Definitions

Gorgon

Gorgon

[gawr-guhn]
Gorgon, in Greek mythology, one of three monstrous sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa; daughters of Ceto and Phorcus. Their hair was a cluster of writhing snakes, and their faces were so hideous that all who saw them were turned to stone. Only Medusa was mortal. They were much represented in Greek art.

Gorgon, carved marble mask of the early 6th century BC; in the Acropolis Museum, Athens

One of three monsters in Greek mythology, the most famous of which was Medusa. According to Hesiod, the three Gorgons were daughters of the sea god Phorcys. Another tradition held that they were created by the earth goddess, Gaea, to aid her sons, the Titans, in their struggle with the gods. Classical art depicts them as winged females with snakes for hair.

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In Greek mythology, a gorgon (Greek: γοργώ or γοργών, transl. gorgō or gorgōn, "terrible" or, according to some, "loud-roaring") was a vicious female monster with sharp fangs who was a protective deity from early religious concepts. Her power was so strong that anyone attempting to look upon her would be turned to stone; therefore, such images were put upon items from temples to wine kraters for protection. The Gorgon wore a belt of serpents that intertwined as a clasp, confronting each other. There were three of them: Medusa, Stheno and Euryale. Only Medusa was mortal, the other two are immortal.

In late mythology, it was said that there were three Gorgons and that the only mortal one of them, Medusa, had hair of living, venomous snakes that she received as a punishment from Athene. That image has become especially famous. However, the Gorgon exists in the earliest of written records of Ancient Greek religious beliefs such as those of Homer.

The Gorgon held the primary location at the pediment of the temple at Corfu. It is the oldest stone pediment in Greece and is dated to c. 600 BC.

Classical tradition

Gorgons are sometimes 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.

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 individual. 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, she is a monster of the underworld:

"...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.

The Attic tradition, reproduced in Euripides (Ion), regarded the Gorgon as a monster, produced by Gaia to aid her children, the Titans, against the Olympian deities and she was slain by Athena, who wore her skin thereafter. Of the three Gorgons, only Medusa is mortal. Aeschylus, who lived from c. 525–456 BC, says that the three Gorgons had only one tooth and one eye among them (see also the Graeae), which they had to swap among themselves, however they are not depicted as such and this may be a confusion with tales that relate to the Graeae.

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, Medusa alone had serpents in her hair, and this was due to Athena (Roman Minerva) cursing her. Medusa had copulated with Poseidon (Roman Neptune) in a temple of Athena, after being 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.

Perseus and Medusa

In late myths, Medusa was the only one of the three who was not a girl; hence Perseus was able to kill her by cutting off her head while looking at her in the reflection of mirrored shield he supposedly got from the men Graeae.

Some authors say that Perseus was armed with a scythe by Hermes (Mercury) and a mirror (or a shield) by Athena (Minerva). Whether the mirrored shield or the scythe, these weapons allowed him to defeat Medusa easily. From the blood that spurted from her neck sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus, her two sons by Poseidon. Other sources say that each drop of blood became a snake. He gave the head, which had the power of turning into stone all who looked upon it, to Athena, who placed it in her shield. According to another account, Perseus buried it in the marketplace of Argos.

According to other accounts, either he or Athena used it to freeze Atlas into stone, transforming him into the Atlas Mountains that held up both heaven and earth. He also used it against a competing suitor. Ultimately, he used it against King Polydectes, who originally had sent him to kill Medusa in hopes of getting him out of the way, while he pursued Perseus's mother, Danae.

So the story goes, Perseus returns to the court of King Polydectes, who is sitting at his throne with Danae. The king asks if Perseus has the head of Medusa, and he replies "here it is" and holds it aloft, turning the whole court to stone.

Another legend says that Perseus used the shield to make the Gorgons see their own reflections and thus turning them all to stone.

Protective and healing powers

In Ancient Greece a Gorgoneion (or stone head, engraving, or drawing of a Gorgon face, often with snakes protruding wildly and the tongue sticking out between her fangs) frequently was used as an apotropaic symbol and placed on doors, walls, floors, coins, shields, breastplates, and tombstones in the hopes of warding off evil. In this regard Gorgoneia are similar to the sometimes grotesque faces on Chinese soldiers’ shields, also used generally as an amulet, a protection against the evil eye. In some cruder representations, the blood flowing under the head can be mistaken for a beard.

In Greek mythology, blood taken from the right side of a Gorgon could bring the dead back to life, yet blood taken from the left side was an instantly fatal poison. Athena gave a vial of the healing blood to Asclepius, which ultimately brought about his demise. Heracles is said to have obtained a lock of Medusa’s hair (which possessed the same powers as the head) from Athena and to have given it to Sterope, the daughter of Cepheus, as a protection for the town of Tegea against attack. According to the later idea of Medusa as a beautiful maiden, whose hair had been changed into snakes by Athena, the head was represented in works of art with a wonderfully handsome face, wrapped in the calm repose of death.

Origins

The concept of the gorgon is at least as old in mythology as Perseus and Zeus. The name is Greek, being from "gorgos" translating as terrible. Other scholars find the goddess to have early origins in Ancient Greek religion.

Author Marija Gimbutas (Language of the Goddess) believed she saw the prototype of the Gorgoneion in Neolithic art motifs, especially in anthropomorphic vases and terra cotta masks inlaid with gold.

The large eyes, as well as Athena's flashing eyes, are a symbol termed "the divine eyes" by Gimbutas (who did not originate the perception), appearing also in Athena's bird, the owl. They can be represented by spirals, wheels, concentric circles, swastikas, firewheels, and other images.

The fangs of the Gorgons are those of snakes and are likely derived from the guardians closely associated with early Greek religious concepts at the centers of oracles.

Gorgons in popular culture

During the late sixteenth century or early seventeenth century, the Baroque artist, Caravaggio, painted Medusa as a beautiful woman who was horrified by her own locks that had been converted into serpents, as displayed to the right.

As with Cyclopes, harpies, and other beasts of Greek mythology, Gorgons have been popularized in modern times by the fantasy genre such as in books, comics, role-playing games, and video games.

Charles Dickens talks about the 'Gorgon's head' and compares the Gorgon to the Marquis St. Evremonde in Chapters 8-9 of 'A Tale of Two Cities'.

Libba Bray has also included a Gorgon character bound to a boat by the Order, a group of sorceress, in her trilogy; "A Great and Terrible Beauty", "Rebel Angels", and "The Sweet Far Thing"

Medusa the Gorgon appears in the 1981 film "Clash of the Titans". Stop-motion animation was by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

In the book The Lightning Thief, main character Percy Jackson kills Medusa by using a mirrored-ball to view the Gorgon and beheads her with his sword.

In the MMORPG "Mabinogi", a monster that has the form of a bull that's blindfolded, is called a gorgon.

Gorgons are prominent jungle creatures in the fantasy war-game Titan, first released in 1980 by the boardgame company Avalon Hill.

References

Sources

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