In Greek mythology,
Medusa (/məˈdjuːzə, məˈdʒuː-, -sə/, US:
/məˈduː-/; Μέδουσα "guardian, protectress") was a
monster, a Gorgon, generally described as a winged human female with
living venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazers upon her face would
turn to stone. Most sources describe her as the daughter of Phorcys
and Ceto, though the author
Hyginus makes her the daughter of
Gorgon and Ceto. According to
Hesiod and Aeschylus, she lived and
died on an island named Sarpedon, somewhere near Cisthene. The
2nd-century BCE novelist Dionysios Skytobrachion puts her somewhere in
Herodotus had said the
Berbers originated her myth, as
part of their religion.
Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head,
which retained its ability to turn onlookers to stone, 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.
1 Classical mythology
2 Modern interpretations
3.1 Flags and emblems
5 Popular culture
6 See also
7 Notes and references
7.1 Primary sources
7.2 Secondary sources
8 External links
Medusa wearing the belt of the intertwined snakes, a
fertility symbol, as depicted on the west pediment of the Artemis
Temple in Corfu, exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu
Gorgon sisters—Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale—were all
children of the ancient marine deities
Phorcys (or "Phorkys") and his
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— hatred 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
Medusa was originally a ravishingly beautiful
maiden, "the jealous aspiration of many suitors," but because Poseidon
had raped her in Athena's temple, the enraged
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
Perseus describes Medusa's punishment by Minerva
(Athena) as just and well earned.
Coins of the reign of
Seleucus I Nicator
Seleucus I Nicator of Syria, (312–280 BC)
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 because
Polydectes wanted to marry his mother. The gods were well aware of
Perseus received help. He received a mirrored shield from
Athena, gold, winged sandals from Hermes, a sword from
Hades's helm of invisibility. Since
Medusa was the only one of the
three Gorgons who was mortal,
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 giant
wielding a golden sword, sprang from her body.
Jane Ellen Harrison
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."
Homer does not specifically mention the Gorgon
Lest for my daring
Persephone the dread,
Hades should send up an awful monster's grisly head.
The Medusa's head central to a mosaic floor in a tepidarium of the
Roman era. Museum of Sousse, Tunisia
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
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
Pharsalia 9.820, were said to have grown from spilt drops
of her blood. The blood of
Medusa also spawned the
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.
A Roman cameo of the 2nd or 3rd century
A number of early classics scholars interpreted the myth of the Medusa
as a quasi-historical - "based on or reconstructed from an event,
custom, style, etc., in the past", or "sublimated" memory of an
According to Joseph Campbell:
The legend of
Medusa means, specifically, that "the
Hellenes overran the goddess's chief shrines" and "stripped her
priestesses of their
Gorgon masks", the latter being apotropaic faces
worn to frighten away the profane.
That is to say, there occurred in the early thirteenth century B.C. an
actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma, which has been
registered in this myth, much as what Freud terms the latent content
of a neurosis is registered in the manifest content of a dream:
registered yet hidden, registered in the unconscious yet unknown or
misconstrued by the conscious mind.
Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878
In 1940, Sigmund Freud's "Das Medusenhaupt (Medusa's Head)" was
published posthumously. In Freud's interpretation: "To decapitate = to
castrate. The terror of
Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is
linked to the sight of something. Numerous analyses have made us
familiar with the occasion for this: it occurs when a boy, who has
hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches
sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded
by hair, and essentially those of his mother." In this perspective
the 'ravishingly beautiful'
Medusa (see above) is the mother
remembered in innocence; before the mythic truth of castration dawns
on the subject. Classic Medusa, in contrast, is an Oedipal/libidinous
symptom. Looking at forbidden mother (in her hair-covered genitals, so
to speak) stiffens the subject in illicit desire and freezes him in
terror of the Father's retribution. There are no recorded instances of
Medusa turning a woman to stone.
Archetypal literary criticism continues to find psychoanalysis useful.
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.
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. 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." 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
'the most horrific woman in the world' ... [though] none of the women
we interviewed could remember the details of the myth."
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
feminist journal called Women: A Journal of Liberation in their issue
one, volume six for 1978. The cover featured the image of the Gorgon
Medusa by Froggi Lupton, which the editors on the inside cover
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."
In issue three, Fall 1986 for the magazine Woman of Power an article
called Gorgons: A Face for Contemporary Women's Rage, appeared,
written by Emily Erwin Culpepper, who 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."
