"I’ve had to look at the Gorgon"
Medusa by Caravaggio
Public DomainMedusa by Caravaggio - Credit: Caravaggio

In Greek mythology, the Gorgon is a terrifying female creature, with hair of writhing, poisonous snakes.  Her monstrous face turns those who gaze upon her to stone.  This trait was considered rather useful, and the Gorgon image was often used on buildings to ward off evil. 

Gorgons appear in the earliest written records of Ancient Greek religious belief.  They are generally depicted as having snake skin and fangs, although sometimes they are shown with golden wings, claws and boar tusks.  The best known Gorgon is Medusa.  Her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale, were also gorgons. 

According to Ovid, writing in 8 AD, of the three sisters only Medusa had serpents for hair, and this was the result of a curse by Athena.  The sea god Poseidon had been aroused by the Medusa’s golden hair, and the two had copulated in a temple of Athena.  Athena wasn’t at all pleased, and changed Medusa’s golden locks into writhing serpents.

Medusa was slain by the hero Perseus.  He was able to carry out this feat by cutting off her head, while looking only at her reflection in a mirror.  By avoiding her direct gaze he escaped being turned to stone. 

According to some accounts, either Perseus or Athena then used the head to turn Atlas into stone, transforming him into the Atlas Mountains.