Medusa in Myth and Literary History
In Greek Myth
one of the three Gorgons, daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. She was the only one of the
Gorgons who was subject to mortality. She is celebrated for her personal charms and the
beauty of her locks. Neptune became enamoured of her, and obtained her favours in the
temple of Minerva. This violation of the sanctity of the temple provoked Minerva, and she
changed the beautiful locks of Medusa, which had inspired Neptunes love to serpents.
According to Apollodorus, Medusa and her sisters came into the world with snakes on their
heads, instead of hair, with yellow wings and brazen hands. Their bodies were also covered
with impenetrable scales, and their very looks had the power of killing or turning to
stones. Perseus rendered his name immortal by his conquest of Medusa. He cut off her head,
and the blood that dropped from the wound produced the innumerable serpents that infest
Africa. The conqueror placed Medusa’s head on the shield of Minerva, which he had used in
his expedition. The head still retained the same petrifying power as before, as it was
fatally known in the court of Cepheus. . . . Some suppose that the Gorgons were a nation
of women, whom Perseus conquered.
From Lempri�res Classical Dictionary of Proper names mentioned in Ancient
Authors Writ Large. Ed. J. Lempri�re and F.A. Wright. London: Routledge & Kegan
Medusa’s head, an apparently simple motif linked to the myth of Perseus, was freed
through being severed and cut loose from its ‘moorings’ by the hero in the remote depths
of the world. There is something paradoxical about the story since the monster was all the
more indestructible because it had been killed. Indeed, the figure of Medusa is
characterized by paradox, both in terms of the actual mythical stare, which turned men to
stone, and in the interpretations that have been given to it. The fascination that she
exerts arises from a combination of beauty and horror. Her head was used, in Ancient
times, as an apotropaic mask — a sort of talisman which both killed and redeemed.
As well as being the very symbol of ambiguity, Medusa’s head is also one of the most
archaic mythical figures, perhaps an echo of the demon Humbaba who was decapitated by
Gilgamesh. Everything implies that it is a ‘representation’ of the most meaningful aspect
of the sacred. Insofar as it is the role of literature to assume responsibility for the
sacred, each era, when confronted with the mystery of the ‘origins’, has re-examined
Medusa’s head with its mesmerizing stare as something which conceals the secret of the
THE OTHER AND THE MONSTER
If ambiguity is the hallmark of the sacred, the role of myths, as Ren� Gerard purports
in his La Violence et le Sacr� (1972) is to generate differences and contrasts, to
distinguish between the two faces of the sacred. Therefore, from the viewpoint of the
oldest texts which are true to the spirit of the myth, Medusa is a representation of the
Other by virtue of her absolute and terrifying difference. At first sight, her monstrous
ugliness and her petrifying stare certainly bear this out.
In La Mort dans les Yeux (1985), Vernant demonstrates that, for the Greeks,
Medusa represented the face of the warrior possessed by battle frenzy. In The Shield of
Heracles (232-3), Hesiod describes the wide-open mouth, the fearsome hair and the
Gorgons’ shrill cries which conjure up her terrifying aspect. Thus Medusa’s mask
frequently appears within the context of a battle. It is present in the Iliad
on the shields of Athena (V, 738) and Agamemnon (XI, 36), and also during the
Renaissance, e.g. on Bellona’s helmet described by Ronsard in the ‘Ode � Michel de
l’Hospital’ (Premier Livre des Odes, 1560). The Gorgon also represents what cannot
be represented, i.e. death, which it is impossible to see or to look at, like Hades
itself. In Hesiod’s Theogony (275 et seq.) and in the Odyssey (XI, 633-5),
Medusa is the guardian of terrifying places, either the nocturnal borders of the world or
the Underworld. She reappears in this role in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, IX,
55-7) and Milton’s Paradise Lost (II, 611). Guarding the doorway to the world of
the dead, she prevents the living from entering.
