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Modern representations of the snake-haired woman depict her as a dangerous beauty, but the Ancient Greek and Roman images show her as fearsome in every way. In this post, I'll provide you with a few different ways to see Medusa and her descendants.

Cave Monstrum!

This mosaic image of Medusa comes from an excavated 2nd century AD villa in Rome. The Gorgon's head is in the center of a shield-like pattern, made into a large "carpet" piece for the villa--I'd bet, in an entry-way. To place the head of Medusa on a shield pattern on the floor is to evoke the aegis created by Athena and Perseus, when they took her head and put it on a goat-skin shield, and also made a mantle for the goddess of her snaky hair. Roman generals often had the image of Medusa on a shield emblazoned on their breastplates. From this, I gather that the Medusa shield at the door is there to serve an apotropaic function.

Tasteful Home Decor

Here is a similar mosaic from the Palazzo Massimo museum in Rome. You can also find one in the Madrid Archeological Museum. So, these were fashionable (placed in homes of the wealthy), and while it's easy to imagine that owners would be all for the superstitious power of the image, it would also serve to mark them as cultured, since Greek art and mythology was very popular after Rome conquered Greece and imported educated Greeks as slaves to train privileged children.

I want to point out that both shields have alternating dark-and-light patterns which can appear to move or pulsate. The effect of standing over a floor like this would be to disorient the viewer. In this way, the head of the Medusa and the pattern on the shield would act as a way of weakening and warning the person entering the place not to do ill--powerful magic is in use!

The Manly Medusa

While its use may have changed to one of a more decorative than protective sort, the Medusa aegis didn't go out of style. Caravaggio created a shield with an image of the Medusa from the moment she was beheaded. The inside joke was that he used his own face as the model for the image--it's a self-portrait. But, if you look at the Medusa mosaics above, they, too, have square-jawed faces, thought in the aesthetics of the time to be mannish.

The Getty Museum site even suggests that their Medusa mosaic is similar to the depiction of Alexander the Great, who was also a frequent subject of mosaics. You be the judge:

What in the name of gender-bending is going on? Well, we need to go back to the Ancient Greeks for that one.

"I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way."

The Ancient Greeks may not have invented rigid gender roles, but they literally raised it to an art form. Representations of women marked whether they were good or evil in ways that mapped out as "threat to our patriarchy" or "not a threat, and therefore hot." Compare Athena to Medusa. Athena was the goddess of war, sure, but it was *defensive* war, as in protecting the city, and, by extension, civilization. She wears armor, but there are only a handful of surviving pieces of art where she is actually fighting. Her armor is ceremonial, and beneath it she wears a chiton (long dress/tunic). She is calm and coiffed. On black- and red-figure vases, her skin is chalk-white, as female figures usually are. In contrast, Medusa is depicted on the vase above as confrontational, but not quite human. Her face is a mask of what were thought to be the ugliest and least-feminine traits: an impossibly wide mouth with thick lips and a protruding tongue, bearded, with a clown nose. She's in men's warrior attire, and her body is as thickly-muscled as Hercules' normally is shown. As you can see on the vase above, she is a black-figure, just as the other men are (in this case, Hermes). The only way you'd know she was female is that she has snakes in her hair--you have to know the myth, and from that myth know she was a gorgon, one of three sisters. (Later versions of the Medusa story rewrite her as a priestess who was raped in Athena's temple by Poseidon--because Athena couldn't punish her divine uncle for polluting her temple, she punished Medusa by transforming her.). The defining characteristics of Medusa are those that show her as being completely antithetical to the feminine ideal. She's dangerous to men, whom Athena supports.

She's a Monster, but a Useful Monster

This Etruscan funerary vase shows the face of Medusa as a scary mask, and she's flanked by two sphinxes, who are also scary female monsters. The swans are symbolic of the Etruscan goddess of love, Turan. So, we have a grave good that expresses wishes for the decedent of love and protection. Here is Medusa, performing a different version of the same apotropaic function seen in the mosaic floors.

Etruscan Temple Antefix

This ceramic Medusa was orignially mounted on the edge of the roofline of an Etruscan temple, serving to scare away evil spirits. In this respect, she a forerunner of medieval gargoyles and grotesques on churches.

That's Why the Lady is a Vanth

In Etruscan mythology, there's a figure who's often confused with Medusa by modern viewers: Vanth. Vanth was a goddess a lot like the Greek god Hermes (Roman Mercury)--she's a psychopomp Like Hermes, she has two intertwining snakes (his is on his caduceus) and wings (his are either on his helmet or sandals). She guides and protects the dead on their journey to the afterlife. The snakes mark Vanth as a chthonic deity: she dwells in the underworld, which is also the place of unseen life, as represented by snakes. Snakes are also symbols of eternal life, by virtue of their shedding of their skins. They also can be fertility symbols. Fertility symbols are often invoked in funerary art to express the hope for rebirth of the dead. So, you can see Vanth here, with her two snakes, wings, and new plant growth. She's placed on this cinerary urn to protect the dead, to invoke the protectress, and to wish for a rebirth for the dead in the afterlife.

