You’ve probably heard of Medusa before. As one of the most famous figures in ancient Greek, and later Roman, mythology, many stories have emerged about Medusa with fascinating twists and turns. Greek mythology and ancient Greek art go hand and hand and artists in modern times have used Greek mythology to inspire their work. Here, we’re exploring who the ancient Gorgon Medusa was so that you can better understand the art that was inspired by her story.
Medusa is one of three daughters born to Phorcys and Ceto.
Medusa is considered a Gorgon and according to Hesiod’s Theogony, the Gorgons were the sisters of the Graiai or Graeae. Medusa was the only mortal out of her two other sisters who were the monstrous goddesses, Stheno and Euryale.
Apart from their mere existence, the Gorgons are hardly mentioned in Greek mythology aside from Medusa and there’s disagreement about where the group lived. Hesiod’s myth places them on a distant island toward the horizon. But other authors such as Herodotus and Pausanias say the Gorgons lived in Libya.
Medusa is known for being able to turn people to stone
It is said that if someone were to look Medusa in the eye for even just a moment, they would be petrified, literally, and turned to stone. It’s one of the most well-known aspects of Medusa’s character and is part of the reason she’s considered a protector with the ability to ward off evil spirits.
Her other famous feature is her head of hair made of live snakes. It’s argued whether Medusa was born like this, as her sisters and fellow Gorgons were monstrous and horrifying. But probably the most recognized myth about Medusa told by Ovid was that she was born a beautiful mortal and changed into a monster by Athena.
In this version, Medusa was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple so she was punished by Athena and given her hideous appearance. By modern standards, Medusa surely shouldn’t have been the one who was punished, but, alas, this is Greek mythology after all.
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Athena and Poseidon were well-known enemies and fought over what’s now known as Athens. As you can guess by its name, Athena won that battle. So, it’s unclear why Athena would protect Poseidon over Medusa, but Poseidon was a god and Medusa was simply a mortal. Gods always had the upper hand in such disputes.
Perhaps Athena was the one to punish Medusa because the rape occurred in her temple. Or it was because Athena was the goddess of reason and the ancient Greeks believed she kept the world in order, therefore she was the one to punish someone for the discretion.
Regardless, Medusa seemed to undergo many unfortunate circumstances.
Medusa’s death is tied to the story of Perseus, the hero.
Perhaps the most memorable myth that deals with Medusa is the one recounting her death told by Pindar and Apollodorus.
Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae. Danae’s father was given a sign that her son would kill him so he locked her away in a bronze chamber to avoid the chance of her becoming pregnant. But, Zeus, being Zeus, became a golden shower and impregnated her anyway. The child that was born was Perseus.
So, in retaliation, Danae’s father locked her and Perseus in a wooden chest and threw it into the sea. The pair were rescued by Dictys and he raised Perseus as his own.
Dictys’ brother Polydectes was the king and fell in love with Danae. But Perseus didn’t trust Polydectes and wanted to protect his mother from him. Knowing this, Polydectes devised a plan to send Perseus away on a challenging quest that he assumed was impossible and would get rid of Perseus indefinitely.
So Polydectes held a royal banquet where he was collecting contributions for the marriage of Hippodamia in the form of horses, but Perseus didn’t have a horse to give. Polydectes seized the opportunity and told Perseus that he could present the head of Medusa instead of a horse.
Long story short, Perseus prevailed and beheaded Medusa with the help of a reflective bronze shield gifted to him by Athena to protect him from her powerful gaze. Her Gorgon sisters (obviously) attacked Perseus after the beheading but he was protected by yet another gift. This time it was the helmet of darkness from Hades, the god of the underworld, which rendered him invisible and he was able to escape.
Medusa’s head, even when detached from her body was still able to turn those who looked her in the eye to stone. On his way home, Perseus used this trick a time or two and eventually turned Polydectes and his royal court to stone. He made Dictys king instead.
When Perseus was finished with Medusa’s head, he gave it to Athena who put it in her breastplate and shield.
Pegasus and Chrysaor are the children of Medusa and Poseidon.
So, when Poseidon raped Medusa she became pregnant. When her head was chopped off by Perseus, her children came to be.
Pegasus and Chrysaor sprung from the severed neck of Medusa. Pegasus is also one of the most famous characters in Greek mythology, the winged white horse. It’s unclear whether Perseus traveled on the back of Pegasus after he killed Medusa or if he flew home using the winged sandals gifted to him by Hermes.
Medusa is a common figure in ancient Greek art.
In the ancient Greek language, Medusa means “guardian.” So, in ancient Greek art, her face is often used to symbolize protection and is similar to the modern evil eye that’s used to ward off negative forces.
Since Athena put Medusa’s severed head into her shield and breastplate, Medusa’s face also became a popular design on such defensive weaponry. In Greek mythology, Athena, Zeus, and other gods and goddesses have been depicted with a shield displaying Medusa’s head.
Potentially the most famous artistic depiction of Medusa was the Athena Parthenos statue at the Parthenon in which the Gorgon’s head is present on Athena’s breastplate.
The Gorgon also appears in several ancient Greek architectural structures including on the pediments of the Temple of Artemis and the famous cup by Douris.
Although she has Greek origins, Medusa is also popular in ancient Roman culture.
The name Medusa itself actually came from the Romans. The Greek Medousa was translated to Latin, the Roman’s native tongue, and became Medusa. Although her story in ancient Rome was the same as what was classically spread across Greece, she was just as popular in Roman antiquity.
Medusa was depicted not only in ancient Roman mosaics, but also in architecture, bronzes, stones, and in armor.
Greek mythology is, in and of itself, art and from these epic poems, we learn about who the ancient Gorgon Medusa was. And although she had a tragic demise, she is still a recognizable figure even today.