One day well after the time of the noble King Cadmus of Thebes, King Acrisius of Argos arrived in Delphi. Acrisius was in fact a distant relation of Cadmus; he could trace his ancestry back to the same union between Poseidon and a mortal woman, albeit he was five rather than two generations removed from that event. His branch of the family too had been chosen for great things by the Fates; they too had made their way from the distant barbarian lands to the east to rule one of the greatest cities in Greece. But alas, they too would learn, as we’ll see, what fickle mistresses the Fates could be.
This King Acrisius was a proud, hard, rigid man, quick to feel a slight and equally quick to punish its perpetrator. Knowing his reputation, and observing the lavish gifts he had come bearing, the people of Delphi rushed him in to see the oracle, who asked him in her usual simple way what he wished to know.
“I and my queen Eurydice are aging,” answered the king, “but we have only one daughter to show for our union. I need a son upon whom to bequeath my throne. I humbly beg the god Apollo” — the affectation of humility was rather unconvincing — “to tell me if and how I can continue my line.”
The oracle retired to her inner sanctum. When she returned to the impatient monarch some time later, she looked visibly shaken. “You yourself are not destined to have a son,” she said. “Your daughter, however, will give birth to a grandson — one who will kill you.” No matter how much Acrisius pressed her, she would reveal no more — for this was all that Apollo had deigned to share with her.
Acrisius’s daughter, whose name was Danaë, was as warm-hearted as she was beautiful, but this counted for little with her cold-hearted father. Putting her to death was the obvious solution for one of his bent of mind. And yet even he did not quite dare to violate the gods’ proscription against filicide. Instead he ordered a cage to be buried underground, with thick walls of bronze and only a small hole in its top for the admission of just enough light, air, food, and water to keep a person alive. He then had his daughter thrown into this miserable prison. He had decided to leave her there forevermore, tended to only by females, out of the reach of any man who might impregnate her with the child destined to be his doom.
But the cage wasn’t proof against the gods. Zeus, whose attraction to comely young girls continued to know no bounds despite the pain and chaos it had already brought so many, noticed her in her prison. He passed through the ceiling of the cage in the form of a brilliant shower of gold, and had his way with the awed princess inside. He did so only once, but it was enough: he made her pregnant.
The women who served as Danaë’s reluctant jailors knew well that no mortal man had had contact with her since her imprisonment, and were thus inclined to believe her story of a visit from Zeus himself. They were kinder than their appointed role of jail keepers admitted; they hid her pregnancy, then hid the male infant who was born to her, whom she named Perseus. Eventually, though, a spy in their midst revealed all to the king. Predictably enraged, he went to his daughter immediately. “Who is the father?” he shouted through the single hole in her cage. When the girl claimed that it was Zeus, he mocked her. It was clear to him that some local lad had finagled a way into her cage, then duped the silly girl.
Yet Acrisius still feared to kill Danaë or her son by direct means. Instead he ordered them to be sailed well out to sea and cast adrift inside a tightly sealed wooden crate. This harsh thing was indeed done by men whose fear of the king exceeded their sympathy for the innocent girl and her child.
The crate drifted for days with the waves and wind. Danaë comforted her son in the cold, hungry darkness as best she could: “Sleep, babe, and sea, be still, and slumber our unmeasured ill!” She prayed desperately to her former lover for deliverance — or, failing that, for a quick end to her and her child’s suffering: “Oh, may some change of fate, sire Zeus, from thee descend, our woes to end! But if this prayer be overbold and offends thy justice, yet be merciful to me!”
Whether because Zeus had heard her prayer, or simply because the Fates had ordained it, the crate washed up at last on the shore of the island known as Seriphos. There lived on Seriphos a kindly man named Dictys, who, despite being the brother of the king of the island, preferred the life of a humble fisherman. Walking home along the beach one evening, he stumbled upon the waterlogged crate there where it lay in the sand. Hearing wailing and weeping coming from inside it, he pried it open to reveal its pitiful contents.
