Medusa and Her Sisters: The Gorgons

Abstract

The Gorgons: a trio of mythological women associated with Greek mythology named Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. The name of Medusa means “ruling one”, and the term gorgos in general means “terrible” and “fierce”.[1] The daughters of Phorcys and Ceto, they are not entirely human, instead possessing various monstrous appearances and qualities. They are also the sisters of the Graeae, mythological women/creatures whose names were Dino, Pephredo, and Enyo. [2] Their earliest appearance was in the Greek epic writings of Homer, specifically within the Iliad, dating to approximately 750 BCE, with multiple references to their beings being made in later centuries. [3] It was during this later period that the Gorgon named Medusa began acquiring more attention in Greek writings, becoming perhaps the most well-known and certainly most mentioned of the three Gorgons.

Ancient Sources

I will begin by speaking of the first occurrences of the Gorgons in Greek writings, and so will reference Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. As the first writings to mention the Gorgons, a knowledge of this initial conception will enable me to place their further development in later centuries into its proper context. I will also bring into my research the works of Aeschylus and Aristophanes as popular surviving literary texts that also display the notion of the Gorgons at the time. I will also then reference Hesiod’s Theogony, another early text featuring the Gorgons and Medusa. It is around this time that I will also begin to diverge my research from the Gorgons in general to focus on Medusa, as her popularity and solo presence within Greek writings grew. I will look more closely at the myths concerning Medusa, and her relation with the other gods, found in works such as Hesiod’s Theogony and Shield of Herakles, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid. These works will provide me with the information I will later use to depict Medusa’s divergence from the other Gorgons, and speak of events that would enable her to be more pronounced.

Origins of the Gorgons in Myth

Gorgons were first mentioned within Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as previously mentioned. As some of the earliest extant writings of Greek literature, it is notable that the Gorgons first appeared this early into the narrative of Greek mythology. These two texts, dating to approximately 800BCE-750BCE, presented not the three Gorgons that would become standard in later myth, but only one Gorgon. It is within the Iliad that the Gorgon was placed on the aegis of Athena (Fig. 1), and depicted as “the Gorgon, dread and awful” (Homer.Iliad.742, trans. Butler). Dating from approximately 725 BCE, the Odyssey also presented this singular Gorgon, accompanied by the same type of description, which is to say a creature that instills fear in those faced with her presence.[4]

Aegis
Fig. 1. Pottery depicting Athena, ca. 540 BCE, by Euphiletos. Though difficult to see, the head of the Gorgon is placed in the middle of her breastplate. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The image of the Gorgons as a trio of malevolent beings written by Homer would still be perpetuated throughout later centuries, however. Hesiod himself sustained this depiction with his mention of the Gorgons as “unapproachable and unspeakable” (Hesiod.Her.230-5, trans. Evelyn-White), in his Shield of Herakles. This image was further cemented by later authors and their works, such as Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, wherein the Gorgons were the “loathed of mankind” (Aeschylus.Prom.798-800, trans. Smyth), and within Peace by Aristophanes, wherein they were creatures from which one needed to be rescued.[7] The image of the Gorgons as foul monsters even continued into later Roman mythology, with the Gorgons being named monsters by Ovid in his Metamorphoses [8], and “harpies of foul wing” (Virgil.Aeneid.6.282, trans. Dryden) by Virgil. While the Gorgons were frequently and most often conveyed in this way, Medusa herself began to be spoken of outside of the context of the trio. It is within the Theogony that Hesiod spoke of Medusa as having had relations with the god Poseidon, brother of Zeus and Hades, writing “with her [Medusa] lay the Dark-haired one in a soft meadow among spring flowers” (Hesiod.Theo.279-80). Hesiod’s act of placing Medusa in the world of the Olympians, and within the lives of the heroes and their deeds as we will see, can be seen as the first moment in which Medusa truly began to separate from her two sisters in mythology. Subsequent stories further cemented Medusa as a mythological character in her own right, and as one whose infamy began to grow.

