Topsell on the Gorgon
A note to Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Book III, chapter 7

From Edward Topsell (1607) The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes,pp. 262-263. The illustration is from the title page of the book.

or strange Lybian Beast.

Among the manifold and divers sorts of Beasts which are bred in Affricke, it is thought that the Gorgon is brought foorth in that countrey. It is a feareful and terrible beast to beholdd, it hath high and thicke eie lids, eies not very great, but much like an Oxe or Bugils, but all fiery-bloudy, which neyther looke directly forwarde, nor yet upwards, but continuallye downe to the earth, and therefore are called in Greeke Catobleponta. From the crowne of their head downe to their nose they have a long hanging mane, which maketh them to looke fearefully. It eateth deadly and poysonfull hearbs, and if at any time he see a Bull or other creature whereof he is afraid, he presently causeth his mane to stand upright, and being so lifted up, opening his lips, and gaping wide, sendeth forth of his throat a certaine sharpe and horrible breath, which infecteth and poysoneth the air above his head, so that all living creatures which draw in the breath of that aire are greevously afflicted thereby, loosing both voyce and sight, they fall into leathall and deadly convulsions. It is bred in Hesperia and Lybia.

The Poets have a fiction that the Gorgones were the Daughters of Medusa and Phocynis, and are called Steingo, and by Hesiodus Stheno, and Euryale inhabiting the Gorgonic Ilands in the Aethiopick Ocean, over against the gardens of Hesperia. Medusa is said to have the haires of his heid to be living Serpents, against whom Perseus fought and cut off his head, for which cause he was placed in heaven on the North side of the Zodiacke above the Waggon, and on the left hand holding the Gorgons head.1 The truth is that there were certaine Amazonian women in Affricke divers from the Scithians, against whom Perseus made Warre, and the captaine of those women was called Medusa, whom Perseus overthrew and cut off her head, and from thence came the Poets fiction discribing it with Snakes growing out of it as is aforesaid. These Gorgons are bred in that countrey, and have such haire about their heads as not onely exceedeth all other beastes, but also poysoneth when he standeth upright. Pliny called this beast Catablepon, because it continually looketh downeward, and saith that all the parts of it are but smal excepting the head which is very heavy, and exceedeth the proportion of his body which is never lifted up, but all living creatures die that see hie eies.

By which there ariseth a question whether the poison which he sendeth foorth, proceede from his breath or from his eyes. Whereupon it is more probable, that like the Cockatrice he killeth by seeing, then by the breath of his mouth which is not competible to any other beasts in the world. Besides when the Souldiors of Marius followed Iugurtha, they sawe one of these Gorgons, and supposing it was some sheepe, bending the head continually to the earth, and moving slowly, they set upon him with their swordes, whereat the Beast disdaining suddenly discovered his eies, setting his haire upright at the sight whereof the Souldiors fel downe dead.

Marius hearing thereof sent other souldiers to kill the beaste, but they likewise died as the former. At last the inhabitants of the countrey, tolde the Captaine the poyson of this beasts nature, and that if he were not killed upon a sodaine with the onely sight of his eies, he sent death into his hunters: then did the Captaine lay an ambush of souldiers for him, who slew him sodainely with their speares and brought him to the Emperour; whereupon Marius sent his skinne to Rome, which was hung up in the Temple of Hercules, wherein the people were feasted after the triumphes; by which it is apparent that they kill with their eies and not with the breath.

So that the fable of Servius which reporteth that in the furthest place of Atlas these Gorgons are bredde, and that they have but one eie a peece,2 is not to be believed, excepte he meane, as elsewhere he confesseth, that there were certaine maides which were sisters called Gorgones, and were so beautyfull that all young men were amazed to beholde them. Whereupon it was saide, that they were turned into stones: meaning that their love bereft them of their witte and sence. They were called the daughters of Cetus, and three of them were made Nimphes, which were called Pephredo, Enyo, and the third Dinon, so called as Geraldus saith: because they were olde women so soone as they were borne, whereunto was assigned one eie and one tooth.3 But to omit these fables, it is certaine that sharpe poisoned sights are called Gorgon Blepen, and therefore we will follow the authority of Pliny and Atheneus. It is a beast all set over with scales like a Dragon, having no haire except on his head, great teeth like Swine, having wings to flie, and hands to handle, in stature betwixt and Bull and a Calfe.

There by Ilandes called Gorgonies, wherein these monster-Gorgons were bredde, and unto the daies of Pliny, the people of that countrey retained some part of their prodigious nature, it is reported by Xenophon, that Hanno King of Carthage ranged with his armie in that region, and founde there certaine women of incredible swiftnesse and perniscitie4 of foote. Whereof he tooke two onely of all that appeared in sight, which had such roughe and sharp bodies, as never before were seene. Wherefore when they were dead, he hung up their skinnes in the Temple of Iuno, for a monument of their straunge natures, which remained there untill the destruction of Carthage. 5 By the consideration of this beast there appeareth one manifest argument of the creators devine wisdome and providence, who hath turned the eies of this beast downeward to the earth, as it were thereby burying his poison from the hurt of man: and shaddowing them with rough, long, and strong haire, that their poysoned beames should not reflect upwards, untill the beast were provoked by feare or danger, the heaviness of his head being like a clogge to restraine the liberty of his poysonfull nature, but what other partes, vertues, or vices, are contained in the compasse of this monster, God onely knoweth, who peradventure hath permitted it to live uppon the face of the earth, for no other cause but to be a punnishment and scourge unto mankind:6 and an evident example of his own wrathfull power to everlasting destruction. And thus much may serve for a discription of this beast, untill by gods providence, more can be knowne thereof.


1. Something here is seriously amiss, as Topsell seems to be making Medusa her own mother. The Gorgons — Medusa, Sthenno, and Euryale — are usually said to be the daughters of Phorcus and Ceto. Indeed, Topsell's mythology is unusually convoluted and departs from the normal stories throughout this account; for instance, he seems to have taken Hyginus's conflation of the Phorcides and the Gorgons (in his Astronomia) and re-expanded the story to make the two sets of sisters the same.

2. Servius Comment. on Virgil's Aeneid, VI.289. Cf. the commentary on II.616 (Topsell's "elsewhere").

3. Pephredo, Enyo and Dino, the Phorcides, are the sisters of the Gorgons; they shared one eye and one tooth. The "nymphs" are other creatures altogether, who owned winged sandals and something called kibisis, items stolen from them by Perseus. See Apollodorus and cf. Hesiod.

4. I.e., pernicity: swiftness (Latin pernix).

5. On Hanno and the "Gorgons", probably gorillas, see The Voyage of Hanno.

6. If this is the reason, it seems not to have worked very well.