9 Interesting Facts about Medusa

The Gorgon Medusa of Greek mythology was a horryfying monster with venomous snakes for hair and eyes with petrifying powers.

May 15, 2024By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology



Sometimes as a powerful, nightmarish villain and others as a symbol of dangerous femininity, Medusa never ceases to fascinate and inspire. Hers is arguably one of Greek Mythology’s most famous tales. Be it in movies like Percy Jackson (2010/2013), Clash of the Titans (1981/2010), video games like Assassin’s Creed and God of War, the clothes of Versace, numerous TV series, and innumerable graphic art books, Medusa’s myth has retained a special place in the popular imagination. Those familiar with art history have probably encountered various interpretations of Medusa’s image, from the temple of Artemis in Corfu to the famous Medusa of Caravaggio. So, what’s so special about Medusa? Here are nine facts to learn everything you need to know about the beast with venomous snakes for hair and eyes with petrifying powers.


1. Medusa Was Beautiful Before Turning into a Monster

copley return neptune poseidon painting
The Return of Neptune, John Singleton Copley, c. 1754. Source: Met Museum, New York


Before turning into the famous monster, Medusa was a beautiful, attractive young woman. To her bad luck, she was attractive enough to become Poseidon’s object of desire. According to the Roman poet Ovid, the god of the sea raped Medusa inside the temple of Athena. However, many scholars argue that Medusa and Poseidon’s relationship was consensual. Indeed the Greek sources never mention Medusa being raped. Only Ovid talks about the sea god violating the young woman, and not everyone agrees with this translation of the original text.


2. Athena Turned Medusa Into a Beast

medusa gorgon vase painting
Medusa, attributed to the C. Painter, 575 BCE. Source: Met Museum, New York


In any case, Athena had to avenge the desecration of her house. However, Poseidon was immortal and older than her. Therefore, Medusa had to be punished even though she was the victim. Consequently, Athena turned Medusa from a beautiful maiden into a hideous beast, unable to stare someone in the eye without turning them into stone. The hair that once attracted compliments, the source of her beauty, turned into venomous snakes. Medusa had become a Gorgon.


3. She Was One of the Three Gorgons

gorgons medusa story perseus painting
Amphora with two gorgons chasing Perseus, 575-550 BCE. Source: Louvre, Paris

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Medusa had two sisters named Stheno and Euryale. The three of them were known as the Gorgons in Greek Mythology. Their parents were Phorcys and Keto. Not much is known about the two other Gorgons other than that they were immortal, whereas Medusa was not. Presumably, Medusa was mortal to serve the storyline, as Perseus could not have taken her life (and head) otherwise.


Although the sources do not mention what the other Gorgons looked like, we can assume that their appearance was similar to Medusa’s. At least, that is how ancient artists depicted them. Interestingly, in many of these early depictions, the Gorgons had wings. However, the representations of the Gorgons would change with time.


4. Medusa’s Appearance Changed Throughout the Centuries

medusa gorgon greek art
Perseus slaying Medusa, detail from an olpe attributed to the Amasis painter, 550-530 BCE. Source: British Museum, London


There are many different versions of Medusa’s tale, from Archaic Greece to Late Antiquity. These different versions did not only record different storylines but also offered varying descriptions of Medusa’s appearance.


The Library of Apollodorus was written in the 2nd century CE and is considered one of the canonical versions of Medusa’s story. Apollodorus wrote that the Gorgons had “the scales of dragons tusks like swine’s and golden wings by which they flew”.


gorgoneion medusa head tile ceramic
Terracotta painted gorgoneion antefix (roof tile), ca. 540 BCE. Source: Met Museum, New York


In the Archaic Greek Period, Medusa’s head was a popular decoration found on houses, temples, and various objects including ceramics. Known as the gorgoneion, this decoration was typically a cartoonish spherical head with big, wide eyes and an open mouth with tongue and tusks showing. However, a gorgoneion was not just decorative. The head of the Medusa was a powerful symbol that warded off evil and offered protection.


gorgon medusa temple artemis sculpture
The Gorgon Medusa at the Temple of Artemis in Corfu, 6th century BCE. Source: Archaeological Museum of Corfu


For centuries, Medusa’s head would be represented as unnaturally large and round bringing to mind Pindar’s Pythian Ode 12, where the Greek poet spoke of the fair cheeked Medusa.” A classic depiction of this comes from the temple of Artemis in Corfu dating to the 6th century BCE (see image above).


From the Hellenistic Period onward, artists reimagined Medusa as a woman with slightly different eyes and snakes for hair. With time, Medusa transitioned from a horrible beast to a dangerously beautiful woman, which is the way she eventually became represented in 20th and 21st-century visual art too.


