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Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)

Medusa is a character in Greek mythology. After violating Athena's temple, she was changed into a monster with snakes for hair. Her offspring include Pegasus, the winged horse. Medusa has been depicted in art for centuries. Many interpretations surround the myth including one by Sigmund Freud.

Myth[edit | edit source]

Medusa is one of three sisters known as The Gorgons. Medusa's sisters are Stheno and Euryale. They were all children of the marine deities Phorkys and his sister Keto. Medusa was mortal; her sisters were immortal.

In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Medusa is said to have been very beautiful. She attracted the notice of Poseidon, the Sea God. The two had intimate relations in Temple of Athena. The goddess was outraged that her temple was used this way, and transformed Medusa into a monster with snakes for hair. Any man who looked upon her was turned to stone.

Gorgon, from an ancient Greek black-figure amphora, 520–510 BC

Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus. After defeating his enemies with the head, he presented it to Athena. She put it on her shield, the Aegis.

At the time of her death, Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon. When Perseus beheaded her, Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chrysaor, a golden sword-wielding giant, sprang from her body.

Interpretations[edit | edit source]

In art[edit | edit source]

Medusa, a Roman copy of a Greek original by Phidias

Medusa was the subject for ancient vase painters, mosaicists, and sculptors. She appears on the breastplate of Alexander the Great in the Alexander Mosaic at the House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy (about 200 BC).

A Roman copy of Phidias' Medusa (left) is held in Munich, Germany. The work was later used as a model for the Gorgon's head in Antonio Canova's marble Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1798–1801).

Renaissance depictions include the bronze sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554); the bronze statue Perseus and Medusa by Hubert Gerhard (1590); and the oil on canvas painting Medusa by Caravaggio (1597).

Baroque depictions include Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens (1618); the marble bust Medusa by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1630s); Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone, an oil on canvas by Luca Giordano from the early 1680s.

Medusa by Harriet Hosmer, 1854

Romantic and modern depictions include Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova (1801); Medusa, a marble sculpture by Harriet Hosmer (1854), Medusa an oil painting by Arnold Böcklin (about 1878); Perseus, a bronze sculpture by Salvador Dalí.

Medusa remained a common theme in art in the nineteenth century, when her myth was retold in Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology. Edward Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle of paintings and a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley gave way to the twentieth century works of Paul Klee, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, Pierre et Gilles, and Auguste Rodin's bronze sculpture The Gates of Hell.

In literature[edit | edit source]

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