Who was Medusa the terrible Gorgon in mythology?

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Introduction

Popular culture has popularized many characters from Greek myth. The striking figure of the Gorgon Medusa is particularly well-know, especially her hair of venomous snakes. This gruesome figure was very popular in Graeco-Roman culture and images of Medusa were literally everywhere. While many of us are familiar with the image of the woman with snakes for hair and her stare that could turn a person to stone, few of us, know her story. Moreover, many do not know that the image of the Gorgon was very important in Ancient art and was used to ward off evil. The myth of Medusa is not only a great story it also helps us to understand how myths can be used to understand our existence and the deep truths that are often contained in what appears to be entertaining tales or fables.

19th century painting of Medusa

The Gorgons and Medusa

There are many references to Medusa in Greek and later Roman literature. She was one of the three Gorgons and is the best known of these monsters. They are usually depicted as three sisters who had hair made of living, venomous snakes, as well as a horrifying faces’ or looks that could turn anything to stone. The first known reference to a Gorgon is in Homer. In the Iliad. Homer refers to a single Gorgon and does not mention Medusa. The didactic poet Hesiod (700 BC) stated that there were three Gorgons and they were Stheno and Euryale and Medusa. The name Medusa has been interpreted as meaning the ‘Queen’. Hesiod wrote that they were the children of two primeval gods. They lived on the Western Ocean and they were worshipped by the Libyans. The Athenian tradition was that the Gorgon was a monster that was born of Gaia, the earth goddess and fought alongside the Titans in their war with the Olympians. The Gorgon was later killed by Athena. In the Hellenistic period the myths relate that there were three Gorgons. Two of the Gorgons were immortal, and one was mortal, and she was Medusa. Roman writers often wrote about the mortal Gorgon and Ovid has helped to create the popular image that we have of the female monster[1].

19th century painting of Medusa

The story of Medusa

Medusa was the daughter of Phorcys a primordial god in Greek mythology and his wife Ceto, a sea deity. All of their children became monsters and they are collectively called the Phorcydes. The Gorgons were among these children. Medusa unlike her sisters was very beautiful and was famous for her looks. This drew the attention of Poseidon, the God of the Sea and one day he trapped her in a temple dedicated to Athena and he raped her. Athena was outraged by Poseidon’s action as he had desecrated her temple. Now Athena was not able to punish Poseidon, so she took her anger out on the innocent Medusa. The Goddess of strategy and wisdom turned her beautiful golden locks into snakes. In some representations, she is portrayed as having a beautiful face. But in others, she is shown as a hideous monster. After being cursed by Athena, Medusa also had the power to turn people into stone. In many versions of her myth, she lives on an island and she kills many men and women, especially anyone who trespassed into her territory. In one of the best-known versions of the myth, she is shown as living near the entrance to Hades. In many Greek myths, she and her two sisters are portrayed as some of the most savage monsters and they prey on men in particular. In many accounts they are often located in Hades, the Greek Underworld [2]. Virgil mentions Medusa living with the other two Gorgons in the Underworld.

Statue of Perseus with the head of the Gorgon

Perseus and Medusa

Perseus was perhaps the greatest hero and monster-slayer before Hercules. His mother the beautiful Danaë was courted by Polydectes. Perseus hated him because his mother’s suitor was not an honorable man. Polydectes wanted Perseus out of the way so he came up with a cunning plan. He held a banquet, and every guest was expected to provide him with a gift of his choice[3]. The suitor asked Perseus for the head of Medusa, which had magical properties. Perseus could not refuse and Polydectes thought that the Gorgon would kill the young man. The Goddess Athena helped Perseus and she told him that the Hesperides a group of nymphs alone had the weapons that could slay the Gorgon. At first, he had to seek out the Grae, three nymphs who shared one eye, which they shared among each other. Perseus seized their eye and made the Grae tell him where Medusa was. They led him to the Hesperides and the hero forced them to give him a knapsack to hold the head of the Gorgon. Zeus who was his father gave him a special sword and Hades the God of the Underworld, gave him a mantle of darkness that would hide him. Finally, Hermes gave him sandals with wings that would allow him to fly. Perseus thus prepared went to the cave of the feared Gorgon. Wearing the cloak of darkness and therefore hidden he entered the cave. There he found the Gorgon sleeping. He did not look at Medusa directly but only her reflection in his polished metal shield. Perseus then with his sword decapitated the sleeping monster. As her head was being cut off she let out a terrible shriek that is memorably described by the great poet Pindar [4]. Perseus then placed the head of the Gorgon into a bag without looking at it, because Medusa gaze could still turn anyone she looked at into stone, even after her death [5]. From the blood of the Gorgon sprang two winged horses, these were Chysaor and Pegasus. These were the children of Medusa and Poseidon. The sisters of Medusa heard what happened and they immediately began to pursue him. Perseus was only able to escape with the help of Hermes mantle of darkness. On his way home, the King of Atlas refused the hero hospitality, which was contrary to Greek religion and custom. So, Perseus in revenge used Medusa’s head to turn him into stone. According to some sources, this is the origin of the Atlas Mountains in what is now Morocco. Perseus returned the shield, magical cloak, and winged sandals to the Gods. Athena asked Perseus for the head of the Gorgon and the hero knew that it was not advisable to deny her anything she wanted. Athena fastened the head onto her shield and this ensured that her enemies would be turned to stone. According to many poets, this shield was known as the Aegis and the Goddess used it every time she went to war. The hair of Medusa had magical properties and it is claimed that Hercules seized some and gave it to the town of Tegea to protect itself from attacks. When needed the townspeople took out the hair because it brought on a storm that put attackers to flight. The offspring of Medusa the winged horse's Pegasus was later caught by the Greek hero Bellerophon and they had many adventures. A later Roman version of the myth, has Athena, repenting the cursing of Medusa and raising her from the dead and making her one of her priestesses. Roman writers such as Lucian and Ovid claimed that the snaky hair of the Gorgon was the ancestors of the poisonous snakes of Africa [6]

