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Gorgons in Greek Mythology: Medusa’s Sisters and Their Legacy

The Gorgons were three sisters – Medusa, Sthenno, and Euryale, the daughters of Phorcys and Ceto. Sometimes depicted as hideous and deadly monsters, and at other times portrayed as beautiful and attractive, the three sisters were dreaded and feared for their terrible powers.

The Gorgons and Their Origin

Gorgon origins

The Gorgons were described in the early myths as one female underworld monster born out of Gaia to fight the gods. In his writings, Homer referred to the Gorgons as just one underworld monster, but the poet Hesiod raised the number to three, and gave each of the three Gorgon sisters a name – Medusa (the Queen), Stheno (the Mighty, the Strong) and Euryale (the Far Springer).

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According to most sources, the Gorgons were the daughters of Phorcys, a sea god, and his sister-wife Ceto. Hesiod writes that they lived in the Western Ocean, but other sources place them in the Island of Cisthene. Virgil, on the other hand, located them mainly in the Underworld. 

In some accounts, the Gorgons were born as monsters. However, in others, they became monsters because of Athena. According to the myth, Poseidon, god of the sea, was attracted to Medusa and tried to rape her. She ran into Athena’s temple looking for refuge, with her two sisters helping her. Medusa wasn’t able to protect herself from Poseidon, who then raped her. Athena, in anger that her temple had been defiled by this act, punished Medusa by turning her into a monster. Her sisters were also turned into monsters for trying to help her.

The Gorgons are described as hideous creatures, with snakes for hair, long tongues, tusks, and fangs. Some sources state that their bodies are covered in dragon-like scales and that they have sharp claws. It is said that the Gorgons were deadly creatures who could turn men into stone with just one look.

However, Aeschylus, the ancient Greek tragedian, described them as being beautiful, enticing women, with only Medusa having snakes for hair. 

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The Gorgons’ Powers

Gorgons head of snake
Head of Snakes

Of the three sisters, only Medusa is well known. In contrast to her sisters, Medusa was the only Gorgon who was mortal. Interestingly, the explanation as to why Sthenno and Euryale were immortal and Medusa wasn’t, isn’t clear.

As we’ve already mentioned, the stories about Medusa vary considerably since some sources say that she was born a beautiful woman and turned into a monster by Athena, while others say she was always a monster, and still others claiming she was always a beautiful woman. Some myths even give Medusa a different origin than her sisters. Since Medusa is the most famous Gorgon because of her association with Perseus, it might be believed that she was the deadliest one. However, the tales tell a different story.

According to some sources, Sthenno was the deadliest Gorgon and is said to have killed more people than Medusa and Euryale combined. Euryale is known for having a tremendously strong cry. In Perseus’ myth, it is said that after the hero killed Medusa, Euryale’ cry made the earth crumble.

The Gorgons in Perseus’ Quest

Perseus holding medusa's head
Perseus Beheading Medusa

Polydectes, king of the island of Seriphos asked Perseus to fetch the head of Medusa as a gift for him. Perseus embarked on his quest to find the lair of the Gorgons and was only able to find it with the help of Hermes and Athena. 

Perseus had winged sandals, Hades’ invisible cap, Athena’s mirror shield, and a sickle given by Hermes. He used these tools to behead Medusa and flee the scene unnoticed by Stehnno and Euryale. He also used a mythical bag to cover the dangerous head and take it to the king.

Although the head was no longer attached to its body, it was still powerful, and the eyes could still turn anyone to stone. According to some myths, from the blood that sprung out of Medusa’s body, her children were born: the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor.

Gorgons as Protectors and Healers

Gorgons as protectors

While the Gorgons are known for being monsters, they are also symbols of protection. The image of a Gorgon’s face, known as a Gorgoneion, was often depicted on doors, walls, on coins and so on, as a symbol of protection from the evil eye.

In some myths, the blood of Gorgons could be used as either poison or to resurrect the dead, depending on which part of the Gorgon’s body you took it from. The blood of Medusa was believed to have healing properties while the hair of Medusa was coveted by the likes of Heracles, for its protective properties.

Were the Gorgons Based on Real Creatures?

Some historians have suggested that the three Gorgon sisters were inspired by real creatures, common to those living in the Mediterranean area. According to this interpretation:

  • Medusa was based on the octopus, known for its intelligence
  • Euryale was inspired by the squid, popular for its ability to leap out of water
  • Stheno was based on the cuttlefish, famous for its strength

Not all scholars agree with this interpretation, but it can’t be entirely ruled out, as the Greeks were known to base many of their myths on real world phenomenon.

Symbolism of the Gorgons

The Gorgons have had significant cultural significance and have been depicted in art and culture since ancient Greece.

There are many literary references to Gorgons, including in the Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, where he compares the French aristocracy to the Gorgon.  

The three sisters have also been depicted in many video games, including Final Fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons. The Gorgons, especially Medusa, have been referenced in many songs and music albums, including a one-act ballet titled Medusa.

The logo of fashion house Versace features a Gorgon surrounded by the Meander or Greek Key pattern.

Wrapping Up

The story of the Gorgons comes with conflicting and contradictory accounts, but the common theme is that they were monsters with live, venomous snakes for hair and other distinctive physical characteristics. Depending on the myth, they were either wronged victims or born monsters. The Gorgons continue to be popular in modern culture.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.