I was fortunate to have this conversation come up within my view just yesterday (or the day before perhaps…I am one of those folks who have an unforutunate absolute lack of a sense of time…usually for me it ends up being give or take a few years..but I digress) and so it provided with me the perfect subject for this weeks Pagan Blog Project on the letter G! And while I don’t consider myself particularly knowledgable about the Gorgons, I do think that it is an interesting subject particularly since two goddess are directly associated with the visage of the gorgons: Athena and Artemis. This may very well be in a vein similar to the relationship between Demeter and the Erinyes in which she holds the latter name as her epithet to represent Demeter who essentially acts like, and takes on the personage, of the Erinyes. Therefore it can be argued that in the case of Demeter we have a goddess acting in a sense as a force of retribution towards the violation she experienced (one in the form of the kidnapping and marriage of her daughter, and the second that Poseidon (while both were in the form of horses) caught her in her grieving and bred upon her Despoina in connection to which this epithet of Demeter is particularly well known in the locations where this myth was said to have occurred).
In contrast, the gorgon association of Athena and Artemis appears to be something of a more directly fearful nature to all men, as something that can not be domesticated and controlled….which matches perfectly to the status of both Athena and Artemis as inviolable virgins. We can see something symbolically related to both of them in the construction of the imagery of the gorgon. They possess boar tusks (which is reminsicent of Artemis….I direct readers to my post on boars and pigs) and wicked claws (which I can see as a kind of primitive substitute for the weaponry that both goddesses carry), yet the serpent hair seems more associated with Medusa than the other two Gorgons unless I am mistaken (and is appropriate in her connection with Athena who is draped in serpents), but the gorgon depiction of Artemis seems to have less serpent hair and more that the goddess has serpents about her shoulders and waist in the fashion of a belt. Yet pottery images showing the three gorgons together show them all with as winged beings, with horribly fearful faces and serpent hair in like guise. So it is more reasonable to suspect that the imagery of the gorgons were uniform and perhaps that tale in which Medusa was originally the most beautiful, yet mortal, among the sisters who is vain about her hair (which is quite unlike the serpentine hair of her sisters) is transformed into the same likeness by Athena. But that is a supposition. There seems to also be some belief that originally there was only the one Gorgo and that Hesiod later mentions three Gorgons. Nevertheless we have both Athena and Artemis with imagery of the gorgons.
Now Athena, unlike Artemis (who is most specifically portrayed in this fashion in the Peloponnese and examples were found specifically in the ruins of the Spartan temple to Artemis Orthia) doesn’t seem to have been depicted in the form of a gorgon. However, the image of Medusa is forever attached to her as she wears the head upon the aegis draping her, and her sheild is said to have contained forever the reflection of Medusa. It seems probable that with this direct linking in the imagery that Medusa’s imagery was based perhaps on a more archaic thought about Athena’s nature. This imagery was thus assumed in the myth of Medusa in which the beautiful and mortal gorgon who served Athena, laid with Poseidon within the temple of the goddess and thus invoking Athena’s ire. It seems the transformation of Medusa may be directly related to a transfering of Athena’s archaic persona to something more outside of the goddess which she, via the hero Perseus who borrows her sheild, brings into containment and control by the severing of Medusa’s head and the control of the power of Medusa to the benefit of mankind…or perhaps more specifically to the benefit of heroes, though Asklepios was said to have had venom from the hair of Medusa that depending on what part was used has amazing properties.
Versions of myths (particularly in Libya according to Diodoros Siculus, in which Athena is assigned originally as the daughter of Poseidon rather than Zeus (which we also see in the case of Artemis in different areas) we can probably draw a more direct association between the idea of the gorgons as daemons who create the stony material of the reefs (a kind of boundary zone between the the depths of the sea and the land) and associated with the sea in general, natural for daemons who dwelt beyond the western sea, and goddesses who are connected with the gorgons. In the case of Artemis we see sea-relationships holding firmly in her cultus in which she is the savior of sailors and in her representation as Eurynome inland in relation to a specific pair of rivers (see my post on Artemis Eurynome). The differing between the mortal Medusa and the sister Gorgons seems to me to represent the different relationships to these goddesses (theorectically if there was any evidence of Hestia taking a gorgon visage I would be tempted to align them specificially with the three virgin Olympian goddesses, but I won’t make such claims without any supporting evidence for this idea).
Medusa needs to be mortal because she needs to be a being with a limited life span as Athena, as the daughter of Zeus, at a point of necessity disposes of this gorgon as Athena herself perhaps became more “civilized” or evolved. Artemis on the other hand has a domain and persona which seems to be quite in character in its wildest aspects with the temperment of the gorgons, and thus can appropriately be paralleled to the immortal gorgon daemons. Yet it was the mortal Medusa who transformed (died) and from her transformation brought into being Pegasus (whom Athena bridled—gained control) and the golden armed Chrysaor. And the cries of the gorgons were captured in the music of Athena who, upon inventing the flute with which some myths credit her, recreated their lamentable song. This music of Athena is the vesige of the primitive wild gorgon nature that she no longer personally exhibits, unlike Artemis, but is still subtly a part of her nature even as Medusa was conquered and the gorgons continued the pass their immortality beyond the seas in the neighborhood of their sisters the Graiai and the Hesperides. Of course if we consider that the gorgon was once a singular individual daemon (who symbolically was associated with Athena and Artemis), as was the Graiai, we can consider these two as part of the Hesperides sisters all of whom Diodoros Siculus claimed dwelt in Libya and speaks of Perseus traveling to Libya to complete this task.
In short the dragoness-like feirce nature of the gorgons is entirely appropriate in how we understand the domains, and functions of Athena and Artemis, and the gorgons themselves are daemons who become a symbol for the unconquerable, fierce, aggressive, unviolable nature of these goddesses, even as the daemons act in necessary functions in the world.