PERSEUS

AN oracle had informed King Acrisius of Argos that his grandson would deprive him of his throne and his life. Because of this he had his daughter Danae and Perseus, her child by Zeus, shut in a chest and cast into the sea. Through wave and wind Zeus guided the course of the chest, and the tide at last beached it on the island of Seriphus, over which two brothers ruled: Dictys and Polydectes. Dictys was fishing when the chest hove out of the water, and he dragged it ashore. Both he and his brother lavished affection on Danae and her child. Polydectes took her to wife and had Perseus, the son of Zeus, carefully reared.

When he was fully grown, his stepfather urged him to go in search of adventure and undertake some quest that would bring him glory. The youth was willing enough, and soon they agreed that he was to find the Medusa, strike off her terrible head, and bring it to the king in Seriphus.

Perseus set out on his quest, and the gods guided him to a far-off region where Phorcys, father of many monsters, made his home. There Perseus came upon his three daughters, the Graeae. These were gray-haired from birth and had between them only one eye and one tooth, which they took turns in using. Perseus robbed them of both, and when they pleaded with him to return their priceless property, he consented on one condition: that they show him the way to the nymphs.

These nymphs were magical beings with certain prized possessions: a pair of winged shoes, a wallet, and a helmet of dog-hide. Whoever wore these things could fly wherever he wished and see whom he would without being seen himself. The daughters of Phorcys pointed out the road which led to the home of the nymphs, and so recovered their eye and tooth. From the nymphs Perseus found out what he wanted and seized the wallet, throwing it over his shoulder, the winged sandals, which he bound to his feet, and the helmet, which he set on his head. Hermes lent him a brazen shield, and furnished with all these aids he flew toward the ocean where the Gorgons, the three other daughters of Phorcys, lived. Only the third, who was called the Medusa, was mortal, and that was why Perseus had been sent to cut off her head. He found the Gorgons asleep. Instead of skin, they had dragon-scales, instead of hair, snakes twined their brows. Their teeth were like the tusks of a boar, and they had hands of metal and golden wings which could cleave the air. Perseus knew that anyone who looked at them would instantly be turned to stone, so he stood with his back to the sleepers, caught their triple image in his shining shield, and singled out the Medusa. Athene guided his hand, and he cut off the monster’s head without mishap.

Scarcely had he done this, when a winged horse, Pegasus, sprang from her trunk, and after it the giant Chrysaor, both of them the children of Poseidon. Perseus hid the Medusa’s head in his wallet and moved off again, walking backwards in the same manner as he had approached. But now the sisters of the Medusa awoke and left their couch. Their glance fell on the body of their slain sister, and instantly they rose into the air in pursuit of the slayer. The helmet of the nymphs, however, made Perseus invisible, and they could not discover him. As he flew above the earth the winds tossed him hither and thither like a rain cloud and shook his wallet, so that the Medusa’s head oozed drops of blood which fell upon the sandy waste of Libya and changed to many-colored serpents. Ever since, Libya has been infested with poisonous vipers and adders. Then Perseus flew westward and floated down to earth in the realm of King Atlas to rest.

This king had a grove of trees bearing golden fruits, over which he had set a mighty dragon as guard. In vain did the conqueror of the Gorgon ask shelter for the night. Atlas feared for his treasure and drove him from the palace. This angered Perseus, and he said: “Since you refuse to grant me what I ask, it is I who shall grant you a gift!” And with that he drew the Medusa’s head from his wallet, turned aside, and held it out to the king, who was at once turned to stone, or rather—because of his gigantic stature—to a mountain. His beard and hair became spreading forests. His shoulders, hands, and bones stiffened to rocky ledges, and his head changed into a peak which loomed into the clouds. And now again Perseus bound the winged sandals to his feet. He strapped the wallet to his side, put the helmet on his head, and leaped into the air.

On his travels he came to the coast of Ethiopia, where King Cepheus held sway. Here he saw a girl chained to a cliff which jutted into the sea. Had her hair not blown in the wind and the tears trembled in her eyes, he would have taken her for a statue carved of marble. In his delight at her loveliness he almost forgot to move his wings. “Tell me,” he implored her, “why you, who should be decked out in shimmering jewels, are bound with chains? Tell me the name of your country. Tell me your own name.”

At first she was silent and shy, afraid to speak to a stranger. Had she been able to move, she would have covered her face with her hands. But so the youth might not believe she had some guilt to conceal, she answered at last. “I am Andromeda, the daughter of Cepheus, king of Ethiopia. My mother boasted to the sea nymphs, who are the daughters of Nereus, that she was more beautiful than they. This made the Nereids angry, and their friend, the sea-god, churned up a flood which swept across the land. With it came a monster, devouring whatever crossed his path. An oracle promised liberation from this plague provided I, the king’s daughter, were thrown to the beast for food. My father’s people pressed him to save them, and in despair he had me fettered to this cliff.”

She had hardly finished when the waves parted with a rushing noise, and from the depths of the ocean rose a monster whose broad breast stretched over the surface of the waters. The girl screamed with terror, and her parents hastened toward her, frantic with grief, her mother’s sorrow doubled by her sense of guilt. They embraced their daughter but could think of nothing to do but weep and lament.

