Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Medusa: Fame Only in Death

Medusa was one of three sisters born to Phorcys and Ceto known as the Gorgons. According to Hesiod's Theogany[1], the Gorgons were the sisters of the Graiai and lived in the utmost place towards the night by the Hesperides beyond Oceanus. Later authors such as Herodotus and Pausanias place the Gorgon's abode in Libya. The Gorgon sisters were Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa, but Medusa was mortal while her sister were immortal.
Museum Collection: The J Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California, USA
Attic Black Figure Amphora ca 530 BC 

Beyond the Gorgon's birth, there is little mention of the Gorgons as a group, but Medusa has several myths about her life and death. The most famous of these myths are concerning her death and demise. In Hesiod's Theogany[2], he recounts how Perseus cut off the head of Medusa and from her blood sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus. Chrysaor being a golden giant and Pegasus the famous white winged horse. The myth ,according to Pindar[3] and Apollodorus[4], of Perseus and Medusa started with a quest.

Perseus, with Athena, slaying the Gorgon Medusa (c. 560 - 550 bce)
Temple C at Selinus

 Perseus was the son of Danae and Zeus, who came to Danae in the form of a golden spring. It was foretold to Danae's father, Acrisius the king of Argos, that her son would kill him. So, Acrisius locked his daughter away in a bronze chamber, but Zeus transformed into a shower of gold and impregnated her. Acrisius not wanting to provoke Zeus; he hurled his daughter and grandson in a wooden chest into the sea. The mother and son were rescued by Dictys on the island of Seriphos. It was Dictys who raised Perseus to manhood, but it was Dictys' brother Polydectes, the king, who sent him on a life threatening quest.

Danaë reclining with Zeus as the shower of gold depicted on a vase 450-425 BC
Polydectes fell in love with Perseus' mother and wished to marry her, but Perseus was protective of his mother since he believed Polydectes to be not honorable. Polydectes contrived to trick Perseus; he held a large banquet for the pretense of collecting contributions for the marriage of Hippodamia. He requested that his guests bring horses for their gifts, but Perseus did not have one. When Perseus confessed that he had no gift; he offered any gift the king would name. Polydectes seized his opportunity to disgrace and even get rid of Perseus and asked for the head of the only mortal Gorgon: Medusa.
 Medusa by Caravaggio (1573-1610)The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Medusa was a formidable foe, since her hideous appearance was able to render any onlooker into stone.[5] In some variation of the myth, Medusa was born a monster like her sisters described as girded with serpents, vibrating tongues, gnashing their teeth[6], having wings, brazen claws, and enormous teeth[7]. In later myths, mainly Ovid[8], Medusa was the only Gorgon to possess snake locks, because there were a punishment from Athena. Accordingly, Ovid relates that the once beautiful mortal was punished by Athena for having been raped in her temple by Poseidon with a hideous appearance and loathsome snakes for hair.

Medusa portrayed by Uma Thurman in the Percy Jackson Film Series
Perseus, with aid of divine gifts, found the Gorgons' cave and slays Medusa by beheading her. Most authors assert that Perseus was able to behead Medusa with a shield reflective bronze shield that Athena gave him while the Gorgons slept.[9] At the beheading of Medusa, her and Poseidon's children sprang from her severed neck: Pegasus and Chrysaor. Simultaneously with the birth of these children, Medusa's sisters Euryale and Sthenno pursued him. However, the gift bestowed to him by Hades, the helm of darkness, granted him invisibility. It is unclear if Perseus took Pegasus with on his following adventures or if he continued to utilize the winged sandals Hermes gave him. Pegasus' adventures have been recorded with both the hero Perseus and Bellerophon.
Perseus now flew (either by Pegasus or winged Sandals) with Medusa's head a bagged ever potent with its stony gaze. Perseus, on his journey home, stopped at Ethiopia where the kingdom of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia was being tormented by Poseidon's sea monster: Cetus. Poseidon's vengeance was exacted for Cassiopeia's hubristic claim of her daughter, Andromeda, being the equal in beauty to the Nereids. Perseus slew the beast and won Andromeda hand. Although, Andromeda was already betrothed which caused a contestation to break out resulting in Perseus using Medusa's head to turn her previous betrothed to stone.[10]

