Medusa has come to mean so much to so many. Like the snakes that make her hair, she has a thousand skins, a hundred tongues, and too many lives to count. We want to unravel these skins, to untie these tongues, to see Medusa in all her multiplicities, to ask:

Who is Medusa to you?

The design of Kleio’s Medusa exhibition plays on the traditional childhood game of Snakes and Ladders, subverting the accepted rules of the game, which acted as an ancient moral guide for children within which the ladders represent virtues, and the snakes, evils. Playing this version, landing upon a snake means you move down the board, toward failure. In our version, the snakes are a means for players to reach the top of the board, toward victory. In doing so, we are playfully attempting to challenge hundreds of years of negative symbolism associated with the figure of the snake, and thereby Medusa. Kleio invites you to “play along” - make your way to the top with the help of our snakes, borrowed from Medusa’s famous head for this very purpose.

Medusa represents the first edition of Kleio’s series Myth Interrupted (inspired by Natalie Haynes’ book Pandora’s Jar), a digital curatorial series that seeks to explore what the women of Greek myth have come to mean to us in the present day. We invite artists to share their Medusa with us, reimagined for the confused and crazed world that is the 21st century. So far, Medusa showcases the work of over 20 international artists. However, we encourage you to submit your work and contribute to our ever-changing game of snakes and ladders, creating a board that will shift and change like a snake shedding its skin.

The Myth

Many hundreds of years of myth have painted, sketched and written Medusa as the antithesis to desire, a shrieking shrine to male disgust. She is the snake-haired monster whose murderous gaze turns men to stone.  Within her hissing locks lies every female transgression, she is salacious; savage; ugly; loud; angry; dangerous. She does not want to be loved.

This image is so familiar to us because we absorbed it with our coco pops when our toes barely touched the floor, flitting across our screens in shades of the green-skinned, forked tongued gorgons hungry for misfortune that haunted our favourite stories. 

It may surprise many to discover that in her earliest form, Medusa was none of these things. She was not immoral, repulsive, wild. She was in fact a sexual abuse survivor who, cursed by a jealous God, hid from the world and was beheaded by a fame-hungry hero as she slept.

Here is that version of the story: Medusa began life as a beautiful mortal woman, famed for her glorious hair. Due to these lustrous locks, Poseidon (God of the Sea), took a fancy to her. In the Greek world, Gods got what they wanted, often by the most nefarious of means. The most popular version of the myth tells us that Poseidon raped Medusa, unwisely choosing a temple dedicated to Athene (Goddess of War) for the location of his attack. This defilement of her temple was a great slight to the goddess, who wrought revenge not by punishing the perpetrator, Poseidon, but instead by transforming Medusa into a Gorgon. Replacing her famous hair with snakes, and giving her a stare that had the power to turn any living creature to stone, Athene ensured that Medusa, guilty of nothing but being born a woman, would never tempt a man, or God, again.

Thus transformed, and unable to meet the gaze of another living creature without causing their immediate death, Medusa took refuge in a cave, hiding in an attempt to protect her potential victims. Despite this, she was still unable to avoid the violent whims of men. Perseus, a Greek hero famed for his destructive tendencies, selected Medusa as his next target. Creeping into her cave, and using his shield to look at her reflection, he decapitated her while she slept. He then placed her head into a magic bag fled. A bolting hero, a sleeping woman: This is not the heroic act Medusa’s murder is traditionally painted as.

After murdering Medusa, Perseus used her lethal head to wreak death and destruction on a far larger scale than Medusa herself did when her head was still attached to her body. He battled giants and monsters, objectifying her image to the extent that she becomes only another weapon for this Greek hero to kill with.

Again and again we see our own society mirrored in Medusa’s plight: She is a survivor of sexual assault, metaphorically vilified, literally turned into a monster. Reframed as the perpetrator when she is consistently the victim. Blamed for her beauty, blamed for her gaze.