In Plato’s Gorgias Socrates accuses Polus of trying to frighten him: “You are trying to make my flesh creep,” he says (473d), all of which is expressed in Greek by the single word mormoluttēi (μορμολύττῃ), a form of the curious verb mormoluttomai (μορμολύττομαι).[1] Its first element is from Mormō (or Mormōn, Μορμώ(ν)), a female hobgoblin invoked by nurses and mothers to scare children—a practice condemned in the Republic, where Socrates says that mothers should not “terrify their children with harmful tales,” such at least as speak evil of the gods (381e, trans. Shorey). The second element of the verb suggests, and possibly derives from, the root lutt– or luss-, which means rage or madness.

Socrates uses this verb in Crito as well, saying that he will not yield to Crito’s plea and flee prison and Athens unless better arguments are found than the usual ones, “not even if the power of the multitude frighten us with even more terrors than at present, as children are frightened with goblins (ὥσπερ παῖδας ἡμᾶς μορμολύττηται), threatening us with imprisonments and deaths and confiscations of property” (46c, trans. Fowler). In Phaedo, the related noun mormolukeion (μορμολυκεῖον), hobgoblin, is found; its second element may suggest lukos, wolf. The occasion there is Cebes’ asking Socrates to persuade the child within us, who is afraid that at death the soul may be dispersed by the wind, “not to fear death as if it were a hobgoblin” (ὥσπερ τὰ μορμολύκεια, 77e). These are Mormo’s only appearances in Plato. Incidentally, the dialogues Crito, Gorgias, Phaedo, which may have been composed in that order, seem to me successive attempts to allow Socrates an ampler defense than he achieved in the Apology; and in each, ugly Mormo is a face of the doom he scorns to fear.

Well, what is Mormo? Did the name suggest a bad mommy (mammē, mammia), maybe a wicked stepmother? or the roaring boil of water (verbs (ana)mormurō, implying danger in Homer)? or murmēx, the ant, in her myrmidonian multitudes (cf. Latin formica, ant, formido, dread)? or even moros, fate, death? What a cowed infant felt I don’t know, but I’m sure that a little sophistication will not mislead if it carries our thought from Mormo to the notorious Gorgo (Gorgō or Gorgōn, Γοργώ(ν))—substituting the throat for the lips by replacing a letter. (Such transition is natural enough in language, and the present case is simpler than passing between Samsa and Kafka, is it not?) I propose, then, that behind the nursery-bugbear Mormon lies concealed the terrific Gorgon, which would freeze men into a greater stillness than that of a frightened child. Two characters in Aristophanes support the connection, making fun of the Gorgon on Lamachus’s shield by calling it Mormon: Dicaeopolis in Acharnians (574, 582; by the way, Callicles is identified as Acharnian at a moment to remember, Gorgias 495d) and Trygaeus in Peace (474).

The Gorgon, of course, is prominent in myth (now one Gorgon, now three of them), but Plato, in all his writing, manages to mention her only once, and then in passing, when Socrates dismisses “Gorgons” as one of the kinds of creature he doesn’t have the leisure to investigate—given that he is busy considering whether or not he is himself a monster (Phaedrus 229d–e). On the other hand, we hear of the professor of rhetoric Gorgias (Γοργίας) not only in his own dialogue, where his name sounds some 75 times, but also in several others; and in one of these, Socrates puns on the name, recalling Odysseus’s fear that “Persephone might send upon me out of the house of Hades the head of the Gorgon, that terrible (δεῖνος) monster”(Odyssey 11.633–35, trans. Murray/Dimock) in order to mock as Gorgian Agathon’s elegant praise of Love (Eros). “His speech,” confesses Socrates, “so reminded me of Gorgias that I simply felt myself in the plight Homer tells of: I was afraid that Agathon would end his speech by sending the head of Gorgias, clever at [or fearsome in, δεῖνος] speaking, against my speech [i.e., the one he was about to deliver], and turn me to very stone in voicelessness” (Symposium 198c). As I have written elsewhere: “Here he shows behind Agathon’s Love a monster that takes away rather than giving, that is fit to gaze upon shades. One day, of course, the philosopher will succumb to petrifaction—his body, that is…. [Indeed,] having drunk the hemlock, Socrates turns ‘cold and hard’ [Phaedo 118a].”[2]

Behind Agathon, as behind Polus, stands Gorgias; behind Agathon’s Eros, as behind what Socrates calls Polus’s Mormo, stands the Gorgon. I don’t mean to claim any close analogy between the young men’s presentations, merely to call attention to the menace that springs from the Gorgian source, its dangerous power concealed in each case by a harmless conventional figure, of benevolent Love—surpassingly young and fair, quite childish, as Agathon represents him—or the laughable nursery bogey, a fright long outgrown by any Athenian gentleman. Such concealment is a principal subject of Gorgias, in which flattery, putting on a mask as in Greek theater (the verb is ὑποδύ(ν)ω), slips in under, or assumes the character of, art: rhetoric under justice, fancy cookery under medicine, etc. (464b–465c). Polus, to be sure, thinks he has shown Socrates not a mere hobgoblin, but a genuine terror, the would-be tyrant detected in his plotting and horribly tortured to death. Against this figure he has set the same man successful, who is able to “pass his life as the ruler in his city, doing whatever he likes (ποιῶν ὅτι ἂν βούληται), and envied and congratulated by the citizens and the foreigners besides” (473c–d). For Socrates it is the latter portrait that chills. The former has depicted the working of conventional justice, which punishes the body; the other shows conventional good fortune, which masks the diseased soul of a spoiled child grown monstrous.