Griselda Pollock analyses the passage from
horrorism to compassion in the figure of the
Medusa through Adriana
Cavarero's philosophy and Bracha Ettinger's art and Matrixial
An embossed plaque in the
Art Nouveau style from 1911
Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of scientific
determinism and nihilism, especially in contrast with romantic
idealism. 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
this way in his novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore:
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
Perseus with the head of Medusa,
Benvenuto Cellini (1554)
Central motif of the "Medusa" mosaic, 2nd century BC, from
in the palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, island of
Roman mosaic from
Piraeus depicting Medusa, using opus tessellatum,
2nd century AD, National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Main article: Cultural depictions of
Medusa and Gorgons
Medusa has been depicted in several works of art, including:
Medusa on the breastplate of Alexander the Great, as depicted in the
Mosaic from Pompeii's
House of the Faun
House of the Faun (c. 200 BC)
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
Perseus with the Head of
Medusa (oil on canvas) by Leonardo da Vinci
Perseus with the Head of
Medusa (bronze sculpture) by Benvenuto
Medusa - bronze statue by
Hubert Gerhard (c. 1590)
Medusa (oil on canvas) by
Head of Medusa, by
Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens (1618)
Medusa (marble bust) by
Gianlorenzo Bernini (1630s)
Medusa is played by a countertenor in
Jean-Baptiste Lully and Philippe
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
Medusa (1854), marble sculpture by Harriet Hosmer, collection of the
Detroit Institute of Art
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
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.
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.
Municipal coat of arms of
Hradec Králové District,
Flag of Sicily
Ceremonial French military uniform belt of World War I
Medusa is honored in the following scientific names:
Acanthemblemaria medusa Smith-Vaniz &
Apodochondria medusae Ho & Dojiri 1988
Archimonocelis medusa Curini-Galletti & Cannon 1997
Atractus medusa Passos et al. 2009
Australomedusa Russell 1970
Boeromedusa Bouillon 1995
Bothriopsis medusa Sternfeld 1920
Cardiodectes medusaeus Wilson C.B. 1908
Chama oomedusae Matsukuma 1996
Cirratulus medusa Johnston 1833
Csiromedusa Gershwin &
Csiromedusa medeopolis Gershwin &
Discomedusa lobata Claus 1877
Eustomias medusa Gibbs, Clarke & Gomon 1983
Gorgonocephalus caputmedusae L. 1758
Gyrocotyle medusarum von Linstow 1903 (taxon inquirendum)
Halimedusa Bigelow 1916
Halimedusa typus Bigelow 1916
Heteronema medusae Skvortzov 1957
Hoplopleon medusarum K.H. Barnard 1932
Hyperia medusarum Müller 1776
Hyperoche medusarum Krøyer 1838
Leptogorgia medusa Bayer 1952
Lilyopsis medusa Metschnikoff & Metschnikoff 1871
Loimia medusa Savigny in Lamarck 1818
Loimia medusa angustescutata Willey 1905
Lulworthia medusa (Ellis & Everh.) Cribb & J.W. Cribb 1955
Lulworthia medusa var. biscaynia
Lulworthia medusa var. medusa (Ellis & Everh.) Cribb & J.W.
Magnippe caputmedusae Stock 1978
Medusa Loureiro 1790
Medusablennius Springer 1966
Medusafissurella McLean & Kilburn 1986
Medusafissurella chemnitzii G. B. Sowerby I 1835
Medusafissurella dubia Reeve 1849
Medusafissurella melvilli G. B. Sowerby III 1882
Medusafissurella salebrosa Reeve 1850
Mesacanthoides caputmedusae (Ditlevsen 1918)
Myxaster medusa Fisher 1913
Ophioplinthus medusa Lyman 1878
Phallomedusa Golding, Ponder &
Phallomedusa austrina Golding, Ponder &
Phallomedusa solida Martens 1878
Phascolion medusae Cutler & Cutler 1980
Philomedusa vogtii Müller 1860
Polycirrus medusa Grube 1850
Polycirrus medusa sakhalinensis Buzhinskaja 1988
Sarcomella medusa Schmidt 1868
Stellamedusa Raskoff & Matsumoto 2004
Stellamedusa ventana Raskoff & Matsumoto 2004
Stygiomedusa Russell 1959
Thylacodes medusae Pilsbry 1891
Cultural depictions of Medusa and Gorgons
Cultural depictions of Medusa and Gorgons and Greek
mythology 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, cartoons 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.
Notes and references
^ 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
OED 2001 revision, s.v.; medein in LSJ.
^ as in Hesiod,
Theogony 270, and Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke,
Gorgon and Ceto, Sthenno, Eurylae, Medusa".
^ 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.
^ (Pythian Ode 12). Noted by Marjorie J. Milne in discussing a
red-figured vase in the style of Polygnotos, ca. 450–30 BC, 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, "
Medusa on an Attic
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, 4.5 (January
1946, pp. 126–130) 126.p.)
^ Philip Freeman (2013). Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and
Roman Myths. p. 30. ISBN 9781451609981.
^ a b c Harrison, p. 187.
Roger Lancelyn Green suggests in his Tales of the Greek Heroes
written for children that
Athena used the aegis against Atlas.
^ Smith, "Perseus".
