The Myth of Medusa

This article will discuss the myth of Medusa and her influence on Science, Medicine, Philosphy and Art. And we will start by asking, “Who was Medusa?“.

Who was Medusa?

Medusa was a mythological creature with golden wings, eyes shining like gems, and hair made from a tangle of snakes. She was as monstrous as she was beautiful1because she was the most beautiful of women. To punish her for the lovemaking with Poseidon inside the temple, Athena transformed her into a monster terrifying to the eye, so much so that anyone looking at it turns to stone.

The Myth of Medusa
Damien Hirst, “The Severed Head of Medusa”, 2008, Malachite.

Medusa was deadly like us humans. She lived with her two sisters (the fearsome Gorgons((Medusa was the daughter of the sea deity Orcus and Ceto))) near the Underworld, in the lands of the West. Everyone dodged her, and only Poseidon, the god of the Sea, fell in love with her and seduced her in the Atena temple. She bore the fruit of that union: the giant Crisaore and the winged horse Pegasus. But we’ll talk about them and her mother’s severed head later.

The plan to kill her

Mythology tells us that the heroic son of Zeus, Perseus, was tasked with killing Medusa. For this task, he received numerous gifts. The Nymphs gave him winged sandals to reach where the Gorgons lived, the god Hades gave him a helmet that made him invisible to their gaze, and a magical saddlebag to store the Medusa monster’s head. Hermes also gave him a sharp sickle and the goddess Athena a shield which he shone like a mirror.

The killing of Medusa

Perseus flew to the Gorgon’s home. He found all three of them asleep. The hero, observing them through the mirrored shield to avoid being petrified, approached them silently and, with the sickle, cut off Medusa’s head. Two beings immediately emerged from the decapitated body of the mortal Gorgon: the giant Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus. The two creatures were the fruit of the love previously had with Poseidon.

The severed head of Medusa

Perseus then closed the horrible head in the saddlebag, wore the helmet that gave him invisibility, and with the shoes of the Nymphs, he immediately flew away. The gorgons realizing the murder, took off to chase and kill him. But Perseus fixed the severed head of Medusa in the center of his shield so that her enemies would turn to stone.

The gaze that turns enemies to stone

Medusa’s gaze turned anyone who looked at it into a stone. Her gaze petrified and aroused fear that was soon placed on the shields of the Greek soldiers and also the shield of the brave Agamemnon had it. Ovid, in the Iliad, describes it to us:

And he took up his richly dight, valorous shield, that sheltered a man on both sides, a fair shield, and round about it were ten circles of bronze, and upon it twenty bosses of tin, gleaming white, and in the midst of them was one of dark cyanus. And thereon was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout. From the shield was hung a baldric of silver, and thereon writhed a serpent of cyanus, that had three heads turned this way and that, growing forth from one neck. 

Iliad (XI, 29-41)

For this reason, her effigy was placed, even by the Romans, on the shield of the soldiers. And not only that, but also on the walls, weapons, and… tombs, as in the photo we posted. 

In this photo of a Roman tomb, taken at Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, you can see the head of the Gorgon carved inside the tympanum. The monstrous face of Medusa engraved in the tombs had, in fact, an apotropaic function, i.e., to drive away evil spirits from the deceased.

Upper element of a funerary stele, 1st century AD (white marble, 38.5×87×30 cm, provenance: unknown), Ducal Palace Mantua

The Duplicity of Medusa

The myth of Medusa still questions us today. There is a beautiful reflection by the Italian philosopher Umberto Curi((see the article entitled “Duplicity” by Umberto Curi in the book “La Cava dei Poeti – Scolpire la Parola” by Marco Nereo Rotelli, 2003)) on Medusa and Asclepius, the god of Medicine. Umberto Curi tells us how, in all representations, Medusa appears as a double creature.

She is as Seductive as Horrible.
She is as human as bestial.
She is as Young as Old. 
She is as Male as Female. 
She is as Celestial as Infernal

The Myth of Medusa embodies the concept of duplicity. She is made up of different and opposing elements. These elements blend together in Medusa. And they create her identity. She is the convergence of the many into one. She is the disruptor of distinct and separate spheres and areas of reality. And this otherness is also linked to Medicine.

