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Medusa is known for being so ugly that if men even look at her face, they would immediately be turned into stone statues. Perseus was somehow able to overcome this challenge of killing her by looking at her reflection in a mirror. Even though he was technically looking at her, just with a mirror, he did not turn into stone.

So how does looking at Medusa's reflection in a mirror prevent men from turning into stone? Technically he should have turned into stone as he looked at her, but this time indirectly.

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It was looking directly into Medusa's eyes that would turn a mortal to stone, not the whole of her face. Using the shield as a mirror meant that even if Medusa's gaze fell upon Perseus, it would be at an angle. Not that it mattered in the end, as Perseus was lucky enough to catch Medusa and her sisters sleeping:

But the Gorgons had heads twined about with the scales of dragons, and great tusks like swine's, and brazen hands, and golden wings, by which they flew; and they turned to stone such as beheld them. So Perseus stood over them as they slept, and while Athena guided his hand and he looked with averted gaze on a brazen shield, in which he beheld the image of the Gorgon,5 he beheaded her. When her head was cut off, there sprang from the Gorgon the winged horse Pegasus and Chrysaor, the father of Geryon; these she had by Poseidon.

Source: Apollod. 2.4.2

It should be noted, however, that Hesiod doesn't mention the shield at all:

And again, Ceto bore to Phorcys the fair-cheeked Graiae, sisters grey from their birth: and both deathless gods and men who walk on earth call them Graiae, Pemphredo well-clad, and saffron-robed Enyo, and the Gorgons who dwell beyond glorious Ocean in the frontier land towards Night where are the clear-voiced Hesperides, Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old. With her lay the Dark-haired One in a soft meadow amid spring flowers. And when Perseus cut off her head, there sprang forth great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus who is so called because he was born near the springs of Ocean; and that other, because he held a golden blade in his hands. Now Pegasus flew away and left the earth, the mother of flocks, and came to the deathless gods: and he dwells in the house of Zeus and brings to wise Zeus the thunder and lightning

Source: Hes. Th. 280

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The myths themselves are not going to give a technical explanation of this, so we are setting off on the wrong foot if we are seeking an answer at such a level, which is that of our modern technological mind.

An initial observation to make is that the myth does not always include a shield, as Yannis notes in the case of Hesiod's account. We can also turn to the iconography, which likewise also does not necessarily portray a shield. See, e.g., the metope from Salinas ca. 540 B.C. (at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Palermo, Italy; in Morford & Lenardon's Classical Mythology 8th ed., p. 552) and the black-figure jug by Amasis, Attic, 6th cen. BCE (in Neumann, Consciousness (below), illustration 25) both showing Perseus killing her while simply averting his gaze. For the Greeks, averting the gaze and looking at her reflection in the shield/mirror were obviously equivalent. Her power was either nullified or greatly diminished when looked at in reflection.

I also don't think the eyes were crucial. I'm not aware of any source that stresses her eyes. Rather, they focus on her whole face (Ovid, Metamorphosis 4:783) or overall appearance, as in the passage from Apollodoris in the answer above. We can't ignore her protruding tongue, tusks, or snakes for hair, since they are all essential to her character and mythological meaning. That's why they are there. And that's why Perseus had to look at the shield even though she was sleeping (presumably her eyes were closed).

If we go into the underlying psychological aspects of the myth (as we should with most myths), Perseus, like the typical hero, is in the process of fully realizing his ego consciousness, while this monster represents the all-consuming Terrible Mother of the unconscious seeking to suck him back into there and destroy his nascent ego consciousness. To confront her directly is too dangerous, so only averting the gaze or looking at her indirectly through the reflection will enable him to succeed. In the versions where the "bronze" shield/mirror appears, that is a solar/light symbol of the ego that not only enables him to see a diminished Medusa, but which as such also serves as a guide and beacon to him to keep him on course. Here it is also relevant that the Greeks also stressed the details of his escape. When Perseus kills the Medusa, the winged horse Perseus appears out of her (representing the ego that has escaped her, a parallel with Perseus himself), which Perseus rides while being pursued by Medusa's sisters. His winged sandals, invisibility helmet, and hiding-wallet also play a figurative role, for which he has to thank Athena, goddess of wisdom (and so of consciousness). See Edward Edinger, The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology, pp. 4, 83; Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, p. 166; Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, pp. 87, 178, 214-16.

