Beth Camp Historical Fiction

Saturday, April 07, 2012

G is for Gorgon . . .

I have long been fascinated by Medusa, one of three sisters, a Gorgon with hissing snakes for hair. 

Once, armed with Lonely Planet and exploring the Basilica Cistern, an underground waterworks in Istanbul, featuring Romanesque architecture, we came across Medusa in stone at the very bottom of a massive column. The Basilica was a dark and quiet place, yet we were surprised to find Medusa there. No one could explain then why her head was at the bottom of the stone column, perhaps to protect the building, but then why her head at the base of the column? I think more to subvert her power.  

Rereading about Medusa this morning, I find originally she was a winged creature with hair of snakes and wide, staring eyes, a powerful woman somehow connected to caves and the sea who could turn people to stone by simply looking at them.  Perseus could only slay her by deflecting her glance off his shield. I rather liked Medusa’s stare of death and her power to protect and destroy.

My photo (taken in 2004) shows her enigmatic smile. How fitting in a way that she who killed others with stone would be preserved here in stone.

What is the Gorgon’s connection to Van Diemen’s Land in mid-19th Century?  Nothing directly, but Mary Broad, a young woman transported for seven years for stealing a cloak, arrived with the First Fleet to New South Wales in 1789.  She married a fisherman, William Bryant, also a convict, shortly after arriving.  

William planned a daring escape that took 7 men, Mary, her two children, on a small, open longboat some 3,600 miles to Timor, Indonesia. Battered by storms, fever, starvation, somehow they survived, only to be recaptured and shipped to Cape Town in irons to wait for a ship to back to England, where they faced  death by execution.  The ship that finally arrived at the Cape was the Gorgon.

You can read about Mary Bryant online in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, or in The Girl From Botany Bay, by Carolly Erickson, a fine historian (the book is currently on my “to read” stack), or in Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore (pages 205-209).

Lovely images of Medusa here: