The story of Perseus’s defeat of the Gorgon is one of the most legendary in Greek mythology. With the help of the gods, the hero was able to kill one of the most terrifying monsters in the world.
While Perseus beheaded Medusa, however, he still left two Gorgons alive. These were Medusa’s sisters, who were dangerous monsters in their own right.
Who were the Gorgon sisters and why did Perseus not kill them as well? Read on to find out!
The Gorgons are mentioned in some of the earliest works of Greek literature.
In the Iliad, Homer says that the head of the Gorgon is prominently displayed on Athena’s aegis. Agamemnon has a similar shield that shows the image of the Gorgon to inspire fear and dread.
The Gorgon was mentioned again in the Odyssey. When Odysseus travels to the Underworld, he fears that Persephone will send the head of the Gorgon out of the house of Hades to attack him.
Homer, however, mentions only one Gorgon and does not give her name. Hesiod would write the story that would become well-known.
Hesiod claimed that the head mentioned in Homer’s works was that of only one Gorgon, Medusa. She and her sisters, Sthenno and Euryale, were daughters of the sea gods Phorcys and Keto.
Attic tradition, however, said that the Gorgons were created specifically to be enemies of the gods. They were created by Gaia to help the giants in their war against Zeus and the Olympians.
According to Hesiod, the Gorgon sisters made their home on the farthest side of the western sea. Later writers would identify this as Libya, and in the Roman era Virgil said that it was at the gates of the Underworld.
The story of Perseus seems to have already been known by the time Hesiod wrote in about 700 BC. He does not recount the entire story, but instead mentions it as though most people were already familiar with the details of the myth.
In these, Medusa is said to be the only one of the Gorgon sisters who is mortal. Although Perseus is sent to kill her, her sisters cannot die so he instead has to avoid them.
To do this, Perseus received help from the gods. The cloak of invisibility that belonged to Hades allowed him to escape the lair of the Gorgon sisters without being seen after he killed Medusa.
While the tradition of there being three Gorgon sisters was established early on, they and their abilities were not fully explained until much later.
Early writers, for example, did not mention whether or not Medusa looked any different than her sisters.
Hesiod only said that the Gorgon sisters had jagged teeth and snakes hanging at their belts, even saying that they were “indescribable.” The infamous snake hair of Medusa did not appear in his description.
By the 5th century BC this was well-established in art and literature, but the appearances of Medusa’s sisters were still unknown.
Later writers would make Sthenno and Euryale resemble their sister more, even as Medusa took on a more human appearance in art.
Nor did ancient writers specify what powers or abilities the Gorgon sisters possessed. Some later writers would say that Sthenno’s scream could kill a man, but this seems at odds with the story of Perseus and his escape from their lair.
While Medusa was one of the most iconic and memorable monsters in Greek mythology, Sthenno and Euryale played only a minor role in the story and were never as well-developed.
The tradition of the three Gorgon sisters appears to not be the only one in Greek mythology.
Although Homer and Hesiod lived at roughly the same time, they were from different parts of the Greek world. Homer was from mainland Greece, possibly Ionia, while Hesiod was born in Lydia in Asia Minor.
This meant that, particularly in a time when legends were passed through oral tradition instead of writing, the two authors likely heard different versions of the stories.
Such regional variations could explain why Hesiod wrote about three Gorgon sisters while Homer mentioned only a single monster. They could also account for the different legends of their parentage.
Later writers would try to rationalize the discrepancies by saying that there had once been a single Gorgon that fit Homer’s description. It was created by Gaia and killed by Zeus.
The later Gorgon sisters were not the same monster, but a later generation of the same type. These were the creations of Hesiod’s stories and the legend of Perseus.
It is more likely, however, that the legends of the Gorgons came from two separate traditions.
Since only one of the Gorgons plays a particularly important role in the story, it seems likely that the legend of the three sisters was an addition to the myth rather than the original version of the story. This trio of sisters may have been intended as a dark version of a tripartite goddess.
Three-part deities are a common theme in ancient mythology, particularly in Indo-European tradition. The Norns of Norse mythology, the Morrigan and Brigid in Ireland, and the Hindu Tridevi are examples of this motif.
Many Greek goddesses are not explicitly named as a single being in three parts, but are often interpreted within this archetype. Gaia, Rhea, and Demeter, for example, are often seen as three closely-bound earth goddesses.
It is possible that the Gorgon, one of the most terrifying monsters of Greek mythology, was imagined by some to be an evil counterpart to a three-part goddess.
In Greek mythology, the Gorgon often refers specifically to Medusa. The subject of Perseus’s quest, she is one of the most iconic monsters in Greek lore.
Medusa was not the only Gorgon, however. According to most sources, she had two sisters that lived alongside her.
Unlike Medusa, Sthenno and Euryale could not be killed. Greek writers never specified why only one Gorgon sister was mortal.
Nor were the sisters ever described as fully as Medusa. While some later writers claimed that Sthenno had a scream that was as deadly as Medusa’s gaze, this does not seem to fit the legend of how Perseus escaped by becoming invisible.
In fact, some writers did not seem to agree that there were three Gorgons at all. Homer mentioned only one, while other authors said that a single Gorgon was born from Gaia to fight alongside the Gigantes.
While Greco-Roman writers rationalized this singular Gorgon as a separate creature, it is more likely that Homer and Hesiod recounted stories from slightly different traditions. Hesiod’s account of three Gorgon sisters, possibly a corruption of the three-part goddess archetype, became the more well-known version of an ancient story.