She is one of the most memorable figures from ancient mythology: A snake-haired monster so hideous that anyone who beholds her is turned to stone. According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.-17 A.D.), Medusa was once a maiden renowned for her beautiful hair. She was deflowered by the sea-god Poseidon in a temple dedicated to the goddess Athene. Outraged, Athene exacted her revenge, changing Medusa’s flowing locks into a mass of hissing serpents.

Little else is recorded about Medusa, but her violent death at the hands of the hero Perseus is recounted in the Library, a mythological compendium once wrongly attributed to Apollodorus of Athens (its real author is unknown). Equipped with winged sandals, a sickle and a cap that rendered him invisible, Perseus flew to the distant home of Medusa and her two sisters (the three were known as the Gorgons) and found them asleep. Averting his gaze from the monsters, Perseus looked into his shield, saw Medusa’s reflection, and swiftly beheaded her. From her headless body sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus, the winged horse, both fathered by Poseidon.

Perseus, still invisible, was chased by the remaining two Gorgons, but he escaped with Medusa’s head and presented it to Athene. Athene then placed the head at the center of her breastplate for protection.

Mary Beard, who teaches classics at Cambridge University in England, told BAR: “Medusa is a marginal figure; we know about her because she’s decapitated by Perseus. She comes into mythology only to be destroyed.” And yet, Beard notes, “Medusa’s head ends up at the center of Athene’s breastplate. In a funny way, then, anyone who looks at Athene stands the risk of being turned to stone. Medusa makes us think about what [the act of] looking is, and how we should look at divine beings.”

Ancient writers give physical descriptions of Medusa: the Library says she had dragon-scales, boar’s tusks, hands of bronze and golden wings. The Roman poet Lucan (39–65 A.D.) describes her ghoulish coiffure in detail:

Clustered around her head the poisonous brood
Like to a woman’s hair, wreathed on her neck
Which gloried in their touch; their glittering heads
Advanced towards her; and her tresses kempt
Dripped down with viper’s venom.

Representations of Medusa were common in the ancient world. One early example is a relief from the sixth-century B.C. temple at Selinunte in Sicily (top). Perseus, wearing winged shoes and flanked by his protectress Athene, gazes straight ahead as he decapitates Medusa with a short sword. This Medusa resembles the Gorgon’s head found by Ephraim Stern at Dor: She has a gaping grin and large teeth, and appears to be sticking out her tongue. In her lap she holds the newborn Pegasus.

Over the centuries, Medusa began looking less grotesque and more attractive, at times even beautiful. “You can see a clear linear development between a monster and, as early as the fifth century [B.C.], what’s starting to look like a gorgeous creature,” says Beard. In a late second-century A.D. Roman mosaic from Hadrumetum in modern-day Tunisia, Medusa is pictured as an attractive young woman, with large clear eyes and a placid expression. The few snakes on her head are stylized, almost delicate.

Does this lovely Medusa seduce us only to teach us the dangers of falling for a pretty face? Sexuality is an important factor in Medusa imagery, Beard says: “Looking at Medusa is never far away from the erotic gaze.”