Appearance of Medusa

The texts of Homer and Ovid provide differing accounts concerning the appearance of a Gorgon; although, Homer only speaks of one anonymous Gorgon, and Ovid speaks of Medusa and her sisters. Homer portrays the Gorgon as terrifying, with no mention of any beauty preceding this, while Ovid does introduce this account before also speaking of Medusa’s current frightful appearance. However, both accounts do provide, at some point or another, moments where Medusa is confirmed as monstrous. The monstrousness of Medusa’s is spoken of throughout Greek and Roman mythology, incorporating various aspects of her appearance that contribute to it. Her first connection to snakes appeared within the Iliad, where the Gorgon was paired with a snake upon Agamemnon’s shield.[9] Henceforth, the Gorgon could be found with snakes as hair. There also comes later on an early mention of Medusa’s ability to petrify – or, turn to stone – those who looked directly into her eyes. Pindar’s Odes additionally provided the reader with an account of Medusa’s hair as being made up of coiling and writhing snakes, as well as a mention of her gaze turning individuals to stone.[10] Other aspects of Medusa’s appearance include the addition of wings onto her figure as well.

Medusa in Myth

Perhaps the most important and widely-known myth in which Medusa figures is that of Perseus’, written by Hesiod and placed within his Theogony. This particular adventure of the hero Perseus’ begins as a result of his boasting of his ability to retrieve the head of Medusa, and bring it to the King of Seriphos, Polydectes. Polydectes was eager to remove Perseus from his path (as he loved the mother of Perseus), so he tasked the hero with retrieving this head. The gods Athena and Hermes also intervened to help Perseus, who told him that he would need to visit the nymphs in order to receive certain necessary items that he would need to complete the quest. It is at this point in the story that the sisters of the Gorgons, the Graiae, also are included: it is by stealing their one eye, and using it as a bargaining chip, that they told him the location of certain nymphs who were in possession of the Cap of Darkness, winged sandals and a kibisis (all tools that would enable his success). It was then that Perseus made his way to the home of the Gorgons. In both Pindar and Ovid’s versions Medusa was asleep when Perseus arrived, thus allowing for her easy beheading. Perseus was able to escape being petrified by the use of a mirror, as well. At the moment when Perseus cut off the head of Medusa two beings sprang forth: Chryasor and Pegasus, who were a result of Medusa and Poseidon’s intercourse – see Fig. 2.[11] This particular aspect of the myth has been theorized to stem from the concept that following Medusa’s rape by Poseidon, she had figuratively ‘become’ a mare (as a result of Poseidon’s connection to horses), and thus would make it reasonable for her to give birth to the horse that is Pegasus.[12] Medusa’s two sisters are also incorporated into this myth, said to have created a funeral lament for their sister that inspired Athena to create the music of the flute.[13] After her death, Medusa’s head was placed upon the aegis -or breastplate – of Athena, said to petrify the enemies of the gods.[14]

PerseusMedusa
Fig. 2. Terracotta figurine depicting the moment after Perseus beheads Medusa, as Pegasus and Chryasor spring forth, ca. 490-470 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ovid’s Metamorphoses also describes another tale, concerning Medusa’s early life, before she became the fearsome creature that Ovid himself later described her as. Medusa’s sexual relations with Poseidon have already been mentioned, as perhaps events that elevated her status in myth, however these following events involving the goddess Athena may be seen to have also contributed. It was after Perseus returned from his quest to obtain Medusa’s head and from recounting his adventures that a nobleman inquired as to why Medusa alone of the Gorgons had ben afflicted with such a fearsome appearance. Perseus replied that Medusa was in fact a beautiful woman who was very sought after, until she was raped by Poseidon within Athena’s sacred temple. As punishment for the defilement of her temple, Medusa was cursed with her fearsome appearance by Athena.[15]

Variations of the Medusa Myth

The stories of Homer, Hesiod and Ovid and were not the only ones pertaining to Medusa. Instead, there were others who diverged from the role she was given by these authors, ad who crated another realm of complexity of the character of Medusa. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote within the sixth and fifth centuries BCE created a different heritage for Medusa, instead placing her within a Libyan context, as the background of the Perseus myth. Ovid, writing many centuries later, also associated Medusa with Libya, and produced an epistemology for the abundance of snakes in the region: “…where the Gorgon head dropped clots of gore, that, quickening on the ground, became unnumbered serpents” (Ovid.Met.4.604). Both Diodorus Siculus, writing in the mid-first century BCE and Pausanias, writing in the second century BCE, recreate the image of Medusa as well. Siculus, perhaps drawing from the origins of Medusa’s name – “ruling one” – fashions her and the other Gorgons as Amazonian queens ruling in North Africa.[16] Pausanias creates a very similar tale, however only speaks of Medusa, as an African Amazon queen.[17]

