The Gorgons in Greek Mythology: Origin Story, Family Tree, Power, & Abilities

Vicious, horrifying, hideous, fierce. These were some of the words the ancient Greeks used to describe the Gorgons. Who were the Gorgons? And how did they become such frightening creatures? Read on to learn more about the Gorgons in Greek mythology.

One of the most horrifying and powerful creatures in Greek mythology

Gorgons in Greek mythology

In Greek mythology, the Gorgons are three sisters of immense power and abilities. They are famous for having boar-like fangs, scaly skin, long tongues, and most importantly venomous snakes for hair.

In the myths, the Gorgons have the ability to turn anyone that gazed directly at them to stone. This made them even more dangerous.

The three Gorgons

According to the Theogony by 7th century BC Greek author Hesiod, there are three Gorgons – Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. Hesiod describes the three Gorgon sisters as very absolutely hideous beings, both inside and out. They almost like birds as they have wings and claws. Their bodies are primarily covered with scales. And finally, they have tusks. The scales they have on their bodies is a feature they acquired from their parents, who were sea deities (more on this below).

In some accounts, Stheno, the oldest of the three, is also the strongest, having killed as many people as her the ones killed by her two sisters combined. It’s no surprise that Stheno’s name means “mighty” or “strong”. The Gorgon Euryale is described as the “Far Springer” while Medusa is sometimes known as the “Guardian” or the “Queen”.

Family of weird creatures

According to Hesiod, the Gorgons belonged to a family of very strange creatures. It’s said that they were born to the sea deities – Phorcys and Ceto (also known as Keto). Phorcys is primordial sea god, while his brother-sister Ceto is a sea goddess.

In addition to the Gorgons, Ceto and Phorcys gave birth to the Graeae – a trio of sisters who shared one eye and one tooth. They were Deino, Enyo, and Pemphredo.

Other siblings of the Gorgons include Echidna, Ladon, Scylla, the Hesperides, and Thoosa. Echidna, a half-woman, half-snake creature, was the consort of Typhon, the fiercest creature in Greek mythology. And by Typhon, Echidna bore many monstrous children, including Cerberus, the three-headed hound of the underworld; the Lernaean Hydra; and the Neamean lion.

For her role in being the ancestor of many Greek monsters, Ceto has been described as the mother of monsters.

Family tree of the Gorgons

The three Gorgon sisters are considered as some of the most dangerous and terrifying creatures in Greek mythology. Born to sea deities Phorcys and Ceto, the Gorgons are members of a very strange family, which included many fierce monsters such as the Graeaa, Echidna, and Cerberus.

Of the three Gorgons in Greek mythology, Medusa is the most famous. From a forced encounter with Poseidon, Medusa brought forth two offspring – Chrysoar and Pegasus.

Gorgons in Greek mythology

Tithrasos in ancient Libya is often said to be where the den of the Gorgons is located. Image: Family tree of the Gorgons in Greek mythology

Where did the they live?

In one account, it was said that where the Gorgons lived was secret and mysterious place, and that knowledge of this place was kept hidden by their sisters the Graeae.

However, it is commonly agreed in the myth that the Gorgons lived in Tithrasos in Libya. There are also some accounts, i.e. those by ancient Greek historians Diodorus and Palaephatus, which state that they lived near a group of islands in the Aethiopian Sea.

Ancient Roman poet Virgil stated that the Gorgons lived near the entrance of the Greek Underworld. This is in line with Homer’s claim in the Odyssey, which describes the Gorgon as a dreadful monster that was banished into the underworld along with other deities.

Meaning of their name

It’s been said that the meaning of the name “Gorgon” comes from the Greek word “gorgos”, which means ‘fierce’ or ‘grim’.

An archaic Gorgon as depicted on a pediment from the temple of Artemis in Corfu, on display at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu

How were the Gorgons depicted in ancient Greek art and literature?

Some scholars have claimed that stories and images of the Gorgons as far back as the 11th and 10th centuries BC in the ancient Greek religion. The Gorgons were believed to be dreadful in every regard. Of all those terrifying features, it was their ability to turn people into stone that frightened ancient Greeks the most. This explains why the Gorgon head was the most depicted feature of the creatures.

The Gorgons were often shown with large eyes, which could be interpreted as the terrifying feature that we just discussed. In some paintings, they have round and broad heads. For hair, they have venomous snakes, which make them even more terrifying. The Gorgons have teeth that come out a bit. It’s said that they have flared nostrils as well. Their scale-covered skin is believed to make them formidable opponents. In other words, only a few weapons could penetrate their skin.

