In Greek mythology, Medusa was one of the three Gorgons. Medusa’s head had snakes instead of hair and eyes that turned those looking at her into stone.
Medusa was a very popular subject during antiquity. Her image can be found everywhere in Greek art from painted vases to sculpture and architecture.
Medusa remained popular throughout the centuries inspiring artists in literature and the visual arts until today. Dante wrote about Medusa as a beast found in Hell, Carravaggio painted Medusa’s head lying on the ground, Versace made a logo out of her image, and a Uma Thurman portrayed her in a Percy Jackson movie.
So, have you ever wondered who turned Medusa into a Gorgon and how? Then this article is for you. Together we will explore the full myth of Medusa and all the information you need to know about the famous Gorgon.
What Is A Gorgon?
A Gorgon is a mythical creature of the ancient Greek religion. A Gorgon is supposed to be a monster of despicable ugliness and horror.
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In ancient Greek, the word Gorgon meant ‘dreadful’ and they truly were. The most distinctive characteristics of the Gorgons are venomous snakes instead of hair and eyes able to turn those looking into stone. In many ancient depictions, they have wings and round unnatural heads.
There are three Gorgons typically found in mythology: Stheno, Euryale and Medusa.
Medusa In Greek Art
Medusa emerged early in Greek art with a more or less conventional artistic style with a round head and large distinctive eyes. Since the Archaic period, she was used as an architectural ornament in private houses and public buildings like temples.
A great example is the gigantic Medusa from the pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu. During this point in time (6th century BCE), the Medusa appeared as a symbol of horror. A symbol that meant to provoke terror but also, at the same time, protect from evil spirits. This is why it was so commonly used in private architecture and personal items like jewelry.
Very interesting is also the development of the Medusa as a theme in Greek vase painting. Medusa’s head or just her eyes were a popular decoration found on cups and vases used for wine drinking in symposia.
As already mentioned the Medusa’s face was meant to be a symbol that could instantly incite the horror of the viewer. However, her body was often painted in poses intending to provoke eroticism. The result was an image of double horror. This standard changed during the Hellenistic period when Medusa became a symbol of dangerous beauty and her face gradually became more and more natural.
The eyes, however, retained their original powers in art, i.e. the ability to inspire horror and protect from evil. Many also believe that the evil-eye amulets in much of the Eastern world today are a direct descendant of Medusa’s eyes.
The First Mentions of The Medusa In Greek Literature
The first literary mentions of Medusa as a Gorgon, are found in Homer and Hesiod. In the Odyssey, while in the underworld, Odysseus states his fear of confronting the head of the Gorgon, but no more details are given:
“but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic-stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.” (XI.635)
“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.” (V.735)
and the shield of Agamemnon:
“And thereon was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout.” (XI.35)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the Gorgons are three sisters, Medusa, Euryale and Stheno, who are the daughters of the sea deities Keto and Phorcys.
The Sources Of The Myth
There are many different retellings of the myth of Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa.
The most reliable out of the earliest ones is found in the Library of Apollodorus. This account of the myth was written around the first or second century CE. Its importance lies in the fact that Apollodorus did not attempt to change the myth but seems to have recorded details from multiple sources. It is noteworthy that one of Apollodorus’s main sources is a poem from the Theogony called the Shield of Heracles which contains the lineage of Medusa amongst other information.
Another popular version of the myth is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses written around the second half of the first century C.E. This version is more elegant, but it makes many new additions to the myth that are not found in older versions of the story.
Ovid’s and Apollodorus’ versions became standards, that influenced later writers and ‘froze’ the myth into the one we have come to know today.
Nevertheless, we need to understand that Medusa’s myth was very fluid in antiquity. Probably there were several oral traditions and versions of the story. Apollodorus and Ovid simply brought together some of these stories in one single, more or less, coherent narrative.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Gaia (meaning Earth) gave birth to Pontus (meaning Sea) parthenogenetically. Pontus and Gaia together produced Medusa’s parents, Phorkys and Keto, a word used to describe sea monsters or large sea animals like whales. The two of them produced three daughters, known as the Gorgons. Among those three, Medusa was the only mortal. No explanation is given for this strange phenomenon.
Phorkys and Keto also produced another set of triplets, the Graie, as well as other monsters and deities. The Graie’s most distinctive characteristic was that they had only one eye and one tooth that they shared between them.
Number three must have held certain importance for Medusa’s myth. It is certainly not a coincidence that both the Gorgons and the Graie were sets of three sisters. Also the giant Geryon, the grandson of Medusa, had three heads or three bodies according to different sources.
Athena Turned Medusa Into A Gorgon
According to Ovid, Medusa was initially a beautiful young woman. However, one day she was raped by Poseidon inside Athena’s temple. This was seen as a great hubris towards the goddess whose sacred space was polluted.
As is common with Greek gods, Athena directed her anger towards poor mortal Medusa who was not responsible for these events and was the true victim.
