Medusa at the edge of Empire

Images of the head of Medusa, the mythical gorgon beheaded by Perseus, were used throughout the Classical world as a symbol of power and protection. In this article, Adam Parker explores her presence in Roman Britain, at the edge of the Roman Empire.

Adam Parker

In Roman Britain, at some point in the third or fourth century AD, a young woman died. She had lived in York, the provincial capital of Britannia Secunda, and was buried in a lead coffin outside the fortress walls, on a road leading south-east from the town, wearing much of her finery. In the grave she was dressed and adorned with seven necklaces and her hair set with sixteen hairpins (RCHME 1962; Allason-Jones 1996). Three glass bottles probably contained unguents or perfumes. Two coins were also included.

The largest necklace, comprising 237 individual beads, was strung with a jet carving of Medusa (Fig.1) upon which the gorgon looks mournful. This gorgoneion, discovered in 1892, is one of four jet pendants carved with Medusa’s head from York. There are only a further eight from Britain and another eleven from continental Europe, highlighting how rare this manifestation of Medusa was (Parker 2016).

A jet Medusa pendant from the 4th-century grave of a young woman in York, UK. In the collection of the Yorkshire Museum (YORYM: H321.14). Photo: York Museums Trust (CC BY SA 4.0).

Jet (in Latin gagates) is a shiny, black material formed from wood fragments deposited during the Jurassic period in aquatic, anoxic sediments rich in amorphinite or algae (Allason-Jones and Jones 2001, p. 237). It is, essentially, a type of coal. So-called “true jet” (often better known as “Whitby jet”) had been used to create objects of personal adornment in Britain since the Neolithic period (Allason-Jones 1996, p. 8; Sheridan and Davis 2002) and continued to be used for this purpose during the Roman period. Its acquisition was based on a beachcombing industry on the East Yorkshire coast where it washed ashore, centred around the modern town of Whitby, with some small-scale mining exploitation also suggested (Allason-Jones 1996, p. 11).

It is dark and lightweight, it burns, it is easily carved, and it is possessed of a particularly unusual physical property: jet is electrostatic. Handling jet produces a static charge, which may have attracted the hair or textile fibres of its owner in the ancient world. The face of this Medusa pendant is worn smooth, probably from where it had been rubbed by ancient hands to create this static charge. Other pendants and some unusual jet objects also exhibit this sort of use-wear. This physical property of the material was added to a powerful mythological image in Roman Britain to create an amulet – a magical object designed to protect its user from supernatural harm.

Even at the edge of the Roman Empire, away from the Mediterranean heartlands of her myth, Medusa was a powerful apotropaic presence in Roman Britain.

The Medusa myth

Let’s remind ourselves of the Classical myth. As with all myths, the ancient story was variable and re-told by many authors. In Hesiod’s Theogony, composed ca. 700 BC, Medusa is one of the three monstrous Gorgon sisters born to the goddess Ceto: The elder sisters Euryale and Sthenno were immortal but Medusa was not (Hes., Th. 287).

By the fifth century BC, Medusa was not shown as monstrous but beautiful (Pind., P. 12). Her hair was made from living snakes and her gaze could turn people to stone. The Greek hero Perseus was sent to claim her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus and was aided by the gods in his efforts. Bearing a pair of winged sandals, a helm of invisibility, and a mirrored shield, Perseus was able to behead Medusa by looking at her through the reflection in the shield.

Her decapitated head remained in a peri-mortem state and retained the ability to turn people to stone. It even held power over divine characters – the Titan Atlas was turned to stone by the decapitated head of Medusa. Perseus presented it to Athena who bore it upon her own shield.

The Perseus myth was immortalised in the 16th Century AD bronze statue of Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Cellini. Photo: user Jarba via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 3.0).

So, from the Classical myth, the disembodied but still living head of Medusa became associated with longevity and physical protection. Such was the draw of this myth that it was still recognisable at the very edges of empire in Roman Britain, nearly a thousand years after Hesiod’s writing.

Athena bore Medusa on her shield, but the Gorgon’s image also appeared on her armour. On the Alexander mosaic, the ancient King is shown to have a Medusa on his chest. This mosaic dates from 100 BC yet we can draw a line between this use of Medusa as a source of physical protection and the Jet pendant from York because the pendant was found to be worn on the chest of the deceased woman.

The mythological linking of Medusa with armour and literal protection is an important allusion to her apotropaic function. As the armour protected the user from physical harms, so the image of Medusa protected them from supernatural ones. Medusa, after all, had a divine heritage and her continued state of living despite being decapitated linked her to the concept of continuity and longevity.

These were certainly desirable properties in the ancient world. It probably worked by the application of the idea of similia similibus curantur. To paraphrase this means ‘Like cures like’ and relates to the idea that a disease (or problem) may be cured by something which relates to its symptoms; Medusa caused stony death, so may be able to bestow long life on those who wear her visage.

