Medusa, by Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1571–1610), Italian Baroque painter

Medusa, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
(1571–1610), Italian Baroque painter

Homer knows only one Gorgo, who, according to the Odyssey (xi. 633), was one of the frightful phantoms in Hades: in the Iliad (v. 741, viii. 349, xi. 36; comp. Virg. Aen. vi. 289), the Aegis of Athena contains the head of Gorgo, the terror of her enemies. Euripides (Ion, 989) still speaks of only one Gorgo, although Hesiod (Theog. 278) had mentioned three Gorgones, the daughters of Phorcys and Ceto, whence they are sometimes called Phorcydes or Phorcides. (Aeschyl. Prom. 793, 797; Pind. Pyth. xii. 24; Ov. Met. v. 230.) The names of the three Gorgones are Stheino (Stheno or Stenusa), Euryale, and Medusa (Hes. l. c.; Apollod. ii. 4. § 2), and they are conceived by Hesiod to live in the Western Ocean, in the neighbourhood of Night and the Hesperides. But later traditions place them in Libya. (Herod. ii. 91; Paus. ii. 21. § 6.) They are described (Scut. Here. 233) as girded with serpents, raising their heads, vibrating their tongues, and gnashing their teeth; Aeschylus (Prom. 794. &c., Choëph. 1050) adds that they had wings and brazen claws, and enormous teeth. On the chest of Cypselus they were likewise represented with wings. (Paus. v. 18. § 1.) Medusa, who alone of her sisters was mortal, was, according to some legends, at first a beautiful maiden, but her hair was changed into serpents by Athena, in consequence of her having become by Poseidon the mother of Chrysaor and Pegasus, in one of Athena's temples. (Hes. Theog. 287, &c.; Apollod. ii. 4. § 3; Ov. Met. iv. 792; comp. PERSEUS.) Her head was now of so fearful an appearance, that every one who looked at it was changed into stone. Hence the great difficulty which Perseus had in killing her; and Athena afterwards placed the head in the centre of her shield or breastplate. There was a tradition at Athens that the head of Medusa was buried under a mound in the Agora. (Paus. ii. 21. § 6, v. 12. § 2.) Athena gave to Heracles a lock of Medusa (concealed in an urn), for it had a similar effect upon the beholder as the head itself. When Heracles went out against Lacedaemon he gave the lock of hair to Sterope, the daughter of Cepheus, as a protection of the town of Tegea, as the sight of it would put the enemy to fight. (Paus. viii. 47. § 4; Apollod. ii. 7. § 3.)

The mythus respecting the family of Phorcys, to which also the Graeae, Hesperides, Scylla, and other fabulous beings belonged, has been interpreted in various ways by the ancients themselves. Some believed that the Gorgones were formidable animals with long hair, whose aspect was so frightful, that men were paralysed or killed by it, and some of the soldiers of Marius were believed to have thus met with their death (Athen. v. 64). Pliny (H. N. iv. 31) thought that they were a race of savage, swift, and hair-covered women; and Diodorus (iii. 55) regards them as a race of women inhabiting the western parts of Libya, who had been extirpated by Heracles in traversing Libya.

Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Flemish Baroque painter

Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Flemish Baroque painter