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Medusa with tiles, Athens Archeological Museum
Topics in Greek mythology

In Greek mythology, Medusa (Greek: Μέδουσα (Médousa), "guardian, protectress"[1]) was a gorgon, a chthonic female monster, and a daughter of Phorcys and Ceto;[2] Only Hyginus, (Fabulae, 151) interposes a generation and gives another chthonic pair as parents of Medusa;[3] gazing directly upon her would turn onlookers to stone. She was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head as a weapon[4] until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In classical antiquity the image of the head of Medusa appeared in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion. She also has two gorgon sisters.


Medusa in classical mythology

The three Gorgon sisters—Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale—were children of the ancient marine deities Phorcys and his sister Ceto, chthonic monsters from an archaic world. Their genealogy is shared with other sisters, the Graeae, as in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, who places both trinities of sisters far off "on Kisthene's dreadful plain":

Near them their sisters three, the Gorgons, winged
With snakes for hair— hated of mortal man—

While ancient Greek vase-painters and relief carvers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form, sculptors and vase-painters of the fifth century began to envisage her as a being both beautiful as well as terrifying. In an ode written in 490 BC Pindar already speaks of "fair-cheeked Medusa".[5] In a late version of the Medusa myth, related by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphoses 4.770), Medusa was originally a beautiful maiden, "the jealous aspiration of many suitors," priestess in Athena's temple, but when she and the "Lord of the Sea" Poseidon lay together in Athena's temple, the enraged virgin goddess transformed her beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn any man to stone. In Ovid's telling, Perseus describes Medusa's punishment by Athena as just and well-deserved.


In most versions of the story, while Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, god of the sea, she was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus as a gift. With help from Athena and Hermes, who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades' cap of invisibility, a sword, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. The hero slew Medusa by looking at her harmless reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her to prevent being turned into stone. When the hero severed Medusa's head from her neck, an offspring sprang forth: the winged horse Pegasus.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Benvenuto Cellini, installed 1554

Jane Ellen Harrison argues that "her potency only begins when her head is severed, and that potency resides in the head; she is in a word a mask with a body later appended... the basis of the Gorgoneion is a cultus object, a ritual mask misunderstood."[6]

In Odyssey xi, Homer does not specifically mention the Gorgon Medusa:

"Lest for my daring Persephone the dread,

From Hades should send up an awful monster's grisly head."

Harrison's translation states "the Gorgon was made out of the terror, not the terror out of the Gorgon."[6]

According to Ovid, in North-West Africa Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas, who stood holding the sky aloft, and transformed him into stone. In a similar manner, the corals of the Red Sea were said to have been formed of Medusa's blood spilled onto seaweed when Perseus laid down the petrifying head beside the shore during his short stay in Aethiopia where he saved and wed his future wife, the lovely princess Andromeda. Furthermore the poisonous vipers of the Sahara, in the Argonautica 4.1515, Ovid's Metamorphoses 4.770 and Lucan's Pharsalia 9.820, were said to have grown from spilt drops of her blood.

Perseus then flew to Seriphus where his mother was about to be forced into marriage with the king. King Polydectes was turned into stone by the gaze of Medusa's head.

Then he gave the Gorgon's head to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.

Some classical references refer to three Gorgons; Harrison considered that the tripling of Medusa into a trio of sisters was a secondary feature in the myth:

The triple form is not primitive, it is merely an instance of a general tendency... which makes of each woman goddess a trinity, which has given us the Horae, the Charites, the Semnai, and a host of other triple groups. It is immediately obvious that the Gorgons are not really three but one + two. The two unslain sisters are mere appendages due to custom; the real Gorgon is Medusa.[6]

Modern interpretations


The Medusa Rondanini, marble (h. 0.29 m)

In 1940, Sigmund Freud's Das Medusenhaupt (Medusa's Head) was published posthumously. This article laid the framework for his significant contribution to a body of criticism surrounding the monster. Medusa is presented 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."[7][8] Psychoanalysts continue archetypal literary criticism to the present day: Beth Seelig analyzes Medusa's punishment from the aspect of the crime of having been "raped" rather than having willingly consented in Athena's temple as an outcome of the Goddess' unresolved conflicts with her own father, Zeus.[9]


