Medusa in Ancient Greek Art

See works of art
  • Terracotta antefix with the head of Medusa
  • Terracotta aryballos in the form of a helmeted head
  • Terracotta kylix: Siana cup (drinking cup)
  • Terracotta stand
  • Part of the marble stele (grave marker) of Kalliades
  • Terracotta painted gorgoneion antefix (roof tile)
  • Terracotta amphora (jar)
  • Terracotta kylix: eye-cup (drinking cup)
  • Bronze neck-amphora (jar) with lid and bail handle
  • Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)
  • Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)
  • Terracotta column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)
  • Terracotta gorgoneion antefix (roof tile)
  • Gold pendant in the form of a gorgoneion (Gorgons face)
  • Terracotta pelike (jar)
  • Bronze greave (shin guard)
  • Terracotta two-handled vase
  • Terracotta reilef roundel with head of Medusa
  • Wall painting: Perseus and Andromeda in landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase
  • Marble head and torso of Athena

Works of Art (21)


Medusa is an instantly recognizable figure from ancient Greek art. Her face, whether fierce and grotesque or feminine and composed, appears in virtually all media in varying contexts. The most common interpretation of Medusa suggests she is an apotropaic symbol used to protect from and ward off the negative, much like the modern evil eye. She represents a dangerous threat meant to deter other dangerous threats, an image of evil to repel evil. A close look at her role in Greek mythology and art reveals a nuanced and complex character with multiple iterations and implications.

Medusa is best known for having hair made of snakes and for her ability to turn anyone she looked at to stone, literally to petrify. Multiple works by ancient sources, such as Homer, the eighth-century B.C. poet Hesiod, and the fifth-century B.C. lyric poet Pindar, provide a wide-ranging and diverse picture of the fabled creature. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, she was one of three Gorgon sisters born to Keto and Phorkys, primordial sea gods; Medusa was mortal, while the others, Stheno and Euryale, were immortal. The best known myth recounts her fateful encounter with the Greek hero Perseus. A dishonorable king demanded that he bring him an impossible gift: the head of Medusa. Perseus set out with the aid of the gods, who provided him with divine tools. While the Gorgons slept, the hero attacked, using Athena’s polished shield to view the reflection of Medusa’s awful face and avoid her petrifying gaze while he beheaded her with a harpe, an adamantine sword. Such a violent act resulted in the birth of Medusa’s children, the winged horse Pegasos and the giant Chrysaor, who sprung from her neck. The two immortal sisters pursued Perseus with fury, but the hero escaped with his prize using Hermes’ winged boots and Hades’ helmet of invisibility. Not even death, however, could quell Medusa’s power, and Perseus had to keep her decapitated head in a special sack strong enough to contain it, called a kybisis. On his travels, he used the head to turn his enemies to stone and rescue the princess Andromeda from a sea monster (20.192.16), before giving it to Athena for her aegis (34.11.7).

Pindar’s Twelfth Pythian Ode recounts how Stheno and Euryale’s angry pursuit of their sister’s killer resulted in another chapter of the Medusa myth. After hearing their anguished and furious cries, Athena was inspired to invent the flute to mimic them. When the goddess played the flute, however, she discarded it after seeing her reflection; her face distended and became ugly as she played (24.97.28). While she purposefully and successfully mimicked the wails of the Gorgons, she also unwittingly imitated their wide and dreadful features. The snake-haired Medusa does not become widespread until the first century B.C. The Roman author Ovid describes the mortal Medusa as a beautiful maiden seduced by Poseidon in a temple of Athena. Such a sacrilege attracted the goddess’ wrath, and she punished Medusa by turning her hair to snakes.

While these stories sound fantastical today, to the ancient Greeks they were quasi-historical. Myths, as well as the stories recorded by Homer and Hesiod, were considered part of a lost heroic past when men and women interacted with heroes, gods, and the supernatural. Tales from this period were repeated in every medium; the evidence from Greece presents a world saturated with heroes and monsters in poetry, prose, and art. As such, Medusa was not just a fantastical beast, but part of a shared past and present in the minds of ancient viewers. She signified a historical menace—the story of Perseus vanquishing and harnessing her energy was not just a story, but a chapter in the shared allegorical and historical record of the Greeks.

