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Medusa

Medusa, one of the three monstrous Gorgons, was a snake-haired female who turned anybody who looked upon her to stone. She was finally killed by the hero Perseus, who used her severed head as a weapon against his enemies.

By Avi Kapach9 min read • Last updated on Jul. 21st, 2022
Medusa, Greek Creature (3x2)
  • Medusa was the daughter of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto.

  • In some traditions, Medusa was once the lover of the sea god Poseidon.

  • It depends. In the earliest sources, Medusa was depicted as a hideous monster. In many later traditions, however, Medusa was a beautiful maiden.

Medusa, the daughter of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto, was the most feared of the Gorgons. It was said that anyone who looked directly at her was immediately turned to stone. Medusa was often depicted as a terrifying winged female with snakes instead of hair. 

Many later versions of the myth claimed that she was once a beautiful maiden loved by Poseidon. But the young Medusa offended Athena and was therefore cursed to be a terrible monster, forever hunted by men.

Medusa was eventually killed by Perseus, one of Zeus’ heroic sons. With the help of several gods, Perseus tracked Medusa down to her remote lair and beheaded her. He then used her severed head as a weapon during his travels, turning his enemies to stone. Medusa’s head was finally given to the goddess Athena, becoming part of the armor she wore into battle.

#Etymology

The name Medusa was likely derived from the Greek verb medein (“to guard, protect”). This root also appears in other Greek names, including Medea, Medon, and Diomedes.

#Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Medusa

    Μέδουσα

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [muh-DOO-zuh, -suh]

    /mɪˈdjuːzə, -sə/

#Alternate Names

Medusa was sometimes called Gorgo.

#Titles and Epithets

In one of his poems, Pindar applied the epithet euparaos (“fair-cheeked”) to Medusa.1

#Attributes

#Locale

Medusa and her sisters were called the Gorgons. They lived together in a remote part of the world. According to the seventh-century BCE poet Hesiod, they could be found “beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night.”2 Later sources, however, usually placed them in Libya.3 Other authors have proposed still more remote dwelling places, including the obscure Gorgonean Plains near Cisthene in Asia Minor4 and the island of Sarpedon.5

#Appearance

In most ancient sources, Medusa and the Gorgons were imbued with a terrifying appearance. Aeschylus, for example, in his fifth-century BCE tragedy Prometheus Bound, described them as “three winged sisters, the snake-haired Gorgons, loathed of mankind, whom no one of mortal kind shall look upon and still draw breath.”6 It was said that anybody who looked upon Medusa (or her sisters) was immediately turned to stone. 

According to many sources, however, Medusa was beautiful as well as terrifying. Pindar, an early Greek poet who lived in the fifth century BCE, described Medusa as “fair-cheeked.”7

#Iconography

In ancient art, Medusa was originally depicted as a hideous monster. In addition to being snake-haired and winged, she was often pictured with fangs and a wide, menacing face. Depictions of this Gorgon head were often believed to be “apotropaic,” meaning they could ward off evil. By the fifth century BCE, however, Medusa and the Gorgons were increasingly depicted as beautiful women in the visual arts as in literature.8

Terracotta painted gorgoneion antefix (roof tile) MET

Gorgon head on terracotta tile, South Italy (c. 540 BC).

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

#Family

Medusa’s parents, Phorcys and Ceto, were usually thought to have been among the offspring of Gaia. Medusa’s siblings included the other two Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, as well as the perpetually ancient Graiae. In some traditions, Medusa was also the sister of the Hesperides;9 the dragon Ladon, who guarded the Garden of the Hesperides;10 the half-snake monster Echidna;11 Scylla;12 and Thoosa, the mother of the Cyclops Polyphemus.13

Medusa and her family belonged to a primeval race of chthonic gods (the gods associated with the earth, death, and the pre-civilized world). A monster herself, Medusa was also the ancestor of other mythological monsters, giving birth to the winged horse Pegasus and the Giant Chrysaor.14 The latter became the father of the three-bodied monster Geryon, who was eventually killed by Heracles.

#Family Tree

#Mythology

#Origins

Medusa was one of the three Gorgons, daughters of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto. The other two Gorgons were named Stheno and Euryale. Medusa was the only one of the three who was not immortal.

Medusa was said to have once been a lover of Poseidon. According to Ovid, this is what first got her into trouble: when Medusa slept with Poseidon in a temple of Athena, Athena turned her hair into snakes as a punishment. From then on, all who looked upon her were turned to stone.15 In another version of the myth, Medusa became the enemy of Athena because she claimed that she could rival the goddess in beauty.16

#Perseus

Medusa was killed by the hero Perseus, a son of Zeus and the mortal Argive princess Danae. Perseus had been sent to fetch Medusa’s head by Polydectes, a cruel king who wished to have Perseus out of the way so he could marry his mother, Danae. Perseus was assisted by the gods, who provided him with a mirrored shield, winged sandals, a helmet of invisibility, an adamantine sword, and a magical satchel that could carry Medusa’s head. 

When Perseus found the Gorgons, he used the helmet of invisibility to sneak up on Medusa. He then used the mirrored shield to kill her, looking at Medusa’s reflection rather than directly at her so that he would not be turned to stone. After Perseus had beheaded Medusa and put her head into his satchel, he used his winged sandals to quickly fly away from the other two vengeful Gorgons.17

#Offspring

After Medusa was killed, her two children by Poseidon were born from her blood. One was the Giant Chrysaor, who became the father of the monster Geryon. Much later, Geryon was killed by Heracles. Medusa’s other child was Pegasus, the beautiful winged horse. Pegasus was eventually tamed by the hero Bellerophon.18

Edward Burne-Jones - The Death of Medusa I 1882

The Death of Medusa I by Edward Burne-Jones (1882).