In Christian symbolism, Medusa represents the dreaded enemy and death, and thus becomes
an embodiment of the Devil. She appears in this guise in a passage in the Book of
Arthur which belongs to the cycle of the Holy Grail (Vulgate version of Arthurian
romances, Vol. VII, Washington, 1913). In fact, this is a female monster, the ‘Ugly
Semblance’, who lives at the bottom of a river. She does not exercise her powers by
turning people to stone, but by causing the waters to swallow them up. Similarly, a play
by Calder�n, which tells of the adventures of Andromeda and Perseus (Fortunas de
Andromeda y Perseo), has the hero, a new incarnation of the Saviour, defeating Medusa
who is the personification of Death and Sin.
At first glance, therefore, Medusa’s head is very much a representation of the
terrifying Other, of absolute negativity. She continues to fulfil this function in the
twentieth-century trilogy by the Greek writer Pandelis Prevelakis, The Ways of
Creation, which comprises The Sun of Death (Athens, 1959; Paris, 1965), The
Head of the Medusa (Athens, 1963) and The Bread of the Angels (Athens, 1966).
In the trilogy, the Gorgon represents both ‘Nietzschian nihilism’ and the foreign
ideologies which threaten Hellenism. The hero sets out to free Greece once again from the
monster, but he fails and realizes that there is no longer a single piece of untaited land
in his country. Everything points to the fact that the malady specific to modern Greece,
and the country’s inability to accommodate, change, have provoked this monstrous
‘representation’ of the Other. Medusa’s head does indeed seem to be a mask which serves to
justify her absolute and evil strangeness.
The fact that Medusa is a mask and that this mask hides a more human face, is borne out
by the way in which her portrayal is developed from the pre-Classical era to the
Hellenistic period. There is a dual transformation i.e. the disappearance of both facial
quality and ugliness (see Images de la Gorgone, Biblioth�que Nationale, 1985).
Beneath the mask lies what could be called Medusa’s ‘tragic beauty’.
THE MIRROR AND THE MASK
Many elements of the myth suggest, through its basic ambiguity, the tragic nature of
Medusa. One of the most revealing of these is the gift from Athena to Asclepius of two
drops of the Gorgon’s blood, one of which has the power to cure and even resurrect, while
the other is a deadly poison. Medusa’s blood is therefore the epitome of the ‘pharmakon’,
while she herself — as is shown by the apotropaic function of her mask — is a
‘pharmakos’. As has been demonstrated by Ren� Girard, the ‘pharmakos’ is the scapegoat
whose sacrifice establishes the dual nature of the sacred and reinforces the separation of
the monster and the god. However, it is for literature and the arts to reveal the close
relationship between opposites and the ‘innocence’ of the victim. In this respect, the
myth of Medusa is revealing. In his study The Mirror of Medusa (1983), Tobin
Siebers has identified the importance of two elements, i.e. the rivalry between Athena and
the Gorgon, and the mirror motif.
According to Ovid (Metamorphoses, IV. 779ff), the reason for the dispute lay in
Poseidon’s rape of Medusa inside the temple of the virgin goddess. The goddess is supposed
to have punished Medusa by transforming her face, which therefore made Medusa an innocent
victim for the second time. However, another tradition, used by Mallarm� in Les Dieux
antiques (1880), stressed a more personal rivalry: Medusa had boasted that she was
more beautiful than Athena. Everything points to the face that the goddess found it
necessary to set herself apart from her negative double in order to assert her ‘own’
identity. Common features are numerous. For example, snakes are the attribute of Athena,
as illustrated by the famous statue of Phidias and indicated by certain Orphic poems which
refer to her as ‘la Serpentine’. Moreover, the hypnotic stare is one of the features of
the goddess ‘with blue-green eyes’, whose bird is the owl, depicted with an unblinking
gaze. Finally, because she has affixed Medusa’s head to her shield, in battle or in anger
she assumes the terrifying appearance of the monster. Thus, in the Aeneid (11,
171), she expresses her wrath by making flames shoot forth from her eyes. These
observations are intended to show that Athena and Medusa are the two indissociable aspects
of the same sacred power.
