Libris Monstrum #31: Gorgons Revisited
Hello everyone! Here we are at the start of the second revisit series! We begin to take a look back at the last 10 entries for the Libris Monstrum and some of the things I was unable to fit into our original outings. First up is the gorgon or, as we discovered is the more common name at table, the medusa. If you missed out on that entry go back and take a look. We talk about what gorgons are in games like D&D. We start with the strange iron bull of dungeons and move into the true gorgons of mythology, looking at Medusa and her sisters from Ancient Greece. We also delve a little bit into the sources of inspiration of that bull creature and where it might have come from. Today, though, we are going back to the medusae and looking at different renditions of these serpentine ladies.
The Gorgeous Gorgon
As much as I wanted to go through a large variety of gorgons or medusae, it is actually pretty difficult to do. TV Tropes can give you plenty of examples, but the fact of the matter is that the medusa is very much a trope creature. There is the heavy serpentine influence beyond even the hair, the common occurrence of either a singular entity or a race of all females, and the ability to turn those who look at her/them to stone. So, instead, we’ll focus on some of the RPG versions and one major offshoot of the trope. A bit of a sub-trope if you will. The “gorgeous gorgon” is a trope that I didn’t even realize was a thing until it was pointed out to me. In retrospect it is pretty obvious. In the cases where the trope is played we are sharing the experience and view of a certain hero or group of heroes who find that there is a particular monster of female persuasion haunting the area. Rumor is that the creature is so ugly that her looks will turn you to stone and the worst part is that she is so ugly that you cannot look away. Surprise, surprise when we finally meet this monster, a medusa that is mystically beautiful. Despite snake-like features and things like fangs or glowing eyes, the “monster” fits some unrealistic beauty standards.
If that doesn’t approach the ideas I touched on in the first entry, you can head over to TV Tropes for a bit of a deeper look. Suffice it to say, the dichotomy and reasons for being a beautiful monster are numerous and all point towards a lot of other tropes. Like with most tropes the social commentary is immediately applicable if not intentioned at outset. We can look at the medusae as being creatures who were cursed by the jealous, those who hide their true forms beneath the beauty, or even those whose truly good and whose beauty reveals that hidden fact. Honestly, I would love to read someone more in touch with and studied on social commentary to dive into the way medusae and other ugly-but-pretty monsters are portrayed. Even without that, take a look at the trope page and get some ideas for yourself to use the medusa or a similar creature as a way to explore some of these subjects.
Okay there is one non-tabletop version of the gorgons I want to talk about briefly and they come from the world of Doctor Who. In that universe the gorgons are approached in a very interesting way. These aliens are strange ethereal parasites of beings like humans. They take up in hosts, controlling their minds and allowing them to live for much longer than normal. The gorgon’s lifespan is even longer, though, so there is a need not just to find food but new hosts. That is the weird thing about these alien parasites, they don’t seem to get sustenance from the host. Instead they achieve it by slowly (over the course of hours) turning their prey to stone. This is, pretty much, the only allusion to gorgons we get aside from the female influence of the story in which a group of nuns plays host to the serpents. I bring this up only because it is just an awesome example of taking the image of a medusa and interpreting it in a unique but recognizable way. An ugly woman with snake hair or a 200 year old nun with ghost-alien-snakes coming from her head?
Dungeons & Dragons
Now we can get into what happens at the table. Medusa, as I mentioned, take on a host of common themes and styles. There are plenty of differences in how those manifest including snake-like skin, snake eyes and fangs, or the lower body of a serpent instead of legs. This is true of RPGs and other media, but the important thing to look at is the evolution of the medusa over the editions. To start, the 2nd Edition of AD&D had medusae similar to what you would expect to find in a medusa, but with almost no serpentine qualities. They have the hair and glowing eyes, but otherwise look like a human or elf. Interestingly, the combat section suggests two things. First that they are murderous, sneaking up and attacking victims, and second that those victims are exclusively male. Honestly, given any one of the many interpretations who can blame them. Beyond that and their shadowy, poorly lit homes full of petrified victims, there are other types of medusa that are a bit lost in future products. The first is the greater medusa which makes up 10% of all medusa and not only has a serpentine lower half but blood so poisonous that the toxicity remains well after death and may be used on things like daggers and arrows. The other neat thing done here is that, as a species, the Monster Manual includes a male counterpart of sorts. The maedar, as they are known, are hairless and unable to petrify with a gaze. These creatures can pass through stone and are granted a odd description of rarity and how medusae propagate. As can be found in so many of the entries of this era it describes the likelihood of the medusa finding a maedar mate and what percentage of babies born to any combo of coupling is human instead of medusae. To get even wilder, powerful maedar can, apparently, move their spirit into stone when they know they are going to die and create a glyptar. The moral of this story is mine old D&D manuals for some weird ideas.
