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Medusa head by Gianlorenzo Bernini in Musei capitolini
Medusa by Caravaggio.jpg

Medusa is a character in Greek mythology. Her story has been told and retold by ancient and modern storytellers, writers, and artists.

The Latin poet Ovid writes in Book IV of his Metamorphoses that Poseidon had abused Medusa in the temple of Athena. The goddess was outraged, and changed Medusa into a monster with snakes for hair.

Medusa has been depicted in the visual arts for centuries. Many interpretations surround the myth, including one by Sigmund Freud. For the ancients, an image of Medusa's head was a device for averting evil. This image was called a Gorgoneion. The Gorgoneion was very scary and made all the children cry, but worked only against Medusa and not her sisters.


Medusa was one of three sisters. They were known as The Gorgons. Medusa's sisters were Stheno and Euryale. Medusa was mortal, but her sisters were immortal. They were all children of the sea deities, Phorkys and his sister Keto. Before they were monsters, all three sisters were beautiful young women, particularly Medusa; however, she was a priestess in the temple of Athena and was bound by a vow of celibacy.

Any man or animal who looked directly upon her was turned to stone.

Perseus Killing Medusa, a picture for Ovid's Metamorphoses by Antonio Tempesta (1630)

The hero Perseus beheaded Medusa by viewing her reflection in his burnished shield. After using the dreadful head to defeat his enemies, he presented it to Athena and she put it on her shield.

Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon at the time of her death. Pegasus, a winged horse, and Chrysaor, a golden giant, sprang from her blood.

Medusa in art

Medusa, a Roman copy of a Greek original by Phidias

Medusa was a subject for ancient vase painters, mosaicists, and sculptors. She appears on the breastplate of Alexander the Great in the Alexander Mosaic at the House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy (about 200 BC).

A Roman copy of Phidias' Medusa (left) is held in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany.

Among the Renaissance depictions are the sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554) and the oil painting Medusa by Caravaggio (1597).

Perseus Fighting Phineus and his Companions by Luca Giordano (about 1670)

Baroque depictions include Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens (1618); the marble bust Medusa by Bernini (1630s); and Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone, an oil painting by Luca Giordano from the (early 1680s).

Romantic and modern depictions include Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova (1801) and Perseus, a sculpture by Salvador Dalí. Twentieth century artists whno tackled the Medusa theme include Paul Klee, John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, Pierre et Gilles, and Auguste Rodin.