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Mythological Monsters: Did they ever exist?

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Author Topic: Mythological Monsters: Did they ever exist?  (Read 2630 times)
Moira Kelliey
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« on: February 24, 2007, 09:11:04 pm »

Origins
 
The Gorgon just before being beheaded by Perseus as exhibited at the Archaeological museum of Corfu. Note the oversized eyes. According to myth anyone looking at the Gorgon's eyes was petrified (turned to stone)The concept of the gorgon is at least as old in mythology as Perseus and Zeus. The name is Greek, being from gorgos, "terrible." There are a few cognates: Old Irish garg, "wild", Armenian karcr, "hard". Hoffman's suggested root is *gragnis; Émile Boisacq's, *greg-. The root would not be a commonly used one.

The name of the most senior "terrible one", Medusa, is better Greek, being the feminine present participle of medein, "to rule over." The masculine, Medon, "ruler", is a Homeric name. The Indo-European root, *me-, "measure", generates a large number of words.

The name of "queen" and the magical powers indicate Medusa was a bronze-age deity, and yet deities are not beheaded by mortals and terrible ones are not really terrible if they ward away enemies. The snakes are reminiscent of the Cretan snake goddess. It is possible that the story represents the subordination of a pre-Greek religious infrastructure by new Greek superstructures able to attribute the power of life and death to themselves.

On the other hand, Marija Gimbutas ("Language of the Goddess") believed she saw the prototype of the Gorgoneion in Neolithic art motifs, especially in anthropomorphic vases and terra cotta masks inlaid with gold. The gorgon descends from the pre-Indo-European goddess of life and death, represented in various forms, of which the Gorgoneion is one.

The motif is an accretion of motifs. The large eyes, as well as Athena's flashing eyes, are a symbol termed "the divine eyes" by Gimbutas (who did not originate the perception), appearing also in Athena's bird, the owl. They can be represented by spirals, wheels, concentric circles, and other ways. They radiate the sun's rays and weep the spring rains.

Snakes also possess the eyes. The fangs of the gorgoneion are snakes' fangs. Snakes are a symbol of appeasement and increase. The round face is the moon. Sometimes Gorgoneia are endowed with birds' feet or bee wings, more symbols of regeneration. The mouth is open so that streams may flow from it. The lolling tongue is a symbol of death.

It cannot be said that these motifs belong exclusively to the European Neolithic and not to the Indo-Europeans. They appear among the Celts and Germans as well. The Balts kept snakes as household pets. As Gimbutas points out, masks with staring eyes are portrayed in Paleolithic cave art. Very likely, the goddess precedes any Indo-European/non-Indo-European distinction.

 
Athena wears the primitive form of the Gorgoneion; cup by Douris, early 5th century BCAt Mycenae, traces of the ancient religion are found in elements considered characteristically Greek. A tholos tomb, there or elsewhere, is a symbol of the uterus. Solar discs studded the walls of some. The "death masks" of the shaft graves should probably more aptly be called life masks. In Paleolithic art, the dancer, who puts on a reindeer head with staring eyes, very likely became the reindeer in the dance. Similarly, a masked corpse overcame death by putting on the mask of life, a different concept from our death mask.

Gimbutas cites Gorgoneia with bees' heads on some classical Attic pottery and with bees'heads, snake heads or owl faces on some Cycladic pottery. She regards them as transitional between the ancient and classical Gorgoneia. As for the name, it is not from a solid Indo-European root. It could have been from a more ancient language, or could have translated a word in another language.

In Greek myth, only Perseus and Zeus (through Athena) own the Gorgoneion. The two must be tied together in some way; that is, the king of Mycenae was the earthly counterpart of Zeus from whom he derived his authority. The Iliad clearly expresses this divine right of bronze-age kings, which the wrath of Achilles undermined. By assuming the Gorgoneion, Perseus put on as a mask the power of life and death personified by Medusa, the cosmic queen.

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