Medusa in Britain

Medusa is an easily recognisable symbol. In Roman Britain she was only depicted by her head, wearing Perseus’ winged helm, and often bearing a mournful expression. Through my PhD research into the materiality of magic in Roman Britain I have recorded more than fifty examples of Medusa from the province. She is recognisable on a range of media.

The most commonly encountered type is as a circular fitting, usually dome-shaped with Medusa’s head central as the only decoration. In Britain these are always copper alloy. As an example, see this one recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme from Cheshire. We can’t be exactly sure what these attached to, but other metal objects or onto leather belts or straps are the likely candidates. Most measure up to ca. 50mm in diameter so were rather robust metal objects.

A copper-alloy roundel depicting Medusa. Metal-detected find from Acton, Cheshire. PAS: LVPL2155. Photo: National Museum Liverpool (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Only two finger rings with a gorgoneion were recorded from Roman Britain. One from the fort at Vindolanda and the other from Sulley Moors in South Glamorgan. They both have a pale white/grey cameo of Medusa set into a gold ring and date from the third century AD. We have no evidence of Medusa set into armour, like Athena/Minerva has, but examples from elsewhere in the Roman Empire highlight that she was shown in a very similar form on some silver phalerae (military awards and decorations).

All of the depictions of Medusa in Roman Britain were depicted in a round frame, probably an allusion to Athena’s shield. They share a commonality in representation, and this speaks to a particular knowledge of there being a correct time or space in which to use a gorgoneion.

The jet Medusa pendants are, archaeologically, strongly associated with inhumation burials of young-adult women in the third and fourth centuries AD. Medusa was a chthonic figure, being both dead and not-dead. Perhaps it was this quality of continuity, combined with the dark colouration of jet, that made it particularly suitable to wear in the grave? It is plausible that all images of Medusa served an amuletic purpose in Roman Britain and thus they were often worn as personal adornment.

Undoubtedly we can link the use of Medusa in Roman Britain to the longue durée; the idea that patterns of use emerge when we look at history over the longer view. In Roman Britain there was a particular tradition of Medusa appearing on buildings and we can, perhaps, link the presence of the archaic Gorgon on the pediment on the sixth-century BC Temple of Artemis at Corfu to the Gorgon on the pediment of the Romano-British temple of Sulis-Minerva at Bath.

Although Gorgons are usually female, Eleri Cousins (2016) convincingly argued that the famous pediment roundel of a hairy-male head attended by snakes was a Romano-British variant of the gorgon which showed it as a male. This is the most famous Gorgon from Britain and surmounted a temple at the thermae. The waters of the bath are also famous for being the site where many hundreds of curse-tablets were deposited. Petitioners used the chthonic darkness of the spring to cast curses against thieves.

The stone roundel depicting a male Gorgon from the pediment of the temple to Sulis-Minerva at Bath, UK. It was an amalgamation of Romano-British artistic styles and the Classical myth. Photo: user Thejoyofmuseums via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A variant on this theme from the legionary fortress at Caerleon depicts a Medusa in a miniature triangular pediment on an antefix (e.g. NMW 32.60/34.4). Antefixae were end-caps used for imbrex tiles on Roman roofs. In this instance, the roof probably included many versions of Medusa visible from the ground.

As well as roof spaces, there was a strong tradition in the Roman world of depicting apotropaic symbols on floors. Especially on mosaic floors. The depiction of the all-suffering Eye from the House of the Evil Eye at Antioch, the mosaic inscribed with the phrase INBIDE CALCO TE from an Ostia taberna which invited the visitor to “trample upon envy” (Dunbabin 1991) and the subtle protection of the CAVE CANEM mosaic at Pompeii (Wilburn 2018, p. 108) are examples of this practice.

In Roman Britain, Medusa was used for this purpose. She can be found in the centre of mosaics from villas at Brading, Dalton Parlous, Bignor, and a house at York. Where she was used on mosaics, Medusa was not part of the narrative arc but a separate symbol, centralised to provide her with the best view of the room and the space above it. The gorgoneion in the mosaic at York is surrounded by the four seasons and the one at Brading by religious/ritual scenes; these are best described as transitionary or seasonal images rather than mythological ones.

So, Medusa ties together the symbolism of temporal change with her representation of continuity. Floors were designed to be walked over, and the gorgoneia in these mosaics could have been stepped on or over; their central position in the mosaics might have made this more likely.

Concluding thoughts

Medusa was an ancient symbol of the continuity after death. She was defeated by the Classical hero Perseus but her continued existence, and elevation to become associated with Athena’s shield, afforded her a special place in ancient art.

That the myth was still understood and represented in Romano-British art at the far edge of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD highlights its continued allure. Archaeologically, she was contextually associated with the supernatural protection of personal spaces and architectural places. After all, her decapitated head was used to protect the goddess and so it follows that it was appropriate to use to protect mortal humans.