|Perseus. Painting by Guy Fiero.|
|Perseus (PUR-see-us or PURS-yoos). Son of Zeus, heroic vanquisher of the Gorgon Medusa.|
Also see The Illustrated Perseus.
King Acrisius of Argos was warned by an oracle that he would be killed in time by a son born to his daughter Danae. So he promptly locked Danae up in a tower and threw away the key. But the god Zeus got in, disguised as a shower of gold, with the result that Perseus was born. So Acrisius straightaway stuck daughter and infant into a brazen chest and pushed it out to sea. Perhaps he expected it to sink like a stone, but instead it floated quite nicely, fetching up on a beach on the island of Seriphos. Here a fisherman named Dictys came upon the unusual bit of flotsam and adopted a protective attitude toward its contents. Thus Perseus had the advantage of a pure and simple role model as he grew to young manhood. Then one day Dictys's brother, who happened to be king in those parts, took a fancy to Danae and pressed his attentions upon her.
"You leave my mother alone," insisted Perseus, clenching a not-insubstantial fist. And the king, Polydectes by name, had no choice but to desist. Or, rather, he grew subtle in the means of achieving his desires.
"Okay, okay, don't get yourself into an uproar," he said to Perseus, though not perhaps in those exact words. He put it out that, instead, he planned to seek the hand of another maiden, one Hippodameia.
"And I expect every one of my loyal subjects to contribute a gift to the bride price," he said, looking meaningfully at Perseus. "What have you to offer?"
When Perseus did not answer right away, Polydectes went on: "A team of horses? A chariot of intricate devising? Or a coffer of gems perhaps?"
Perseus fidgeted uncomfortably. "If it meant you'd leave my mother alone, I'd gladly give you anything I owned - which unfortunately is precious little. Horses, chariot, gems, you name it - if I had 'em, they'd be yours. The sweat of my brow, the gain of my strong right arm, whatever. I'd go out and run the marathon if they were holding the Olympics this year. I'd scour the seas for treasure, I'd quest to the ends of the earth. Why, I'd even bring back the head of Medusa herself if I had it in my power."
Pausing for a breath against the pitch to which he'd worked himself up, Perseus was shocked to hear the silence snapped by a single "Done!"
"Come again?" he queried.
"You said you'd bring me Medusa's head," Polydectes replied. "Well, I say fine - go do it."
And so it was that Perseus set out one bright October morn in quest of the snake-infested, lolling-tongued, boar's-tusked noggin of a Gorgon whose very glance had the power to turn the person glanced upon to stone.
Clearly, then, Perseus had his work cut out for him. Fortunately he had an ally in Athena. The goddess of crafts and war had her own reasons for wishing to see the Gorgon vanquished, so she was eager to advise Perseus. Why, exactly, Athena had it in for Medusa is not entirely clear. The likeliest explanation is that the Gorgon, while still a beautiful young maiden, had profaned one of Athena's temples. For this sacrilege Athena turned her into a monster, but apparently this wasn't punishment enough. Now Athena wanted Medusa's head to decorate her own shield, to magnify its power by the Gorgon's terrible gaze. Athena told Perseus where he could find the special equipment needed for his task.
"Seek ye the nymphs who guard the helmet of invisibility," she counseled the young hero.
And where, Perseus inquired, might he find these nymphs?
"Ask the Gray Sisters, the Graeae, born hags with but a single eye in common. They know - if they'll tell you."
And where were the Graeae?
"Ask him who holds the heavens on his back - Atlas, renegade Titan, who pays eternally the price of defying Zeus almighty."
Okay, okay, and where's this Atlas?
"Why, that's simple enough - at the very western edge of the world."
Before sending him off on this tangled path, Athena lent Perseus her mirrored shield and suggested how he make use of it. And while her directions were somewhat deficient as to particulars, Perseus did indeed track down Atlas, who grudgingly nodded in the direction of a nearby cave where, sure enough, he found the Graeae. Perseus had heard the version of the myth whereby these Sisters, though gray-haired from infancy and sadly lacking in the eyeball department, were as lovely as young swans. But he was disappointed to find himself taking part in the version that had them as ugly as ogres. Nor was their disposition any cause for delight.