5. Athena Hated Her 

boyvin athena print
Pallas Athena by René Boyvin, 16th century. Source: Met Museum


If you thought that Athena was done with Medusa after turning her into a Gorgon, you are mistaken. Though she was the goddess of wisdom, Athena was a legendary example of cold bloodiness and cruelty, even for a Greek deity.


When the hero Perseus was tasked with bringing Medusa’s head to the king of Seriphos, Polydektes, Athena gladly offered her help. In the end, Perseus successfully slayed Medusa but was he really the one who killed her? If we look at the myth closely, we will realize that Athena was the true mastermind, but this will become evident in the next section.


6. Perseus Took Medusa’s Head

perseus gorgon medusa head greek vase
Perseus fleeing after cutting off Medusa’s head, attributed to the Pan painter, 460 BCE. Source: British Museum, London


Before confronting Medusa, Perseus equipped himself with Acquiring these objects was no easy task. Alone, Perseus would not even come close to obtaining them. But the hero had Athena’s help.


In the myth, Perseus was tricked by the king of Serifos, Polydektes, to bring Medusa’s head as a gift to the king’s wedding. Perseus set out to find Medusa but her location was a secret. Without unexpected help from a goddess, Perseus would have been completely clueless as to where to find the beast. However, unexpected help from a goddess arrived and Athena guided him to three old women known as the Graeae, who knew the whereabouts of the Stygian nymphs, deities who equipped Perseus with a range of gadgets that even James Bond would envy: an adamantine sickle, a kibisis (i.e. a bag or wallet to place Medusa’s head), the helmet of Hades, which turn its wearer invisible, and a set of winged sandals lent by Mercury. Additionally, Athena gave him a shield. Every single item would play its part in what was to come.


Perseus left the nymphs for the cave where the Gorgons, Medusa and her sisters, resided. There she found his target asleep. Approaching silently, he turned his back to the monster, avoiding to look at her directly. Using his golden sword or the shield that Athena had given him as a mirror, he managed to sneak close to his target and decapitate her with his sickle. With swift moves, he took the head, placed it in his bag, used Hades’ helmet to become invisible, and flew away with his winged sandals. The Gorgons chased after him but Perseus was invisible and fast as the wind.


7. She Gave Birth to Pegasus

burne jones death medusa i painting
The Perseus Series: The Death of Medusa I, Edward Burne-Jones, 1882. Source: Southampton City Art Gallery


When Perseus took Medusa’s head, something extraordinary happened. When Medusa was raped by Poseidon, it seems that she got pregnant but for some reason, never gave birth. Consequently, when her head was removed, two children sprang from the opening. These were Chrysaor and Pegasus. Chrysaor became the father of the three-headed (or three-bodied) giant Geryon, mainly known for his fight with Heracles. Pegasus was a winged horse and one of the most famous mythological beings. So why did Gorgon Medusa give birth to a horse? Probably because Poseidon was, among others, god of the horses.


8. Medusa’s Head Retained Its Powers Even After Medusa’s Death

ricci perseus phineus
Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of MedusaSebastiano Ricci, ca. 1705–1710. Source: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Perseus carried Medusa’s head to present it to Polydektes, the king of the Greek island of Seriphos. On the way back, he encountered many dangers, and if it was not for Medusa’s head, he would not have made it back to his home on the island of Seriphos.


The first time Perseus used the head was against the titan Atlas. When the titan saw the head, he was petrified, turning into the Atlas mountains of northern Africa. Next, Perseus passed from Aethiopia, where he fell in love with Andromeda, who was being threatened by the sea monster known as Keto. Perseus turned the monster into stone with Medusa’s head and then did the same with a suitor of Andromeda named Phineus.


When he finally arrived at Seriphos, Perseus raised the head once more to kill Polydektes, the king of the island who was trying to marry Perseus’ mother, Danae, against her will.


9. Athena Wore Gorgon Medusa’s Head on Her Aegis

gustav klimt athena painting
Pallas Athena, Gustav Klimt, 1898. Source: Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien


After Perseus returned to Seriphos, his mission was complete. There was no reason for him to carry Medusa’s head any longer. Besides, Athena was now interested in it. The goddess of wisdom took the head of her sworn enemy and placed it either on her aegis (shield) or armor. This way, she appropriated Medusa’s powers and proclaimed her ultimate triumph over her rival.


Athena, the goddess-symbol of female chastity and virtue within the deeply patriarchal Greek society, had finally exterminated the threat of the dangerous Medusa, a symbol of the power of the natural and the feminine. Medusa hadn’t done much to deserve such a fate. If she had been raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, she had no choice. If she had chosen to mate with the god in Athena’s house, she would have been punished enough by becoming a hideous beast that would live the remainder of its life in the middle of nowhere. Even after death, Medusa would be shown no mercy and no dignity. Her head would be dragged from one corner of the known world to the other only to end up being worn by one of the gods who had caused her suffering.


“And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate”
Ovid, IV.753-803

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.