I hope this helps.

  • Excellent answer! The psychological analysis is quite valuable. From the perspective of an artist, I have to wonder if the introduction of the shield, which seems to come later, was initially simply an interpolation by some storyteller to "punch up" the narrative. – DukeZhou Dec 3 '16 at 21:22
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This is a physicist's answer , commenting on the quotes in the checked answer:

"by which they flew; and they turned to stone such as beheld them." There is no indication of direct gaze in the eyes in this passage. It seems a passive evil.

My impression is that the use of the shield is based on the analogy with seeing the image of the sun in water or the shield: heat/power of the sun is drastically diminished. I.e. reflections are much less powerful than the original source , a simple conclusion to draw from everyday observations.

The power of the image of Medusa would be expected to equally diminish, and could be survived.

  • Or maybe the ugliness is chiral. – Anton Sherwood Oct 28 '16 at 17:55
  • @AntonSherwood possibly :) – anna v Oct 28 '16 at 19:25
  • Also, the image in that mirror is so blurry it may not even carry the sense of ugliness. Even the best "mirrors" of that time were barely similar to what we call a mirror. And a bronze shield? With forge marks and hammer dents and stains and rivets? And probably not even polished all that well? – Chuck Kollars Mar 1 '17 at 2:15
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I think the "in-world" world answer would definitely be based on physics, specifically optics and reflectivity.

Our modern conception is quite different than of the ancient. The modern silvered-glass mirror dates only to about the mid 19th century CE.

This modern conception in regard to Perseus is almost certainly influenced by the effects master Ray Harryhausen's famous depiction in the 1981 Clash of the Titans. In the film, the make the mirror look like polished metal, but the degree of reflectivity and detail would only be possible with industrial era techniques.

Mirrors of speculum metal or any precious metal were hard to produce and were only owned by the wealthy.[5] These stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.

History of the Mirror

  • Note than a mirror on either the inside or outside of a shield would not be flat, so the warping and distortion would be pronounced.

  • If Perseus propped the shield against a wall to use the reflection, increased distance between himself and Medusa would profoundly degrade the image.

  • If he was holding the shield in his off-hand as he approached to make a back-handed coup-de-gras, unsteadiness of the mirror would further blur the image.

  • If the shield had seen previous action, it would be dented and scratched, which would further degrade the image.

  • If the event took place at night, which, in the Pseudo-Appolodorus is implied by the slumbering state of Gorgones, fine details would have extremely difficult to make out.

  • If the location was a cave or temple, the setting would have been dim, even in broad daylight, further degrading the image.

From a technical perspective, in terms of the mechanics of making such a cut, the only detail Perseus would need to be able to make out in the mirror would be the proportional difference between her head and torso, in order to gauge the position of the neck. If Medusa's hair was writhing serpents, her head would have been that much more easily distinguishable.

Note that in the Harryhausen, Perseus played by Harry Hamlin needs only to use the shield to gauge the height of her neck—peerless warrior that he is, he is able to hide behind a pillar and deliver the coup de grâce as she passes without looking.

The use of the polished shield is almost certainly an interpolation. Maybe it took a millenium for someone to think to ask "if looking at her turned you to stone, how did he cut off her head?" lol, and the bard, taking a draught from his bowl his winebowl as he considered his answer,spying a bright bronze shield answered...

The psychological elements noted by Arthur George in his answer might make the idea feel right to a listener.

  • To an ancient mind, the assumption would have been of a very blurry image with little detail, not nearly clear enough to petrify the brave witness with horror.

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