Medusa, one of three sisters in Greek mythology known as the Gorgons, had a destructive effect upon humans. In many myths, she appeared as a horribly ugly woman with hair made of snakes, although occasionally she was described as being beautiful. In
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
both forms, Medusa's appearance was deadly: any person who gazed directly at her would turn to stone.
Although the two other Gorgons were immortal, Medusa was not. One of the best-known legends about her tells of how the Greek hero Perseus killed her. Perseus and his mother, Danaë, lived on the island of Seriphos, which was ruled by King Polydectes. The king wanted to marry Danaë, but Perseus opposed the marriage. Polydectes then chose another bride and demanded that all the islanders give him horses as a wedding gift. Perseus, who had no horses, offered to give Polydectes anything else. Because no man had ever survived an encounter with the Gorgons, Polydectes challenged Perseus to bring him the head of Medusa.
With the help of the goddess Athena* and a group of nymphs, Perseus obtained special equipment for his task: a sharpened sickle, a cap that made the wearer invisible, and a pair of winged sandals. He also polished his bronze shield so that he could see Medusa's reflection in it and not gaze directly at her. Wearing the magic cap and following Medusa's reflection in his shield, Perseus crept up on the Gorgons. He cut off Medusa's head in one swipe and put it in a bag. The drops of blood that fell from the head turned into Medusa's two sons—Chrysaor and Pegasus—by the god Poseidon*.
immortal able to live forever
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
With the help of the magic sandals, Perseus flew off before the other Gorgons could catch him. When he reached Seriphus, he held up Medusa's head and turned Polydectes to stone. Perseus later gave the head to Athena, who mounted it on her shield.