Elyse Zorn Karlin, a noted author and jewelry historian treated us to a trip back in time when gods and goddesses had free reign in the world’s psyche.
She spoke about Medusa and how this tragic yet beautiful creature has permeated the jewelry world from antiquity on.
She began by giving us the legend of this intriguing lady and how the duality of horror and beauty was used in jewelry and objects of art.
The story goes something like this….Medusa was a beautiful maiden, one of three sisters who captured the eye of Poseidon, the other two sisters being gorgons who shared a single eye. One day while worshiping in the temple of the goddess Athena, Poseidon ravaged the fair Medusa, who also believed herself to be more beautiful than Athena. Both Poseidon’s actions and Medusa’s own opinion so enraged Athena that she turned Medusa into a monster with snakes for hair and a gaze that would turn anyone looking at her to stone. Enter King Polydectes who was the ruler of the island of Seriphos where the mother of Perseus was being held prisoner. Perseus was very protective of his mother and didn’t want the king near her. Polydectes decided that the best way to get what he wanted was to get rid of Perseus by sending him on a mission to bring him the head of Medusa. This was going to be no easy task since anyone gazing upon Medusa was immediately turned to stone not to mention that the one-eyed sisters guarded her.
With help from Athena who supplied him with a sword and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest by looking at her reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her to prevent being turned into stone. When he severed the head, Medusa’s two children by Poseidon came spewing forth. One being Pegasus, the winged horse and the other being Chrysaor who is said to have been king of Iberia (Spain and Portugal). Perseus carried the head for a time and the corals of the Red Sea were said to have been formed when some of the blood spilled onto seaweed. He did take the head back to Polydectes who had forced his mother into slavery and was about to marry her. Perseus was so upset that he called upon his mother to shield her eyes and all but the two of them were turned to stone. He eventually presented the head to Athena who promptly attached it to her own shield.
The Medusa image represents a fear of death, the personification of rape and at the same time, gentleness and sadness. Early depictions show here as having a very round head, large eyes, a lolling tongue and large teeth. The ancients most often showed her facing forward as opposed to profiles in more modern times. The image was produced on coins as well as cameo carvings in stone. In many images, the snakes are tied under her head. Some early depictions also show her cradling her son Pegasus as her head is being severed, thus showing the horror and at the same time gentleness.
With each passing era, the Medusa image resurfaces in cameos and intaglios carved out of all types of materials. The profile became popular in the 18th century and the 19th century saw a tamer, less horrifying image. In modern times, the image can still be identified, most famously as the logo of Gianni Versace.
Submitted by Sherlene Bradbury
Photos of Slide Show by Melanie Marts