The infamous snake-haired monster Medusa has been a source of inspiration for numerous artists, over many periods in art history.
Ergo, her hypnotic appeal still manages to captivate its audience until this very day. From statues, mosaics, paintings,… to nowadays: tattoos.
We can’t blame people for wanting to create artwork inspired by her, right? Have you guys ever taken a look at her confrontational expression? The eyes that seem to follow you, the contortion in her face… I mean, there’s no question about why people might want her look permanently on their bodies.
However, have you ever wondered what lures behind those looks? Why they are the way they are and where it all originated? Seemingly, many have, but few have put in the effort to truly understand what the myth of Medusa suggests in its wholeness.
People today want to get body art inspired from her story, but in our modern times the significance has ‘expanded’. Let’s figure it all out together!
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Medusa's story: a peek into Greek mythology
Medusa’s story dates back to ancient Greece, where it was said she would have been half-woman and half-serpent; a vicious monster, a Gorgon. She was the only one of her 2 sisters who was actually born an ordinary human being.
According to mythology, Medusa was once a beautiful maiden, if not the most beautiful. She possessed not only beauty, but also much purity.
Crossing paths with true evil
Despite the fact that many men desired her, she remained very well ‘behaved’. Eventually she would become the priestess of Athena’s temple, so out of respect she remained a virgin … until she crossed paths with Poseidon.
Like the others, Poseidon couldn’t take his eyes away from her; her appearance was irresistible. Several times he tried and each time he was rejected.
So, instead of taking a no as a no and accepting it, he forced himself on her. Out of fear, she ran to Athena with the hope that she would provide protection and safety for Medusa.
Sadly, that didn’t happen. Poseidon straight up raped her and he got what he wanted.
Punishment for her ''inexcusable'' actions
Since it was unthinkable to punish the god, king of the sea Poseidon according to Athena, it was Medusa that had to take the consequences.
The long, beautiful hair the goddess Athena once envied was now, thanks to her, a mound of venomous snakes.
This however, was not the end of Athena’s revenge. Medusa’s elegant feminine features were now hideous to look at.
Those who dared to make eye contact with her? Turned into a stone and as a consequence, killed on the spot.
Reverting back in art history
In order for us to understand the complete meaning behind the variables of the Medusa tattoos, we’ll have to take a brief look in our art history archives.
It’s no secret that artistic ‘trends’ ususally represent the society’s beliefs and values of that certain time period. This goes as far as back to the first – second centuries A.D.
We’ll go over 3 different time periods so we can get the gist behind what a Medusa tattoo can mean.
Medusa's head on ornaments: symbol for triumphs
Around the first – second century A.D. folks would decorate their chariot’s poles with a Medusa head ornament. It is believed that those chariots were used for ceremonial purposes.
As a result, there’s a probability that those same chariots would have carried important people that wanted to give off the same appeal as the Medusa myth does.
The Greek mythology continues on to say, that once the Greek hero Perseus beheaded the gorgon, he gave its head to Athena. The goddess Athena then went ahead and placed the Medusa head onto her shield/breastplates, depending on which version of the Greek myth you come across. This became Athena’s personal symbol of victory.
... To garments
People back then embellished their garments and other posessions with such ornaments aswell, so it wasn’t only the chariots that got adorned with Medusa’s head. They did this for the same reason Athena would have done, the triumph.
Much like the modern evil eye, Medusa became an apotropaic symbol used to repel evil. A protective symbol became the most common interpretation!
It’s also worth to mention that she was seen as a dangerous threat meant to ward off other dangerous threats. Makes sense.
Side note: these ornaments were a common theme in ancient Greek art
Powerful symbol of powerlessness, what a contradictory
Travelling a few centuries further in time, we get to Caravaggio’s Medusa. Ah yes, a controversial artist painting about a controversial myth. A lot of contra’s, huh?
Back in the times of the baroque, as a commission, Caravaggio painted his own version of Medusa. Literally. He used his own face as a reference, which is actually smart.
He actually painted 2 different versions, the second being the one we can now appreciate in the Uffizi Museum.
The contorted gaze Medusa has is painfully hard to replicate, so, he figured he could just look in the mirror instead of using a model. What a twist on the concept of self-portraits, right?
Although under paid commission, this had to have been an artistic challenge for him. We can definitely say it was a successfull one!
Did you know:
This wasn’t the first time Caravaggio ‘hid’ a self-portrait in his paintings. Well, obviously his self-portrait isn’t that hidden in Medusa, but this wasn’t the first nor the last time he did this.
In his more famous painting ‘the young sick Bacchus’ we can see, a literal sick Bacchus. Considering it was believed Caravaggio himself was sick during the time he was painting the young sick Bacchus, it makes even more sense.
Other paintings with (hidden) self-portraits were: boy bitten by a lizard, Bacchus, the Musicians, David with the head of Goliath, the taking of Christ
All of this aside, his version of Medusa is truly horrible. Unlike modern depictions of the gorgon’s looks, she’s ‘ugly’. The monster is portrayed to be actually hideous, just like the myth describes.
With her head hovering mid-air Michelangelo Merisi, a.k.a Caravaggio, managed to add the gory details. He even captured her terrified expression, averted gaze. The moment Medusa realized she has met her brutal destiny, disembodied powerlessness. Merisi did skillfully so, might we add.
This painting broadened the significance behind the myth for its audience. She was now not only a symbol for victory, but one for those without power aswell. Imagine being a mortal painter that managed to create an immortal painting.
And now, the meaning of the Medusa tattoo
There are still traditional art forms that capture the myth of Medusa, but there are some modern forms as well. The most recent trend? Medusa tattoos!