A similar claim could be made in respect of Perseus, who retains traces of his
association with his monstrous double, Medusa. Using her decapitated head to turn his
enemies to stone, he spreads death around him. And when he flies over Africa with his
trophy in a bag, through some sort of negligence, drops of blood fall to earth and are
changed into poisonous snakes which reduce Medusa’s lethal power (Ovid, op. cit., IV.
618). Two famous paintings illustrate this close connection between the hero and the
monster. Cellini’s Perseus resembles the head he is holding in his hand (as
demonstrated by Siebers) and Paul Klee’s Lesprit a combattu le mal (1904)
portrays a complete reversal of roles — Perseus is painted full face with a terrible
countenance, while Medusa turns aside.
In this interplay of doubles, the theme of reflection is fundamental. It explains the
process of victimization to which Medusa was subjected, and which falls within the
province of the superstition of the ‘evil eye’. The way to respond to the ‘evil eye’ is
either to use a third eye — the one that Perseus threw at the Graiae – or to deflect the
evil spell by using a mirror. Ovid, in particular, stressed the significance of the shield
in which Perseus was able to see the Gorgon without being turned to stone, and which was
given to him by Athena. Everything indicates that the mirror was the real weapon. It was
interpreted thus by Calder�n and Prevelakis, and also by Roger Caillois in M�duse et
Ovid was responsible for establishing the link with Narcissus, a myth that he made
famous. It seems that the same process of victimization is at work here. The individual is
considered to have been the victim of his own reflection, which absolves the victimizer
(Perseus, the group) from all blame. This association of the two myths (and also the
intention of apportioning blame) appears in a passage in Desportes’ Amours
dHyppolite (1573) where the poet tells his lady that she is in danger of seeing
herself changed ‘into some hard rock’ by her ‘Medusa’s eye’. Even more revealing is
Gautier’s story Jettatura (1857) in which the hero, accused of having the ‘evil
eye’, eventually believes it to be true and watches the monstrous transformation of his
face in the mirror: ‘Imagine Medusa looking at her horrible, hypnotic face in the lurid
reflection of the bronze shield.’
Medusa’s head is both a mirror and a mask. It is the mirror of collective violence
which leaves the Devil’s mark on the individual, as well as being the image of death for
those who look at it. Both these themes — violence rendered sacred and death by
petrifaction — are found in Das Corgonenhaupt (Berlin, 1972), a work by Walter
Kr�ger about the nuclear threat.
However, when considered in terms of archetypal structures, Medusa’s mask still retains
its secret. What is the reason for the viperine hair, the wide-open mouth with the lolling
tongue, and, in particular, why is Medusa female? What relationship is there between
violence, holy terror and woman?
THE DISCONCERTING STRANGENESS OF THE FEMININE
Robert Graves (Greek Myths, 1958) believes that the myth of Perseus preserves
the memory of the conflicts which occurred between men and women in the transition from a
matriarchal to a patriarchal society. In fact the function of the Gorgon’s mask was to
keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies and mysteries reserved for women,
i.e. those which celebrated the Triple Goddess, the Moon. Graves reminds us that the
Orphic poems referred to the full moon as the ‘Gorgon’s head’. The mask was also worn by
young maidens to ward off male lust. The episode of Perseus’ victory over Medusa
represents the end of female ascendancy and the taking over of the temples by men, who had
become the masters of the divine which Medusa’s head had concealed from them.
Although it may have become less intense, the battle of the sexes was not resolved. The
feminine continued to remain a source of fear for men, and the association of women with
Medusa, evoked an aspect of the sex which was both fascinating and dangerous. Medusa often
appeared in Renaissance poetry, e.g. Ronsard’s Second Livre des Amours (S. 79,
1555), but the stare which turned men to stone was often only a conventional metaphor for
the lover’s ‘coup de foudre’. The comparison took on a deeper meaning during the
nineteenth century. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) and ‘decadent’ literature
such as Lorrain’s M. de Phocas (1901), provide illustrations of the dangerous
fascination exerted by woman, with her deadly stare and mysterious hair. But it was
Goethe’s Faust Part I (1808) which supplied the real significance of this
connection. During the ‘Walpurgis night, Faust thinks he sees Margarita but
Mephistopheles warns him that it is Medusa and explains that ‘magic deludes every man into
believing that he has found his beloved in her’.
