Medusa  

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"When Perseus was grown up Polydectes sent him to attempt the conquest of Medusa, a terrible monster who had laid waste the country. She was once a beautiful maiden whose hair was her chief glory, but as she dared to vie in beauty with Minerva, the goddess deprived her of her charms and changed her beautiful ringlets into hissing serpents. She became a cruel monster of so frightful an aspect that no living thing could behold her without being turned into stone. All around the cavern where she dwelt might be seen the stony figures of men and animals which had chanced to catch a glimpse of her and had been petrified with the sight. Perseus, favored by Minerva and Mercury, the former of whom lent him her shield and the latter his winged shoes, approached Medusa while she slept, and taking care not to look directly at her, but guided by her image reflected in the bright shield which he bore, he cut off her head and gave it to Minerva, who fixed it in the middle of her Aegis."--Bulfinch's Mythology (1867) by Thomas Bulfinch


"Her lower extremities were those of a dragon; but the upper half was like Medusa--as to the eyes, I mean; they were quite awful in their expression. Instead of hair, she had clusters of snakes writhing about her neck, and curling over her shoulders. See here: it makes my flesh creep, only to speak of it!' And he showed us all his arm, with the hair standing on end."--"The Liar" by Lucian


"The ur-text on this subject is of course Freud's over-the-top essay, "Medusa's Head" (1922), in which he asserts, "To decapitate = to castrate."--"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head" (2003) by Mark Dery


"Perseus with the dissevered head and body of Medusa, by Benvenuto Cellini; Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes, by Donatello; Michael Angelo's David (who might just as well be called Goliath,) harbouring similar intentions—of course, nothing but blood and murder."--Italy and the Italians (1840) by Friedrich von Raumer

The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by  Théodore Géricault
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The Raft of the Medusa (1819) by Théodore Géricault

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In Greek mythology, Medusa (guardian, protectress), also called Gorgo, was one of the three Gorgons. Medusa is generally described as a human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair; those who gazed into her eyes would turn to stone. Most sources describe her as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, as in Hesiod, Theogony 270, and Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke, 1.10., although the author Hyginus makes her the daughter of Gorgon and Ceto.

Medusa was beheaded by the Greek hero Perseus, who then used her head, which retained its ability to turn onlookers to stone, as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In classical antiquity, the image of the head of Medusa appeared in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion.

According to Hesiod and Aeschylus, she lived and died on Sarpedon, somewhere near Cisthene. The 2nd-century BC novelist Dionysios Skytobrachion puts her somewhere in Libya, where Herodotus had said the Berbers originated her myth as part of their religion.


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Géricault's Medusa

The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault was named after the French frigate Méduse.

Medusa in art

Cultural depictions of Medusa and gorgons

From ancient times, the Medusa was immortalized in numerous works of art, including:

Medusa remained a common theme in art in the nineteenth century, when her myth was retold in Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology. Edward Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle of paintings and a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley gave way to the twentieth century works of Paul Klee, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, and Auguste Rodin's bronze sculpture The Gates of Hell.

Representations

The mythological monster Medusa and other Gorgons have featured in art and culture from the days of ancient Greece to the modern day. She has been variously portrayed as a monster, a protective symbol, a rallying symbol for liberty and a sympathetic rape victim.

Perhaps best-recognized by her head of living snakes and ability to turn living creatures to stone, Medusa is an ancient icon that remains "one of the most popular and enduring figures of Greek mythology" and "continues to live on in the popular imagination" though other figures are forgotten.

Her likeness has been immortalized by numerous artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Peter Paul Rubens, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Benvenuto Cellini.

Ancient times to Renaissance

The Medusa or Gorgon head, the Gorgoneion, was used in the ancient world as a protective apotropaic symbol. Among the Ancient Greeks, it was the most widely-used image intended to avert evil. Medusa's goggling eyes, fangs and protruding tongue head were depicted as mounted on the shield of Athena herself. Its use in this fashion is depicted in the Alexander Mosaic, a Roman mosaic (ca. 200 BC) in Pompeii. In some cruder representations, the blood flowing under the head can be mistaken for a beard.

By the Renaissance, artists depicted Medusa's head held aloft by the realistic human form of the triumphant hero Perseus (such as in the 1554 bronze statue Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini) or evoked horror by making Medusa's detached head the main subject (as demonstrated by the 1597 painting Medusa by Baroque originator Caravaggio).

19th century

After the French Revolution, Medusa was used as a popular emblem of Jacobinism and was often displayed as a figure of "French Liberty" in opposition to "English Liberty," personified by Athena (whose shield bore Medusa's head). "To radicals like Percy Bysshe Shelley, Medusa was an "abject hero," a victim of tyranny whose weakness, disfiguration, and monstrous mutilation become in themselves a kind of revolutionary power." Shelley's 1819 poem, On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery was published posthomously by his wife Mary Shelley in 1824. Octave Mirbeau's use of Medusa during this time has also been examined.

Modern use

Having become "one of the most recognizable images of Greek mythology," Medusa has been featured on the cover of nearly every paperback edition of Edith Hamilton's popular book Mythology since 1942, as well as editions of Bulfinch's Mythology. Medusa has made countless appearances in animation.

Films

It has been suggested that "most people today who are aware of the story of Perseus and Medusa owe their knowledge to the 1981 film Clash of the Titans. The battle with Medusa was memorable for its use of stop motion animation by special effects creator Ray Harryhausen. Having similar origins as being a cursed maiden, though her transformation was caused by Aphrodite, Medusa gains elements of a naga with a snake-like lower body and uses a bow and arrows as her weapon. Furthermore, blood is acidic and can create fearsome giant scorpions Though "the essential story sticks closer to its sources than any other interpretation," the film takes creative liberties and Medusa is imagined differently than "any previous representations, ancient or modern." Medusa is also featured the film's 2010 remake, her background story closer to the original Greek myth.

The myth of the Gorgon had also been notably updated and used as the basis for the 1964 Hammer horror film The Gorgon, which "abandoned the traditional myth entirely and tried to tell a new story." This version takes place in a German village where a series of victims suffer mysterious and gradual petrification; it is ultimately revealed that the spirit of an ancient Gorgon has possessed a certain resident, who subsequently transforms into a Gorgon during the full moon. When she is decapitated, her head returns to that of the human woman.

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