n Greek mythology,
the Gorgon (plural: Gorgons) (Greek: Γοργών or Γοργώ
Gorgon/Gorgo) was a terrifying female creature. It derives from
the Greek word gorgós, which means "dreadful." While descriptions of
Gorgons vary across Greek literature, the term commonly refers to any of three
sisters who had hair of living, venomous snakes, and a horrifying gaze that
turned those who beheld it to stone. Traditionally, while two of the Gorgons
were immortal, Stheno and Euryale, their sister Medusa was not, and was slain by the mythical hero Perseus.
Gorgons were a popular image of Greek mythology, appearing in the earliest of
written records of Ancient Greek religious beliefs such as those of Homer.
Gorgons sometimes are depicted as having wings of gold, brazen claws, the tusks of boars, but most often with the fangs and skin of a serpent. The
oldest oracles were said to be protected by serpents and a Gorgon image often
was associated with those temples. Lionesses or sphinxes frequently are associated with the Gorgon as
well. The powerful image of the Gorgon was adopted for the classical images and
myths of Zeus and Athena, perhaps being worn in continuation of a more ancient
imagery. The Gorgons were said to be the daughters of the sea god Phorcys and
sister Ceto the sea monster.
Homer, the author of the oldest known
work of European literature, speaks only of one Gorgon, whose head is
represented in the Iliad as fixed in the
center of the aegis of Zeus:
- "About her shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis, fraught with
terror...and therein is the head of the dread monster, the Gorgon, dread and
awful, a portent of Zeus that beareth the aegis."(5.735ff)
Its earthly counterpart is a device on the shield of Agamemnon:
- "...and therein was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring
terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout."(11.35ff)
The date of Homer was controversial in antiquity, and is no less so today. Herodotus said that Homer lived 400
years before his own day, which would place Homer about 850 BC; but other ancient
sources gave dates much closer to the Trojan War. Those who believe
that the stories of the Trojan War derive from a specific historical conflict
usually date it to the twelfth or eleventh centuries BC, often preferring the
dates given by Eratosthenes,
1194–1184 BC, which roughly corresponds with archaeological evidence of a
catastrophic burning of Troy VIIa. For modern scholarship, 'the date of
Homer' refers to the date of the poems as much as to the lifetime of an
The scholarly consensus is that "the Iliad and the Odyssey date
from the extreme end of the ninth century BC or from the eighth, the
Iliad being anterior to the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades." They are presumed to
have existed as an oral tradition that eventually became set in historical
records. Even at that early time the Gorgon is displayed as a vestige of ancient
powers that preceded the historical transition to the beliefs of the Classical Greeks,
displayed on the chest of Athene and Zeus.
In the Odyssey, the Gorgon
is a monster of the underworld to which the earliest deities were cast:
- "...and pale fear seized me, lest august Persephone might send forth upon me from out of the
house of Hades the head of the Gorgon,
that awful monster..."(11.635)
Around 700 BC, Hesiod (Theogony, Shield of
Heracles) increases the number of Gorgons to three—Stheno (the mighty), Euryale (the far-springer), and Medusa (the queen), and makes them the daughters of the
sea-god Phorcys and of Keto. Their home is on the farthest side of the western
ocean; according to later authorities, in Libya. Ancient Libya is identified as a possible
source of the deity, Neith, who was called
Athene in Greece.
The Attic tradition, reproduced in Euripides (Ion), regarded the Gorgon as a monster, produced by
Gaia to aid her
children, the Titans, against the new Olympian deities and
she was slain by Athena, who wore her
skin thereafter. Of the three Gorgons, only Medusa is mortal.
Apollodorus, c. 180–120 BC,
(11.2.6, 2.4.1, 22.4.2) provides a good summary of the Gorgon myth. Much later
stories claim that each of three Gorgon sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa,
had snakes for hair, and that they had the power to turn anyone who looked at
them to stone.
According to Ovid (Metamorphoses), a Roman poet writing in 8 AD
who was noted for accuracy regarding the Greek myths, Medusa alone had serpents
in her hair, and that this was due to Athena (Roman Minerva) cursing her. Medusa had copulated with Poseidon (Roman Neptune) in a temple of Athena after he was aroused by
the golden color of Medusa's hair. Athena therefore changed the enticing golden
locks into serpents.
Pausanias (5.10.4, 8.47.5, many other
places), a geographer of the second century A.D., supplies the details of where
and how the Gorgons were represented in Greek art and architecture.
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