Iconography of Medusa

Medusa had a long and complex history before the advent of her Olympian characterization. Indeed, even before her emergence in Greek texts, she was a figure known to other societies in earlier periods. Such characterizations included her representation as the goddess who exemplified the wisdom of the Libyan Amazons, and the “mother of all gods, whom she bore before childbirth existed” (Bowers, 1990, 220). Even then, the snakes could be found upon her head as symbols of wisdom and power, healing, immortality, and childbirth.[18] Parallels can be seen between these representations of Medusa and Neolithic representations of goddesses with bird/snake aspects of appearance. These Neolithic goddesses are the representations of birth, death and rebirth, as a result of the roles of the bird and snake – for example, the total of all dominions they collectively inhabit, and their differing processes of regeneration. The images of bird and snake can be found on the figure of Medusa, both in the form of her wings and her hair.[19]

There are, however, other iconographic elements of Medusa that relate to other societies and characters in their mythology. This may include the near eastern demon figure of Humbaba, who can be seen as extremely similar to the figure of Medusa. Found within Ancient Mesopotamia and the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is the demon Humbaba who is beheaded by Gilgamesh. Already, the myth resembles that of Medusa’s, in the manner in which the two are killed. However, there are other similarities as well: for example, their heads are often represented alone, the presence of a grimacing mouth and two rows of teeth within, and a common pose in which their knee is bent. An example of this particular element of Humbaba and its representation in the figure of Medusa can be seen in Fig. 3, dated to 580 BCE.

Corfu
Fig. 3. Depiction of Gorgon on the pediment at the Temple of Artemis in Corfu. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Explanations for this syncretism can be found beginning in the late eighth century, or the ‘Orientalizing period’, and reaching its peak in the seventh, when the Assyrians, to whom the story of Gilgamesh was popular, exerted influenced over the subject of Greek art.[20]

The character of Medusa can also be seen to come along with some qualities that emerge after her tale of origin. For example, one half of Medusa’s blood is healing – and so, along with her petrifying ability, she could also heal. Blood taken from the veins on her left was poisonous, while blood taken from her right could restore the dead to life.[21] And, following this line of thinking, is the fact that the head of Medusa was sometimes used to protect buildings within the Greek and Roman world. This concept was so believed that a representation of her head was even buried under the Argive marketplace.[22]

And so, the figure of Medusa can be seen to carry many connotations that go beyond her character’s context in Greek mythology. This connection to other characters and stories can perhaps be seen to have lent to her emergence as the predominant Gorgon, whose popularity outstretched that of Stheno and Euryale.

Depictions of Medusa in Ancient Art

The various aspects of Medusa’s appearance, as well as that of the other Gorgons, were also found within numerous examples of ancient Greek art, with some aspects even pre-dating those found within texts. These include the presence of wings onto the figure of Medusa, added ca. 800 BCE, and her representation with a human torso and the hindquarters of a horse. The latter is an aspect of Medusa’s imagery that was not common in artistic representations of her, however did sometimes arise, and always in the context of the Perseus myth. As representing her as an equine in the moments before her death, some scholars have proposed that this represents a certain degree of sympathy for a creature’s death who was more rightfully domesticated, as a horse was (See Fig. 4).[23]

Equine Medusa
Fig. 4. Found in Cyclades, Greece. Depiction of Perseus beheading Medusa, who is portrayed as an equine, on a relief pithos, ca. 660 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The multi-faceted nature of Medusa’s appearance, as one that fluctuated within myth, is seen even in representations of her death. In some, she is a beautiful woman, and in others she is a monstrous creature. This is present throughout her mythology and representation in art, where she and her sister are presented “as distinctly beautiful, virtually indistinguishable from goddesses or human maidens” (Topper, 2007, 74) in certain pieces, and in others as the monsters they were more commonly portrayed as.

