Classical Mythology: A Face Only a Mother Could Love

A Face Only a Mother Could Love

Medusa was one of three monstrous sisters called the Gorgons. Of the three, only Medusa could be killed; her sisters Euryale and Stheno were immortal. The hideous Gorgons had the following features:

  • Serpents for hair
  • Penetrating eyes that turned anyone who looked upon them into stone
  • Huge, snake-like tongues
  • Teeth as long and sharp as the tusks of a wild boar
  • Bodies covered with scales so hard that no weapon could pierce them
  • Golden wings
  • Claws forged of brass

A Little Help from My Friends

What a Life!

According to some tellers, Medusa was once a beautiful maiden. Though she turned away all suitors, Medusa finally consented to lay with Poseidon either in a field of flowers or in the temple of Athena. This enraged the goddess, who was either jealous of Medusa's great beauty or furious that the maiden had bedded Poseidon in her shrine. In either case, Athena transformed Medusa's loveliness into hideousness.

Considering Medusa's frightening features, Perseus must have begun having second thoughts about his foolhardy promise almost immediately. Defeating the mighty Medusa seemed an impossible quest.

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers contend that it was not the Naiads, but rather Hermes, who gave Perseus the cap of Hades and one (or both) of his own winged sandals because he found the young man so attractive. This seems plausible, since Hermes—who guided the ghosts of the dead to Hades—had ready access to the cap and already possessed the sandals.

To avoid the vigilant eyes of Medusa and her sisters, her slayer must approach their lair without being seen. To escape being turned to stone, the killer would have to slay her without looking at her face. Even if Perseus succeeded in killing Medusa, he would then need to flee with incredible speed to avoid the swift pursuit of her golden-winged sisters.

Perseus soon discovered, however, that he would have help in completing his quest. Athena, who hated Medusa, appeared before him and told him exactly what to do.

Athena first brought Perseus to a cave on Seriphus where some of the Naiads (the nymphs of springs, brooks, and lakes) lived. These nymphs lent to Perseus virtually everything he would need to overcome the Gorgons:

  • Winged sandals, which would allow him to approach—and later escape—the lair of the Gorgons with great speed
  • The helmet of darkness (or cap of Hades), which makes its wearer invisible
  • A purse or pouch in which to carry his trophy: Medusa's head

Hermes then appeared and presented Perseus with the final tool he would need: a sword (or sickle) of adamant—a metallic stone so hard it was almost unbreakable.

The Gray Women: Their Sisters' Keepers

With his weapons assembled, Perseus traveled to a cave on the mountain where Atlas stood. In this cave lived the Graeae (“gray women”), sisters of the Gorgons. The hair of the Graeae, three ancient witches who had just one eye and one tooth among them, had been gray from birth.

Mythed by a Mile

Some say that Athena actually guided Perseus's hand as he decapitated Medusa, making it unnecessary for him to use his shield as a mirror. Other storytellers suggest that Athena herself killed Medusa, afterward skinning her and using her skin to form a shield.

Perseus hid himself and waited until one of the sisters took out her eye and started to hand it to another. Since this was the only time when all of the Graeae were blind, Perseus surprised them and intercepted the eye. Holding the eye hostage, Perseus forced the crones to reveal the location of the Gorgons' lair. After getting the information he needed, Perseus tossed the eye into Lake Tritonis and hurried toward the Gorgons.

Medusa Loses Her Head

What a Life!

Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon at the time of her death. So when Perseus chopped off her head, her offspring sprang from her neck: Chrysaor, who would become renowned as a brave warrior, and Pegasus, the famous winged horse. Some taletellers claim that Perseus, while fleeing Medusa's sisters, may have been the first to mount Pegasus.

Swiftly, invisibly, his sword in his belt and his bag slung over his shoulder, Perseus approached the lair of the Gorgons. He found the lair at the end of the earth, in a land where neither the sun nor the moon ever shone. As he approached and entered the Gorgons' lair, he passed dozens of stone figures: the petrified bodies of both beasts and humans who had foolishly wandered into that dark and desolate land and glimpsed one of the Gorgons.

Perseus had painstakingly polished his bronze shield before approaching the Gorgons' lair. He now used this shield as a mirror to spy on the Gorgons without looking directly at them. He waited near the entrance of their lair until he could see that the Gorgons had fallen asleep.

Using his mirrored shield to reflect Medusa's image and direct his attack, Perseus cut off her head with a single blow from his mighty sword, stuffed the head into his pouch, and flew away on his winged feet. The other Gorgons awoke and flew into the air shrieking for vengeance. Medusa's monstrous sisters could not see Perseus, though, cloaked as he was by the helmet of darkness, and soon gave up their attack.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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