The Legend of Medusa and the Gorgons
The earliest known record about the myth of Medusa and the Gorgons can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony. According to this ancient author, the three sisters, Sthenno, Euryale and Medusa were the children of Phorcys and Ceto, and lived “beyond famed Oceanus at the world’s edge hard by Night”. Of the three, only Medusa is said to be mortal, whilst Sthenno and Euryale were immortal. In addition, Medusa is the most famous of the three, and the story of her demise is also mentioned in passing by Hesiod.
Although Hesiod gives an account of Medusa’s origins and the death of Medusa at the hands of Perseus, he does not say more about her. By contrast, a more comprehensive account of Perseus and Medusa can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this work, Ovid describes Medusa as originally being a beautiful maiden. Her beauty caught the eye of Poseidon, who desired her and proceeded to ravage her in Athena’s shrine. The goddess then sought vengeance by transforming Medusa’s hair into snakes, so that anyone who gazed at her directly would be turned into stone.
Medusa once had charms; to gain her love
A rival crowd of envious lovers strove.
They, who have seen her, own, they ne'er did trace
More moving features in a sweeter face.
Yet above all, her length of hair, they own,
In golden ringlets wav'd, and graceful shone.
– Ovid, Metamorphoses
Caravaggio’s Medusa. Photo source: Wikimedia.
In the myth of Perseus, the hero is sent by Polydectes, the king of Seriphus, on a quest to bring him the head of Medusa. This was a trick, as Polydectes desired Perseus’ mother, Danae, and wanted to get rid of her son, who is not in favour of such a relationship. Such a mission would have been equivalent to suicide for Perseus, and Polydectes did not expect him to ever return to Seriphus. Yet, Perseus was the son of Zeus, and he was aided by the gods. Perseus receives the Cap of Invisibility from Hades, a pair of winged sandals from Hermes, a reflective bronze shield from Athena, and a sword from Hephaestus. With these divine gifts, Perseus sought out Medusa and decapitated her whilst she was asleep.
Immediately after the Gorgon was beheaded, the winged horse Pegasus sprung out from her neck. In the Theogony, Hesiod also mentions that Chrysaos, who was born with a golden sword in his hand, emerged from the severed neck of Medusa. After this, Perseus returns to Seriphus, though not before going on several adventures. Although Perseus may be at the centre of these adventures, it could be argued that it is the transformative powers of Medusa’s severed head that played a pivotal role in the hero’s subsequent adventures.
Pegasus emerges from the body of Medusa. ‘The Perseus Series: The Death of Medusa I’ by Edward Burne-Jones ( Wikimedia Commons )
When the blood dripped from Medusa’s head onto the plains of Libya, each drop of blood transformed into venomous serpents. The power of Medusa’s head is seen again when Perseus encounters the Titan Atlas. When Perseus asks Atlas for a place to rest for a short while, his request was refused. Knowing that he would not be able to defeat the Titan with brute force alone, he takes out Medusa’s head, and Atlas is turned into a mountain. Perseus also encounters Andromeda, the daughter of the Aethiopian king Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia. Using Medusa’s head, Perseus succeeds in rescuing the princess, who was being sacrificed to Cetus, a sea monster sent by Poseidon to punish Cassiopeia for boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids. Medusa’s petrifying power is also used on Phineus, Andromeda’s uncle whom she was betrothed to, Proetus, the usurper of the throne of Argos, and finally Polydectes himself. Medusa’s head is then given to Athena, who wears it on her aegis whenever she goes into battle.
Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa by Sebastiano Ricci ( Wikimedia Commons )
Although Medusa is commonly regarded as a monster, her head is often seen as a protective amulet that would keep evil away. Thus, the image of Medusa’s head can be seen in numerous Greek and subsequent Roman artifacts such as shields, breastplates and mosaics. There are also numerous coins that bear not only the imagery of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, but also the head in its own right. Today, the most well-known image of Medusa’s head belongs perhaps to the logo of the Italian fashion company, Versace, indicating that the myths of the ancient world are still alive and with us in the modern world.