I’m having Gorgons as a race in my story setting. They are not exclusively female, have the lower body of a serpent, and the classic snakes-for-hair element Gorgons had in Greek mythology. However, I’m not sure how the snakes that make up their hair would actually attach to their skulls. I know the snakes have their own hearts and lungs but no digestive organs, that they have their own brains which allow them to act autonomously to some extent, but that the Gorgons can also control them consciously when they want to, at least for the most part. But it’s the connection part that is giving me trouble. How does a snake spine attach to a humanoid skull?

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    $\begingroup$ Velco! Accept no substitute. $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    May 21 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @EDL: I think you mean "Velcro! Accept no substitute." $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Jun 6 at 1:42

Think of the tentacles of an octopus, and how they are connected to the head. No bones, yet they are mobile and rather autonomous.

As stated previously, the nervous system of an octopus can rival many vertebrates and unlike their molluscan relatives, octopuses' nervous systems are concentrated in their heads rather than being nerve knots or ganglia (Williams 2011). The nervous system is divided morphologically into three parts; the central brain, the optic lobe and the nervous system of the arms; the later two are located outside of the brain capsule and are fairly autonomous systems.

Same goes for the snake-hairs of your gorgon: the skull is covered with a mollusc-like tissue from which the tentacle/snakes/hair depart.

  • $\begingroup$ This might work. The only issue is such a setup would allow the snakes to have significant constricting power. My plan is for female Gorgons to have vipers (venomous snakes) for hair while male Gorgons have constrictors for hair. Thus, especially for the male Gorgons, the snakes need to be able to coil around and squeeze things with a significant amount of force. Is that possible without bones in the snakes? $\endgroup$
    – user53529
    May 21 at 22:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Patrick-Leigh that mean both that the snakes are fairly long and fairly strong. The arms of an octopus are in their absolute majority composed of several interconnected groups of muscles with zero space being occupied with "useless" bone. Make the tentacles thick enough (giving space for more muscle) and you'll have "snakes" composed primarily of muscle and extremely powerful, much like we see in the tentacles of an octopus (this can also be seen in the trunks of elephants, which can use said trunks to roll rhinos over with little effort). $\endgroup$ May 22 at 2:38
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    $\begingroup$ The scalp isn't very strong and is only weakly anchored to the skull (tug horizontally on your hair and you should be able to feel your scalp wiggling a bit). These snake-tentacles will need to be anchored strongly to the skull, which probably means the skull has a raised ring of bone at the base of each tentacle, with the microstructure of a tendon attachment site (an enthesis). Also, as pointed out in Trioxidane's answer, the nerves and blood supply for the tentacles would probably be routed through the skull (so there's a hole inside each ring). $\endgroup$
    – zwol
    May 22 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ @zwol Thanks for the info on the whole enthesis thing. I’m going to read up on that. $\endgroup$
    – user53529
    May 23 at 2:31

They don’t.

Warning: If you’re trypophobic (you don’t like clusters of holes) don’t think too hard about this answer.

What’s actually going on is that you have two species. The Gorgon is humanoid, bald, and has crater or bulb shaped indentations on their scalp/in their skull, with a lip over the edge. The Follicle Snake is a separate creature with powerful paralytic venom and a strong, coiled tail. The Follicle Snakes curl their tails into the indentation on their Gorgon’s head, seemingly becoming part of them.

This offers advantages to both species: The Gorgons get a weapon and the Follicle Snakes gain mobility, a constant heat source and a good, defended place to breed and grow. The Gorgon exerts control on their snake colony by tilting their head, flexing the muscles connected to their scalp (creating gruesome faces) and through training. The snakes in turn alert their gorgon to incoming threats by flexing (or just attacking immediately)

How did such a strange symbiosis come to be?

This is where it gets a bit squicky.

The Follicle Snakes are actually descended from a proto-snake that paralysed its prey before punching a hole in the skin, forcing its tail (hence the strength) under the skin, and laying a cluster of eggs to be incubated by the dying host before hatching and eating their way free. The Gorgons evolved a resistance to the paralytic venom but still occasionally were incapacitated and received a clutch of eggs. They found that by offering other foods to the newly hatching snakes, they could be enticed to not eat their host alive, and would instead remain just under the skin, periodically poking their tiny snake heads out to receive food before maturing and slithering into the wild, where they would hunt pests and other nuisance critters (like a horrifying reptilian cat).

Eventually this led to the domestication of the Follicle Snakes and almost ritualistic implantation of eggs in the scalp, where a pet snake would offer the most benefit and be the most visible to potential mates (who would be impressed by the obvious strength and vitality of a snake-bearing host). Fast forward a dozen generations and the mature snakes no longer leave the host, instead opting to stay cosied up on top of their heads as a venomous, writhing lapdog.

The ‘holes’ are really masses of scar tissue caused by repeated clutches of eggs being implanted, hatching and being nurtured by their now thoroughly social parents/Gorgons. Gorgons with a full head of snakes are seen as excellent breeding partners (with strong necks). Those with an unblemished scalp or few remaining scaly companions are poor or sickly. Good Follicle Snake breeds are docile, trainable or pretty, and can (with effort) be transferred from one owner to another or passed down family lines. The cycle of snake/gorgon interdependence is complete.

This does mean that your snakes could (hypothetically) act completely separately from their Gorgon of vice versa, but given the nature of the relationship it would probably be unlikely and require a lot of training the snakes.

