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Medusa is a legendary myth about a woman with snakes for hair that turns anything she looks at into stone. How can I achieve both of those features in an animal realistically? And how would these features evolve?

A list of all of the Anatomically Correct questions can be found here

Anatomically Correct Series

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I don't think the "turn things into stone" would be possible except Magic, so I'd have to say ixnay on that. "Snakes" for "hair" maybe. – Draco18s Jan 25 at 20:56
    
@Draco18s maybe not stone, but a death could count; grey skin, lifeless. an afraid culture might count it as stone. – TrEs-2b Jan 25 at 20:59
    
@TrEs-2b perhaps you meant this question regarding turning things to stone? – Aify Jan 26 at 2:26
    
shouldn't this site have an anatomically-correct tab by now? – user17915 Jan 26 at 7:57
    
@Aify No, I have been looking for it but cannot find it! I guess we haven't asked it yet, which surprises me – TrEs-2b Jan 26 at 20:31
up vote 25 down vote accepted

Before you read on, I'd like to first apologize for the length and any glossing over of subjects in my answer. Not sleeping well will do that ... and I doubt I'll be sleeping after having written this. I will however, be using this as a template in my conworld.

First, a bit of an explanation.

Medusa is a member of the Gorgons. While depictions of Gorgons vary across Greek literature, the term commonly refers to any one of the three sisters, having hair made of living, venomous snakes and a visage that turned those that looked at them to stone. In her book, Language of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas argues that the “Gorgon extends back to at least 6000 BC, as a ceramic mask from the Sesklo culture…” In the same book, she also identifies the Promethean archetype of the Gorgon in Neolithic motifs, and especially so in anthropomorphic vases and terracotta masks.

Some of the reptilian attributes associated with the Gorgon are a belt made of snakes, and snakes either emanating from her head, or entangled in her hair. Some believe that these traits are derived from early Greek religious concepts, such as the dragon Delphyne, whose skin was believed to be made of impenetrable scales. There are also some similarities to Humbaba in the epic of Gilgamesh. Traditionally, Gorgons have been depicted as having wings, brazen claws, the tusks of boars and scaly skin. Lionesses or sphinxes are also frequently associated with Gorgons. The Gorgons were said to be the daughters of sea deities, Ceto and her brother-husband, Phorcys. For this, I’ll assume you are referring to the more general depiction of Medusa as most people recognize her: the lower body of a snake, the upper body of a woman and of course, snakes for hair.

Evolution and myth: What are we looking for?

  • Based on the traditional depictions of Gorgons, we first need to start looking at an animal that is comfortable with water.

  • Secondly, we’re looking for some explanation for the upper body resembling a woman.

  • Thirdly, we want some kind of trait that would explain the snakes in her hair.

  • Finally, we want to explain how this creature would turn a person into stone … or something like stone.

Building a Nightmare: Step One

Following the traditional depictions and the generally accepted “vision” of Medusa people tend to jump to, a snake is the obvious choice. In this case, a spitting cobra, but I’ll get into why a bit later.

A little bit about the spitting cobra.

All venomous snakes transmit their venom through tiny holes in their fangs. In spitting cobras, these holes are larger, allowing them to project their venom at a distance of 6 to 8 feet, and studies have shown that they hit their target at least 8 out of 10 times. They of course aim for the eyes. Once the venom is in your eyes, you will feel quite a bit of pain, and if left untreated, can cause blindness.

The venom of a spitting cobra commonly contains a combination of neurotoxins and cytotoxins, which can damage nerve tissue and shut down individual cells. It’s generally not harmful to human skin, but can cause serious damage if it gets into the eyes, inside your nostrils, or into an exposed wound.

Spitting however is only a defense mechanism. Spitting cobras will still hunt. Their diet is pretty much the same as any other snake – whatever it can kill and get its mouth around.

Spitting cobras tend to be found in southern Africa and Southeast Asia. In Asia, they are found in forests, fields, grasslands and sometimes near human settlements, while in Africa, they tend to be found in dry savanna and semi-desert areas.

Generally speaking, all snakes can swim.

The black-necked spitting cobra can be nocturnal or diurnal, depending on the time of year, geographic location, and average daytime temperature. Additionally, it is one of the most adaptable of the sub-Saharan spitting cobras, spanning across the center of Africa from coast to coast, and can be found at altitudes up to 1,800 meters. Moist savannas, cleared former forest regions, rivers and streams, coastal scrubs and dry grassland are all possible habitats. Tree trunks however, seem to be preferred. As with many snakes, they are excellent climbers and can be arboreal at times. Finally, the black-necked spitting cobra has been known to spit venom with only the slightest provocation, and is less prone to actually bite as other related species.

