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.

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.

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).

1895 depiction of Medusa.

1895 depiction of Medusa. (Public Domain)

Nobody knew the Gorgons’ whereabouts, even though they were said to have lived west of Seriphus. Perseus needed more information and consulted the gods. Athena gave Perseus a polished shield, which acted as a mirror. Hades contributed his helmet, which would make Perseus invisible once he put it on. Last, Hermes tossed Perseus a pair of silver sandals with wings. As for a weapon, a sickle sword was handed to him. While Perseus now had all the essentials to travel and defeat the Gorgon, he still lacked the most crucial information: how to get there.

Athena advised Perseus to seek the Gray Sisters, who would tell him where the Gorgon lived. While this told Perseus little, Hermes would be there to guide him on his first journey. Perseus and Hermes flew to the location of the Gray Sisters.

Terracotta relief of three goddesses. Representational image.

Terracotta relief of three goddesses. Representational image. (Public Domain)

Once Perseus arrived, he encountered the three old women, who were blind, and passed around a single eye with which to see. When Perseus asked them where Medusa lived, the Sisters refused to answer his question. Seeing his dilemma, Perseus took the eye from one of the sisters. The Sisters begged Perseus to give it back, but he refused until they gave him what he wanted. The Gray Sisters finally gave in and told Perseus the Gorgons’ whereabouts. Perseus thanked the women and returned the eye.

Illustration from a collection of myths.

Illustration from a collection of myths. (Public Domain)

Perseus made this next part of the journey alone. When Perseus landed outside the entrance of Medusa’s lair, what stood before him was a grotesque art scene of warriors who failed to slay the beast due to looking directly into Medusa’s eyes. (As the saying goes, “If looks could kill.”)

In legend, warriors had been turned to stone from the gorgon’s stare. Sculpture from Parthenon Marbles, representational.

In legend, warriors had been turned to stone from the gorgon’s stare. Sculpture from Parthenon Marbles, representational. (CC BY 2.5)

Seeing how each man had been facing forward at the time of death, Perseus put his magical helmet on and turned invisible. Instead of walking in forward, he slowly walked backwards into the entrance using the shield Athena gave him as a mirror to guide his steps.

Embossed, metal plaque from 1911 featuring Medusa

Embossed, metal plaque from 1911 featuring Medusa (Sailko/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Once inside, Perseus eventually came upon the Gorgon sisters, who were sleeping. Two of the sisters were ugly and immortal, so he could do little to them, but Medusa was mortal and her looks were devastating. Perseus approached Medusa slowly. Once he was over her, Athena guided his hand to cut the Gorgon’s head off with one sweeping blow. Perseus recovered the head and placed it in a leather bag.

Perseus Slays the Gorgon, Medusa

Perseus Slays the Gorgon, Medusa (CC BY 2.0)

Early Greek Sources

The description of Medusa and the Gorgons was a continuous manufacture by writers starting in Classical Greece and lasting well into the Roman period. The earliest source regarding Medusa and the Gorgons is nothing like what one reads today.

The Greek poet Hesiod, who lived between 750 and 650 BCE, is the first to mention the Gorgons and Medusa in his book Theogony:

Ceto bore to Phorcys the fair-cheeked Graiae, sisters grey from their birth: and both deathless gods and men who walk on earth call them Graiae, Pemphredo well-clad, and saffron-robed Enyo, and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear-voiced Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One (Poseidon) in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.

Hesiod makes no mention of Medusa being grotesque, nor does he indicate that she and her Gorgon sisters are beautiful. The term Gorgon comes from the Greek gorgos, meaning grim, fierce, terrible, anything that is dreadful. From this perspective, the Gorgons are described as ugly without going into detail regarding their physical description.

“Rondanini Medusa”. Marble, Roman copy after a fifth century BC Greek original by Phidias, which was set on the shield of Athena Parthenos.

