Heroes and Anti-Heroes

20 Medusa

The gorgon posed on one knee in an Archaic running position. She is a grinning tusked woman with wings and curly hair.
Gorgon, black-figure kylix, ca. 575 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)


The Gorgons

There are two mythological origin stories for Medusa. According to one version, she is one of three sisters, called the Gorgons (or Gorgones). These three were monsters, women with snakes for hair, that were born to , a primordial sea god, who is depicted by the Romans as a merman, and his wife, , whose name means “sea monster.” and were the parents of several monsters, including Echidna, the Graeae, and Ladon. Echidna, in turn, was the mother of many more monsters with her mate Typhon, including Orthrus, Cerberus, the Lernaean Hydra,  the Sphinx, and the Nemean Lion. Medusa was mortal, but her two Gorgon sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, were immortal.


Hesiod, Theogony (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek epic poem, 8th/7th century BCE

In this very early version of the myth from Hesiod’s Theogony, Medusa is born, along with her sisters, from the union of and . She has sex with Poseidon in a meadow, and the relationship appears to be consensual, which conflicts with other versions of the myth.

[270-294] And to , bore the , with fair faces and gray from birth. These the gods who are immortal and men who walk on the earth call , the gray sisters, Pemphredo robed in beauty and Enyo robed in saffron, and the who, beyond the famous stream of , live in the utmost place toward night, by the singing . They are Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa, whose fate is a sad one, for she was mortal, but the other two immortal and ageless both alike. , he of the dark hair, lay with one of these, in a soft meadow and among spring flowers. But when had cut off the head of Medusa, there sprang from her blood great and the horse so named from the springs (pegai) of , where she was born.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html

Athena, Poseidon, and Medusa

[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]

According to another version of Medusa’s myth, she was once a beautiful young woman who was raped by the god Poseidon in a temple of Athena. As retribution for the violation of the virgin goddess’ shrine, Athena caused Medusa to be turned into a gorgon and to join the other two gorgons living at the edge of the world. In a variation on this version of the myth, Athena turns Medusa into a gorgon not because she was raped by Poseidon, but because she claimed to be as beautiful as Athena.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 4 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]
In this version of Medusa’s myth, recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she becomes a Gorgon after being raped by Poseidon.

[790-803] Next one of the many princes asked why Medusa, alone among her sisters, had snakes twining in her hair. The guest [ ] replied, “Since what you ask is worth the telling, hear the answer to your question. She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair: I came across a man who recalled having seen her. They say that , lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of . ’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her . So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.”


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph4.php#anchor_Toc64106272

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

Conflict and Death

Perseus, wearing winged helm and a chlamys, has his eyes averted as he holds a knife to Medusa's neck. Medusa is a sleeping young winged woman. Athena stands behind Perseus.
Perseus beheading Medusa, red-figure pelike, ca. 450 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Medusa was killed by the Greek hero Perseus. He was sent to kill her by King Polydectes of Seriphos, under the assumption that he would fail, leaving nobody to object to Polydectes marrying Perseus’ mother, Danae. Assisted by Athena and Hermes, Perseus found Medusa in a cave and cut off her head, which Athena showed him using her reflective bronze shield as a mirror.

When Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, the winged horse Pegasus and the monster Chrysaor sprang from her bleeding neck. These were the offspring of Poseidon’s rape of Medusa.

For further discussion and art of Perseus and Medusa, see chapter 21.


The Origin of Vipers

Perseus put Medusa’s severed head into a bag and flew away from the cave of the Gorgons on the winged horse Pegasus. As he was flying back to Polydectes on the Island of Seriphos, he flew over the Libyan desert. It is said that drops of blood from Medusa’s severed head fell onto the sand below and spawned poisonous vipers.


Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica (trans. R. C. Seaton, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek Epic, 3rd century BCE

In his epic about the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Apollonius of Rhodes explains the origin of the deadly vipers in the Libyan desert.

[1502] And then, on the same day, a pitiless fate seized too, son of Ampycus; and he did not escape a bitter doom by his prophesying; for there is no way to escape death. Now there lay in the sand, avoiding the midday heat, a terrifying serpent, too sluggish of his own will to strike at an unwilling foe, nor yet would he dart full face at one that would shrink back. But into whatever of all living beings that life-giving earth sustains that serpent once injects his black venom, his path to becomes not so much as a cubit’s length, not even if , if it is right for me to say this openly, should tend him, when its teeth have only grazed the skin. For when godlike Eurymedon (for by that name his mother called him) flew over Libya — bearing to the king the Gorgon’s head newly severed, all the drops of dark blood that fell to the earth, produced a brood of those serpents. Now stepped on the end of its spine, setting thereon the sole of his left foot; and it writhed round in pain and bit and tore the flesh between the shin and the muscles. And and her handmaids fled in terror; but Canthus bravely felt the bleeding wound; for no excessive pain harassed him. Poor wretch! Already a numbness that loosed his limbs was stealing beneath his skin, and a thick mist was spreading over his eyes. Straightway his heavy limbs sank helplessly to the ground and he grew cold; and his comrades and the hero, ‘s son, gathered round, marvelling at the close-coming doom. And, though dead, he could not lie beneath the sun even for a little time. For at once the poison began to rot his flesh within, and the hair decayed and fell from the skin. And quickly and in haste they dug a deep grave with pick-axe of bronze; and they tore their hair, the heroes and the maidens, bewailing the dead man’s piteous suffering; and when he had received due burial rites, thrice they marched round the tomb in full armour, and heaped above him a mound of earth.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/ApolloniusRhodius4.html

