There she is, her face a fearsome grimace, with fanged grinning mouth, protruding tongue and bulbous eyes. Her hair is not just a mess: it’s actually snakes sprouting from her head!
This is the Gorgon Medusa, one of the most frequently repeated motifs in Greek (and later, in Roman) art. We meet her on sites or in museums on virtually all of our European tours, often repeatedly, carved from stone, fashioned from clay or metal, or painted onto walls or vases.
Medusa is a specific character in Greek mythology, and her visage has a very specific role in that context, but that does not fully explain her near-omnipresence in ancient art – of all levels of quality and in diverse contexts. Many other characters who play a more prominent role in myth and legend are depicted less frequently than her. Nor does it explain the interesting variations of her image that occur in later (Hellenistic and especially Roman) antiquity.
It is not easy to tell the tale of Medusa, image and character, as we cannot be certain which came first. But we have to start somewhere, so let us begin with the myth.
Medusa in myth
The standard tale of Medusa is as follows: at some point, back in the mists of time, there were three beautiful sisters, Medusa, Stheno and Euriale, children of the sea deities Phorkys and Keto. The parents were both children of Gaia, the personification of Earth, which made their daughters cousins to the Olympian Gods. Among the three girls, Medusa was the only one to be mortal, but she was of radiant beauty, especially her wonderful hair, and consequently had many suitors. Among those was Poseidon, God of the Sea.
One day, as Medusa was worshipping in a shrine of Athena, Poseidon surprised and ravaged her – an outrage against the sacred location. Athena caught them and was very angry: she directed her vengeful wrath entirely against Medusa, transforming her into a gorgon, a hideous monster, her lovely hair replaced by snakes and her beautiful face turned so ugly that any man she gazed upon would turn to stone. Medusa’s sisters, who supported her, suffered the same fate, but retained their immortality. They settled in Libya and no-one in their right mind came near them.
It is notoriously difficult to interpret myth. Much has been made of the tale of Medusa, Athena and Perseus, ranging from historical explanations to psychological and philosophical ones. Two aspects of the story are often remarked upon: first, the apparent gross unfairness of the punishment inflicted by Athena, and second, the strangely close association between Medusa and Athena, who actually chooses to make the monster’s severed head a permanent part of her very appearance.Later, the hero Perseus, son of Zeus, was sent on a mission to kill Medusa. Athena herself, responsible for Medusa and her sister becoming a threat to humankind in the first place, assisted him, equipping him with a highly reflective shield. Thus, Perseus was able to avoid Medusa’s gaze by creeping up on her as she was asleep, and so to behead her. From her blood sprang the poisonous snakes that populate the desert and from her body sprang her children by Poseidon, the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor. Medusa’s baleful glare had not lost its power even in death: Perseus used the lifeless head as a weapon to turn various foes to stone. Later, he gave the head to Athena. She placed it on her aegis, her protective shield or armour, adding its turning-to-stone magic to her capacities and making the head, or gorgoneion, one of her attributes.
Medusa in Art
A popular theory sees Medusa as an aspect of an early fertility or mother goddess, the remnant of a religion that preceded the Twelve Gods, wearing a hideous mask of wrath – not unlike Athena’s anger – to warn those who might want to penetrate too far into her mysteries. The idea is that this image was subsumed by the followers of Classical religion to transform her into an entirely negative character and express the submission of her cult, defusing the notion of female rage and the fears it might arouse in a male-dominated society. As is often the case, this view can neither be verified nor falsified, but it does pick up on the strange ambiguity implied in the tale: Medusa’s curse, her petrifying ugliness, is a strength at the same time, and one that outlasts her mortal life.
In Greek art, Medusa, especially her fearsome head, became a very common motif very early on, namely in the Archaic period, in the 6th century BC or even before. It is impossible to tell whether the mythological tale was already fully formed then, or whether the image itself contributed to its formulation.
The motif might have been inspired by other factors than myth: e.g. by the monstrous creatures current in the East, with which Greece was developing contacts at the time, leading to the adoption of griffins, sphinxes and other such imaginary creatures. It has also been suggested that masks worn in religious contexts in prehistoric Greece or elsewhere may have contributed to the development.
One way or another, the grimacing gorgoneion was standardised by the early 6th century, having first appeared in the 7th. It occurs in the context of narrative scenes only occasionally, but much more commonly by itself, most typically on akroteria, the decorated end-tiles visible on the edges of temple roofs. It is considered an apotropaic symbol, i.e. one that averts and turns away evil, paralleling Athena’s own use of it on her aegis. The gorgoneion is by no means the only such symbol, but it is without much doubt one of the most widespread.
Depending on the context, from mould-made terracottas to more carefully carved sculptures or painted vases, artists used the motif to express their own imagination. At the same time, often the Medusa or gorgoneion was simply a formulaic apotropaic image, probably not conveying anything much beyond that function. But still, it seems too simple to see the gorgoneion simply as an example of how conflict with the Gods (hubris and all that) leads to certain doom, a common theme – it is just too powerful.
Over time, however, the image shifted from the merely grotesque monster to a more differentiated, more multi-layered one, perhaps reflecting the development of the myth. In Hellenistic and Roman art, Medusa’s origin as a great beauty was remembered and explored, her expression (she is a common centrepiece in Roman mosaics) no more limited to grimacing rage, could now also encompass anguish, grief and despair (see our gallery below as well). This image of a beautiful Medusa became immensely widespread until the advent of Christianity put a temporary halt to it.
Medusa after antiquity
Late antiquity is not the end of Medusa imagery: since the Renaissance, Medusa and her slaying by Perseus have made frequent reappearances in art. A famous example is Caravaggio’s haunting painting of her freshly-severed head, an image full of violence and rage. Such motifs became especially common in the 18th and 19th centuries, for example in a series of dramatic paintings by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones.
Echoes of Medusa’s violent tale still reverberate today: her name has been given to a form of jellyfish, an asteroid and a stellar nebula, and the image of her head continues to see new uses and interpretations. For example, it serves as a centrepiece in the modern flag of Sicily, as a symbol of strength and beauty in the logo of a famous fashion designer, or in feminism as a personification of female rage and its marginalisation in society, a metaphor able to encompass victimhood, anger and power all at once. Like so many mythical motifs, Medusa is, after all, what we make of her…
Be that as it may: the next time you visit a museum of art or archaeology, look out for the gorgon Medusa; you are likely to find her. Even better, join us on one of our expert-led tours in Europe where we meet her again and again.
Also, have a look at our gallery of Medusa images encountered on our various itineraries