In ancient Greek mythology, exists three monstrous sisters known as the Gorgons. Among them, the one called Medusa―the others being Euryale and Sthenno―became the most famous; her story told today across the world. As far as scholars/historians know, the earliest record about the story of Medusa (a name meaning ‘guardian’ or ‘protectress’) and her gorgon sisters can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony.
In it, the ancient writer states that the three sisters were the children of Phorcys and Ceto who lived “beyond famed Oceanus at the world’s edge hard by Night”. Some sources, however, state that they were the children of Gorgon and Ceto. Of the three, only Medusa is said to be mortal. As the most famous among them, Medusa’s personality remains yet unclear to many who continue to wonder who the Medusa really was.
Medusa and Athena’s Curse
Despite Hesiod’s account of Medusa’s origins and death, nothing else is mentioned about her in his book. However, a more comprehensive account of Medusa can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here, Medusa is described as originally being a beautiful maiden whose beauty caught the eye of the sea god Poseidon.
Having desired her, the god raped her in Athena’s shrine. When Athena discovered what had happened, she became furious and, and out of vengeance transformed Medusa’s long hair into snakes, so that anyone who stared directly at her would be turned to stone.
Hence, the description of Medusa changed from that of an enticing lady―as Ovid describes in Metamorphose, to a monstrous being portrayed in a far less appealing manner by some other writers. Some other versions of the myth suggest that Medusa her Gorgon sisters were always horrific monsters and covered with snakes.
The Death of Medusa
Legend has it that Medusa died at the hands of Perseus―the demi-god son of Zeus and Danae, daughter of Acrisius the king of Argos. Perseus had encountered Medusa, after he was sent by Polydectes the king of Seriphus, on a quest to bring him the monster’s head. This, however, was a trick from the king―who desired Perseus’ mother―to get rid of her son. Such a mission would have been equivalent to suicide for Perseus and Polydectes never expected him to ever return.
Being the son of Zeus, Perseus was aided by the gods of Olympus. He was given a pair of winged sandals by Hermes, the Cap of invisibility by Hades, a sword by Hephaestus and a reflective bronze shield from Athena. With these items, Perseus sought out Medusa and―since she was the only one of the three Gorgons who was mortal―beheaded her, as she was asleep, while looking at the reflection from the bronze shield.
When Perseus beheaded her, Pegasus, a winged horse sprang from her neck. According to Hesoid, Chrysaor, a giant wielding a golden sword also emerged from her severed neck. Upon being attacked by Medusa’s sisters, Perseus escaped by using the cap of invincibility, taking―as in some versions of the myth―Pegasus along with him.
Medusa’s Head as a Weapon
After his escape, Perseus encountered the Titan Atlas in northwest Africa and turned him into a stone mountain when the titan attacked him after refusing to allow him to rest for a short while. Also, the poisonous serpents of the Sahara are said to have grown from spilt drops of blood from Medusa’s head onto the plains of Libya.
Similarly, the corals of the Red Sea are said to have formed when Medusa’s blood spilled onto some seaweed as Perseus laid down her head beside the shore during his time in Ethiopia. It was at Ethiopia, also, that Perseus met and with Medusa’s head saved his future wife―princess Andromeda, daughter of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia―from being sacrificed to the sea monster Cetus.
Furthermore, the blood of Medusa is said to have spawned the Amphisbaena (a horned dragon-like creature with a snake-headed tail). Upon his return to Seriphos, Perseus once again used the petrifying power of Medusa’s head to turn Polydectes to stone and saved his mother who was being forced to marry the king. After this, the hero gave the Gorgon’s head to Athena who placed it on her shield, the Aegis each time she went to battle.
Medusa in Popular Culture
In popular culture today, the image of Medusa is easily recognizable having been featured, over decades, in several works of fiction, including video games (like in the Assassin’s Creed franchise), movies, cartoons, and books. Her image is used as the Italian fashion company, Versace’s symbol, and is said to have been chosen because Medusa represents beauty, art, and philosophy.
(By: Ejiofor Ekene Olaedo)
SOURCES OF AUTHOR’S INFORMATION
Ancient Coinage. (2015). Perseus-Medusa Coin Series. Retrieved June 9, 2020. from Ancient Coinage: http://www.ancientcoinage.org/perseus-and-medusa.html
Beolens, B., Watkins, M., & Grayson, M. (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Garthm, S., Dryden, J., et al. (1717). Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Retrieved June 9, 2020 from MIT: http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.html
Smith, W. (1873). Perseus. In Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London.
West, M. L. (1988). Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days. Oxford: Oxford University Press.