By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Perseus’ defeat of Medusa, one of the Gorgons, is well-known. Famously, to look upon snake-haired Medusa (the snakes were her punishment for being vain and proud of her hair) was enough to turn the viewer to stone, so Perseus cunningly used a mirrored shield to approach the Gorgon, Medusa, in her cave so that he could cut her head off without looking directly at her.
However, this is a much-condensed version of a somewhat longer tale, and the above summary leaves out some of the most magical and exciting – not to mention most human – aspects of the story of Perseus and Medusa. So let’s analyse this myth in more detail.
Perseus and Medusa: plot summary
Perseus was the son of the Greek god Zeus and the woman Danae. He was conceived when Zeus came to Danae disguised as a shower of gold. Danae’s father, Acrisius, discovered that his daughter had given birth to a son, and threw both Danae and Perseus into the sea, in a wooden chest.
However, the chest washed up ashore on the island of Seriphos, where the fisherman, Dictys, discovered it. He took them into his home and raised Perseus as if he were his own son. Perseus grew up to be a brave and handsome young man.
Dictys had a brother, Polydectes, who took a shine to Danae and wanted to seduce her. Perseus, however, protected his mother from Polydectes. When Polydectes invited his friends to dinner, he asked each of them for a gift. The other guests all offered a horse, but Perseus said he could bring something far more valuable: the head of the Gorgon, Medusa.
The next day, all of the other guests brought their horses as gifts to Polydectes, but Perseus turned up with nothing. So Polydectes ordered him to make good on his bold promise to bring him the head of Medusa. If Perseus returned empty-handed, Polydectes said he would take Danae by force.
So Perseus set off on his mission. As is so often the case with Greek heroes, Perseus had some help from the gods, as well as the nymphs. The latter gave him several magic items which would help him in his quest: winged sandals that enabled him to fly, a shoulder bag, and the helmet of Hades. This last magic item was especially useful, as it made whoever wore it invisible.
Meanwhile, the god Hermes gave Perseus the harpe, a special sickle made of adamant (an imaginary stone said to be of impenetrable hardness – not unlike diamond).
Armed with these weapons and instruments of protection, Perseus set off to find Medusa, one of the three Gorgons (the other two, Stheno and Euryale, are far less famous; their extremely difficult and forgettable names probably didn’t help). Medusa was the only one of the Gorgons who was mortal. They all had snakes for hair.
However, looking directly at the Gorgons, it was said, turned the viewer to stone. Thankfully, Perseus had help from the goddess Athena, who held a shield (made from polished bronze) just over Medusa’s head, so that Perseus could use his winged sandals to hover off the ground, look in the mirror provided by the bronze shield, and decapitate Medusa.
From Medusa’s neck the famous winged horse, Pegasus, is said to have sprung after she was decapitated. Less well-known is the story that a giant, named Chrysaor, is also said to have been formed from the Gorgon’s severed body.
Satisfied that the Gorgon was dead, Perseus placed Medusa’s severed head into his shoulder bag and returned home. Although Stheno and Euryale, Medusa’s two immortal sisters, pursued Perseus on his journey home, he was protected by the helmet of Hades, which prevented them from locating him.
Thus Perseus could return home, present Polydectes with the head of Medusa, and protect his mother, Danae, from Polydectes’ unwanted attention.
Perseus and Medusa: analysis
One of the most intriguing things about famous Greek myths is how they came about. We will doubtless never know the origins of the Perseus and Gorgon story for certain, but the branch of mythical interpretation known as euhemerism, which seeks to uncover the historical basis for classical myths, is intriguing, if often somewhat speculative in nature (as it almost certainly has to be after so many millennia).
One such example of euhemeristic interpretation of myth is the idea that the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece arose from real practices which involved panning for gold using wool. In the Arthur legend, the practice of the true king drawing the sword from the stone may have been based on Dark Ages techniques for forging metal swords, which involved the finished sword being yanked from its stone mould.
In the case of the Gorgon Medusa, although it is similarly speculative, numerous mythologists have put forward the idea that the story of Perseus’ slaying of Medusa may be a sort of ‘origin myth’ created to explain the Gorgoneion, a protective pendant worn by followers of Athena and Zeus and displaying the ugly head of a woman, surrounded by serpents.
After he had slain Medusa, Perseus was said to have used her head as a weapon against his enemies, since it retained its power to turn to stone those who looked at it. Eventually, Perseus gave Medusa’s head to Athena to place on her shield, and this, one surmises, is meant to be the origin of the Gorgoneion.
There are other theories which also see Medusa as representing a particular religious idea. Joseph Campbell, for instance, who was probably the most influential comparative mythologist of the twentieth century after James Frazer, suggested that Perseus’ beheading of Medusa is mythologising of a real historical event, namely the sack of a temple (in the 13th Century BC), during which Greek invaders killed priestesses who wore Gorgon masks.
Herodotus, the ancient historian, meanwhile, stated that the Gorgons lived in Libya, and it’s been suggested that they originated in a north African Berber myth, which may have been co-opted by the Greeks.
Jane Harrison, the great classical scholar whose work was so influential on Robert Graves when he wrote his ‘grammar of poetic myth’, The White Goddess, argued that Medusa was the one true Gorgon: her sisters were probably a later invention, to replicate the ‘triple goddess’ feature found elsewhere in myth (compare the Three Furies and the Three Fates, among others). Certainly, it’s odd that Medusa was mortal while her two sisters were not.
Of course, one of the key elements of the story of Perseus and Medusa is the important of sight and vision. Medusa cannot be looked upon: to look directly at her is to be turned to stone. This detail has been interpreted as an example of the misogyny we find in many of the patriarchal Greek myths: here’s a woman so ugly that merely looking at her will literally petrify you.
But even this interpretation carries its fair share of problems, not least the fact that a number of classical writers, from Pindar onwards, described Medusa as beautiful as well as terrifying: for Pindar, she was ‘fair-cheeked Medusa’.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.