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The Gorgons of Greek Mythology

Updated on May 12, 2016

Beasts and monsters were central characters in many of the great stories of Greek mythology, for the monstrous creatures of the ancient world would give something for gods and heroes to battle against.

One of the most famous of all monsters of Greek mythology is of course Medusa, one of the three Gorgons commonly spoken of in Greek mythology.

The Three Gorgons

The Ancient Greek writer Hesiod tells, in the Theogony, of the birth of three daughters to the sea deities Phorcys and Ceto; these three daughters being the Gorgons Medusa, Sthenno and Euryale.

Traditional stories tell of the three Gorgons being born in the caverns located far beneath Mount Olympus, and these tales also tell of how Sthenno and Euryale were immortal creatures, whilst Medusa was born mortal.

Later tradition would tell a different tale in relation to Medusa, for instead of being born monstrous she was once a beautiful attendant in the temple of Athena. It was in the temple that Poseidon would rape Medusa, and for the sacrilege, Athena decided to punish Medusa by turning her into a monster.

Medusa

Medusa - Caravaggio (1571–1610)  - PD-art-100
Medusa - Caravaggio (1571–1610) - PD-art-100 | Source

A Description of the Gorgons

Taking the transformation of Medusa aside, the traditional depiction of the three Gorgons were of winged women, with hands of brass, large round heads, from which large staring eyes glared out, and tusks of wine protruded. The most obvious feature of the Gorgons though were the snakes that were to be found instead of locks of hair.

A look at those large staring eyes were enough to turn mortal to stone, and of the three Gorgons, Sthenno was said to be the most deadly, having killed more men than Medusa and Euryale combined.

The Gorgons are normally considered to be the personifications of the hidden reefs that were often deadly to uninformed sailors.

Perseus and the Gorgons

The Gorgons come to prominence in Greek mythology when they appear in the adventures of the Greek hero Perseus, for Perseus is tasked by King Polydectes to bring back the head of the Gorgon Medusa.

Perseus was aided in his quest by several Olympian deities with Athena providing the hero with a reflective shield, Hephaestus gave Perseus a curved sword, Hermes loaned winged boots, and Perseus was also in possession of Hades’ helmet of invisibility. The Greek hero then found out the location of the Gorgons from the Graeae, the sisters of the three Gorgons.

Many writers in antiquity put forward possible locations for the Gorgons; a common home for the Gorgons were in the Gorgades, islands in the Aethiopian Sea, but many other island locations were also put forward. Later on Virgil would write of the presence of the Gorgons in the realm of Hades, but supposition has it that this was their home after their encounter with Perseus.

Perseus would eventually arrive at the cavernous lair of the Gorgons, and whilst Sthenno and Euryale slept within their own chambers, Perseus approached Medusa. Making use of the reflective shield, Perseus safely made his way into arms reach of the Gorgon, and with a swing of his sword, the head of Medusa was separated from her body.

Perseus quickly placed the head of Medusa into a sack, and now wearing Hades’ helmet made his exit. The sounds of Perseus attack on Medusa had awoken Sthenno and Euryale, and although they quickly came to the scene of the fight, Perseus was of course no where to be seen.

Medusa and Perseus

The Story of Medusa Continues

Subsequently the two remaining Gorgons appeared only sparsely in mythological tales, although the tale of Medusa continued for a short while.

From the decapitated body of Medusa would come forth Pegasus, the winged horse made use of by Bellerophon, and also the golden giant, Chrysaor. The blood that leaked from the head of the Gorgon Medusa, would give rise to the snakes of Northern Africa, as well as the coral of the Red Sea, and the blood would also be made use of by Asclepius in his healing potions.

Of course, Perseus also made sue of the head to turn the sea monster to stone as he rescued Andromeda, as well as petrifying Polydectes and his followers back on Seriphos. Perseus would then present the goddess Athena with the head, who placed it on her own shield as a powerful divine weapon.

Polydectes Turned to Stone

Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa -  	 Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) - PD-art-100
Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa - Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Gorgo Aix

A less frequently mentioned Gorgon, was the Gorgo Aix, a monstrous goat from the time of the Titanomachy.

Named as an offspring of Typhon and Echidna, or Helios, this goat was struck down by Zeus at the beginning of the war with the Titans, either because the goat sided with the enemies of Zeus, or because of a prophecy which proclaimed that he needed the skin of the goat as armour to be victorious in the war.

Occasionally, it is the Gorgo Aix, who is named as parent of the three more famous Gorgons.

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