Greek and Roman Mythology > Perseus and Medusa

Perseus and Medusa

Acrisius was the king who ruled in Argos. To him had an oracle
declared that he should be slain by the child of his daughter
Danae. Therefore the cruel king, thinking it better that Danae
should have no children than that he should be slain, ordered a
tower of brass to be made, and in this tower he confined his
daughter away from all men.

But who can withstand Jupiter? He saw Danae, loved her, and
changing his form to a shower of gold, he shone into the
apartment of the captive girl.

Perseus was the child of Jupiter and Danae. Acrisius, finding
that his precautions had come to nought, and yet hardly daring to
kill his own daughter and her young child, placed them both in a
chest and sent the chest floating on the sea. It floated away
and was finally entangled in the net of Dicte, a fisherman in the
island of Seriphus. He brought them to his house and treated
them kindly, and in the house of Dicte, Perseus grew up. When
Perseus was grown up, Polydectes, king of that country, wishing
to send Perseus to his death, bade him go in quest of the head of
Medusa. Medusa had once been a beautiful maiden, whose hair was
her chief glory, but as she dared to vie in beauty with Minerva,
the goddess deprived her of her charms and changed her beautiful
ringlets into hissing serpents. She became a cruel monster of so
frightful an aspect that no living thing could behold her without
being turned into stone. All around the cavern where she dwelt
might be seen the stony figures of men and beasts which had
chanced to catch a glimpse of her and had been petrified with the
sight. Minerva and Mercury aided Perseus. From Minerva, Perseus
borrowed her shield, and from Mercury the winged shoes and the
harpe or crooked sword. After having flown all over the earth
Perseus espied in the bright shield the image of Medusa and her
two immortal sisters. Flying down carefully he cut at her with
his harpe and severed her head. Putting the trophy in his pouch
he flew away just as the two immortal sisters were awakened by
the hissings of their snaky locks.


After the slaughter of Medusa, Perseus, bearing with him the head
of the Gorgon, flew far and wide, over land and sea. As night
came on, he reached the western limit of the earth, where the sun
goes down. Here he would gladly have rested till morning. It
was the realm of King Atlas, whose bulk surpassed that of all
other men. He was rich in flocks and herds and had no neighbor
or rival to dispute his state. But his chief pride was in his
gardens, whose fruit was of gold, hanging from golden branches,
half hid with golden leaves. Perseus said to him, "I come as a
guest. If you honor illustrious descent, I claim Jupiter for my
father; if mighty deeds, I plead the conquest of the Gorgon. I
seek rest and food." But Atlas remembered that an ancient
prophecy had warned him that a son of Jove should one day rob him
of his golden apples. So he answered, "Begone! Or neither your
false claims of glory nor of parentage shall protect you;" and he
attempted to thrust him out. Perseus, finding the giant too
strong for him, said, "Since you value my friendship so little,
deign to accept a present;" and turning his face away, he held up
the Gorgon's head. Atlas, with all his bulk, was changed into
stone. His beard and hair became forests, his arms and shoulders
cliffs, his head a summit, and his bones rocks. Each part
increased in bulk till he became a mountain, and (such was the
pleasure of the gods) heaven with all its stars rests upon his

And all in vain was Atlas turned to a mountain, for the oracle
did not mean Perseus, but the hero Hercules, who should come long
afterwards to get the golden apples for his cousin Eurystheus.

Perseus, continuing his flight, arrived at the country of the
AEthiopians, of which Cepheus was king. Cassiopeia, his queen,
proud of her beauty, had dared to compare herself to the Sea-
Nymphs, which roused their indignation to such a degree that they
sent a prodigious sea-monster to ravage the coast. To appease
the deities, Cepheus was directed hy the oracle to expose his
daughter Andromeda to be devoured by the monster. As Perseus
looked down from his aerial height he beheld the virgin chained
to a rock, and waiting the approach of the serpent. She was so
pale and motionless that if it had not been for her flowing tears
and her hair that moved in the breeze, he would have taken her
for a marble statue. He was so startled at the sight that he
almost forgot to wave his wings. As he hovered over her he said,
"O virgin, undeserving of those chains, but rather of such as
bind fond lovers together, tell me, I beseech you, your name and
the name of your country, and why you are thus bound." At first
she was silent from modesty, and, if she could, would have hid
her face with her hands; but when he repeated his questions, for
fear she might be thought guilty of some fault which she dared
not tell, she disclosed her name and that of her country, and her
mother's pride of beauty. Before she had done speaking, a sound
was heard off upon the water, and the sea-monster appeared, with
his head raised above the surface, cleaving the waves with his
broad breast. The virgin shrieked, the father and mother who had
now arrived at the scene, wretched both, but the mother more
justly so, stood by, not able to afford protection, but only to
pour forth lamentations and to embrace the victim. Then spoke
Perseus: "There will be time enough for tears; this hour is all
we have for rescue. My rank as the son of Jove and my renown as
the slayer of the Gorgon might make me acceptable as a suitor;
but I will try to win her by services rendered, if the gods will
only be propitious. If she be rescued by my valor, I demand that
she be my reward." The parents consent (how could they
hesitate?) And promise a royal dowry with her.

