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Archaic Gorgon Paros Archaeological Museum

July 27, 2014

One of my favourite mythological creatures has always been the Gorgon Medusa. I was pleasantly surprised walking into one of the rooms of the Paros Archaeological Museum to discover a beautiful statue of her in front of me. Unfortunately it has been ravaged slightly over time but it is still magnificent to behold.

Gorgon 2

Medusa was one of the daughters of the sea deities Phorkys and Keto but unlike her two sisters she was mortal. The three Gorgons were born with a terrifying appearance that petrified those who looked upon them. They are usually depicted as having large, round and angry faces, bulging eyes, boar tusks for teeth, snakes for hair, a large lolling tongue and wings. It is impossible to confirm when but at some point another version of Medusa’s origin developed. Once a beautiful woman Medusa was punished by Athena for sleeping with Poseidon in her temple;

Beyond all others she was famed for beauty, and the envious hope of many suitors. Words would fail to tell the glory of her hair, most wonderful of all her charms—A friend declared to me he saw its lovely splendour. Fame declares the Sovereign of the Sea attained her love in chaste Minerva’s (Athena’s) temple. While enraged she turned her head away and held her shield before her eyes. To punish that great crime Minerva changed the Gorgon’s splendid hair to serpents horrible. And now to strike her foes with fear, she wears upon her breast those awful vipers—creatures of her rage.

(Ovid Metamorphoses 4)

Despite her origin Medusa’s fate is the same. Perseus was charged by Polydektes of Seriphos to retrieve the head of Medusa for him. Aided by Athena and Hermes Perseus succeeds in his quest. The head of Medusa is presented to Athena who placed it upon her aegis to terrify her enemies. The use of the Gorgon’s image as a means to frighten enemies is similarly seen on the shields of Greek warriors; for example the bronze ornamental shield displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Olympia Shiled

The image of the Gorgon is also seen on talismans, amulets and temples. One particularly good example is the representation of the Gorgon Medusa on The Temple of Artemis Corcyra (this links to a previous blog post of mine). Another is the head of the Gorgon on the exterior lintel of the doorway that enters the Heroon at Gjolbaschi-Trysa. It is possible that the image was used to ward off evil but it may have had other uses. Oberleitner (cited in Barringer, 2008:183) considers that the Gorgon on the Heroon is intended to watch over the ‘heroized dead and his family’. Barringer (2008:183) observes that no evidence is provided to support the argument. However, she does not present anything to reject Oberleitner’s claim. It has been argued that female creatures such as the Gorgon might be considered to represent the fear women inspired in men (Blundell, 1995:17). However, Blundell (1995:17) observes that it is worth noting that the representations can also be useful to keep enemies at bay. Blundell particularly notes the wide use of images of Gorgons for the decoration of temples suggesting that their function was to chase away evil spirits. It is reasonable to suggest that, as the image of the Gorgon was considered fearful, it was a commonly held belief that it could protect people and buildings from evil spirits.

The sculpture dates to the 6th century BC and was found in an unidentified structure; possibly a sanctuary or public building. The image has all of the terrifying features of a traditional Gorgon; large head, boar tusks, lolling tongue and bulging eyes.

Gorgon 3

However, there are some subtle differences such as the chiton covered in scales, tied at the waist by a snake belt. I would suggest that this was used to further demonise the representation of the Gorgon to make it more scary. The statue appears to be preparing to fly as the wings are closed at the back and her leg is bent as if she is about to launch into flight.

Gorgon 1

This certainly would have been a terrifying and awe-inspiring image.

