Golden Gorgon-Medusa Artwork in Ancient Hellenic World

Anna Lazarou

Anna Lazarou

The Gorgon-Medusa, as a terror or beauty figure, has been widely used in ancient art. The Gorgon im-age appears in several pieces of art and architectural structures including, e.g. the pediments of the Temple of Artemis (c. 580 BC) in Corfu, the mid-sixth-century BC, life marble statue, in cups, in coins, burial reliefs, shields, jewellery, ceramic vases (Johnson, 1993).

The materials that bear Medusa images range from ceramics to marble, bronze, gold. Being one of three sisters, known as the Gorgons, the Medusa is a particular figure.

The three of them were born from Phorcys and Ceto. According to Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ (270-281), the Gorgons were the sisters of the Graeai and lived in the utmost place towards the night by the Hesperides beyond Oceanus (in later written sources of Apollodorus, Graeai and the Gorgon sisters are connected to Perseus myth). Medusa was decapitated by Perseus.

However, later authors (Herodotus, Pausanias) place the Gorgons’ abode in Libya. The Gorgon sisters were Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa; Medusa was mortal while her sisters were immortal.

To define the difference between Gorgoneion, Gor-go, Medusa and Gorgon head; Gorgoneion and Gorgon head is the head alone (Homer Iliad 5.741 and Odyssy 11.634), and Gorgo is called the whole-body daemon and represents an apotropaic symbol.

Medusa, according to the myth, is one of the three gorgon sisters. The Greeks made offerings to the “averting gods” (ἀποτρόπαιοι θεοί, apotropaioi theoi), chthonic deities or procession of protective deities via a symbolic depiction and heroes who grant safety and deflect evil (Liritzis et al., 2017).

The Gorgon became a popular shield design in antiquity along with being an apotropaic (warding off evil) agent. In fact, the goddess Athena and Zeus were often portrayed with a shield (or aegis) depict-ing the head of a Gorgon, who is typically believed to be Medusa.

There exist several archaeological examples of the Gorgon’s face being used on breastplates, in mosaics and even as bronze end pieces on ship beams in the Roman period. Perhaps the most famous example of Medusa in art in antiquity was the Athena Parthenos statue from the Parthenon which was made by Phid-ias and described by Pausanias.

This statue of Athena depicts a Gorgon’s face on the goddess’ breastplate. In Greek mythology there is, also, Hesiod’s description of Hercules’ shield which describes the events of Perseus and Medusa (Hesiod, Theogony, 270-281).

Medusa appears in the ancient Hellenic World and colonies, with a geographic spread from Olbia and Crimea of Black sea, to Libya, and eastern Iberia, to Sicily, Near East and Bactrian Afghanistan, as well as parallels in other parts of the World (Wilk, 2000).

From our survey, for the first time, a gathered collection of 26 Gorgon-Medusa images made in gold are attributed to excavation sites or broad regions of origin from the wide ancient Hellenic World.

This collection is typologically studied and critically assessed with respect to depictions in various other scenes and materials. It represents a collection of many more golden medusa-gorgon artworks, worth of discussing along the frame of period, style and purpose.

There are several local myths about the magic properties of Gorgon-Medusa. In our present iconography the major representations are gorgon-heads. The earliest written sources refer to an isolated gorgeii head (gorgon head or gorgoneion), without a body, which causes the terror to anyone who sees it.

Then the sources report the head of the gorgon (mermaid) or the gorgo or the gorgons, with a unique determination of the terror they cause. Although the genealogy of the Perseus was known to Homer, its association with the gorgon is mentioned for the first time in the Hesiod.

The Theogony describes the genealogy of medusa, one of the three gorgons-mermaids, which is identified with more characteristics and is associated with the Perseus.

The decapitation of the gorgon-medusa, the birth of the Pegasus and Chrysaor (the golden sword-bearer), the treatment of her head with the fossil property by Perseus, are mythical elements that are embellished and associated with other mythological persons and mythological affairs giving food to the writers and the poets until Late Antiquity and Renaissance.

At the same time, and as it emerges from the written sources, the individual gorgonian head, is going through a remarkable course independent of Medusa.

For the genealogy of Perseus and his relationship with Medusa, the poet Ferekides wrote in the fifth-century. B.C. King Akrisius had received an oracle according to which he would die from the hands of his unborn grandfather. That is why she decided to lock his daughter Danae along with her breastfeeder in an underground prison whose walls were covered with metal plates.

Danae, however, fell in love with Jupiter, who transformed her into a golden rain and so entered her prison. From this union, Perseus was born. Akrisius, when he heard the cry of the child and learned about the birth of his grandson, killed the breastfeeder and locked Danae and the little Perseus into a trunk threw it into the sea.

The chest was washed in Seriphos, where it was picked up by the fisherman Dikty and transferred to his brother, King Polydektes, thus saving the life of mother and son. According to Pherecydis, Polydektes was treating them “as if they were relatives of him”. There Perseus was grew up too. But Polydektes finally loved Danae. In a sporting event by King Polydektes, Perseus prided himself on bringing the head of Medusa, the mortal Mermaid of the three sisters, and was endowed with the tremendous power of stoning men who looked at her.

The King seized the opportunity to exterminate Perseus once and for all to marry Danae, holding Perseus a hindrance and giving him the murder of the Gorgons sure to kill him. Perseus, however, helped by the gods turned triumphant, especially he was helped in his conquest to acquire Medusa’s head from Athena and Mercury.

They helped him to secure the hood of Hades to make him invisible, the feathered sandals for running fast, and a sack (kivisis) to put the head of Medusa. With these magic paraphernalia and the protection of the gods, Perseus was able to defeat Medusa while she was asleep.

At the time of her death Pegasus the sacred winged horse and Chrysaor the hero with the golden sword were born from her cut neck, both offsprings from her union with god Poseidon. Pegasus received this name because he was born at the source of the ocean, and Chrysaor because he was holding a golden sword. The two sisters of Medusa, seeking revenge of her death, followed Perseus who tricked them by wearing helmet of Hades that made him invisible. Then Perseus returned to the island of Seriphos (Aegean) by finding his mother as supplicant in a temple, along with his savior Dikty, chased by Polydektes. Then, he presented to Polydektes the head of the Gorgon, where he turned to rock, Dikty became the king of Seriphos and his mother Danae returned to Argos in their homeland.

Perseus then went to Argos to find his grandfather. But the oracle was verified and Perseus accidentally killed Akrisius from an unlucky disc drop during matches he attended. Perseus then abandoned Argos and went to Asia to reside, where his son became the Persian leader, from whom the Persians took their name” (Apollonius the Rhodian, comments on Pherecydes, Schol Apoll. Rhod. IV 1091, 1515; Pherecydes: FGrHist 1, 61 f., Fragments 10-11).

Some say that Medusa lost its head because of Athena; because they say that the Gorgon wanted to be compared with her in beauty (Apollodorus, Library, Book 2, chapter 4.3).

At any rate either of Medusa, and Gorgon’s head or Gorgoneion, in all myths are related to protection from terror to the living and the dead. Essentially a chthonian creature residing in the most distant points to the earth, the hades underworld, and, also in the sea having marine origin too.

The latter is extracted from the symbolic genealogical cycle consist-ing of marine-related deities.

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