By A. F. Spackman
Once upon a time, there lived a Gorgon, and she was the meanest, ugliest creature that ever lived, or so I am told, though I have never met her, so it might just be hearsay. The Gorgon lived all alone in a ruined temple by the sea. No one ever visited the Gorgon, for with but a glance, the Gorgon could turn any creature into stone. Her hair was a writhing mass of snakes, and her body that of a woman, but her torso ended in a serpantine coil of golden scales. Two great feathery wings protruded from her back, like a gryphon's, but these lovely appendages only rendered the rest of this monster more grotesque in appearance. Now, I can’t imagine who it was who brought back such a vivid account of this fell creature, for as far as I know for certain, none have ever returned from the Gorgon’s lair. But this is what I have heard of her.
One day, there was a youth named Darius, who, sailing to Carthage, was caught up in a terrible storm. Darius’ ship sank beneath the waves, and he awoke on the beach of a small island. Weary and hungry, Darius nonetheless out on foot for help to return to his native Greece. He knew he had to continue, and drew upon all his strength to aid him in his journey home. After some time traveling on foot, Darius came upon a ruined temple halfway up a rocky cliff. By now Darius was growing tired but even more hungry, so he decided to climb the cliff.
When he reached the top, Darius stopped a moment to look back down the height he had climbed, and he silently thanked the gods that he had reached the top alive. He took a moment to enjoy the refreshing wind cooling him. Then he sat down for a minute on the edge of the cliff to rest his aching joints. The sand on his legs was itchy and uncomfortable, but Darius was pleasantly occupied by the sight of the little glade of trees on the top of the cliff. Then, he noticed a marble statue in the sun, nestled among a grove of oak away on his right, and he got up to investigate it.
The statue was of a rough marble, and the figure rather gross. Who would go to such lengths to carve a disgusting figure? He wondered. And, just as he was wondering this, Darius spied another marble statue sitting in the open about ten paces away, only this statue was carved out of a nearly perfect block of marble. Darius headed towards it, and came upon the likeness of a handsome youth, almost an Adonis or Narcissus. Stangely, though, the marble of his eyes was black, and the expression on his handsome face, with the corners of his mouth turned down in disdain, rendered the handsome countenance hideous upon closer inspection.
Darius stepped away from the statue and headed into the ruined temple to look for someone to aid him on his journey home. He looked around in the dark chambers, but found only more marble statues, some short and squat figures, others tall and fair, others caught in the act of running. The expressions on the statues were invariably gruesome. Then, all at once, Darius spied a mural painted on a wall up ahead, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight that had penetrated the gloomy chamber through a crack in the ceiling above. Darius approached the painting, picking his way through several statues lying down just before it.
The painting showed a young Greek woman in white linen. Darius stopped to stare at her, for she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Her hair was a glossy back, her arms white and graceful like a swan’s. But her full ruby-red lips did not smile.
All at once there was a terrible hissing sound in the chamber, and Darius spun around to his right. There, standing not three paces from him, was the most hideous monster Darius had ever seen. The only monster Darius had ever seen, in fact, but you get the point. This was the Gorgon, and she was ug-ly.
Well, Darius was afraid, but he didn’t move or attempt to flee. The Gorgon’s mass of snake hair writhed ominously, and her unblinking peregrine eyes gleamed at him fiercely. At any moment, her stare threatened to petrify him.
“Ah, please excuse my intrusion,” Darius croaked, attempting to smile. “My name is Darius, and I have been stranded on your island. I seek food and shelter, and aid to return to my native land of Greece. Though I have nothing to give you in return, save only my friendship and gratitude.”
The Gorgon gave Darius a crushing stare, but not enough to turn him into stone. The snakes stopped writhing; Medusa was stupefied. No one had ever dared to speak to her in more than a hundred years.
“You know who I am?” The Gorgon hissed in fury; her voice was the voice of a shrill harpy, but Darius tried not to cringe, and nodded his head amiably.
“Are you Medusa, the Gorgon?”
The Gorgon did not reply. “If you have come for my golden scales, you will die, young Darius.” And with that, her snake coiffure began to writhe once more.
“I have no need of gold,” said Darius. “I have no ship to take it back with me.”
The Gorgon hesitated a moment, thinking this over.
“You did not come to hurt me, then?”
“I come unarmed.”
“You did not come to steal my painting?”
“No, though I will not forget it, so I do take the image away with me. Alas that a brief look is all I will ever have! Who is she?”
“She was lovely, was she not?” The Gorgon laughed darkly. “Her name was Melantha, daughter of Phorcys, son of the sea and the Earth. But her mother was the daughter of a Greek fisherman.”
“Melantha—like the dark violet lilies that grow along the shore?”
“Yes,” said the Gorgon, looking closely at Darius, who tried very hard not to flinch.
Darius looked back at the painting. “Yes, she is lovely.” He agreed, shaking his head.
“Ah-hah!” Exclaimed the Gorgon, preparing to turn him to stone. “You are like all the others. You do not see her ugliness!”
“She is lovely,” Darius said quickly, “but her eyes are sad. They would be beautiful if she saw beauty in the world again.”
The Gorgon stopped cold and suddenly began to weep. Darius felt his skin crawl, as the great hideous monster was reduced to tears. Giant green tears that oozed out of blackened eyes and dripped to the floor. Where they fell, the stone dissolved away, leaving small craters.
