For anyone who doesn’t already know, beside from being the guy that scripts what monsters go into the Pathfinder RPG’s hardcover bestiaries, I used to be the editor in charge of the monster ecologies series for Dragon magazine and was the editor-in-chief of Dragon: Monster Ecologies. Monsters are the reason I got into RPGs and I’ve spent a significant portion of my career and off-hours researching monsters, cryptids, aliens, and the collections (both scholarly and fantastical) that detail them. So I like to think I know a thing or two about monsters, particularly those that have appeared in RPGs.
Like the OP says, the two monsters above are both technically gorgons… right? From Greek mythology we know that the name “gorgon" collectively refers to the monstrous sisters Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa (the trio being a particularly monstrous vision of the triple-deity theme running through so many mythologies). Beyond even this, though, numerous films, games, and other works of fiction have referenced the gorgons for their fearful nature and ability to petrify those who look upon them. Snakes, at the very least in Medusa’s case, typically also enter into the mix.
So then who’s this guy?
The first edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual would tell you it’s a gorgon. A few pages later, it will also tell you that a different race of snake-hair petrifiers are called medusas. So now we have two very different looking creatures with the ability to petrify who both draw inspiration from the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa. Did the Monster Manual just get it wrong?
Possibly. No scholar’s looking to 1977’s collection of threats for D&D as a gospel source on world myth. That said, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons were no slouches when it came to drawing upon historical and mythological sources when populating their fantasy game. In a pre-internet world, Gygax’s personal interests in myth and medievalism didn’t take him to his home computer. Rather, it was likely led him to his personal and public library.
Were Gygax’s sources just flawed? Likely not. Rather, the creator of the fantasy RPG genre was probably looking at more primary sources than we—mired in an internet full of niche articles (like this one)—typically do. (Don’t let this suggest that the creators of D&D were entirely high-minded historians, though. They were just as nerdy as today’s game designers and certainly weren’t against adding creatures from whole-cloth imagination and their favorite pulp adventures into their new game—ask me about the displacer beast some time.)
So what sources might result in Medusa and her sisters being simultaneously presented in something like their classical form, while only pages earlier being spun off as weird bull monsters.
One possibility is that the Monster Manual conflated the classic gorgon with the Khalkotauroi—fire-breathing bronze bulls that also hail from Greek myth. They’re cool, dangerous monsters, but they’ve got a name that’s not terribly recognizable and is kind of a mouthful. It’s possible the Khalkotauroi were renamed “gorgons” in an edit that prioritized accessibility over mythological sanctity, and so lent their bovine shapes and metal skin to the creature that would be the gorgon, but the story’s likely more complicated than that.
There’s another significant mythological ungulate known for being able end a life from fifty paces: the catoblepas. Mythological accounts of the creature claim that its breath or gaze could either kill or petrify a person—both appealing powers for tormenting heroes. So could the gorgon be a renamed version of the catoblepas? Well, the catoblepas appears in the first edition Monster Manual, so probably not… or maybe.
The truth of the matter likely involves all of the above, along with Gygax’s likely familiarity with Edward Topsell 1607 zoological text, The Historie of Foure Footed Beasts. In his work, Topsell presents a zoological exploration of the world—a world he was hardly an authority on. Rather than basing his work on his personal observations, Topsell cited diverse zoological accounts, including the Swiss Historiae Animalium and Pliny’s somewhat dated Natural History from circa 77–79 C.E.—“therefore we will follow the authority of Pliny and Atheneus” (Topsell 1607, pp 263). Among such mundane creatures as dogs and weasels, the author included numerous facts he had on good authority from writers like Pliny—who included imaginary beings like cynocephalus and monopods in his Natural History. Among Topsell’s work are such facts as elephants having the coldest blood in the world and bearing an intense hatred for dragons (1607, pp 198). Topsell also includes whole creatures entirely on his predecessor’s recommendations.
One such inclusion was the “strange Lybian Beast” or the “Gorgon.” Topsell describes the creature as such:
“It is a feareful and terrible beast to beholdd, it hath high and thicke eie lids, eies not very great, but much like an Oxe or Bugils, but all fiery-bloudy, which neyther looke directly forwarde, nor yet upwards, but continuallye downe to the earth, and therefore are called in Greeke Catobleponta. From the crowne of their head downe to their nose they have a long hanging mane, which maketh them to looke fearefully. It eateth deadly and poysonfull hearbs, and if at any time he see a Bull or other creature whereof he is afraid, he presently causeth his mane to stand upright, and being so lifted up, opening his lips, and gaping wide, sendeth forth of his throat a certaine sharpe and horrible breath, which infecteth and poysoneth the air above his head, so that all living creatures which draw in the breath of that aire are greevously afflicted thereby, loosing both voyce and sight, they fall into leathall and deadly convulsions.” (1607, pp 262)
Here we finally find the gorgon presented as an ox- or bull-like beast with breath that kills. But Topsell’s book isn’t just known for its detailed descriptions, it’s famed for its lavish inclusion of dozens of woodcut images. Even the mundane woodcuts are still fascinating, investing creatures like rhinoceroses and baboons with fantastical aspects, whether they be in poses no natural creature would strike or possess radically embellished features. Which of course implies that even the entirely fictional creatures—like the lamia, manticore, and sphinx—receive illustrations. The gorgon, though, bears the highest honor in the book, with its depiction of a mop-topped scale-bull occupying the collection’s front cover. From this piece it’s easy to infer how the scaled, gas-mouthed bull of the Monster Manual took shape.
How can we be sure that Gygax knew anything about Topsell’s book, though? Flip through the rest of The Historie of Foure Footed Beasts and you’ll find numerous other connections to the pages of Dungeons & Dragons bestiaries. While several classical myth stock creatures make appearances, there are a couple of peculiarities. Lamia, the tragic Libyan queen of Greek myth, for example, appears not as an individual but as an entire species of amalgam woman-lion creatures, just like in the Monster Manual. There’s also a creature listed as “Wilde Beast in the New found World called SU,” which, with its monkey-like limbs and prominent tail, parallels the su-monster from 1976’s Eldritch Wizardry. These, along with the appearances of other obscure D&D creatures, like the crocotta, suggest if not a familiarity with Topsell’s work, at least Gygax’s knowledge of other medieval bestiaries.
But any historic evidence of bull-gorgons aside, the ship is certainly sailed on the name “gorgon” as it pertains to Pathfinder RPG monsters. Even without the aforementioned sources, deference to Mr. Gygax’s work alone would be more than enough to keep the gorgon the creature it is. The Pathfinder RPG owes its existence to a 40-year-old tradition of gaming, ripe with entirely unique peculiarities and nostalgia. Even if the gorgon’s name were a decades-old typo, it would be a typo that’s been propagated across games, bestiaries, articles, and adventures, to say nothing of the memories of gamers all over the world. That momentum—that pedigree—alone has a value that neither I, nor any game-maker at Paizo, would casually part with.
Fantastic question. Thanks so much for asking!
Topsell, Edward. The History of Four-Footed Beasts. London: Printed by William Iaggard, 1607.
References to Libya in the Histories of Herodotus
Strange Science Goof Gallery: Mammals
Topsell on the Gorgon
Wikipedia: Edward Topsell
Topsell’s The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents Woodcuts
I have always wondered about this. Mystery solved!