The Origin of Coral

Perseus next came to Red Sea, where he saw the Libyan princess, Andromeda, chained to a rock, a sacrificial victim to the sea monster that had been ravaging the area. After he killed the sea monster and rescued Andromeda, he sat down to rest on the shores of the Red Sea. He set down the head of Medusa down on a bed of seaweed, which immediately hardened because of Medusa’s magical ability of petrification. This is the etiological myth (that is, the creation story) for the origin of coral.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 4 (trans. A. S. Kline)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

In this section of the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the aftermath of Perseus’ slaying of the sea monster and his rescue of the Libyan princess, Andromeda. Here we see an etiological myth for the origin of coral.

[706-752] Released from her chains, the girl [ ] comes forward, the prize and the cause of his efforts. He [ ] washes his hands after the victory in seawater drawn for him and, so that Medusa’s head, covered with its snakes, is not bruised by the harsh sand. He makes the ground soft with leaves, spreads out plants from below the waves and places the head of that daughter of on them. The fresh plants, still living inside, and absorbent, respond to the influence of the Gorgon’s head, and harden at its touch, acquiring a new rigidity in branches and fronds. And the ocean try out this wonder on more plants, and are delighted that the same thing happens at its touch, and repeat it by scattering the seeds from the plants through the waves. Even now corals have the same nature, hardening at a touch of air, and what was alive under the water, above water is turned to stone.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph4.php#anchor_Toc64106271

The Aegis

After completing his adventures, Perseus gave the head of Medusa to Athena as thanks for helping him. Athena wears Medusa’s head on a cloak that she pins around her shoulders. This garment, as well as Zeus’ shield, is called the Aegis. According to other versions of the myth, Athena also carries the gorgon’s head on her shield. Today, people use the term aegis to mean someone’s metaphorical sphere of influence or protection: e.g., doing something under someone’s aegis means you are doing so with their blessing or on their behalf.


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 2 (trans. K. Aldrich, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

In this passage from the Bibliotheca, Pseudo-Apollodorus explains where Athena got the Gorgon’s head, which he says that she carries on her shield. The author of this text was originally thought to be Apollodorus of Athens. Over time, however, this attribution became widely considered to be false. Thus, “Pseudo-” (meaning ‘lie’, ‘fake’) precedes the name Apollodorus.

[2.4.3] [ gave] the Gorgon’s head to [. . .] placed the Gorgon’s head in the center of her shield. It is affirmed by some that Medusa was beheaded because of , for they say the Gorgon had been willing to be compared with in beauty.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Gorgones.html


Homer, Iliad, Book 5 (trans. A. S. Kline)

Greek Epic, 8th century BCE

Here in the fifth book of the Iliad, Homer describes the Aegis of Athena.

[703-766] Meanwhile , daughter of -bearing , shed her soft richly embroidered robe the work of her own two hands, at her Father’s threshold, dressed herself in the tunic of the Cloud-Driver, and donned her armour ready for sad war. She threw the dreadful tasselled about her shoulders, crowned at every point with terror, violence and strife within, adorned with the monstrous image of the Gorgon’s head, grim and awful emblem of -bearing . She set on her head the golden helmet with its four cones and double-crest, adorned with warriors of a hundred cities. Then she set foot on the fiery chariot, grasped her huge, strong, weighty spear, with which this daughter of a mighty Father shatters the ranks in anger.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Iliad5.php#anchor_Toc239244908

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved.


Art and Symbolism

Medusa on one knee, holding a small Pegasus under one arm. She is a winged and fanged woman with curley hair, her tongue sticking out.
Medusa, terracotta plaque, ca. 700 BCE (Museo Archaeologico Regionale, Syracuse)

Medusa is one of the most popular and most easily recognizable figures in Greek art. She is typically portrayed as a female snake-haired monster with a large mouth showing animal fangs, as well as with a long tongue, wings, and sometimes a belt made of snakes. Her body is usually that of a woman, but in one of the earliest representations of the myth she is shown as a centaur. Even when her body is depicted sideways, her head is always shown as frontal, staring back at the spectator so as to turn them into stone.


