published on 20 August 2013
Medusa was one of three sisters born to Phorcys and Ceto known as the Gorgons. According to Hesiod's Theogony, the Gorgons were the sisters of the Graiai and lived in the utmost place towards the night by the Hesperides beyond Oceanus. Later authors such as Herodotus and Pausanias place the Gorgons' abode in Libya. The Gorgon sisters were Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa; Medusa was mortal while her sisters were immortal.
Beyond the Gorgon's birth, there is little mention of the Gorgons as a group, but Medusa has several myths about her life and death. The most famous of these myths concern her death and demise. In Hesiod's Theogony, he recounts how Perseus cut off the head of Medusa and from her blood sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus, Chrysaor being a golden giant and Pegasus the famous white winged-horse.
Perseus & Medusa
The myth of Perseus and Medusa, according to Pindar and Apollodorus, started with a quest. Perseus was the son of Danae and Zeus, who came to Danae in the form of a golden spring. It was foretold to Danae's father, Acrisius the King of Argos, that Danae's son would kill him. So Acrisius locked his daughter away in a bronze chamber, but Zeus transformed into a shower of gold and impregnated her anyway. Acrisius, not wanting to provoke Zeus, hurled his daughter and grandson in a wooden chest into the sea. The mother and son were rescued by Dictys on the island of Seriphos. It was Dictys who raised Perseus to manhood, but it was Dictys' brother Polydectes, the king, who would send him on a life threatening quest.
Polydectes fell in love with Perseus' mother and wished to marry her but Perseus was protective of his mother since he believed Polydectes to be dishonorable. Polydectes contrived to trick Perseus; he held a large banquet under the pretense of collecting contributions for the marriage of Hippodamia, who tamed horses. He requested that his guests bring horses for their gifts but Perseus did not have one. When Perseus confessed that he had no gift, he offered any gift the king would name. Polydectes seized his opportunity to disgrace and even get rid of Perseus and asked for the head of the only mortal Gorgon: Medusa.
Medusa was a formidable foe, since her hideous appearance was able to render any onlooker into stone. In some variations of the myth, Medusa was born a monster like her sisters, described as girded with serpents, vibrating tongues, gnashing their teeth, having wings, brazen claws, and enormous teeth. In later myths (mainly in Ovid) Medusa was the only Gorgon to possess snake locks, because they were a punishment from Athena. Accordingly, Ovid relates that the once beautiful mortal was punished by Athena with a hideous appearance and loathsome snakes for hair for having been raped in Athena's temple by Poseidon.
Perseus, with the aid of divine gifts, found the Gorgons' cave and slayed Medusa by beheading her. Most authors assert that Perseus was able to behead Medusa with a reflective bronze shield that Athena gave to him while the Gorgon slept. At the beheading of Medusa, Pegasus and Chrysaor (Poseidon's and her children) sprang from her severed neck. Simultaneously with the birth of these children, Medusa's sisters Euryale and Sthenno pursued Perseus. However, the gift bestowed upon him by Hades, the helmet of darkness, granted him invisibility. It is unclear if Perseus took Pegasus with him on his following adventures or if he continued to utilize the winged sandals Hermes gave him. Pegasus' adventures with both the hero Perseus and Bellerophon are classic tales from Greek mythology.
Perseus now flew (either by Pegasus or winged sandals) with Medusa's head safely bagged, ever potent with its stony gaze. Perseus, on his journey home, stopped at Ethiopia where the kingdom of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia was being tormented by Poseidon's sea monster, Cetus. Poseidon's vengeance was being exacted on the kingdom for Cassiopeia's hubristic claim that her daughter, Andromeda, (or she herself) was equal in beauty to the Nereids. Perseus slew the beast and won Andromeda's hand. Andromeda was already betrothed, though, which caused a contestation to break out, resulting in Perseus using Medusa's head to turn her previous betrothed to stone.
Before his return to his home of Seriphos, Perseus met the titan Altas, who he turned to stone with Medusa's head after some quarrelsome words, thus creating the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Also during the journey home, Medusa's head spilled some blood on the earth which formed into Libyan vipers that killed the Argonaut Mospos.
Perseus returned home to his mother, safe from King Polydectes' advances, but Perseus was infuriated with Polydectes' trickery. Perseus avenged himself by turning Polydectes and his court to stone with Medusa's head. He, then, gave the kingdom to Dictys. After Perseus was finished with the Gorgon's head, he gave it to Athena, who adorned her shield and breastplate with it.
The word Gorgon derives from the ancient Greek word "γοργός" meaning "fierce, terrible and grim." The Gorgons' names each have a particular meaning that helps to further describe their monstrousness. Sthenno from the ancient Greek "Σθεννω", is translated as "strength, might, or force," since it is related to the Greek word: σθένος. Euryale is from the ancient Greek "Ευρυαλη" meaning "broad, wide-stepping, wide threshing;" however her name may also mean "of the wide briny sea." This would be an appropriate name since she is the daughter of ancient sea deities, Phorcys and Ceto. Medusa's name comes from the ancient Greek verb "μέδω" which is translated as "to guard or protect." Medusa's name is extremely fitting as it is synonymous with what a Gorgon's head became representative of on Athena's shield.
Representations in Art
The Gorgon image appears in several pieces of art and architectural structures including the pediments of the Temple of Artemis (c. 580 BCE) in Corcya, the mid-6th century BCE, larger-than-life marble statue (that is now in the archaeological museum of Paros) and the celebrated cup by Douris.The Gorgon became a popular shield design in antiquity along with being an apotropaic (warding off evil) device. The goddess Athena and Zeus were often portrayed with a shield (or aegis) depicting the head of a Gorgon, who is typically believed to be Medusa.
There are also several archaeological examples of the Gorgon's face being used on breastplates, in mosaics and even as bronze end pieces on ship beams in the Roman period. Perhaps the most famous example of Medusa in art in antiquity was the Athena Parthenos statue from the Parthenon which was made by Phidias and described by Pausanias. This statue of Athena depicts a Gorgon's face on the goddess' breastplate. In Greek mythology there is, also, Hesiod's description of Hercules' shield which describes the events of Perseus and Medusa.
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology, Gorgon
- Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
- Apollodorus, Library
- Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica
- Hesiod, Theogany
- Ovid, Metamorphoses
- Pausania, Description of Greece
- Pindar, Pythian Odes