Sure, they knew where the nymphs did dwell, but that was, in a manner of speaking, theirs to know and his to find out. With cranky cackles and venomous vim, they told him just what he could do with his quest. But the hero had a trick or two up his sleeve, and by seizing that which by virtue of its scarcity and indispensability they valued above all else, he made them tell him what he wanted to know about the location of the water nymphs.
At this point Perseus might have paused to consider the extent to which his quest was akin to computer adventure gaming. For starters, there was the essential business of bringing back - as in Jason "bringing back" the Golden Fleece to Colchis where, in the form of a flying ram, it had carted off a young maiden and her brother on the point of sacrifice. How remarkably similar to a gamer acquiring a particularly hard-sought icon for his or her inventory. Or so Perseus might have reflected had he been born in the era of compact discs and read-only memory. And then, in furtherance of his Medusa quest, there was the laundry list of other "inventory" that had to be acquired first, beginning with the shield with the mirrored surface and the helmet of invisibility.
Some versions of the myth have it that the water nymphs in question were pretty much garden variety. Properly referred to as naiads, they were minor deities of a far-less-than Olympian order, mildly powerful in their own limited way, but not even immortal, and confined in their scope of operation to a given body of water. For just as dryads are fairy creatures attached to trees, and Nereids are ocean-going, naiads are nymphs that live in ponds and pools.
Thus when the handsome youth Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the surface of a pool, he broke the heart of the nymph who dwelled therein, who was condemned only to repeat Narcissus's sighs and murmurs like an echo. In fact, Echo was her name. And thus when the handsome youth Hylas strayed while fetching water for his shipmates on the Argo, some nymphs at the water hole were so smitten that they yanked him beneath the surface to dwell with them forever - much to the despair of Heracles, whose squire he was.
One version of the Perseus myth holds that the naiads he sought were special indeed, having as their domain the dark and lifeless waters of the river Styx, in the deepest Underworld. They were also reputed to have such bad personal habits that they could be smelled from a great distance. Such is perhaps understandable given the dubious cleansing powers of a river in Hell.
At length Perseus found the nymphs and got the gear. This consisted of the helmet of invisibility, winged sandals and a special pouch for carrying Medusa's head once he'd chopped it off. Medusa would retain the power of her gaze even in death, and it was vital to hide the head unless occasion called for whipping it out and using it on some enemy.
The god Hermes also helped out at this point, providing Perseus with a special cutting implement, a sword or sickle of adamant. Some add that it was Hermes, not the nymphs, who provided the winged sandals. Thus Perseus was equipped - one might even say overequipped - for his task. In fact, a careful examination of the hero's inventory leads to the suspicion that we are presented here with a case of mythological overkill.
A quick escape would be essential after slaying Medusa, since she had two equally monstrous sisters who would be sure to avenge her murder, and they had wings of gold or brass which would bear them in swift pursuit of the killer. So at least the winged sandals were a good idea. But if this supernatural appliance guaranteed the swiftest of escapes, why bother with a helmet of invisibility, which made it just about impossible for the Gorgons to find you even if you didn't deign to hurry away? Because it makes for a better myth, that's why.
And so Perseus sought out Medusa's lair, surrounded as it was by the petrified remains of previous visitors, and he found the Gorgon sleeping; Yes, even though he had the good old magic arsenal, Perseus was not so foolhardy as to wake Medusa. And even though her gaze could hardly be expected to turn anyone to stone while her eyes were closed, he used the device provided by Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly. (This suggests that you could be turned to stone just by gazing at Medusa, though most versions of the myth have it that it was the power of her gaze that counted.)
Entering, then, somewhat unglamorously into the fray - if "fray" is the right word to describe a battle against a sleeping opponent - Perseus whacked Medusa's head off. At just that instant, the winged horse Pegasus, offspring of Medusa and the god Poseidon, was born from the bleeding neck. Then Perseus donned his special getaway gear and departed victoriously before Medusa's sisters could take their revenge. Though these sisters were immortal, Medusa clearly was not. She died when her head was severed, which required the special cutting implement given to Perseus by Hermes.
Even in death Medusa's gaze could turn things to stone, so Perseus quickly stored his trophy in the special sack provided by the water nymphs. Returning to Seriphos, he put it to good use on King Polydectes, who had gone back to pestering the hero's mother just as soon as Perseus was out of sight. Polydectes made the mistake of being sarcastic about Perseus's conquest of the Gorgon. And since he took this truly heroic accomplishment for granted, he himself was ever afterwards taken for granite.