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?

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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s maybe not stone, but a death could count; grey skin, lifeless. an afraid culture might count it as stone. $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 20:59
  • $\begingroup$ @TrEs-2b perhaps you meant this question regarding turning things to stone? $\endgroup$
    – Aify
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 2:26
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    $\begingroup$ The question seldom addressed is where Medusa had snakes. Underarm hair is an even more embarassing problem when it keeps biting the top of the deodorant bottle. -- (Terry Pratchett, Soul Music) $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder why the answers did ot focus on a possibility that "turning into stone" might be a metaphora to paralysis which is caused by the poison? A paralyzed victim is an easy prey $\endgroup$
    – Nick Dzink
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 22:14

10 Answers 10


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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    $\begingroup$ Don't apologize for the length, I love the longer answers, it implies the writer spent more time on it $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ ChrisF, thank you for the edit. I missed a few things while checking it over. More than I want to admit. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – Atl LED
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ 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. $\endgroup$
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ I propose that the arms could evolve from the cobra's hood. These things hunt by drawing humans' attention to spit venom in their face, right? What better distraction than with the image of another human? First, they'd evolve markings on their underbelly and the inside of the hood to mimic a human silhouette. Then, over time, the "background" of the silhouette would be evolved away, leaving only the "arms". You could even get an apparently all-female species with Non-Mammalian Mammaries this way, if they preferentially target men. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 5, 2017 at 17:22

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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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the statuary as food packaging concept. That's horrifying. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 10:14
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    $\begingroup$ +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. $\endgroup$
    – algiogia
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 11:27
  • $\begingroup$ I thought the petrefied people returned to flash after she died. Or am I wrong? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 16:12
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    $\begingroup$ 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... $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 17:18
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    $\begingroup$ @DarrelHoffman Look. Some legends are just legends. Like Excalibur. Everyone knows that magic isn't real. (This question doesn't have the magic tag!) $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 18:08

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.

  • $\begingroup$ I was thinking pheromones as well. $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 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.


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)

  • $\begingroup$ 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.... $\endgroup$
    – Frostfyre
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ 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). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 22:34
  • $\begingroup$ "Nature likes simple solutions"... Then what about this (and jellyfish in general, but also corals). Interestingly, "medusa" is the Italian for "jellyfish" :) $\endgroup$
    – algiogia
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 11:35
  • $\begingroup$ Could the "hair" be interpreted as reproduction by budding? $\endgroup$
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Aug 2, 2022 at 9:44

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.



Medusa releases a toxin into the local environment that bonds to the color receptors on the optic nerve. The toxin activates when Medusa's eye color is seen, causing the calcium in the bones to leech out through the flesh and out of the pores, calcifying the skin, effectively making a person a statue.

Snake hair

The snakes contain glands that emit the toxin.

Petrification - Alternative The toxin hijacks the amygdala, causing the person to experience constant fear. The person can't move while medusa covers them in cement.

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    $\begingroup$ Your first proposal is more calcification than petrification, but close enough. I like the image of a gorgon trowelling away, layering the cement onto a paralyzed victim. A concrete example of petrification. Plus one from me. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 6:17

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 they 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 a teen snake person getting their first snakes to roost on their head. A certain amount of training, education and 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 things 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.


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

enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ I note you have trouble spelling words with an "i" phoneme in them. For example: tenticles/tentacles; vertibrate/vertebrate. A sort of phonetic blindspot? A classic image. Plus one for snaky symbionts. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 6:23

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?

While there is a great answer here that covers some of the mythology, I think it is worthwhile to go into this a bit more in depth.

Medusa looking at people is not turns them to stone. This is actually false. The origin for Medusa was that she was a women who boasted so much that she was so beautiful that she was even more beautiful then the gods. Like pretty much every decent Greek myth this backfired with the result of them cursing her to become the most repulsive being in existence. In fact, so repulsive that anything looking at her is instantly killed by the pure power of ugliness.

This is the model that I will be using here to build an accurate Medusa. I disregard anything that claims any record of visual or substantial appearance as anything attempting to claim that would surely need to already be dead to have seen it. Furthermore beauty and ugliness is quite literally in the eye of the beholder so it is quite possible that even if someone had survived long enough to describe it, someone else might very well see a different creature. However, there are certainly a few basic qualities we can know about it. I will justify each one as I go.

