Medusa, Nike, Victoria






For centuries a montruous head has been a decoration on armoury and on door posts. Most of the time it is depicted with wide open eyes and a grinning mouth usually with tongue put out and with rumpled hair. Such monstruous heads are spread within an area stretching out from Britain in the West to as far as Bali in the East. Apart from this there are monstruous heads in African art. Apparently the monstruous head was designed to inspire fear and as such was an apothropaic device




The Eurasian monstruous heads apparently have a common ancestor in the Mesopotamian head of Humbaba. The story of Humbaba is told in the Epic of Gilgamesh from the third millennium B.C.. [1] Humababa (= hugeness) was the being with supernatural power guarding the “the mountain of cedars, the dwelling-place of the gods and the throne of Ishtar”. We are told that:

“Enlil has appointed Humbaba to guard it (the mountain) and armed him in sevenfold terrors, terrible to all flesh is Humbaba. When he roars it is like the torrent of the storm, his breath is like fire and his jaws are death itself”. “He is not like men who die, his weapons are such that none can stand against them” When he looks at someone, it is the look of death. [2]

On Mesopotamian seals he is depicted as a man running to the left, his legs and arms bent in square angles and with his monstruous head looking to the observer. A sculpure of the head of Humbaba was found in Tell Timah (Iraq). This head is the prototype of all later Eurasian monstruous heads as will be demonstrated in the next sections.




Head of Humbaba, Assyrian, 19th c. B.C.

Iraqi Museum, IM 73921


Mask of Humbaba, 2nd Millennium B,C.

From Sippar (S. Iraq)

[Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum]

Medusa, Nike, Victoria.


In European antiquity winged creatures were sometimes carved on temple tympans but they were also on ancient coinage. These winged creatures, consisting of a human figure with wings on its back, can be determined as angels, from the greek aggeloi or messengers from heaven. The faces of these angels are of a scaring shape as if they want to inspire fear to the observer. For that reason they might be personifications of an armed force the purpose of which is to inspire fear. The purpose of the scaring face was to demoralize the enemy even before it engaged in battle.

Through history the personifications of the armed forces developed from the ancient Achaean Medusa through the Ionian Nike to the Roman Victoria. At the same time her archaic form developed to a modern realistic form.


1. Medusa


The three Gorgon sisters - Medusa (guardian), Stheno (forceful), and Euryale (far-roaming) - were children of the ancient marine deities Phorcys (or Phorkys) and his sister Ceto (or Keto), chthonic monsters from an archaic world. Their genealogy is shared with other sisters, the Graeae, as in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound who places both trinities of sisters far off ‘on Kisthene's dreadful plain”:


Near them their sisters three, the Gorgons, winged

With snakes for hair - hated of mortal man -


While ancient Greek vase-painters and relief carvers imagined Medusa and her sisters as beings born of monstrous form, sculptors and vase-painters of the fifth century began to envisage her as being beautiful as well as terrifying. In an ode written in 490 BC Pindar already speaks of "fair-cheeked Medusa".

In a late version of the Medusa myth, related by the Roman poet Ovid (Metamorphoses 4.770), Medusa was originally a beautiful maiden, “the jealous aspiration of many suitors,” priestess in Athena’s temple, but when she and the “Lord of the Sea” Poseidon lay together in Athena's temple, the enraged Athena transformed Medusa’s beautiful hair to serpents and made her face so terrible to behold that the mere sight of it would turn onlookers to stone. In Ovid's telling, Perseus describes Medusa's punishment by Athena as just and well-deserved.

In most versions of the story, she was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphos as a gift. With help from Athena and Hermes who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades’ cap of invisibility, a sword, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. The hero slew Medusa by looking at her harmless reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her, to prevent being turned into stone. When the hero severed Medusa's head from her neck, two offspring sprang forth, for Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon: the winged horse Pegasus and the golden-sworded giant Chrysaor. [3]


Whatever these stories assert they throw no light on the way pictures of the Gorgons or of heads of Gorgons were actually used for or what they actually meant.

