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I was reading Ritchie's Fabulae Faciles, and it says of the Gorgon Medusa,

Manus etiam ex aere factae erant. ("Indeed, her hands were made out of bronze.")

What is the significance or symbolism of this?

Note that according to Apollodorus in the Bibliotheca all the Gorgons had bronze hands, but this is not explained. Robert Graves does offer some theories on the Gorgons, but I don't think he ever tried to explain why the Gorgons had bronze hands.

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Source of the material is: http://ritchieslatin.blogspot.com/2011_03_20_archive.html

  • Think "brazen", and the idea of Medusa's hands as deadly weapon.

This is a fairly common metaphor in heroic literature, and I've come across it in English language heroic literature and English translations of heroic literature, typically used for the double meaning. Brazen here is defined as "hardened effrontery", in the sense of transgression, thus something that can pierce or penetrate established boundaries, such as the skin of an adversary.
Weapons and armor were made of bronze, thus the "bronze age", such that it connotes something hard and potentially deadly.

Milton uses this in Paradise Lost: "The Serpent suttl'st Beast of all the field, / Of huge extent somtimes, with brazen Eyes / And hairie Main terrific." (7.495‐97)

Here it might be blazing (usage of words related to bronze in many languages meant to convey brightness.) The association of bronze with weapons draws a distinction with the other bright metals, gold and silver.

Another usage is Leviticus 26:19: "And I will break the pride of your power, and your heaven that is over your head shall be bronze, and the earth that is under you shall be iron."

Here the usage is clearly meant to convey unyielding. So too can Medusa's hands be assumed to be.

A direct reference to use of bronze in reference to body parts (here eyes) may be from Homer: οὐρανὸς χάλκεος, πολύχαλκος, ὄπα χάλκεον. [OED, unsourced]

Although the source material is unreferenced, Graves translates as "brazen claws" [The Greek Myths, 33.b], thus one may interpret that it is not the hands, specifically, but sharp fingernails or literal claws, per Medusa's metamorphosis.

A note on aes: It connotes any "base" mental (i.e. not silver or gold), and can mean iron. The Lewis lexical entry further elucidates: "ex aere statua — As symbol of indomitable courage."

Usage in literature supports the idea of "brazen" per bronze, and Apollodorus specifically uses the term χάλκεος.

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  • The word is aes, which means bronze (or copper). Aer is a different word. Ex aere means "out of bronze". Ex takes the ablative case. Aere is the ablative form of aes. – Tyler Durden Oct 10 '20 at 2:07
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    @TylerDurden Re-amended. More sourcing and added examples and analysis. (I will likely be back, as there is a definite association of brightness with fierceness in the Greek Myths (think Apollo's golden darts as the blinding fierceness of the sun, the golden broaches Oedipus stabbed his own eyes out with after Apollo's prophecy was revealed to be true, and so forth.) A non-pejorative English definition of brazen, in the sense of Spenser and others, would be "bright fierceness", because brazen means to do something out in the open. Also associated with horns (trumpets) which blare. – DukeZhou Oct 10 '20 at 5:19
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In addition to @DukeZhou 's excellent answer, this description is already found in the original Greek text of Hesiod's "Shield of Heracles" 223-4:

εἶχον δὲ αἱ Γοργόνες κεφαλὰς μὲν περιεσπειραμένας φολίσι δρακόντων, ὀδόντας δὲ μεγάλους ὡς συῶν, καὶ χεῖρας χαλκᾶς, καὶ πτέρυγας χρυσᾶς, δι’ ὧν ἐπέτοντο. τοὺς δὲ ἰδόντας λίθους ἐποίουν.

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.

χεῖρας is hands, χαλκᾶς is likely poetically derived from χᾰλκῖτῐς, "copper-ore".

At the time of writing, bronze was the toughest material that could be forged in the Greek world.

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  • Great note. Doubly relevant b/c bronze was presumably higher quality than iron at the time, per smelting temperatures, thus "the toughest material that could be forged in the Greek world." (I amended after your answer to add the Apollodorus passage—he uses the same word.) – DukeZhou Oct 14 '20 at 0:02
  • (Just that insight could easily render this the accepted answer:) – DukeZhou Oct 14 '20 at 0:28

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