I was originally going to call this piece Poseidon’s Scary Girlfriends, with Demeter the Furious and an unnamed Harpy joining Medusa. But when I began researching Medusa I found so many layers of interpretation that it seemed worth going back to the original sources and seeing what went into the myth.
In fact, it seems like there are almost two different myths, one involving a headless demon that terrified all who saw it, and another about the mortal Medusa, who either was a snaky-headed monster or became one.
The demon-head Gorgo is first mentioned in the Odyssey, when the hero visits the underworld and speaks with the shades of the dead:
And I should have seen yet others of the men of former time, whom I was fain to behold, even Theseus and Peirithous, glorious children of the gods, but ere that the myriad tribes of the dead came thronging up with a wondrous cry, and pale fear seized me, lest august Persephone might send forth upon me from out the house of Hades the head of the Gorgon, that awful monster.
(Odyssey XI: 630-6, trans. A. T. Murray)
Several other works mention the Gorgons as living in the underworld, but these seem to think of them as a group of sisters, rather than as a bodiless head. All of them emphasize their monstrous and destructive character. (Although since only Aristophanes’ The Frogs mentions them torturing the dead, it may not be meant seriously.)
The Gorgoneion, or Gorgon’s Head, had a long life in art and crafts as a decoration or amulet to drive away evil. That she is depicted full-face (most archaic Greek art shows people and gods side-on, like Egyptian art) no doubt gave a frission to viewers, since meeting the Gorgon’s eyes was supposed to petrify the viewer. (Mackay: 21)
The Gorgon strongly resembles the Mesopotamian demon Humbaba, and many of his images look like the early Gorgons. (Hopkins: 346) Humbaba was shown full-face, with fangs, and wrinkled. The Gorgon, in addition, sticks out her tongue.
Humbaba and other protective demons were shown in the kneilaufen, or bent-knee pose, along with the wings and grinning face. (See the image of the Gorgon and Perseus below.) The Gorgon was one of many Greek monsters, like the Chimera, to come out this melding of Eastern influences. (Napier: 108)
Medusa and her sisters
Hesiod’s Theogony was the first work to mention Medusa:
And again, Ceto bore to Phorcys the fair-cheeked Graiae, sisters grey from their birth: and both deathless gods and men who walk on earth call them Graiae, Pemphredo well-clad, and saffron-robed Enyo, and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear-voiced Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One in a soft meadow amid spring flowers. And when Perseus cut off her head, there sprang forth great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus who is so called because he was born near the springs of Ocean; and that other, because he held a golden blade in his hands.
(270-83. trans. Evelyn-White)
Phorcys was the Old Man of the Sea, and Ceto was his wife. Their names mean “seal” and “whale” or “sea-monster”, and like the Norse goddess Ran Phorcys embodied the destructive element of the sea. Their other children included Scilla and Charybides, and various sea-monsters.
The names of the Gorgons are interesting as well: Sthenno and Euryale mean respectively “strength, might, or force” and either “broad-stepping, wide-threshing” or “of the wide briny sea”. Medusa comes from an ancient Greek verb, μεδω, “to guard or protect”. (Theoi.com has it as “Guardian, Queen”, from medeôn.) The word Gorgon comes from the word gorgós (γοργος), meaning “terrible, fierce, frightful”. (Dexter-Robbins: 25)
Beheaded by Perseus
Ovid’s Metamorphoses has Perseus relate the story:
When they have attacked the feast, and their spirits are cheered by wine, the generous gift of Bacchus, Perseus asks about the country and its culture, its customs and the character of its people. At the same time as he instructed him about these, one of the guests said ‘Perseus, I beg you to tell us by what prowess and by what arts you carried off that head with snakes for hair.’ The descendant of Agenor told how there was a cave lying below the frozen slopes of Atlas, safely hidden in its solid mass. At the entrance to this place the sisters lived, the Graeae, daughters of Phorcys, similar in appearance, sharing only one eye between them. He removed it, cleverly, and stealthily, cunningly substituting his own hand while they were passing it from one to another. Far from there, by hidden tracks, and through rocks bristling with shaggy trees, he reached the place where the Gorgons lived. In the fields and along the paths, here and there, he saw the shapes of men and animals changed from their natures to hard stone by Medusa’s gaze. Nevertheless he had himself looked at the dread form of Medusa reflected in a circular shield of polished bronze that he carried on his left arm. And while a deep sleep held the snakes and herself, he struck her head from her neck. And the swift winged horse Pegasus and his brother the warrior Chrysaor, were born from their mother’s blood.
He told of his long journeys, of dangers that were not imaginary ones, what seas and lands he had seen below from his high flight, and what stars he had brushed against with beating wings. He still finished speaking before they wished. 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 Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. 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.
(Book IV: 753-803, trans. A. S. Klein)
Zeus, Athena and the Gorgon’s Head
The Gorgoneion was Athena’s special attribute from the time of the Iliad:
Across her [Athena’s] shoulders she threw the betasselled, terrible aigis (aegis), all about which Phobos (Terror) hangs like a garland, and Eris (Hatred) is there, and Alke (Battle Strength), and heart-freezing Ioke (Onslaught) and thereon is set the head of the grim gigantic Gorgo (Gorgon), a thing of fear and horror, portent of Zeus of the aigis.