Dictys and his equally kindly wife had no children of their own. So, they took Danaë and Perseus to their bosom as their daughter and grandson, and for a long time the little family lived happily there by the sea. Perseus grew up true and strong, as befits the child of a god. His mother told him that the couple with whom they lived were not his real grandparents, but refused, no matter how much he begged, to reveal his actual lineage; she hoped thereby to keep him well away from the affairs of the great, which had so far only brought her misery. She herself remained as beautiful as ever, but rejected all of her would-be suitors. She’d had, she said, more than enough of that sort of thing; the only men she wanted in her life now were her adoptive father and her son.
But Dictys’s brother, the king of the island, whose name was Polydectes, had been watching Danaë for a long time, finding her only that much more alluring every time she rejected one of his propositions. At last, he decided that he simply must have her. His aging, mild-mannered brother could do little to stop him from taking her; his only obstacle was young Perseus, who could often be as hot-headed and impulsive as he was strong.
So, he hit upon a devious scheme to use the young man’s personality against him. Perseus was intensely loyal to his mother, but he was also proud, like so many men of his age through all time — and he was deeply insecure in his pride. This Polydectes now determined to take advantage of. He announced that he would soon be getting married to another eligible woman, and asked that all of the better families of the island contribute a fine horse to the royal stables as a wedding gift to their king and future queen. But, what with Dictys having chosen to reject the royal court and all of its wealth, Perseus’s family had no horses. The grandfather was happy enough simply to plead poverty and go about his business. But not so the grandson. He was mortified.
“No matter,” Polydectes said to Perseus with affected magnanimity. “One can’t get blood from a stone, after all.” Then he began to muse about how much he would like to have another gift to bestow on his bride, a gift much more splendid than any horse: the head of one of the monsters that were known as Gorgons. As he had hoped, Perseus immediately volunteered to go on a quest for just such a grisly token. “I shall not return to Seriphos until I have this most wonderful gift of all!” he vowed. Dictys and Danaë rightfully suspected Polydectes’s motives in allowing Perseus to undertake such an impossibly perilous quest, but they could do nothing to convince the young man to back away from the rash promise he had made. He would rather die, he said, than be shamed before the whole island.
Now, the Gorgons were three of the most fearsome monsters in all the world. They were of the earliest, primordial generations of the earth; they were older even than any of the Olympian gods, products of a time when the world had been more grotesque in its extremes. Humanoid in form, female in sex, they had hair of venomous snakes itching to bite their victims, hands of brass for crushing the life out of them, and golden wings for seeking them out from above. Worst of all, they instantly turned to stone anyone who looked directly upon them. Perseus had no idea where he should find them, nor how he should kill one of them once he did so. So, he boarded a ship and made his way toward the place where so many of those with unanswered questions went.
Thus it was that Perseus too came to Delphi, some 25 years after Acrisius had come. He told the oracle of his plight, asking where he could find the Gorgons and how he could possibly protect himself against their terrible power. The oracle returned from her consultation with Apollo with a shocking answer to another burning question he had never thought to ask, fixated as he was on his current quest: “You are the son of the supreme god himself, Zeus!” While Perseus struggled to reckon with this piece of news, she told him that Apollo’s only response to the question which had actually brought him to Delphi was unusually cryptic even by his standard. All the god would say was that Perseus should journey to the land of acorns.
After puzzling over this riddle for some time, Perseus decided that Apollo must mean for him to travel to the place known as Dodona, far to the northwest of Delphi, famous for its enormous oak trees, where Zeus had a temple and oracle of his own. When he arrived there, he was initially disappointed; Zeus’s oracle could offer only a vague message that his divine lineage placed him “under the protection of the gods.”
But that night, none other than Hermes, the messenger of the gods, came to Perseus flying on his winged sandals, wearing his winged hat and carrying his winged staff, accompanied by Athena, resplendent in her silvery armor, brandishing her sharp-tipped spear of wisdom before her. “Before you can think about attacking the Gorgons,” Hermes said to the shocked young man who had bowed down on the grass before them, “you must be properly equipped with some tools of battle which Hephaestus has made just for you.” Then Hermes gave to Perseus a fine bronze sword with a black sheath, and Athena gave him a golden shield polished to a mirror-like shine. Indeed, to serve as a mirror was its intended purpose. “Do not look upon the Gorgons directly,” said Athena. “Look only at their reflections in the shield.”
