Medusa in Greek Mythology
Monsters were integral to many of the stories from Greek mythology, and they offered opponents for gods and heroes to face. In the stories of Ancient Greece, Medusa is arguably the most famous monster, with her hair of snakes, and deadly gaze.
Theogony from Amazon
The Three Gorgons
In the original stories from Greek mythology, Medusa was only one of three Gorgons.
Hesiod, in the Theogony, wrote of three sisters, Sthenno, Euryale and Medusa, daughters of the ancient sea god Phorcys, and the primordial sea goddess Ceto. Ceto was said to have given birth to the Gorgons in caverns that were thought to lie deep beneath Mount Olympus.
The traditional Ancient Greek description of the Gorgons were of winged women, large round heads, with large staring eyes and the tusks of swine; Gorgons were also said to have hands of brass. The most obvious feature of the Gorgons though were the locks of hair on the heads of the sisters, each lock comprising a hissing snake.
Of the three Gorgons, Sthenno was though of as being the most deadly, and was said to have killed more people that Euryale and Medusa combined. The Gorgons were probably just the personification of dangers faced by ancient mariners, and today it is thought that the Gorgons were the hidden, deadly reefs encountered by unwary sailors.
Whilst Sthenno and Euryale were said to be immortal, the Gorgon Medusa was thought of as being very much mortal.
Medusa by Carvaggio
The earliest traditions of Greek mythology had Medusa being born monstrous, but later stories would tell of her transformation into a monster. In these stories, Medusa was once a beautiful young woman, who was an attendant in a temple dedicated to the goddess of Athena.
Whilst Medusa worked in the temple, her beauty caught the attention of the sea god Poseidon, who subsequently raped her in the temple. Angry at the desecration of her temple, Athena punished the innocent attendant, transforming her into a monster; Medusa would then have to go and live with the other two Gorgons.
The Quest of Perseus
Medusa and the Gorgons come to prominence in the stories of the Greek hero Perseus. King Polydectes wished to be rid of Perseus, and so dispatched him on a seemingly impossible quest to obtain the head of Medusa, the only one of the Gorgons who could be killed and decapitated.
Perseus was a son of Zeus, and a favoured mortal of the goddess Athena, and so the young man found himself aided by various gods from Mount Olympus. Athena gave Perseus a reflective shield, Hephaestus manufactured a deadly sharp curved sword, Hermes loaned Perseus with his winged boots, and Perseus was even given use of Hades’ helmet of invisibility.
Despite the help received from the gods, Perseus did not know where to find Medusa, as the location of the Gorgons was a closely guarded secret. The secret holder though was known to be the three Graeae, sisters to the Gorgons. The location of the Gorgon’s lairs was disclosed when Perseus took the single seeing eye of the Graeae hostage.
Perseus and Medusa
Various ancient writers would name their own location for where the Gorgons were to be found, although a common place was said to be the Gorgades (Cape Verde), islands in the Aethiopian Sea to the west of Africa.
Making use of Hermes’ winged boots, Perseus flies to the home of the Gorgons, and locates the lair of Medusa. Choosing a time whilst Sthenno and Euryale are asleep, Perseus enters Medusa’s home, and protecting himself from the gaze of the Gorgon, with Athena’s reflective shield, the hero gets close enough to cut the head of Medusa clean off with one swipe of Hephaestus’ sword.
Perseus collected up the head of Medusa and placed into a satchel, and then donning the helmet of invisibility, the hero made his escape before the remaining Gorgons could have their revenge.
Perseus Finds Medusa
Offspring of Medusa
When Perseus cut off the head of Medusa, the winged horse Pegasus, and the golden giant Chrysaor, were said to have emerged from the open wound; both Pegasus and Chrysaor were thought of as children of Poseidon.
Pegasus would become famous for events in other stories, including that of Belleraphon, whilst Chrysaor would become King of Iberia.
Perseus and Andromeda
Medusa after Death
Despite being dead, the story of Medusa still continues, although the other Gorgons are not subsequently mentioned in ancient stories.
Perseus’ journey back to Seriphos and the court of King Polydectes was not straightforward; and stories involving Medusa’s head were told.
Snakes are born - Flying over the desert of Northern Africa, the blood of Medusa started to leak out of the satchel, and where it fell on the desert, so poisonous snakes sprang forth.
Coral is created – Perseus would rest for a while on the shores of the Red Sea, and would lay the satchel containing Medusa’s head on some seaweed. Again, some blood would leak out turning the seaweed into hard red coral.
Asclepius – some of the blood of Medusa made it into the possession of Asclepius, the son of Apollo and legendary healer. The blood could bring forth death, but Asclepius also made use of it in many of his remedies to cure.
Ceto – Perseus would make use of the head of Medusa to rescue the princess Andromeda in Ethiopia. Andromeda was being sacrificed to the monster Ceto, not Medusa’s mother of the same name, but before the monster could devour Andromeda, Perseus brought forth the severed head, and turned it to stone.
Atlas - In some ancient stories Perseus would also encounter the Titan Atlas in his return journey, and would turn Atlas into stone, creating the Atlas Mountain. Atlas though was very much alive when Heracles, Perseus’ grandson, encountered him.
The Wedding – Perseus would make one final use of Medusa’s head, as when he returned to Seriphos, he found that his mother, Danae, was being forced to marry King Polydectes. To prevent the marriage, Perseus made use of the head turning the king and all the wedding guests to stone, and rescuing his mother.
Athena - With his quest completed, Perseus handed over the head of Medusa to his benefactor, the goddess Athena. Athena would place the head on her Aegis, her shield, using the power of Medusa whenever she subsequently fought.
Perseus Arrives Home
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