^ "the definition of quasihistorical". Dictionary.com. Retrieved
^ Graves, Robert (1955). The Greek Myths. Penguin Books. pp. 17,
244. ISBN 0241952743. A large part of Greek myth is
Bellerophon masters winged
kills the Chimaera. Perseus, in a variant of the same legend, flies
through the air and beheads Pegasus's mother, the
Gorgon Medusa; much
as Marduk, a Babylonian hero, kills the she-monster Tiamat, Goddess of
the Seal. Perseus's name should properly be spelled Perseus, 'the
destroyer'; and he was not, as Professor Kerenyi has suggested, an
archetypal Death-figure but, probably, represented the patriarchal
Hellenes who invaded Greece and Asia Minor early in the second
millennium BC, and challenged the power of the Triple-goddess. Pegasus
had been sacred to her because the horse with its moon-shaped hooves
figured in the rain-making ceremonies and the installment of sacred
kings; his wings were symbolical of a celestial nature, rather than
Jane Harrison has pointed out (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek
Medusa was once the goddess herself, hiding behind a
Gorgon mask: a hideous face intended to warn the profane
against trespassing on her Mysteries.
Perseus beheads Medusa: that is,
the Hellenes overran the goddess's chief shrines, stripped her
priestesses of their
Gorgon masks, and took possession of the sacred
horses—an early representation of the goddess with a Gorgon's head
and a mare's body has been found in Boeotia. Bellerophon, Perseus's
double, kills the Lycian Chimaera: that is, the Hellenes annulled the
ancient Medusan calendar, and replaced it with another.
^ Ellen Harrison, Jane (June 5, 1991) . Prolegomena: To The
Study Of Greek Religion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University
Press. pp. 187–188. ISBN 0691015147.
^ Campbell, Joseph (1968). The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental
Mythology. London: Penguin Books. pp. pp.152–153. "We have
already spoken of
Medusa and of the powers of her blood to render both
life and death. We may now think of the legend of her slayer, Perseus,
by whom her head was removed and presented to Athene. Professor
Hainmond assigns the historical King
Perseus of Mycenae to a date c.
1290 B.C., as the founder of a dynasty; and Robert Graves–whose two
volumes on The Greek Myths are particularly noteworthy for their
suggestive historical applications–proposes that the legend of
Medusa means, specifically, that "the Hellenes
overran the goddess's chief shrines" and "stripped her priestesses of
Gorgon masks", the latter being apotropaic faces worn to
frighten away the profane. That is to say, there occurred in the early
thirteenth century B.C. an actual historic rupture, a sort of
sociological trauma, which has been registered in this myth, much as
what Freud terms the latent content of a neurosis is registered in the
manifest content of a dream: registered yet hidden, registered in the
unconscious yet unknown or misconstrued by the conscious mind. And in
every such screening myth–in every such mythology that of the Bible
being, as we have just seen, another of the kind –there enters in an
essential duplicity, the consequences of which cannot be disregarded
or suppressed.". ISBN 978-0140194418. CS1 maint: Extra text
^ Freud, Sigmund (Summer 2017). "Medusa's Head". The Standard Edition
of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. The Hogarth
Press. XVIII: 273.
^ Seelig, B.J. (2002). "The Rape of
Medusa in the Temple of Athena:
Aspects of Triangulation". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis,
^ Pratt, A. (1994). Archetypal empowerment in poetry: Medusa,
Aphrodite, Artemis, and bears : a gender comparison. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-20865-3
^ Stephenson, A. G. (1997). "Endless the Medusa: a feminist reading of
Medusan imagery and the myth of the hero in Eudora Welty's novels."
^ Garber, p. 7.
^ Garber, p. 1.
^ a b c Wilk, pp. 217–218.
^ Griselda Pollock, "From Horrorism to Compassion" in G. Pollock (ed.)
Visual Politics of Psychoanalysis, London: I.B.Tauris, 2013.
Medusa in Myth and Literary History". Retrieved 2010-01-06.
^ Petersen, Per Serritslev. "Jack London's
Medusa of Truth."
Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002). pp. 43–56.
^ London, p. 121.
^ Wilk, p. 200.
^ WoRMS Editorial Board (2017). World Register of Marine Species.
Available from http://www.marinespecies.org at VLIZ. Accessed
^ a b Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The
Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Medusa", p. 175).
^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-02-15. Retrieved
Servius, In Aeneida vi.289
Lucan, Bellum civile ix.624–684
Metamorphoses iv.774–785, 790–801
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.
Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology,
London (1873). "Perseus"
Wilk, Stephen R. (2007). Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon.
Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-534131-7
Walker, Barbara G. (1996). The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths &
Secrets. New Jersey: Castle Books. ISBN 0785807209 .
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Medusa.
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Medusa in Myth and Literary History" – English.uiuc.edu
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Theoi Project, Medousa & the Gorgones References to
Medusa and her
sisters in classical literature and art