From here we move into 3rd Edition which has an even smaller entry than you would expect. We have a creature referred to as “it” in the descriptions, though clearly female in the image. Despite the weird focus on coupling percentages of AD&D, 3rd Edition is a bit disappointing and does a disservice to the medusae. They are moved from strange, vicious beings with an even stranger extended family to a monstrous humanoid who is hateful and repulsive and mostly concerned with hoarding art and wealth like some dragon knock-off with snake hair. I think 4th Edition does a better job at handling medusae, but they are still treated as vicious and inherently terrible people. This however is linked to the god Zehir and, at the very least, their penchant is expanded beyond hoarding. They desire power over people and societies. In addition, males are brought back to the game and used as a fairly terrifying monster which paints its lair with the blood of victims.
Finally we get to the medusa of 5th Edition. Here, I think, medusae are finally given a robust discourse. Granted, the specific take is one of a mortal cursed for the sin of vanity, but that take is one they stick with and execute the rest of the lore around. It is also one which is easily molded, changed in whatever ways we need to tell an even more robust story and tackle some of the assumptions we see in other works with gorgons. Without such a mythological framework it becomes harder to do such things. In the previous three editions there was no reasoning, medusae were simply monsters born that way and inherently. In 5th Edition we see that the medusa may be male or female and we make no distinguishing about the snake hair between the two. All mortals might fall prey to the obsessive vanity and take actions that lead them to the dark curse of the medusae. For a while they get what they want, but in the end they are forced to deal with a curse that leaves them unable to appreciate their new form, which is quite beautiful though changed. Here we can explore medusae who are not necessarily evil, though the tendency is likely, and those who might regret what they did or how they got there. We have a clear take easily used in the classic sense but presented in a way that not only allows but suggests deviations from our assumptions.
Where would I be without at least attempting to add in information about the Pathfinder version of things. Pathfinder always has some fantastic lore and I figure the medusae will be no different. In Pathfinder their is a similar take to that of 5th Edition, though predating it by a few years, with a strong hint of the medusa of the 3rd Edition that the game stems from. These medusae are beautiful beings with snakes for hair, the classic gorgeous gorgon. The trope is taken fully since these are not mortals cursed through their own selfish desires and actions. Instead the medusae have a hereditary curse within their blood. This curse constantly petrifies and wears away at the heart of the creature, making it beat like a normal heart but hard as stone. It also grants the medusa her cliche ability to turn things to stone and a natural ability to manipulate people. Because of this, such an individual is shunned from a normal populace, feared for her powers. In Pathfinder it is not the actions and habits of the person that curses them. Instead it is the curse they are born with that forces them towards such a life to survive. A distinctly different approach than that of 5th Edition but one that is equally malleable for story telling purposes.
The gorgon, or medusa, is one of the more interesting examples of monster taken from mythology that you can find in fantasy RPGs. There is not even clear takes on the mythological story the creature is pulled from and tropes built from it. At the table the medusa presents an easily used monsters but, thanks to modern approaches, has a backbone that should cause you to challenge the assumptions given. If you ask me the medusa of Pathfinder can even be used as a decedent from a medusa from 5th Edition. I think it would make an awesome player character if you can balance the power to petrify. Ideas on medusae to share? Good tales that tackle some of the topics around medusae?? Let me know below!