Just as Medusa exists in multiple types of stories in the mythological record, she is also portrayed in multiple ways in ancient art. Her appearance changes drastically through the centuries, but she is always recognizable due to her striking frontality. It is rare in Greek art for a figure to face directly out, but in almost all representations of Medusa, despite style and medium, she stares ahead and uncompromisingly confronts the viewer.

The term gorgoneion refers to the head and face of Medusa, which was used often as a decorative motif. It is a prolific symbol of her particular power that appears in architecture, vase painting, and metalwork. The gorgoneion was a pervasive image in temple decoration of the Archaic period (ca. 700–480 B.C.). Perhaps the largest example comes from Temple C (built ca. 540 B.C.) at Selinunte in southwestern Sicily—two monumental gorgoneia, one on the east and one on the west, dominated the pediments of the temple. Medusa’s visage was also used to decorate smaller architectural elements. In Sicily, southern Italy, and mainland Greece, temples were decorated with numerous antefixes (ornamental terracotta roof tile covers) that bore gorgoneia (27.122.14), a phenomenon especially prevalent during the Archaic period. During this time, Medusa is depicted as a monster; she has a round face, wide eyes, a beard, and a gaping mouth with an extended tongue and gnashing, sharp teeth (39.11.9). Medusa remains a popular image on later architectural components, but her form is more specifically human and female. She loses the frightful teeth and beard, but is still recognizable (20.215) in Classical and Hellenistic examples with her wild hair and confrontational look (98.8.30).

Greek vases, cups, and related terracotta objects sometimes included a decorative gorgoneion as well. In some cases it was painted at the bottom of a drinking vessel (14.136) and served to surprise the drinker as he emptied his cup. Pieces from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. are decorated with monstrous gorgoneia that can take up the entire surface (31.11.4), similar to those on contemporary antefixes. The circular shape of many of these ceramics offers a particularly appropriate space to depict the rotund face of the Archaic Gorgon; it is outrageous, with oversized features that combine the feminine (curled hair and earrings) with the masculine (beard). The trend of using Medusa’s face to decorate ceramics continued into the Hellenistic period (ca. 323–31 B.C.). She is present as the central decoration on many vases (06.1021.246a,b), as well as a repetitive ornamental motif. Just as in architecture, these late fourth- and third-century B.C. Gorgons evolve from the grotesque to the feminine but retain their specific frontal quality. The fifth century B.C. saw the emergence of a new artistic emphasis on the ideal form. Perfection and beauty became the standards of this new Classical style, and Medusa, despite her role as a monster, was not exempt.

Medusa is truly ubiquitous—she is represented not only in architecture and pottery, but also in metalwork. Her head is a common ornament on the handles of bronze vessels (60.11.2a,b). The circular shape and protective qualities of her countenance also lend themselves to jewelry; she appears on earrings, pendants, and rings (74.51.3397b). The Gorgon is also reproduced on armor. In the Iliad, her head appears on Zeus’ aegis. Hesiod’s Shield of Herakles describes an illustration of the myth of Perseus and the Gorgons on the hero’s shield. More commonly, the gorgoneion is the central motif on the aegis of Athena. Depictions of the goddess in both vase painting (63.11.6; 34.11.7) and sculpture (24.97.15) include the head of Medusa on her chest. The most renowned sculpture of Athena, the gold and ivory Athena Parthenos that once stood in the Parthenon, included two gorgoneia: one on her aegis and one on her shield. The Gorgon’s face is not limited to divine armor, however, but also decorated the martial accoutrements of Greek soldiers, such as helmets, shields, and greaves (41.162.74; 1991.171.45). The presence of Medusa on armor reinforces the idea that her presence held significant power to protect the wearer against enemies.

The gorgoneion is not the only artistic representation of Medusa; she is also shown in scenes illustrating the adventures of Perseus. In many cases, the hero flees with Medusa’s head as her body lies nearby, sometimes with Pegasos and Chrysaor at their mother’s side (06.1070). A monumental example of this type is the central decoration of the early sixth-century B.C. Temple of Artemis on Corfu, though interestingly this depiction leaves out Perseus and the beheading.

