Medusa: Homer and Hesiod

May 22, 2010 at 7:35 am Leave a comment

Surprisingly few ancient authors mention Medusa and Perseus although the story seems to have circulated from at least the beginning of seventh century BC. The most ancient poets, Homer and Hesiod, don’t tell the story in its wholeness but from their poems it is clear that they they knew something about it.

In the fourteenth song of the Iliad – orally composed by Homer, on the East coast of what nowadays is Turkey, sometime between the eleventh and ninth centuries BC  and perhaps written down in the late sixth century Athens – Perseus is presented to the listeners as if he was already well known by them. In 4:319, Homer lets Zeus present him, “the most famous of all men” as his son with Danae. Perhaps G. Mylonas is right and a tale about Perseus, king of Mycenae around 1350 BC, was sung already in the Mycenaean palaces.

Medusa, the dreadful monster, is mentioned three times. However, both Adolf Furtwängler and Ulrich von Milamowitz-Moellendorff considered them as later additions and as far as I know nobody has tried to falsify their proposal.

The line in the fifth song is the most evident one. Here we read that Athena puts the aegis (a buff-coat or protective corset) over her head and on this corset she wears the “horrible monster’s, Gorgo’s head”, but the vase-paintings show that this happened only in the last quarter of the sixth century BC, that is, several hundred years after Homer. Thus, the Iliad only tells us that a story about Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae, was known early on.

The second early Greek poet was Hesiod from Boeotia, who perhaps lived in the eighth century BC. He composed a poem, the Theogony, about the creation of the world and the Greek gods, only one generation before an artist from the island of Tenos made the earliest image of Perseus killing Medusa. Unfortunately for us, Hesiod is more interested in Pegasos than in that story, but he does tell us that the monsters were three and not one: the mortal Médousa, whose name comes from the old verb médô that means “I rule,” and her two immortal sisters, Sthenno that means “the strong one” and Euryálethe one that wanders widely.” He also tells us that Poseidon, the “Dark-haired One,”  whom Zeus had made the ruler over the Mediterranean Sea, made love to Medusa “in a soft, grassy  meadow among the flowers,” and that “when Perseus cut off her head, Chrysaor the Great and Pegasos the Horse leaped out” (verses 274-86).

However, we don’t find any description of the “monster” with lolling tongue and big teeth until in the fifth century in Pherekydes and Euripedes and the snakes are not mentioned at all until Ovid writes about them. Luckily we have the images and they tell us a more complicated story.

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Entry filed under: Hesiod, Homer, Medusa, Perseus.

Medusa: The Story Medusa: The Earliest Image

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