Libris Monstrum #21: Gorgons
Here we are, delving back into the Libris Monstrum! To start things of I wanted to tackle a monster from mythology that has a couple reactions. The gorgon is one that has always bothered me in the world of RPGs and I needed to finally delve into what on Earth is going on with them. In that regard you end up with a bit of a twofer! We also have a few other entries picked out by both myself and the Twitter universe at large. I personally am including genies, cyclopses, and kuo-toa. Voted on so far to be included are golems and oni! Be sure to follow us on Twitter and voting in the poll for another entry by heading here! Now, let us get back to the Libris Monstrum!
The “Gorgons” Of D&D
We need to start this conversation on a very specific point, the gorgon that you will find when looking in any of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manuals. For those who are unaware they are bull-like magical beasts that are made of metal. Or they have metal scales. It kind of depends on what art you are looking at and what edition it is. Another key feature is that they breath a noxious gas that will petrify enemies. The creatures are generally aggressive and unintelligent. Essentially they are strange, temperamental animals with natural armor and a horrible effect that will easily confuse your party as it runs them down or turns them to stone. When it comes down to it, while there are a few versions that have floated around over the years, that is all there is too them. So where in the Nine Hells did these gorgons come from?? We can start be assessing D&D’s version of the “true” gorgons: medusa.
So true gorgon might not be the best way to say it given that other petrifying-capable monsters have been called the gorgons of *insert region here*. Nevertheless, the name is originally given to creatures from Greek mythology, which we will get to, but one of those was Medusa. She is for whom the medusa race is named. Just like those of the myths, these are snake-like people who have snakes instead of hair and whose gaze will turn a person to stone. Throughout the editions the medusae or medusas (I have seen both plurals used), take on a variety of appearances. Some are more monstrous than others, with frightening snake-like visages. Others are quite beautiful and charming, strange only in that they have living snakes for hair.
One common theme is also the fact that medusa are female. This tracks with the Greek myths but isn’t a guarantee. There are tables and people who would grant the medusas males in order to procreate. This tends to be more of a concern when they are treated as a race rather than a rare set of monsterous people. Interestingly there are a couple way that this has been done. One is to simply handwave it and say that they exist, somewhere, to make more. Another is the 5th Edition method which both treats them as a monstrosity and also allows for the potential of male versions. In this edition these are individuals who were so vain in life that they sought eternal youth so desperately that, one way or another, were cursed with the immortal life of a medusa. Another method of including male medusae is the method by which 4th Edition did it. These scaled folk are a race of people known for their poisonous blood and dangerous gaze. The males lack the hair of snakes that females have and cannot petrify with a look. Instead they are much more poisonous, their gaze leaving one poisoned and psychically damaged. Personally this is where I lean towards and we’ll get to why in the next part.
The Gorgon Sisters
I do not wish to get into the different versions of the myths about the Gorgon or, as it would become, the three gorgon sisters. These would be Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. There is variety in the myths about how monstrous they were and how they came to be. Some stories claim that they all had snakes for hair, but more accurate accounts show that Medusa was the only one who did. The petrifying gaze is not an original aspect, but something added over time as well. In the end Medusa is used as a way to get a hero out of the way. Perseus is sent to destroy her in hopes of destroying him. Instead Medusa is beheaded and her life lost. This is where I want to take a more modern and interesting look at the myth.
You see according to some stories Medusa was part of Athena’s temple. In fact she didn’t even have snakes for hair. Once upon a time she had beautiful golden hair, but when Poseidon came to the temple he decided she was beautiful and they got together. In the end she was punished by being turned into a monstrosity. But see that is where things are a bit tricky, because the old Greek tales are a bit. Over-masculated. Is that a word? Needless to say we all know that the stories of Hercules and other entities from the myths are the result of Zeus being an ass who couldn’t be loyal or keep it in his pants. His brother Poseidon wasn’t much better as many of the “monsters” came from his interactions. So the question is: was that event at Athena’s temple mutual? Probably not. The next extrapolation is that poor Medusa as not cursed, but instead given the ability to ward off such horrible events. Who could take advantage of her if she could turn them to stone!? The Perseus thing? Getting back at Athena of course. My main sight of this theory is from the Tumblr post which can be found here. It is a good read and a very interesting and believable rethinking of the myth. To boot, this idea involves gorgon heads being placed over the doorways of places like women’s shelters and would be a symbol of empowerment for women.
Getting To The Gorgon Of D&D
Okay, so the gorgons of Greek mythology are the originals and the tales you have heard may be through biased ears of ancient storytellers. What about those bulls though? Traditional gorgons are called medusa in so many things. I have seen them called such in other games and various video games. This is likely because she is the most known, recognized, and storied of the Greek sisters. The fact that D&D called them that long ago may have been the catalyst for the trend as well. But what about the bulls? Okay D&D gorgons do actually have some basis for the name and the look. This is something I have only learned with entry into the Libris Monstrum. You see, the gorgon is more than just a creature that can also turn things to stone. It is something that has been shaped from other mythological beasts which link back to the original gorgons.
The first part of these is the backbone of the name and the abilities. It is the African gorgon: the catoblepas. These are creatures we might discuss in a future entry as they have developed their own game mythos, but for now we will stick to their beginning. These things are supposed to look like cape buffalo (almost a bull) whose heads abent downward due to the weight of its large head. It is said to have the gaze of a basalisk or, obviously, a gorgon and is able to turn people to stone. Those might be the lucky ones though as others may be killed by that same look. Of course that is considering a world where de-petrification is easier than resurrection. Other tales state that it was not the gaze but the breath that did it. Why? Because it only ate poisonous plants of course!
This still doesn’t give us the bull we have, but let’s be honest, a poison breathing wildebeest is not that dangerous or, at least, not as scary a creature we want in dungeons. That’s were other Greek myths come into play. Most importantly are the strange bulls of Greek myths, such as the Colchis bulls. These were incredibly dangerous creatures with hooves of bronze and capable of breathing fire. Depending on the telling, other parts of the bulls were also made of bronze. So why don’t we have those creatures running around dungeons instead? Well, we probably do. A lot of books have been released. More importantly, the combination of the two creates a tough scenario for adventurers. A charging bull with metal aspects of its body combined with the poisonous breath that can slow you and turn you to stone? That is synergy. It is also something that is familiar and different. It is a pretty good design. Bulls are familiar but are also good, useful creatures. Give them natural plate mail and a bad temper. Now add a breath weapon that makes you less likely to avoid them. Now we can see fear in the adventurer’s eyes.
This barely scratches the surface of gorgons. I don’t want to get into splitting hairs about the different myths and I certainly will leave catoblepas for another entry. Still, there is a lot more to consider. These ideas have been used, manipulated, and transformed over the years of gaming. In a few months when we come to our revisiting, I plan on going into some examples from various universes and different D&D editions. I also hope to talk about great ways to utilize them. In the mean time what are some of your stories or your examples of either gorgon?