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Medusa by Carvaggio

Medusa, by Caravaggio (1595)

In Greek mythology Medusa (Greek: Μέδουσα (Médousa), "guardian, protectress")[1] 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,[2] though the author Hyginus (Fabulae, 151) interposes a generation and gives Medusa another chthonic pair as parents.[3]

Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head as a weapon[4] 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.

Medusa in classical mythology


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 BCE Pindar already speaks of "fair-cheeked Medusa".[5]

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."[6]

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."[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[6]

Modern interpretations


Close up of Gorgon at the pediment of Artemis temple in Corfu

An archaic Medusa wearing the belt of the intertwined snakes, a fertility symbol, as depicted on the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis in Corfu, exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu.

In 1940, Sigmund Freud's Das Medusenhaupt (Medusa's Head) was published posthumously. This article laid the framework for his significant contribution to a body of criticism surrounding the monster. Medusa is presented by Freud as "the supreme talisman who provides the image of castration — associated in the child's mind with the discovery of maternal sexuality — and its denial."[9] Psychoanalysis continue archetypal literary criticism to the present day: Beth Seelig analyzes Medusa's punishment from the aspect of the crime of having been raped rather than having willingly consented in Athena's temple as an outcome of the goddess' unresolved conflicts with her own father, Zeus.[10]


In the 20th century, feminists reassessed Medusa's appearances in literature and in modern culture, including the use of Medusa as a logo by fashion company Versace.[11][12][13] The name "Medusa" itself is often used in ways not directly connected to the mythological figure but to suggest the gorgon's abilities or to connote malevolence; despite her origins as a beauty, the name in common usage "came to mean monster."[14] The book Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power by Mary Valentis and Anne Devane notes that "When we asked women what female rage looks like to them, it was always Medusa, the snaky-haired monster of myth, who came to mind ... In one interview after another we were told that Medusa is 'the most horrific woman in the world' ... [though] none of the women we interviewed could remember the details of the myth."[15]

Medusa tiles

Medusa mosaic (Roman period), National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Medusa's visage has since been adopted by many women as a symbol of female rage; one of the first publications to express this idea was a 1978 issue of Women: A Journal of Liberation. The cover featured the image of a Gorgon, which the editors explained "can be a map to guide us through our terrors, through the depths of our anger into the sources of our power as women."[15] In a 1986 article for Women of Power magazine called "Ancient Gorgons: A Face for Contemporary Women's Rage," Emily Erwin Culpepper wrote that "The Amazon Gorgon face is female fury personified. The Gorgon/Medusa image has been rapidly adopted by large numbers of feminists who recognize her as one face of our own rage."[15]


Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of scientific determinism and nihilism, especially in contrast with romantic idealism.[16][17] In this interpretation of Medusa, attempts to avoid looking into her eyes represent avoiding the ostensibly depressing reality that the universe is meaningless. Jack London uses Medusa in this way in his novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore:[18]

I cannot help remembering a remark of De Casseres. It was over the wine in Mouquin's. Said he: "The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie.

Jack London, The Mutiny of the Elsinore

Medusa in art

Rubens Medusa

Tête de Méduse, by Peter Paul Rubens (1618)


Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

From ancient times, the Medusa was immortalized in numerous works of art, including:

  • Medusa on the breastplate of Alexander the Great, as depicted in the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii's House of the Faun (c. 200 BCE)
  • Medusa column bases of Basilica Cistern in Constantinople.
  • The "Rondanini Medusa", a Roman copy of the Gorgoneion on the aegis of Athena; later used as a model for the Gorgon's head in Antonio Canova's marble Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1798–1801)
  • Medusa (oil on canvas) by Leonardo da Vinci
  • Perseus with the Head of Medusa (bronze sculpture) by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)
  • Medusa (oil on canvas) by Caravaggio (1597)
  • Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens (1618)
  • Medusa (marble bust) by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1630s)
  • Medusa is played by a countertenor in Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe Quinault's opera, Persée (1682). She sings the aria "J'ay perdu la beauté qui me rendit si vaine."
  • Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone (oil on canvas) by Luca Giordano (early 1680s).
  • Perseus with the Head of Medusa (marble sculpture) by Antonio Canova (1801)
  • Medusa (oil on canvas) by Arnold Böcklin (c. 1878)
  • Perseus (bronze sculpture) by Salvador Dalí

