Medusa Extra — Oscilla etc.


  This page has some material from chapter Nine of Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon, as well as from my Classical World article, “The Scarecrow of Os”, along with pictures that I couldn’t get into either of them. At least here, I can post them in color.

 Medusa 01

The Gorgoneion (Gorgon’s Head). From a terra cotta piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Gorgoneion, the face of the Gorgon, is used in some very specific places in Graeco-Roman culture. One of these is on antefixes, the semicircular terra cotta panels that were placed along the edges of tiled roofs. They sealed up the semicircular holes that were left by the U-shaped tiles that made up the roofs. For some reason, such antefixes aren’t used very often in modern tile roofs, but you can sometimes see copper antefixes, crusted with green verdigris, lining the tops of 20th century buildings in older cities.

 Tile Roof with Antefixes

Tile roof, showing how the overlapping pieces are sealed at the ends by the semicircular pieces at the bottom to cover the “holes” left by the convex tiles.

These antefixes in Greece and the Roman empire were almost always decorated, either with faces or with floral patterns. The most common face decoration was the face of a Gorgon, with its oversized staring eyes, unruly hair, and protruding tongue. They almost never have snakes in place of hair

Van Doren Antefixes 01 LIMC Antefixes 02

Some Antefixes with Gorgon faces on them. Note the oversized eyes. The example in the upper left actually has drilled-out holes for eyes.

But similar antefixes also appeared on roof tiles in China and Japan, also with wide-eyed staring faces. Why should such similar decorations appear on the same items from such widely-separated areas of the world?

 Japanese AntefixJapanese Antefix

The Greek and Roman antefixes were usually decorated with faces — most often Gorgon faces, but sometimes female vfaces or faces of Bacchus. Even if they weren’t decorated with faces, the designs often still resembled faces, as with the following floral antefixes


Floral Antefix 01 Floral Antefix 02Floral Antefix 03

In the top case the two spiraling features are actually called “eyes” by archaeologists. The middle example (from a drawing of an antefix) not only has “eyes”, but a mouth, as well. The bottom example sems to have Eyes and a Nose. The two out-of-place seeming horses hooves were associated with a sculpture along the edge of the roof.


What was the point of this face-like decoration? An unmarked antefix could block off the unsightly “holes” at the end of a row of tiles perfectly well. If decoration was felt necessary, why faces, instead of abstract patterns, letters, or something else? It’s because, I submit, these faces served a practical purpose. Here’s why:

Pigeon Tile Roof Damage

Tile Roof Damage due to Birds

Tile roofs are vulnerable to damage from nesting birds. Those open holes care exactly the right size and distance above the ground to attract several varieties of birds, including starlings, which will eagerly nest in “communities”, which those side-by-side openings encourage.

The antefixes close off these holes, but they can be worked loose. A way to prevent birds from even attempting to approach the antefixes is to place a Startling Face on them, the chief feature of which is the oversized pair of eyes.

Such “Startling Eyes” are used by caterpillars and butterflies to deter predators, and there is an extensive modern business which uses such Startle Faces to scare away birds:


The “Terror Eyes” balloon not only has oversized dark eyes, but  they are holographic, and appear to move from side to side. The efficiency of such devices in dfeterring birds from raiding fruit orchards isn’t just anecdotal — there have been scientific studies demonstrating their effectiveness.

Take a look at that Gorgon Antefix with the drilled-out eyes. Not only are they large and somewhat spooky looking, even to humans, but they will always be dark. There is no paint to be worn away. In a way, such cut-out eyes are the equivalent of the Terror Eyes balloon’s holographic eyes. They seem more alive than a still painting would be.

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone consciously came up with the idea of using such designs as Gorgon faces to scare away birds. There was, I suggest, a sort of evolutionary process to it. Many different designs were drawn on antefixes, but some designs seemed to be “luckier” than others, more adept at deterring roof damage by nesting birds. No one designed those Floral Antefixes to keep away birds — they were just better at doing so than, say, abstract patterns. And the succeeded because the design just happened to resemble a face with Stare Eyes.

As for the Gorgon, the oversized eyes (they are larger, in proportion to the face, than real human eyes are) are the true hallmark of the Gorgon face. Ancient gorgons rarely had snakes for hair. They might even lack the protruding tongue, but they ALWAYS had oversized staring eyes. The Gorgon face was the Staring Face par excellence. That’s why it ended up being used in antefixes — to scare birds — and on shields and breastplates, where they distracted human warriors (thus giving the wearer at least a momentary advantage). And they were used in these same ways all over the world because humans (and birds) react the same way all over the world, and because people everywhere were clever enough to observe these effects.


