1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gorgon, Gorgons

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GORGON, GORGONS (Gr. Γοργώ, Γοργόνες, the “terrible,” or, according to some, the “loud-roaring”), a figure or figures in Greek mythology. Homer speaks of only one Gorgon, whose head is represented in the Iliad (v. 741) as fixed in the centre of the aegis of Zeus. In the Odyssey (xi. 633) she is a monster of the under-world. Hesiod 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 (Hesiod, Theog. 274; Herodotus ii. 91; Pausanias ii. 21). The Attic tradition, reproduced in Euripides (Ion 1002), regarded the Gorgon as a monster, produced by Gaea to aid her sons the giants against the gods and slain by Athena (the passage is a locus classicus on the aegis of Athena).

The Gorgons are represented as winged creatures, having the form of young women; their hair consists of snakes; they are round-faced, flat-nosed, with tongues lolling out and large projecting teeth. Sometimes they have wings of gold, brazen claws and the tusks of boars. Medusa was the only one of the three who was mortal; hence Perseus was able to kill her by cutting off her head. From the blood that spurted from her neck sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus, her two sons by Poseidon. The head, which had the power of turning into stone all who looked upon it, was given to Athena, who placed it in her shield; according to another account, Perseus buried it in the market-place of Argos. The hideously grotesque original type of the Gorgoneion, as the Gorgon’s head was called, was placed on the walls of cities, and on shields and breastplates to terrify an enemy (cf. the hideous faces on Chinese soldiers’ shields), and used generally as an amulet, a protection against the evil eye. Heracles is said to have obtained a lock of Medusa’s hair (which possessed the same powers as the head) from Athena and given it to Sterope, the daughter of Cepheus, as a protection for the town of Tegea against attack (Apollodorus ii. 7. 3). According to Roscher, it was supposed, when exposed to view, to bring on a storm, which put the enemy to flight. Frazer (Golden Bough, i. 378) gives examples of the superstition that cut hair caused storms. According to the later idea of Medusa as a beautiful maiden, whose hair had been changed into snakes by Athena, the head was represented in works of art with a wonderfully handsome face, wrapped in the calm repose of death. The Rondanini Medusa at Munich is a famous specimen of this conception. Various accounts of the Gorgons were given by later ancient writers. According to Diod. Sic. (iii. 54. 55) they were female warriors living near Lake Tritonis in Libya, whose queen was Medusa; according to Alexander of Myndus, quoted in Athenaeus (v. p. 221), they were terrible wild animals whose mere look turned men to stone. Pliny (Nat. Hist. vi. 36 [31]) describes them as savage women, whose persons were covered with hair, which gave rise to the story of their snaky hair and girdle. Modern authorities have explained them as the personification of the waves of the sea or of the barren, unproductive coast of Libya; or as the awful darkness of the storm-cloud, which comes from the west and is scattered by the sun-god Perseus. More recent is the explanation of anthropologists that Medusa, whose virtue is really in her head, is derived from the ritual mask common to primitive cults.

See Jane E. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903); W. H. Roscher, Die Gorgonen und Verwandtes (1879); J. Six, De Gorgone (1885), on the types of the Gorgon’s head; articles by Roscher and Furtwängler in Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie, by G. Glotz in Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des antiquités, and by R. Gädechens in Ersch and Gruber’s Allgemeine Encyclopädie; N. G. Polites (Ὁ περὶ τῶν Γοργόνων μῦθος παρὰ τῷ Ἑλληνικῷ λαῷ, 1878) gives an account of the Gorgons, and of the various superstitions connected with them, from the modern Greek point of view, which regards them as malevolent spirits of the sea.