Medusa was one of the three Gorgons of Greek Mythology, daughter of Phorcys and Keto. Unlike her sisters Stheno and Euryale, Medusa—whose name means queen, or ruler—was mortal. In the most common versions of the myth, the originally beautiful Medusa was seduced or raped by the god Poseidon in the shape of a steed, in one of Athena's temples. As a result, she conceived two sons, but failed to deliver them. Athena punished the sacrilege by turning the Gorgon's hair into fearsome hissing snakes: Whoever would gaze at her would be petrified. Perseus, son of Jupiter and Danaë, fulfilling a promise he had made, and helped by Hermes (who gave him winged sandals), Athena (who provided a reflecting shield), and Pluto (who endowed him with a helmet that made him invisible), decapitated the Gorgon in her sleep, not looking at her directly, but through her reflected image on his shield. At that moment, her twin sons sprang forth from her neck: Chrysaor, who would later father the monster Geryon, and winged Pegasus, that would become the horse of the Muses. Perseus put the severed head in a wallet and flew away. He used the head as a dreadful device to (among his other deeds) turn the giant Atlas into a mountain, and Phineus (the uncle-pretender of his newlywed bride Andromeda) and his friends into statues. He then donated the trophy to his patroness Athena, who would put it at the center of her aegis.
Scholars like Jean-Pierre Vernant have pointed out that the myth evolved through history, and that some central elements were introduced as late as the fourth century bce (for instance, the reflecting shield). However, the various versions and episodes of the story were consolidated in the narratives of authors like the Pseudo-Apollodorus and Ovid (c. 43 bce–17 ce).
Some ancient mythographers and historians, such as Diodorus Siculus (first century bce) or, more indirectly, Pausanias (second century ce), drew parallels between the Gorgons and the Amazons or Libyan (African) women warriors, and between their respective nemeses: Perseus, and Hercules (who could not tolerate a nation governed by women).
Some contemporary authors have interpreted the story of Medusa, and especially her decapitation, as one "told from the point of view of the classical Olympian patriarchal system" (Campbell 1964, p. 25), but also as a tale that was nonetheless reminiscent of a pre-Patriarchal order and a gender construction in which a goddess could contain the principles of both life (or cure) and death (or poison). This would be implied in the double nature of Medusa's blood. In Euripides's Ion, and in the myth of Asclepius, scholars have insisted on the apotropaic power that Medusa's severed head acquires, either on Athena's aegis, or in its representation in ancient domestic sculptures, or on the armors of Renaissance military leaders (see Garber and Vickers 2003, pp. 2-4).
In the construction of Medusa as an icon in classical and post-classical times, the matter of her beauty played a considerable role either as an original virtue later disfigured by Athena's punishing act, or as a key to interpret the myth in a different, rather skeptical or ironic fashion; for instance, Lucian (second century ce) suggested that it was the Gorgon's wondrous beauty that petrified the gazers; for Pausanias, Perseus cut off her head in order to show her splendor to the Greeks. In the Middle Ages, Christine de Pisan (c. 1364–1430) also speaks on Medusa's beauty as the real instrument of petrification in the Book of the City of Ladies, in a passage dependent on Giovanni Boccaccio's De Mulieribus Claris. In another of his works, the Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, Boccaccio (1313–1375), drawing, among others, on Fulgentius (late fifth–early sixth centuries ce), proposes an allegorical reading of Perseus's myth: A wise man triumphs on vice, and attains virtue, scorning earthly pleasure in order to pursue heavenly goals; Dante (1265–1321) had also powerfully evoked the frightening image of Medusa in Canto IX of the Inferno. In the Late Renaissance, Cesare Ripa's enormously influential Iconologia (1593) would popularize a similar allegorical interpretation into early modern iconography.
The myth of Medusa famously received attention from the fathers of psychoanalysis. Both Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi found in it a clear symbolization of castration. For Freud, the terror provoked by the image of Medusa's head represents the fear that the sight of his mother's genitals arouses in a boy, although the horror is paradoxically mitigated by the snakes, which serve as a replacement for the penis (Freud 1953–1974). Contemporary feminist theorists moved from this Freudian reading to propose counter-interpretations (see Hélène Cixous, Sarah Kofman, Patricia Klindienst Joplin). Joplin, who also insists on the centrality of rape and sacrifice in Medusa's myth, maintains that Freud, in equating decapitation and castration, perpetuates "the mythological and sacrificial thinking inherent in misogyny" (Joplin 1984, p. 50).
