Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Perseus and Medusa

Even today the monstrous Medusa, whose gaze spelled doom for all who looked upon her dread visage, is an iconic figure in our shared psyche, featured in Greek verse, Roman poetry, Renaissance painting, Baroque sculpture and modern cinema alike. But how many know the story behind the serpents? How many know for example, that Medusa was once a normal, mortal woman, who became a hideous creature cursed by the gods? Where is this stuff written? - The story, one of the earliest stories of heroes and monsters, can be found in many places; the two most prominent places being in a poem called The Metamorphoses and in one of the many stories which make up the Library of Greek Mythology.

Sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini.
The story begins one day when King Acrisius of Argos (a powerful city on the eastern shores of Greece) heard from the Oracle of Delphi that should his daughter, Danaë, give birth to a son, he would die at his hands. So as to prevent the prophecy from ever coming to pass, Acrisius imprisoned Danaë in a high tower, forbidding her any visitors. The machinations of man were mere playthings to gods however, and the barred windows of the lady’s cell were no barrier to the King of the Gods. Zeus took the form of a shower of gold and cascaded through the bars and gave Danaë a son – Perseus. Acrisius was furious and bound Danaë and the demigod in a chest and hurled them into the sea.

Danaë prayed desperately to the gods, and the Thunderer heard her prayers. The chest washed up on the shore of the isle of Seriphos, where it was found by the fisherman Dictys. Dictys raised Perseus in the humble life of the fisherman until he was a man. Dictys’ brother Polydectes was a cruel and scheming man however, and the King of Seriphos. He desired to take Danaë for himself, and destroy the young Perseus. One day Polydectes summoned all his friends to him, and told them he was collecting contributions in order to be wed to the lady Hippodameia. Many gave horses as a gift to the king, but Perseus had no horse to give, and so asked the king to name anything and he would bring it. Polydectes seized his chance and ordered Perseus to bring him the head of the Gorgon.

The Gorgons were three sisters by the names of Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. They were grotesque beings with snakes for hair, tusks like those of a boar, hands of bronze, wings of gold and their glance was death to man. Of the three, only Medusa was mortal and vulnerable, having once been a woman:

Painting by Caravaggio.
“Medusa was once an exceedingly beautiful maiden,

Whose hand in marriage was jealously sought by an army of suitors,

According to someone who told me he’d seen it, her marvellous hair

Was her crowning glory. The story goes that Poseidon the sea god

Defiled this glorious creature inside the shrine of Athena.

The daughter of Zeus screened her virginal eyes with her aegis in horror,

And punished the sin, by transforming the Gorgon’s beautiful hair

Into horrible snakes.”
                        - PERSEUS RECOUNTS THE TALE OF MEDUSA

So Perseus set out to vanquish the blasphemous monster. Athena came to his aid, and told him to seek the nymphs known as the Hesperides, who possessed weapons which could conquer the Gorgon. Perseus sought out the old witches, and asked where he might find these nymphs. The witches were the sisters of the Gorgons, old women from birth who shared but a single eye and a single tooth between them. At first the witches taunted and mocked Perseus, and refused to reveal the nymph’s whereabouts. Through cunning and trickery, Perseus seized the eye and tooth, and offered them back only if they gave him what he needed. Reluctantly, the witches told him all they knew.

Perseus came to the Hesperides, where the nymphs gave Perseus a magnificent set of gifts to aid him against Medusa. The nymphs gave him a magical wallet to contain the Gorgon’s head and then the enchanted helm of Hades, which had been forged by the Cyclopes during the War of the Titans, which rendered the wearer invisible. The gods themselves also gave, and Hermes lent to Perseus his winged sandals so as to grant him the gift of flight, as well as an adamantine blade to pierce Medusa’s reptilian hide. Athena gave a fine shield, whose polished bronze surface rendered the perfect reflection. Armed with his divine tools, Perseus took flight across the vast Ocean, to the ends of the Earth and arrived at the Gorgon’s cave. Over to the sleeping beasts he crept, eyes fixed on their ghastly reflection of in his shield, and with a mighty strike he severed Medusa’s head. From her bleeding neck sprung the winged horse Pegasus. Out too came Chrysaor – the result of her and Poseidon’s violation in Athena’s sanctuary. Medusa’s fellow Gorgons awoke with a start and gave chase, but Perseus quickly slipped the foul head into the wallet and made good his escape, shielded under Hades’ helm.

On his return to Polydectes, Perseus stopped in the land of Ethiopia, kingdom of Cepheus and his queen Cassiepeia. Cassiepeia proudly declared herself to be more beautiful than the Nereids (The sea nymphs) themselves, bringing down upon her kingdom the wrath of Poseidon, who unleashed a terrible Leviathan upon the people. An Oracle told the people that the land could be saved only by sacrificing the Princess Andromeda to the monster, and so King Cepheus mournfully gave the order to chain her to the rocks. Perseus offered to slay the creature if he could take Andromeda as his wife. The King eagerly agreed, and Perseus flew to the princess’ rescue:

Perseus rescues Andromeda
Painting by Paolo Veronese.
“Poised on his swift wings, Perseus eluded his ravening enemys’ jaws

And went for his weak points, hacking away with his hooked sword,

Now at its barnacled back and then at the ribs, then again

At the narrowest point of the tail where it tapered into a fish.

The monster spewed forth seawater mingled with crimson blood...”
                                               - PERSEUS SLAYS THE LEVIATHAN

Perseus was hailed as a hero, and was given Andromeda as his bride. However the brother of Cepheus, Phineus, demanded Andromeda for himself and confronted the hero. Perseus revealed the Gorgon’s head and turned Phineus and his fellow conspirators to stone.

Perseus shows the Gorgon's head to Phineus
Painting by Luca Giordano.
Returning home to Seriphos triumphant, he found his mother and the fisherman Dictys in hiding from cruel Polydectes, who now received his wish – the Gorgon’s head. Indeed he even got to look the evil thing in the eye, and was transfixed in bloodless stone. Perseus gave the throne to the fisherman Dictys and set off to confront the man behind all of this – Acrisius, who had fled Argos when he heard of the hero’s coming. Perseus competed in the pentathlon at the athletic games in the land of the Pelasgians (northern Greece), whereupon he hurled his discus. The gods made the wind blow suddenly strong, carrying the disc into the head of Acrisius, sending him to the Underworld in a single blow. The prophecy at last fulfilled, Perseus buried Acrisius outside the walls of Argos, as he himself became King of Tiryns and founded Mycenae. Andromeda gave birth to many sons and daughters, the first son taking the name of Perses – from whom the Persian race claimed origin. Perseus and Andromeda lived long lives and became the progenitors of the Danaan race, to whom many great dynasties of Greece would claim descent, even to the day they had all been trodden under the iron shod boot of the Roman legions. To be descended from the Thunder god himself was to have powerful blood flowing through your very veins. To trace your lineage through one the god’s most illustrious sons was to add even greater lustre to the sheen.

The story of Perseus is one of the most famous in Greek mythology, and both Perseus and Medusa are famous cultural icons across the West. The stories are as enchanting in the original poetry as they were read aloud. The story can be found easily and at a discounted price at Amazon:

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(The famous poem of Publius Ovidius Naso, a joy to read and 'the poetic account')

Oxford World's Classics:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A library of mythology, less poetic but contains the whole story of Perseus)

United States

Penguin Classics:
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(The famous poem of Publius Ovidius Naso, a joy to read and 'the poetic account')

Oxford World's Classics
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A library of mythology, less poetic but contains the whole story of Perseus)

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