When looking at pieces of Greek art a certain trend can be seen to appear, where Medusa is humanized when in the presence of Perseus, and depicted with a monstrous visage when not paired with the hero.

That there are items such as vases, metopes, etc. from the same period in time, and sometimes from the same location, such as two metopes found at the Temple of Apollo at Thermon, indicate the dual nature of Medusa’s character. As Topper shows, the two metopes are from the same time period, circa. 625-600 BCE. However, where one displays Perseus fleeing with the human head of Medusa, the other metope displays the head of a Gorgoneion as a monster. While, technically, a ‘Gorgon’ and ‘Medusa’ are not exactly the same, Medusa is a Gorgon. Therefore, here are two widely contrasting depictions of virtually the same thing: Medusa.[24] It indicates that perhaps Medusa’s appearance was not static, but instead that different variations of her appearance were envisioned within the same time period.

Other common features of Medusa’s figure in ancient art include the addition of wings or horns atop her head, and the frequent representations of her with a wide-open mouth and a lolling tongue, as depicted here:

LollingTongue
Fig. 5. Metope that depicts a Gorgon running, found in a sanctuary in Syracuse, ca. 620-600 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Medusa in Modern Art

The representation of Medusa in modern art has varied somewhat from her portrayals in ancient art. Many paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art in the modern area have tended to portray Medusa and the other Gorgons as women – beautiful women, whose only monstrous qualities were the wings sometimes portrayed on their backs and the snakes in their hair. For example, in Fig. 6, Medusa and her sisters are portrayed as women with wings, and Perseus is displayed capturing Medusa’s head.

Modern
Fig. 6. The Death of Medusa by Edward Burne-Jones, (1888-1892). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The representation of Medusa as a woman is one that persisted through Renaissance art, a vivid contrast to the multitude of ancient artistic representations of her as a monster. Instead, many Renaissance artists appear to focus on Medusa’s humanity, and most often the moment of her decapitation by Perseus. Two obvious examples of this trend, and which represent the many other works of art that focus on the same characteristics of Medusa, are Caravaggio’s Medusa, and Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa. Caravaggio’s painting depicts Medusa as conscious, though she has been decapitated, showing her power to petrify is still present even in that state. As we have seen in other ancient depictions of Medusa, such as her equine depictions, the shocked expressed of Medusa may be another manner of conveying her humanity to us.

Caravaggio
Fig. 7. Medusa by Caravaggio, (1573-1610). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cellini’s sculpture, in which the hero Perseus is holding the head of Medusa, is another modern representation of Medusa that shows us the modern artist’s tendency to focus on the decapitation of Medusa. In this sculpture (Fig. 8), as there is a certain element in Caravaggio’s painting, Medusa is displayed as powerless – in Caravaggio’s this is shown through her expression of shock, while in Cellini’s it is shown in Medusa’s downward gaze.[25]

Cellini
Fig. 8. Perseus and Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, (1545-1554). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Both pieces of art demonstrate two manners of portraying Medusa that differ slightly from her ancient portrayals. These include the emphasis on the humanity, and womanly appearance of Medusa, as well as the snakes in Medusa’s hair. While both aspects were present in ancient art, they appear to be much more present and widespread in the art of Renaissance artists. This type of representation of Medusa even continues into modern films, such as Clash of the Titans (2010), which depicts Medusa as a beautiful woman with snakes as hair, however with a new twist – the body of a serpent.