Particularly favored by Romantic writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Medusa's story has notably appealed to contemporary women authors, among them Louise Bogan (1897–1970), Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), May Sarton (1912–1995), Ann Stanford (1916–1987), and Amy Clampitt (1920–1994).
The subject of innumerable representations in Western arts of all times (the most universally known, and widely studied, are Benvenuto Cellini's bronze sculpture Perseus [1545–1554] and Caravaggio's Medusa [c. 1597], a canvas mounted on a shield-like panel), the fortune of Medusa's icon in contemporary popular culture can be epitomized by its selection as the logo of the Versace fashion house.
In the history of music, Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Persée (1682, based on a libretto by Philippe Quinault) is particularly noteworthy for its political and cultural implications; the protagonist is a transparent allegory of king Louis XIV, and Medusa and her sisters represent the enemy forces that the French monarch was fighting at that time.
Campbell, Joseph. 1964. Occidental Mythology. New York: Viking Penguin.
Cixous, Hélène. 1976. "The Laugh of Medusa," trans. K. Cohen and P. Cohen. Signs 1(4): 875-893.
Freud, Sigmund. 1953–1974. "The Medusa's Head." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 18, ed. and trans. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press.
Garber, Marjorie, and Nancy J. Vickers, eds. 2003. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge.
Klindienst Joplin, Patricia. 1984. "The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours." The Stanford Literature Review 1: 25-53.
Kofman, Sarah. 1985. The Enigma of Woman: Woman in Freud's Writings, trans. Catherine Porter. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lully, Jean-Baptiste. 2002. Lully: Persée (Les Talens Lyriques). Christophe Rousset, conductor. Paris: Astree.
Pratt, Annis. 1994. Dancing with Goddesses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Siebers, Tobin. 1983. The Mirror of Medusa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre. 1991. Mortals and Immortals, trans. T. Curley and F. I. Zeitlin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Walker, Julia M. 1998. Medusa's Mirrors: Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and the Metamorphosis of the Female Self. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphoses
Daughter of Phorcys and Ceto
Medusa, one of three sisters in Greek mythology known as the Gorgons (pronounced GOR-guhnz), had a destructive effect upon humans. In many myths she appeared as a horribly ugly woman with hair made of snakes, although occasionally she was described as being beautiful. In both forms Medusa's appearance was deadly: any person who gazed direcdy at her would turn to stone.
Although the two other Gorgons were immortal (able to live forever), Medusa was not. One of the best-known legends about her tells how the Greek hero Perseus (pronounced PUR-see-uhs) killed her. Perseus and his mother, Danaë (pronounced DAN-uh-ee), lived on the island of Seriphos (pronounced SEHR-uh-fohs), which was ruled by King Polydectes (pronounced pol-ee-DEK-teez). The king wanted to marry Danae but Perseus opposed the marriage. Polydectes then chose another bride and demanded that all the islanders give him horses as a wedding gift. Perseus, who had no horses, offered to give Polydectes anything else. Because no man had ever survived an encounter with the Gorgons, Polydectes challenged Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa.
With the help of the goddess Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) and a group of nymphs (female nature deities), Perseus obtained special equipment for his task: a sharpened sickle, or curved blade, a cap that made the wearer invisible, and a pair of winged sandals. He also polished his bronze shield so he could see Medusa's reflection in it without gazing directly at her. Wearing the magic cap and following Medusa's reflection in his shield, Perseus crept up on the Gorgons. He cut off Medusa's head in one swipe and put it in a bag. The drops of blood that fell from the head turned into Medusa's two sons—Chrysaor (pronounced kree-SAY-ohr) and Pegasus (pronounced PEG-uh-suhs)—by the god Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun).
With the help of the magic sandals, Perseus flew off before the other Gorgons could catch him. When he reached Seriphos, he held up Medusa's head and turned Polydectes to stone. Perseus later gave the head to Athena, who mounted it on her shield.