As I learned after my book Medusa came out, there were other examples of such Stare Eye Scaring Faces in the ancient world, and many of these acted like those Scare Eye balloons. They swung freely. Studies of bird scarecrows have indicated that they were more effective if they moved than if they simply stood still. The modern balloons have been used to protect orchards from bird attacksm, and have been shown to be extremely effective. Professor Ronald Prokopy of the University of Masachusrtts at Amherst found that using the balloons reduced fruit damage by birds from 12% of the crop to less than 1%.

The ancient Roman equivalent of the Scare Eyes balloon was the Oscilla. The original form of this  was a mask of a human face (or a face of Bacchus) made of some light material like tee bark or cloth or wax and hung up in a tree, where it swung freely in the breeze. Our word oscillate, meaning to swing from side to side, comes from this item. The word oscilla itself probably means “Little face”. Vergil writes about placing them in pine trees in his poem Georgics about the rustic life.But exactly what these Little Masks were, and why they were hung in the trees, was not entirely clear.

I suggest that they were used precisely as the Scare Eyes balloons were — to protect fruit trees from damage. Vergil’s oscillate were put in pine trees — where they could protect pine nuts from birds. We can see where other examples were put from contemporary art works:

Oscilla in Grove 01 Oscilla in Gravevines

The illustration on the left is from a cup now in the Louvre. It shows several oscillae hanging in a grape arbor. The illustration on the right is a copy of a wall painting from Pompeii, also showing an oscilla on a grape vine. These oscillate would have deterred birds from eating the grapes.


Oscilla in Olive Tree

This is a copy of an engraved gem. It depicts several oscillae in an olive tree

Birds are still problems in olive groves, grape vines, and pine trees. In fact, from the birds known to ravage such places, we can tell what the oscillate were meant to guard against. The fruit mentioned is particularly threatened by starlings and blackbirds, which alsoi happen to be the kinds of birds that would likely nest in tile roofs. The same solution — staring eye scarecrows — were used, I maintain, to guard against both cases.

Later on, they started making Oscilla in more permanent but heavier materials, like marble. These oscilla, unlike the lighter bark and cloth ones, have survived because they’re more durable. They’ve been found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii in positions that suggest they were hanging between the pillars around the central garden space, where they would still have guarded against birds, if not in so lively a fashion.

Oscilla 02

Drawing of a Marble Oscilla


Garden with Oscillae

Peristyle of a Pompeiian Garden. Note the oscillate hanging between every pair of pillars.


There were other items very similar to oscillae in appearance and function. The items shown below have been called “Drinking bowl masks”

Warning: Some may find the following images obscene. These were, however, common sights in Roman Pompeii.




Drinking Bowl Mask 01Drinking Bowl Mask 03Drinking Bowl Mask 02


Michael Grant, in his book Eros in Pompeii, calls these “Drinking Bowl Masks”, maintaining that they were filled with water, and that they acted rather like birdbaths, the birds perching on the rounded “hoops” on the cheeks. The phallic tongues, he wrote, would float atop the water when the bowl/mask was filled.

But it seems far more likely that these were not bowls, meant to lie flat, but masks meant to be hung, like the Oscilla. The ring in the first example above is very clearly meant for suspension, which loop at the top of the second one would be for as well. Terra cotta is heavier than water, so those phallic tongues would not float. If the masks were hung, however, they would act as “clappers” for bells, making the these masks not only moving scarecrows, but noise-making ones, as well. Finally, two of these have drilled-out eye holes, like the antefix cited earlier. The eyes would appear especially dark. If light entered and reflected from the back, the eyes might even appear to move, as in the modern holographic Scare Eyes balloon above.

All in all, it seems much more likely that these supposed “Drinking Bowl Masks” were really swinging, noise making, lively-eyed scarecrow figures, meant to frighten birds away. They were far livelier than the Oscillae, which simply swung in the wind. They were heavier, but, to make up for that, they made more noise and their eyes could appear to move. Like the modern balloons and modern noise-making scarecrows, these must have been particularly effective at keeping birds away.


Finally, there were the Protome. This word has many meanings, but it was applied in one instance to swinging suspended figures placed on tombs and other monuments. These were, I suggest, scarecroiw devices like the oscillate and the “drinking bowl masks”, meant to beep such monuments free from bird droppings.

Protome 01

Protome in the shape of the Head of a Young Girl


Protome 02 Lion

Protome in the form of a Lion’s Head. Observe that it has distinctive and staring eyes, like a Gorgon’s, and made of jewels. They must have flashed in the sunlight, like old CDs and DVDs that people will put out to swing in the sunlight and scare away geese from lawns.