5th century BC depiction of a Gorgon

Medusa: Art and Magic

Medusa is one of the most familiar figures from Classical art. In the Archaic Age (800-600 BC) she was often portrayed as a hideous monster. It is commonly held that images of Medusa were apotropaic symbol used to ward off curses and supernatural beings, much like the modern evil eye [7]. The image of Medusa was believed to ward off evil because evil spirits and black magic was warded off by her gaze that could turn anything living into stone. We are accustomed to regarding the Greco-Roman World as rationalists but in fact belief in magic and the supernatural were omnipresent in the Classical World. People believed that they were constantly menaced by malign forces. The term gorgoneion was the name of a motif based on the figure of Medusa and it was to protect people, groups and households from malign spirits and curses. They were ubiquitous and were found everywhere in the Graeco-Roman World [8]. They have been found in domestic dwellings and monumental examples of the motif have been found in Greek temples in Sicily. They have even been found in pieces of jewellery and even mosaics. Over time the image of Medusa changed and she became more human and feminine. However, she was still portrayed with serpents instead of hair. The image of the Medusa was not only used to ward off evil it was a popular artistic motif and decoration. For example, the ivory statue of Athena in the Parthenon in Athens had an image of Medusa on her chest. There are many depictions of her being beheaded by Perseus in Greek art. The head of the severed gorgon became a common motif in Roman, Byzantine and Renaissance art [9]. Medusa has also featured in many books, comics, video games and movies, including The Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. In many languages, a Medusa refers to a female who is malevolent and monstrous.

The meaning of the Medusa myth

There are several interpretations of the Medusa myth. Many fables and legends are based on historical events. According to some ancient and modern commentators, the story of Perseus being slain by Medusa represented a historical fact. Perseus symbolizes the Greeks and Medusa represented some non-Greek people. Therefore, the decapitation of Medusa represented the victory of the Hellenes over some non-Hellenic people, which has not been recorded in the histories. It has been speculated that the snaky-haired monster represented the masked female priestess of a non-Greek cult. Some modern-day scholars have argued that Medusa represents the fearful aspects of the feminine. The mythology about the Gorgon relates to the patriarchal society of Greece fear of females and especially the power that their sexuality gives them. Sigmund Freud wrote a short essay on the myth and argues that the figure of the Gorgon symbolized males fear of being castrated by a powerful female. Ironically the feminist movement has adopted the symbol of the Medusa. They have sought to subvert the myth which they regard as promote misogynistic ideas about women [10]. Instead, they have used the image of Medusa to express ‘female rage’ at the inequality and discrimination that continues to be experienced by women in a male-dominated society.

6th century BC figure of Pegasus

Conclusion

Medusa is one of the most recognizable figures in Greek mythology. Many people are aware of the female monster with snakes for hair. However, few know her story. Her tale was one of a beautiful woman who was cursed by a Goddess and doomed to become a monster. There is something tragic in this. However, few have sympathy for monsters’ and this is also the case in the tales told about her and her sisters the Gorgons. The story of the snaky-haired monster being slain by Perseus is one of the most remarkable in all mythology. The story of the Gorgon is one that may lay in actual historical events. This myth has been interpreted in a misogynistic way and the Gorgon has also been adopted by feminism as a symbol of female rage. Her image has been appropriated by many for a variety of purposes. The iconography based on the monster was used to ward off evil from the Ancient World into the Middle Ages. Her image was used to protect people from the evil eye and indeed even today, she is still a popular figure in modern popular culture. The story of Medusa demonstrates the power of myths and how they inform how we think of and interpret the world.

Further Reading

Barber, Marjorie, Vickers, Nancy, The Medusa Reader (London, Routledge, 2000).

References

  1. Ovid's Metamorphoses 4.770
  2. Graves, Robers, The Greek Myths (Pelican, London, p. 154
  3. Graves, p. 156
  4. Pindar 'Pythian' 12.9-12
  5. Ovid, Ovid's Metamorphoses 4.769
  6. Ovid's Metamorphoses 4.770 and Lucan's Pharsalia 9.820
  7. Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion (Oxford, Blackwell, 2001), p. 140, 149
  8. Glennon, Madeleine. “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 (March 2017)
  9. Glennon
  10. Cixous, H. The laugh of the Medusa. Feminisms Redux (2009). 416-431