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What is a Gorgon?

Medusa, slain by Perseus, was a gorgon.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 March 2014
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The gorgon is a fearsome, female mythical beast, most often associated with Greek mythology. In myth, the gorgon has snakes for hair and her glance can instantly turn a man to stone. Greek and Roman fascination with the gorgon has many different types of the creature depicted on shields, coins, jewelry, and other art. In Homer’s Iliad, Agamemnon’s shield depicts the gorgon, evoking terror in all his opponents during the Trojan War.

There are several myths specifically centered on the gorgon Medusa, often thought to be a creation of the earth goddess Gaia. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was once a beautiful woman with enviable golden hair. In fact her hair was so beautiful that the goddess Athena grew jealous and changed her pretty locks into serpents. From Ovid arises the concept that the gorgon is beautiful as well as horrible, and no one can survive such a look. Medusa is sometimes depicted as the sister of two other gorgons, Stheno and Euryale. Most often, Medusa is the one recognizable gorgon in common myths.

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According to most myths, Medusa meets her death through Perseus, who is able to slay her by looking at only her reflection in his shield. In some accounts, the fallen blood of Medusa turns into Pegasus, the flying horse often associated with Perseus. In other tellings, Pegasus has a brother Chrysaor, created when Perseus kills Medusa. Unlike Pegasus, Chrysaor is human. Both are said to be the children of Medusa and Poseidon. Other tellings suggest Perseus uses the Gorgon’s head to appease one of the Titans sent by Poseidon.

The gorgon, though commonly thought Greek in origin, has counterparts in Celtic mythology. In all cases, she is usually considered a minor deity, and her face wards off evil. She is among the ranks of many female monsters that recur in numerous mythological tellings of the hero’s journey.

According to Jungian literary analysis, and Joseph Campbell’s work, these angry goddesses or monsters, also called "loathly ladies," are representations of the failure for the hero to recognize and appreciate his own anima, also called his feminine half. Heroes who dismiss real women, and their own feminine sides usually offend the anima to such an extent that she rises up in ferocious form insisting upon recognition, and often engaging in physical combat with the hero.

In real life, this resembles a person who fails to acknowledge an aspect of his personality. Failure to understand and integrate unlikable aspects of personality often means they shadow us until we deal with them. The gorgon, and creatures like her, becomes the stuff of nightmares because they are the things we refuse to recognize about ourselves, and as long as they remain unrecognized, they are feared. Plus, these unrecognized parts are likely to crop up when we’d least like to deal with them.

Other interpretations of fearsome female deities suggest that as the mother goddess was replaced in many parts by male deities, stories arose to suggest her wrath. It could also serve the purpose of conquering tribes to cast mother goddess figures in an evil light to assert the preeminence of the male god of a conquering tribe. This explanation could account for the dichotomy between the fearful nature of beasts like the gorgon, and the many powers and “good sides” that are attributed to them. Spreading rumors about old mother goddess figures did not completely lessen their importance.

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