Medusa

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Medusa
Medusa by Carvaggio.jpg
Medusa, by Caravaggio (1595)
ConsortPoseidon
ParentsPhorcys and Ceto
SiblingsThe Hesperides, Stheno, Euryale, The Graea, Thoosa, Scylla, and Ladon
ChildrenPegasus and Chrysaor
 
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Medusa
Medusa by Carvaggio.jpg
Medusa, by Caravaggio (1595)
ConsortPoseidon
ParentsPhorcys and Ceto
SiblingsThe Hesperides, Stheno, Euryale, The Graea, Thoosa, Scylla, and Ladon
ChildrenPegasus and Chrysaor
Topics in Greek mythology
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In Greek mythology Medusa (Greek: Μέδουσα (Médousa), "guardian, protectress")[1] was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as having the face of a hideous human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazing directly upon her would turn onlookers to stone. Most sources describe her as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto,[2] though the author Hyginus (Fabulae, 151) interposes a generation and gives Medusa another chthonic pair as parents.[3]

Medusa 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.

Medusa in classical mythology[edit]

An archaic Medusa wearing the belt of the intertwined snakes, a fertility symbol, as depicted on the west pediment of the Artemis Temple in Corfu, exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu

The three Gorgon sisters—Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale—were all children of the ancient marine deities Phorcys (or "Phorkys") and his sister Ceto (or "Keto"), chthonic monsters from an archaic world. Their genealogy is shared with other sisters, the Graeae, as in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, which 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 being 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 ravishingly beautiful maiden, "the jealous aspiration of many suitors," but when she was caught being loved by the "Lord of the Sea" Poseidon in Athena's temple, the enraged Athena transformed Medusa's beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. In Ovid's telling, Perseus describes Medusa's punishment by Minerva (Athena) as just and well earned.

Coins of the reign of Seleucus I Nicator of Syria, (312-280 BC.)

Death[edit]

In most versions of the story, she was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus. In his conquest, he received a mirrored shield from Athena, gold, winged sandals from Hermes, a sword from Hephaestus and Hades's helm of invisibility. Medusa was the only one of the three Gorgons who was mortal, so Perseus was able to slay her while looking at the reflection from the mirrored shield he received from Athena. During that time, Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon. When Perseus beheaded her, Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chrysaor, a golden sword-wielding giant, sprang from her body.

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 the 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.

The Medusa's head central to a mosaic floor in a tepidarium of the Roman era. Museum of Sousse, Tunisia

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

According to Ovid, in northwest Africa, Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas, who stood holding the sky aloft, and transformed him into stone when he tried to attack him.[7] 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 Ethiopia 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. The blood of Medusa also spawned the Amphisbaena (a horned dragon-like creature with a snake-headed tail).

Perseus then flew to Seriphos, 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 Perseus gave the Gorgon's head to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.[8]

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[edit]

A Roman cameo of the 2nd or 3rd century

Historical[edit]

A number of early classics scholars interpreted the myth of the Medusa as a quasi-historical, or "sublimated" memory of an actual invasion.[9] [10]

"The legend of Perseus beheading Medusa means, specifically, that 'the Hellenes overran the goddess's chief shrines' and 'stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon masks,' the latter being apotropaic faces worn to frighten away the profane.

That is to say, there occurred in the early thirteenth century B.C. an actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma, which has been registered in this myth, much as what Freud terms the latent content of a neurosis is registered in the manifest content of a dream: registered yet hidden, registered in the unconscious yet unknown or misconstrued by the conscious mind."[11]

Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

Psychoanalysis[edit]

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 by Freud 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."[12] Psychoanalysis 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.[13]

Feminism[edit]

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.[14][15][16] 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."[17] 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."[18]

An embossed plaque in the Art Nouveau style from 1911

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."[18] 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."[18]

Nihilism[edit]

Medusa has sometimes appeared as representing notions of scientific determinism and nihilism, especially in contrast with romantic idealism.[19][20] 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:[21]

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 LondonThe Mutiny of the Elsinore

Medusa in art[edit]

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, Pierre et Gilles, and Auguste Rodin's bronze sculpture The Gates of Hell.[22]

In flags and emblems[edit]

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[edit]