(Homer, Iliad 5. 738 ff (trans. Lattimore) )
The story of the Gorgon’s head and the aegis seems more consistent with the disembodied head version. One art historian (Milne) has suggested that the Perseus story came about as an attempt to explain how the disembodied head came to be on Athena’s aegis. (Many statues of Athena show her with the Gorgon’s head on her bosom like a brooch.)
The most famous version is the Athena Parthenos, housed in the Parthenos in Athens and carved by Phidais. She wears the Gorgon on her breast, and a serpent encircles her waist, a symbol of the half-serpent founder of Athens.
While most sources agree that Athena took the Gorgon’s head and added it to the Aegis or goat-skin she wore, but at least one gives it to Zeus:
But when Jupiter [Zeus], confident in his youth, was preparing for war against the Titanes (Titans), oracular reply was given to him that if he wished to win, he should carry on the war protected with the skin of a goat, aigos, and the head of the Gorgon. The Greeks call this the aegis. When this was done, as we have shown above, Jupiter [Zeus], overcoming the Titanes, gained possession of the kingdom.”
(Pseudo-Hyginus, Astronomica 2. 13 (trans. Grant))
Pseudo-Hyginus tells this story as part of his entry on the Charioteer, Auriga. To reward her service, Zeus resurrected Aex after the battle:
[c]overing the remaining bones of the goat with a skin, he gave life to them and memorialised them, picturing them with stars. Afterwards he gave to Minerva the aegis with which he had been protected when he won.
(See Thor restoring his goats to life after eating them for dinner.) The Zeus version is interesting because he uses his nurse’s skin for protection, presumably because no one would protect him more, and combines it with the most terrifying thing he could find. The end resolves the question of ownership by having Zeus hand it over to his daughter.
Punishment of Medusa
In many versions of the Medusa story, she has the misfortune to come between two Greek deities known to be antagonists. Poseidon and Athena had competed for patronage of Athens, and the sea-god didn’t take losing well, either flooding Athens or threatening to until Zeus talked him out of it.
However, while Hesiod mentions the affair between Poseidon and Medusa, he doesn’t say anything about Athena, let alone punishment. That comes much later, when Ovid and Pseudo-Apollodorus write their versions of the story. Ovid (quoted above) tells the story of Medusa as a beautiful woman who attracted Poseidon’s attention, so that he raped her in Athena’s temple. (You would think she would punish Poseidon for this, not the victim.)
Pseudo-Apollodorus’ version is a moralizing story about an arrogant woman who drew down the wrath of a goddess. In his telling, Medusa is a beautiful young woman who allowed her suitors to compare her beauty with Athena’s, who gave her the snaky hair and stony gaze as a punishment. Once again, you get the feeling that the story of Medusa both explains the apotropaic Gorgon image and points a moral.
Both stories attempt to reconcile the beautiful mortal Medusa with the Gorgon head, whose ugliness was part of its function. By the time both of these men were writing, the switch from the grotesque to the beautiful (if snaky-locked) maiden was long past, but there were enough samples of the Gorgon still around to make an explanation necessary.
Ovid lived at the turn of the millennium, while Pseudo-Apollodorus was writing in the second century CE, so they were a long way from Hesiod in the 7th century BCE. To him, the simple fact that Medusa was part of the Oceanid family would explain a liaison between herself and the sea-god.
It also conveniently explained how, when Medusa was beheaded, the horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysador sprang from her neck. If she was “pregnant” by Poseidon, father of horses, then the whole thing becomes logical as mythology, although not biologically. (I plant to explore Medusa’s own horsy side in another post, which might go some way to explaining Pegasus as well.)
And to get back to Poseidon’s Scary Girlfriends, if Medusa was originally the mortal Gorgon, presumably she looked like her sisters, snaky hair and all. But maybe, like many another mortal woman, she was beautiful to the god.
PS – As you might expect, Medusa turns up as a villian in the Wonder Woman comics. In the New 52 version, she is a former lover of Zeus’ who just wants him back, and is willing to do bad things to get him. (A bit Harley Quinn, really.) In earlier versions she was a less pathetic villain, who fought the Amazon because she wanted revenge on the gods. (She ends up decapitated again, with her head having an afterlife as a weapon. Again.)
Hopkins, Clark 1934: “Assyrian Elements in the Perseus-Gorgon Story”, American Journal of Archaeology 38/3: 341-58. (JSTOR)
Mackay, E.A. 2001: “The Frontal Face and and “You”. Narrative Disjunction in Early Greek Poetry and Painting”, Acta Classica 44: 5-34. (pdf here)
Milne, Marjorie J. 1946: “Perseus and Medusa on an Attic Vase”, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series 4/5: 126-30. (JSTOR)
Napier, David A. 1986: Masks, Transformation, and Paradox, University of California Press. (Google Books)
Price, Simon and Emily Kearns 2003: The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, OUP.
Robbins Dexter, Miriam 2010: “The Ferocious and the Erotic: “Beautiful” Medusa and the Neolithic Bird and Snake”, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 26/1: 25-41. (pdf here)