Thanks to Tiktok, the Medusa tattoo has spread with a ”new” meaning behind it.
Symbol of female oppression
Since Medusa was punished for having had sex with Poseidon, even though it was against her own will, we can conclude that she was the victim rather than the criminal. Transformed into a monstrous Gorgon, she was later beheaded by Perseus.
One of the most misunderstood women … and unfortunately, she is not the only one.
As rape victims deal with victim blaming to this day, people have a Medusa inked on their bodies as an empowerment for themselves. Not limited to, but, a lot of women get this iconic Greek mythology character to show off the female strength!
The figure of Medusa also means more than this in itself. If you are not a rape victim, you can get this tattoo as support for survivors, as she is also a symbol of courage. Not only courage, but the symbol shows support for feminism.
We’d like to add that despite the fact of this common interpretation and its female domination, this isn’t limited to women at all! If anything, men are probably more oppressed when it comes to being heard about sexual assault they’ve experienced.
Of course, you are not obliged to limit yourself because of these meanings of the Medusa tattoo, you can also get this done if you just find it beautiful or appreciate its mythology!
Did you know? There’s a tattoostudio in Belgium that makes great medusa tattoos!
Are there things I should consider if I want Medusa on me?
Briefly, as with any tattoo, yes.
Where and what
What designs do you like and what style will you go for? If you know this in advance, you will make the tattoo artist’s life much easier. This said, think carefully about which artist you want to go for and do your research!
Where and how big do you want it? You don’t want a mini design in the middle of your buttock, as well as getting a huge piece will be difficult on your e.g. elbow. So the message is, keep proportions in mind.
And also, why
Last but not least, consider the reason. As we have already disclosed, people usually get a Medusa tattooed on their body because it is a sign of strength.
Thanks to (or due to, decide for yourself) Tiktok, the meaning of Medusa is associated with victims of sexual abuse. People often can’t resist but to meddle in other people’s affairs, so you will probably get some questions.
If you’re considering a Medusa for the aesthetic and you couldn’t/wouldn’t want to deal with that, go for something else! The sky is the limit with tattoos.
Ok, but what are my options when it comes to Medusa tattoo designs?
Fortunately, there are more than enough styles to choose from, each with its own unique designs. We’ve listed the most popular ones to take the load off your shoulders from having to do the research yourself.
The minimalist style: simple, elegant and often just depicts Medusa’s head.
Bold will hold: if you want the opposite of minimalism, get yourself an old-school version of it. Thick lines, bright colors and easy to read! You can’t go wrong with a traditional tattoo.
These will also be great for a Medusa hand tattoo! Hands are known for being not the best canvas when it comes to getting ink. Hand tattoos fade faster, the ink wont hold as long, they’re tricky to tattoo overall. So, a bold traditional tattoo might be your best bet!
- If you want to go on the more delicate and feminine route, add some florals around your gorgon!
In case you’re looking for a Medusa chest tattoo, floral designs go hand in hand with that area. Especially, because you can add the flowers wherever you desire. This will ensure your design will fit your chest perfectly!
Want something ‘real’ that seems to jump off the skin? Photo-realism for you, my guy.
A Medusa thigh tattoo? Realistic pieces are a great fit for the thighs, just saying.
If you are fond of the looks etchings give, go for a linework version of Medusa. With some dotwork combined, you’ll get an even more unique design.
Dark and creepy more your thing? Blackwork that uses only black ink while creating striking contrast is your go-to! Although dark, this style of tattoos can still create a beautiful tattoo. After all, ‘beauty’ is ill-defined.
Get this, if you’re a fan of blackwork tattoos and you want a Medusa on you, make a Medusa sleeve tattoo out of it! The options for a sleeve incorporating Medusa are endless!
Perhaps, fun and playful instead of creepy? Well, a cartoon tattoo with bright colors and cartoon character features is also an option.
Summed up, it can have multiple meanings depending on the person that’s getting it. The most common interpretation nowadays is that of protection and self-empowerment.
Thanks to her snakes, Medusa is able to ward off evil = protective symbol.
Her story, however, is tragic. A woman who wanted to do nothing with a (powerful) man, only to be forced against her will (rape) and to be then turned into a snake haired monster.
The injustice is disgusting, but this is reality. People who have endured the same torture get this tattoo as a form of self-mastery.
Because Athena was jealous and greedy. She couldn’t handle the fact Poseidon chose Medusa instead of her and even proceeded to take advantage in her temple. How dare Medusa desecrate Athena’s temple?
This might be for multiple reasons.
The medusa tattoos have become somewhat of a cliché in the tattoo world in terms of their designs.
There are artists that simply don’t want to be repetitive and want to stand out from the rest. Not all of them will consider the meaning behind it and why it can be important for a client, as they’re not therapists. They’re not obliged to care, although most do!
Don’t let this stop you from getting a Medusa tattoo, though. If you want a specific tattoo artist to ink you and they’re not so crazy about the idea, give them artistic freedom! Almost any tattoo artist will be down to ink anyone as long as they have artistic freedom.
You might be too demanding.
It’s not always them, sometimes it’s you. Unfortunately, not all clients get the concept of ‘don’t copy someone else’s artwork’. What’s even more sad is that there’s even artists that don’t seem to get this (lol).
Tattoo artists will be more likely to refuse you as a client if you have too many standards and are not willing to work with them. It should be like a teamwork project, because that’s essentially what it is! Even more so, if you show them something you got off the internet and want an exact copy.
This is okay if it’s a design from someone you know or an artist, that you have consent from! But 9 times out of 10, this isn’t the case.