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In mythology, the gorgons were Medusa and her sisters; snake-like beings who petrified those who saw them.

In Dungeons & Dragons, gorgons are bulls with metal scales and the ability to breathe petrifying gas as an attack (AD&D, 3.5):

Illustration for the Gorgon entry, D&D 3rd edition, Monster Manual (2000), page 111

Is there any material (book or interview quotes, forum posts, etc) that explains why the D&D gorgons stray so far from the mythological beings they're named after? Alternatively, are there other examples of "gorgon = bull monster" that predate AD&D and may have influenced the design?

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    \$\begingroup\$ [...] however earlier accounts describe her as having a scaly head, a boar's tusks, bronzed hands, a protruding tongue, glaring eyes and a snake around the waist as a belt en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stheno \$\endgroup\$
    – Cœur
    Dec 9, 2017 at 5:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hey, thats the metal bulls from the Percy Jackson books. \$\endgroup\$
    – qazwsx
    Oct 14, 2018 at 22:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi, since designer-reasons are now off-topic, I think the question might be improved by asking only the second part of the question (starting at Are there other examples...) and changing the title accordingly, like "Are there other gorgons that are metal bull monsters, like in D&D?" or something. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Jul 20, 2020 at 23:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I’m voting to close this question because designer intent was deemed off topic. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Feb 25 at 8:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot will it help if it were "how" not "why" it's so different? I think this question can be interpreted as asking about the history, rather than looking for 'why the designer made this this way' \$\endgroup\$
    – Vylix
    Feb 25 at 8:07

2 Answers 2

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Alright, well, let me wade into this.

Oddly enough, I'm going to start by pointing to The Inhumans, the Marvel Comics property, whose character Gorgon debuted in 1965. Gorgon was described as having phenomenal strength and bull-like hooves, a combination that allowed him to stomp the ground and produce destructive seismic waves. Coincidentally, another Inhuman debuting earlier that year is Medusa. So the idea of "gorgon" referring to a bull-like creature and being distinct from Medusa was already in place before D&D launched.

This is of course not the first time this question has been raised, and while I have never found anything conclusive - which would pretty much have to be Gygax saying "so then I did this, and this is why" in an interview or column - I have followed the trail to the most likely culprit.

...which is this, The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes:

the cover of the very old book, depicting what looks like a scaled bull on the cover

The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes is a book from 1607 detailing mythical and legendary beings as described by one Edward Topsell, who appears to have believed he was writing about real animals he'd simply never seen before. Here he speaks of the "Lybian Beast" or "Gorgon," a dreadful bull-like creature which feasts on poisonous herbs and so possesses a lethal breath.

Did Gygax read this book? We have no proof, though we have corroboration from another entry in The Historie which treats the lamia as a species of creature, half woman and half lion. Considering the mythological Lamia is an individual and a child-eating demoness by trade, the similarity of The Historie's version to the D&D interpretation cannot be overlooked. There's also the "Wilde Beast in the New found World called SU," a monkey-like critter reminiscent of another oddball and unique D&D creature.

Further corroboration comes from Jon Peterson's history Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures from Chess to Role-Playing Games, which also attributes the development of D&D's Gorgon to Topsell's work:

From Topsell, for example, Dungeons & Dragons inherits a gorgon that looks like a bull and petrifies with its breath, rather than the gorgons of the story of Perseus, of whom Medusa is the most famous. (Chapter 2.6, at p.154)

I've seen other references that use "African gorgon" to describe the catoblepas, which Topsell's book was referencing. Of course, the catoblepas is a separate creature in D&D — but then, it's more known for a lethal gaze than deadly breath. Thus, despite similar mythology informing both Topsell's "gorgon" and the D&D catoblepas, two distinctive monsters are produced.

What about the metallic hide? Well, for that, let's look at another mythical creature with which Gygax was likely familiar. The Colchis Bulls, or khalkotauroi, were mighty and terrible bronze bulls that could breathe fire. Overcoming them was a task with which Jason, of Argonauts fame, was charged. It may be that Gygax liked the myth but wanted to find a more accessible name than "khalkotauroi" and one less real-world-referencing than "Colchis Bulls," and inadvertently determined from various readings that Topsell's bull-monster with the killer breath and the other dangerous legendary bulls with ultra halitosis were references to the same creature. Thus was produced a thing with the best of both worlds - metallic hide, poisonous breath, and no unfortunate neck deficiency.

Needless to say this is all speculation, though it does look to sources that refer to the "gorgon" as a bovine creature.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This article from 2014 by a certain F. Wesley Schneider has a few additional details (as well as quite a number of points this A also lists.) \$\endgroup\$
    – OpaCitiZen
    Dec 8, 2017 at 14:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ The evidence is quite good that Gygax got this from an intermediary source, Lehrer's Fantastic Bestiary, which of course drew on Topsell et al. More stuff I found since Playing at the World came out. playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2014/02/… \$\endgroup\$
    – inky
    Dec 8, 2017 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @OpaCitiZen I used to have a copy of "all the world's monsters" which was released juts before the AD&D monster manual; if I can find it, I'll dig through it and see of there is a similar reference. (Written by the same gent who founded Chaosium, IIRC). \$\endgroup\$ Apr 5, 2018 at 13:26
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There are several direct statements by Gary Gygax about the source of the Gorgon, on the ENWorld Forum Thread

(Typos as in the original posts - Gary was more about getting the answer out than about spellchecking on those forums, it seems.)

You clearly are not steeped in medieval bestiary lore;) In that regard the gorgon is a scaled bull, so rather than having only three sisters the D&D game had a rade of medusas and a race of gorgons.

The bull-like, metalpscaled gorgon is taken directly from a medieval bestiary. You might point out that I have medusae as a separate kind of monster. Do tell your Astute Wife that the critter shown is just one of many taked from medieval bestiaries. the catoblepas and opinicus being a couple of other examples. (Post #7537)

The scale-mailed bull model of a gorgon came directly from a copy of a medieval bestiary, the title of which I do not recall, but it was and probably still is in the local (Lake Geneva) public library. I was happy to use that model, for it added another fearsome monster to the roster for DM use (Post #5292)

And also on the Dragonsfoot Q&A with Gary Gygax:

There is no definative authority regarding fabulous monsters. For example, a medieval bestiary shows the gorgon as a metal-scaled bull as I gave in the AD&D MM. (This post)

The bull-like gorgon with iron scales is found in medieval bestiaries. I know it for a fact because that's where I got the critter--along with the catoblepas and a handful of other monsters (This post)

It looks like afroakuma found a likely candidate for the "medieval bestiary" Gary refers to. Someone with access to the Lake Geneva public library could probably check if that volume is in the catalogue and close the loop -- I could not find it in the online search.

If you are interested in OD&D monster sources, here is a compilation from trawling through Gary's posts on these forums.

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