“Rondanini Medusa”. Marble, Roman copy after a fifth century BC Greek original by Phidias, which was set on the shield of Athena Parthenos. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Furthermore, Hesiod makes no mention of Medusa being seduced by Poseidon in the shrine of Athena or that she was raped as told by Ovid in his bookMetamorphoses, which states:

A chief, one of their number, asked why she alone among her sisters wore that snake-twined hair, and Perseus answered: ‘What you ask is worth the telling; listen and I’ll tell the tale. Her beauty was far-famed, the jealous hope of many a suitor, and of all her charms her hair was loveliest; so I was told by one who claimed to have seen her. She, it’s said, was violated in Minerva’s [Athena’s] shrine by the Lord of the Sea (Rector Pelagi) [Poseidon]. Jove’s (Zeus’) daughter turned away and covered with her shield her virgin’s eyes. And then for fitting punishment transformed the Gorgon’s lovely hair to loathsome snakes. Minerva (Athena) still, to strike her foes with dread, upon her breastplate wears the snakes she made.’”

After Hesiod, Stasinus of Cyprus, or Hegesias of Aegina, Cypria, in Fragment 21, written sometime between the seventh or sixth century BCE, mentions some of what Hesiod states concerning their whereabouts, but adds that the Gorgons were “fearful monsters who lived in Sarpedon, a rocky island in deep-eddying Oceanus.” There is no mention of Medusa. While Hesiod is the oldest source mentioning Medusa, it appears that the eighth century BCE Greek author Homer, in his famed books, The Iliad and The Odyssey, is a much older source when it comes to the Gorgons. Homer states in The Iliad 5. 738 ff:

About her (Athena’s) shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis (shield), fraught with terror, all about which Rout is set as a crown, and therein is Strife, therein Valour, and therein Onset, that maketh the blood run cold, and therein is the head of the dread monster, the Gorgon, dread and awful, a portent of Zeus that beareth the aegis.

Furthermore, Homer states in The Iliad 11. 36 ff:

And he (Agamemnon) took up the man-enclosing elaborate stark shield, a thing of splendour. There were ten circles of bronze upon it, and set about it were twenty knobs of tin, pale-shining, and in the very centre another knob of dark cobalt. And circled in the midst of all was the blank-eyed face of the Gorgo with her stare of horror, and Deimos was inscribed upon it, and Phobos.

Homer’s account demonstrates the absolute psychological terror one can impose by displaying the face of the Gorgon painted upon a shield.

Medusa by Carvaggio, circa 1595.

Medusa by Carvaggio, circa 1595. (Public Domain)

However, one must ask if the face of the Gorgon really brought fear to men’s hearts. Perhaps what is overlooked in Homer’s Iliad is that Deimos, along with his twin brother Phobos, sons of Ares the god of war and Aphrodite the goddess of love, caused men to succumb to the terror brought before them. In other words, the Gorgons face can do little alone, but when combined with Phobos and Deimos, one would recoil in horror.

Fourth century AD mosaic with mask of Phobos (Fear)

Fourth century AD mosaic with mask of Phobos (Fear)  (CC BY 2.0)

While some Greeks and the goddess Athena were believed to display the Gorgon upon their shields, some Trojans also may have used the image as well. Hector, a prince of Troy, demonstrated this. According to Homer in The Iliad 8, “Hektor, wearing the stark eyes of a Gorgo, or murderous Ares, wheeled about at the edge his bright-maned horses.” While The Iliad demonstrates the power of imagery upon the field of battle, Homer’s Odyssey 11. 633, says that Odysseus “feared that august Persephone night send against me from Aides’ house the Gorgon head of some grisly monster.”

Odysseus realized that conjuring apparitions was a bad idea and quickly fled before being confronted by Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and wife of the god Hades. However, Odysseus was not so fearful of Persephone, but what she might bring—the head of a Gorgon. Therefore, the Homeric passages demonstrate that Medusa is nonexistent, at least in name, but the Gorgons are alive and well in the Greek psyche. While Hesiod briefly explains their origins and Homer their terror, questions remain: where did they come from, and how did they become the fearsome threesome described by the Greeks?

