Posts filed under ‘Perseus’

Medusa: The Questions

Who is Medusa? Ancient and modern writers, all prominent men and women, tell us that she was a monster, but was she really?

Luisa Banti once pointed out that the ancient Greeks had such a high opinion of human dignity that they imagined their gods exactly as themselves. They still influence us. We cannot imagine that an artist wants to represent a divinity as a mixture of an animal and a human being, forgetting that what we think of as evil (the snakes, for example) others may  experience in a different manner.  We regard Medusa through cultural lenses. Let me give you some examples.

Giuliana Riccioni discussing the scene on the vase from Tenos shown above writes that  “Medusa’s human face wears an extremely rigid expression . . . eyes wide open with dilated pupils . . .  The long thin arms hang lifeless long the body, the hands being nearly fleshless, the fingers extremely long show the thin bony claws . . .”

Another archaeologist, Thalia P. Howe cites Pindar’s twelfth Pythian Ode where he says that the sound of the flute “imitates the cry exceedingly shrill that bursts from the hungry jaws of Euryale.” She proposes that in order to convey the idea of a terrifying noise Medusa appears with a great distended mouth.

The French historian and anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant follows Howe saying that the Gorgon is more animal than human; her face is more a grimace than a face.

For the psychologist Erich Neumann she incarnates the negative elementary character: “the Gorgon is the counterpart of the life womb . . . she is the womb of death or the night sun”.

Edward Edinger, another well-known psychologist, writes that “the classical example of the benumbing, paralyzing aspect of the negative feminine principle is the myth of the Gorgon Medusa”.

Another psychologist, Edward Whitmont although recognizing that destruction gives birth to change and re-creation sees Medusa as the angry or insulted Feminine. Discussing new models of orientation he writes: “They all aim at transforming the chaotic power of the abysmal Yin, the Medusa, into the play of life. They mediate the terrifying face of the Gorgon into the helpful one of Athena”. Even Marija Gimbutas uses the same lenses. Although she acknowledges that Medusa once was a potent goddess, she sees “a grinning mask with glaring eyes … lolling tongue, projecting teeth, and writhing snakes for hair” and understands her as the dangerous, dark side of Artemis.

Judging from the paintings of Medusa’s severed head painted by Caravaggio and Rubens five hundred years ago, I wonder if it wasn’t then that Medusa became the image of all evil incarnated by and projected on the archetypal Woman.  These  images and the modern ones easily found  in Google agree with Edinger and Whitmont.   They are so filled with emotions that only with great difficulty can we liberate ourselves from regarding Medusa as  the personification of evil – but it is possible.

The first step is to consider that her names – Medousa, Queen, Lady, Mistress; Sthenno, the Strong, Mighty One; Euryale, the Wanderer; and Gorgo, the lively Horse, the divine Centaur –  point to her being a goddess.

The second step is to remember that prehistoric artists were not interested in portraits; they were frantically trying to make the invisible Holy visible. When we content ourselves with glancing at them we loose sight of how the artists tried to solve the impossible task they have set themselves.

The questions I intend to ask and perhaps find an answer to are why the Lady — the Mighty Wanderer, the Spirited Horse — consented to be killed by Perseus, an adolescent, not yet a grown man?  Isn’t it the sin of hubris,  insolent pride against the gods to imagine that a mere mortal can kill an immortal being?

What happens to a people, a state, a culture that permits such a killing? This is my second question.

In order to find answers  we first must understand who Medusa is. Her names indicate that she is a goddess. As no goddess by this name exists in the Greek pantheon, which of the  goddesses is she? Athena? Hera? Artemis? Demeter? Hekate? Persephone?

The answer is hidden in the archaic images in which Medusa is represented alone, without Perseus. There are very many of them, many more that those showing her dead body. I have chosen four of them:

A pottery plate from the Greek island of Rhodes,

two bronze plaques found in Olympia in the Western Peloponnese,

the West pediment of Artemis’ temple on the island of Corfu,

and the bronze statue that once crowned the oldest Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens.

The detailed descriptions will be tedious, but as it is the only way for us to really see the details – and they are as important as the whole picture – I do ask for your understanding and patience.



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. Drawing K.B.

Medusa by Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Medusa by Rubens (1577 – 1640).  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.


July 31, 2010 at 8:36 am Leave a comment

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

Medusa: Homer and Hesiod

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.

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

Medusa: The Story

The story about Perseus killing Medusa not as it was told in the beginning, but how we received it.

Continue Reading May 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm Leave a comment


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