|Whale or ship?|
In Greek mythology the gorgon Medusa had the power to turn anyone who looked into her eyes to stone, although her imperious gaze was also considered to ward off evil. Ancient Greek people, and later the Romans were very fond of Medusa charms, carving her image on to coins, bowls and door lintels. The custom persisted for a long time. I even saw a gorgon carved into a Victorian wardrobe at the Achilleon, the Corfiot palace which was home to the doomed Empress Elizabeth of Austria in the late 19th century.
The Medusa myth had such a strong hold on popular imagination that ideas and leimotifs of petrification survived the fall of the Greek gods to enter folklore all around the world. In Russian fairy tales, an evil magician called Kaschei The Deathless has the same powers as a gorgon, turning anyone who dared to trespass on his grounds to stone. He has been immortalised in Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. Kaschei’s Norwegian cousin, a giant, also petrifies anyone foolish or brave enough to venture too close to his castle to stone.
|Kaschei in the English National Ballet’s The Firebird|
In the popular story The Giant Who Had No Heart In His Body, he is defeated by a young prince and a princess he keeps captive in his castle. In both stories, the evil monsters are vanquished by people in love who, just before the battle, have shown kindness to others. The ideas play on the belief that love and kindness have the power to conquer the darkest of evils. Sometimes, a kind act saves the hero of a story from being turned to stone, as in the Indian tale, the Bel-Princess. Here a prince is in search of his lost bride who is being held captive by fairies. A holy man he’s been kind to, warns him not to look behind him as he escapes with the princess, or he’ll be turned instantly to stone.
Kindness, this time to animals, is also the subject of the Grimms’ The Queen Bee. Two reckless princes are turned to stone when they fail tasks set for them by a magician. They are rescued by their youngest, foolish, brother who is aided in his tasks by the ants, ducks and bees he has shown mercy. The magician’s abode is described as surrounded by horses and creatures turned to stone, surely an inspiration for Jadis’ palace in the Narnia stories.
We may not believe in the power of the gorgon anymore but the horror of being punished severely for our crimes survives!
|Illustration from The Queen Bee.|