Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Gorgonic Gruesomeness of the Petrifying Perseus

                 In between the chapter in which he describes the unicorn and that in which he portrays the basilisk, Pliny the Elder describes another creature that is able to kill with a single glance, the catoblepas, which takes its name from the Greek καταβλέπω –meaning ‘to look downwards’. 
An animal of moderate size, and in other respects sluggish in the movement of the rest of its limbs; its head is remarkably heavy, and it only carries it with the greatest difficulty, being always bent down towards the earth. Were it not for this circumstance, it would prove the destruction of the human race; for all who behold its eyes, fall dead upon the spot.” 
(Natural History, Book 8, Chapter 32). 
Georges Cuvier, the great French naturalist and zoologist, was of the opinion that Pliny was referring to a conflation of descriptions of the hippopotamus and the gnu, (Essay on the Theory of the Earth), which seems sensible enough if we refer to the description of the catoblepas in Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes (1607), 
Among the manifold and divers sorts of Beasts which are bred in Affricke, it is thought that the Gorgon is brought foorth in that countrey. It is a feareful and terrible beast to behold: it hath high and thicke eie-lids, eies not very great, but much like an Oxes or Bugils [Buffaloes], but all fiery bloudy, which neyther looke directly forwarde, nor yet upwards, but continuallye downe to the earth, and therefore are called in Greeke Catobleponta.” 

Edward Topsell - Catoblepas
The illustration that accompanies this description certainly looks like a strange hybrid of the hippopotamus and the wildebeest. Topsell gets himself into a terrible muddle when he describes the Gorgons who are, he says, the daughters of Medusa and Phorcynis, and he has Perseus cutting off a male Medusa’s head before he was placed in the constellation that bears his name. This male Medusa then becomes a female leader of an army of ferocious Amazonian warriors, who lived in Africa, and was beheaded by Perseus and it was the poets who then tacked on the story about her having snakes for hair. 

Gorgon's Head

The Gorgon creatures were poisonous and Topsell thought they killed men with their baleful eyes rather than with their breath, and he tells the story of how the Roman general Marius sent soldiers to kill a gorgon but they were all killed by its gaze, so more soldiers were sent with orders to kill one with spears, from a distance, which they did and its skin was sent to Rome, where it was placed in the Temple of Hercules. Topsell has got his wires crossed with the mythology of the Gorgons, which may not be surprising as there are varying accounts of their genesis. 

Gorgon's Head

In the earliest legends, Gorgon was a single monstrous creature but Hesiod changes to story and transforms Gorgon into three sisters, born of the sea-deities Keto and Phorcys, two of which are immortal, Stheno and Euryale, and the third is mortal, she is Medusa. The Gorgon – from the Greek Γοργών – ‘dreadful’ – had brazen hands, gold-coloured wings, teeth as long as boars’ tusks and their eyes would turn any living thing to stone. Medusa alone had snakes for her hair, a punishment inflicted on her by Athena for allowing herself to be ravished by Poseidon in Athene’s temple. 

Perseus and the Graeae

The Gorgons were the sisters of the Graeae and later legends mix the two trios into a single one; the Graeae were also the offspring of Keto and Phorcys, they were three ancient, grey-haired sisters who shared between them a single eye and a single tooth. Their names were Deino (Δεινώ – ‘dread’), Enyo (Ενυώ – ‘horror’) and Pemphredo (Πεμφρηδώ – ‘alarm’). 

Perseus and Medusa

King Polydectes sent Perseus to kill Medusa, in the hope that he would be turned to stone, but the Gods favoured Perseus and gave him gifts to assist his quest – a helmet of invisibility, winged sandals, a curved sickle-like sword, a mirrored shield and a bag in which to keep the Gorgon’s severed head. 

Perseus is Given Gifts

He visits the Graeae and holds their common eye to ransom until they reveal the whereabouts of their Gorgon sisters, and he flies on his winged sandals to end of the western world to confront them. 

Perseus kills Medusa

Perseus avoids Medusa’s direct gaze by looking at her reflection in the shield and succeeds in decapitating her, puts the head into the bag and flies back Polydectes, whom he turns into stone by using the still-deadly head. 

Perseus turning Polydectes to stone

After further adventures, Perseus gives the head to Athena, who places it either on her shield or on her breastplate, the Aegis. 

Athena with Medusa's head on her breastplace

The drops of blood that dripped from Medusa’s neck either were turned into the venomous snakes of Africa or those that fell into the sea were turned into Pegasus, the fabulous winged horse, and Chrysaor, the future king of Iberia. 


Pegasus was later used by Bellerophon to conquer another fearsome mythological creature, the Chimera. This beast was born from the mating of Typhon and Echidna (the ‘Mother of all Monsters’ and another horror courtesy of the aforementioned sea deities Keto and Phorcys), and was a fire-breathing hybrid with the body of a lion, the head of a goat sprouting from its back, and a tail ending with a serpent’s head (the word ‘chimera’ has since come to mean any monstrous hybrid creature, particularly those that are the creation of crazed genetic-scientists who beaver away in secret laboratories located inside volcanoes). 


It is thought that the chimera is an explanation of the phenomena of the permanent methane gas vents that burn on Mount Olympos, Lycia and was reputed to have lions living on its summit, goats grazed on its lower pastures and there were serpents living around the base. King Iobates (mentioned here) sent the youth Bellerophon on a series of seemingly impossible tasks, in the hope he would be killed (spot the common theme, when it comes to getting rid of bothersome youths in ancient times), one of which was to defeat the chimera. Athena gave Bellerophon a magic halter, with which he captured the winged horse Pegasus, allowing him to attack the monster from the air and thereby avoid its heads and its fiery breath. 

Bellerophon slays the Chimera

However, the fame of his deed went to Bellerophon’s head and he began to think that he ought to be living on Mount Olympus with the Gods, and mounted Pegasus with the intent of flying there. Zeus, irked by this presumption, sent a gadfly to bite Pegasus on the rump, causing him to buck and throw Bellerophon off, who fell to earth and landed in a thorn bush, living out the rest of his miserable days as a blinded cripple. Hubris is a dreadful thing.

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