Monday, January 17, 2011

Mythic Monday: The Medusa - Female Rage Unleashed

Ancient Minoan Snake Priestess
One of the patterns repeated again and again in mythology is that one culture's gods and exalted beings become the next culture's demons.  There are examples that will be familiar to folks that know their Old Testament - myth figures like Baal (or Baal Zebub) get demonized in medieval folklore as Beelzebub.

The Medusa is a subtle and unusual example of this kind of demonization.  Anthropologists have identified the pre-Mycenaean culture of Greece as primarily matriarchic; when the patriarchal warrior culture of the Mycenaean's conquered mainland Greece, the matriarchies were consigned to places like Crete, where Minoan culture persisted (at least until the Minoans were also subsumed into Mycenaean culture).  What we think of as Greek myth in the classic period emerged from this fusion of Mycenaean culture and the conquered peoples.

Echoes of this ancient subjugation linger in Greek myth.  Symbols of female power, like the earth and the snake, are demonized in the image of the Medusa.  The usual suspects in patriarchal myths, sky gods and male heroes that dominate the earth, are heavily featured in the Medusa story - like Perseus and the Pegasus.

When I see gamers talk about how to use the Medusa in their games, they're usually afflicted with "Clash of the Titans" syndrome; they want the Medusa to be a legendary, unique monster.

I'm going to suggest a different tact - instead of trying to imitate the superficial elements of the myth story, let's look deeper to the actual source of the myth for inspiration.  Namely, a patriarchal culture moves in with their sky gods and displaces an older, matriarchal culture.  It's cliché, but it works - and history is on our side.  Okay, here we go.

A different way to use Medusa in your game

The peaceful, agrarian worshippers of the Beautiful Mother were invaded by northern barbarians in the distant past.  Idols of the Beautiful Mother were smashed, sacred circles were toppled, holy places were burnt to the ground, priestesses were slaughtered.

In a world where a god's or goddess's power is proportional to the number of their followers, the overthrow of this ancient religion was devastating to the Beautiful Mother.  What goes through the mind of a goddess as her power helplessly drains away into the usurper, a pattern repeated again and again, from land to land?

As the power of the Beautiful Mother waned, her hatred twisted her into something spiteful and vengeful; her last act as a goddess before sliding into eternal demonhood and plummeting from the celestial realm to the Abyss, was to gift her remaining priestesses with the power to punish their oppressors.  The elements of the goddess religion transformed into the instruments of this punishment; beauty was used to lure men to their doom; earth and stone were used to petrify; the snake's eternal youth and power over life and death became weapons of poison and terror.

Wrath of a fallen goddess
Even today, in the "modern age" of your campaign world, the race of Medusas continues to wage their war against the human men that caused the fall of their goddess in the distant past.

They hold a special antipathy for male clerics.