Medusa fills the imagination with a very particular kind of fascination. Pity for her situation and dread of what she is capable of make her one of the most recognisable figures from Greek myth. She has transcended that context with her story reimagined by the Romans, the artists of the Renaissance, and she continues to excite wonder today.
We sat down to talk about Medusa and her representation with the fabulous Liv, host of Let’s Talk about Myths Baby.
Special Episode – Medusa with Let’s Talk About Myths Baby
In this far-reaching conversation, we’ll be considering some of the key stories that make up the mythological world of Medusa including:
- How she came to have snakes for hair
- The challenges she faced as the mortal Gorgon
- And how her representation often reflects the values of the context of the artwork.
Who is Medusa?
When you start to look, Medusa is everywhere (but also, don’t look!). She is an extremely ancient figure best known for the Greek myths associated with the hero Perseus.
Medusa is famous for her snaky hair and ability to turn living things to stone with her gaze. This ability has been immortalised in movies such as Clash of the Titans (1981) and its 2010 remake, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief (2010).
Her decapitated head—the Gorgoneoin—can be found on the breastplate of the goddess Athena, the logo for Versace and the Sicilian flag, as well as decorating many ancient buildings, floors and pottery.
Medusa endures today as a polyvalent symbol of danger and empowerment. She recently featured in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) and her name is given to the crime network in The Hustle (2019), the gender-swapped reboot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988).
Join us as we discuss Medusa’s journey to becoming a symbol that can seemingly serve many masters.
Ancient Accounts of Medusa
This is not an exhaustive list, but a guide to those we mention in this discussion and a great place to start reading!
- Hesiod Theogony 270ff
- Homer Iliad 5.741 – The Gorgon’s head is described as a “ghastly monster” and a “potent symbol of Zeus”. Also see 8.349, where Hector’s gaze is likened to that of Gorgo and 11.36f for a description of a Gorgon’s head on the face of Agamemnon’s shield.
- Ovid Metamorphoses 4.604-803
- Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca 2.4
Depictions of Medusa in Art
A great deal of Medusa’s complexity has developed through her reception over time. This is particularly apparent in art. We explore a few key examples that draw attention to a range of interpretations
The Rondanini Medusa
Dating to the late Hellenistic or Augustan periods, the Rondanini Medusa is iconic. It captured the imagination of Goethe during his travels in Italy and it shares many visual elements with the Versace logo as well.
“So-called “Rondanini Medusa”. Marble, Roman copy after a 5th-century BC Greek original by Phidias, which was set on the shield of Athena Parthenos.” Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph by MatthiasKabel, 2005-10-26.
Perseus by Cellini, 1545-1554
This exceptional bronze can be found in Florence where it offers interpretation of the ancient myth and comment on Medici politics…
Bronze and marble (base), 1545–1554. Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, since 1554. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Jastrow, 13-9-2005
Medusa by Caravaggio 1595-98
Florence is home not only to the Cellini bronze, but also the famous Caravaggio portrait, where the face of Medusa is interchangeable with that of the artist himself.
Uffizi Gallery, post-restoration. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
You can also explore Caravaggio’s Testa di Medusa in detail here.
Bust of the Medusa by Bernini 1644/8
Liv cites Bernini’s Medusa as a piece that encourages empathy for the subject. This perspective will come to the fore again in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Held by the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta, 17-4-2014.
You can explore Bernini’s sensitive artistry in detail here.
Medusa in King’s Quest 3, 1986
Check out this quality graphic!
For Dr G, this was a definitely encounter with Medusa. For many children of the 80s, encountering myths through computer games was a window into the ancient world and its amazing stories.
Screenshot sourced from here.
Medusa by Luciano Garbati 2008
Garbati’s Medusa flipped the heroic narrative of Perseus and cast our snake-haired heroine as a woman of her own destiny. This reimagining of Medusa’s story demonstrates how cultural perspective can shift representation.
You can explore high quality images of Garbati’s work here.
The complexities of Medusa’s story allow for a variety of interpretations. Garbati’s sculpture positions her as a figure of female empowerment, gaining power by taking the head of Perseus. The image of her head severed from her body has also been repurposed as political imagery by pro-Trump, anti-Hillary campaigners. In such cases, the myth of Medusa is designed to keep women from power. Why are we drawn back to her story time and again?
Since we recorded this episode, we’re excited to say that Liv has a book coming out soon! It’s all about Greek myth and is gorgeously illustrated. If you’re looking for a little more Greek myth in your life, this might be just the ticket 🙂
Looking for more on ancient Greece?
Looking to delve further into the world of Medusa? We’ve got you covered. Below are the works we refer to in this episode as well as readings that will build your appreciation for this incredibly engaging figure from Greek myth.
- Bremmer, J. N. & Welwei, K. 2006. ‘Gorgo’, in Brill’s New Pauly. Consulted online on 11 January 2020.
- Burkert, W.1992. The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Harvard)
- Cixous, H. 1976. ‘The Laugh of the Medusa‘ Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1.4, 875-893
- Freud, S. 1940. ‘Das Medusenhaupt’ Der Internationalen Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und Imago 25.2 (manuscript from 1922).
- Garber, M. Vickers, N. J. (eds.) 2003. The Medusa Reader (Routledge)
- Hirst, K. 2019. ‘Medusa: The Ancient Greek Myth of the Snake-Haired Gorgon’, Thought Co.
Hirst’s article is a great place to start. This is an accessible overview of who Medusa was and the main myths associated with her in the ancient world.
- Keith, A. .2018. ‘Medusa’s Gaze in Imperial Latin Epic: In memoriam R. Elaine Fantham (1933-2016)’, Helios, 45.2, 145-167.
Keith focuses on Ovid, Lucan and Statius and analyses how these Roman authors reconciled themselves with the power of Medusa’s image. Ovid and Lucan’s work has been very influential in shaping the Medusa myth!
- Lewis, S. 2011. ‘Women and Myth’, in A Companion to Greek Mythology, eds K. Dowden & N. Livingstone (Wiley), 443-458.
- Mergenthaler, V. 2008. ‘Gorgon’, in Brill’s New Pauly Supplements I – Volume 4: The Reception of Myth and Mythology. Consulted online on 11 January 2020.
- Topper, K. (2007), ‘Perseus, the Maiden Medusa, and the Imagery of Abduction’, Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 76.1 (Jan-Mar), 73-105.
Topper’s article is extremely useful for anyone interested in the artistic representations of Perseus and Medusa. Topper explains that earlier attempts to categorise representations of the Gorgon were too “neat” and linear, suggesting that Medusa and her sister moved from more monstrous or grotesque to a beautified image in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
- Vernant, J-P., Zeitlin, F. I. (eds.) 1991. Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays (Princeton)
- Zajko, V. & Leonard, M. 2008. ‘Introduction’, in Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, eds V. Zajko & M. Leonard (Oxford), 1-16.
This introduction provides a succinct overview of the work of French feminist Hélène Cixous’, namely her ‘Laugh of the Medusa’. Keener readers may wish to consult the full essay on Cixous contained in this volume by Zajko.
With gratitude we offer thanks to Bettina Joy de Guzman for the evocative music that accompanies this episode. She’s an incredibly talented musician and scholar as well as a fantastic supporter of our podcast.