  • Humanoid structure - the original tale says that a human was cursed to become the most ugly being, bust doesn't list anything other than the resulting ugliness as an issue. So it is clear that the person was left as something functionally speaking close enough to a human that it need not have been mentioned as a further punishment (such as being punished by turning into a rat that has the ugliness properties because rats were and are considered somewhat dirty and repulsive). So I would expect either legs or a reasonable equivalent along with arms and usable hands.

  • Capability for human level intelligence - The cursed person did not become a mindless ugliness beast. Therefore the race we construct should retain that same property. They might just live as savages mind you, but they are still capable of human intelligence.

  • Repulsivity - The creature should have some kind of repulsing mechanism. I'd expect this to be in the form of a mixture of pheromones, sounds, and smells that all give off a general field of "this is ugly". That might sound corny, but I can't think of the words I was wanting. Mental block. what I mean is it's like when you open a garbage can or a toilet and it just repels you. It's not something you go near, period. With sounds it can be as simple as sounds that are legitimately painful to hear and they aren't produced by the creatures voice or body movements. Some autonomous mechanism in their body (maybe even the beating of their ugly heart) gives off an ear-piercing painful non stop shriek that is uncomfortable to anything within a given radius.

  • Herbivore - I don't really recall hearing what Medusa's diet is but let's just think about this simply. She was a human that was cursed to become this way. Anything that looks at her (in the original version) was petrified. Naturally since animals don't know to not look at her, her only source of meat would be humans she could kill before they got a glance at her. That wouldn't be a realistic food source and would attract a lot of attention. It is worth mentioning that she was only killed because they needed her appearance to fend off a giant monster (note: I don't the accuracy of clash of the titans but I'm gonna play off of it anyways). This would imply she was being what most people would likely do in that situation and attempting to hide and drive away anyone attempting to find her. Who wouldn't? If you just woke up one day and started turning people to stone you'd probably try to avoid people as well. So I would expect that she is an herbivore. Considering we want her to be repulsive in more ways then just visual appearance it only stands to reason that no predator would evolve with such properties anyways. So this fits well with an herbivore who uses those properties to repel predators. It's not an attack mechanism. It's a defense mechanism.

  • Changing appearance - While the silhouette should be roughly the same I would expect people and animals to see different things based on their idea of what would be repulsive or causing fear. What I mean here is that a deer might see anything bear charging at them with with claws raised or a deer completely ripped to shreds by some unknown predator. Or maybe even a bear with said deer draped over its shoulder. Now I picked a deer on purpose. I've always kind of figured that the petrification portion of the story was a minor play on words. Instead of being figuratively petrified by seeing something completely repulsive and off putting, you are literally petrified. I am attempting to go for the further version with a bit more pizazz thrown on top. You'll see when I get to the end.

  • Immunity - Obviously she is immune to her own appearance. I mean she might still look ugly but remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder for starters and that secondly it wouldn't make sense to curse someone with ugliness that has killing power and then let them kill themselves with that same ugliness. This isn't to say they aren't going to see someone horrific. It might be a snake or some kind of misshapen disfigured shape that has no rhyme or reason to it and it only vaguely humanoid. As I said earlier, we can only speculate. However, they are immune to the power it has of actually killing or causing as extreme a reaction to it. They have a natural tolerance due to it 1. being the stuff that makes up their own body and 2. being something they are exposed to all the time in water reflections and by just looking down at their body.

  • Scarcity - The Greek myth doesn't describe them as a race. It describes only three such Gorgons and I'm pretty sure they eventually all die. If this were something like a Minotaur I wouldn't normally point this out as there is the potential for other such hybrid creatures to be born (no magic or curses or divine intervention were involved in giving birth to the Minotaur). However, it is made quite clear by the nature of the story that this is one time shtick. So it only makes sense for Gorgons to be nearing extinction in the time of the Greeks and for them to also go extinct in this time period. If we were attempting to assume (as a silly exercise) that the legend were true and merely the origins of the Gorgons were fictionalized then that would be a hint of a race with few members in it.

