Basilica Cistern in Istanbul: The Love Legend of Medusa

At the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, you’ll find two Medusa statues, one positioned right-side-up and the other upside-down, used as column bases. These Roman-era sculptures, with their puzzling placement and unknown origins, have given rise to many legends that persist today. Similar statues placed upright can be found at the Temple of Apollo in Didim.

The Legend of Medusa Head in Istanbul

Numerous interconnected legends have emerged over the years, generally varying based on Medusa‘s transformation into a snake-headed woman and the manner of her death.

Medusa is a mythical character, known for her mesmerizing beauty that captivated everyone, including gods. She was so beautiful that no other woman on Earth could rival her. She lived in a temple owned by Athena, Zeus’s daughter, with her two immortal sisters, while she was mortal.

According to Legend

Although Athena was initially unaffected by Medusa’s beauty, Poseidon, the ruler of the seas and Zeus’s brother, fell in love with her at first sight. He was so smitten that he secretly entered the temple and forced himself upon her.

Upon learning of this, Athena, in her fury, transformed Medusa and her sisters into monstrous Gorgons as punishment. Athena cursed Medusa with a hideous face and turned each strand of her hair into snakes, causing anyone who looked at her to turn to stone.

There are Two Prevailing Theories Regarding This Part of the Legend

1) Medusa

Overwhelmed by despair, looked into a mirror, turning herself to stone.

2) Perseus

A young hero and Athena’s stepbrother, was sent to kill Medusa. He went to the temple at night, decapitated her as she slept, and from her blood emerged Poseidon’s children Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus. Perseus then took Medusa’s head with him into battle, ensuring his victory in every fight and earning the title of “hero of the people”.

The legends ultimately converge at the magnificent Pantheon temple in ancient Greece. From then on, using Medusa’s head in an upright or inverted position became a Byzantine practice, often appearing as statues, like those in the Basilica Cistern, or as engravings on sword hilts.

Why Medusa Statues Were Placed in the Cistern Istanbul?

During the time the cistern was built, images and statues featuring Gorgon heads were used to protect sacred areas from evil. It is thought that the snake headed Medusa statues were placed in the cistern for this purpose. The statues were used as column bases during the construction of the cistern.

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