In the 20th century, feminists reassessed Medusa's appearances in literature and in modern culture, including the use of Medusa as a logo by fashion company Versace.[10][11][12] The name "Medusa" itself is often used in ways not directly connected to the mythological figure but to suggest the gorgon's abilities or to connote malevolence; despite her origins as a beauty, the name in common usage "came to mean monster."[13] The book Female Rage: Unlocking Its Secrets, Claiming Its Power by Mary Valentis and Anne Devane notes that "When we asked women what female rage looks like to them, it was always Medusa, the snaky-haired monster of myth, who came to mind ... In one interview after another we were told that Medusa is 'the most horrific woman in the world' ... [though] none of the women we interviewed could remember the details of the myth."[14]

Medusa's visage has since been adopted by many women as a symbol of female rage; one of the first publications to express this idea was a 1978 issue of Women: A Journal of Liberation. The cover featured the image of a gorgon, which the editors explained "can be a map to guide us through our terrors, through the depths of our anger into the sources of our power as women."[14] In a 1986 article for Women of Power magazine called "Ancient Gorgons: A Face for Contemporary Women's Rage," Emily Erwin Culpepper wrote that "The Amazon Gorgon face is female fury personified. The Gorgon/Medusa image has been rapidly adopted by large numbers of feminists who recognize her as one face of our own rage."[14]


Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of scientific determinism and nihilism, especially in contrast with romantic idealism.[7][15] In this interpretation of Medusa, attempts to avoid looking into her eyes represent avoiding the ostensibly depressing reality that the universe is meaningless. Jack London uses Medusa in this way in his novel The Mutiny of the Elsinore:[16]

I cannot help remembering a remark of De Casseres. It was over the wine in Mouquin's. Said he: "The profoundest instinct in man is to war against the truth; that is, against the Real. He shuns facts from his infancy. His life is a perpetual evasion. Miracle, chimera and to-morrow keep him alive. He lives on fiction and myth. It is the Lie that makes him free. Animals alone are given the privilege of lifting the veil of Isis; men dare not. The animal, awake, has no fictional escape from the Real because he has no imagination. Man, awake, is compelled to seek a perpetual escape into Hope, Belief, Fable, Art, God, Socialism, Immortality, Alcohol, Love. From Medusa-Truth he makes an appeal to Maya-Lie."

—Jack London, The Mutiny of the Elsinore''

Tête de Méduse, by Peter Paul Rubens (1618)

Medusa in art

From ancient times, the Medusa was immortalized in numerous works of art, including:

Medusa remained a common theme in art in the nineteenth century, when her myth was retold in Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology. Edward Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle of paintings and a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley gave way to the twentieth century works of Paul Klee, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, and Auguste Rodin's bronze sculpture The Gates of Hell.[17]

In flags and emblems

Municipal coat of arms of Dohalice village, Hradec Králové District, Czech Republic

The head of Medusa is featured on some regional symbols. One example is that of the flag and emblem of Sicily, together with the three legged trinacria. The inclusion of Medusa in the center implies the protection of the goddess Athena, who wore the Gorgon's likeness on her aegis, as said above. Another example is the coat of arms of Dohalice village in the Czech Republic.

In popular culture

The petrifying image of Medusa makes an instantly recognizable feature in market-driven popular culture. Medusa has most recently appeared in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and was played by actress Uma Thurman. Medusa's second 2010 film appearance is in the remake of the 1981 film Clash of the Titans in which she is played by Russian supermodel, Natalia Vodianova.