Two walking gorgons. They have broad heads and faint smiles, and four snakes emerging from each of their heads.
Gorgons, black-figure amphora, ca. 650 BCE (Archaeological Museum of Eleusis)
Two gorgons running. They each have wings, and snakes rearing up from their shoulders. Their mouths are open with their tongues sticking out, and they have curly hair.
Gorgons, black-figure lekythos, ca. 530 BCE (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris)










Perseus runs, chased by a gorgon. She is a winged woman with her tongue sticking out. Another gorgon, also chasing, is just visible around the side of the dinos, following behind.
Perseus being pursued by the Gorgons, black-figure dinos, ca. 600 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

From the Classical Period, as artistic standards changed, Medusa stopped being represented as a grotesque monster. She was instead portrayed as a beautiful woman, while still maintaining some unsettling features such as frontality and snakes.


Head of Medusa as a young woman with curly hair and small wings on her head.
Medusa, bronze handle (Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples)
Head of Medusa, a woman with tiny snakes for hair and a small pair of wings sprouted from the top of her head.
Medusa, Roman mosaic, 2nd century CE (Museu de la Història de València)










When not used as a decoration, Medusa was usually portrayed in art in the scene of her demise, where she is usually shown in the process of being slain by Perseus, who is averting his gaze.


Perseus lunges at Medusa's neck with his sword, his face turned away to avert his gaze. Medusa is a centaur.
Perseus beheading Medusa, terracotta relief, ca. 660 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)


Medusa, a nude young woman, kneels while Perseus holds a sword to her neck. Perseus, wearing a chlamys cape and Phrygian cap, has his head turned to avert his gaze. Behind Perseus stands Athena, holding a mirror.
Perseus beheading Medusa, sarcophagus relief, 2nd century CE (Hungarian National Museum, Budapest)

Another popular scene to depict was the moment immediately after her death, when Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor were born from Medusa’s decapitated body.


A sarcophagus with two lion sculptures on top, and a relief of Medusa. Medusa, headless and winged, has one knee down in a running position. A small man and a horse, Pegasus and Chrysaor, emerge from her neck. Behind Medusa, Perseus leaves the scene. An animal, perhaps a dog, sits between Perseus and Medusa.
Death of Medusa, limestone sarcophagus, ca. 450 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)
Perseus riding a horse, holding the head of Medusa in one hand. Below him is the body of Medusa, a winged woman, with the torso of Chrysaor emerging from her neck.
Perseus beheading Medusa, terracotta plaque, ca. 490 BCE (Archaeological Museum of Alicante)
The headless body of Medusa lies on the ground. The winged horse Pegasus emerges from her neck. Perseus flies away from the scene.
Death of Medusa, black-figure white-ground lekythos, ca. 500 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The severed head of Medusa, called the gorgoneion, was one of the most popular motifs in Greek art from the Archaic Period. It had a life on its own as a decoration or protective symbol on vessels, sculptures, architecture, jewels, and weapons.


Head of a broad-faced grinning woman. Her smile reveals tusks and her tongue sticks out. She has curly hair and a beard, and wears earrings..
Gorgoneion, terracotta stand, ca. 570 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)
Head of Medusa as a woman with curly hair.
Gorgoneion, Roman coin, ca. 47 BCE (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris)











Three wings arranged in a fan around a centerpiece head of the gorgon. The gorgon here has her mouth open with her tongue sticking out, and has snakes for hair.
Gorgoneion, shield ornament, ca. 600 BCE (Archaeological Museum, Olympia)
Gorgon head, grinning with her tusks and tongue sticking out.
Gorgon, antefix from the Hekatompedos, ca. 570 BCE (Acropolis Museum, Athens)










Most notably, the gorgoneion was also almost always depicted on the aegis, the cloak worn by goddess Athena. The attributes of the gorgoneion were very similar to those of Medusa herself: frontality, fangs, protruding tongue, snakes, and sometimes even a beard.


Athena holding a spear, and wearing her plumed helm and the Aegis. The Aegis is decorated with the face of Medusa, with her tongue sticking out.
Athena wearing the Aegis, red-figure kylix, ca. 435 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Madrid)
Achilles and Memnon, both wielding shields and spears, duel. Memnon's shield is decorated with a snake, a lion, and the head of a tusked and bearded grinning gorgon.
Achilles fighting Memnon, black-figure amphora, ca. 510 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)












Ajax kneels holding his sword. His armour and shield are propped up beside him. His shield depicts the head of a grinning bearded gorgon with her tongue sticking out.
Ajax, black-figure amphora, ca. 530 BCE (Château-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer)


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