Building a Nightmare: Step Two

Having an upper body that resembles a human being is quite an evolutionary feat, but not one that can’t be explained. Many species have taken to mimicking their environment, their prey and even their predators, as can be seen with the orchid mantis, the zone-tailed hawk, the owl butterfly, the South American leaf fish and many, many more. Evolution and nature have provided us with a way. So, let us take a Darwinian approach to this. Our proto-gorgon has gone down an evolutionary path in which mimicking the appearance of humans has further assisted the survivability of an already very adaptable species. Like all snakes, our proto-gorgon is a carnivore, and will actively hunt. Through this, it’s generally accepted that intelligence develops, as a carnivore must be a step ahead of its prey in order to secure its next meal. Because it’s taken to mimicking the appearance of a human, we’re looking at a case of convergent evolution with homo sapiens, and divergent evolution with its parent species as it follows the movements of its new favored prey.

Ancillary appendages appearing as arms and hands could therefore develop, and whether their original purpose had been as a sensory organ of some sort, could potentially be applied to using tools, furthering the development of the brain, and very likely, a more refined appendage. They would retain their serpentine tails, as being arboreal has a distinct advantage in stalking its prey as humanity spreads into more pleasing territories. Simply stalking an individual and waiting until they were separated, would be followed by some noise to draw their attention, and then a blinding spray of venom to the eyes. Stunned, the proto-gorgon need only incapacitate its prey … but as intelligence develops, hunting a communal species solitarily, isn't always the most efficient tactic – especially one that has begun hunting as well. Both predator and prey, the two species form a cyclical relationship.

Early human become fearful, and hunt their new predator, as the proto-gorgon hunts them. The nature of their relationship, and the developing intelligence of a tool-wielding carnivore species, causes a shift in how the proto-gorgons interact with each other. Once converging only to mate, they now begin to develop small communities and hunt together … but that doesn't answer why these proto-gorgons would hunt humans.

Food is the answer to that question, and a lot of it. By successfully stalking a human hunting party, these proto-gorgons could benefit from not only the humans they stalk, but the fruits of their labor by feeding off their recent kill.

Creating a Nightmare: Part Three

What about the snake-hair? As a community develops among the proto-gorgon species, so to do customs and social norms ... and this really isn't all that abnormal. Some snakes, like garters are communal after all, and sharp-tailed snakes, as well as ring-neck snakes are known to utilize communal egg laying sites. Of course, community and snakes isn't always a perfect match, sometimes resulting in cannibalism … but more on that later. With customs and social norms, we can look to several varieties of snakes that defend their nests, as well as protect their young. In fact, the female African rock python has been known to defend their young for as long as four months. Perhaps, as a matter of some custom that has developed within their communities, it’s in the hair of our proto-gorgons that they carry their young … and this would in fact provide some small advantages, as hair would help insulate the young, and having descended from an aggressive breed of spitting cobra, they are likely to pelt any potential threat with their venom.

Creating a Monster: Part Four

Turning to stone? Not likely, but we can have some fun with the venom that may yield a satisfying result – calcification. Turning something into bone would be much easier than turning it into stone, and requires far less of a stretch of the imagination. Those rare few who survive an encounter, would see the affected portions of skin hardening over time … along with some other very nasty side effects. Corneal calcification causing blindness, after being sprayed in the eyes?

The venom, as mentioned earlier, is a mix of neurotoxins and cytotoxins. In cobras, Alpha-neurotoxins are common and ACh flow, causing the feeling of numbness and paralysis. So a bite, or getting sprayed in the eyes, can cause come serious problems … Now, what if the attached cytotoxin caused an immediate response in the body, promoting an elevated calcium level in the blood. This hypercalcaemia can be caused by excessive skeletal calcium release, increased calcium absorption, or decreased renal calcium excretion. Let’s say that once introduced into the bloodstream, the venom affects the renal gland, effectively shutting it down, and sets off skeletal calcium release. Along with paralysis, the victim would also experience bone pain, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. If they manage to survive the encounter, they would also experience depression, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction, insomnia and coma, with the possibility of also suffering from fatigue, anorexia and pancreatitis. Other negative symptoms for survivors would include peptic ulcers as a result of increased gastrin production, and the high levels of calcium ions would decrease the neuron membrane permeability to sodium ions, leading to hypotonicity of smooth and striated muscle, explaining the fatigue, muscle weakness, low tone, and sluggish reflexes in muscle groups while sluggish nerves would explain drowsiness, confusion, hallucinations, stupor and coma. When reaching the gut, it would also cause constipation.

