Welcome back to another installment of Shocktoberfest, and today we look at a deadly type of monster dating all the way back to the days of ancient Greece. This is also a monster that is inherently female, and as we uncover its origins, we will discover why the fierce gorgon is always portrayed as a woman.
The name is derived from the Greek word “gorgos” which translates to “dreadful” (makes sense.) While the gorgon has been depicted in a variety of ways, the two traits that have been fairly consistent is that their hair was composed of living poisonous snakes, and anyone who looked them in the eye would become petrified and turned into literal stone.
According to traditional lore by way of Hesiod, there were three major gorgons who were sisters. The oldest was Stheno (the mighty and forceful one), the middle sister was Euryale (known for her bellowing cries), and the youngest was Medusa (the queen of the gorgons and most ferocious). They were all the offspring of the sea deities Phorcys and Ceto, yet only two of their daughters were immortal. Medusa, ironically, was the only one who was not.
Their monstrous form was not the form in which they were born. Before they were beautiful maidens, but a curse from the goddess Athena rendered them as monsters. Legend has it that the sea god, Poseidon, raped Medusa in one of Athena’s temple. Although Medusa’s sisters stood by her and defended her honor, Athena did not blame Poseidon and grew furious with Medusa for desecrating her temple. As punishment, she turned them all into the hideous creatures for which they became known.
Medusa’s story does not end there, however. Needing to use her for his own advantage, Perseus, a mortal son of Zeus, promised to grant Polydectes, the king of Serifos, any gift he desired in order win his good graces. Polydectes demanded the head of the only mortal gorgon, so off Perseus went. With the aid of a polished shield from Athena, he was able to gaze upon her reflection without being turned to stone. As she slept, he crept towards her without looking into her eyes and cut off her head. However, even in death, her gaze was powerful enough to turn men to stone, so Perseus used her severed head against his rival for the hand of the princess Andromeda. Once he was done with her, he gave her head to Athena, and from that moment forth, her head became adorned on Athena’s shield.
In case it hasn’t become clear from the myth by now, the unfortunate side of the gorgon legend is that it is born out of misogyny. Even though some versions of the myth have the relation between Poseidon and Medusa to be consensual, Medusa is the one punished for it. Poseidon gets off scot-free. Her punishment as a hideous monster with snakes in her hair and sharp fangs is a reflection of male insecurity with female anatomy. There’s a term in Latin known as “vagina dentata” (toothed vagina), and the story of Medusa serves a good example. Her appearance is meant to resemble the female genitalia, and when looked upon, it renders men petrified and helpless unless they can overpower it and defeat it via their own masculinity. Even when conquered, the male hero is still able to use her for his own means without her consent.
In more current times, the myth of the gorgon has been portrayed in a number of ways. In the 1981 film, Clash of the Titans, Perseus uses Medusa as an even stronger weapon. In this version, Andromeda has been chosen to be sacrificed to the Kraken as punishment for having her beauty compared to that of the goddess Thetis. This time the gaze of Medusa is powerful enough to petrify a massive sea beast. Ironically, both Medusa and the Kraken have origins with the sea, so Perseus using her to kill the Kraken was also a way of making Medusa kill one of her own kind.
However, in 2007 there was a black comedy/horror film that was released that took the gorgon myth but gave the power back to the woman. If you haven’t seen this movie already, you might need to watch it to believe it.
While multiple issues relating to sex are prevalent in Teeth, what I liked most about it was that our main character, Dawn, goes from a terrified girl who is uncomfortable with her sexuality, confused by what’s happening to her and a victim of sexual assault into the aggressor and learns how to take her power back from the men trying to steal it from her.
With movies like Teeth turning a once misogynistic legend on its head, maybe there’s hope that the will gorgon reclaim her power and once again become the grisly killer she was meant to be. Only time will tell.