This terrible woman, the paragon of all women, whom every man simultaneously fears and
seeks and for whom Medusa is the mask, is in fact the mother, i.e. the great Goddess
Mother whose rites were concealed by the Gorgon’s face. Countless texts illustrate
Medusa’s affinity with the depths of the sea and the terrible power of nature, e.g. Hugo’s
Les Travailleurs de la Mer (1864), Lautr�mont’s Chants de Maldoror (1869)
and Pierre Lou�s’ Aphrodite (1896), but the most explicit example is probably the
text written by Freud in 1922: Das Medusenhaupt — ‘Medusa’s Head’. He presents her
as the supreme talisman who provides the image of castration — associated in the child’s
mind with the discovery of maternal sexuality — and its denial. The snakes are multiple
phalluses and petrifaction represents the comforting erection.
From this point onwards, the myth of Perseus takes on a new psychological meaning. It
tells of the exploit of the hero who, because he has conquered castrating’ woman and
armed himself with the talisman of Medusa’s head (seen here in its comforting, phallic
role), is able to conquer Andromeda, the terrifying virgin, and kill the sea monster which
represents the evil aspect of woman. This motif is also found in the Christian legend of
St George (Jacques de Voragine, La L�gende dor�e, (1264) as well as in the
anthropological legends concerning the fear of the ‘dentate vagina’. A ‘sacred’ man must
perform the first sexual act with a woman.
Two texts illustrate this aspect of the myth. One is, the Book of Arthur (op.
cit). in the passage devoted to the ‘Ugly Semblance’. The monster occupies the lands of a
maiden who not only asks the king for the assistance of a knight but also for a husband
whom she describes as though he had always been intended for her. The task that he
performs seems to have been the necessary requirement for his union with the Virgin. The
story stresses the association of the monster with the element of water and, in
particular, with the sea into which it has to be driven back. The second text is a short
story by D�blin, Der Ritter Blaubart — the ‘Knight with the Blue Beard’ (1911).
Because the hero has had mysterious and intimate relations with a primitive monster — a
giant medusa — he is forced to either kill all the women he loves or allow them to be
killed. However, one of them, because of her purity, confronts the monster in the secret
chamber where it lurks. In this last example, the character seems to have been unable to
free himself from the maternal influence and fear of the feminine.
Finally, this association of Medusa with castrating woman is very evident in a passage
in Ch�ne et Chien (1952) by Queneau: ‘Severed head, evil woman/ Medusa with her
lolling tongue/So it was you who would have castrated me?’ However, the myth reveals —
and this seems to be obscured by the Freudian interpretation — that woman’s ‘castration’
is a result of the violence imposed on her by the original hero. Woman only appears in the
story divided by separative decapitation, casting off the feminine in the remote depths of
the world. Cast down, the feminine remains unrecognized within its innermost recess and it
is this ‘abject’ void which maintains the theatre of the world and the logic of the
talisman. In this theatre, woman occupies the two opposite extremes of evil (castration,
sorcery) and their cure (the phallus, the Virgin), i.e. of the abyss and the Ideal. That
is why, despite her terrifying power, she is fascinating. ‘Fascinum’ means ‘charm’ and
‘evil spell’, but also ‘virile member’. Between the ’emptiness’ and the Idol represented
by the division of woman, yawns the gulf of male Desire. This persistent ambiguity can be
found in the classification of the creature called the medusa. It owes its name to its
resemblance to Medusa’s head (Apollinaire, Bestiaire, 1920), but is included in the
Acephelan category. Medusa keeps her secret behind the ambiguous mask. Although she is
‘representable’, she is never ‘presentable’ and even Perseus only sees her reflected in
his shield. She is the hidden presence, absent from the world, which enables the scene to
be played out. In his ‘heroic comedy’ Le Naufrage de M�duse (1986), Ristat shows
Perseus searching for the Gorgons and meeting Hermes, the ‘Guardian of Resemblances’, who
proves to the terrified hero that ‘Medusa herself is only a shadow’.
