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Comment & Response
June 2015

Medusa's Head and Ancient Aristotelian Biology

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College London, London, England
JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(6):625. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3225

To the Editor Harris1 in this journal presented a far-reaching piece regarding The Head of Medusa (circa 1618) by Peter Paul Rubens. It might also be apposite to add that the origins for the painting and the original Greek myth of Medusa’s head may have derived from a hitherto unconnected interpretation of ancient Greek biology. The myth of the Gorgon Medusa included the cutting of its head with reptilian extensions to result in further heads being regenerated. This may have derived from an allegorical interpretation of the ancient Greek awareness of cut reptilian tails having the ability to regenerate. Evidence of this biological familiarity can be derived from Aristotle’s History of Animals (fourth century BC), where he describes: “The tails of lizards and serpents, if they be cut-off will grow again.”2,3 The distinction that serpents do not have the regenerative abilities of lizards was not clear in the ancient world, so that the reptilian Medusa legend would have fitted with the comprehension of the natural world at that time. Interestingly, however, Rubens and his collaborator Frans Snyders may have been exposed to a similar interpretation, as their painting of the Medusa’s head comprises both serpents and lizards.

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