The myth of the Gorgon Medusa and her slaying by the brave and handsome hero, called Perseus, is one that has inhabited literature and art ever since the ancient times. This is because it carries within itself all the essentials of mythological, iconographical schemata: the handsome hero, the terrifying monster and the final salvation of the beautiful damsel in distress. It is a magical story of a quest of a young man, who reaches manhood through his decapitation of the monster Medusa.
This “Medusan” theme will continue to enchant artists, becoming something of an iconograph, especially for the Romantics: “This glassy-eyed, severed female head, this horrible fascinating Medusa, was to be the object of the dark loves of the Romantics and the Decadents throughout the whole of the century” (McGann 3). The most famous and well known version of the myth of this woman with “a killer look” owes its origin to Ovid and his work Metamorphoses. According to Ovid, Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae, whose father was warned by the Oracle at Delphi that his daughter’s son would murder him, and so, he ordered for his daughter and grandson to be cast away to sea in a wooden chest. Fortunately, the two were saved by a humble fisherman, who took them in. However, the fisherman’s brother, who was the king of the island, fell in love with Perseus’ mother and in order to clear his path and send away Perseus who did not approve of this match, he organized a banquet where all the attending guests were obliged to bring a horse. Having no horse to gift, Perseus rashly offered any other gift the king may seem fit, who was quick enough to dispatch the young and quick-mouthed boy to fetch him the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa. Ovid’s anthology offers the following explanation on who Medusa was: once a woman of enormous beauty, utterly vain of her gorgeous hair and calling herself more beautiful than Athena herself, she was raped by the water lord Poseidon in Athena’s temple. The enraged goddess decided to punish the impudent mortal for the libidinous sacrilege of her temple and the flaming insult to her own beauty, and thus, transformed Medusa’s face into a hideous, mask-resembling cognizance, while her beautiful hair was turned into a lair of hissing snakes, and all those who endeavor to look into the face of this once gorgeous woman, were doomed to die by being turned into stone.
Providentially, on his quest, Perseus was favored by the gods, and hence, was given gifts that served him well. From the Hesperids, nymphs guarding the tree bearing golden apples, he received a special knapsack to safely carry the head, Zeus was kind enough to present him with a sword and a helm of darkness to hide himself under, and finally, Athena gave him a polished shield, which would prove to be of the essence in the crucial moment of battle. Thus, on finally reaching Medusa’s lair, where she dwelt with her two sisters, Perseus managed to sneak upon her, by using the polished shield and watching her inside the reflection, because only one glance would seal his fate. With the use of his cunning movements of a hero, Perseus manages to slay the monster and return home, where he would also save and later on marry a beautiful maiden Andromeda from the clutches of the sea serpent Cetus, sent as a vengeful retribution by Poseidon. All being taken into account, Perseus’ is a story of a boy’s coming of age and entering manhood by proving himself a worthy warrior.
Since then, the story has penetrated every single aspect of art. Medusa has remained one of the most intricate female figures in the history of mythology as the adversary of men, an aspect thoroughly embraced by the feminist criticism, and overall, as a dangerous female, once perceived as a femme fatale, who because of her beauty and impudence becomes the slain iconographic monster of the mythical world. Some of the most renowned depictions of Medusa are paintings such as those done by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, and many others. Sculptured versions of the topic include works by sculptors such as Benenuto Cellini, Laurent Honore Marqueste, Salvador Dali, etc. Medusa has become an integral part of not only art, but also popular culture in general, with depictions in movies, the most famous being The Clash of the Titans, plays, books, music, videogames and similar. She is even featured on the flag of Sicily, on Municipal Coat of Arms of the Czech Republic and as a symbol of fashion for Gianni Versace’s company. In addition to all this presence, she has even managed to infiltrate psychology and inspire one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, to write a posthumously published article, entitled Das Medusenhaupt, or Medusa’s Head.
As a result, the image of the beautiful but impudent maiden who has dared to defy the gods with her mortal beauty has continued to plague the minds of artists, who longed to do her justice in their depictions. Different version offer different portrayal and outlook on the story, but one fact still remains the same. She questions the mutual reflection of the spectator. Her face is the mirror that turns to stone all those who cannot accept the true reality of their existence, and this is exactly what has fascinated artists for centuries since the myth had originated, and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
Garber, Marjorie B., and Nancy J. Vickers. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
McGann, Jerome J. “The Beauty of the Medusa: A Study in Romantic Literary Iconography.” Studies in Romanticism 11 (1972). 3-25. Print.