With this all in mind we can construct the Gorgons. Gorgons have the same repulsive qualities I described. To go with as certain Doctor Who episode there are notions of these types of creatures. There is the perfect predator for an environment that can catch just about anything. We would call these apex predators. There is also the perfect runner that can escape capture from predators. There is the perfect scavenger who is somehow able to even sense the grim reaper himself. There is also the perfect defense such that it's hide is so touch it is like iron and nothing can pierce it to kill. The ultimate premise is "where is the perfect hider" (something that hides so well nobody even knows it exists nor ever will) and that became the entire plot of the episode. However while as irrelevant as it may seem I can now add another one to hypothetical list. The Gorgon is the "perfect" deterrence. Nothing about it is specifically deadly per se. It is hallucinogenic to be near, but you probably won't die unless you scare yourself to death or somehow have an overdose. This is caused by the same pheromones that we said earlier merely deter you from approaching. Let's instead say they produce a mental state of hallucinogenic fear and repulsion and the Gorgons produce this stuff in droves. Being near one isn't particularly fatal (and I really cannot make pure repulsion fatal as there is no recorded human dying from overexposure to ugliness) and even if they were driven by fear that usually causes a heart attack at worst and you generally have to be predisposed to them. What we can assume though is that predators will tend to follow Gorgons. When a Gorgon incapacitates some prey it leaves a disoriented animal free to be slaughtered by wolves or other animals. So even if it is figurative mental petrification due to hallucinogens in ancient greek times this would be almost a death sentence out in the wild. They are also never attempted to be attacked by predators. The reason for this is two fold. For starters they have a natural symbiotic relationship with the predators. No scratch that. The Gorgon gains nothing from predators eating animals left in its wake (however it does give the Gorgons a reputation of being wild aggressive and violent beasts that consume everything in their wake). The second is that the Gorgons carry the exact same chemicals that produce the effects they give off in their bloodstream and in much higher dosages. So unless a carnivore was about to starve to death attempting to hunt and kill a Gorgon is pointless. Even a random Gorgon corpse is simply left to rot as no animal would want to eat its meat.

However, one predator does eat them. The chimera (which we won't explain mechanically here) was a common predator. The species flame breath was a natural evolutionary advantage allowing them to eat the meat of a Gorgon. By effectively burning off the blood of a Gorgon this made it possible for the Chimera to eat the meat of a Gorgon with little difficulty. However, it was more common for the Chimera to stalk the victims of the Gorgon and char broil those ever awaiting the day of its death. This is what gave the impression of the Medusa being some sort of collector of victims that would take the statues of the petrified back to its nest to gaze upon in admiration and envy. In reality the dust that people assumed was from someone being petrified was nothing more than the ash of a freshly flame broiled deer.

So why are Gorgons extinct? Humans are the reason they are extinct. Recall that the Gorgon Medusa was hunted (no sorry murdered) so that they would use her head to kill a giant monster. It's really the same premise here, just that humans use their blood as a weapon of war. Because the blood itself isn't airborne tipping arrows or even swords in the blood is a significant advantage. It's like how in a certain zombie themed tv show people got smart and started tipping weapon in zombie blood to infect people. It's the exact same thing really. Since the blood would get on people or into their blood they'd start hallucinating and they'd start seeing things as if they were Gorgons. This might even play into the whole story that someone all of a sudden became a Gorgon and would have that effect on anyone who saw her. It wasn't her that was the issue. It was that everyone in that town has been poisoned with Gorgon blood in either a food supply or a local well and so everyone saw her as if she was a Gorgon. It's possible that sometimes people just happen to have a rare immunity or a mild tolerance if it diluted such as in a well. Plus Gorgon meat has the same effect so if we assume that a Gorgon is a mammal then the meat could be hidden among a selection of meats being traded to an enemy country. It would poison the leaders of that city-state some of the high ranking officials but it might have enough of a psychological effect such that with some insider hand waving in the form of a spy or a religious leader in support of the other city-state that they might be able to convince those leaders (unaware of the Gorgon species) that it is some kind of "act of the gods" and that it will happen again but this time permanently if they don't change their ways.

Regardless the point is all the same here. The potency of Gorgons makes them a hunting target to use as a weapon, not as a predatory need. To put it simply they are the perfect deterrent and therefore man looks at them as the perfect resource to use as a deterrent in battle.