This alone would not explain a rapid onset of generalized Dystrophic Calcinosis Cutis, which would result in multiple firm, whitish dermal papules, plaques, nodules or subcutaneous nodules forming. Occasionally, these lesions ulcerate, extruding a chalky, white material. When severe, vascular calcification can cause diminished pulse and cutaneous gangrene. A better (and more terrifying) option, would be for this to occur as a slow and drawn out process, and occur along with the formation of heterotopic bone in a process similar to fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive, in which the muscle, ligaments and other connective tissue are converted into bone.

This is why it’s terrifying. Because of the effect on survivors, it would then allow for a culture within the proto-gorgons to develop that involves hunting their prey long before there is need, holding them captive, and allowing nature to takes its course as they become hollow bone statues. Their flesh, or whatever was left of it, would rot away, and their internals would decay. Speed this process up by whatever mechanism you deem appropriate, and you would have a nutrient rich meal, naturally sealed away in a bone sculpture and ready to be cracked into when needed. Survivors who escape capture, would face the same fate, much to the horror of their friends and families. The remaining bone could then be repurposed as necessary.

A bit more on culture

This variation of the gorgon as a species has developed into quite a nightmare … but how much worse could it get? Two things immediately spring to mind. A culture revolving around hunting, and the potential of cannibalism … having developed a more communal nature as a matter of mutual necessity, we can’t ignore that snakes are by their very nature, carnivorous. Of the very few communal and semi-communal snake species, cannibalism does occur, and there is the potential for it to occur in our proto-gorgon species. With community comes responsibility and safety. While potentially destructive to a community, cannibalism doesn't have to have a negative social impact within the species itself. As a matter of fact, several human tribes have practised ritual cannibalism … and some would claim that there are isolated indigenous tribes that still do. As a community and intelligence develops, so to can spirituality as a means to rationalize the otherwise unexplainable. It would be conceivable then, that among our communal hunters, cannibalism takes on a spiritual note and becomes ritualized.

A race of gorgons, who have developed into a hunting community, have a cyclical hunter/prey relationship with anatomically modern humans, who can calcify their prey to preserve their fluids as a staple, and as such, harvest their prey like livestock. To make matters worse, inter-species warfare resulting from ritualized cannibalism adds to their terrifying image, while also helping to keep the population low. A glorification of hunting and hunters as the providers of the community, leads to sport … and what better creature to hunt, than one that can reason?

If anything, I hope this spurs on more ideas. There's a lot of potential in the subject, and can make for some terrifying legends.

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Don't apologize for the length, I love the longer answers, it implies the writer spent more time on it – TrEs-2b Jan 26 at 20:33
    
ChrisF, thank you for the edit. I missed a few things while checking it over. More than I want to admit. – platypus-rising Jan 27 at 0:05
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I certainly agree that the length is fine. Some of these were the general ideas I had, but fleshed out beautifully. (+1) One other thought is that if we started out as a hairless reptile, that would be something quite difficult to develop (more so than changes in bone structure or skin). Might fit with the theme. – Atl LED Jan 27 at 2:02
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Holy hannah... I love this. I would up-vote it more than once if I could. The part about carrying their young in their hair is brilliant. – T.J.L. Jan 27 at 14:32
    
T.J.L, glad you enjoyed it. psmears, thank you for the clean-up. I'd upvote your (and ChrisF's) edits if I could. Such things deserve recognition. – platypus-rising Jan 27 at 21:41

Snakes for Hair

This is pretty easy, actually. In fact, you could even have "realistic" hair-snakes, that move independently, without direct control of the medusa. Each "snake" is, in reality, a scaled tentacle, with some form of motion, heat, or light sensitivity. When something wanders too close, the "hair" will writhe towards the movement. Like the opening and closing of your eye's iris, the tentacles can't be directly controlled. Instead, they act as an early-warning system, allowing the medusa to sense those nearby. Many creatures have similar organs; as it turns out, there exists a snake with tentacles, though less impressive than medusa's. In this case, the impressive head-tentacles are deliberate, designed to attract attention and cause fear.

Speaking of...

Stone Sight

From legend, it is not medusa looking at you that turns you to stone, but you looking at her. Of course, legends are hard to believe; rather than a careful scientific documentation process, legends tend to be not only based on hearsay, but single events.

The way the medusa turns humans to stone is by saturating the air with a chemical mist. The mist covers and is breathed in by anyone entering a medusa lair, coating skin, mouth, and lungs, and from there entering the bloodstream. The chemical reacts quickly with one of the hormones released during fear-based stress. Probably not adrenaline, as when Perseus slayed her, he was surely pumped full of adrenaline; however, he did not fear the creature, so various other hormones were not released. Others without his confidence were overcome by fear upon seeing the creature, and so met their doom.

