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.


  1. "they want the Medusa to be a legendary, unique monster": Really? I hadn't seen that myself...(Kinda cool idea for a Goddess, if a bit on the expected side.) Not to mention, there were 3(and no more) of these types of creatures in Greek Myth, right?(Medusa being a proper name!) You're probably right about the Harryhausen Clash, it is pretty badass! I find this to be more applicable to dragons among the player base, myself. I dunno; the fact some Christians think dragons are satanic? *shrug*

    'It's cliché, but it works - and history is on our side.'-No one's quite sure actually.(I'm a Caverns of the Sun type guy, myself.) And 'female fury' is over-used(and rated), imo(maybe I've read too much classic pulp lately.).(Medea, I'd say, was this trope, done right. The Horror would be, that her punishment was practically nil!) Fantasy Sexism to go with already existing Fantasy Racism? Kinda dilutes the Horror atmosphere with the expected. YMMV, though.

    I have a whole race of Medusae in my game world, they're scheming traders that run a fairly prosperous nation that tends to try to run other's affairs on the sly. I mean, per RAW in D&D they have petrification, a bonus on Magical saves due to a 'magical' nature, like to trick people(they have good intelligence ratings), and have decent HD. Pretty good odds they'd end up ruling somewhere or the other, I thought...

    'They hold a special antipathy for male clerics.'
    Then according to most Fantasy art, they rarely have a chance to exercise this prejudice! ;-)

    Once again, well-thought out post; very applicable to one's world, I'd say!

  2. "one culture's gods and exalted beings become the next culture's demons"

    Thanks for reminding me.

    You take on the Medusas would be interesting if the party contains female characters. I image that, as the party encroaches on the Medusa's territory, the female party members might have troubled dreams.

  3. Velaran, I'm not familiar with the 'caverns of the sun' reference, or how it relates to neolithic Europe and early myth - if it's interesting, maybe I would use it in a future mythic monday.

    Re: sexism. D&D is already sexist and racist, as is quite a bit of the game's source literature. Any DM emulating real world history will run into it even more. I would suggest that a DM present their world as is, warts and all, but let the players stake out their own path, either reinforcing or destroying the stereotypes according to how they want to play.

  4. Paul - I left open the question of 'where do new Medusas come from'? Could the original priestesses all be immortal, haunting the dark corners of the world and simmering in hate? Might there be a ritual to transform females (and a female character might be targeted, while the men are killed).

    I like the idea of dream-sendings as a way of retelling elements of the origin story without making it a monologue when they confront the Medusa - it's an underused technique.

  5. @Beedo:
    Caverns of the Sun:
    The thesis that all Gods are variants of the Sun and its effects upon Humanity.

    D&D Inspirations have included:
    Thundarr The Barbarian
    Pirates of Dark Water
    HPL's corpus
    The Golden Bough(For the farrago of nonsense found in its pages; not the updated one!)
    The Dying Earth
    EGG's Novels
    Jirel of Joiry
    Lord Dunsany's Works
    Agatha Christie
    Robin Lane Fox's work
    Escape from New York
    Clark Ashton Smith
    Harlan Ellison
    M John Harrison
    My Random Musings
    et. al.

    The World And the Books:

    'I would suggest that a DM present their world as is, warts and all, but let the players stake out their own path, either reinforcing or destroying the stereotypes according to how they want to play.':

    Isn't that how people do it, according to their chosen source material? D&D itself is rather vague; I'd say being too historical wouldn't be D&D as much as it would be Hârn, though... The specifics vary depending on how much the Real world bleeds over into the Fantasy one. Personally, I tend to try to minimize overlap to essentials(mostly bipedal beings, needing to eat, sleep, know fear, have religion, etc...), so as to create a weird feel. Standard Orcmurderape(by Humans of course, that's where the Half-Orcs come from!) and helpless Ænglis Princesses feel standard. YMMV.

    Pulps/Old Novels:
    Oh yeah, that silly vibe about English Civ and its adherents. It doesn't get much in the way most times, but authors sometime have an uncontrollable urge to add a few 'clarifying' passages that makes me wish his editor would have used a red pen! 'Seriously, Mr. Howard everyone gets that the Ruins weren't built by the Tribesmen! No Right Thinking Person would Believe Otherwise! So, you really don't need that in the story, do you? I thought not... More Apes, Good Sir!' Oh, that Farnsworth Wright!

    Africa was totally a white empire(Roman like in its culture) in the past, as we all know. There was just that whole Opar thing, see Edgar Rice Burroughs!(Reading a lot of Solomon Kane and Tarzan lately!) Why no-one does anything with this is beyond me.

    Interesting premise for a Scientifiction Game, I'd say!

  6. @Beedo:
    Dang, forgot to put this in my post above, here's an interesting book on the subject:
    Caves of the Sun by Adrian Bailey:The Origin of Mythology. I find it concise, informative, and entertaining; all one can ask for, I'd say...(And it makes as much sense as the Golden Bough ;-))