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The Greek Myth of how Perseus Killed the Gorgon Medusa

Updated on February 22, 2015
SarahLMaguire profile image

Sarah has a PhD in Classical Civilisation from Swansea University. She continues to write on the Ancient World and other topics.

Roman Mosaic depicting Medusa, from Tunisia.
Roman Mosaic depicting Medusa, from Tunisia. | Source
Portrait of Greek Actor Euaion in the role of Perseus. C.430BCE, Agrigento, Sicily.
Portrait of Greek Actor Euaion in the role of Perseus. C.430BCE, Agrigento, Sicily. | Source

King Polydectes' Challenge

The hero Perseus, son of Zeus grew up on the Isle of Seriphos, in exile with his mother, Danae. When he came to manhood, Polydectes King of Seriphos began to find the young man troublesome as he prevented him from marrying Danae against her will.

Looking for a way to get rid of him, King Polydectes announced that he had decided to marry Hippodameia, daughter of King Oenomous and asked that all the nobles of Seriphos present him with fine horses for him to offer as a wedding gift. Having no wealth of his own, Perseus was not able to contribute anything and to salvage his pride he declared that, instead, he would fetch King Polydectes anything he asked for. Polydectes then triumphantly demanded the head of Medusa.

Medusa was one of three snaky-haired sisters who had boar’s tusks, bronze hands and who flew on golden wings. A mere glance at the face of one of them was enough to turn someone into stone. Two of the sisters, Stheno and Euryale were immortal, while Medusa was mortal. By sending Perseus to cut off the head of Medusa, therefore, Polydectes could feel very confident that he was sending the proud young man to his death.


Polydectes had not reckoned, however, on the Gods coming to Perseus’ assistance. Athena, Goddess of wisdom and craft and Hermes, God of thieves and travellers gave advice to the young son of Zeus. They instructed Perseus to go first to the Graeae, three sisters of the Gorgons, and get them to tell Perseus where to find the Nymphs who would help him further. Accordingly, Perseus went off in search of the Graeae.

The Graeae

'Perseus and the Graeae' by Edward Burne-Jones, 1882. In this evocative picture, the artist has chosen to present the Graeae as young and beautiful rather than the withered old women of tradition.
'Perseus and the Graeae' by Edward Burne-Jones, 1882. In this evocative picture, the artist has chosen to present the Graeae as young and beautiful rather than the withered old women of tradition. | Source

The Graeae

The Graeae were three rather grotesque old women, daughters of the sea divinities Phorcys and Ceto who lived in a remote cave in the Atlas mountains. Their names were Enyo, Pephredo and Dino. The three sisters shared one eye and one tooth between them, which they passed back and forth from one to the other. Once he had tracked them down, it was not hard for Perseus to sneak up on the unfortunate triad, wait until they were passing their eye and tooth between them and interpose his hand to steal them. Perseus then demanded that the Graeae tell him the whereabouts of the Nymphs and in return he gave them back their eye and tooth.

Successfully finding the Nymphs, these semi-divine women lent him valuable items that would help him on his quest. They gave him the winged sandals of Hermes, an invisibility helmet belonging to Hades, God of the Underworld as well as a mysterious knapsack called the kibisis. Hermes also gave him an adamantine sickle with which to cut off Medusa’s head.


In the Lair of the Gorgons

Putting on the winged sandals and the helmet of invisibility, Perseus flew to the lair of the Gorgons. As he approached, he saw what looked like a number of statues, frozen in attitudes of terror - animals and people who had been unlucky enough to catch sight of the three terrible sisters.

Advised and guided by Athena, Perseus used the reflection of his brightly polished bronze shield to be able to see the sleeping Gorgons without looking at them directly. In that way Perseus was able to approach Medusa and scythe off her head with the adamantine sickle.

It was said that Medusa had once been a beautiful young woman and that she angered the virgin goddess Athene by lying with the sea-god Poseidon inside Athena’s temple and that it was in punishment for this that Athena had cursed Medusa with her monstrous appearance. When Medusa’s head was cut off, from her blood sprang two children, begotten by the sea-god; one was the winged horse Pegasus, the other was Chrysaor, who was to become the father of Antaeus the giant who would one day be defeated by the hero Heracles.

Placing the deadly head safely within the kibisis, Perseus made good use of his winged sandals and helmet of invisibility to make a quick escape from the pursuit of the remaining Gorgons.


The Head of Medusa

'The Head of Medusa' a Flemish painting dated to around 1600. It was formerly thought to be the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.
'The Head of Medusa' a Flemish painting dated to around 1600. It was formerly thought to be the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. | Source

Perseus Flees the Surviving Gorgons

The 'Gorgon Painter's Dinos' Pot design from Etruria c.580 BCE .
The 'Gorgon Painter's Dinos' Pot design from Etruria c.580 BCE . | Source

The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor

'The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor' by Edward Burne-Jones, C. 1876-1885.
'The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor' by Edward Burne-Jones, C. 1876-1885. | Source

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