However, the hero remains trapped in the interplay of images and the logic of the
talisman, just as he remains fascinated by the Gorgon mask. Thus Medusa’s head becomes,
for the man who takes possession of it after severing it from the terrifying woman, and in
accordance with the principle of the ‘pharmakon’, the complete opposite, i.e. the
‘skeptron’ — the sun.
O MEDUSA, O SUN’
In the same way that there is a hidden similarity between Athena, Goddess of Wisdom,
and Medusa, a similarity also exists between the sun, symbol of the Ideal and the Gorgon’s
mask. Although they are both objects of desire, Athena and the sun are unapproachable and
terrifying for those who come too close. This danger is illustrated by the Platonic myth
of Phaedrus (247-8e) in which the downfall of souls is brought about by an overpowering
desire to see the sun. Certain structural elements from the myth of Medusa also reappear
in the myth of the Cave (The Republic, 514-7a), i.e. fascination, averted eyes,
violence inflicted on the philosopher, etc.
In his poem (op. cit.), Queneau maintains that the sun, like the Gorgon, is fearsome
and castrating: ‘The sun: O monster, O Gorgon, O Medusa/O sun’. In this way, Medusa
herself can become an incarnation of the Ideal, i.e. of Virtue (Du Bellay, Epithalame, 1559),
of Beauty (Baudelaire, op. cit., ‘La Beaut�’) and of Truth (Kosmas Politis, Eroica, Athens,
1938). Surely the sun itself is the severed head that, like the head of St John the
Baptist, only soars in the zenith: ‘In triumphant flights/from that scythe’ (Mallarm�, H�rodiade,
‘Cantique de saint Jean’, 1913). Whoever seeks Athena, finds Medusa’s head. Whoever
approaches too close to the sun discovers its castrating and castrated monstrousness
(Bataille, LAnus Solaire, 1931).
Although Nietzsche had embarked upon the destruction of all idols, he too, in this way,
recognized the desire for death inherent in the desire for truth at any cost. The
philosopher who wants to examine all things ‘in depth’, discovers the petrifying abyss.
The destiny of the man whom Nietzsche refers to as ‘the Don Juan of knowledge’ will be
paralyzed as if by Medusa, and will himself be ‘changed into a guest of stone’ (Morgenr�te
i.e. the Dawn of Day, 327, 1881). This is also the destiny of the ‘lover of truth’
who, in the Dionysos Dithyramben (1888) appears to be ‘changed into a statue/into a
sacred column’. Nietzsche, who was aware of the necessity ‘for the philosopher’ to live
within the ‘closed circuit of representation’ (Derrida), to seek the truth even if he no
longer believes in it, without ever being able to attain it, devised his own version of
the ‘truth’, his Medusa’s head, the Eternal Return: ‘Great thought is like Medusa’s head:
all the world’s features harden, a deadly, ice-cold battle’ (Posthumous Fragments, Winter
All thinkers who reflect upon the nature of representation, as well as on thought which
pursues the ‘eidos’ are in danger of confronting Medusa’s head. Thus, Aristotle, in The
Politics (VIII) differentiates between instructive and cathartic music which is
associated with Bacchic trances, whose instrument is the flute and which should be
avoided. To prove his point, he refers to the myth of Athena. When she played the flute,
her face became so distorted that she abandoned the instrument. It was in fact she who had
invented the flute to imitate an unknown sound, virtually unrepresentable, i.e. the
hissing of the snakes on Medusa’s head as she was decapitated (Pindar, The Pythian
Odes, XII, 2-3). As she played, she noticed in a spring that her features were
becoming distorted and assuming the appearance of the Gorgon’s mask. This once more
introduces the Narcissistic theme and the blurring of the difference between Athena and
her rival, which here arises from tragic art. Therefore, in terms of philosophy, art
should remain in the service of the ‘eidos’ by continuing to represent the image that
arouses desire for the Object.
But it is also condemned if it presents the object in such an obvious manner that the
remoteness of desire degenerates into dangerous enjoyment. This partly explains
Tourniers condemnation of image and photography in La Goutte d’Or (1985). He
explicitly links their power to Medusa’s petrifying fascination and contrasts them with
the art of writing which is the art of education and the route to wisdom ‘par excellence’.
