The Gorgons of Greek Mythology — Medusa, Stheno, and Euryale

The Gorgons of Greek Mythology

Who were the Gorgons of Greek Mythology?

The Gorgons were the three sisters named Stheno (meaning Strength), Medusa (meaning Queen) and Euryale (meaning Wide-leaping), and were the children of Phorcys, son of Gaia. The only mortal of the three was Medusa, the victim of the Greek hero PERSEUS. Like her immortal sisters, she had snakes for hair, and one look at her face could turn any living man or thing to stone.

Modern Depictions of a Gorgon

Modern Depictions of the Gorgons

If I were to ask you the question, ‘what is a Gorgon?’ Many of you would likely point towards the most famous example that you can think of, Medusa. Although you may be correct because Medusa was, in fact, a Gorgon, it’s a question that is far more difficult to answer.

The image of the Gorgon that we paint today has been so much skewed and distorted by the media we consume, to the point where it barely even resembles the original stories of Gorgons within Greek mythology itself.

Medusa has always been a famous Greek tale, but in 1981 with the release of the original Clash of the Titans movie, the image of Medusa as a snake was well received by most audiences, and thus the trend began. And the years that followed, many of the movies, TV shows and artwork depicting Medusa and her fellow Gorgons showed them as snake-haired women with the body of a snake.

We even see this in the God of War franchise which depicts Medusa and her sisters in the same way. This means that those who have learnt about Greek mythology through these varying forms of media would have already really known this one particular image. But why did this change happen in the first place?

I think most of this change can be attributed to fear, and the movie industries need to create a truly terrifying monster. If you already have a woman of a head of hair made from snakes, it’s a fairly natural transition to then remove more for human aspects and qualities.

In this scenario, that would involve removing her legs and replacing them with the body of a snake. This not only allows her to move in a different and almost more sinister manner, but it also transforms her from a woman of a physical abnormality into a literal monster.

I do honestly believe that the modern images of Gorgons are terrifying in their way because they seem far less human than they did before. But it’s an exciting example of how myth can change so drastically in a short period of time.

Classical Greek Myth of the Gorgons

Classical Greek Myth of the Gorgons

Now that we’ve gone over the modern depiction of a Gorgon, we can discuss how they appeared in classical Greek mythology. I guess the best place to start here would be with the most famous examples we have, Medusa and her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale.

The two sisters are often described as being born immortal but being extremely ugly. On the other hand, Medusa is described as being born human and possessing a great deal of beauty, but this wasn’t the case.

All three sisters were born Gorgon. This whole sentiment of Medusa been somewhat attractive didn’t manifest until around 490 BC, when the Greek poet Pindaros described her as ‘fair cheeked Medusa.’ This was later echoed in the work of the Roman poet Ovid, who popularized the idea that Medusa was once a beautiful maiden, turned into a Gorgon by the goddess Athena.

Initially, the Gorgons were described as three powerful winged demons, with swine light tusks, talons for feet and iconic head of hair made from snakes and sometimes even a short stubbly beard.

The Gorgons appearance is very reminiscent of the Harpies and the Erinyes. They existed long before and described as having snakes intertwined in their body, around their waist and arms, and most importantly, even within their hair.

It wasn’t too uncommon for Gorgons to be described as having extreme hate for men, and I know this, coupled with the description I’ve just given you, makes them sound and look like modern-day feminists, but I assure you, Gorgons are far more interesting.

The ancient Greeks saw the Gorgon sisters as terrifying creatures, with the word Gorgos meaning grim and dreadful, but where exactly did these winged demons come from?

Where did the Gorgons Come From?

Much like the origins of many creatures and monsters within Greek mythology, there is always some debate about where they came from, and the Gorgons are no different in this regard.

The most common explanation is that they were the children of Phorcys and Ceto, two ancient primordial sea deities. The origins of the word Ceto mean ‘sea monster’, and the two gods being known for bearing numerous monstrous children. The fact they were considered the parents of the Gorgons is no real surprise.

One of the more interesting origin stories regarding the Gorgons states that they were the children of Phorcys and Gorgo, the daughter of Helios. She was an ancient Gorgon, slain by Zeus at the very start of the Titan War.

Similar in appearance to Gorgo, many considered the true father of Medusa and the Gorgons to have been the elder Gorgon, the primal Gorgon, who appeared as a bearded man or woman, with both male and female attributes making its true gender quite difficult to determine.

We don’t know much about the primal Gorgon, but the idea that Medusa and her sisters were not the first Gorgons to exist is one that we see a fair few time.

There have been some historians who, over the years, claimed that these stories of women who appear in the shape of serpents might have once originated from northern Africa; particularly in the region of Libya, which is also said to be the home of the queen turned monster Lamia and the collective Lamiae, a group of creatures whose appearance resembles the modern-day half-woman half-snake depiction of a Gorgon.

So, what we consider to be a Gorgon today is most likely closer in appearance to Lamia than the Gorgons of Greek mythology.

Stheno and Euryale

Stheno and Euryale

For those wanting to learn more about the backstory of Medusa’s sisters, Stheno and Euryale—sadly, there isn’t a whole lot that we know about them.

Stheno, for the most part, is considered to be the eldest of the three sisters, with her name meaning strong and forceful.

She’s described as having red snakes that sit atop her head, which is the only rule defining characteristic that sets her apart in terms of appearance from her sisters.

The only real story that she features is Perseus and Medusa, where she attempts to avenge her sister after being slain. But thanks to the cap of invisibility given to Perseus by Hades, she’s largely unsuccessful in this task.

Euryale, whose name means far roaming, was the second born and had no real defining physical features, but she was known for her face and bellowing cries that could incapacitate a grown man most noticeably heard during the death of her sister.

