What are Gorgons in Greek Mythology?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Greek mythology was full of monsters, but few were as deadly as the Gorgons. In this lesson, we'll check out these creatures and see what role they played in Greek myths.

The Gorgons

Can beauty be a dangerous thing? In Greek mythology, the answer is definitely yes. Greek myths are full of stories of people, gods, and creatures whose physical appearance led to either their downfall or the downfall of others. Few examples of this are quite as terrifying as the Gorgons, three sisters with snakes for hair who could turn people into stone just by looking at them.

Appearance of the Gorgons

So, what exactly were the Gorgons like? Like most Greek myths, the actual description of these characters changed over time. In some of the oldest versions of these myths, there was only one Gorgon, a female who was produced by the personification of Earth (Gaea) to help the Titans battle the gods. Homer described a single Gorgon as a monster living in the underworld.

It was the 7th-century BCE Greek poet Hesiod, however, who established the more popular view of the Gorgons. According to him, there were three Gorgons. Their names were Stheno (the Mighty or Strong), Euryale (the Far Springer) and Medusa (the Queen). Hesiod described these three sisters as being ugly inside and out- their monstrous personalities were mirrored externally by their wings, scale-covered bodies, tusks, and claws.

In Greek art, the Gorgons had monstrous faces
Greek Gorgons

The final appearance of the Gorgons came at the hands of a later author, Ovid. Ovid was actually a first-century BCE Roman, but also recorded the fullest versions of many Greek myths that had been largely oral traditions up until that point. In his rendition of the Gorgon myths, these three sisters were extremely beautiful, tempting men to look at their faces. In this version, Medusa was the only Gorgon to have snakes for hair, the result of being cursed by Athena (Minerva in Roman traditions) after Medusa seduced Poseidon/Neptune.

The Roman versions of Gorgons tended to be more humanlike
Roman Gorgons

The Gorgons in Greek Mythology

In any version of the story, the Gorgons were vicious and deadly monsters. In fact, it seemed that no one could defeat them since seeing their faces resulted in instant death. The most famous legend involving the Gorgons focuses on Medusa, who was also the only one of the Gorgons that was mortal.

In the legend, the hero Perseus is tricked into taking on Medusa by an evil king trying to marry his mother. Perseus, however, is a righteous Greek hero and therefore the gods help him out. Hermes gives Perseus a sword that can pierce the Gorgon's scaly skin, and Athena gives him a polished shield so he can fight by looking in the shield's reflection, not directly into the monster's eyes.

Perseus slays Medusa
Medusa

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