Though if a Gorgon can train some of their friendly monstrous hairs to be mobile, stealthy snakes with a strong paralytic venom you also have an explanation for the whole ‘petrifying gaze’ myth...

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    $\begingroup$ Please delete this from my brain. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    May 21 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ This won’t work in my setting, though props for a solid body horror idea. My Gorgons were originally Elves who were transformed during the Divine War, so the snakes have to be part of their physiology, not a separate creature. $\endgroup$
    – user53529
    May 21 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnO: Ah, if it’s memory deletion you’re after then you want the rarer Burrowing Dreadlock Worm (side effects include bleeding, loss of cognitive function and screaming relatives) $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    May 21 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Patrick-Leigh While I get your initial reaction that this doesn't work in your story (which should have been beneficially included with your post as a limitation/condition), allow me to invite you to widen your gaze (an especially useful habit on this site). This is actually a very cool and not-heretofore-used (as far as I know) idea. Both creative and unique - which isn't all that common. The symbiotic relationship may be a dependent relationship imposed on them during the Divine War. The snakes aren't just there - they're required. Without them the medusa dies. Great answer, Joe. $\endgroup$ May 22 at 3:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Patrick-Leigh Cursing an entire people to be perpetually ridden with horrific parasites sounds like a suitably mythic backstory (followed by learning to live with it or someone else blessing them to have a symbiotic rather than parasitic relationship). $\endgroup$
    – BBeast
    May 22 at 4:00

Skulls with holes

There's two important things the snakes need. Blood and a sturdy connection. You could attach the snakes directly to the skull and have blood vessels move on the outside, but this would nullify a lot of the advantages of the skull. A hit on the head can easily destroy the quite large blood vessels and kill the Gorgon or in some cases the individual snake due to (internal) bleeding. Also the nerves would be quite vulnerable.

The blood vessels can most logically move through the brain, gaining protection of the skull. They don't need the protection of the dura mater, the protective layer around the brain. It can be fixed directly to the inside of the skull. Otherwise it can go straight through the brain, possibly using the voxels (fluid filled chambers for maintaining and further protecting the brain as it works) as much as possible to move to the skull and where it needs to be.

The skull itself doesn't need big holes per snake, as you can bundle the blood vessels and nerves (Gorgon needs to be able to control them) very well. The snake is then connected directly to the skull like normal muscles to bones. The hole in the skull isn't a bad thing, as the bundle of muscles and ligaments now protect the skull at that part very well.

To have a good degree of movement, the skeleton of the snake can attach to a bumb on the skull. The hole in the skull gets a raised bone, as if the spinal cord has (part of) a snake vertebrae fixed to the skull. This will further protect the skull and the hole, as well as aid connections for muscle and fiber, to allowing blood vessels and nerves to branch out safely.

The blood vessels might be connected by a form of placenta. This allows the separation of the hearts, blood pressures and whatnot, while still allowing for important nutrients and such to be transferred. It also allows a snake to die safely when cut, disease or old age. No bleeding out of the host. This would also allow new snakes to grow. Interestingly enough they could get some protection from the different immune systems, but these shouldn't be too different to work. Immune responses in normal pregnancy are already suppressed to prevent rejecting a baby. With snakes and Gorgons this could be much more difficult.

  • $\begingroup$ The placenta is pointless; the snake is essentially a limb, with some autonomy. It is not efficient to have a placenta for it, just as it is not efficient to have a placenta for your arm. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ @RalfB although I understand your concern, we're talking about adding a large group of "limbs" to the head. I don't think efficiency is anywhere on the agenda. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 6 at 5:14

Mechanical, vascular, and neural connection

The snakes need three kinds of attachment. They need to be mechanically well anchored. This requires attachment points on the skull for the muscles and ideally for the spine as well. They need their blood vessels connected to the medusa's, because they do not have their own digestive systems---they get their nutrients via connected blood flow. But what most other answers neglect is the neural connection---if the medusa can override the snakes' brains and control them directly, then their spinal cords must be rooted into the medusa's brain.

These considerations yield the following: 1. The snake spines are connected to the skull in much the same way our spines connect to the pelvis. 2. The spinal cord and major spinal blood vessels pass through the skull and root into the brain and vascular system, respectively, on the inside of the skull. 3. The snake's muscles are attached to an annular enthesis on the skull.

Note that individual lungs and hearts in the snakes are not necessary at all. Instead the snake is all spine and muscle, which makes it stronger. It is essentially a limb, but with eyes and an autonomous brain, and a nasty venomous bite.

  • $\begingroup$ Hello Ralf B. This is essentially my answer. Can you tell me why it deserves a new answer and not a comment on mine so I can consider editing it? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    Jun 6 at 5:22
  • $\begingroup$ Your answer addresses two of these connections. The spinal cord needs to be rooted into the brain as well, sort of like the optic nerves are. Also, I disagree with the need for separate hearts and lungs, which hinder rather than help the integration. $\endgroup$
    – Ralf B
    Jun 6 at 11:53
  • $\begingroup$ to further extend Ralf's point, if it's a part of the creature why is it not a morphological imitation instead of a real snake it would be easier to have a flesh tentacle with a stinger on the end if you were seriously trying to poison someone with it. all the other functions sans style would be similar. and style? why? what is the advantage of having snakes for hair over simply looking as such $\endgroup$
    – zoboso
    Jun 10 at 16:43

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