Ancient coins, at their best, inspire awe. You gaze in wonderment
at the artistry, history, and mythology. If you believe the mythology, staring at one genre of coinage will go
beyond this by turning you into stone.
Medusa coins won't really turn flesh and bone into rock, but they just may transform your collecting habits the
more you learn about them. These coins are popular and frequently written about, and as with many ancient coins,
the more you dig under the surface, the more interesting they become.
Numismatists most often refer to the snaky figure that appears on these coins using the words Gorgon (or the Gorgon),
Gorgoneion, or Gorgo, but they sometimes use the name Medusa (the Greek spelling is Medousa), who was one of the
three mythological Gorgon sisters, the others being Stheno and Euryale.
I believe the image on these coins was that of Medusa and not that of one of her sisters, a generic gorgon, or
a lumped-together amalgamation of the three Gorgon sisters, and I believe the ancients intended it this way, judging
by the literature of antiquity. Homer in both the Iliad and the Odyssey referred to a single Gorgon, but in the eighth century BC, still
before the first coinage, the poet and mythologist Hesiod increased the number of Gorgons to three. No doubt because
of her central role in the mythology, Hesiod sometimes referred to Medusa as the Gorgon instead of as Medusa.
Others afterward, including Pindar in the fifth century BC, Apollodoros in the second century BC, and Ovid in the
first century AD, did the same, writing about the three Gorgons and sometimes referring to Medusa as Medusa and
other times as the Gorgon. Though Medusa and her sisters Stheno and Euryale as a group are referred to in antiquity
as the Gorgons (the Greek spelling/transliteration is Gorgones), I'm not aware of either of her sisters, unlike
Medusa, being referred to simply as the Gorgon.
The word Gorgoneion is used to mean the disembodied head or mask of the Gorgon, which was placed on shields, breastplates,
walls, and so on, as Athena in the mythology placed Medusa's disembodied head on her aegis (typically on a breastplate
or shield, sometimes a cloak), but it was still the face of Medusa that was portrayed. The Gorgon mask, or Gorgoneion,
may have existed in antiquity before Medusa's body was added and the mythology was fleshed out, but this predated
the coinage. Some people in antiquity believed that a race of hairy, warlike gorgons existed in the past, but this
would have also predated these coins.
One modern meaning of the word gorgon is an ugly, frightening woman, but this generic broadening of the meaning
didn't happen until long after the flowering of ancient Greece and Rome.
Not only did classical culture know Medusa better than the other two Gorgon sisters, popular culture today does
as well. Finally, using one name instead of several is more straightforward and less confusing. It's for all these
reasons that I'm referring to these coins as Medusa coins.
The mythological and historical context surrounding Medusa is as fascinating as the coins themselves. The mythology
can change depending on who in antiquity was telling it, but the basics of the most common version are this:
Medusa was the only mortal among the three Gorgon sisters. Daughter of the sea gods Phorcys and Ceto, she was once
a beautiful maiden but was turned into a snake-haired monster by Athena for sleeping with (or being ravaged by)
Poseidon in Athena's temple. Men who looked at Medusa turned to stone. The hero Perseus later killed Medusa at
her home on an island off Libya by cutting off her head with a harpa (sickle), a scene depicted on some coins,
finding her by looking at her reflection in a shield given to him by Athena to avoid being turned to stone himself.
From Medusa's gaping neck sprang forth the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor, her children by Poseidon.
Perseus, chased by Medusa's hissing sisters, Stheno and Euryale, escaped with Medusa's disembodied head, giving
it to Athena, who placed it in the center of her aegis. The dead head had the same power of turning to stone those
who looked at it.
No doubt because Medusa was once a beautiful maiden, some images of her depict a tame or even beautiful face, with
later images in both ancient art and coinage more likely to depict her this way. This depiction is sometimes called
the Rondanini Medusa, after the work of the Greek sculptor Phidias (or possibly Kresilas), c. 440 BC, with an ancient
Roman copy of this depiction preserved by the Rondanini family of Rome and that's now in the Munich Glyptotek.
Even this Medusa face, however, is still surrounded by snakes.
Medusa may have originally been an Amazonian serpent-goddess who symbolized the female mysteries and the untamable
forces of nature. At that time, Medusa was an aspect of the Amazonian Athena (Athene), but the Greeks according
to this theory separated the two and made them enemies.