To find a solution for this question we have to analyse the figurative data presented to us on many artefacts decorated with winged monstruous creatures or monstruous heads.

In the first place we find that such creatures usually are depicted in a military context.

In the second place we find that the monstruous head very often is depicted on armoury, for example on shields and on breast plates.

These, we may suppose, were all very expensive parts of armour and for that reason only very high ranking warriors could afford such armour. Also, there were some other rank-insignia which symbolized the supervisor of the operation and the attacker or defender. None of these rank-insignia could have symbolized the qualification of  “head” as they obviously symbolized operating officers.


Clay plaque with Gorgon from the temenos of the Athenaion of Syracuse 570-550 BC.

Syracuse, Museo Archeologico Regionale, Cat. 56.


As a representation of Medusa, the personification of the guard,  the Gorgons depicted in the tympans of temples make these temples the places of the worship of the army. As, in our example, the Gorgon is carrying a winged horse or pegasus, the temple would have been dedicated to the army of Corinth of which the pegasus was a symbol (as is demonstrated by Corinthian coins bearing pictures of Pegasus).

The Gorgon is usually depicted running, thus suggesting swiftness, another fear-inspiring quality.


2. Nike



Peloponnesian stater, about 480-470 BC




Stater, Asia Minor, about 450-430

The Ionian version of the personification of the armed forces has a thoroughly more naturalistic form than the Aechean version. The oldest pictures date from the beginning of the fifth century BC.  She is also a running winged creature but her head is not turned to the observer. In her hand she has a crown of laurel. This personification is called Nike which means Victory.

Later Nike was given a flying-up attitude. This version has, for example, culminated into the Nike of Samothrace (ca. 190 B.C.) who, probably is a personification of the Athens navy.


3. Victoria


Derived from this Greek Victory is the Roman Victoria, also always depicted as an angel and of naturalistic design. The Roman Victoria is the ancestress of the many Victoria’s of later times of whom it is not always certain if they are a personification of the armed forces as well.

A statue of Victoria was from about 50 BC on a pillar on the pulpit of the Forum Romanum in Rome and another statue was in the Senate. This last one was removed by Gratian in 382 AD probably to be replaced by the symbol of the Christian Roman Army (the XP-cypher) as the removel met with great resistance of the pagan aristocracy.

Nevertheless, Victoria was apparently never abandonded and was frequently depicted together with a (victorious) Roman Emperor.




Gold medal of Justinian I the Great (527-565)

The emperor on horseback preceded by Victoria




19th century Victoria. Bordeaux, France.




In the Hellenistic world the the monstruous head emblem was known as the Gorgoneion and it was supposed to be the head of Medusa, one of the Gorgons.


Tetradrachmon from Athens, about 530-520 BC.

Stater from Neapolis (Thracia),  about 500 BC.

Etruscan silver coin, 4th cent. BC.


The earliest pictures of the head of Medusa as printed on 6th century B.C. coins from Thracia and Athens, strongly resemble the head of Humbaba, even when there are about 1400 years between them. The qualities of Medusa also resemble those of Humbaba: Like Humbaba she is (literally) a guardian  (of the dwelling place of the gods). When Humbaba fastenes his eyes on you they are “the eyes of death”  whilst looking at Medusa petrifies you. In spite of these qualities both were killed by a hero.

Also, Medusa is depicted in the same running attitude as Humbaba. A difference is that Humbaba is just a wingless man. Medusa, however is a female winged creature, that is an angel of ancient Egyptian fashion.  




The head of Gorgo, literally meaning “Head of the Guard” or “Commander of the Guard”, was often depicted on shields and breastplates, thus qualifying the bearer as the Chief-  or Supreme Commander of the defensive forces. The first examples of such monstruous heads are about as old as the known statues of the Gorgo. We may notice that the Gorgoneion has the traits of the running angels on the temple fronts.



Corinthian crater, the so-called Chigi Vase, 7th century B.C.