The Duplicity of Asclepius, the demiGod of Medicine

Asclepius, the demigod of Medicine, is also a double character. He is ‘double born.’
Human and divine. As Pindar tells us. Indeed, he was born from the god Apollo and the beautiful Coronis. His education is done by the centaur Chiron, half man and half horse. Many ties connect him to Dionysus, the god of contradiction, who died while gazing at his image in the mirror. The mirror is another element of duplicity. Asclepius can give life or death. In fact, Apollodorus tells us:

He had received from Athena the blood that had flowed from the veins of the Gorgon,
and he used that of the left veins to kill men,
the one of the right veins to save them,
and in this way he could also raise the dead.

Book 3, chapter 10, section 3

Medusa and the human condition

And because he can resurrect the dead, he is punished by Zeus with a thunderbolt forged by the Cyclopes. This is because the resurrection subverts the order of the world. This duplicity, Umberto Curi tells us again, is not the coexistence of opposites. But he refers to something that connects both. That is the indissolubility between life and death. Something we know well. It’s called the human condition.

Asclepius, votive relief.
Asclepius, votive relief, Pentelic marble fragment, Greek art, the second quarter of the 1st century. B.C. – Palazzo Ducale Mantua

Why Medusa in the History of Medicine?

The story of Medusa and her blood are deeply linked to Medicine. The Italian term “farmaco” (drug in English) derives from the Greek word “Pharmakeus,” the poison or drug capable ofexpelling” the disease from the body. In the tragedy Ione Euripides tells us how the goddess Athena gives Erichthonius a few drops of Medusa’s blood. This blood has opposite properties. One blood drop can kill, but one drop can also prevent disease. The same dichotomy((see Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy”,1968)) we still find today. A drug can be curative, or it can be poisonous. It will take centuries to understand the concept of dose….Therapeutic dose or lethal one.

The Medusa by Caravaggio

In the previous lines, we examined together the myth of Medusa. I like to end this article with a picture that, in my opinion, sublimely encompasses the duplicity and complexity of this mythological figure. I’m talking about the famous painting: “The Medusa” by Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio.

A shield like canvas

Caravaggio oil painted the figure of Medusa on the convex surface of a ceremonial shield. It will be presented by Cardinal del Monte, patron and dear friend of Caravaggio, to Ferdinando I de Medici. The painter’s mastery makes Medusa perceived as if it were drawn on a flat surface, without deformation whatsoever.

The Medusa’s last cry

If we look at the Caravaggesca Medusa, she is distressing. Yet her physical characteristics are typical of beauty. The snakes present in her hair look harmless, rather decorative. Her teeth are natural in shape and color (they are not the classic lion’s teeth she was depicted with in the past). Her face is smooth and smooth. Her tongue is not out of the mouth. Yet her eyes are off-axis. They don’t look at the observer. Her mouth is open, almost for a last cry, which gets stuck in her throat. What she sees surprises and horrifies her. 

Between life and death

Caravaggio’s Medusa is “caught in the moment“. That blood from the severed head confirms it (it’s also realistic, Caravaggio saw many executions). She is caught on the border. Not only between life and death but in that – as the philosopher Umberto Curi tells us – in which she understands that she is not just “one.” Where this “one” can rise to multiple interpretations.

At that moment, she understands that the demarcation line between two states doesn’t exist but is a human product. In the twentieth century, Philosophy and the Philosophy of Science will arrive at this. But Art had already explained it to us much earlier. With its language: that of emotions.

“Medusa”, Caravaggio Merisi, Uffizi Gallery, 1595-1598

  1. Medusa had not always been considered attractive. She was horrid to the Greeks. From Roman antiquity, Medusa’s great beauty became her most important attribute. The late medieval poet Christine de Pizan described her as “a being of such startling beauty that she not only surpassed all other women but she was attractive to every mortal creature she laid eyes on. []