Mythic Monday: Ghastly Gorgons

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This sculpture of Medusa is not terribly fearsome—if you can overlook the venomous snakes for hair. Credit: © Davide Catoni, Shutterstock

This week’s mythological figures are monstrous creatures called Gorgons. The Gorgons were so ugly that anyone who looked at them would turn to stone. Medusa and her two sisters made up the Gorgons of Greek mythology. Gorgons had hair that was a mass of writhing snakes, and they had terrifying faces with wicked eyes and hideous grins that revealed protruding fangs. The three sisters were also said to have golden wings and bronze hands.

According to most ancient sources, the Gorgons were daughters of the sea god Phorcys and his sister Ceto, a sea monster. The daughters were given the names Medusa (meaning queen or ruler), Stheno (strength), and Euryale (wide-leaping). Medusa was the most famous of the Gorgons. But, unlike her sisters, Medusa did not always have a frightening appearance. She was beautiful in her youth, and she boasted about her good looks and beautiful hair to the goddess Athena. In a fit of rage, the jealous Athena changed Medusa into a horrible-looking creature with a terrible curse: all who gazed upon Medusa (and her sisters) faced certain death.

Medusa’s sisters were immortal, but she was not. Medusa could be killed by an assailant who managed to avoid looking directly at her creepy face. With Athena’s help, the hero Perseus killed Medusa. He cut off her head while gazing at her reflection in his shield. It is said that upon her death, the blood dripping from Medusa’s head turned to slithering, poisonous snakes, and the mythical winged horse Pegasus sprang from Medusa’s bloated body. Athena took some of Medusa’s blood and gave it to Asclepius, the god of healing. Blood from the right side of Medusa’s body had the power to revive the dead. But blood from her left side was poisonous and killed instantly. One had to choose wisely.

During battles, the ancient Greeks often displayed images of a Gorgon’s head on their armor to frighten their enemies. They also wore charms with images of Gorgon heads to protect them from evil spells.

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