The Real Story of Medusa, the Snake-Haired Gorgon
In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is the most famous of three monstrous sisters, known as the Gorgons. The earliest known record about the story 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.
Medusa Before She Was Cursed
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.
Medusa’s Story with Perseus
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 was not in favor of the 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 received 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 returned 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 encountered the Titan Atlas. When Perseus asked 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 took out Medusa’s head and Atlas was turned into a mountain. Perseus also encountered Andromeda, the daughter of the Aethiopian king Cepheus and his wife Cassiopeia. Using Medusa’s head, Perseus succeeded 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 was 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 )
The Protective Powers of Medusa’s Head
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. One such example of a protective Medusa head pendant appeared in the form of a late 2nd to 4th century AD Roman artifact recently unearthed in the Cambridgeshire countryside . A 2,000-year-old marble head of Medusa was found not too long ago at a former Roman commercial center in Turkey as well. 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. And let’s not forget that Medusa also made headline gaming news in the not so distant past as a tough boss battle for players in the newest game of the popular Assassin’s Creed franchise . These factors remind us that myths of the ancient world are still alive and with us in the modern world.
Featured image: Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens ( Wikimedia Commons )
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[West, M. L. (trans.), 1988. Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Ovid, Metamorphoses [Online]
[Garthm S., Dryden, J., et al (trans.), 1717. Ovid’s Metamorphoses.]
Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.html
www.ancientcoinage.org, 2015. Perseus - Medusa Coin Series. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancientcoinage.org/perseus-and-medusa.html