Then Perseus spoke: “There is always time enough for tears, but the hour to act passes swiftly. I am Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae. Magic wings carry me through the air, and the Medusa fell by my sword. Even if this girl were free and had her choice among many suitors, I should make no mean husband for her. Yet I woo her now, as she is, and offer to save her.” Who could have hesitated under such circumstances? The happy parents promised him not only their daughter but their own kingdom as her dowry.

While they were still intent on questioning each other, the monster approached like a ship with the wind full in her sails, and was soon only a stone’s throw from the cliff. Then the youth took off from land, thrusting against it with his foot, and bounded into the upper air. The beast saw his shadow on the sea and made for it with furious speed, scenting an enemy who threatened to cheat it of its prey. Perseus darted from the sky like an eagle, landed on the animal’s back, and plunged the weapon with which he had killed the Medusa into its body just below the neck, up to the very hilt. Hardly had he drawn forth the blade, when the scaly thing now leaped high into the air, now dived deep into the tide, and there raged in all directions like a boar pursued by the pack. Perseus struck at it again and again until the black blood gushed from its throat. But his wings were dripping, and he no longer dared trust to his water-logged plumage. Fortunately he espied a reef whose highest point projected from the waves. With his left hand he supported himself on this slender pinnacle, while his right drove the blade twice, three, four times, into the monster’s bowels. The current carried the vast body away, and soon it vanished from the face of the deep. Perseus had sprung ashore. He climbed the cliff and loosed the bonds of the girl, who welcomed him with a look of gratitude and love. He brought her to her rejoicing parents, and the golden palace flung its gates wide for the bridegroom.

The wedding feast was still steaming on the board, and the hours sped nimbly by in carefree happiness, when the courts suddenly filled with a muttering throng. Phineus, the brother of King Cepheus, who had wooed his niece Andromeda but abandoned her in her need, had come to renew his claims, supported by a host of armed men. Brandishing his spear, he entered the wedding-hall and cried out to Perseus, who listened in amazement: “I have come to avenge the theft of my promised bride. Neither your wings nor Zeus, your father, will help you escape me!” And even as he spoke he aimed his spear.

Then Cepheus rose and called to his brother. “You are mad!” he said. “What is driving you to this evil deed? It was not Perseus who robbed you of your beloved. You gave her up when we were forced to consent to her death, and you stood by while she was being bound and failed to offer aid either as her uncle or her lover. Why did you not carry off the prize from the cliff yourself? The least you can do now is leave her to him who has won her fairly and comforted my old age by preserving my daughter for me!”

Phineus did not deign to reply. He shot angry glances, now at his brother, now at his rival, as if weighing in his mind which of the two should be his first victim. After that instant of hesitation, however, he hurled his spear at Perseus with a force doubled by rage. But he missed, and the weapon buried its point in a cushion on one of the couches. And now Perseus leaped up and flung his javelin toward the door through which Phineus had entered, and it would have pierced his breast had he not saved himself by darting behind the altar. As it was, the weapon struck the forehead of one of his companions, and now his entire retinue pressed forward and engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the wedding guests, so rudely startled from the banquet. They strove hard and long, but the intruders outstripped the guests in numbers, and at last Perseus found himself surrounded by Phineus and his warriors. Arrows whirred through the air like hailstones in a storm. Perseus covered his back by standing up against a column and from this point of vantage turned upon his foes, checked their forward surge, and slew one after another. But there were too many of them, and only when he realized that valor alone would not avail him here did he resort to the last sure means at his disposal. “Since you force me to it,” he cried, “my old enemy shall help me! Let whatever friend I have here turn his head away!” With this he drew the Medusa’s head from the wallet he always wore slung across his shoulder and held it up to the nearest assailant. The man cast a rapid glance at the object before him and laughed in derision. “Go, find someone else to impress with your miracles,” he shouted. But even as he lifted his hand to throw the javelin, he turned to stone, his hand still raised in mid-air. And the same thing happened to one after another. When only two hundred were left, Perseus held the head of the Medusa so high that all could see it at once, and the whole two hundred stopped in their tracks and became rock. Not until then did Phineus feel a qualm at his unrighteous warfare. Right and left he saw nothing but statues, and when he called to his friends, no one answered. He touched the flesh of those nearest him with unbelieving fingers, but it had turned to marble! Then at last he succumbed to terror, and his defiance changed to confusion. “Only leave me my life,” he pleaded. “The bride and the realm shall be yours!” But in his sadness at the death of his new friends, Perseus was implacable. “Traitor,” he replied, “I shall found an enduring monument to you in the house of my parents-in-law,” and though Phineus tried to evade it, he was forced to look upon that awful head. The tears in his eyes stiffened to stone, and there he stood with cowardly mien, arms hanging at his sides, in the humble attitude of a servant.

And now Perseus could take home his beloved Andromeda. Long, radiant days lay in store for him, and he even found his mother Danae again. But he could not escape being the tool which brought disaster to his grandfather Acrisius, who, for fear of the oracle, had fled to an alien land, to the king of the Pelasgians. Here he was attending athletic contests, held on a certain festival day, when Perseus, bound on a voyage to Argos, arrived on the scene. He took part in the games and by unlucky chance struck Acrisius with the discus. When he knew what he had done, and who it was he had killed, he deeply mourned the dead, buried his grandfather beyond the confines of the city, and bartered the kingdom he had inherited. And now envious Fate stopped persecuting him. Andromeda bore him many beautiful sons, and in them their father’s glory lived on.

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