Today I’d like to talk about a monster most people would recognise, if only for the lively hair and killer looks – yes, that’s right, we’ll be discussing Medusa.
Medusa was a Gorgon, one of three sisters. Only two were immortal, and Medusa drew the short straw – she was not. Descriptions vary to a certain degree, but the Gorgon sisters are generally described as terrifying creatures with serpents for hair, eyes which could turn other beings into stone, claws, long, sharp teeth and, in some versions, wings. But Medusa has also been depicted as having boar’s tusks, a beard and a protruding tongue. In other legends, the Hindu goddess, Kali had a lolling tongue, which is not unlike that of the Gorgons.
It won’t surprise you that the Gorgons have a complicated family history, though their grandmother is said to have been the Earth Mother herself – Gaia. You may know that Gaia was one of the original offspring of creation. She had numerous children; three of which she conceived without the aid of a man. One of these was Pontus, who she later mated with (incest is well known among the gods). The union produced five children. Ceto, one of the five, (said to be the deity of large marine beasts), married her brother, Phorcys. Together they had a number of offspring including the Gorgons.
In some myths, Medusa wasn’t always a hideous creature. It is said she was once extraordinarily beautiful, and this beauty captured Poseidon’s attention. The pair made love in Athena’s temple and, clearly, they weren’t thinking with their heads! Their behaviour angered the virgin goddess Athena and as a punishment she turned Medusa into a monster. It’s not stated whether Poseidon was punished for his actions, though as a powerful god in his own right Athena’s options were limited. That said, the blame seems to be somewhat one sided and it didn’t stop there. Athena later told Perseus how to kill Medusa.
Some of the stories which describe Perseus’ quest, also credit Hermes as one of his accomplices, along with the Graeae (who were sisters of the Gorgons), and nymphs who gave Perseus four items; a cap of invisibility (normally worn by Hades), a pair of winged sandals (which Perseus used to escape Medusa’s sisters), an adamantine sickle to remove Medusa’s head, and the bag to store it in. After various adventures, Perseus eventually presented the head to Athena, who put it on her aegis.
But let’s get back to Medusa, and another part of this myth. The fact that two sons sprang from the blood of Medusa’s severed head; Chrysaor and Pegasus. I’ve always liked Medusa, was fascinated with the myth as a child, and could understand her bitterness. But imagine carrying offspring around for goodness knows how long, I think we’d all be a little cranky after that!
Not much is known about Chrysaor, aside from the fact he was born with a golden sword and his name actually means ‘the man with the golden sword.’ He married Callirhoe, who was an Oceanid, and fathered two children; Geryon (who was a giant with three heads) and Echidna (a monster with the body of a beautiful woman and a serpent’s tail instead of legs, who later gave birth to several monstrous offspring).
I have to point out though, that some myths state that Echidna was not born of Chrysaor and Callirhoe at all, but Phorcys and Ceto (Medusa’s parents) or, in another myth – Gaia and Tartarus.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Pegasus, the winged horse who eventually became a constellation. There’s a certain poetic justice in that I think, a freedom he could allow his mother. Or at least that’s the way I see it, though I could be romanticizing!
There are stories of another child of Medusa, born to Cacus, whose father was Hephaestus. Cacus inherited the properties of his father and monstrosities of his mother. He was a fire-breathing monster, and in some versions, is described as a three-headed giant. He lived on human flesh and decorated his cave with the bones of his victims. Hercules killed Cacus in one of his most famous myths, which also included Geryon (Chrysaor’s son).
Those are the main stories describing Medusa in Greek mythology. So now it’s over to you. What do you think of Medusa and her history? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
References: The Everything Classical Mythology Book, by Lesley Bolton; The British Museum Pocket Dictionary of Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses, by Richard Wolf, and 30-Second Mythology, edited by Robert A. Segal.