Updated: Jun 11, 2021
A few days ago I asked friends for a topic to write about, as I couldn’t think of anything. My friend Sarah suggested gorgons. I thought sure, why not, it can be fun. I didn’t expect much material outside of the Perseus story of beheading Medusa. I was wrong. So very wrong. Let’s dig in.
It all begins in Ancient Mesopotamia where Utu, the Sun, raised a creature by the name of Humbaba. Humbaba’s face is that of a lion, his roar is a flood, his mouth and gaze are death and his breath is fire. His body is covered in thorny scales and he can hear any rustling in the forest of the gods, which he was assigned by Enlil to guard. In some versions his tail and his phallus both ended in a snake head. Humbaba was, after much trickery, beheaded by Gilgamesh in his craving for power and cedar wood.
Here we have the first installment of what will later become the gorgon, and the only masculine one. The snakes, the death gaze, the monstrous appearance, the beheading, and later the head used as protection on buildings and shields, are all very strong elements of the gorgon myth.
As a side note, the “eyes wide open” symbol dates back to the Neolithic, we can see it on vases and masks, all across the world. However I am lacking information on this specific topic so I can’t develop it more as of right now. Feel free to send me links if you find anything.
Back on track. After Humbaba we travel to Greece, where the gorgon in the shape we now know it came into existence after a few transformations.
They are 3 sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. The first 2 are immortals while the third is mortal, beheaded by Perseus because some king was a moron. Seriously, if you look at Greek and Roman mythology, the number of creatures killed just because a man wanted to prove something is staggering. Moving on.
The earliest tales of Medusa and her sisters depict them as monsters, ugly and snakelike. With time they became shown as beautiful maidens, Medusa in particular. And that’s where it gets creepy.
One of the most common versions I’ve found shows Medusa as so beautiful that Poseidon, God of the Sea, couldn’t get her out of his head. But the lady wasn't interested. She declined time and again his advances, and his ego being fragile, he wouldn’t accept no as an answer. He therefore had no choice but to force himself upon her in Athena’s temple, which Athena didn’t appreciate. Instead of retaliating on Poseidon, the goddess chose to punish Medusa, because obviously it wasn’t the man’s fault, the victim was probably wearing a revealing outfit or smiling too much. She turned the beautiful maiden into a monster.
A man wrote the tale, so the monster is still a beautiful young woman but with snakes instead of hair, and eyes that can turn people to stone. After Perseus beheaded her, with Athena’s help, a pegasus and a giant arose from her dead body (or her hair, depending on the version). They are thought to be the children of Poseidon. That’s when Stheno and Euryale briefly appear, both ugly as sin because anger turns women into monsters apparently, trying to catch Perseus who heroically escapes them and we never hear of them ever again.
In short, a young woman said no, was raped, impregnated, blamed for the descration of the temple in which the rape happened, transformed against her will into a creature who couldn’t even look at someone without killing them, then beheaded while still pregnant, for the crime of being what she had been turned into. And then her head was used to kill even more people and placed on the shield of the one who transformed her.
Medusa is a symbol. She is one of the longest lasting symbols in all of human history. From the Neolithic ages to this very day, the image of a woman with wild hair and a strong gaze has always been there. It was on vases for decoration, on houses for protection, on shields for strength, on temples for compassion, on art pieces for beauty, on music albums for aesthetic, on clothes for feminism. It’s even a damned Instagram filter. Yet how many people know the story? How many remember?
We are told the tale in a way that puts Perseus as a hero, overcoming great odds to protect his mother and show the world his value. Never have I seen Medusa’s story told from her point of view.
In my eyes, the hero is Medusa. She stood her ground. She survived, turned people to stone, protected herself after all the horrors that had been done to her. She remained true to herself and strong, even in death. I believe that’s why the story is not told from her perspective. Medusa was the only one of her sisters who was mortal, yet she outlived them and even her tormentors. What was to be her shame became a symbol of strength and power.
The gorgoneion, with its eyes wide and its tusks and its outward tongue, represents in my mind the power of a woman who doesn’t give up her self no matter what. It speaks to me on a personal level because I have been Medusa. I know so many women who have been Medusa. Blamed for a crime committed upon them, shamed, defiled, exiled, transformed, viewed as monsters, their beauty vilified, their mind tormented. Women all over the world are metaphorically beheaded, their bodies objectified and their faces mocked. Men fear the gaze of a strong woman, it petrifies them. Men fear the pride of a strong woman, it burns them like venom. Men fear the truth of a strong woman, it proves them weak.
Stheno and Euryale represent our mothers, our sisters, our cousins, who try to protect us and fail time and time again. They are those who defend the Medusas of the world, and all the Poseidons and the Perseus call them ugly. Because the gorgons are unafraid.
We pass on them because they don’t appear that much in the stories, but Stheno and Euryale too are symbols after all. They too are the daughters of gods, they too are powerful and strong, and they support their sister through the horrors inflicted upon her. They try to get her head back from Perseus, as our sisters try to get our dignity back from those who harm us. They represent the struggle of seeing your loved ones hurt and humiliated and the powerlessness that comes from it. They are immortal yet can do nothing. If that’s not a metaphor I don’t know what is.
I hadn’t intended for this piece to go that way, but the more I researched the topic the more it became evident that this was the foundation of it. There are hundreds of variations on this, only one of them, as I stated at the beginning, male. And even Humbaba, who was a guardian and a carer for the forest, a loving soul with a purpose, was humiliated by the arrogance of a man and killed for being what he was made to be.
The story of the gorgons is the story of human cruelty, of the fear of anything different, strong, or kind. It shows the will of people to prove themselves better than others by demeaning and humiliating them. It shows the inability of some to take no for an answer because of a fragile ego. It is as intemporal as Stheno and Euryale.