Most people are familiar with the legend of the Gorgon. Medusa was killed by the hero Perseus, who escaped her two sisters thanks to help from Athena and Hermes.
Medusa was one of three Gorgons in the myth, but her sisters play a more minor role. Ofter, the one killed by Perseus was referred to simply as “the Gorgon.”
Some writers used this name to refer to another monster altogether. They claimed that the first Gorgon was not Medusa, but her father.
Was this story a later invention or an alternative to the more well-known myth?
The story of Perseus and the Gorgon is one of the most well-known Greek myths. The monster’s face, which had the power to turn men into stone, was a common motif in art as well.
The famous legend says that Medusa was one of three Gorgons. Her sisters, named Stheno and Euryale in some sources, were slightly different.
While only Medusa had the power to petrify anyone who looked at her face directly, she was also the weakest of the three. The was the only one of the monstrous sisters who could be killed.
This was what allowed Perseus to behead her. He could not kill the other sisters, who presumably survived and continued to hunt men from their cave at the edge of the world.
Medusa’s story did not end with her death. Perseus took her head with him, and it retained its terrible power.
Eventually, Medusa’s head was given as a trophy to Athena. The goddess of wisdom and war had been an important patron of Perseus’s quest, as she was for many heroes.
Athena affixed the head to her famous aegis, a device that is usually interpreted as a shield. This became one of her chief attributes in art.
The aegis that Athena carried was not her own, however. It supposedly belonged to her father, Zeus, who let his daughter carry it as a sign of his favor.
At least one source claimed that the terrible face on Athena’s aegis was not that of Medusa, though. In the 2nd century AD, one writer told a story that did not involve Perseus and Medusa at all.
Instead, this source climbed that Zeus had slain the Gorgon.
When Zeus was young, the story said, he consulted an oracle. He asked what he would need to do in order to be successful against his father, Cronus, and the other Titans.
The oracle said that Zeus had to protect himself with the skin of a goat. On it, he should display the head of the Gorgon.
This was, the story said, how the aegis was made. Its protection allowed Zeus to emerge victorious from his conflict against the older gods.
The same source claimed that Medusa was the child of this Gorgon, who was her father and thus male. This story of Zeus and the first Gorgon did not replace the tale of Perseus, but expanded on it to add another generation of monsters.
The Gorgo Aix, as this first Gorgon was sometimes called, was given different origins by the authors that mentioned it. Some said it was the child of Phorcys and Ceto, the sea deities often named as Medusa’s parents, while one even said that it was the offspring of the sun god Helios.
This story could be taken as an example of a single later author using his creative license, but some clues in the early legends of the Gorgon show that there is much more to the image than just the story of Medusa.
The story of the Gorgon Medusa is known to be an old one in Greek mythology. Hesiod mentioned Medusa’s fate and her sisters in the 7th or 8th century BC.
While this version of the story is the most well-known, other ancient sources did not include the same details. In the Odyssey, for example, Homer named the Gorgon among the creatures in the Underworld but did not give her name or mention her sisters.
Many of these ancient sources seem to imply that there was only one Gorgon. Medusa is often referred to only as “the Gorgon,” even though she had two sisters in other texts.
Some historians believe that these stories did not simply omit the other Gorgons. Instead, they were written as part of a tradition in which Stheno and Euryale had not been introduced.
Like many older myths, the legend of the Gorgon likely came from several different traditions. It was passed on in different ways depending on time, place, and context.
It seems entirely likely, therefore, that the story of Medusa was one with slightly different traditions. In some places she was a singular Gorgon, while in others she was one of three sisters.
This could explain some of the details of the familiar legend. The fact that only Medusa was mortal, for example could have been added as a justification for why Perseus only killed one Gorgon in his story.
The image of the Gorgon was old enough for the story to have been changed over time.
Images of a creature that resembles the Gorgon in Greece date back to as early as 1500 BC. Some historians even believe that a Stone Age culture in the region created similar images around 6000 BC.
The Gorgon is also depicted in ways that are familiar further to the East.
A similar type of monster appeared in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian legend that dates to around 2000 BC. The same epic is thought to have influenced many other Greek myths, such as those of Heracles.
In India, the destructive goddess Kali is portrayed in a similar way to the traditional Gorgon head in Greece. She has a protruding tongue and snakes around her head just as the Gorgon does.
All of these pieces of evidence lead historians to believe that the figure of the Gorgon was ancient even by the time of Homer. In its long history, different stories about the monster had emerged.
While the story of Zeus killing the Gorgon before his war against the Titans was a later one, it may have been inspired by lesser-known tales that were passed down for hundreds of years. This story survives in relatively few sources, but shows that some Greeks may have known a version of the legend that was different than the one we know today.
In Greek mythology, Medusa was usually said to be one of three Gorgons. As the most prominent of the three in her story, she was often referred to as “the Gorgon” with no mention of her sisters.
One tradition, however, claimed that there was another Gorgon entirely. This monster was said to be the father of Medusa and her sisters.
In this story, the head mounted on Zeus’s aegis was not that of Medusa, but of her father. Zeus had killed the first Gorgon before the Titanomachy on the orders of an oracle to ensure his victory.
Some historians believe that this version of the story was a later invention. Others have reason to believe that it is evidence of differing traditions.
Like many Greek myths, the story of Medusa was quite old. It likely changed a great deal over time and was retold in different traditions.
It is possible, therefore, that the later account of the first Gorgon was not original to its time. It may have reflected an older tradition that gave a different origin for Medusa and for the famous Gorgon head on Zeus’s aegis.