The Gorgon Medusa of Greek mythology was a beast of horrifying powers. She had venomous snakes for hair and eyes with petrifying powers.
Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa and a Terracotta painted gorgoneion antefix (roof tile), ca. 540 BCE, Met Museum, New York
The Gorgon Medusa is arguably Greek Mythology’s most famous being. Everyone has seen her face at least once. Be it in movies like Percy Jackson, 2010/2013, Clash of the Titans, 1981/2010, video games like Assassin’s Creed and God of War, the clothes of Versace, TV, and innumerable graphic art books, Medusa’s head has a special place in modern popular imagination. Those familiar with art history have also probably seen various interpretations of Medusa’s image, from the ancient Medusa at Artemis’ temple in Corfu to the beheaded Medusa (1957) of Caravaggio. Other times as a powerful, nightmarish villain, and others as a symbol of dangerous (or fearless) femininity, Medusa never ceases to fascinate and inspire.
However, even though Medusa’s image is so popular, not everyone knows the myth behind it. So, here are 9 facts to learn everything you need to know about the beast with venomous snakes for hair and eyes with petrifying powers.
1. Gorgon Medusa Was Raped by Poseidon
The Return of Neptune, John Singleton Copley, c. 1754, Met Museum, New York
Greek Mythology is a nice imaginary place, unless you are a woman, and more specifically, an attractive woman. Before turning into the monster that she was, Medusa was a beautiful young woman. To her bad luck, she was beautiful enough to become Poseidon’s object of desire. The god of the sea raped Medusa inside the temple of Athena, according to the Roman poet Ovid. However, many scholars argue that we have no evidence that the intercourse between Medusa and Poseidon was not consensual. Indeed the Greek sources never mention Medusa being raped. Only Ovid talks about the sea god violating the young woman, and not everyone agrees with this translation of the original text.
2. Athena Turned Her Into a Beast
Medusa, attributed to the C. Painter, 575 BCE, Met Museum, New York
In any case, Athena had to avenge her house’s desecration. However, Poseidon was immortal and older than her. Therefore, Medusa had to take the punishment even though she was the victim. Athena turned Medusa from a beautiful maiden into a hideous beast, unable to stare someone in the eye without turning them into stone. The hair that once attracted compliments as the source of her beauty became venomous snakes. Medusa was now a Gorgon.
3. She Was One of the Three Gorgons
Amphora with two gorgons chasing Perseus, 575-550 BCE, Louvre, Paris
Medusa was not the only Gorgon. She had two sisters named Stheno and Euryale. The parents of the Gorgons were Phorcys and Keto. Not much is known about the other two Gorgons other than that they were immortal, whereas Medusa was not. Probably Medusa was mortal to serve the storyline of her beheading by Perseus because no further explanation is provided for this weird fact.
Although the sources do not mention how the other Gorgons looked, we can assume that their appearance was similar to Medusa’s. At least, this is how ancient artists depicted them. Interestingly, in many of these early depictions, the Gorgons appeared with wings. But this appearance did not remain the same throughout the ages.
4. Medusa’s Appearance Changed Throughout the Centuries
There are many different versions of Medusa’s tale, from Archaic Greece to Late Antiquity. These different versions did not only record different storylines but also offered varying descriptions of Medusa’s appearance.
The Library of Apollodorus was written sometime during the 2nd CE century and is considered one of the canonical versions of Medusa’s story. Apollodorus writes that the Gorgons had, amongst others, tusks and golden wings!
“heads twined about with the scales of dragons, and great tusks like swine’s, and brazen hands, and golden wings, by which they flew”
Terracotta painted gorgoneion antefix (roof tile), ca. 540 BCE, Met Museum, New York
Still, the best place to look for a description of the Gorgon Medusa’s appearance is ancient art. In the Archaic Greek Period, Medusa’s head was extremely popular as decoration with apotropaic abilities on houses, temples, and various objects including ceramics. This was known as the gorgoneion and was typically a cartoonish spherical head, with big, wide eyes and open mouth with tongue and tusks showing. The gorgoneion has been called a mask of terror and no one can tell if the myth preceded the gorgoneion or the gorgoneion the myth. Stephen Wilk, who wrote a book on the Medusa, believes that the gorgoneion was an archetypal image of the dead. To support this theory, he offered parables from cultures across time and space.