The Various Subjugations of Medusa

In perhaps the final manner in which the growth of the figure of Medusa can be seen, in comparison to her sisters, is the application of Greek and Roman society’s values upon her figure, and the function that she served to uphold them. For, Medusa can be seen to have been much more than simply a sometimes terrifying, sometimes beautiful, character to be destroyed by Perseus. Many scholars have commented on how, through her mythology, Medusa attained a much broader and complex role. For example, her relation to men, as “as an object of male desire and fear” (Schlutz 2015, 334). This particular aspect of her character is continually repeated; it begins however, with her rape by Poseidon, the first moment in which she has become the victim of patriarchal violence. This is then followed by her death at the hands of the hero Perseus, and her henceforth role as a disembodied and fear-inspiring head. And, ultimately, her character is once more subjugated to the male in her birth of Pegasus, who ironically gives Zeus his most formidable weapon of lightning.[26] Dexter aptly summarized this depiction of Medusa in relation to her earlier conceptions with the following phrase:

“whereas the Neolithic Goddess is a powerful arbitrer of birth, death, and rebirth, the Greeks transformed her from a Goddess of the life continuum to a dead head” (Dexter, 2010, 36).

Dexter’s words and the preceding analysis point to Medusa as being a character ultimately rich and complex in nature, not only exceedingly valuable in her own right, but as a potential window into the Greek and Roman world.

Other Useful Resources:

  • http://www.theoi.com/ : A great source for information concerning Greek mythology; from the gods and goddesses to mythological creatures like Medusa. The website also includes online readable versions of ancient texts.
  • http://www.ancient.eu/Medusa/ : Also a useful additional source of information concerning Medusa, with some of the same information mentioned in this blog, but also more to round out your knowledge. Also linked on this website are pages concerning other characters that relate to Medusa, like Pegasus and Perseus.
  • http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/medu/hd_medu.htm?utm_source=homepage&utm_medium=banner : This article on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art provides examples of ancient works of art that portray Medusa, as well as an explanation and elaboration on the role of Medusa in ancient art and Greek society in general (thanks, Ms. Gardner!).
Endnotes:
1. Dexter, 2010, 1.
2. Howe and Harrer, 1929, 108-9.
3. Dexter, 2010, 26.
4. Homer.Ody.635-7, trans. Butler.
5. Morford & Lenardon, 1977, 344.
6. Howe & Harrer, 1912, 109.
7. Aristophanes.Peace.560-1, trans. O’Neill.
8. Ovid.Met.4.604, trans. More.
9. Dexter, 2010, 26.
10. Dexter, 2010, 28.
11. Morford, 342-45.
12. Dexter, 2010, 36-7.
13. Morford & Lenardon, 1977, 345-6.
14. Murgatroyd, 2007, 106.
15. Hesiod.Theo.4.770.
16. Dexter, 2010, 29.
17. Dexter, 2010, 30.
18. Bowers, 1990, 220.
19. Dexter, 2010, 33.
20. Dexter, 2010, 35.
21. Murgatroyd, 2007, 106.
22. Dexter, 2010, 41.
23. Topper, 2010, 110.
24. Topper, 2007, 74-76.
25. Barreto, Waykul, Cromer, and Farid, n.d., “Medusa in the Renaissance”.
26. Schlutz, 2015, 338.
Bibliography:
Bowers, S. (1990). Medusa and the Female Gaze. NWSA Journal 2(2), 217-235. Retrieved
        from http://www.jstor.org/
Dexter, M. (2010). The Ferocious and the Erotic: “Beautiful” Medusa and the Neolithic
        Bird and Snake. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26(1), 25-41. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/
Howe, George, & Harrer, G.A. (1912). A Handbook of Classical Mythology. New York: F.S.
        Crofts & Co.
Morford, M., & Lenardon, Rt. (1977). Classical Mythology. New York: David McKay
        Company Inc.
Murgatroyd, P. (2007). Mythical Monsters in Classical Literature. London: Gerald
        Duckworth & Co. Ltd.
Topper, K. (2010). Maidens, Fillies and the Death of Medusa on a Seventh-Century
        Pithos. The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 130, 109-119. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/
Topper, K. (2007). Perseus, the Maiden Medusa, and the Imagery of Abduction. Hesperia:
        The Journal of the  American School of Classical Studies at Athens 76(1), 73-105. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/
Schlutz, A. (2015). Recovering the Beauty of Medusa. Studies in Romanticism 54(3),
        329-353. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/advanced?accountid=12599
Barreto, G., Waykul, I., Cromer, P., & Farid, T. n.d. Medusa in the Renaissance. Retrieved from
       http://medusathenandnow.weebly.com/renaissance.html
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