According to Apollodorus’ version of the myth, Athena was angry with Medusa because she had claimed to be more beautiful than the goddess.
In both cases, however, the result was the same. In the end, Athena turned Medusa into a figure of horror, a Gorgon with venomous snakes instead of hair. Her face was so ugly that whoever looked at her turned into stone.
Even after this cruel punishment, Athena was still not satisfied and decided to help Perseus in his quest for Medusa’s head.
How Did Medusa Die?
The myth of Medusa’s death involves multiple other men, heroes and deities. The key person in the story, other than Medusa herself, is Perseus. His story begins when Zeus mated with Danae in the form of a rain of gold. Out of this union, the legendary hero Perseus was born.
Once Perseus was a grown man, Polydektes the king of the island of Seriphos, attempted to marry Perseus’ mother, Danae, despite her will. Perseus defended his mother against the king’s wishes.
As a result, Polydektes pretended to accept Danae’s refusal and announced his marriage to another woman. Then he invited Perseus to the wedding and asked for horses as wedding gifts from all guests. At the time, horses were an extremely expensive gift. Imagine being invited to a wedding where you are expected to bring a new car as a gift.
Perseus responded to the extraordinary request with sarcasm. He said that instead of a horse, he would rather promise Gorgon Medusa’s head as a gift.
Polydektes immediately asked Perseus to keep his word and bring him Medusa’s head. Obviously, Polydektes had knowledge of who Medusa powers and hoped that she would kill Perseus, thus allowing him to marry Danae unopposed.
This part of the story is a bit weird as it appears to suggest that Polydektes intentionally trapped Perseus. However, it actually feels more like Perseus was the one who trapped himself and Polydeyktes simply took advantage of his mistake.
It is also weird that Perseus accepts his fate without challenging it. This part of the myth is a plot loophole, but it is also the part, that sets the whole story in motion.
Athena Takes Perseus’ Side
In any case, Perseus would have been in a very tough spot if it wasn’t for divine intervention. For Polydektes’ bad luck, goddess Athena happened to overhear the discussion and decided to help Perseus with his quest.
Athena warned Perseus not to look at the Gorgon’s face for it would turn him to stone. She also advised him to find the Graie, who could tell him where to find the Stygian nymphs.
The nymphs possessed the magic artifacts that could give Perseus an advantage over Medusa. These were an adamantine sickle, a kibisis (a bag or wallet to place Medusa’s head), the helmet of Hades, which could make its wearer invisible (pop references here include Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak and the Lord of the Rings), and finally a set of winged sandals.
Well in many ways the nymphs were an ancient Q to an ancient James Bond. The parallels between the two are many to be ignored and funny nonetheless. Q gives mysterious gadgets with special powers to James Bond, an agent in an undercover mission who has a license to kill, or in this case decapitate.
Perseus eventually found the Graie and used their weakness against them. He managed to steal their only eye and tooth and thus, forced them to give him the location of the nymphs. In their turn, the nymphs gave Perseus the sought-after artifacts and the hero left for the secret location of the Gorgon Medusa accompanied by Athena.
Perseus Takes Medusa’s Head
Upon arrival, Perseus found the three Gorgon sisters sleeping. He approached Medusa using Athena’s shield as a mirror to look at his target. When he got close enough, he used the sickle to decapitate the Gorgon Medusa with Athena directing his hand.
From the headless body of Medusa, instantly jumped the winged horse Pegasus and Chrysaor. Perseus rushed to place Medusa’s head inside his bag, wore Hades’ helmet to become invisible, and run to save himself from the other two Gorgons that were now going after him. With his winged sandals, he finally managed to escape.
Athena and The Gorgon Medusa
Usually, Perseus is thought of as the one who killed Medusa. However, if we carefully read the myth, we will understand that the true mastermind behind everything was Athena. The goddess turned Medusa into a Gorgon in the first place. Holding a grudge against her, Athena then went on to help Perseus and even directed his hand when he was decapitating Medusa.
After Medusa’s death, Perseus kept the head for a while. With it, he triumphed over his enemies back home and saved his mother from a forced marriage. He also liberated his future wife, Andromeda, from a betrothal, and triumphed over a gigantic sea monster.
After Perseus had earned the freedom of his mother and a new wife, he gave the head to Athena. The goddess then took the head and placed it on her aegis, where it is always found in ancient and, not only, art. This way, the goddess of wisdom and war displayed her triumph over her sworn enemy.
By placing Medusa on her aegis Athena signals the triumph of civilization over nature, of order over chaos, of reason over instinct. If we also think of Athena as a celebrated virgin goddess and Medusa as a woman outside the standards of the society, we can also see this story as the triumph of an asphyxiating patriarchal standard over female sexual liberation. In the end, Athena has not only killed her enemy, but she has also assimilated her powers. Not only is she victorious, but she is also stronger than ever.