Editor's note: This piece may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault and abuse.
If you follow #TattooTok (as billions of people do), chances are, you've come across a few Greek mythology tattoos—Medusa tattoos, included. While anyone can sport the design, regardless of gender, the Medusa tattoo's meaning can be especially salient for people who identify as women: It’s commonly seen as a feminine power symbol for women who survived sexual assault or abuse.
So, what’s Medusa’s real backstory—and why can women, in particular, relate? While modern depictions of Medusa portray her as a snake-haired monster with green skin whose eyes can turn you into stone, she wasn’t always like this. In actuality, her story is one of the key examples of victim blaming in Greek mythology. Keep reading for everything you should know about Medusa and the Medusa tattoo’s meaning for women, as well as some mythological ink inspiration.
- Ruby Rose, UK-based tattoo artist
The story of Medusa
According to Greek mythology, Medusa was a young and beautiful woman who served as a virgin priestess of the goddess of war and wisdom, Athena. One day, her beauty caught the attention of Poseidon, the god of the sea. While retellings vary, the most common one reads that she was brutally raped by him in Athena’s temple.
Athena was so furious at Medusa for desecrating her sacred space that she transformed her into a gorgon, a winged female monster with snakes for hair that could turn anyone to stone with just one look—the Medusa you might recognize from modern interpretations.
What is the meaning of a Medusa tattoo?
Given Medusa's purported backstory as a sexual assault survivor, it's no wonder the meaning of a Medusa tattoo can be so poignant for women. “The Medusa tattoo can mean many things, but it’s generally a symbol of survival, strength, and overcoming assault,” says United Kingdom-based tattoo artist Ruby Rose. “Medusa has become a figure of protection to women who have experienced sexual assault or assault on some level, particularly by men.”
“Medusa has become a figure of protection to women who have experienced sexual assault or assault on some level, particularly by men.” —Ruby Rose, tattoo artist
Beyond the symbolism of the Medusa tattoo, its spiritual meaning has come to signify transformation and rebirth. “I believe it almost acts as a higher being represented on your skin to give you the strength that you may need to channel,” says Rose. Every time you need some encouragement, you can glance at your arm, leg, or wherever you've placed the tattoo (or just call to mind its existence) for a physical reminder of your strength and power.
All of that said, it's important to note that someone having a Medusa tattoo does not necessarily mean they've experienced assault or even view its meaning in terms of survival or perseverance. Rose says that plenty of people (her included) have the tattoo simply because they like how it looks or the general history it represents. “Medusa is an extremely trendy image that many people love just because of loving snakes, portraits, Greek mythology, or a particular aesthetic,” she says. “Art isn’t a thing to be gate-kept. The best thing about the tattoo industry is that it’s open to everyone.”
Why is the Medusa tattoo gaining popularity?
Tattoos are a common way to heal: A 2020 study analyzing the personal accounts of tattooed survivors in different countries revealed that tattoos can be a therapeutic outlet1 through which to cope with and process trauma. In essence, they allow survivors to wield some control over the narrative of their trauma and to be seen and recognized by others who may have endured similar experiences. In the case of the Medusa tattoo, in particular, it's likely that survivors have felt more comfortable embracing this kind of healing in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which helped remove some of the stigma associated with sexual assault and abuse.
We can also thank social media for boosting the popularity of the Medusa tattoo: As more people open up about their experiences and share their ink on social, it can inspire others to get a Medusa tattoo as a feminine power symbol, too.
Regardless of the reason, the world's love of the Medusa tattoo doesn't seem to be waning. “I’ve tattooed around 30 Medusas over the past six months,” says Rose. “I also have seven Medusa tattoo designs available online, all of which have been sold hundreds of times to people across the world.”
What to know before getting a Medusa tattoo
The most important thing you can do before getting this transformative tattoo is ensure you’re choosing the right artist. “It’s important that you feel safe and are in a safe environment when getting tattooed,” says Rose. “Research your tattoo artist first, as there are many—especially women—who specialize in Medusa designs.” These artists will understand the Medusa tattoo’s meaning for women and the emotional and symbolic significance attached to it.
Rose also says to consider where on your body you’re getting inked. “Think about the implications that may come with it,” she says. “If questions and comments may be uncomfortable, consider placing it in a less noticeable spot. But just remember, it’s your body and your right to get whatever tattoo you need or like.”
Frequently Asked Questions About the Meaning of a Medusa Tattoo
Can a Medusa tattoo represent female empowerment?
The Medusa tattoo is often seen as a feminine power symbol or representation of female empowerment. According to Rose, that’s because of Medusa’s strength, resilience, and survival. “All of these relate to every single woman I tattoo and whom I know personally,” she says. Medusa symbolism can be especially important for survivors of sexual assault or abuse, empowering them to take their lives back and reclaim their sexuality: “The Medusa is a symbol of the strength it takes to overcome such trauma,” says Rose.
Do people view Medusa as protection?
If you consider Medusa's story—how she was a victim of sexual assault, and how she overcame that assault and regained her power—it’s easy to see why some women view Medusa as protection against evil and a way to shield themselves from harm, says Rose. But for survivors, getting a Medusa tattoo isn't just about protection; it also represents a reclamation of power and control. It’s a declaration of inner strength and a reminder that they, like Medusa, have the power to rise above their past experiences.
Are there different styles of Medusa tattoos?
If you’re looking for mythological ink inspiration for your Medusa tattoo, you should know that are plenty of different directions you can go. Every artist has a different style for Greek mythology tattoos, but each interpretation typically includes Medusa’s head of snakes and a stare so powerful that it could turn someone to stone (well, theoretically). “I personally only focus on fine-line female portraiture, which directly links to Medusas, but other artists with different styles also have their own take on it,” says Rose.
You may also be curious about the meaning of the crying Medusa tattoo—another common interpretation of the Greek mythology tattoo. In this instance, her tears naturally convey sadness or pain. This tattoo can also signify that even the strongest and most powerful among us (winged female monsters with snakes for hair, included) experience these emotions.
What are some common placements for a Medusa tattoo?
You should know that this transformative tattoo can go anywhere on your body. That's a choice only you can make, and it comes down to whatever feels right for you.
Rose says her clients most often put Medusa and her head of snakes on an arm or thigh, or on their stomach. Still not sure where you want yours? You can test out different placements before getting a tattoo with temporary, stick-on options.
- Crompton, Laura, et al. “Tattoos in the Wake of Trauma: Transforming Personal Stories of Suffering into Public Stories of Coping.” Deviant Behavior, vol. 42, no. 10, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2020.1738641.
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