Medusa is one of the Gorgons, three sisters from classical Greek mythology who were transformed into monsters by the goddess Athena after the sea god Poseidon had raped Medusa in a temple sacred to the goddess.
Medusa’s name means ‘ruler’ or ‘queen’, and the appearance of both her and her sisters as hideously ugly women probably derives from a similar monster, the Lamastu, found in Mesopotamian myth. It is possible that in this form Medusa influenced the character and appearance of the Catoblepas, found in medieval bestiaries. Apart from her more familiar appearance, Medusa was occasionally depicted as a winged horse, like her offspring Pegasus, and sometimes with a woman’s body and horse’s hind legs rather like a centaur, but with wings on her head, which were only later portrayed as snakes.
The Three Gorgons
The sisters are described as looking like women but with leathery, bat-like wings, great tusks sticking out from a gaping mouth and snakes for hair. Medusa also has clawed hands made of brass. Any mortal who looked into her face was instantly turned to stone. The three were the children of Ceto and Phorcrys, the Old Man of the Sea, but unlike her sisters Euryale and Atheno, Medusa was a mortal.
Images of the Gorgons were especially popular as the guardians of temples and are found carved on pediments above the entrance to such buildings. During the 16th-century, it was still widely believed that Gorgons inhabited North Africa, where they had hidden, guarded by the Graeae.
Medusa met her end at the hands of the hero Perseus, who beheaded her while she slept. From her spilled blood sprang the monstrous Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus.
Though pursued by Medusa’s sisters, Perseus escaped and eventually used the severed head to turn his enemies to stone.