Medusa

Medusa, of course, features in numerous stories and is what many considered to be the queen of the Gorgons. With the origins of her name meaning to protect and rule over, Queen is exactly what many believed her name to mean.

With that being said, it’s relatively apparent that Medusa is unique to her sisters. If we go by Ovid interpretation and those that later followed, she was born human and assumed the role of priestess to Athena. It was only later in her life that she was transformed into a Gorgon, and depending on which interpretation you’ve read, this was seen as either a gift or a curse.

It was only after Athena’s transformation that Medusa resembled her sisters and possessed the same petrifying gaze. This gaze would be just as potent even when she was slain, as Perseus used it to save Andromeda from being sacrificed by turning the giant sea monster Cetus into stone.

There is even a story of a disagreement between Perseus and the Titan Atlas, which results in a Titan being turned into stone with Medusa’s head once again.

If the story of Medusa before she became a Gorgon is something you’d be interested in, then click here to read the full story of Medusa—from her birth to becoming Athena’s priestess and her death.

Extras on Gorgons

When Homer discusses the Gorgon, he does so as a singular entity. But in the work that followed by Hesiod, we see this expanded to a trio of sisters. If we go as far back as possible, the earliest accounts of Gorgons are as sworn protectors of the Oracles.

These protectors are never really described as Gorgons, more so a Serpent, but the image of the Gorgon was often associated with the Temple of the Oracle, guarding the entrance from evils that wish to enter.

The Powers of Gorgons

The powers of the gorgons

We’ve discussed some of the possible origins and how the Gorgons have gone through a visual transformation, but we’ve yet to discuss the powers associated with a Gorgon.

The Gorgons’ appearance was said to be so horrifying that it would turn the beholder into stone. The idea of petrification or turning someone or something into stone is quite common in most myth and folklore, ranging from legends of the Basilisk in the cockatrice to the black elves of Norse mythology, and of course, Medusa and her sisters.

There are those such as Jane Ellen Harrison, a scholar known for her Greek myth and religion studies, who believe that Medusa’s true power only manifested itself after she had been killed.

Although Homer never really mentioned the Medusa by name, he does make some reference to her in the Odyssey when he says, “Lest for my daring Persephone the dread, From Hades should send up an awful monster’s grisly head.”

Harrison translated what Homer said to mean that the Gorgon was made out of terror, not terror out of the Gorgon.

In several times Homer mentions the Gorgon, he only describes the head, and Harrison this time states that Medusa is nothing more than a head, nothing more than a mask with a body later appended.

“her potency only begins when her head is severed, and that potency resides in the head; she is in a word a mask with a body later appended… the basis of the Gorgoneion is a cultus object, a ritual mask misunderstood.”

Prolegomena to the study of Greek religion

Medusa, when alive, was highly feared. She brought terror and suffering. But in her death, her head was associated with protection and healing. In ancient Greece, a special amulet was created of a Gorgon’s face, named the gorgoneion; and this was used to ward away harmful intentions, evil influences, and misfortune.

The Gorgon’s head was even placed on Athena’s shield; the Aegis and both Athena and Zeus were said to have worn the protective amulet.

Depictions of the Gorgons

Before the work of Pindaros, the gorgoneion, whether it appeared on pendants amulets or the shields of warriors, was always depicted as rather ugly, with large tusks projecting tongue and a stare that challenged anyone who would dare to gaze upon it.

After the 5th century BC, the change in attitudes towards a Gorgons appearance manifested itself in the gorgoneion. These shields, vases and pendants showing Gorgons became less grotesque. They lost their tusks, and the snakes became more of a hairstyle than a chaotic mess.

Medusa Rondanini - the Gorgons
Medusa Rondanini

The Medusa Rondanini is perhaps the most iconic piece to mark this transitional period, as here we see a Gorgon that has been modelled in the guise of a beautiful woman rather than a repulsive creature.

I do find it quite interesting that the Gorgons and Medusa, in particular, have gone from ugly monsters to beautiful women, and now they sit somewhere oddly enough in the middle—but we can tell that they’re a monster. There is still this kind of seductive sex appeal.

In Conclusion

Overall, it’s pretty difficult to explain the role that the Gorgons played in actual Greek mythology. The earliest accounts that are incredibly vague described them as the protectors of the Oracles, and this is something that we do see later with protective amulets and trinkets have in the head of a Gorgon on them.

We know that the word Gorgon would instil terror and fear, but much like the other demonic female figures charged with the protection and enforcing the law, the Harpies and the Erinyes, the Gorgons are never really described as being evil.

This is a notion later perpetuated by movies and stories, who portrayed Medusa as a villain, which is around the same time the image Gorgon transformed from a woman who shaped still resembled a human to a seductress of the lower half of a snake.

The Gorgons themselves may not have appeared in dozens of stories. Still, they have more cultural meaning and relevance behind them with their image almost acting like a good luck charm, which in itself is pretty odd to consider and how monstrous they look—but when you think about it, what better way to ward off evil than with something just as terrifying.

Gorgons Q&A


What are the Names of the Gorgons?

The names of the Gorgons are Stheno (meaning Strength), Medusa (meaning Queen) and Euryale (meaning Wide-leaping).


Were Gorgons born Gorgons?

Yes, all the three Gorgon sisters were born Gorgon, including the famous Medusa.


Who are the Parents of the Gorgons?

The parents of the Gorgons are Phorcys and Ceto, two ancient primordial sea deities. With the origins of the word Ceto meaning ‘sea monster’ and the two deities being known for bearing numerous monstrous children.


What do Gorgons look like?

The Gorgons were described as three powerful winged demons, with swine light tusks, talons for feet and iconic head of hair made from snakes and sometimes even a short stubbly beard.

Image Sources: Ehren Bienert, Subroto Bhaumik

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