Medusa in Context
Medusa can be seen as a reflection of the qualities that ancient Greeks felt were unappealing in women. She lived apart from men entirely and appeared to have no use for them, which was unlike the traditional image of a woman as servant and property of a man. She was also physically hideous, which the Greeks felt reflected an undesirable personality as well as a lack of beauty and grace. She even offered a fierce, direct gaze that may have seemed inappropriate or defiant if used by a normal woman.
Key Themes and Symbols
Medusa can be seen as a symbol of ugliness and solitude. She lives with her sisters and has few interactions with outsiders. The Gorgons may also represent the bonds of sisterhood, since they remain together and care for one another apart from the rest of the world. Medusa herself is unique among the Gorgons as a symbol of mortality; she is the only one who cannot live forever and is indeed slain by Perseus.
Medusa in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Medusa is the most popular of the Gorgons. She has appeared in art by Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso, and Leonardo da Vinci (though da Vinci's two paintings of Medusa have not survived). Perhaps the most famous images of Medusa are the headless portrait painted by Caravaggio in 1597, and the sixteenth century bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa's head sculpted by Benvenuto Cellini. The story of Perseus and Medusa is retold in the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, in which Medusa is depicted as a grotesque woman with the lower body of a snake. The name Medusa has been borrowed for many other objects in modern life, including sea organisms, celestial bodies, ships, and even several roller coasters.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Corydon and the Island of Monsters (2005), by Tobias Druitt, is a tale of Corydon, a goat-legged shepherd boy taken captive by pirates who run a traveling freak show. There, Corydon meets Medusa, whose gaze does not hurt him, and the two escape the freak show, free the other captives, and make their way to Medusa's island home. Soon, however, Perseus and other glory-seeking heroes arrive to rid the island of its “monsters.” The book is the first of a trilogy; Tobias Druitt is actually a pen name for the mother and son writing team of Diane Purkiss and Michael Downing.
Medusa, one of three sisters in Greek mythology known as the Gorgons, had a destructive effect upon humans. In many myths, she appeared as a horribly ugly woman with hair made of snakes, although occasionally she was described as being beautiful. In
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
both forms, Medusa's appearance was deadly: any person who gazed directly at her would turn to stone.
Although the two other Gorgons were immortal, Medusa was not. One of the best-known legends about her tells of how the Greek hero Perseus killed her. Perseus and his mother, Danaë, lived on the island of Seriphos, which was ruled by King Polydectes. The king wanted to marry Danaë, but Perseus opposed the marriage. Polydectes then chose another bride and demanded that all the islanders give him horses as a wedding gift. Perseus, who had no horses, offered to give Polydectes anything else. Because no man had ever survived an encounter with the Gorgons, Polydectes challenged Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa.
With the help of the goddess Athena* and a group of nymphs, Perseus obtained special equipment for his task: a sharpened sickle, a cap that made the wearer invisible, and a pair of winged sandals. He also polished his bronze shield so that he could see Medusa's reflection in it and not gaze directly at her. Wearing the magic cap and following Medusa's reflection in his shield, Perseus crept up on the Gorgons. He cut off Medusa's head in one swipe and put it in a bag. The drops of blood that fell from the head turned into Medusa's two sons—Chrysaor and Pegasus—by the god Poseidon*.
immortal able to live forever
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
With the help of the magic sandals, Perseus flew off before the other Gorgons could catch him. When he reached Seriphus, he held up Medusa's head and turned Polydectes to stone. Perseus later gave the head to Athena, who mounted it on her shield.
See also DanaË; Gorgons; Greek Mythology; Nymphs; Pegasus; Perseus.
me·du·sa / məˈdoōsə; -zə/ • n. (pl. -sae / -sē; -sī; -zē; -zī/ or -sas ) Zool. a free-swimming sexual form of a coelenterate such as a jellyfish, typically having an umbrella-shaped body with stinging tentacles around the edge. In some species, medusae are a phase in the life cycle that alternates with a polypoid phase. Compare with polyp. ∎ a jellyfish.
Me·du·sa / məˈd(y)oōsə; -zə/ Greek Mythol. the only mortal Gorgon, whom Perseus killed by cutting off her head.