Other scenes display the moment before the killing. The iconographic formula consists of Perseus holding his sword to Medusa’s neck, looking away as he delivers the fatal cut to avoid her petrifying gaze. A metope from Temple C at Selinunte depicts such a tableau and includes Athena, who stands by the hero to guide him. In later illustrations from the fifth century B.C., Medusa is asleep while the hero approaches to attack (45.11.1). Here is a rare instance of a nonfrontal, nonstaring Medusa; in sleep, the threat of her power is canceled. Indeed, she is portrayed as a peacefully sleeping human figure—only her wings suggest that she is a supernatural creature. Some scenes include the other Gorgons, Stheno and Euryale, pursuing Perseus after he has beheaded Medusa. One example, on an early seventh-century B.C. amphora from Eleusis, depicts the two running after the hero while their headless sister’s body lies behind them. The Gorgons are often represented in this running pose, known as knielauf, on pottery (01.8.6), in architecture, and on relief sculpture (55.11.4).

Even though Medusa’s appearance changes drastically through the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, from a grotesque creature to a beautiful female, her “otherness” remains. The legends of the Gorgons cast them as foreign others living outside of the known Greek world and horrific beings to be feared and ultimately vanquished. Archaic depictions are monstrous and inexplicable—the Gorgon seems to be both male and female, both human and animal. The sixth-century B.C. antefixes, bronze handles, and vase decorations all depict a creature that is as terrible as it is distinctive. Classical and Hellenistic images of Medusa are more human, but she retains a sense of the unknown through specific supernatural details such as wings and snakes. These later images may have lost the gaping mouth, sharp teeth, and beard, but they preserve the most striking quality of the Gorgon: the piercing and unflinching outward gaze.

Alterity is at the foundation of Medusa’s force, which was alive and present in the minds and memories of ancient viewers. Her very presence is foreign, dangerous, and potent, as are her specific characteristics. In the Odyssey, her head was kept in Hades to drive the living from the world of the dead. The Perseus myth provides us with the phenomenon that her face and gaze could turn men to stone. Pindar preserves the tale that the Gorgon’s cries were awesome and awful. Perseus and Athena were required to control such threatening forces and harness their power. This harness was taken up by ancient Greek artists, who represented the Gorgon across all periods and in all media. Medusa is a deadly and cryptic other, but she is also ubiquitous, with an undeniable energy that inspired artists to repeat her semblance and story in diverse ways across literature, lore, and art through ancient Greece, Rome, and beyond.

Madeleine Glennon
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 2017


Glennon, Madeleine. “Medusa in Ancient Greek Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (March 2017)

Further Reading

Belson, Janer Danforth. “The Gorgoneion in Greek Architecture.” PhD diss., Bryn Mawr College, 1981.

Childs, William A. P. “The Human Animal: The Near East and Greece.” In The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art, edited by J. Michael Padgett, pp. 49–72. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Danner, Peter. “Westgriechische Giebeldekorationen, 1. Gorgoneia.” Römische Historische Mitteilungen 42 (2000), pp. 19–105.

Frontisi-Ducroux, Françoise. “In the Mirror of the Mask.” In A City of Images: Iconography and Society in Ancient Greece, edited by Claude Bérard et al., pp. 151–65. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Krauskopf, Ingrid. “Gorgo, Gorgones.” In Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae, vol. 4, pp. 285–30. Zurich: Artemis, 1988.

Mack, Rainer. “Facing Down Medusa (An Aetiology of the Gaze).” Art History 25, no. 5 (2002), pp. 571–604.

Marconi, Clemente. Temple Decoration and Cultural Identity in the Archaic Greek World: The Metopes of Selinus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Milne, Marjorie J. “Perseus and Medusa on an Attic Vase.” Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 4, no. 5 (1946), pp. 126–30.

Richter, Gisela M. A. “A Stand by Kleitias and an Athenian Jug.” Bulletin of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 26, no. 12 (1931), pp. 289–91.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre. “Death in the Eyes: Gorgo, Figure of the Other.” In Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, edited by J Froma I. Zeitlin, pp. 111–38. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.