When the chemical mist comes in contact with enough of the fear-released hormone, it begins a chain reaction by bonding with carbon, turning flesh to a hard, grey, stone-like substance. It reacts quickly, turning flesh, arteries, and internal organs to stone within seconds; since the outer skin has been exposed to the most mist, it hardens faster and more fully than the internal organs. Once the process is complete, the victim has been petrified. The internal organs, over time, will liquefy, allowing the medusa to feed on the remains; the exterior chemical will remain hard, forming both a handy container and a gruesome statue.

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+1 for the statuary as food packaging concept. That's horrifying. – Joe Bloggs Jan 26 at 10:14
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+1 About a substance turning people to stone, looks like it really exists. There is a museum in Naples, Italy where you can see the full circulatory system of the human body. A scientist in 1800 allegedly invented a substance that turns blood vessels into stone. – algiogia Jan 26 at 11:27
    
I thought the petrefied people returned to flash after she died. Or am I wrong? – BЈовић Jan 26 at 16:12
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Only thing missing from this is how the turning-to-stone is related to sight - I don't think Perseus was not afraid. He just found a way to fight her without looking directly at her by using his shield as a mirror. How could a reflection of Medusa be less dangerous than seeing her directly? Also, he later uses her severed head to petrify the Kraken - so it has to somehow function even post-mortem - on a giant sea monster who has no cause whatsoever to fear her... – Darrel Hoffman Jan 26 at 17:18
    
I absolutely LOVE this explanation. – Taegost Jan 26 at 17:49

Snakes for hair. Well of course they wouldn't be real snakes, but dreadlocks can almost look snakelike at times. I would say tendrils/tentacles like octopus limbs might be possible. They could have a pattern on them making them look like snakes or at least have 'eyes' on them.

Turning to Stone. Now maybe this is more an adage than a true physical change. Like a deer in the headlights, when you see the Medusa, she petrifies you with fear, maybe pheromones, or just some other way of projecting her presence. Maybe by holding her gaze it draws her near where her tentacles touch you poisoning you. Could even cause some kind of rigidity. Maybe staring is a sort of challenge than must be met. By closing your eyes she ignores you and you are passed over, safe.

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I was thinking pheromones as well. – TrEs-2b Jan 25 at 21:50

Simply put, it's not at all possible.

We'll take it one at a time:

Snakes for Hair

Snakes are animals. They must be born, grow, feed, etc. I can't imagine anything other than a grotesque experiment in surgery which might result in them being attached to someone or something's head.

Having them "naturally" grow out of something's head is ridiculous. Keep in mind, we're not talking about a symbiotic relationship, although I supposed you could wave your wand and have it explained as such.

Those snakes which opt to meld with the Medusa would have to betray their very nature, however - hunting, reproducing, etc.

Turning Things to Stone

Hahahahahaha ... oh, wait. That was a serious question?

You can't do that. No one and nothing can do that.

If your requirement is "maybe not stone, but a death could count; grey skin, lifeless. an afraid culture might count it as stone" then maybe not the Medusa's sight, but venom could have that sort of effect.

A venom that she "spits" at her victim, perhaps? In their eyes or something? This is really stretching it at this point.


Evolution

I'm being a bit mean and short above, so allow me to explain myself.

You're asking for a creature to naturally evolve these features. Evolution is the non-chance retention of chance mutations.

What this means is that for a species, which, for example, is small, vulnerable, and easy to see by predators during the day, those individuals which have better night vision will have better survival chances (as they will forage for food at night). Eventually the species will either a) Evolve to be nocturnal, with excellent night vision or b) become extinct.

For Medusa to naturally "evolve", a survival imperative must arise to coax those traits into existence. And there is no conceivable circumstance under which a creature's survival would depend on growing another creature for hair.

The other thing to keep in mind is that nature, while wondrously complex, likes simple solutions. Having articulated creatures with eyes, fangs, operating tongues and jaws, etc. for hair, while frightening, is also frighteningly complex. The more complex a creature is, the less likely it is to survive, and thus get a chance at evolution.

From a purely "survival of the fittest" perspective, please envision how those snakes would help Medusa survive.

-They would add a high energy requirement to "her" daily caloric intake. -Any enemy would have to get very close to get in range of them -They would make noise, possibly even giving her away when she's trying to be stealthy, etc.

