Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Medusa, the Jellyfish Phoenix

Oh, the Jellyfish.  Another one of the marvelous species we can find (almost) only below sea level.  It's one thing that they don't need a respiratory system, but one species of jellyfish is biologically immortal (well, potentially).  The Turritopsis Nutricula has the unbelievable ability to revert to it's polyp (baby) form before it dies, so that it can live it's life all over.  Almost like a phoenix, in a sense, this jellyfish can cheat death, time and time again.  Anyway, I just found all this out today, but the reason I thought to write about jellyfish was something I read from a while back.

I was reading a Spanish article (and trying to pick up a few words), but my lack of knowledge in the Spanish language held me back from fully grasping the meaning.  But, what I do remember was that the article was definitely about jellyfish, because of the pictures of them floating around in the deep blue.  What I didn't find however was the word jelly (gelatina) or fish (pez) in the text, so I was sorely lost.  I did find that they used the name "Medusa" to describe them a lot however, so that's when it got me thinking that this may have been it's given name in the Spanish language, which peaked my interest to no end.  Sure enough, the word for jellyfish in Spanish is MEDUSA, and it's no coincidence that it shares it's name with the Mythical Gorgon from Greek mythology.

In Greek myth, in place of Medusa's hair, were many living snakes squirming and thrashing about, and if you were to gaze into her eyes you would be turned to stone.  Perseus (also of legend) was said to have beheaded her and brought her head back to Zeus.

Anyway, there are some similarities you can find between a Jellyfish and the head of Medusa.  Obviously somebody thought so, and it stuck.  But no, you won't turn to stone if you look into the eyes of a jellyfish (do they even have eyes?), although you don't want to come into contact with their tentacles or they will sting you.  Also, if you think about it a little in your mind's eye, the jellyfish can look like the shape of a head with snakes attached to it.

Which brings me to the question, how, and under what circumstances, did this observation originally take place?  At this point in time (because I can't seem to find anything on it's origin on the world wide web), I'd like to think it had to do with superstitious sailors from long ago.  Probably ancient Greek sailors even, seeing as how Medusa is part of Greek mythology.  In those times, they merged their history and ancestry with mythology, so many believed these stories as truth.  So, possibly at some point in time one of them may have fell overboard and, already in a panicked state, thought that this creature was the head of Medusa. Or perhaps he simply described it as such to his crew and it stuck.  Either way, it stuck very well.

Today, many languages use the word Medusa (pl. Medusae) in place of our English word "jellyfish".  Among these languages are Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, French, Finnish, Hebrew, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Russian, Czech, Romanian, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish.  (I did not check them all, but I'm positive they must have varied spelling and pronunciation.)


If anyone does know the truth as to the origin of why jellyfish were named after Medusa, please please PLEASE let me know.

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