The petrifying image of Medusa makes an instantly recognizable feature in popular culture. Medusa has been featured in several works of fiction, including video games, movies and books. In particular, the designer Gianni Versace's symbol is reflected through the Medusa-head symbol. It was chosen because she represents beauty, art, and philosophy.[23]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  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 Harrison, p. 187.
  7. ^ Roger Lancelyn Green suggests in his Tales of the Greek Heroes written for children that Athena used the aegis against Atlas.
  8. ^ Smith, "Perseus".
  9. ^ Graves, Robert (1955). The Greek Myths. Penguin Books. pp. 17, 244. ISBN 0241952743.  A large part of Greek myth is politico-religious history. Bellerophon masters winged Pegasus and kills the Chimaera. Perseus, in a variant of the same legend, flies through the air and beheads Pegasus’s mother, the Gorgon Medusa; much as Marduk, a Babylonian hero, kills the she-monster Tiamat, Goddess of the Seal. Perseus’s name should properly be spelled Perseus, ‘the destroyer’; and he was not, as Professor Kerenyi has suggested, an archetypal Death-figure but, probably, represented the patriarchal Hellenes who invaded Greece and Asia Minor early in the second millennium BC, and challenged the power of the Triple-goddess. Pegasus had been sacred to her because the horse with its moon-shaped hooves figured in the rain-making ceremonies and the installment of sacred kings; his wings were symbolical of a celestial nature, rather than speed. Jane Harrison has pointed out (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion) that Medusa was once the goddess herself, hiding behind a prophylactic Gorgon mask: a hideous face intended to warn the profane against trespassing on her Mysteries. Perseus beheads Medusa: that is, the Hellenes overran the goddess’s chief shrines, stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon masks, and took possession of the sacred horses—an early representation of the goddess with a Gorgon’s head and a mare’s body has been found in Boeotia. Bellerophon, Perseus’s double, kills the Lycian Chimaera: that is, the Hellenes annulled the ancient Medusan calendar, and replaced it with another.
  10. ^ Ellen Harrison, Jane (1908, reprinted June 5, 1991). Prolegomena: To The Study Of Greek Religion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 187–188. ISBN 0691015147. 
  11. ^ Campbell, Joseph (1968). The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology. Penguin Books. pp. 152–153. ISBN 978-0140194418.  We have already spoken of Medusa and of the powers of her blood to render both life and death. We may now think of the legend of her slayer, Perseus, by whom her head was removed and presented to Athene. Professor Hainmond assigns the historical King Perseus of Mycenae to a date c. 1290 B.C., as the founder of a dynasty; and Robert Graves—whose two volumes on The Greek Myths are particularly noteworthy for their suggestive historical applications—proposes that the legend of Perseus beheading Medusa means, specifically, that "the Hellenes overran the goddess's chief shrines" and "stripped her priestesses of their Gorgon masks," the latter being apotropaic faces worn to frighten away the profane. That is to say, there occurred in the early thirteenth century B.C. an actual historic rupture, a sort of sociological trauma, which has been registered in this myth, much as what Freud terms the latent content of a neurosis is registered in the manifest content of a dream: registered yet hidden, registered in the unconscious yet unknown or misconstrued by the conscious mind. And in every such screening myth—in every such mythology {that of the Bible being, as we have just seen, another of the kind}—there enters in an essential duplicity, the consequences of which cannot be disregarded or suppressed.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Seelig, B.J. (2002). "The Rape of Medusa in the Temple of Athena: Aspects of Triangulation". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 83:895–911.
  14. ^ Pratt, A. (1994). Archetypal empowerment in poetry: Medusa, Aphrodite, Artemis, and bears : a gender comparison. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-20865-3
  15. ^ Stephenson, A. G. (1997). "Endless the Medusa: a feminist reading of Medusan imagery and the myth of the hero in Eudora Welty's novels."
  16. ^ Garber, p. 7.
  17. ^ Garber, p. 1.
  18. ^ a b c Wilk, pp. 217–218.
  19. ^ "Medusa in Myth and Literary History". Retrieved 2010-01-06. 
  20. ^ Petersen, Per Serritslev. "Jack London's Medusa of Truth." Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002). pp. 43–56.
  21. ^ London, p. 121.
  22. ^ Wilk, p. 200.
  23. ^ [1]

Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

External links[edit]