Very rarely, archaeology confirms a myth. The discovery, in Gorhams Cave, Gibraltar, of fragments of a Gorgoneion, a ceramic representation of the Gorgon Medusa, revealed at the Calpe Conference 2019, is one example.
The story starts with Perseus. In Greek mythology, Perseus is the founder of Mycenae and the Perseid dynasty. He was the son of Zeus and the half brother and great grandfather of Heracles - don't ask, an incestuous lot those Greek gods and demi gods.
His pursuit of the Gorgons, three sisters whose gaze could turn men to stone, and who, famously, had heads of writhing snakes, is as a result of a promise he made to another god, Polydectes, to provide him with any gift he desired. Polydectes elected to have the head of the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa. Perseus first set off to find the Hesperides, the ‘Nymphs of the West’, also called Atlantides, who possessed weapons needed to defeat the Gorgons. The Hesperides supplied him with a knapsack to safely carry the detached head, Zeus himself gave Perseus an adamantine sword and a ‘helmet of darkness’ to hide his gaze from the sight of the Gorgons. Hermes lent him winged sandals to allow him to fly and Athena gave him a polished shield.
When Perseus found the cave in which the Gorgons lived, he used his polished shield to view reflections of the Gorgons, cut of Medusa’s head and, wearing his ‘helmet of darkness, escaped.
Although a very edited account of the myth, all the ingredients are there that persuaded later western scholars to look towards the western Mediterranean for the mythical location of the Gorgon’s cave. First the mention of Heracles, who, in another myth is credited with creating the Gibraltar Strait, then the Hesperides, also known as Atlantides, an obvious reference to Atlantis, long thought to be located beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The Hesperides are also known as ‘Nymphs of the West’.
The only missing part of the puzzle is the cave itself.
Gorham’s Cave, near Europa Point on Gibraltar, the northern ‘Pillar of Hercules’, had been inhabited by Neanderthals and then by modern humans during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. It was later a shrine for Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman seafarers. With the discovery of the Gorgoneion in the deepest recesses of the cave it seems likely that those ancient mariners believed the cave was formerly the home of the Gorgons.
Gorgoneions are protective amulets that typically depicted only the head of the Gorgon, complete with snakes. Legend has it that they were worn by Zeus and Athena. The depiction of a Gorgon head started to appear in Greek art after the 8th century BC. Since then the depiction has appeared in churches, on doors (to protect the inhabitants), on weapons and fashion items.
Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.
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