In Greek mythology, Medusa (Greek: Μέδουσα), meaning "guardian", "protectress" was a Gorgon, a chthonic female monster, and a daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. Gazing directly upon her would turn men to stone. She was beheaded by the hero Perseus, using the sword Harpe, who thereafter used her head as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield (the Aegis).

Medusa in Classical Mythology

Medusa by Arnold Bocklin

The three Gorgon sisters; Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale, were children of the ancient marine deities Phorcys and his sister Ceto, (the spelling vary based on accounts), chthonic monsters from an ancient world. Their genealogy is shared with other sisters named the Graeae. Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound describes them thus:

“Near them their sisters three, the Gorgons, winged;
With snakes for hair— hatred of mortal man—“

While ancient Greek vase-painters and carvers envisioned Medusa and her Gorgon sisters as beings born monstrous, sculptors and vase-painters of the fifth century started to picture her as being beautiful as well as horrific.

However, in a late version of the Medusa myth, related by the Roman poet Ovid, Medusa was originally a beautiful maiden, "the jealous aspiration of many suitors," priestess in Athena's temple, but when she was raped by Poseidon in Athena's temple, the enraged Athena transformed Medusa's beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn men to stone. In Ovid's telling, Perseus describes Medusa's punishment by Athena as just and well-deserved. It comes full circle, in retrospect that Poseidon, a man, defiled her, and Perseus a man ultimately killed her.


In most versions of the story, she was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who was sent to on a quest to fetch her head by King Polydectes as a gift. With help from Athena and Hermes, who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades' cap of invisibility, a sword, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. He slew Medusa by walking and looking at her harmless reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her, to prevent being turned into stone. By some accounts, when the hero severed Medusa's head from her neck, two offspring sprang forth, because Medusa was in fact impregnated by Poseidon: the offspring were the winged horse Pegasus and the golden giant Chrysaor. Death of Medusa and Birth of Offspring.

According to Ovid, Perseus flew past the Titan Atlas, who stood holding the sky on his shoulders, and transformed him into stone. In a similar manner, the corals of the Red Sea were said to have been formed of Medusa's blood spilled onto seaweed when Perseus laid down Medusa’s head beside the shore during his short stay in Ethiopia, where he saved and wed his future wife, the lovely princess Andromeda. Furthermore the poisonous vipers of the Sahara, again according to Ovid, were said to have been born from spilt drops of her blood.Perseus then flew to Seriphus where his mother was about to be forced into marriage with the king. King Polydectes was turned into stone by the gaze of Medusa's head.He then gave the Gorgon's head to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the Aegis.

Modern Depictions


  • Medusa is featured on the eponymous fifth episode of the documental mythology television series Clash of the Gods.




  1. Probably the feminine present participle of medein, "to protect, rule over" (American Heritage Dictionary; compare Medon, Medea, Diomedes, etc.). If not, it is from the same root, and is formed after the participle. OED 2001 revision, s.v.; medein in LSJ.
  2. as in Hesiod, Theogony 270, and Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke, 1.10.
  3. "from Typhon the giant and Echidna were born Gorgon... Medusa daughter of Gorgon and Neptunus... "
  4. Bulfinch, Thomas. "Bulfinch Mythology - Age of Fable - Stories of Gods & Heroes". Retrieved 2007-09-07. "...and turning his face away, he held up the Gorgon’s head. Atlas, with all his bulk, was changed into stone."
  5. Jane Ellen Harrison, (1903) 3rd ed. 1922. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. "The Ker as Gorgon." p. 187.
  6. "Medusa in Myth and Literary History". Retrieved 2010-01-06.
  7. Seelig, B.J. (2002). "The Rape of Medusa in the Temple of Athena: Aspects of Triangulation". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 83:895–911.
  8. Jack London (1914). The Mutiny of the Elsinore. p. 121.
  9. Wilk, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, p. 200.

Primary sources

  1. Servius, In Aeneida vi.289
  2. Lucan, Bellum civile ix.624–684
  3. Ovid, Metamorphoses iv.774–785, 790–801
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