This weeks blog was written by Rebecca Preedy, currently studying Ancient History and Classical Archaeology.
Few people wouldn’t recognise the snaky hairdo and stony eyes of Medusa. She has become one of the icons of the classical world, with her image being used everywhere from renaissance paintings, to some rather unsavoury depictions of well-known female politicians. Attempts to ‘reclaim’ the somewhat negatively perceived image have so far been unsuccessful, with only the Versace logo coming close. Even in the animal kingdom, Medusa gives her name to a dangerous creature: the jellyfish. By all accounts, she is lumped in as one of the terrifying monsters that slithers her way through the pages of ancient poetry, and modern depictions alike. However, Medusa’s image isn’t always a bad sign…
But first, what’s the story? Medusa’s myth was most famously described by Ovid, a Roman poet writing in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Ovid describes, through the voice of the hero Perseus, how Medusa came to be a monster after Neptune tried to sleep with her in the temple of Minerva. Minverva was so offended that she turned Medusa’s hair to snakes. Other versions of the myth have Medusa’s mother boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than Venus, and the scandalised goddess punishing the young woman out of jealousy. Whatever the case may be, it would appear that Medusa was not the guilty party, and yet she was the one punished. Either way, she is most famous for being killed by Perseus, who then used her head to turn his enemies to stone (as anyone who gazed upon her ugly features was instantly petrified). According to the myth, when Perseus travelled with her head across the sea Medusa’s deadly gaze turned some of the plants to stone, which became what we know as hard-shelled or ‘gorgonian’ coral.
The Brading Roman Villa Medusa is one of many images of Medusa that were used to ward off evil. The word to describe this is ‘apotropaic’, which comes from the Greek ‘απο’ (apo = away) and ‘τρεπω’ (trepo = turn). According to Ovid, when Minerva turned Medusa’s hair to snakes, she was inspired to use the image of the gorgon’s face on her shield (called aegis) to deter her foes. Other versions state that Perseus was supported by Minerva in his quest, and gifted the head to her when he had finished using it for his own gain. In any case, the gorgon head of Medusa was used my Minerva to ward of her enemies, and this idea was often repurposed by the Greeks and Romans. The Brading Villa mosaic of Medusa is a perfect example of this. The mosaic would have been placed with the idea of protecting the house from thieves, fire and other disasters.