In Greek mythology Medusa was the most famous amongst 3 monstrous sisters, known as the Gorgons. The first source even found about their deeds is in Theogony by Hesiod (8th century BC – 7th century BC.). According to the author the three sisters, Stheno, Euryale and Medusa, were daughters of Phorcys and his sister Ceto and used to live beyond the famous Ocean on the edge of the world. Of the three sisters only Medusa was mortal, while the other two were blessed by the power of immortality.
Medusa before her curse
Although Hesiod gives a report of the origin of Medusa and her death by the hand of Perseus, he does not say buck about her figure. On the contrary a more complete description of Medusa can be found in the Metamorphosis by Ovid (43 BC-17/18 AD), Latin poet of the following centuries. Ovid described her character as originally a beautiful girl. Her beauty attracted the attentions of Poseidon, God of the Sea, who desired and took her to the sanctuary of Athena, Goddess of the Arts, the wisdom and war. The Goddess found revenge by turning her hair in snakes so that whoever had looked at her directly would have become stone.
“So that the the rough sand does not spoil the needle-like head (anguiferumque caput dura ne laedat harena), he turns the soil soft with a layer of leaves, lays some branches born underwater and place Medusa’s head facing down”. – the Metamorphosis by Ovid
Below: Michelangelo Merisi From Caravaggio, shield with Medusa’s head. Oil on canvas, between 1595 and 1598, Uffizi Gallery
Medusa and Perseus
In Perseus myth, the hero was sent by Polydectes, ruler of Seriphos, to cut Medusa’s head off. Polydectes in reality was hoping just for Perseus death in order to obtain the love of Danaë, his mother. Such a mission was supposed to have the hero dead, but he was Zeus’ son so the Gods came to his rescue. Perseus obtained the helmet of invisibility from Hades, a pair of winged sandals from Hermes, a reflecting bronzed shield from Athena and a sword from Hephaestus.
With all these divine gifts, Perseus looked for Medusa and beheaded her during her sleep
Right after the Gorgon was killed, the flying horse Pegasus came out from her neck. In the Theogony, Hesiod mentioned Chrysaor as well, a giant born with a golden sword on his hand, coming from Medusa’s neck, pregnant by her encounter with Poseidon. After the killing of the Gorgon and the escape from her sisters, Perseus used Hades’ helmet of invisibility and came back to Serifos after some other adventures.
Below: Pegasus and Chrysaor born by Medusa’s body in an illustration by Edward Burne-Jones
Despite the main character is Perseus, Medusa’s head becomes a “magic helper” of the hero, who uses it in several occasions. When passing through Africa he petrifies the titan Atlas (giving the name to a mountain chain), a marine monster who was about to kill his sacrificial victim Andromeda (later on his wife), and then Phineus, uncle of the girl and her previous betrothed man. The sequence of murders through Medusa’s head does not stop in Africa but carries on to Greece, where Perseus petrifies first his great uncle Proetus, brother of the grandfather Acrisius, then Polydectes who wanted to marry his mother Danaë.
Below: Perseus with Medusa’s head, by Benvenuto Cellini (1545-54). Picture by Morio shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
The head of the Gorgon was used by Perseus to kill all the courtiers of Polydectes and even for the grandfather Acrisius, guilty for not letting him pass through his territory. Eventually the Gorgon ended on the aegis of Athena, who donates some magical snakes to Hercules.
Below: unknown Flemish artist, oil on canvas, 16th century. Uffizi Gallery
The protective powers of Medusa’s head
Even if Medusa is generally considered as a monster, her head is mythologically seen as a protective amulet, able to keep away evilness and bring justice to the hero. The picture of the head of the Gorgon can be found in several Greek and Roman finds such as shields, armors and mosaics. One of these examples is a protective Roman pendant from the 2nd-4th century AD found in the countryside of the Cambridgeshire.
Below: Medusa found recently in the UK
In recent times the most known representation of Medusa’s head belongs to the logo of the Italian Fashion brand of Versace.
Below: Roman ornament in bronze of the head of the Gorgon. Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne. Picture by Carole Raddato shared via Wikipedia – licence CC BY-SA 2.0