Here's a couple further thoughts I had. They're more general thoughts but they were what I had in mind earlier and I just want to put them out there somewhat briefly. Now because of the extinction of Gorgons there is a vacuum in the ecosystem and this caused many species to go extinct as a result. The so called Nemean Lion went extinct especially due to the fact that it depended on the Gorgon's act of incapacitating wildlife. A Nemean Lion is known for having a fur/hide that is stronger than any known metal (possibly even an actual metal due to it's fur primarily growing from Iron and other minerals instead of Keratin). The result is that the lion cannot run very fast do it's body not being very flexible. It more like a literal tank only able to do the final pounce on prey (if it can be called a pounce). As a result it relied on the path of a Gorgon for its primary food supply as well as any Chimeras foolish enough to try to burn through its metal armor. In other words, it went extinct as it could no longer find food. I wanted to point this out specifically it goes into more of the background of the Gorgon's and maybe what their culture would be like. These creatures naturally follow them around. I cannot say for sure, but I would expect that Gorgons lived a very interesting life. Perhaps they even domesticated some of these creatures after slowly exposing them more and more to Gorgon "stuff".

And yes, there are obviously male Gorgons. I've already said they are mammals so there better be males or they'd go extinct day one (oh wait they did but we aren't going off of that story). I'll assume here that the lack of male's in the story are 1. due to the fact that it is a cursed human and their siblings not a species and that 2. it's possible that all the males died off first attempting to fend off the humans hunting them to extinction. Remember. These things have human level intelligence. Had they wanted to and had they tried hard enough they may have conquered entire countries and continents (and maybe they once had) but their downfall came down to the most ironic thing of all: the invention of ranged weaponry. Why is this ironic you ask? This photo will make that very well clear.

Medusa holding a bow which was ultimately the weapon that made her race go extinct

I know in this answer I constantly go back and forth using the original legend as justification for reasons and even saying how it differed. The reason for this is that one might not want a Gorgon race in reading this answer. They might just want an anatomically accurate Medusa (i.e. a human that somehow turned into some ridiculously repulsive animal that nothing would dare go near), and so I give a dynamic here because it for starters felt natural to bounce them back and forth and also because I think it helps break up the monotony of the question just droning on about biological qualities. It is good to always do a sanity check of whatever it is that inspired what you are creating to make sure it actually reflects the idea behind what you make. This is why this answer avoids the supposed snake attributes and the petrification. Now that might not sound like Medusa to some, but remember here the original story:

A woman went into the temple of the goddess Aphrodite and proclaimed that she was the most beautiful being to ever exist. For her hubris she was cursed to become the ugliest being in all of existence. She became a creature so ugly that if anything were to even get a single glance of here, they would immediately die.

And that up there is what I attempted to anatomically accurately replicate.

  • $\begingroup$ For those specifically set on this being a creature with snake like hair I will point out two things. 1. it is possible that someone hallucinating might interpret hair blowing in wind to be a head of violent snakes. 2. I left the actual legitimate appearance vague enough that it could be just about anything mostly because no such creature would have a fool proof manner of determining its appearance.Some might see death itself. Some might see a reflection of themselves... as a walking corpse. However, other answers did an awesome job of explaining snakes for hair and I recommend reading them. $\endgroup$
    – user64742
    Commented Aug 24, 2018 at 3:14

Medusa (and gorgons in general) have been depicted with many other traits, such as a snaky belt, brass claws, tusks, wings, and scales

  • Turning people to stone is impossible without magic
  • While true snake hair wouldn't be plausible, it would be quite plausible to use symbiosis. Specifically, the snakes could entwine themselves in the gorgon's thick hair to stay around the head and help out, perhaps by keeping a lookout for predators or finding water. In return, the gorgon will feed them
  • A snaky belt could have similar justifications, though these snakes would also be in a good place to aid the gorgon's sexual selectivity
  • Tusks are easy to justify as weapons to use against predators
  • Scales would be quite useful in defence. Perhaps they could have some sort of thickened skin/hair over their body, which would form scales. They could also have evolved from more primitive mammals, and retain true reptilian scales
  • Brass claws seem like they'd be impossible to literally exist. However, brass-looking claws are simple enough to justify
  • Wings on the back would require the whole mess of winged humanoids. However, there are already many depictions of gorgons bearing their wings on the head: With this form, you could simply have the ears form into large webbed fins, perhaps for cooling

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