Medusa remained a common theme in art in the nineteenth century, when her myth was retold in Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology. Edward Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle of paintings and a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley gave way to the twentieth century works of Paul Klee, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, Pierre et Gilles and Auguste Rodin's bronze sculpture The Gates of Hell.[19]

In flags and emblems

The head of Medusa is featured on some regional symbols. One example is that of the flag and emblem of Sicily, together with the three legged trinacria. The inclusion of Medusa in the center implies the protection of the goddess Athena, who wore the Gorgon's likeness on her aegis, as said above. Another example is the coat of arms of Dohalice village in the Czech Republic.

In popular culture

The petrifying image of Medusa makes an instantly recognizable feature in popular culture. Medusa has been featured in several works of fiction, including video games, movies and books. In particular, the designer Gianni Versace's symbol is reflected through the Medusa-head symbol. It was chosen because she represents beauty, art, and philosophy.[20]

See also

Notes and references

  1. Probably the feminine present participle of medein, "to protect, rule over" (American Heritage Dictionary; compare Medon, Medea, Diomedes, etc.). If not, it is from the same root, and is formed after the participle. OED 2001 revision, s.v.; medein in LSJ.
  2. as in Hesiod, Theogony 270, and Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke, 1.10.
  3. "from Typhon the giant and Echidna were born Gorgon... Medusa daughter of Gorgon and Neptunus... "
  4. Bullfinch, Thomas. "Bulfinch Mythology – Age of Fable – Stories of Gods & Heroes". Retrieved 2007-09-07. "...and turning his face away, he held up the Gorgon’s head. Atlas, with all his bulk, was changed into stone." 
  5. (Pythian Ode 12). Noted by Marjorie J. Milne in discussing a red-figured vase in the style of Polygnotos, ca. 450–30 BCE, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Milne noted that "It is one of the earliest illustrations of the story to show the Gorgon not as a hideous monster but as a beautiful woman. Art in this respect lagged behind poetry." (Marjorie J. Milne, "Perseus and Medusa on an Attic Vase" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, 4.5 (January 1946, pp. 126–130) 126.p.)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Harrison, p. 187.
  7. Roger Lancelyn Green suggests in his Tales of the Greek Heroes written for children that Athena used the aegis against Atlas.
  8. Smith, "Perseus".
  9. Das Medusenhaupt (Medusa's Head). First published posthumously. Int. Z. Psychoanal. Imago, 25 (1940), 105; reprinted Ges. W., 17,47. The manuscript is dated May 14, 1922, and appears to be a sketch for a more extensive work. Translation, reprinted from Int. J. Psychoanal.,22 (1941), 69; by James Strachey.
  10. Seelig, B.J. (2002). "The Rape of Medusa in the Temple of Athena: Aspects of Triangulation". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 83:895–911.
  11. Pratt, A. (1994). Archetypal empowerment in poetry: Medusa, Aphrodite, Artemis, and bears : a gender comparison. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-20865-3
  12. Stephenson, A. G. (1997). "Endless the Medusa: a feminist reading of Medusan imagery and the myth of the hero in Eudora Welty's novels."
  13. Garber, p. 7.
  14. Garber, p. 1.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Wilk, pp. 217–218.
  16. "Medusa in Myth and Literary History". Retrieved 2010-01-06. 
  17. Petersen, Per Serritslev./ "Jack London's Medusa of Truth."] Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002). pp. 43–56.
  18. London, p. 121.
  19. Wilk, p. 200.
  20. [1]

Primary sources

  • Servius, In Aeneida vi.289
  • Lucan, Bellum civile ix.624–684
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses iv.774–785, 790–801

Secondary sources

  • Garber, Marjorie, Vickers, Nancy, The Medusa Reader, Routledge; 1 edition (February 26, 2003), ISBN 978-0-415-90099-7.
  • Harrison, Jane Ellen (1903) 3rd ed. 1922. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,: "The Ker as Gorgon"
  • London, Jack (1914). The Mutiny of the Elsinore. ISBN 0-935180-40-0. 
  • Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873). "Perseus"
  • Wilk, Stephen R, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-534131-7
  • Walker, Barbara G., The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths & Secrets

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Medusa. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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