Medusa – the most famous of the three Gorgons

Medusa

The head of Medusa. | Medusa, by Caravaggio (1595)

In Greek mythology, Medusa is most known for being the most famous of the three Gorgons. According to Hesiod, Medusa was not always a hideous creature with venomous snakes for hair. Instead, she was an extremely beautiful maiden, almost like her two Gorgon sisters. Medusa had even taken a vow of chastity, swearing to serve in the goddess Athena’s temple for the rest of her life.

One day, while taking a walk, Medusa was spotted by Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. As she had vowed to remain chaste all her life, Medusa turned down the advances of Poseidon. Medusa’s rejections only emboldened Poseidon, as the Greek god became infatuated by the maiden’s golden colored hair. So Poseidon did what many Greek gods were known for – he forced himself on Medusa in the temple of Athena.  A petrified Medusa had hoped that by entering the Temple, Athena would have come to her rescue. Unfortunately the Greek goddess was nowhere to be found.

As Athena could not punish her uncle, Poseidon, she decided to take out her anger on Medusa. According to the ancient Roman poet Ovid, Athena turned Medusa’s beautiful flowing golden locks of hair into venomous serpents.

Following the miserable fate placed on her, Medusa became a target for many Greek hunters and warriors, who tried to slay her. However, she always bested them, turning them into stone the moment they looked at her. This continued until Perseus, a demigod and the son of Zeus and the mortal woman Danae, was sent on a mission by King Polydectes to slay Medusa. Polydectes purposely gave Perseus an impossible task, hoping he could get rid of the young warrior and then marry Princess Danae, Perseus’ mother.

With the help of powerful items received from the gods, Perseus was able to slay Medusa. It’s said that the blood that spurted from Medusa’s neck turned into her offspring – Pegasus and Chrysaor. In some accounts however, each drop of blood became a snake.

Perseus handed the Medusa’s head to Athena, who then placed it on her shield, the aegis. In some accounts, Perseus instead, buried the Gorgon’s head in the marketplace of Argos.

Prior to letting go of Medusa’s head, Perseus used the head as a weapon to exact revenge on King Polydectes. He turned the entire court of the king into stone. It’s also said that he used the head to turn the Titan Atlas into stone, which in turn became the Atlas Mountains that held up the heaven.

Read More: The Myth of Medusa and Poseidon

The aegis of Athena and Zeus

The aegis – a device or shield carried by Athena and/or Zeus – is believed to have been made from the body of Aex (Aix), a fierce creature who was the daughter of the sun god Helios. Zeus slayed Gorgo Aix during the Titanomachy. He then went ahead to fashion out a goat-like hide or shield from the slain creature’s body. That device came to be called the aegis, which he gave to his daughter, the goddess Athena.

The aegis – an animal skin or a shield – features the head of a Gorgon with serpents. Image: An Amazon with her shield bearing the Gorgon head image

The healing power of the blood of a Gorgon

In one version of the myth, the blood from the right side of a Gorgon can be used to bring the dead back to life. However, the blood from the left side is a fatal poison. Athena is believed to have given Asclepius, the god of medicine and son of Apollo, the blood from the Gorgon. This would explain why Asclepius could sometimes bring people who were on the brink of death to life. It would also explain why the gods, particularly Hades, became very frustrated with Asclepius and decided to kill him. It’s believed that Zeus struck Asclepius with his powerful thunderbolt. Alternatively, Asclepius’ demise may have been caused by the vial of blood from the left side of the Gorgon’s head.

The head of a Gorgon

In some very old temples and oracles in ancient Greece, priests and priestess used images of serpents, including the Gorgon head image, to protect the place. Image: Medusa by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

In some cases, the head of the Gorgon was used as an apotropaic symbol, i.e. a symbol for protection. Ancient Greeks placed a Gorgoneion – the head or face of the Gorgon – on the doors, floors, shields, tombstones, and walls in order to ward off evil spirits. This apotropaic symbol of ancient Greece bears semblance to the image of the Hindu goddess Kali, who is often depicted with a protruding tongue and snakes around her head.

More facts on the Gorgons

  • According to Hesiod, Medusa is the only mortal of the three Gorgons. The remaining two – Stheno and Euryale – are immortal. Hesiod added that Stheno is the deadliest of the three.
  • In a different version of the story of the Gorgons, it’s said that the Gorgon was a female creature brought forth by Gaia (Earth). Her role was to aid the Titans in their battle against the gods.
  • Some interpretations place Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, as the slayer of the Gorgon.
  • According to Homer’s Iliad, there is only one Gorgon, a frightening creature who was later cast into the underworld by the gods. In Homer’s The Odyssey, the Gorgon is therefore described as the monster of the underworld.
  • The hero and demigod Heracles received a lock of Medusa’s hair from Athena. Heracles then gave the lock of hair to Sterope, daughter of Cepheus, to use to protect the town of Tegea against attack and evil spirits.
  • In Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, he describes the French aristocrats as “the Gorgon”.

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