Archaeologists in Turkey have unearthed a marble head of Medusa, the legendary gorgon from Greek mythology with snakes in place of hair who could turn any person to stone with just her gaze. The ancient relic was discovered in the 2,000-year-old archaeological ruins of Antiochia ad Cragum on Mount Cragus in Anatolia, Turkey.
Live Science reports that the head of Medusa was not part of a statue, but was likely incorporated into the pediment of a building, which is believed to have been a small temple.
The marble head of Medusa discovered at Antiochia ad Cragum in Turkey. Credit: Michael Hoff, Hixson-Lied professor of art history, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The Legend of Medusa
The earliest known record about the myth of Medusa and the Gorgons can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony. According to this ancient author, the three sisters, Sthenno, Euryale and Medusa were the children of Phorcys and Ceto, and lived “beyond famed Oceanus at the world’s edge hard by Night”. Of the three, only Medusa was said to be mortal, whilst Sthenno and Euryale were immortal. In addition, Medusa is the most famous of the three, and the story of her demise is also mentioned in passing by Hesiod.
Although Hesiod gives an account of Medusa’s origins and the death of Medusa at the hands of Perseus, he does not say more about her. By contrast, a more comprehensive account of Perseus and Medusa can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this work, Ovid describes Medusa as originally being a beautiful maiden. Her beauty caught the eye of Poseidon, who desired her and proceeded to ravage her in Athena’s shrine. The goddess then sought vengeance by transforming Medusa’s hair into snakes, so that anyone who gazed at her directly would be turned into stone.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa after he had slain her, by Sebastiano Ricci (Wikimedia Commons)
Medusa as a Force of Protection
Although Medusa is commonly regarded as a monster, her head is often seen as a protective amulet that would keep evil away. Thus, the image of Medusa’s head can be seen in numerous Greek and subsequent Roman artifacts such as shields, breastplates, mosaics, and statues. There are also numerous coins that bear not only the imagery of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, but also the head in its own right.
Caravaggio’s Medusa. Photo source: Wikimedia.
The Ancient City of Antiochia ad Cragum
The marble Medusa head was discovered in the ruins of the ancient city known as Antiochia ad Cragum, which was founded in around 170 BC by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a Greek king of the Seleucid Empire.
“There still stand substantial remains of baths, a market, a colonnaded street with gateway, a large early Christian basilica, monumental tombs, and a temple, along with several unidentified structures,” reports the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Research Project. “Antiochia is mentioned by several ancient sources as an important Roman commercial center and during the Byzantine era the city was a seat of a Christian bishopric.”
Some ruins at Antiochia ad Cragum (Public domain)
Michael Hoff, a University of Nebraska–Lincoln art historian and director of the excavations, told Live Science, that the finding is surprising since the image of Medusa would have been considered idolatrous by the Christians, who later came to settle at the site. Anything considered pagan was typically smashed into pieces, but somehow the Medusa head survived the destruction.
Featured image: Head of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens (Wikimedia Commons)