The concept of the Gorgon is at least as old in mythology as Perseus and Zeus. The name is Greek, being derived from “gorgos” and translating as terrible or dreadful.
Gorgons are often depicted as having wings , brazen claws, the tusks of boars and scaly skin . The oldest oracles were said to be protected by serpents and a Gorgon image was often associated with those temples. Lionesses or sphinxes are frequently associated with the Gorgon as well.
The powerful image of the Gorgon was adopted for the classical images and myths of Zeus and Athena, perhaps being worn in continuation of a more ancient imagery. The Gorgons were said to be the daughters of the sea god Phorcys and his sister-wife, Ceto the sea monster. Homer, the author of the oldest known work of European literature, speaks only of one Gorgon, whose head is represented in the Iliad as fixed in the centre of the aegis of Zeus:
- “About her shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis, fraught with terror…and therein is the head of the dread monster, the Gorgon, dread and awful, a portent of Zeus that beareth the aegis.”(5.735ff)
Its earthly counterpart is a device on the shield of Agamemnon:
- “…and therein was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout.”(11.35ff)
Author Marija Gimbutas (Language of the Goddess) believed she saw the prototype of the Gorgoneion in Neolithic art motifs, especially in anthropomorphic vases and terracotta masks inlaid with gold.
A female figure, probably a sea-goddess is depicted on a Minoan gold ring from the island Mochlos in Crete. The goddess has a monstrous head, and she is sitting in a boat. A holy tree is depicted, probably related with the Minoan cult of the tree.
The large eyes, as well as Athena’s “flashing” eyes, are symbols termed “the divine eyes” by Gimbutas (who did not originate the perception), appearing also in Athena’s bird, the owl. They can be represented by spirals, wheels, concentric circles, swastikas, firewheels, and other images.
The fangs of the Gorgons are wild boar tusks, while some representations lack fangs and show a forced smile displaying large teeth and sometimes a protruding tongue . In some cruder representations, blood flowing under the head of the Gorgon has been mistaken for a beard or wings.
Some reptilian attributes such as a belt made of snakes and snakes emanating from the head or entwined in the hair as in the temple of Artemis in Corfu, are symbols likely derived from the guardians closely associated with early Greek religious concepts at the centers of oracles. It’s skin was said to be made of impenetrable scales.
Other possible origins have been suggested from similarities of the Babylonian creature Humbaba in the Gilgamesh epic.
The date of Homer was controversial in antiquity, and is no less so today. Herodotus said that Homer lived 400 years before his own day, which would place Homer about 850 BC; but other ancient sources gave dates much closer to the Trojan War.
Those who believe that the stories of the Trojan War derive from a specific historical conflict usually date it to the twelfth or eleventh centuries BC, often preferring the dates given by Eratosthenes, 1194–1184 BC, which roughly corresponds with archaeological evidence of a catastrophic burning of Troy VIIa. For modern scholarship, ‘the date of Homer’ refers to the date of the poems as much as to the lifetime of an individual.
The scholarly consensus is that “the Iliad and the Odyssey date from the extreme end of the ninth century BC or from the eighth, the Iliad being anterior to the Odyssey, perhaps by some decades.” They are presumed to have existed as an oral tradition that eventually became set in historical records. Even at that early time the Gorgon is displayed as a vestige of ancient powers that preceded the historical transition to the beliefs of the Classical Greeks, displayed on the chest of Athene and Zeus.
In the Odyssey, the Gorgon is a monster of the underworld to which the earliest deities were cast:
- “…and pale fear seized me, lest august Persephone might send forth upon me from out of the house of Hades the head of the Gorgon, that awful monster…”(11.635)
Around 700 BC, Hesiod (Theogony, Shield of Heracles) increases the number of Gorgons to three—Stheno (the mighty), Euryale (the far-springer), and Medusa (the queen), and makes them the daughters of the sea-god Phorcys and of Keto. Their home is on the farthest side of the western ocean; according to later authorities, in Libya. Ancient Libya is identified as a possible source of the deity, Neith, who was called Athene in Greece.
The Attic tradition, reproduced in Euripides (Ion), regarded the Gorgon as a monster, produced by Gaia to aid her children, the Titans, against the new Olympian deities and she was slain by Athena, who wore her skin thereafter. Of the three Gorgons, only Medusa is mortal.
The Bibliotheca (2.2.6, 2.4.1, 2.4.2) provides a good summary of the Gorgon myth. Much later stories claim that each of three Gorgon sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, had snakes for hair, and that they had the power to turn anyone who looked at them to stone.
According to Ovid (Metamorphoses), a Roman poet writing in 8 AD who was noted for accuracy regarding the Greek myths, Medusa alone had serpents in her hair, and that this was due to Athena (Roman Minerva) cursing her. Medusa had copulated with Poseidon (Roman Neptune) in a temple of Athena after he was aroused by the golden color of Medusa’s hair. Athena therefore changed the enticing golden locks into serpents. Diodorus and Palaephatus mention that the Gorgons lived in the Gorgades, islands in the Aethiopian Sea. The main island was called Cerna and, according to Henry T. Riley, these islands may correspond to Cape Verde.
It is mentioned that the Gorgons lived in the entrance of the Underworld in the Aenid.