Posts filed under ‘centaurs’

Medusa: The Earliest Image

In the early seventh century BC, when Thebes, Corinth, Sparta and some of the Greek islands were culturally more advanced than Athens, there was a woman potter on the island of Tenos who began retelling myths in her art. She must have been a quite famous artist at the time, because some of her large vases were exported as far as Thebes in Boeotia and the island of Mykonos.

Two of her amphoras in Thebes survived the centuries buried in a tomb, and one of them is now preserved in the Louvre. The beautiful stylized image on the vase depicts the killing of Medusa by Perseus, and we easily recognize the myth because the picture of Perseus follows closely the description in the Shield of Herakles, supposedly written by the great poet Hesiod. The interesting fact is that, although the Shield of Herakles was written in the eighth century, the description of Perseus was added at least one hundred years later. Here we have an instance when the image influenced a poet.

As in the description, Perseus is depicted as a beardless adolescent wearing a short tunic , the “invisibility” hat, a “sword with black sheath across his shoulders” and a “silver bag” hanging from his neck. He is rendered in profile turning his head away from Medusa, while gripping her hair with his left hand so hard that her lips are drawn back because of the strain, and holding the sword to her throat with his right hand.

Medusa’s human figure stands in the same position as the earliest cult statues, the xoana, made of wood. She is a goddess who has taken human shape and she is also a centaur.

Her horse legs are posed in the same warrior stance that Perseus keeps (in yoga called Virabhadrasana), implying readiness for battle.  If it had been her wish she could easily have overpowered the boy. She is not directing her gaze at him. He is in no danger.

Medusa is the only Greek female centaur;  the others are all men/stallions. The image came to Greece from the Near East where centaurs were close to the gods.  The  seal cylinder with a centaur from the Babylonian Nippur below is a good example. It is dated in the middle of the fourteenth century BC, that is, contemporaneously with the Mycenaean civilization in Greece.

The centaur has small wings; is dressed in a shirt with tassels on the sleeves and has a spotted skin knotted round the waist and draped over the horse’s back. A quiver hangs on his back and he is galloping so fast that the tail is blowing with the wind and at the same time he shoots an unfeathered arrow from his bow. Flowers are growing below him and a flowering tree stands in front of him. Strength, power and beauty flows from the image.

To understand a little of the emotions that inspired the archaic feelings about centaurs let us look at the horse. Aniela Jaffé points out that when animals appear in myths, sagas and dreams they seem to be our dormant instincts trying to return to consciousness and recreate a lost wholeness. This may be the reason why children project much of their emotions of fear, awe and love on the horse.

I remember my own exhilarating feelings when one summer I played at being horse and rider. I was contemporaneously the strong, swift horse and the rider using her intelligence, will and emphathy to make the horse obey. Growing up continuously stumbling and falling over my own feet, continuously being told to be quiet and stop making faces I didn’t know I was making, the freedom and strenght I felt being the horse and its rider was indescribable. Growing older I lost this feeling, but I recognize it in the description that Xenophon makes, in the fourth century BC:

Now the creature that I have envied most is, I think, the Centaur (if any such being ever existed), able to reason with a man’s intelligence and to manufacture with his hands what he needed, while he possessed the fleetness and strength of a horse so as to overtake whatever ran before him and to knock down whatever stood in his way. Well, all his advantages I combine in myself as a horseman.

Horses are among the few animals that allow us to enter in symbiosis with them. In fact, it is only when this symbiosis exists that the rider not only is carried by the horse, but truly rides it and the horse not only pulls the chariot, but the charioteer and horse work together, the horse sacrificing to the human part some of its own power and freedom. Perhaps this is the reason why, as Ludolf Malten points out, the accent in Greek literature always lies on the horse and not on the rider, not even on the god that takes its shape.

The horse seems to have been tamed in Greece during the early Mycenaean period, around 1900 BC. During more than one thousand years it is only represented as pulling the chariot although in order to control a herd of horses one must be on horseback.

Perhaps the chariots were so full of prestige and legend that the public concentrated on them and not on the simple rider. Light chariots had been introduced in the early second millennium BC first in Egypt and the Middle East, then in Crete by the Mycenaean Greeks. It was no problem for Pharaoh to drive a chariot  in Egypt, but in Bronze Age Europe it was virtually impossible.  Some Mycenaean roads have been found, but Homer’s description how Telemachus drives from Pylos to Sparta  shows how traveling in a chariot had become a fantasy in Greece telling the story as if the high mountain Taygetos had not existed.  Until less than thirty years ago, when the road from the West was united to the road coming East from Sparta it was impossible to cross the mountain with a vehicle.  If Telemachus had indeed crossed it and not taken the long way round, he would have been forced to carry the chariot!

The fact that Medusa is centaur explains her name, Gorgo;  that her two sisters are called Gorgons; that the head is a Gorgoneion.

After the archaic period Gorgo began to signify the horrible monster that killed by the look of her eyes, but used about a horse it continued to mean “hot, spirited.” We also must not forget that the most famous woman in Greek history was called Gorgo.  She was the daughter of king Cleomenes of Sparta and later married the famous Spartan general Leonidas. Herodotos admiringly mentions her twize for her great intelligence. She certainly was not named after a monster, but after a spirited, beautiful horse.

I therefore propose that in archaic times Medusa in her animal shape of a wild horse was called gorgós – “hot, spirited, fierce” –  because that is what a wild, beautiful horse is. The viewer thus sees the divinity of Medusa in the beautiful and fierce, wild horse and in the dual image of cult statue and horse. She is non-human femininity, a being totally different from us, but whom with the help of analogies we are able to emotionally bond with.



Perseus killing the Gorgo Medusa. Detail of an amphora from Tenos found in Thebes in Boeotia, c. 700 – 660 BC. In the Louvre CA 795. Photo Jastrow for Wikimedia Common.

Centaur. Ca. 1350 BC from a cylinder seal from Nippur, Babylonia. After Paul Baur, Centaurs in ancient art. 1912, fig. 2. Drawing K.B.


May 26, 2010 at 5:49 pm 2 comments


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