Mythological Character of the Week: The Gorgons

Monday, January 16th, 2012

I hate snakes.  So the worst part, by far, of writing The Song of Achilles was having to research them.  Those of you who have read it know that a single snake appears, very briefly.  But, just like all the rehearsal that goes into a single scene onstage, getting that serpent right involved major rolling-up of herpetological sleeves. For one thing, I needed to find out which snakes existed in that particular part of Greece (the island of Lemnos) during Homeric times. Of those varieties, I then had to choose the snake that I wanted, and observe how it looked and moved.

The upshot was that I spent two days looking at pictures and videos of snakes.  Though, if I’m honest, part of the reason that it took so long wasn’t diligence but the fact that if I studied the images for more than about ten seconds, I would get the creeping snake-horrors.  So I had to take a lot of breaks.  All this is by way of introducing the new Myth of the Week, those slithery, shudder-inducing ladies themselves, the Gorgons.  Thanks to Chris for the great suggestion!

A Gorgon from Artemis' temple on Corfu. Such renderings were intended to be apotropaic--to ward off evil. Sidenote: I spent a summer during college on an archaeological dig in Corfu. I saw this in person!

Like other love-to-hate-them monsters in Greek mythology, the Gorgons attracted a lot of story-tellers, and therefore a lot of contradictory stories.  For instance, in Homer, there was only a single Gorgon, simply called “Gorgo” whose fearsome, snaky head adorned Athena’s shield.  In later myths, however, there were three of them: Euryale, Sthenno and, of course, Medusa.  They were described as having snake hair, and were often also depicted with boar tusks, wide, grinning faces and wings (see above, and below).

One of the strangest things about the Gorgons is that though they were supposedly sisters, two of them were goddesses, and the third, Medusa, was mortal.  The comedian Eddie Izzard has a funny piece about Medusa’s outrage when she discovers this.  (It’s followed by a hilarious bit about Medusa putting on a mouse video to try to keep her snakes calm.  It’s on youtube, if you’re interested.)

A similar Gorgon motif, from the Louvre

From a narrative perspective, one of the Gorgons needs to be mortal so that Perseus can slay it.  But other myths sprang up to explain why it was Medusa in particular.  In the most popular of these, Medusa had been born a beautiful mortal woman, with particularly gorgeous hair.   As she was praying to Athena in her temple, the god Poseidon appeared and raped her.  Athena was so deeply offended by this that she—

Blasted the sea-god with her father’s thunderbolt?  Stabbed him through his fishy chest with her awesome goddess-of-war spear?

No.  Rather than being concerned about the girl, she was concerned about the pollution of her temple.  She averted her eyes in disgust during the act, and afterwards, when Poseidon was gone, blamed Medusa for flaunting her too-seductive beauty.  Then, to punish her, she cursed the girl’s appearance, changing her into a hideous monster who turned all she looked on to stone.

Mosaic of Medusa

What’s most disturbing about this story, I think, is how casually and matter-of-factly Ovid tells it. It isn’t meant to be a tragedy; it isn’t meant to highlight Athena’s gross unfairness.  If anything, it seems to find her choice of punishment fitting.  It makes for some deeply unpleasant commentary on Roman culture, and a particularly brutal portrait of the cruelty of the gods.

Afterwards, the newly transformed Medusa goes to live with her “sisters,” and this is where the well-known story picks up.  Perseus is given the task of slaying her and bringing back her head as proof.  With Athena’s help he arrives at her lair, and using his reflective shield is able to avoid her deadly gaze.  With his sword, he strikes off her head.  Medusa falls to the ground, dead.

Medusa's head, Caravaggio

Next comes one of my favorite parts of the story.  From the stump of Medusa’s severed neck is born the beautiful, winged horse, Pegasus.  I have always found this fascinating: that one of the most beloved, and lovely creatures from Greek myth derives from the ugliest.   This is all the more interesting because in the ancient mythological  worldview, external beauty was a sign of similarly beautiful inner character–there was no Greek adage against judging a book by its cover.  Thus, the scurrilous soldier Thersites, with his virulent attacks on the aristocracy, is depicted as hideous, while the noble Achilles is the most beautiful of the Greeks.  But Pegasus and Medusa seem to break the pattern.  If we take Ovid’s story as true, that Medusa was once a normal young woman, I like to think that Pegasus is some final remnant of that former, truer self.   Through Pegasus, maybe she is able, at last, to escape Athena’s curse.

Pegasus, from

Medusa’s petrifying power was so strong that it lived on, even after her death.  Perseus is able to use the gruesome head against his enemies, including the sea-serpent from whom he rescues the princess Andromeda.  Eventually, judging such a thing too dangerous for a mortal to keep, Athena takes custody of the head and fixes it on her shield.   We never hear what happens to the other two gorgons, whether they mourned for their sister or how they lived out their eternal lives.  It’s too bad; it might make a good story.

The myth of Medusa is filled with transformations—from beautiful girl to monster, from living flesh to stone, from corpse to winged horse.  But there is one more strange and minor transformation associated with her that I’ve always enjoyed.  After Perseus has slain the sea-monster, but before Athena has relieved him of the head, Perseus wants to put the head down for a moment.  But he frets that it will get damaged on the hard earth.  So, with a solicitousness that no one showed poor Medusa in real life, he pulls seaweed and greens from the sea, and makes a pallet for the head.  As soon as Medusa’s skin touches the sea-greens, they begin to stiffen.  And this, says Ovid, was the beginning of the first reef.

Perseus holding aloft Medusa's head

Unsurprisingly, Medusa’s story was a popular one in visual arts, and painters seem to have been particularly taken with the image of the severed head.  I included Caravaggio’s version above, but the absolutely grossest one I refuse to post, since it gives me snake-shivers.  But if you really want to see it, click here.

I warned you.

Next Week: The winged horse Pegasus himself.

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