Rome, Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia


The first example is from the so-called Chigi-vase dating from the 7th century BC.. On this crater a Gorgoneion is depicted on the shield of the most important warrior, helped by warriors of a lesser rank, symbolized by the emblems on their shields: an eagle, a bull’s head, a cormorant and a lion.

At about the same time, the monstruous head of the Gorgo is attached to shields carried by Athena herself or by tyrants of Athens being the (supreme) commanders of the Athens armed force.



Shield of the Egyptian Ptolemeic Guard,  4th cent. B.C.

Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam


These examples are a part of a very long series of shields charged with a Gorgoneion spanning a period ending in the eighteenth century A.D..



Louis XIV of France (1643-1715)

 in classical armour (Versailes Palace)



The arms of the City of Capodistria (Koper).

Breast Plates



Breast plate with Gorgoneion, 4t -5th century B.C.

Kurgan no. 5 of  Elizavetskaja Stanica (Kuban region).


Another example is the Gorgoneion on the breast plate of a Skythian warrior from about the 4th - 5th century BC.. This, we may assume, should have been of a very high ranking warrior as the breast plate undoubtedly has been very expensive.

This breast plate is the oldest known breast plate with a Gorgoneion known and the first of a very long series of such breast plates spanning a period ending in the 17th or 18th century A.D..

Many of these can be determined as being the armoury of a high-ranking or even supreme commander.



Gorgoneion on the breast plate of a Roman commander, 1st century B.C.

Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Aquileia



Bust of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of The Commonwealth of England (1653-’58).

(By Joseph Wilton, 1764)




Certainly it is possible that the monstruous head was invented locally several times but the occurence of the monstruous head in the Far East may also be a striking example of cultural diffusion and in the same way as the Gorgoneion may be derived from the Mesopotamian Humbaba.


The display of the emblem in the Far East slightly differs from the display in the West. Only in early examples it is an emblem attached to the armoury and for that reason can be qualified to be the emblem of a (supreme) commander. Later examples from China and South East Asia are symbolizing guardians thus returning to Medusa (Guardian) herself.

The Monstruous head is called kirtimukha in Sanskrit and chibar in Tibetan.

About the Buddhist monstruous head it is remarked:


“This disembodied face represents a god of the skies. The mouth is shown devouring or giving forth snakes, dragons, sprays of vegetation, clouds or other substances, showing perhaps that like the sun the god of the skies has the dual function of creator and destroyer. The chibar is characteristically shown in conjunction with two other creatures: his human arms hold the tails of snakes or dragons, or he is flanked by dragons, sun-birds or other animals. The mask can appear armless as well. Both forms of the mask lacks a lower jaw. The face is a composite monster using elements of ferocious beasts such as the lion. The masks, often connected by festooned pearls, frequently occur as decoration on Buddhist altars and on such ritual objects as bells.”


The Dayak shield shown here may be of a category of its own. As relations between Kalimantan and Indo-China were intensive enough, this might as well be an example of cultural diffusion. In any case, the Dayak certainly were no Buddhists.




Dayak shield.

Kalimantan Timur 19th century. [4]


Picture Gallery



Sword Hilt  with monstruous head.

China, Ming Dynasty, early 15th century  [5]


Kirtimukha, Angkor Vat, 10th century A.D.

Kirtimukha from Deccan, ca. 1700 AD

Chibar from Tibet

Dragon’s Head, Vietnam, 19th century

This is a Chinese-style adaptation of the Kirtimukha but no such dragon heads are found in China itself



Kirtimukha from Cambodia.




Monstruous head above temple gate, Bali.

In the head of this essay the monstruous head on the Crater of Vix.  6th cent. B.C. (Musée du Châtillonnais).



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© Hubert de Vries 2010-11-03. Updated 2015-11.11




[1]  The Epic of Gilgamesh. Penguin Classics L 100, 1960.

[2]  Ibid. pp. 69, 72, 76, 80. Nevertheless he was killed by Enkidu.

[3]  From Wikipedia.

[4]  From: Shields from the collection of the Barbier-Müller Museum. New York, 2000, no 57.

[5]  The Board of Trustees of the Royal Armories no. XXVIS.295