And now the monster was within the range of a stone thrown by a
skilful slinger, when with a sudden bound the youth soared into
the air. As an eagle, when from his lofty flight he sees a
serpent basking in the sun, pounces upon him and seizes him by
the neck to prevent him from turning his head round and using his
fangs, so the youth darted down upon the back of the monster and
plunged his sword into its shoulder. Irritated by the wound the
monster raised himself into the air, then plunged into the depth;
then, like a wild boar surrounded by a pack of barking dogs,
turned swiftly from side to side, while the youth eluded its
attacks by means of his wings. Wherever he can find a passage
for his sword between the scales he makes a wound, piercing now
the side, now the flank, as it slopes towards the tail. The
brute spouts from his nostrils water mixed with blood. The wings
of the hero are wet with it, and he dares no longer trust to
them. Alighting on a rock which rose above the waves, and
holding on by a projecting fragment, as the monster floated near
he gave him a death-stroke. The people who had gathered on the
shore shouted so that the hills re-echoed to the sound. The
parents, transported with joy, embraced their future son-in-law,
calling him their deliverer and the savior of their house, and
the virgin, both cause and reward of the contest, descended from
the rock.

Cassiopeia was an Aethiopian, and consequently, in spite of her
boasted beauty, black; at least so Milton seems to have thought,
who alludes to this story in his Penseroso, where he addresses
Melancholy as the

"------- goddess, sage and holy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight,
And, therefore, to our weaker view
O'erlaid with black, staid Wisdom's hue.
Black, but such as in esteem
Prince Memnon's sister might beseem,
Or that starred Aethiop queen that strove
To set her beauty's praise above
The Sea-nymphs, and their powers offended."

Cassiopeia is called "the starred Aethiop queen," because after
her death she was placed among the stars, forming the
constellation of that name. Though she attained this honor, yet
the Sea-Nymphs, her old enemies, prevailed so far as to cause her
to be placed in that part of the heaven near the pole, where
every night she is half the time held with her head downward, to
give her a lesson of humility.

"Prince Memnon" was the son of Aurora and Tithonus, of whom we
shall hear later.


The joyful parents, with Perseus and Andromeda, repaired to the
palace, where a banquet was spread for them, and all was joy and
festivity. But suddenly a noise was heard of war-like clamor,
and Phineus, the betrothed of the virgin, with a party of his
adherents, burst in, demanding the maiden as his own. It was in
vain that Cepheus remonstrated, "You should have claimed her
when she lay bound to the rock, the monster's victim. The
sentence of the gods dooming her to such a fate dissolved all
engagements, as death itself would have done.:" Phineus made no
reply, but hurled his javelin at Perseus, but it missed its mark
and fell harmless. Perseus would have thrown his in turn, but
the cowardly assailant ran and took shelter behind the altar.
But his act was a signal for an onset by his band upon the guests
of Cepheus. They defended themselves and a general conflict
ensued, the old king retreating from the scene after fruitless
expostulations, calling the gods to witness that he was guiltless
of this outrage on the rights of hospitality.

Perseus and his friends maintained for some time the unequal
contest; but the numbers of the assailants were too great for
them, and destruction seemed inevitable, when a sudden thought
struck Perseus: "I will make my enemy defend me." Then, with a
loud voice he exclaimed, :If I have any friend here let him turn
away his eyes!" and held aloft the Gorgon's head. "Seek not to
frighten us with your jugglery," said Thescelus, and raised his
javelin in act to throw, and became stone in the very attitude.
Ampyx was about to plunge his sword into the body of a prostrate
foe, but his arm stiffened and he could neither thrust forward
nor withdraw it. Another, in the midst of a vociferous
challenge, stopped, his mouth open, but no sound issuing. One of
Perseus's friends, Aconteus, caught sight of the Gorgon and
stiffened like the rest. Astyages struck him with his sword, but
instead of wounding, it recoiled with a ringing noise.

Phineus beheld this dreadful result of his unjust aggression, and
felt confounded. He called aloud to his friends, but got no
answer; he touched them and found them stone. Falling on his
knees and stretching out his hands to Perseus, but turning his
head away, he begged for mercy. "Take all," said he, "give me
but my life." "Base coward," said Perseus, "thus much I will
grant you; no weapon shall touch you; moreover you shall be
preserved in my house as a memorial of these events." So saying,
he held the Gorgon's head to the side where Phineus was looking,
and in the very form in which he knelt, with his hands
outstretched and face averted, he became fixed immovably, a mass
of stone!

