Who doesn’t love puppets on strings? My kids, that’s who. Despite bribes, neither one would join me at a community theater marionette production of Perseus and Medusa. So, there I was, the only solo adult in the theater – don’t judge.
If they had joined me, my kids would have been captivated as our hero, a dashing toga-clad Perseus, learned that in order to save his mother from her evil suitor, he must slay the beast Medusa. Several scenes later, in a gloomy maze-like palace, the monster was revealed. A purple and green snaky creature, her voice growled, her eyes flashed, and wild serpents seethed around her head–which Perseus duly chopped off.
Poor Medusa. As the namesake of all swimming jellyfish, I’ve been reading up on her backstory. She started as a beautiful girl, the child of two ancient ocean deities. Athena asked the graceful Medusa to serve in her temple, where Medusa’s charms soon caught the attention of the sea-god Poseidon. Some say she lured him, others that he attacked her. Since I’m telling the story, I’ll go with the second option. For defiling her temple, Athena punished Medusa—but, let me point out, not Poseidon—turning her into a raging monster whose stare turned people to stone.
There’s more. When she became Perseus’ sacrificial beast, Medusa was pregnant with Poseidon’s spawn. (Evidence that even ancient Greeks knew more about the mechanics of rape than Missouri Representative Todd Aiken.) As her head separated from her neck, Poseidon’s offspring sprang forth.
Pegasus, the winged horse, was first to emerge, and some say Perseus rode the mighty steed away from the place of Medusa’s massacre. Not always mentioned is the emergence of a second creature, a giant who wielded a golden sword named Chrysaor. Today, the common sea nettle, a golden-brown jellyfish, which swims in most temperate seas, honors this child of Medusa. Its scientific genus is Chrysaora.
Besides being the scientific name for swimming jellies, countries that speak Latin-based languages like Spanish, Italian, and French commonly call jellyfish medusa. It’s easy to see why. A swimming jelly looks like a decapitated head, sometimes strikingly so. Its many stinging tentacles have the bite of a snake. The neurotoxins in the animal’s stinging cells paralyze fish, so the legend could have stretched that ability to petrifying people too.
Thinking about Medusa’s myth made me wonder, when exactly did we start connecting humble jellyfish to the monster medusa?
Aristotle was the first Westerner to write about jellyfish. And although he must have been versed in the story of Medusa, he didn’t connect her name to the animal. In Parts of Animals, Aristotle didn’t write of the monstrous attributes of jellies, instead he focused on their interesting hybrid animal and plant nature.
The acalephae, or sea-nettles…lie outside the recognized groups. Their constitution…approximates them on one side to plants, on the other to animals. Seeing as some of them can detach themselves and catch food, and that they sense objects that come in contact with them, they must be considered to have an animal nature. This conclusion also comes from the fact that they use the sting of their bodies as a protection against their enemies. But, on the other hand, they are closely allied to plants, first by the imperfection of their structure, second by their ability to attach themselves to the rocks, which they do with great rapidity, and last by their having no visible way to excrete, notwithstanding that they possess a mouth. (Book IV, Part V)
In another volume, The History of Animals, Aristotle discussed the culinary aspects of jellies, suggesting that while Mediterranean countries don’t generally eat jellies today, they once considered them delicious, or at least palatable.
Of sea-nettles there are two species, the lesser and more edible, and the large hard ones, such as are found in the neighborhood of Chalcis. In wintertime their flesh is firm, and accordingly they are sought after as articles of food, but in summer weather they are worthless, for they become thin and watery, and if you catch at them they break at once into bits… (Book IV, Part VI)
About four hundred years later, Roman writer Pliny the Elder, picked up the story of the animals of the sea. But Pliny didn’t connect jellyfish to the gorgon either. In his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia Pliny expounded on jellies’ healing capabiliies. Chillbains, an inflammatory condition like frostbite brought on by the cold can be cured by applying a jellyfish he called the sea lung (pulmo marinus), which is probably the barrel jellyfish, Rhizostomo pulmo. The same jellyfish would also cure kidney stones and bring on menstruation. This year oceans around the U.K. have been inundated with barrel jellyfish. Take note Britts; your seas are awash in balm.
And far from equating jellies with Medusa’s savage darkness, Pliny proclaimed their ability to literally bring the light. When you smear sea-nettle on a stick “adeo ut baculum ita præluceat,” he wrote; they light the way like a torch.
I’ve narrowed down the moment when jellyfish were connected with Medusa to roughly the millennium between Pliny and the Renaissance. In 1735, the natural world collided with the Container Store that was Carl Linnaeus’s mind. He published the first organized classification of animals, plants, and minerals called Systema Naturae. The slim 13-page volume categorized four different types of jellyfish in a under the heading Medusa in a larger group called Zoophyta, or animal-plants, along with squid, sea urchins, sea stars, octopuses, and microorganisms.
By the time he published his 10th revision of Systema Naturae, Carl had become Sir Charles and he’d identified 43 different types of Medusae. In this final volume of classification, he concluded his description of the genus Medusa with these poetic words: “…and most of them shine with splendor in the water.”
Even the guy who officially bestowed jellyfish with the name of the monster was mesmerized by their inherent beauty.