Opinion: The Greek mythology figure has been reframed by TikTok users and is now portrayed as a victim of sexual violence rather than as a villain

By Sophie Doherty, Open University

The image of Medusa is ingrained worldwide in arts and popular culture. You can see her in marble statues dating to the first century to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's epic painting Testa di Medusa (Head of Medusa) (c 1598), and from Versace's brand logo to Beverley Cross's fantasy film Clash of the Titans (1981). Representations of this grotesque gorgon have portrayed her as a villainous quasi-reptile creature, a woman with snakes in place of hair and the ability to turn people to stone with a glance.

But social media users are now reframing the story of Medusa and are no longer portraying her as a villain. Instead, victim-survivors of sexual violence on TikTok are embracing the story of Medusa, highlighting that she too was a victim of sexual violence and was punished for her own rape, an experience that very much resonates in the 21st century. Far from solely being understood as a hideous monster, Medusa can be understood as an icon for victim-survivors of sexual violence, combatting stigma and victim-blaming.

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The myth of Medusa originates from Greek mythology. There are various works detailing the myth, however a key writing on Medusa is found in Ovid's Metamophoses, an epic poem written in hexameter and spanning 15 books which was completed in 8 CE. Within this collection, an influential version of the rape of Medusa can be found. The theme of rape runs throughout Metamorphoses, as classics scholar Marguerite Johnson explains: 'rape is undoubtedly the most controversial and confronting theme of the Metamorphoses. It is the ultimate manifestation of male power in the poem.'

According to Ovid, Medusa was famed for her beauty. The Greek god Poseidon (Neptune in Roman mythology) became infatuated with the young virgin and raped her in the temple of Athena (Minerva in Roman mythology). As punishment, Athena (Minerva) turned the young woman into a hideous monster. There are various translations of the original text, but this extract is taken from an 18th century translation:

'Medusa once had Charms; to gain her Love

A rival Crowd of envious Lovers strove.

They, who have seen her, own, they ne'er did trace

More moving Features in a sweeter Face.

Yet above all, her length of Hair they own,

In golden Ringlets wav'd, and graceful shone.

Her Neptune saw, and with such Beauties fir'd,

Resolv'd to compass, what his Soul desir'd.

In chaste Minerva's Fane, he, lustful, stay'd,

And seiz'd, and rifled the young, blushing Maid.

The bashful Goddess turn'd her Eyes away,

Nor durst such bold Impurity survey;

But on the ravish'd Virgin Vengeance takes,

Her shining Hair is chang'd to hissing Snakes.'

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From Mythology & Fiction Explained, the story of Medusa

As punishment for being raped in Minerva's temple, Ovid tells us that Medusa’s beauty was taken away and her hair turned into snakes so that she was cursed with a monstrous appearance. Rather than Neptune being punished for raping Medusa, it is Medusa who suffers. She is raped, punished by Minerva for being raped and later beheaded by Perseus.

Medusa became associated with evil. As Madeleine Glennon explains, images of her were 'used to protect from and ward off the negative, much like the modern evil eye. She represents a dangerous threat meant to deter other dangerous threats, an image of evil to repel evil.' While it is acknowledged that images of Medusa can undergo various readings - such as her image as symbol of dangerous beauty (a femme fatale) or of strength as she is able to ward off threats - what we see in essence is a victim-survivor of rape, punished for being raped, becoming a monstrous villain and a figure of evil.

Head of Medusa by Keith Haring (1986)

This injustice has not gone unnoticed. Modern audiences have taken to the story of Medusa to reclaim her identity and her image as while the tale of Medusa is born from mythology, victim-survivors feeling punished for being raped is a very real experience. In a 2022 article, Katharina T. Halicki, Robin Hauser and Michaela Wänke state that 'crime victims often suffer twice. Not only are they harmed by the criminal act, but also they might be blamed for bearing at least some responsibility for what happened'.

This is particularly true for victim-survivors of sexual violence. Just as Medusa was punished for being raped, victim-survivors may also face dual suffering in that they are raped and then blamed for that rape. This parallel has prompted TikTok users to invert the image of Medusa, recentring her victimhood, with many users sharing their tattoos of the mythological figure.

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Images and representations can challenge narratives on sexual violence and go some way in addressing the shame and stigma surrounding victim-survivors. The viral Medusa TikTok trend has also provided a space for sharing experiences of sexual violence, creating empathy and acknowledgement. The villainous image of Medusa is not cast in stone, rather, images of Medusa can be read in various ways. One such way is that of Medusa, the victim-survivor of rape, who has come to symbolise resistance, strength and empowerment.

Dr Sophie Doherty is a Lecturer in Law at the Open University and co-founder of OU Law and Humanities Research Cluster.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