It would seem that the fear experienced at the sight of Medusa’s head is the terror of
discovering the secret behind the representation of the image.
From Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes. Ed. Pierre Brunel.
Routledge, 1996. Copyright � 1996 by Routledge.
Visual Representations of Medusa
Return to Louise Bogan
By deTraci Regula
Medusa is one of the more unusual divine figures of ancient Greece mythology. One of a trio of Gorgon sisters, Medusa was the only sister who was not immortal. She is famed for her snake-like hair and her gaze, which turns those who look at her to stone.
Legend states that Medusa was once a beautiful, avowed priestess of Athena who was cursed for breaking her vow of celibacy. She is not considered a goddess or Olympian , but some variations on her legend say she consorted with one.
When Medusa had an affair with the sea god Poseidon , Athena punished her. She turned Medusa into a hideous hag, making her hair into writhing snakes and her skin was turned a greenish hue. Anyone who locked gaze with Medusa was turned into stone.
The hero Perseus was sent on a quest to kill Medusa. He was able to defeat the Gorgon by lopping off her head, which he was able to do by fighting her reflection in his highly polished shield. He later used her head as a weapon to turn enemies to stone. An image of Medusa’s head was placed on Athena’s own armor or shown on her shield.
One of three Gorgon sisters, Medusa was the only one who was not immortal. The other two sisters were Stheno and Euryale. Gaia is sometimes said to be the mother of Medusa; other sources cite the early sea deities Phorcys and Ceto as the parents of the trio of Gorgons. It is generally believed that she was born at sea.
The Greek poet Hesiod wrote that Medusa lived close to the Hesperides in the Western Ocean near Sarpedon. Herodotus the historian said her home was Libya.
She is generally considered unmarried, though she did lie with Poseidon. One account says she married Perseus. As a result of consorting with Poseidon, she is said to have birthed Pegasus , the winged horse, and Chrysaor, the hero of the golden sword.
Some accounts said her two spawn had sprung from her severed head.
Medusa in Temple Lore
In ancient times, she did not have any known temples. It is said that the Artemis temple in Corfu depicts Medusa in an archaic form. She is shown as a symbol of fertility dressed in a belt of intertwined snakes.
In modern times, her carved image adorns a rock off the coast of the popular Red Beach outside of Matala , Crete. Also, the flag and emblem of Sicily feature her head.
Medusa in Art and Written Works
Throughout ancient Greece, there are a number of references to the Medusa myth by ancient Greek writers Hyginus, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Dionysios Skytobrachion, Herodotus, and Roman authors Ovid and Pindar. When she is depicted in art, usually only her head is shown. She has a broad face, sometimes with tusks, and snakes for hair. In some imagery, she has fangs, a forked tongue, and bulging eyes.
While Medusa is usually considered to be ugly, one myth states that it was her great beauty, not her ugliness, that paralyzed all observers. Her “monstrous” form is believed by some scholars to represent a partially-decomposed human skull with teeth beginning to show through the decaying lips.
The image of Medusa was thought to be protective.
Ancient statuary, bronze shields, and vessels have depictions of Medusa. Famous artists that have been inspired by Medusa and the heroic Perseus story include Leonardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Peter Paul Rubens, Gialorenzo Bernini, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, and Salvador Dali.
Medusa in Pop Culture
The snake-headed, petrifying image of Medusa is instantly recognizable in popular culture. The Medusa myth has enjoyed a renaissance since the story was featured in the “Clash of the Titans” movies in 1981 and 2010, and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” also in 2010, where Medusa is portrayed by actress Uma Thurman.
In addition to the silver screen, the mythical figure appears as a character in TV, books, cartoons, video games, role-playing games, usually as an antagonist. Also, the character has been memorialized in song by UB40, Annie Lennox, and the band Anthrax.
The symbol of designer and fashion icon Versace is a Medusa-head. According to the design house, it was chosen because she represents beauty, art, and philosophy.
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