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The venomous vipers of the Sahara were also sometimes said to have been born from Medusa’s blood. In this myth, the vipers emerged from the droplets of Medusa’s blood as Perseus flew over the Sahara with the Gorgon’s severed head.19

According to Ovid, the corals of the Red Sea were formed when Perseus set Medusa’s head down in the seaweed after saving Andromeda. Medusa’s blood caused the seaweed to harden and become beautiful coral.20

#Medusa’s Head

After killing Medusa, Perseus used her severed head as a weapon, turning many of his enemies to stone. In Libya, he used Medusa’s head to kill the monster Cetus and save Andromeda, who became his wife. When Andromeda’s former fiancé Phineus attacked him, Perseus killed him, too, using Medusa’s head. Upon returning to Seriphos, Perseus showed the king Polydectes the head and turned him to stone, thus saving his mother.

In some traditions, Perseus also met Atlas, the Titan charged with holding up the heavens, during his travels. The two quarreled and Perseus angrily forced Atlas to look upon Medusa’s head. Atlas immediately turned to stone, thus becoming the Atlas Mountains.21

Perseus eventually gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who placed it on her breastplate or shield, called the aegis. According to another tradition, however, the head was kept in the city of Athens, buried underneath a mound in the agora.22 

Medusa by Carvaggio

Medusa by Michelangelo Caravaggio (1595–96).

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The serpentine locks of Medusa’s hair had an effect very similar to that of the head: while they did not necessarily turn people to stone, they could scatter entire armies. One such lock was sometimes said to protect the Greek city of Tegea.23

Medusa’s blood was sometimes thought to have magical or medicinal properties. According to Apollodorus, Asclepius received a phial of her blood from Athena and used it to cure the sick.24 Medusa’s blood was also used for witchcraft by some mythical figures.25

#Other Interpretations

Not all ancient sources interpreted the myth of Medusa literally. According to Athenaeus, a Greek author who lived during the late second and early third centuries CE, the Gorgons were long-haired beasts, so terrifying that all who looked upon them were paralyzed and killed.26

Other authors believed the Gorgons were an ancient race of wild, hairy women.27 The antiquarian Diodorus of Sicily claimed that they were wiped out by Heracles when he traveled through Libya.28

#Pop Culture

Medusa has made several appearances in modern pop culture. She was portrayed using stop motion animation in the 1981 film Clash of the Titans. She also appeared in the 2010 remake as a monster with a serpentine lower body. The BBC One series Atlantis (2013–2015) features Medusa before she became a monster. 

Medusa is also a character in the first installment of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and is portrayed by Uma Thurman in the 2010 film adaptation.

Medusa or her Gorgon sisters appear in many video games and role-playing games, including Dungeons and Dragons, God of War, and Final Fantasy.

The head of Medusa is used as the logo of the Italian fashion company Versace.

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: Medusa is not named in the eighth-century BCE epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, but whenever Athena marches into battle, she is said to carry the head of the Gorgon on her armor.

  • Hesiod: Medusa’s lineage and her affair with the sea god Poseidon are outlined in the seventh-century BCE epic Theogony. The myth of Perseus’ slaying of Medusa is also described in the Shield of Heracles (220ff).

  • Pindar: Perseus’ battle with Medusa is described in Pythian Ode 12 (490 BCE).

  • Aeschylus: The fifth-century BCE tragedian Aeschylus evoked the uniquely terrifying Gorgons in several of his plays, including the Libation Bearers (1048ff), the Eumenides (46ff) and Prometheus Bound (788ff). He also wrote a tragedy, now lost, called Phorcides in which he described Perseus’ quest to hunt down and kill Medusa.

  • Apollonius of Rhodes: The third-century CE epic Argonautica describes the venomous vipers of the Sahara as the offspring of Medusa (4.1505ff).

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: A work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). The myths of Medusa are addressed in Book 3.

  • Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE. The myths of Medusa and Perseus appear in Book 2.

  • Nonnus: The myth of Medusa, her death, and her monstrous offspring are alluded to throughout the epic poem Dionysiaca (fifth century CE), which relates the travels of the young god Dionysus.

Roman

  • Virgil: In the epic the Aeneid (19 BCE), Medusa and the Gorgons are included among the monsters living at the outskirts of the Underworld (6.287ff).

  • Ovid: The myths of Medusa and her killer Perseus are described in Books 4 and 6 of the epic Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE). 

  • Lucan: The epic Civil War (60s CE) describes how the venomous vipers of the Sahara were born from Medusa’s blood (9.624ff).

  • Hyginus: Medusa and her death at the hands of Perseus are described in the Astronomica (2.12–13), a poem of the first or second century CE. There are also references to Medusa in the Fabulae.

#Secondary Sources

Bremmer, Jan. “Gorgo/Medusa.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 622–23. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Garber, Marjorie, and Nancy Vickers. The Medusa Reader. London: Routledge, 2003.

Hartland, Edwin. The Legend of Perseus. 3 vols. London: Nutt, 1894–96.

Howe, T. P. “An Interpretation of the Perseus-Gorgon Myth.” PhD diss., Columbia University, 1952.

Krauskopf, Ingrid. “Gorgo, Gorgoneion” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 4, 288–345. Zurich: Artemis, 1988.

Leeming, David. Medusa: In the Mirror of Time. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

Ogden, Daniel. Perseus. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Smith, William. “Gorgo.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 4, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DG%3Aentry+group%3D9%3Aentry%3Dgorgo-bio-1

Wilk, Stephen R. Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Woodward, Jocelyn M. Perseus: A Study in Greek Art and Legend. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.

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