“Have I offended you, friend Medusa?” cried Darius, pitying the poor creature in spite of her ugliness.
“No,” replied the Gorgon, coming to herself.
“Might I ask what happened to her?” asked Darius.
The Gorgon laughed. “Because you are honest and bold, Darius, I will tell you. Or perhaps because I am bored and because I am weary, and have had no company in many long years. Melantha was admired by many young men, because she was beautiful. Princes and peasants alike sought her and desired her because she was good and kind, noble in spirit, sweeter than honey, and as tender-hearted as a flower. But, you see, she was also poor, and had no dowry.”
“Riches are valued over virtues far too often,” said Darius. “But surely one prince among men would have seen her worth?”
“Not enough to marry her.” Said the Gorgon. “Melantha journeyed to the city and made her living spinning and weaving tapestries, and her life was hard. Very hard, for although her tapestries were beautiful, well-crafted, and the patterns complex, very few people came to admire them, and soon she was forced to stop spinning. And this broke her heart, for spinning and weaving tapestries was the one thing that had given her joy since her childhood. She loved to create and to bring beauty into the world through honest toil. And she had once hoped her creations might stir beauty in the hearts of others. But in the end she was wasting her time.”
“Had she no friends to buy her tapestries?” Darius asked.
“Very few,” replied the Gorgon. “For women shunned her, condemning her as a temptress, and the men who came to her shop only came to steal a look at her. A few who had money offered to buy her shop and all of the tapestries in exchange for her love.”
“That is a sad thing. But perhaps she would have been wise to accept any offer rather than starve.”
“Perhaps, but you see Melantha had already given her heart away.”
“Where was her love, then?”
“She did not know. For the one she loved had left her to seek his fortune. Nevertheless, she had sworn to be true, and not to love again. So, she looked for work in town, and accepted any task that came along. And all the while, men came from far and wide to look at her, until one young man painted her likeness and gave it to her as a gift. Touched by his kindness, she gave him one of her most precious tapestries in return, but he kept it rolled up in the corner of his shop. Then, many terrible things happened to Melantha, until her heart became heavy with grief and bitterness, and she no longer saw much beauty in the world. She began to look upon her old, lovely tapestries, and to feel a deep anger and despair. Then one day her love returned.”
“So at last he returned to claim her?” asked Darius hopefully.
“No.” Replied the Gorgon. “He passed by her without saying a word. For he had heard by then that she was an evil creature, angry, twisted, ugly, and bitter. And because he believed she was a monster, he came to despise her. Nevertheless, Melantha did a foolish thing and ran after him.”
“And did she find him?”
“She did. But he denied ever knowing her. And from that moment on, Melantha gave up hope of ever finding beauty again in the world, for there was no longer any beauty left in her heart. She cried out for her immortal sisters, daughters of Phorcys, the Gorgons, to come to her aid. And she asked them, for they had the powers of the immortal gods, to strip away her humanity that had given her such grief. So they transformed her into a Gorgon, and her alluring hair became instead a mass of venomous snakes, and her eyes turned black.”
“And thereafter she was called Medusa,” said Darius.
“Yes,” admitted the Gorgon. “And none came after her again out of desire for her love, for her body had become a serpantine coil of gold. But all those who have come to steal the Medusa’s gold have paid a terrible price.”
“That is one of the saddest tales I have ever heard,” said Darius.
“Is it? Even so, I think it is not so unusual,” said the Gorgon. “Medusa is the ugliness Melantha bore inside all those years. Now, young Darius, if you wish to leave this place alive, I believe there is a ship on the southern end of the island.”
“I thank you, friend Medusa, but is there nothing I can do for you in return?” Darius asked, glancing back at the lovely image of Melantha. “Is there any hope of restoring you to your former self?”
“No, it is too late for me,” laughed the Gorgon. “Melantha cannot go with you. What once is done cannot be undone. Now go, and be thankful to leave this island with your life, friend Darius.”
So, Darius left the temple and found the boat on the southern end of the island. And, when he returned to Greece, he thanked the gods that he had been born a man.
I can only assume Darius told everyone about the three Gorgons the next time he drank too much wine at the local tavern. But as I said before, I don’t really know for certain.
© 1992. Revised 2002
Alternate ending (suggested by Harvey, who really hates to see such an end come to a lovely young lady...) Darius and his mates return to the isle to free the gorgon from an evil spell, armed with one of Paris' magic apples and a golden fleece... they cast the fleece over the gorgon and return her to human shape, but of course, they had to give her an apple of discord to reverse the discord back to accord--or a bright new outlook--she slept off the initial sleeping spell and woke up on an island in the Pelopponese with Darius and his friends just barely managing not to molest her--too much.
Melantha's sour disposition abated somewhat--she seemed really to like the guys--Darius and his friends continued to succor her spirits with sprits and plenty of red red wine. In a few days, after recovering from a nasty hangover, Melantha felt much better, and grew to like the island life and dancing on the sand, scantily clad--Darius' best friend Ataxercus was an accomplished bongo drum and flute player and kept them all decently entertained for a few weeks until the next boat came in. As it turned out, a change of attire did wonders for Melantha, who had a marvelous figure. And, once in a while, she could cast a really menacing glare at an old poop in a bad mood--and melt wax men into real life lechers. The captain of the boat took a shine to her, for instance, now isn't that nice?