Rubens Medusa

The Head of the Medusa by Pieter Pauwel Rubens, from 1617. It shows the severed head of the mythological monster.

In Greek mythology Medusa (Greek: Μέδουσα (Médousa), "guardian, protectress") was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as having the face of a hideous human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazing directly upon her would turn onlookers to stone. Most sources describe her as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, though the author Hyginus (Fabulae, 151) interposes a generation and gives Medusa another chthonic pair as parents.

Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In classical antiquity the image of the head of Medusa appeared in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion.


Originally, Medusa was depicted as a horse with wings, then a woman with equine hindquarters and wings on her hair. At a later date, portraits of her reveals that her teeth were transformed into the tusks of a wild boar, her black tongue protruded and became too large for her mouth, her hands became brazen claws and her wings were changed into serpents.


Her gaze alone turned men to stone.


Medusa was a Gorgon, one of three sisters and daughters of ancient, pre-titan gods, Phorcys and Ceto.

The sisters Sthenno and Euryale were immortal but the third, Medusa, was mortal. All three were so hideous (“not to be approched and not to be described” according to Hesiod) that the mere shock of seeing them would turn anyone to stone. Medusa is called The Gorgon or simply, Gorgon. She is also the “Mistress of the West Gate of Death” because her home lay at the entrance to the Underworld on the side of the western Ocean. She is the Krone Goddess in her most terrible aspect


Perseus was dispatched to kill Medusa, because he needed her head to fulfill a boastful gift to the King Polydectes, who held Perseus' mother, Danae, as his future queen against her will. Once Perseus beheaded Medusa with some help from Athena (who guided his hand) and Hermes, two monsters sprang from the drops of her blood.

There are supposed to be the children of Poseidon : one was Pegasus, the winged horse, and the other was the warrior Chrysaor (the father of the monster Geryon) with the golden sword. Perseus managed to escape the two other Gorgons thanks to the winged sandals of Hermes and the Helm of Hades (helmet of invisibility).

While Perseus was returning across the desert of Lybia, drops of blood fell on the ground from the severed head and were transformed by Gaia into venomous snakes of many kinds

The blood of the Gorgon had other special powers. The one that flowed on the right side had the power to reanimate the dead and was used by Erichthonius. The one that flows on the left side was a lethal poison and was kept by Athena who earned the nickname of “Instigator of wars”

The decapitated head of Medusa was used by Perseus to kill the sea monster Cetus. He then gave the head to Athena who fixed it in the middle of her Aegis or impenetrable shield and used it during the Troyan war. The Medusa shield of Athena was a favourite theme for armourers and sculptors in ancient times and in the Renaissance.


Gorgons symbolize the female genitals and the "devouring" female sexuality behind them. The original Gorgoneion may have only been a head. It has been suggested that the body was added for the purpose of enabling Medusa to be killed, not only as a means of explaining the origin of this disembodied terror-head, but also to enact the conflict between man and his fears of a demonic female sexual energy.

In ancient Greece, ovens and kiln doors were embellished with Gorgon masks to frighten away children who could hurt themselves.

Medusa in classical mythologyEdit


Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Benvenuto Cellini, installed 1554

The three Gorgon sisters—Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale—were all children of the ancient marine deities Phorcys (or "Phorkys") and his sister Ceto (or "Keto"), chthonic monsters from an archaic world. Their genealogy is shared with other sisters, the Graeae, as in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, which places both trinities of sisters far off "on Kisthene's dreadful plain":

Near them their sisters three, the Gorgons, winged With snakes for hair— hated of mortal man— While ancient Greek vase-painters and relief carvers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form, sculptors and vase-painters of the fifth century began to envisage her as being beautiful as well as terrifying. In an ode written in 490 BC Pindar already speaks of "fair-cheeked Medusa".

In a late version of the Medusa myth, related by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphoses 4.770), Medusa was originally a ravishingly beautiful maiden, "the jealous aspiration of many suitors," but when she was caught being raped by the "Lord of the Sea" Poseidon in Athena's temple, the enraged Athena transformed Medusa's beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. In Ovid's telling, Perseus describes Medusa's punishment by Minerva (Athena) as just and well earned.


In most versions of the story, she was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus. In his conquest, he received a mirrored shield from Athena, gold, winged sandals from Hermes, a sword from Hephaestus and Hades' helm of invisibility. Medusa was the only one of the three Gorgons who was mortal, so Perseus was able to slay her while looking at the reflection from the mirrored shield he received from Athena. During that time, Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon. When Perseus beheaded her, Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chrysaor, a golden sword-wielding giant, sprang from her body.

Medusa Royal Palace Turin

Head of Medusa, gate of the Royal Palace of Turin

Jane Ellen Harrison argues that "her potency only begins when her head is severed, and that potency resides in the head; she is in a word a mask with a body later appended... the basis of the Gorgoneion is a cultus object, a ritual mask misunderstood."

In the Odyssey xi, Homer does not specifically mention the Gorgon Medusa: Lest for my daring Persephone the dread, From Hades should send up an awful monster's grisly head.Harrison's translation states "the Gorgon was made out of the terror, not the terror out of the Gorgon."

According to Ovid, in northwest Africa, Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas, who stood holding the sky aloft, and transformed him into stone when he tried to attack him. In a similar manner, the corals of the Red Sea were said to have been formed of Medusa's blood spilled onto seaweed when Perseus laid down the petrifying head beside the shore during his short stay in Ethiopia where he saved and wed his future wife, the lovely princess Andromeda. Furthermore the poisonous vipers of the Sahara, in the Argonautica 4.1515, Ovid's Metamorphoses 4.770 and Lucan's Pharsalia 9.820, were said to have grown from spilt drops of her blood. The blood of Medusa also spawned the Amphisbaena (a horned dragon-like creature with a snake-headed tail).

Perseus then flew to Seriphos, where his mother was about to be forced into marriage with the king. King Polydectes was turned into stone by the gaze of Medusa's head. Then Perseus gave the Gorgon's head to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.

Some classical references refer to three Gorgons; Harrison considered that the tripling of Medusa into a trio of sisters was a secondary feature in the myth:

The triple form is not primitive, it is merely an instance of a general tendency... which makes of each woman goddess a trinity, which has given us the Horae, the Charites, the Semnai, and a host of other triple groups. It is immediately obvious that the Gorgons are not really three but one + two. The two unslain sisters are mere appendages due to custom; the real Gorgon is Medusa.


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