What single advantage would they offer, other than being scary? (Which Medusa already is)

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Not to mention the fact that turning your mate to stone isn't beneficial to your species' future. Hard to imagine a sighted species that could reproduce without ever looking at its mate. Though they could be immune.... – Frostfyre Jan 25 at 22:22
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Why are you assuming a symbiotic relationship with snake-like creatures is out of the question? All that's required (at least as I understand it) is a creature that is scientifically possible/plausible that's close enough to the Medusa legend to have inspired it (hence the "an afraid creature might count it as stone" comment). – Kyle Strand Jan 25 at 22:34
    
"Nature likes simple solutions"... Then what about this (and jellyfish in general, but also corals). Interestingly, "medusa" is the Italian for "jellyfish" :) – algiogia Jan 26 at 11:35

She's got snakes in her hair

Well, the snakes for hair one is easy, with proper genetic engineering, some thoughtful blood vessel design and immune response planning, and unethical use chimeric technology (just go to Transnistria). In other words, the being would be part-woman, part-snake, part-snake, part-snake, part... you get the gist. Massive blood vessels would feed the snakes, and neural connections from all the snake eyes to the big brain would pass relevant information even while her main head is turned some other direction. Unfortunately (for our Medusa), the creature is only producible in a lab, as natural reproduction would lose the snake chimerism but not the genetic adaptations for it and therefore probably result in some horribly non-viable specimen. On the upside, the promise of (future, always future!) offspring might serve as a great way to keep the creature working under design parameters.

And her looks can kill...

Now the stone-gaze would be tough, since we have no physical way of transmuting elements (outside of particle accelerators). However, it is much easier to interpret this a bit less literally, and simply have the folk get the deer-in-the-headlights effect, except perhaps for a longer (uh, even permanent) duration, while remaining noticeably flesh-based. Obviously this may or may not realistically work at arbitrary distances (should seeing her through binoculars from an airplane have this effect or no?) This means we have two paths to victory here:

1. Basilisk effect.

Something about her messes up human cortical signals and sends the brain into a long-term paralytic seizure. This could be optical or electromagnetic.

  • Optical/Visual assumes that there is a visual pattern that can hack the human brain into paralysis, just like seeing flashing lights can trigger an epileptic attack in some. This would work as described in the mythos (even, say a non-reversed image of her placed on a shield would work), but is difficult in effect - consider that people may not be perceiving the pattern in full, at the correct angle, or through sun-glasses or welding-type masks.
  • Electromagnetic direct-brain stimulation - Medusa generates a precisely tuned electro-magnetic field, using transcranial magnetic stimulation, much like the Induced Hemianopsia answer, except with paralyzing rather than non-discriminant effect. This would most likely only work at short range, given the precision of the desired effect.

2. Poison effect.

Medusa's tearducts are modified to spit a paralytic neurotoxin at short range, or perhaps she just exudes a trail of it wherever she goes, and it remains active in the air for several minutes to an hour. Anyone breathing it in, or even making skin contact with this neuro-active poison, loses all voluntary muscle control, perhaps including involuntary muscle control such as hear-beat. Her victims freeze into a death grimace. On the downside, a full hazmat suit would render one immune, as long as the hazmat suit stays intact.

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This just popped as a hot question on my feed, and I only gave this site's help page a quick run through, so I'm sorry if I'm missing a rule.

First, for anything in "nature" to evolve it has to make babies. Lots of them. Over many generations (not wanting to get into a discussion about bottle necks here). So this means we need our snake hair woman to not be one of a kind, but part of a snake hair people population. Though commonly displayed as a "woman" who's to say they don't reproduce asexually?

If they do have sex, that's another good indication that have some sort of social structure. Further assuming that they are at least in the ball park of intellectual capacity of mammals, social evolution is something that happens at a much faster time scale than biological evolution.

I like the idea of a symbiotic relationship, but more so in the less "natural" way and more in an agricultural sense. Perhaps the snake people have evolved with snakes in the same way humans have evolved with dogs (thousands of years of domestication changed us as well as them).

I further like the idea of teen snake person getting their first snakes to roost on their head. A certain amount of training, education, physical tolerance might go into this ("Sally did you swallow your daily viper venom?").

As for what the snakes get out of it, I would imagine the heat generated from a warm blooded mammal like animal, food, protection from predators, and access to mates. Pretty much the same thing most domesticated animals get.

For turning to stone, I recommend a toxin that induces calcification. Perhaps the snakes are trained to spit in the eyes of animals that face them (also not wanting to get into a debate over what constitutes spitting).

Further snakes could be trained to be close to silent (many snakes already are), and convey hunting information and predation warning to their handlers.

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Snakes for hair could be symbiotes. Being independent animals in development (even if no longer able to live separately) they would have mouthes, something that would be developmentally impossible in a veetibrate with tenticles, even if tenticles were possible.

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