Possible Origins

As mentioned, Hesiod, Homer, and others give the reader just a brief origin, possible place of location, and characteristics. It is evident that the early Greek writers rarely went into detail concerning their stories, unlike the Classical Greeks and later the Romans who exponentially ran with the tales and rewrote much of them, which turned Medusa into a monster. Because of this, one has to look to the early Greek narratives to find a possible origin.

Hesiod mentions that Medusa and Gorgons lived “beyond the famous stream of Oceanus.” Oceanus to the Greeks and Romans was an enormous river encircling the world, as described by Homer in the Iliad. This would indicate that the Gorgons perhaps lived beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The Greek historian Herodotus, who came much later, mentions that Perseus brought the head of Medusa from Libya. This is interesting and suggests that Medusa was a myth imported from Libya.

In Libya, Medusa was worshiped as a serpent-goddess that represented “female wisdom.” In Egypt, Medusa is closely represented by Ma’at, and is associated with the destructive aspect of the triple goddess known as Neith.

Aegis of Neith, Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt.

Aegis of Neith, Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt. (Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0-fr)

Medusa was Athena’s shadow side, and Athena is Neith in Egypt. Neith and Medusa are very similar, for Neith wore a veil, and to lift the veil was certain death, for Neith’s face signified the distance between man and deity. Athena is connected to Neith, for in Libya she was known as Ath-enna or Athene. At Sais, Egypt, an inscription states that she is believed the “mother of all the gods, whom she bore before childbirth existed.” In other words, she is the past, present, and future. “No mortal has yet been able to lift the veil that covers me,” for she was death; like Medusa, whoever looks upon her face is turned to stone. This is interesting, for not only can Medusa take life away, she can also create life from her own blood, like Neith, who carried a scepter in one hand, which represents rulership and power, giving her the ability to enforce her will even at the cost of death. The ankh in her other hand represented life.

Neith, an ancient Egyptian goddess.

Neith, an ancient Egyptian goddess. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

However, there is another possible alternative as to what Medusa/Gorgons may have been.

Alternative Origin

As mentioned earlier, a Gorgon indicates anything that is dreadful. The term gorgon may have been a hypocoristic of gorgyra, which means “underground chamber” along those lines. A sixth century Samian inscription lists a gorgyra chryse. The term chryse means “golden.” Therefore, a gorgyra chryse indicates an underground chamber of gold. If correct, the gorgon’s head refers to money or coin. If one uses gargara it means “heaps, lots, plenty.” This interpretation suggests not a living creature, but a treasury.

If one takes this interpretation, Perseus comes off as a mere international commercial venture adventurer who undertook a risk involving dangerous uncertainty based on speculation in hope of profit. Thus, the head Perseus seeks is not literal, but money or coin engraved with the image of the gorgoneion. In order to procure this great wealth, Perseus headed to the market to acquire certain tools and more importantly, to make contracts in order to conduct his business in Libya.

Statue of Perseus

Statue of Perseus (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the story of Medusa and the Gorgons is intriguing from the classical Greek point of view. Looking farther back in Greek literature, the story becomes mysterious, and when looking at the story from a linguistic point of view, it becomes fascinating.

In the end, no matter how one takes the story, realize that behind every myth is a general truth. For the vast majority of us who have read the story, we realize on closer examination that Medusa had one heck of an art collection; It was a testimony of death, men frozen in stone, crying out for life. The dark humorous side is that, even though Perseus avoided Medusa’s gaze, he would also suffer the same fate, as the romantics of Greek thought during the renaissance decided to turn the hero into a statue for all eternity as a reminder of the story.

Perseus with head of Medusa. The stone hero stands frozen in time.

Perseus with head of Medusa. The stone hero stands frozen in time. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top Image: The Head of Medusa (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea


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