The Gorgon Medusa at the Temple of Artemis in Corfu, 6th century BCE, Archaeological Museum of Corfu
In any case, Medusa’s head for centuries appeared unnaturally large and round, bringing to mind Pindar’s Pythian Ode 12, where the Greek poet spoke of the “fair cheeked Medusa.” The most important ancient depiction of Medusa is, at least in the author’s personal opinion, the one from the temple of Artemis in Corfu dating to the 6th century BCE. From the Hellenistic Period onwards, artists reimagined Medusa as a woman with slightly different eyes and snakes for hair. With time, Medusa transitioned from a horrible beast to a dangerously beautiful woman, which is how most people now know her through 20th and 21st-century visual art.
5. Athena Hated Her
Pallas Athena by René Boyvin, 16th century, Met Museum
If you thought that Athena was done with Medusa after turning her into a Gorgon, you are mistaken. Though she was the goddess of wisdom, Athena was a rare example of cold-bloodiness and cruelty even for a Greek God.
Athena held a grudge against Medusa and was not satisfied even after punishing her. So when the hero Perseus was tasked with bringing Medusa’s head to the king of Seriphos, Polydektes, Athena gladly offered her help. In the end, Perseus successfully slayed the Gorgon Medusa (more on that below) but was he really the one who killed her? If we look at the myth closely, we will realize that Athena was the true mastermind, but this will become evident in the next section.
6. Perseus Took Medusa’s Head
Before confronting Medusa, Perseus equipped himself with an adamantine sickle, a kibisis (a bag or wallet to place Medusa’s head), the helmet of Hades, which could make its wearer invisible, and a set of winged sandals lent by Mercury. Acquiring these objects was no easy task. Alone, Perseus would not even come close to obtaining them. But the hero had Athena’s help. She led him to the three Graeae, who knew the secret location of the Stygian nymphs. After tricking the Graeae, Perseus found the nymphs who equipped him with all the objects mentioned previously. Additionally, Athena gave him a shield.
Perseus left for Gorgon Medusa’s cave, where he found her sleeping with the other Gorgons. Approaching silently, he turned his back to the monster to avoid looking at her directly. Instead, he used either his golden sword or the shield that Athena had given him as a mirror to sneak close to his target and decapitate her with his sickle.
With quick moves, he took the head, placed it in his bag, used Hades’ helmet to become invisible, and used the winged sandals to fly away from the Gorgons who were chasing after him.
7. She Gave Birth to Pegasus
When Perseus took Medusa’s head, we are told that something extraordinary happened. When Medusa was raped by Poseidon, it seems that she got pregnant but for some reason, never gave birth.
Consequently, when her head was removed, two children sprang from the opening. These were Chrysaor and Pegasus. Chrysaor became the father of the three-headed (or three-bodied) giant Geryon who is mainly known through his fight with Hercules. Pegasus was a winged horse and one of the most famous mythological beings. So why did Gorgon Medusa give birth to a horse? Thus must have to do with the fact that Poseidon was, amongst others, the god of horses.
8. Perseus Used Medusa’s Head to Neutralize His Enemies
Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, Sebastiano Ricci, ca. 1705–1710, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Perseus carried Medusa’s head to present it to Polydektes, the king of the Greek island of Seriphos. On his way back, Perseus faced many adventures that threatened his life. If it was not for Medusa’s head, he may not have made it back to Seriphos.
The first time he used it was against the titan Atlas. When the titan saw the head he was petrified, becoming the Atlas mountains in northern Africa. Returning to Greece, Perseus passed from Aethiopia where he fell in love with Andromeda who was being threatened by the sea monster Keto. Perseus turned the monster into stone with Medusa’s head and then did the same with a suitor of Andromeda named Phineus.
When he finally arrived at the island of Seriphos, Perseus raised the head of the ill-famed Gorgon Medusa and killed Polydektes, who had attempted to marry Perseus’ mother Danae against her will.
9. Athena Has Gorgon Medusa’s Head on Her Aegis
Pallas Athena, Gustav Klimt, 1898, Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien
“And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate”
After Perseus returned to Seriphos, his mission was complete. There was no reason for him to carry Medusa’s head any longer. Besides, Athena was now interested in it. The goddess of wisdom took the head of her sworn enemy and placed it either on her Aegis (shield) or armor. This way she appropriated Medusa’s powers and proclaimed her triumph.
Athena, a goddess of civilization and an idealized role model for the virtuous woman within the patriarchal Greek society, had finally exterminated the threat of the dangerous Medusa, a symbol of the power of the natural and the feminine.