At stake is “that distinction between being and seeming, inner reality and outward appearance, which runs through the whole of the dialogue from [463e]…. A ‘shame-culture’ tends to obliterate this distinction, which explains Plato’s continual insistence on it.” Here a “shame-culture” means one “in which to be ‘well thought of’ is the accepted social aim,” one “which equates happiness with prestige.” (E. R. Dodds, Plato: Gorgias, 11, 227, 243.) As exponent of that Platonic insistence, Socrates is out of place among the Athenians, somewhat in the way that Odysseus, who understands the distinction and makes use of it, is unique among Homeric heroes. To the extent that Socrates may be the charmer (ἐπῳδός) desired by Cebes (Phaedo 78a), his song works to dispel the false forms placed over reality by those who would encourage the foolish child within. Hence the good-humored accusation of Agathon, who no doubt suspects that the praise of Eros he is going to deliver will be more superficial than his penetrating friend can approve: “You want to throw a spell over (φαρμάττειν) me, Socrates, so that I may be flustered with the consciousness of the high expectations the audience has formed of my discourse” (Symposium 194a, trans. Lamb)—the verb for “throw a spell over” means also to treat by medicinal drugs, so there is a suggestion of the philosopher as healer; or rather, since the imagined treatment was to precede the symptom of disorder, as practitioner of preventive medicine.

Revenons à ces Mormons. Apart from being called Mormon, the Gorgon on Lamachus’s shield was quite in order. It’s on the aegis of Zeus that Athena bears (Iliad 5.741–42, and early art; cf. Aeneid 2.616)—though “exactly what this object was remains unclear, even after its many appearances in Homer… In sixth- and fifth-century Greek art… [it] seems to be a combination breastplate and cloak” (T. Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 84–85), and Milton offers another view:

What was that snaky-headed Gorgon shield
That wise Minerva wore, unconquer’d Virgin,
Wherewith she freez’d her foes to congeal’d stone,
But rigid looks of Chaste austerity,
And noble grace that dash’t brute violence
With sudden adoration and blank awe?

(Comus 447–52)—in response to which interpretation one can only exclaim, “How charming is divine Philosophy!” (476). —Where was I? Oh yes, the Gorgon appears on Agamemnon’s shield as well (Iliad 11.36–37), and an Athenian (buying sardines) will sport it too (Aristophanes, Lysistrata 560). Now it seems to me that a shield, or shielding aegis, with its Mormo-Gorgo, provides a convenient symbol for the defensive screen of words with which a Gorgias resists the questions of a Socrates, as if they were the very lightning of Zeus (Iliad 21.400–401). For smooth as Gorgian rhetoric is, in point of real intelligibility Socrates would consider it no better than the Aeschylean “Scamanders, or moats, or shields bronze-bossed and blazoned with griffin-eagles, and huge craggy utterances that weren’t easy to decipher” which Euripides complains of in Aristophanes’ Frogs: “When he’d humbugged along like that and the play was half over, he’d come out with a dozen words as big as an ox with crests and beetling brows, formidable bogey-faced things unfamiliar to the spectators” (923–30, trans. Henderson)—Mormo-faced, or Mormo-eyed, that is, mormorōpa (μορμορωπά).

Considering, finally, that Callicles’ fancying himself a lion (Gorgias 483e–484a) invites us to remember the native place of his famous guest and style the latter Gorgias of Leontini, it is a coincidence almost too apt that the Spartan hero-king Leonidas took to wife the clever princess Gorgo (on whose precocious perspicacity see Herodotus 5.48–51), making her, so to speak, Gorgo of Leonidas. Apt, I say, because of the tale Herodotus tells at the end of his seventh book, of how the deposed Spartan king Demaratus wrote secretly to his former countrymen to reveal the design of Xerxes against Greece:

Taking a double tablet, he scraped away the wax from it, and then wrote the king’s plan on the wood. Next he melted the wax back again over the writing, so that the bearer of this seemingly blank tablet might not be troubled by the way-wardens. When the tablet came to Lacedaemon, the Lacedaemonians could not guess its meaning, until at last (as I have been told) Gorgo, Cleomenes’ daughter and Leonidas’ wife, discovered the trick herself and advised them to scrape the wax away so that they would find writing on the wood. When they did so, they found and read the message, and presently sent it to the rest of the Greeks. (7.239, trans. Godley.)

Who knows what evil lurks beneath the innocent smooth surface? Gorgo knows.


[1] Here “trying to” expresses the “conative present,” a sense of the Greek verb which must be inferred from the context. See Smyth’s Greek Grammar, §1878.

[2] Quoted from p. 89 of the book Valéry’s Graveyard mentioned in About the present blog.