The following allusion to Perseus is from Milman's Samor:

"As 'mid the fabled Libyan bridal stood
Perseus in stern tranquillity of wrath,
Half stood, half floated on his ankle-plumes
Out-swelling, while the bright face on his shield
Looked into stone the raging fray; so rose,
But with no magic arms, wearing alone
Th' appalling and control of his firm look,
The Briton Samor; at his rising awe
Went abroad, and the riotous hall was mute."

Then Perseus returned to Seriphus to King Polydectes and to his
mother Danae and the fisherman Dicte. He marched up the tyrant's
hall, where Polydectes and his guests were feasting. "Have you
the head of Medusa?" exclaimed Polydectes. "Here it is,"
answered Perseus, and showed it to the king and to his guests.

The ancient prophecy which Acrisius had so much feared at last
came to pass. For, as Perseus was passing through the country of
Larissa, he entered into competition with the youths of the
country at the game of hurling the discus. King Acrisius was
among the spectators. The youths of Larissa threw first, and
then Perseus. His discus went far beyond the others, and, seized
by a breeze from the sea, fell upon the foot of Acrisius. The
old king swooned with pain, and was carried away from the place
only to die. Perseus, who had heard the story of his birth and
parentage from Danae, when he learned who Acrisius was, filled
with remorse and sorrow, went to the oracle at Delphi, and there
was purified from the guilt of homicide.

Perseus gave the head of Medusa to Minerva, who had aided him so
well to obtain it. Minerva took the head of her once beautiful
rival and placed it in the middle of her Aegis.

Milton, in his Comus, thus alludes to the Aegis:

"What was that snaky-headed Gorgon-shield
That wise Minerva wore, unconquered virgin,
Wherewith she freezed her foes to congealed stone,
But rigid looks of chaste austerity,
And noble grace that dashed brute violence
With sudden adoration and blank awe!"

Armstrong, the poet of the Art of Preserving Health, thus
describes the effect of frost upon the waters:

"Now blows the surly North and chills throughout
the stiffening regions, while by stronger charms
Than Circe e'er or fell Medea brewed,
Each brook that wont to prattle to its banks
Lies all bestilled and wedged betwixt its banks,
Nor moves the withered reeds. . . .
The surges baited by the fierce Northeast,
Tossing with fretful spleen their angry heads,
E'en in the foam of all their madness struck
To monumental ice.

* * * * *

Such execution,
So stern, so sudden, wrought the grisly aspect
Of terrible Medusa,
When wandering through the woods she turned to stone
Their savage tenants; just as the foaming lion
Sprang furious on his prey, her speedier power
Outran his haste,
And fixed in that fierce attitude he stands
Like Rage in marble!"
Imitations of Shakespeare

Of Atlas there is another story, which I like better than the one
told. He was one of the Titans who warred against Jupiter like
Typhoeus, Briareus, and others. After their defeat by the king
of gods and men, Atlas was condemned to stand in the far western
part of the earth, by the Pillars of Hercules, and to hold on his
shoulders the weight of heaven and the stars.

The story runs that Perseus, flying by, asked and obtained rest
and food. The next morning he asked what he could do to reward
Atlas for his kindness. The best that giant could think of was
that Perseus should show him the snaky head of Medusa, that he
might be turned to stone and be at rest from his heavy load.

Myth Collection

Achelous and HerculesAcis and GalateaAdmetus and Alcestis
Agamemnon, Orestes, and ElectraAmphionAmphitrite
AntigoneApollo and DaphneApollo and Hyacinthus
Aurora and TithonusBacchusBaucis and Philemon
CadmusCastor and PolluxCephalus and Procris
Ceyx and HalcyoneClytieCupid and Psyche
DaedalusDiana and ActaeonDryope
Echo and NarcissusEndymionErisichthon
Glaucus and ScyllaHebe and GanymedeHercules
IbycusIo and CallistoLeucothea dnd Palaemon
LinusMarsyasMedea and Aeson
MelampusMenelaus and HelenMidas
Minerva and ArachneMonstersMusaeus
NeptuneNereus and DorisNiobe
Nisus and ScyllaOrionOrpheus and Eurydice
Pegasus and the ChimaeraPenelopePerseus and Medusa
PhaetonPluto and ProsperinePrometheus and Pandora
PygmalionPyramus and ThisbePython
ThamyrisThe Calydonian HuntThe Camenae
The CentaursThe Golden FleeceThe Graeae and Gorgons
The Griffin, or GryphonThe IliadThe Myrmidons
The PygmiesThe Rural DeitiesThe Sphinx
The Trojan WarThe Water DeitiesThe Winds
TheseusThetisVenus and Adonis
Vertumnus and Pomona

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