Notes and references

  1. ^ Probably the feminine present participle of medein, "to protect, rule over" (American Heritage Dictionary; compare Medon, Medea, Diomedes, etc.). If not, it is from the same root, and is formed after the participle. OED 2001 revision, s.v.; medein in LSJ.
  2. ^ as in Hesiod, Theogony 270, and Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke, 1.10.
  3. ^ "from Typhon the giant and Echidna were born Gorgon... Medusa, daughter of Gorgon and Neptunus... "
  4. ^ Bullfinch, Thomas. "Bulfinch Mythology - Age of Fable - Stories of Gods & Heroes". Retrieved 2007-09-07. "...and turning his face away, he held up the Gorgon’s head. Atlas, with all his bulk, was changed into stone." 
  5. ^ (Pythian Ode 12). Noted by Marjorie J. Milne in discussing a red-figured vase in the style of Polygnotos, ca. 450–30 BC, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Milne noted that "It is one of the earliest illustrations of the story to show the Gorgon not as a hideous monster but as a beautiful woman. Art in this respect lagged behind poetry." (Marjorie J. Milne, "Perseus and Medusa on an Attic Vase" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, 4.5 (January 1946, pp. 126–130) 126.p.)
  6. ^ a b c Jane Ellen Harrison, (1903) 3rd ed. 1922. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. "The Ker as Gorgon." Pg.187.
  7. ^ a b "Medusa in Myth and Literary History". Retrieved 2010-01-06. 
  8. ^ Das Medusenhaupt (Medusa's Head). First published posthumously. Int. Z. Psychoanal. Imago, 25 (1940), 105; reprinted Ges. W., 17,47. The manuscript is dated May 14, 1922, and appears to be a sketch for a more extensive work. Translation, reprinted from Int. J. Psychoanal.,22 (1941), 69; by James Strachey.
  9. ^ Seelig, B.J. (2002). "The Rape of Medusa in the Temple of Athena: Aspects of Triangulation". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 83:895–911.
  10. ^ Pratt, A. (1994). Archetypal empowerment in poetry: Medusa, Aphrodite, Artemis, and bears : a gender comparison. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253208653
  11. ^ Stephenson, A. G. (1997). "Endless the Medusa: a feminist reading of Medusan imagery and the myth of the hero in Eudora Welty's novels."
  12. ^ Garber, Marjorie. The Medusa Reader, February 24, 2003, ISBN 0-415-90099-9, Introduction, pg. 7.
  13. ^ Garber, Medusa Reader, Introduction, pg. 1
  14. ^ a b c Wilk, Stephen R. Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, June 26, 2000, pg. 217–218, ISBN 0-195-12431-6.
  15. ^ Petersen, Per Serritslev. "Jack London's Medusa of Truth." Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002). pg. 43-56.
  16. ^ London, Jack. (1914). The Mutiny of the Elsinore. pg. 121.
  17. ^ Wilk, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, pg. 200.

Primary sources

  • Servius, In Aeneida vi.289
  • Lucan, Bellum civile ix.624–684
  • Ovid, Metamorphoses iv.774–785, 790–801

Secondary sources

  • Jane Ellen Harrison, (1903) 3rd ed. 1922. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion,: "The Ker as Gorgon"

See also

External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

by Clark Ashton Smith

As drear and barren as the glooms of Death,
It lies, a windless land of livid dawns,
Nude to a desolate firmament, with hills
That seem the gibbous bones of the mummied Earth,
And plains whose hollow Face is rivelled deep
With gullies twisting like a serpent's track.
The leprous touch of Death is on its stones,
Where, for his token visible, the Head
Is throned upon a heap of monstrous rocks
Rough-mounded like some shattered pyramid
In a thwartly cloven hill-ravine, that seems
The unhealing scar of huge Tellurian wars.
Her lethal beauty crowned with twining snakes
That mingle with her hair, the Gorgon reigns.
Her eyes are clouds wherein black lightnings lurk,
Yet, even as men that seek the glance of Life,
The gazers come, where, coiled and serpent-swift,
Those levins wait. As round an altar-base
Her victims lie, distorted, blackened forms
Of postured horror smitten into stone—
Time caught in meshes of Eternity—
Drawn back from dust and ruin of the years,
And given to all the future of the world.
The land is claimed of Death: the daylight comes
Half-strangled in the changing webs of cloud
That unseen spiders of bewildered winds
Weave and unweave across the lurid sun
In upper air. Below, no zephyr comes
To break with life the circling spell of doom.
Long vapor-serpents twist about the moon,
And in the windy murkness of the sky
The guttering stars are wild as candle-flames
That near the socket.

Thus the land shall be,
And Death shall wait, throned in Medusa's eyes,
Till in the irremeable webs of night
The sun is snared, and the corroded moon
A dust upon the gulfs, and all the stars
Rotted and fallen like rivets from the sky,
Letting the darkness down upon all things.

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Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

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See also medusa




From Ancient Greek Μέδουσα (Medousa).


  • enPR: mĭ'dōō'sə, mĭ'dōō'zə IPA: /mɪˈdjuːsə/, /mɪˈdjuːzə/
  • IPA: /məˈduːsə/
    Rhymes: -uːsə
  • Hyphenation: Me‧dus‧a

Proper noun




  1. (Greek mythology): The only mortal of the three gorgon sisters. She is killed by Perseus. (Read more at Wikipedia)

Derived terms




Proper noun

Medusa f.

  1. Medusa.

Simple English

[[File:|thumb|right|200px|A painting of Medusa by Arnold Böcklin]]Medusa is a monster from Greek mythology. If she looks at somebody, she turns them to stone because she is very ugly. She is the only mortal Gorgon sister. The other two are called Stheno and Euryale and are immortal. All three had brass hands, sharp fangs, and hair that was made out of snakes. The Gorgons were the daughters of Phorcys and Keto.

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