One of the most terrifying figures found in Greek mythology is Medusa, the most famous of three sisters who were known as the Gorgons.
Medusa first appears in the writings of Hesiod, specifically Theogony, which tells the tale of three sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, who were the children of Phorcys and Ceto and said to live “beyond famed Oceanus at the world’s edge hard by Night.”
Oddly, however, while Hesiod does write about the origins of Medusa and her death at the hands of Perseus, he gives no other details, leaving us to turn to Ovid’s Metamorphoses for additional information, Ancient Origins notes.
According to Ovid, at one time Medusa was a beautiful maiden. She was so beautiful that the god Poseidon lured her to Athena’s shrine, where he ravaged her.
But that didn’t sit well with Athena, so she transformed Medusa’s hair into snakes and decreed that any man who looked directly at her would be turned to stone.
So Medusa once possessed beauty beyond compare, but as Virgil notes, Athena made sure that was taken care of:
“In the middle is the Gorgon Medusa, an enormous monster about whom snaky locks twist their hissing mouths; her eyes stare malevolently, and under the base of her chin the tail-ends of serpents have tied knots.”
Not exactly what you want to see when you show up for a blind date.
Perseus to the Rescue
Eventually, Medusa is destroyed by Perseus. Then again, Perseus had certain advantages over those who had gone before him in an attempt to confront the serpent-headed woman: He also happened to be the son of Zeus and was assisted in his efforts by the gods.
Hades gave Perseus a Cap of Invisibility, which always comes in handy when you’re trying to sneak up on a gorgon. From Hermes, he got winged sandals, which are a great deal better than those without wings. He was also given a sword by Hephaestus.
But perhaps most importantly, Perseus had a shield directly from Athena, which made him virtually invincible.
With these gifts, Perseus crept into Medusa’s lair as she slept and chopped off her head.
And Now, the Rest of the Story
Our studies of mythology in school gave us the general outline of who Medusa was and how she was ultimately destroyed, but there are some details you may not have been aware of that make the snake lady even more terrifying. For example:
- When blood dripped from Medusa’s head onto the plains of Libya, every drop became a venomous serpent.
- During an encounter with Atlas the Titan, Perseus used the severed head of Medusa to turn Atlas into a mountain.
The Enduring Medusa Myth
How is it that a story which has existed for so many centuries endures to this day? Is it the overall horror of a person with snakes for hair? Or could it be the brutal fashion in which she was slain?
Whatever the reason, the myth of Medusa has indeed remained strong, and it has even been passed down as a form of protection:
“Although Medusa is commonly regarded as a monster, her head is often seen as a protective amulet that would keep evil away. In fact, the name Medusa comes from an ancient Greek verb meaning ‘to guard or protect.’
“The image of Medusa’s head can be seen in numerous Greek and subsequent Roman artifacts such as shields, breastplates, and mosaics.”
And the image of Medusa is even used by a well-known company, Versace, the Italian fashion company, proving that while Medusa may have met a terrible fate, her legacy endures.
For more on the enduring story of Medusa, watch this video: