Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Stheno and Euryale
The Greek legend of Medusa is familiar to many people. She was a monstrous creature with snakes for hair and the ability to turn people into stone just by looking at her. So, it's not hard to understand why this figure sticks in our minds. However, we often forget that Medusa wasn't the only one of her kind. In fact, she wasn't even necessarily the most powerful. Medusa had two sisters named Stheno and Euryale. In classical mythology, these were three fearsome sisters.
Medusa, Stheno and Euryale all belonged to a race of monsters known as the Gorgons. In the oldest Greek depictions, the Gorgons had scaly hides, wings, boar-tusk fangs, brass hands, claws, and snakes for hair. And, they could also kill you by looking at you. Later Roman depictions would often show the Gorgons as beautiful (if scaly) women, combining the temptation to look at them with the fear of instant death.
So, how did these three sisters end up with snakes for hair? According to the most popular myth, the three Gorgons were born to the primordial sea god Phorcys and his sister, the sea goddess Ceto. Both were closely associated with sea monsters in Greek mythology. In most myths, the sisters were introduced as being very beautiful. However, Medusa's beauty attracted Poseidon, who raped her in the temple of Athena. Athena blamed Medusa for the act and turned her into a monstrous being. Stheno and Euryale stood by their sister, and they also ended up transformed.
Traits of the Sisters
The three Gorgons were similar in many ways. Medusa's name indicated that she was the queen of the group. Stheno means ''strong'' and Euryale means ''wide leaping,'' indicating that both could be characterized by physical abilities. The implication was that Medusa was the brainy one. This is especially interesting when we realize that Medusa was also the only one who was mortal. Both Stheno and Euryale were immortal and eternally youthful.
So, what were Stheno and Euryale like? We have fewer descriptions of these two than Medusa, but what we know indicates that they were pretty formidable. Stheno (the strong) was said to be the most independent and the most ferocious of the three, who killed more men than her sisters combined. Euryale was often characterized by fierce and loud cries, a sign of a powerful and threatening force in mythology.
A few historians have parsed over the descriptions of all three sisters and think that they were actually inspired by real creatures of the deep, which the Greeks would have seen in the Mediterranean. In this interpretation, Medusa was inspired by the octopus (famous for its cleverness), Euryale was inspired by the squid (known for its ability to leap far out of the water), and Stheno was inspired by the cuttlefish (characterized by its strength). Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, but it's worth remembering that many Greek myths had basis in the things they observed in their own world.
Stheno & Euryale in Mythology
Stheno and Euryale are rarely found in Greek mythology outside of the story of their sister. The three lived together on an island, where the hero Perseus was sent. Perseus, with the help of the gods, killed Medusa while her sisters were sleeping. Stheno and Euryale awoke and tried to capture Perseus, but he eluded them thanks to a hat of darkness of invisibility given to him by either Hermes or Hades. After Perseus escaped, Euryale and Stheno started mourning their sister. According to at least one version of the story, Athena heard their mournful song and created the Greek double-pipe instrument known as the aulos to replicate it.
Outside of the stories themselves, keep an eye out for these sisters in classical art. According to mythology, Athena placed Medusa's head on her shield. Greeks and Romans later took to painting Gorgon heads on their own shields. They also painted or carved Gorgon heads onto their doorways, walls, and vases as a way to scare off evil. So, Gorgons can be found throughout Greek art, although the Gorgon in question is rarely identified. We only know it's Medusa if Perseus is there to cut off her head. Otherwise, it could be Stheno or Euryale. Does it really matter which Gorgon it is? No. They're all terrifying: scary enough to chase away bad luck and evil.
All right, let's take a moment to review what we've learned. In Greek mythology, the Gorgons were three monstrous sisters with snakes for hair who could turn someone to stone just by looking at them. The most famous of these sisters was Medusa, but she was also the only mortal Gorgon. Euryale and Stheno were both immortal but also cursed with a monstrous appearance after supporting their sister when she was raped by Poseidon. Euryale's name means ''wide leaping'' and Stheno's means ''strong,'' suggesting that these two were characterized by physical traits and abilities, while Medusa was more clever. Together, they were three ferocious sisters whose island was not a place you'd want to visit.
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