A Guardian Angel

Vanth's other depictions, with wings on her back, seem to be forerunners of guardian angel imagery. Her two snakes, symbolic of her divinity and wisdom, are similar to the early use of flames over an inspired person's head in Ancient Greek art, which were the earliest form of haloes.

Medusa's Children

This tiny white-figure oil flask, in the Met Museum, depicts what happened after Perseus took Medusa's head. The children of her rape by Poseidon fly out of her decapitated neck. They are the twins Pegasus and Crysaor. Pegasus has captured the world's imagination for more than the 2500 years since this flask was painted, but there are very few stories which mention Crysaor. His name means " golden blade," but in this picture the hand-sickle he's holding in his left hand is barely visible.


The flask above might have been on the cosmetics table of a wealthy woman of Ancient Greece, and this bronze Etruscan mirror would also have been an item for a woman's toilette. Why would Medusa appear on items involved in women's grooming? The most likely reason is that the figure would ward off the evil eye or envious spirits, but the flask isn't serving an apotropaic function, even though this mirror might. The story of Medusa is also a story of a beautiful woman destroyed. Packaging moisturizer in a pot with an image of the murder of a once-beautiful monster could warn of how dangerous beauty, or vanity, can be vanquished. The mirror here I think is doing double- or even triple-duty: the monster wards off evil, and it mocks vanity, but I think it's also meant to be humorous: as its owner held it up to her face to check her beauty, a by-stander could see her beautiful face replaced by that of a monster. A paradox and a joke.

La Femme Aux Serpents

Though most of Europe forgot the myths of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the medieval period was still associating women with snakes, and not in a good way. Early on, Christian leaders were doing all they could to turn people from their pagan roots, by destroying temples, renaming and reinventing agricultural/astronomical rituals, and re-purposing symbols. Where snakes might have had positive associations with the earth, the afterlife, fertility, wisdom in pagan religion, they were unequivocally evil in Christian art and stories. Eve and the sin of Luxuria (Lust) were commonly depicted with snakes, binding them and their whole gender to the downfall of humanity into misery and evil. The French motif of representing Luxuria was/is called La Femme aux Serpents (the Woman of the Snakes). She is naked, her face is usually made ugly by her degradation, and snakes bite her breasts. As congregants would enter the cathedral of Moissac, on their left would be a life-size representation of the Punishment of Avarice and Lust. The greedy demon on the left is himself ridden by a demon, but he faces Lust as if they are checking each other out at a cocktail party. On the right-hand side of the entry, directly across from this pair are Gabriel and Mary at the Annunciation. The scene of Mary on the right (good) side symbolizes life and submission or generosity. By contrast, La Femme aux Serpents is not only a symbol of inappropriately seeking pleasure (or wanting sex), it is a symbol of bad motherhood and selfishness--the nursing snakes are a rejection of offering milk to one's own infant, or of withholding the charity of nursing the infants of others.

Eve with her "Plus One"

The church of San Martino in Lucca has this unique pillar on its entry porch. It's badly eroded, but the representation of The Fall, or the Temptation of the Adam and Eve, is discernible. And there's Eve, and look at her hair! It seems to have a life of its own. The strands are not snakes, but they writhe, and coil, and self-animate like snakes. The really curious thing here is her companion, on the right. That's not Adam, nor is it a serpent. It's a satyr, with his own wild hair, furry legs, and a cornucopia. There may be more memory of the pagan past in Lucca than in other medieval cities. The satyr and the snakey hair link this Eve to La Femme, and to Luxuria (the satyr being a symbol of lust). She may not be a Medusa, but she's a monstrous child of her.

Modern Love

When I teach my Ancient and Medieval Monsters course, I start by asking my students who their favorite monster is. There are always at least three or four votes for Medusa, and at least two of those votes are cast by my female students. There's been so much popular culture reinventing and humanizing Medusa that, as with many ancient monsters, she's cute and beloved now. I saw this ceramic mask of Medusa at an art fair in Montepulciano a few years ago. It's exquisite, and a young woman beside me bought it almost before I could finish taking this photo. Medusa's an empowering image now for many women, and, she's often beautiful, with her snakes just the right ornament for the new Femme aux Serpents, unapologetic and fearless. I think she's long overdue for the upgrade.

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1 Comment

It was interesting to read about the symbolism associated with the snakes. I had always heard the negative ones.

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