The Graeae, the Gray Ones, were a group of monstrous sisters in Greek mythology. Most authors agreed that there were three of them, all of whom were born as withered old crones.
The Graeae were certainly monstrous, but they did not entirely fit the pattern of other monsters in Greek mythology. They were not immediately violent and their deaths were not a major factor in the story.
Instead, the Graeae were side characters in the larger story of their famous sisters. The three Graeae were the siblings of the three Gorgons and featured in the story of Perseus.
While the Graeae were not as violent and deadly as their sisters, they were still unique and terrifying monsters in their own way. The fears they represented, however, were of a different type.
The Graeae played a role in one of Greek mythology’s most well-known myths, even though they were not the most important monsters in it.
When Perseus was sent to kill Medusa, the only mortal Gorgon, his first challenge was to find both the monster and the materials that would help him to defeat her. According to most accounts, his first goal was to reach the garden of the Hesperides.
Perseus did not know how to reach the garden or the Gorgons’ cave, however. To find them, he sought out information from other monsters.
The Graeae were sisters of the Gorgons. They lived in their own lair in the West, not far from Medusa and their other sisters.
The three sisters had been born with the bodies of old crones. They were described by most as gray and withered old women, although Hesiod said they were “fair-cheeked” and Aeschylus claimed that they were swan-shaped.
The Graeae shared more than the cave they lived in and their appearance. Between the three of them, they had a single eye and a single tooth.
The Gray Sisters, as they were sometimes called, passed the eye back and forth. When one slept, another held the eye so they were able to keep a constant watch on the world around them.
The single tooth was also passed back and forth. Only one of the Graeae could eat at a time.
When Perseus sought out the Graeae, he knew their ever-watchful eye would pose a problem. Although the monstrous sisters shared their sight, they were vigilant at all times.
Perseus laid in wait and watched the Graeae closely. At the moment when they passed the eye and the tooth between one another, he knew he had a brief window of opportunity when their guard would be down.
Perseus leapt out of the shadows at that moment. He seized the eye and the tooth before the startled Graeae could do anything to oppose him.
The hero told the monsters that he would return their sight and their ability to eat if they answered his questions honestly. Some writers claimed that he asked for the location of the Hesperides’ garden, while others said that he asked how to reach the lair of the Gorgons.
Writers also differed on what happened after the Graeae gave Perseus the information he sought. Some said that he returned what he had taken and allowed the Graeae to live on, while others said that he destroyed their only eye and their shared tooth by throwing them into Lake Tritonis, dooming them to blindness and starvation.
They Graeae, like the Gorgons, were said to be daughters of the ancient sea gods Phorcys and Ceto. Like many monsters in Greek mythology, they have been interpreted to represent part of their parents’ domain.
The Gorgons and other sea monsters of mythology were dangerous and deadly creatures. They represented hazards to ships and sailors like sharp rocks, rogue waves, and sudden storms.
The Graeae, however, were less obviously deadly. They did not attack men like Perseus that wandered too close; instead they kept watch.
This may be why killing the Graeae was not a major part of the quest of Perseus, and in some versions of the legend he let them live. Unlike their sister Medusa, they were not responsible for many deaths.
Because they were less overtly threatening than the other children of Phorcys and Ceto, some historians believe that the Graeae may have personified an aspect of the sea that was not as deadly as others. The Gray Sisters are said by some to have been representations of sea foam.
Their gray color lends some credence to this theory, as well as their proximity to the other monsters of the sea. If the Gorgons represented cliffs or storms, foamy seas may have accompanied them.
Other aspects of their story, however, suggest that this relatively harmless version of the Graeae may not have been the first form they were known by.
Hesiod named two of the Graeae in his Theogony. He called them Pemphredo, “Alarm,” and Enyo, “Horror.”
Later, another writer called one of the sisters Deino, or “Dread.” Another name that was sometimes given was Persis, “The Destroyer.”
While these names may have been used for poetic purposes, the names given to monsters and gods often reflected their purpose. Names like “The Destroyer” and “Horror” certainly seem more threatening than harmless sea foam.
It may be that the Graeae, like many Greek monsters in mythology, were originally taken from another source. They may have been more serious foes in older traditions, but their importance and the threat they posed decreased over time.
They may have even switched places with their more famous sisters at some point in their history. While the names of the Graeae are menacing, the Gorgons were named the less obviously terrifying Medusa (Guardian), Sthenno (Strong), and Euryale (Wide Stepping).
An alternative interpretation of the Graeae is that they were not originally sea monsters at all. Instead, they were creatures of the Underworld that were later added into the Medusa legend.
Their aged appearance is in keeping with many traditions of Underworld creatures. Instead of a threat of the sea, the Graeae may have once been monsters that personified the horrors people felt at the prospect of old age.
The word graiai meant “gray women,” but it was also used more generally for old women. In both their name and their appearance, the Graeae represented something aged, decrepit, and frightening.
The Graeae were featured in the story of Perseus and Medusa. The Gray Ones, or Gray Sisters as they were sometimes called, were the sisters of the Gorgons.
When Perseus set out to kill Medusa, he went to the Graeae to discover the whereabouts of the garden of the Hesperides. There, he could find items that would help him on his quest.
To get this information from the Graeae, Perseus took something vital to them as ransom.
The three sisters shared a single watchful eye and a single tooth with which to eat. Perseus waited until they were handing the eye between each other and stole it while they were less watchful.
Accounts differed on whether Perseus eventually returned the eye and the tooth or if he destroyed them. Either way, he got the information he needed from the Graeae.
As children of Phorcys and Ceto, the ancient sea deities, the Graeae are often interpreted, like their siblings, as representing an aspect of the water. Their gray color and relatively non-threatening nature have led to the belief that they may have represented sea foam.
Another interpretation, however, is that the Graeae were not originally linked to the sea deities. Their names suggest that they may have once been a more threatening type of monster.
The specific threat they posed may have been that of old age. As ancient beings who were deformed with age, the Graeae may have once been terrifying aspects of the Underworld.