Primary Sources

Ovid Metamorphoses Translated by More, B. Boston: Cornhill Publishing Co, 1922. Theoi http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html [Accessed 27/07/2014]

Secondary Sources

Barringer, J. Art, Myth, and Ritual in Classical Greece Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Blundell, S. Women in Ancient Greece Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

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From → Mythical Figures

3 Comments
  1. Hi David: I wrote the following remark a while ago and had meant to post it here for you, but forgot about it. Your new post reminded me. Well, I’m not expert, but here it is:

    The shield bearing the crafted image of Medusa to me is more intriguing – not terrifying – but thrilling, bearing a faint resemblance to a spider face. It’s phobic-inducing, but also compelling to look at for the artistry. The thing seen which paralyzes out of a confounded reflex of self-defense on the one hand and on the other registered profound beauty, rooted in the subconscious. The Gorgon isn’t only hideous and terrifying. One could speak of subterranean seductiveness. The beauty Medusa once possessed is still there, despite being turned inside out to transfix attention and turn the looker to stone. It’s like the fall of Lucifer. A very powerful and seductive figure, which drags all followers down to hell, but not necessarily against their will. The site-seeing is more interesting on the way down. On the way up it becomes more boring and sterilizing the more one goes on. The tension of St. George with his foot upon the dragon is where the invigorating energy is. St. George was made by the dragon. The sculpture on the other hand doesn’t seem so successful to me. Almost laughable. I come to you as a modest artist, interested in horror, but also in the classical ideal of beauty.

  2. Hi John, sorry for the delay in replying I have had a hectic few weeks. I like your analysis of the pieces and comparison with more recent images. I agree the Medusa shield holds both terrifying and seductive aspects. The creature is clearly female but also monstrous, aspects skilfully brought together by the artist. I would suggest that the representations were successful in their own ways. They were crafted in order to meet a specific purpose; the shield in order to strike fear into enemies in battle and the sculpture for it’s religious symbolism. I am no artist so any comment I make on the aesthetic beauty of them is purely personal but I am drawn to each piece in a different way. I am captivated by the sculpture and it’s appearance of motion. However, when I saw the shield on display I became motionless for a short time. I could not draw my eyes away from the image. Like you said I became stone like.The shield does appear to have a greater visual power than the sculpture but I wonder if this was a result of the artists different intentions.

  3. Hi David:

    Thanks for the reply. I have a sincere longing for the classical and for antiquity, finding such rich symbolism there, and humanism at its peak. I don’t, however, have much of an academic mind. I’m too impatient. I desire to understand not only intellectually but with my heart and in my soul. I often become wistful, a little melancholy, contemplating great art from the past, trying to imagine how it must have been experienced when it was still a vibrant part of a living culture.

    I wonder if you ever feel the same way.

    I hadn’t really thought about artist intention in these two depictions of Medusa. There are things which cannot be depicted in physical, visual form, things which resist direct depiction. One could include deities here. Only aspects could be depicted, facets, filtered through the subjectivity and sensibility of one who would attempt it. The god would have to fill one, moving the heart and soul, if one were to get anywhere close to depicting something of that god’s essence, otherwise, I think, the expression could only turn out empty, just a surface. I think anyone who attempted to paint a picture of Apollo now would likely produce kitsch.

    I think part of my longing for the classical and for antiquity is that I’m so sick of contemporary art’s irony, the tongue always in the cheek. The gods and goddesses have been gutted of their Mystery, made infantile, stuck in adolescence, comic book superheroes and heroines, ridiculous caricatures which don’t feed the heart and soul.

    That Medusa turns those who would gaze upon her to stone makes it a subject which, strictly speaking, could only be approached indirectly. To try to do so directly in painting or in a sculpture, in whatever medium, is a contradiction, doomed to fail. The real power of Medusa is best left to the imagination. To deal with it artistically one would more likely succeed by utilizing power of suggestion.

    Caravaggio’s Medusa is fascinating. It both succeeds and fails. it comes close to reconciling the contradiction of depicting Medusa in a visual work of art. Medusa’s severed but still alive head, fixed somewhere between a hideous scream and a shocked gasp, is on a shield, blood flowing down controlled and stylized, frozen in place, on a wonderfully sick green backround reminding one of lizards and toads and poisonous plants; – the depiction is a mirror reflection, not the actual thing, something indirect. This is conceptually satisfying to me. I read that the following words are on Caravaggio’s first version: “Flee, for if your eyes are petrified in amazement, she will turn you to stone.”

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