Ancient Corinthian vase depicting Perseus, Andromeda and Ketos. The inscriptions denoting the depicted persons are written in an archaic form of the Greek alphabet and show some peculiarities such as the left-running direction in ΠΕΡΣΕΥΣ and ΑΝΔΡΟΜΕΔΑ, usage of Epsilon instead of Eta in ΚΕΤΟΣ, the employment of the letter San instead of Sigma in ΠΕΡΣΕΥΣ and ΚΕΤΟΣ and different shapes of the letters such as B for Ε or V for Υ.
Altes Museum, Berlin
Before his return to his home of Seriphos, Perseus met the titan Altas who he turned to stone with Medusa's head after some quarrelsome words[11]; thus creating that the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Also during the journey home, Medusa's head spilled some blood on the Earth which formed into Libyan vipers that killed the Argonaut: Mospos[12].

Perseus showing Atlas the head of Medusa, by Bauer (1703 edition), from the University of Vermont Ovid Project: Metamorphosing the Metamorphoses
Perseus returned home to his mother safe from King Polydectes' advances, but Perseus was infuriated with Polydectes trickery. Perseus avenged himself by turning Polydectes and his court to stone with Medusa's head. He, then, gave the kingdom to Dictys.[13] After Perseus was finished with the Gorgon's head, he gave it to Athena, who adorned it upon her shield and breastplate.

Perseus shows the Gorgon's head to Phineus Painting by Luca Giordano.
The word Gorgon derives from the ancient Greek word "γοργός" meaning "fierce, terrible and grim."The Gorgons' names each have a particular meaning that helps to further describe their monstrousness. Sthenno from the ancient Greek "Σθεννω" is translated as "strength, might, or force," since it is related to the Greek word: σθένος. Euryale is from the ancient Greek "Ευρυαλη" meaning "broad, wide-stepping, wide threshing;" however her name may also mean "of the wide briny sea." This would be an appropriate name since she is the daughter of ancient sea deities: Phorcys and Ceto. Medusa's name comes from the ancient Greek verb "μέδω"which is translated as "to guard or protect." Medusa's name is extremely fittings as it is synonymous with what a Gorgon's head became representative of.

Athena depicted on an Attic red figure amphora from ca. 525 BC

The Gorgon image appears in several pieces of art and architectural structures including the pediments of the Temple of Artemis in Corcya, the cup by Douris, the Gorgon Medusa, and the Medusa mosaic. The Gorgon became a popular shield design in antiquity along with being an apotropaic (warding evil) device. The goddess Athena and Zeus were often portrayed with a shield (or aegis) depicting the head of Gorgon, who is typically believe to be Medusa. There are several archaeological examples of the Gorgon's face being used on shields and even breastplates. The most famous example of these would be the Athena Parenthos from the Acropolis made by Phidias and described by Pausanias[14]. This statue of Athena depicts a Gorgon's face on the goddess' breastplate. There is, also, Hesiod's description of Herakles shield which describes the events of Perseus and Medusa.


[1] Hesiod, Theogony 270 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) :
[2] Hesiod, Theogony 270 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) (Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.) :
[3] Pindar, Pythian Ode 12. 8 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.)
[4] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 36 - 42 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)
[5] Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology.
[6] Scut. Here. 233
[7] Aechlysus Prom, 794
[8] Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 770 ff (trans. Melville) (Roman epic C1st B.C. to C1st A.D.)
[9] Number 4 & 8
[10] Ovid, Metamorphoses 5
[11] Ovid Metamorphoses 4
[12] Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. 1505 ff (trans. Rieu) (Greek epic C3rd B.C.)
[13] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 46
[14] Pausanias, Description of Greece 1. 24. 7

No comments:

Post a Comment