“And they are three, the Gorgons, each with wings And snaky hair, most horrible to mortals. Whom no man shall behold and draw again The breath of life.”
Few monsters are as old, and as dreadful as the Gorgon. The name derives from the ancient Greek word gorgós, which means "grim, dreadful". The monsters are mentioned by Homer, author of the oldest known work of European literature, and by many others after himi (including Ovid and Apollodorus, to name a few). The tale of Perseus, who sought out the gorgons, sets out a perfect framework for a classic adventure story. The story illustrates the important role of magic and divine intervention in these types of quests, giving it the feel of a fairy tale. Presently, I will relate a brief version of the tale, and I recommend you watch for the patterns that seem familiar to you. There are horrors when facing gorgons, but there are also great rewards.
Perseus was born into captivity. A man named Dictys found him and his mother trapped in a chest that had been cast out to sea (how they got trapped is a tale for another time). Dictys was kind and raised the two as his own, but the island they lived on was ruled by his cruel brother, Polydectus, who came to covet Danaë. One day, Polydectus took Perseus aside and told him that his greatest desire was to possess the head of a gorgon. The gorgons were greatly feared. It was known that they were invincible creatures of malice and that they possessed the power to turn any who gazed upon them to stone. Polydectus planted this seed, with the intention of removing Perseus from the picture so that he could pursue his mother. He shortly announced that he was to be married, and invited Perseus to a celebration. It was customary that the king be offerred gifts for his wedding, but Perseus had no worldly possessions. Falling into the trap, and the bravado of youth, Perseus arrived and declared he would bring Polydectus the head of Medusa, who was one of the gorgons.
Perseus set out on a quest to find out the location of the gorgons, knowing despair until finally encountering the god Hermes. Hermes warned that he needed to be properly equipped to face the gorgons, and that the nymphs of the north possessed what he needed. But to find the nymphs, he had to consult the Gray Women who lived in a land of twilight. The Gray Women were withered and strange, with bodies like birds with human heads and wings hiding human hands underneath. There were three who shared between them a single eye, which they frequently passed back and forth. At this time, Perseus devised a plan to snatch the eye from the Gray Women in order to convince them to tell him where to find the nymphs. His divine allies now included Athena, as well as Hermes. Hermes gifted him with a magic sword which could penetrate the golden scales of a gorgon. Athena gifted him with a polished bronze shield, and told him to gaze upon the gorgons only through its reflective surface in order to protect himself from their power. With newfound allies, and items of magic, Perseus felt his confidence grow. He carried out his plan successfully and coerced the Gray Women, then got Hermes to help him find the land of nymphs. The nymphs proved welcoming, for they lived in constant revelry and feasting. They gifted Perseus with three more items of great magic: winged sandals upon which he could float through the air, a magic wallet that would always become the right size for whatever was placed within it, and a cap that would make its wearer invisible. With this arsenal of magic artifacts, Perseus felt ready to face the gorgons and was led to them by Hermes.
When he came upon them, the gorgons were all asleep. Hermes and Athena pointed out Medusa which was absolutely crucial - Medusa was the only gorgon of the three who was mortal. Perseus hovered above her on his magic sandals, being careful to only look through the reflection on his shield. He raised his magic sword and struck true - decapitating her and placing her head in the magic wallet. The sisters awoke and, seeing their sister murdered, went into a frenzy. Perseus frantically made his escape using the cap of invisibility. On his return home, he found that his adopted father Dictys and his mother Danaë were in hiding in a temple. They had had to flee the wrath of the king Polydectus who had tried to marry Danaë but been refused. Perseus learned that the king was holding a banquet with all of his favoured friends and saw an opportunity. He stormed the banquet and held the decapitated head of Medusa aloft before anyone could react, turning the cruel king and all of his friends to stone. Later, Medusa’s head was given to Athena, who bore it always upon the aegis, Zeus’s shield.
Gorgons are terrifying and almost unbeatable, and yet Perseus still sought them out. There may be reasons beyond mere bravado to seek out a gorgon. Gorgon's are ancient, scaled monsters of tremendous power, much like the dragon. And, like the dragon, you will often find that they protect something of great value, perhaps the very thing you need most. In defeating Medusa, Perseus was able to become a true hero and to save his mother and adoptive father. In the story, Perseus also came across a vast wealth of magic items and allies while equipping himself for the final confrontation. There is another story of a male gorgon named Marlos Urnrayle who was the vain prophet of an evil Prince of Earth. That gorgon wielded an elemental war pick named Ironfang, which was infused with the power of elemental earth. A hero might leverage the knowledge of how Perseus defeated Medusa, or the knowledge of the gorgon's vanity, to claim that legendary weapon for themselves.
But the true power of a gorgon seems to be a power of protection. "In Ancient Greece a Gorgoneion (a stone head, engraving, or drawing of a Gorgon face, often with snakes protruding wildly and the tongue sticking out between her fangs) frequently was used as an apotropaic symbol and placed on doors, walls, floors, coins, shields, breastplates, and tombstones in the hopes of warding off evil.". Apotropaic magic is a type of magic that turns away harm or evil. One is reminded of the image of Medusa at the center of Athena's aegis, and of the end of the story where Perseus ultimately used the power of the gorgon to protect his family from tyranny.