Medusa: The Ancient Greek Myth of the Snake-Haired Gorgon

Sculpture of Perseus and Medusa by Cellini (1554)
Perseus holding head of Medusa, bronze statue created by Benvenuto Cellini in 1554 and exposed beneath the Loggia de Lanz in Florence.

fotofojanini / Getty Images

In ancient Greek mythology, Medusa is a Gorgon, one of three hideous sisters whose appearance turns men to stone. She is killed by the hero Perseus, who cuts off her head. To the Greeks, Medusa is the leader of an ancient, older matriarchal religion that had to be obliterated; in modern culture, she represents vital sensuality and a power that is threatening to males. 

Fast Facts: Medusa, Monster of Greek Mythology

  • Alternate Names: Medousa
  • Epithets: The Ruler
  • Realms and Powers: The great Ocean, can turn men to stone with a glance.
  • Family: The Gorgons (also Gorgones or Gorgous), including her sisters Stheno and Euryale; children Pegasus, Chrysaor
  • Culture/Country: Greece, 6th century BCE
  • Primary Sources: Hesiod's "Theogony," Plato’s "Gorgias," Ovid's "Metamorphosis"

Medusa in Greek Mythology

The Three Gorgons are sisters: Medusa (the Ruler) is a mortal, her immortal sisters are Stheno (the Strong) and Euryale (the Far-Springer). Together they live either at the western end of the world or on the island of Sarpedon, in the middle of Poseidon's Great Ocean. They all share Medusa's snake-like locks, and her powers to turn men to stone.

The Gorgons are one of two groups of sisters born of Phorkys (the "old man of the sea") and his sister Keto (a sea-monster). The other group of sisters is the Graiai, the "old women," Pemphredoo, Enyo, and Deino or Perso, who share one tooth and one eye which they pass between them; the Graiai play a role in Medusa's myth.

Medusa Relief at Hadrian's Temple, Ephesus, Turkey
This relief of Medusa was part of a temple at Ephesus, Turkey, built by P. Quintilius before 128 CE, and dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian. ihsanGercelman / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Appearance and Reputation 

All three of the Gorgon sisters have glaring eyes, huge teeth (sometimes boar's tusks), a protruding tongue, brazen claws, and serpent or octopus locks. Their frightful aspect turns men to stone. The other sisters have only minor roles in Greek mythology, while the Medusa story is told many times by many different Greek and Roman writers.

The Medusa head is a symbolic element in Roman and ancient Arabic kingdoms (Nabataean, Hatran, and Palmyrene cultures). In these contexts, it protects the dead, guards buildings or tombs, and wards off evil spirits.

How Medusa Became a Gorgon 

In one myth reported by the Greek poet Pindar (517–438 BCE), Medusa was a beautiful mortal woman who one day went to Athena's temple to worship. While she was there, Poseidon saw her and either seduced her or raped her, and she became pregnant. Athena, enraged at the desecration of her temple, turned her into a mortal Gorgon. 

Medusa and Perseus

In the principle myth, Medusa is killed by the Greek hero Perseus, the son of Danae and Zeus. Danae is the object of desire of Polydectes, the king of the Cycladic island of Seriphos. The king, sensing that Perseus was an obstacle to pursuing Danae, sends him on the impossible mission to bring back the head of Medusa.

Perseus and Medusa, 5th Century BCE Attic Jar
Perseus beheading the sleeping Medusa. Terracotta pilike (jar), Attic period, ca. 450–440 BCE, attributed to Polygnotos of Thasos. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1945 (public domain)

Aided by Hermes and Athena, Perseus finds his way to the Graiai and tricks them by stealing their one eye and tooth. They are forced to tell him where he can find weapons to help him kill Medusa: winged sandals to carry him to the Gorgons' island, the cap of Hades to render him invisible, and a metallic satchel (kibisis) to hold her head once it is cut off. Hermes gives him an adamantine (unbreakable) sickle, and he also carries a polished bronze shield. 

Perseus flies to Sarpedon, and looking at Medusa's reflection in his shield—to avoid the vision that would turn him to stone—, cuts off her head, puts it in the satchel and flies back to Seriphos.

On her death, Medusa's children (fathered by Poseidon) fly out of her neck: Chrysaor, wielder of a golden sword, and Pegasus, the winged horse, who is best known for the myth of Bellerophon.

Role in Mythology

In general, the appearance and death of Medusa are thought to be the symbolic repression of an older matriarchal religion. That is probably what the Roman emperor Justinian (527–565 CE) had in mind when he included older sculptures of Medusa's head turned on its side or upside down as plinths at the base of two columns in the underground Christian cistern/basilica of Yerebatan Sarayi in Constantinople. Another story reported by the British classicist Robert Graves is that Medusa was the name of a fierce Libyan queen who took her troops into battle and was beheaded when she lost.

Medusa Head at Yerebatan Sarayi Cistern in Istanbul.
Medusa Head at Yerebatan Sarayi Cistern in Istanbul. Medusa's severed head, upside down or on one cheek, is featured as the base of several columns in the large underground cistern built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527–565 CE). flavijus / Getty Images Plus

Medusa in Modern Culture 

In modern culture, Medusa is seen as a powerful symbol of female intelligence and wisdom, related to the goddess Metis, who was a wife of Zeus. The snake-like head is a symbol of her cunning, a perversion of the matrifocal ancient goddess who the Greeks must destroy. According to historian Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), the Greeks used the Medusa story to justify the destruction of idols and temples of an ancient goddess mother wherever they found them.

Her snaky locks led to the use of Medusa's name to refer to jellyfish.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Almasri, Eyad , et al. "Medusa in Nabataean, Hatran and Palmyrene Cultures." Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 18.3 (2018): 89-102. Print.
  • Dolmage, Jay. "Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies across Rhetorical Traditions." Rhetoric Review 28.1 (2009): 1–28. Print.
  • Hard, Robin (ed). "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology: Based on H.J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology." London: John Murray, 1904. Print.
  • Susan, R. Bowers. "Medusa and the Female Gaze." NWSA Journal 2.2 (1990): 217–35. Print.