Medusa: What Was a Gorgon? | History Hit

Medusa: What Was a Gorgon?

Amy Irvine

22 Jan 2024
Classical Greek gorgoneion featuring the head of Medusa; 4th century BC

In the rich tapestry of Greek mythology, the Gorgons stand out as iconic and fearsome creatures, particularly Medusa, the most renowned among them. The Gorgons are three monstrous sisters – Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa – who were able to turn anyone who looked at them to stone. Euryale and Stheno were immortal, but Medusa ‘suffered a woeful fate’ and was not.

In our documentary, Medusa with Natalie Haynes, we ventured to the beautiful Greek island of Corfu with classicist Natalie Haynes to discover the roots of the extraordinary myth of Medusa and investigate sites closely connected – including Corfu’s spectacular Gorgon pediment, a gigantic early image of Medusa that once protected a magnificent Archaic era temple to Artemis.

History Hit goes on a remarkable journey with classicist Natalie Haynes to the beautiful Greek island of Corfu to discover the truth behind the myth of Medusa: a woman who both beguiles and terrifies us.
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The Gorgons have captured the imagination of storytellers, artists, and scholars for centuries. To understand their origin and significance, one must delve into the depths of Greek mythology and the ancient poem Theogony by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod.

Hesiod’s Theogony and the birth of the Gorgons

Gorgons were a popular image in Greek mythology, appearing in the earliest of written records of ancient Greek religious beliefs, including the two hugely influential epic poems of ancient Greece – Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey. Here they were depicted as a terrifying head on the shield of Greek warrior, Agamemnon, or a monster of the underworld.

However, it was Hesiod’s Theogony that serves as a foundational text in Greek mythology, providing insights into the genealogy and origins of divine beings, and it was here that the origins of the Gorgons and their significance was explained.

According to Hesiod, the Gorgons were born from the union of the sea deities Phorcys and Ceto. Phorcys, a primordial sea god, and Ceto, a sea monster, were parents to a myriad of monstrous offspring, including the three Gorgon sisters: Stheno (the mighty), Euryale (the far-springer, or of the wide sea), and Medusa (the queen).

The Gorgon sisters were said to occupy a liminal space; their parents are sea creatures, they have wings, but dwelt on land – said to be on the farthest side of the western ocean, which some believe refers to Libya.

Medusa, the mortal Gorgon

Among the Gorgons, Medusa occupies a central role in Greek mythology. 

After two gods had vied to be the protector of Athens – with the sea god Poseidon offering the sea, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, warfare, and handicraft, offering olive trees – Athens picked Athena.

Originally a priestess in the temple of Athena, Medusa’s life took a tragic turn when she caught the eye of Poseidon, who raped her within the sacred walls of Athena’s temple, leading to the goddess’s wrath. As a punishment for violating her sacred space, Athena punished Medusa, turning Medusa’s hair into snakes and giving her a gaze that could turn mortals to stone.

The iconography of Medusa is striking – a creature with a monstrous countenance, wings, and a head adorned with live serpents. This transformation not only punished Medusa but also served as a potent symbol of divine retribution in Greek mythology.

‘Perseus with the Head of Medusa’ by Antonio Canova(1757 – 1822) – in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Ad Meskens; sculpture Antonio Canova / CC BY-SA 3.0

Perseus and the quest for Medusa’s head

The narrative takes a turn with the introduction of Perseus. In a classic hero’s quest, Perseus, son of Zeus, is tasked with the perilous mission of beheading Medusa – the only mortal Gorgon. Equipped with gifts from the gods – a reflective shield from Athena, winged sandals from Hermes, and a sword from Hephaestus – Perseus embarks on this daunting mission.

Guided by divine assistance, Perseus successfully decapitates Medusa without directly facing her gaze. The severed head, however, retained its petrifying power, serving as a potent weapon in subsequent mythological tales.

Symbolism and interpretations

The Gorgons, particularly Medusa, hold rich symbolic meanings in Greek mythology. One interpretation sees Medusa as a representation of divine wrath and the consequences of violating sacred spaces. The transformation from a beautiful priestess to a monstrous Gorgon with snakes in her hair becomes a cautionary tale of the wrath of the gods.

Moreover, Medusa’s gaze turning individuals to stone can be seen as a metaphor for the inevitability of death. The petrification serves as a powerful reminder of mortality, emphasising the boundary between the mortal and divine realms.

Artistic representations

The myth of Medusa and the Gorgons has inspired countless artistic interpretations throughout history. From ancient Greek pottery to Renaissance paintings, artists have sought to capture the allure and terror associated with these mythical beings. Notable works include Caravaggio’s Medusa, where the artist depicts the severed head with haunting realism, capturing the moment of transformation frozen in time.

On the Greek island of Corfu, a large statue of Medusa dating from 580 BC was found in the remains of the Temple of Artemis (an Archaic era and the oldest-known Greek stone temple). The statue would have been part of the pediment of the temple, and is on display at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. It depicts this Gorgon as having wings, and as a strong woman with a wide mouth and protruding tongue (often depicting a cacophonous loud noise). It also shows Medusa’s two children: Pegasus and a golden giant.

An archaic Gorgon (around 580 BC), as depicted on a pediment from the temple of Artemis in Corfu, on display at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Archaeological Museum of Corfu / CC BY-SA 4.0

The statue’s role would have been to look down at new arrivals, protecting and impressing at the temple’s entrance. Medusa was thought to scare or protect depending on who you are. To help her achieve this, fantastical wild beasts including a ‘leo-panther’ (lion/panther) are depicted by her.

Because of their legendary and powerful gaze that could turn one to stone, in ancient Greece, images of the Gorgons (or an individual Gorgoneion – a stone head, engraving, or drawing of a Gorgon face, often with snakes protruding wildly and the tongue sticking out between her fangs) were frequently used as a talisman, and placed on doors, walls, floors, coins, shields, breastplates, tombstones, and on the ends of pipes or roofs, in the hopes of warding off evil.

In later centuries, Gorgon imagery developed from depicting a monstrous woman with a wide mouth and tongue out, to a more beautiful and sedate-looking woman, but with a couple of snakes in the hair.

Gorgons in popular culture

The legacy of the Gorgons extends beyond ancient mythology into modern popular culture. The image of Medusa, with her serpent hair and petrifying gaze, has become a recognisable symbol in literature, art, and cinema. Whether in classical literature or contemporary fantasy novels, the Gorgons continue to captivate audiences with their otherworldly and fearsome nature, and remain a timeless exploration of human fascination with the divine, the monstrous, and the transformative power of myth.

Amy Irvine