Medusa and the Gorgons: The Origins of the Legendary Tale
In the middle is the Gorgon Medusa, an enormous monster about whom snaky locks twist their hissing mouths; her eyes stare malevolently, and under the base of her chin the tail-ends of serpents have tied knots.—Virgil
Most of you reading this had your first acquaintance with the movie “Clash of the Titans” in 1981 or the remake 2010. While both movies show elements of truth concerning the classical Greek stories, it’s all Hollywood, no need for an explanation. To discover the true story of Medusa and the Gorgons, we shall first look at the classical Greek story first.
The Classical Story of Perseus and Medusa
As the story goes, King Acrisius of Argos had one child, a daughter named Danae. Concerned by this, Acrisius traveled to Delphi to consult the oracle. He asked the priestess if he would have a son, and she said no. The priestess did inform the king that his daughter would bear a son. However, the priestess warned Acrisius that the son of Danae would kill him.
Danaë and a shower of gold, representing god Zeus visiting and impregnating Danaë. (Public Domain)
To prevent this, Acrisius placed his daughter in an underground apartment made of bronze with an open roof. Acrisius, thinking his problem was over, would soon be shocked. As Danae dwells in solitude, Zeus notices the beautiful Danae. Seeing her beauty, Zeus decided to visit Danae in the form of a shower of gold and impregnated her. In due time, a messenger arrived to inform Acrisius that his daughter gave birth to a son. She named the boy Perseus. Acrisius knew that he could not kill the infant for he would feel the wrath of Zeus. Therefore, to get rid of his problem, he placed his daughter and his grandson in a box and set them adrift on the sea.
Danae and son Perseus were set adrift, and landed at Seriphus. (Public Domain)
Eventually the chest made its way to the island of Seriphus. An angler by the name of Dictys discovered the chest and opened it to discover the woman and child trapped inside. Dictys decided to take care of the woman and the child, brought them to his home, and accepted them as family, since he and his wife had no children of their own. As time passed, Perseus grew to manhood.
Dictys had a brother, King Polydectes of Seriphus. Polydectes was a cruel king who had eyes for Danae. Danae refused his advances, as she was already the bride of Zeus. Polydectes bullied her, but as time passed, he grew fearful of Perseus, who had grown into a strong and athletic man. To get rid of Perseus, Polydectes talked to him and informed the young man that he was wasting his time on the island. He should leave and see the world and become a hero, since he was the son of Zeus. Perseus, intrigued by this, asked what could he do that would be considered heroic. Polydectes could have named many things, but he wanted to be rid of Perseus and informed the young man that if he wanted to be a hero, that he should kill the Gorgon, Medusa, and bring back her head.
Polydectes explained to Perseus that three sisters known as Gorgons lived in the west. But of the three, Medusa was the most beautiful. He informed Perseus that Medusa had snakes for hair and if you looked upon her, you would surely turn to stone. (That doesn’t sound so beautiful).
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Top Image: Embossed, metal plaque from 1911 featuring Medusa (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Cam Rea