Object of the Month: June


Campanian, 2nd half of 6th–start of 5th century BC

Gorgoneia are examples of apotropaic images. These frightening masks, usually with large fangs and snaking hair, go back to the legend of Perseus and Medusa. They were hung on doors and on everyday objects to ward off evil. The first depictions of this myth date from the archaic period (700–500 BC). Probably the most famous depiction is the one on the aegis of Pallas Athene.

In terms of psychoanalysis, Freud interpreted decapitation as a symbol of castration and the terror of Medusa’s head as the horror of castration. The deterrent effect of this kind of depiction of castration on the breast of the virgin Athene is, he says, characteristic. Freud’s essay “Medusa’s Head”, written in 1922 and only published posthumously, contains more on this topic.

The collection in Vienna includes two very similar gorgoneia from Freud’s collection; a third, five hundred years younger and very different in terms of depiction, is kept in London. The two plaques in the collection of the Sigmund Freud Foundation are of Campanian origin and date back to pre-Christian times. The demonic faces with bared teeth of these two specimens are very much in keeping with descriptions of typical gorgoneia.

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