand. “Look into my eyes again, Medusa, and see your fate.”
It was as if her eyes moved according to his will rather than her own. Medusa met his gaze and knew she was lost. Drawn into that lovely blue-green light, she knew nothing more.
When she did know herself again, the light was gone and so was Poseidon. The sun had set and dark shadows filled the temple. The only light was the red glow of the brazier before the goddess. As she watched the glow grew and Athena’s statue was lit red with it. So colored, the statue seemed to move and Medusa cried out in fear when Athena rose from her vast stone seat and descended to the temple floor.
“You came seeking,” Athena said, her voice as cold as the stone from which her statue was carved. “You claimed you sought council.” Her lip curled in disdain.
“I did, goddess, I did,” cried Medusa, dropping to the ground at Athena’s feet. “I sought your guidance and protection.”
“And, instead, gave yourself to Poseidon like common trash,” said Athena. “In my own temple, no less. Oh, I blame Poseidon as much as I blame you,” she added. “I’ll deal with him, rest assured. But first, I will deal with you. It will not be said that a temple of Athena, a shrine of wisdom, can be so defiled and go unpunished.”
“Please, goddess, no!” Medusa sobbed, her face hidden in her hands. “I came to honor you. The defilement was Poseidon’s.”
“I have said I will deal with him and so I shall,” Athena answered. “But do not think you will be allowed to go your way, off to tell of your conquest.” The red light around her began to swell and intensify. “You, Medusa, will pay with what coin you possess.”
“I have no coin, goddess,” she moaned.
“Your hair, the strands of gold you wear as a crown, will be your first payment. Not shining silk but slithering snakes shall you wear.”
Medusa felt a strange wriggling sensation. Her hands flew to her head but she drew them back with a cry as something struck and bit her fingers.
“And now,” Athena continued, “your eyes. So like blue jewels as they are, you shall pay with them, as well. The gaze that has mesmerized so many will now trap them and make them stone.”
With that, the light disappeared and Medusa was blinded by the sudden darkness. After a moment, her vision adjusted and she could see again by the faint red light of the brazier’s coals. The stone statue was back on its chair, silent and lifeless.
Medusa’s only thought was to run, run home as quickly as she could, back to the safety she had so heedlessly left behind. She scrambled to her feet and rushed out onto the path leading back to the village. Night was fully fallen and the village streets were empty as she ran. At last, she saw her own house, light kindled in every window, the door standing open. Her mother stood silhouetted there.
“Mother!” she cried as she stumbled forward. With outstretched arms she ran into the rectangle of light stretching out from the doorway.
Her mother came forward to meet her but stopped suddenly, her face an image of horror. She froze where she stood, just as Medusa flung herself into her mother’s arms. But the arms that received Medusa were cold and stiff. She recoiled in fear and dropped to the ground. Realization and understanding swept over her. Beside her was the deep, wide basin which served as a sort of cistern for the house. Medusa leaned over the side and looked at her reflection in the light of a waning moon.
And she cried.
Author’s Note: Medusa got a raw deal. Absolutely not right. Just sayin’.
Image by Arnold Böcklin – Originally uploaded at en.wikipedia: 04:18, 5 March 2004 . . Perl, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14403