Athena wasn't the only one in mythology and history to carry or display an image of Medusa as a protective totem
against enemies and evil. Medusa appeared on the shields and breastplates of soldiers as well as on pottery, sculpture,
jewelry, furniture, gates, and buildings. Medusa may have been mythological, but her presence in the classical
world was very real.
Medusa's frightening appearance on coins served a propaganda purpose, as did many coin designs, in this case announcing
to enemies and would-be enemies, "Don't mess with us." Warfare was endemic in the classical world, a
way of life, and death, as it has been throughout much of history. What we read about in the newspaper was experienced
firsthand, in some way or another, by virtually everyone. Medusa served to both protect and terrify.
Many explanations of the origins or deeper meaning of Medusa have been suggested over the years, some fairly farfetched,
all interesting. The Medusa image has been described as:
- The head of an octopus, squid, or cuttlefish
- A psychedelic mushroom
- A variable star
- The man in the moon
- The sun
- An underworld demon
- A gorilla
- The personification of the fear of sea waves, thunder and
lightning, volcanic eruptions, darkness, animals, nightmares, the unknown, or fear in general
- The personification of the barren coast of Libya, where
the Amazonian Athene was thought to have originated
- The personification of female wisdom, female power, female
creativity, or female rage
- A symbol of fecal fertility
Perhaps the most realistic explanation of the deeper meaning is anthropological, with the Medusa image being described
as originating from a ritual mask common to primitive cults. On the other hand, in his excellent 2000 book Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, Stephen R. Wilk makes a persuasive case for Medusa representing fear of
death in the form of the face of a putrefying corpse.
But the most intriguing explanations, in my view, are psychosexual. Like the Medusa image itself, these explanations
are graphic, horrifying, and fascinating. Though none of this is salacious, if you find matters involving sexuality
unpleasant, you may want to skip the remainder of this page.
Many have connected Medusa with sexuality, men as well as women. Freud, as you might expect, was one such theorist,
linking her to the male fear of castration. Earlier, Goethe and Dante both interpreted Medusa as a dangerous seductive
force to be resisted. One feminist perspective is that Medusa represents the personification of rape. Another feminist
perspective, put forth by Page DuBois in her 1988 book Sewing
the Body: Psychoanalysis and Ancient Representations of Women,
is that Medusa symbolizes women's subversive, self-sufficient sexuality.
But the most horrifying psychosexual explanation, detailed among other places by Ellen D. Reeder in her 1996 book
Pandora: Women in Classical Greece, is that the fundamental meaning of Medusa is a symbol of male fear
of devouring female sexual potency. Building upon Freud's earlier thinking, Reeder theorized that Medusa's snaky
locks represent pubic hair, her face female genitalia. In the mythology, Reeder points out, only men are turned
into stone by gazing at Medusa.
This has to do, according to Barbara G. Walker in her 1983 book The
Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, with
what's been termed the "toothed vagina." This symbol of biting, devouring female sexuality is thought
have originated with the primordial fear that a woman's privates might amputate a man's privates during sex. This
superstition, according to Walker, has existed in many different cultures around the world throughout history,
among other places in China, Polynesia, Persia, the Islamic world, and medieval Christianity. And perhaps, even
if subliminally, it existed in ancient Greece and Rome as well.
The psychosexual explanation ties in with how the Medusa image was used in patriarchal Greece and Rome. It could
well be, at least on some level, that it's behind the fright caused by looking at the Medusa image and why men
placed it on their armor when fighting other men and on coins when trading with other men.
Regardless of how you ultimately explain her, Medusa was a significant presence in the ancient world. Medusa, as
a concept, is also used today. A Web search revealed that Medusa is the name of a brand of computer security software,
an all-girl heavy metal rock band, a women's "guerilla" poetry group, a monthly gothic dance party in
Amsterdam, an organization advocating the conservation of wild plants in the Mediterranean area, a hotel in Australia
... the list goes on.
The most obvious aspect to how the Medusa myth has been used is Medusa's "interpretability." As Marjorie
Garber and Nancy J. Vickers point out in the introduction of their 2001 book The Medusa Reader, "What
is most compelling in the long history of the myth and its retellings is Medusa's intrinsic doubleness: at once
monster and beauty, disease and cure, poison and remedy. The woman with snaky locks who could turn the unwary into
stone has come to stand for all that is obdurate and irresistible."