Yet even these gifts of the gods wouldn’t be enough for Perseus to carry out such a daunting task as killing a Gorgon. Hermes told him that he could borrow the other things he would need from some nymphs who dwelt far, far away in the north of the world; Hermes didn’t know exactly where. Luckily, the god did know where he could find the answer to the question of the nymphs’ abode. “The three Gorgons have three other, even stranger sisters, known simply as the Gray Women, who were born old and feeble and must remain that way forevermore; they have just one eye and one tooth which they have to share among themselves. Being older than we gods of Olympus, they know many things that even we do not, including the whereabouts of the nymphs of the north. I will fly you to the place where the Gray Women dwell, a place which is itself well beyond the ken of mortal geographers.”
With that, Hermes lifted the strapping youth up as if he was a baby and sprang with him into the air. He carried Perseus above the firmament, almost to the ends of the earth, near to that remote place where the Titan Atlas held up the sky. They descended, quietly and inconspicuously, in a scrubby, mountainous region, near a clearing where a campfire could be seen burning away through the gnarled branches of small, sad-looking trees. Perseus turned to ask his guide what to do next, only to find that the god had disappeared. He was, it seemed, on his own from here.
So, he crept up to the very edge of the clearing and peeked around the trunk of the nearest tree. He saw three wrinkled old crones, bickering among themselves as they crouched like vultures over a haunch of half-spoiled meat. The one on the left held the meat in her hands, gnawing on it as best she could with what did indeed seem to be a single tooth. Then the one in the middle spoke up. “I think you’ve had quite enough, Enyo, dearie.” And with that, she slid her greasy fingers up to her companion’s face and came away with a single orb, glinting wetly in the firelight — an eye!
Now Perseus noticed that the three sisters had only vacant sockets staring out hollowly where their eyes should be. The crone who held the amputated eye shoved it into one of her own sockets with a squishy smack, while Enyo flailed around blindly with her hands, slapping at the air in lieu of the sister she couldn’t locate: “I’m not done yet, Pephredo! You always take the lion’s share!” Unmoved, Pephredo siezed her sister roughly by the cheek with one hand, then reached up with the other to extract her single tooth with an unnerving crack. She shoved the tooth into her own mouth and turned her attention to the meat.
And so the squabbling meal continued, as the third sister, whose name turned out to be Dino, relieved Pephredo of the eye and tooth in similar fashion. And then the precious implements came back to Enoy, and around and around and around they went.
Perseus bode his time behind his tree, tense as a snake waiting for just the right moment to strike. When Pephredo, having just extracted the eye from Enyo yet again, fumbled with it momentarily, he saw his chance: he dashed into the clearing and swept the eye cleanly out of her hand. It lay there quivering in his palm as Pephredo leaped upon first one sister and then the other, shattering the air with her shrieks of rage. Soon the crones were rolling about in the dirt as one mass, jabbing and slapping at one another, coming dangerously close to the fire. As they slowly realized that none of them actually possessed the eye, their cries of anger died down into cries of confusion, then of naked fear.
Perseus stood looking down at them them with a mixture of distaste and pity. Steeling himself, he spoke up loudly. “Stop! I have your eye.” The Gray Sisters froze, lying there whimpering in abject despair.
“Please… don’t condemn us to starve in the dark…”
“Without our eye we have no hope…”
“Give it back to us, please…”
“I have no desire to steal your eye,” said Perseus. “I will give it back to you happily, but I need something from you first. I seek the nymphs of the north. I am told you know where they dwell. Is this true? If so, you must tell me now!”
The Gray Sisters’ relief was palpable. “Of course, of course,” said Pephredo. “Is that all you wish?” And she hastily explained how to get there, stumbling over her words in her abject eagerness to please. “Now… our eye…”
Perseus placed the eye in her outstretched hand, then dashed out of the clearing before the Gray Sisters could use it to see their extortionist. As he retreated from their campfire, he heard their cries of deliverance transform themselves with astonishing speed back into the usual petulance — whether directed toward him or against one another, he did not know and did not care to find out.
The shining figure of Hermes suddenly descended before him again from out of the clear night sky. Growing accustomed by now to such wonders, Perseus calmly repeated the Gray Sisters’ directions to the land of the nymphs. The god nodded, and took to the sky again with the mortal in his arms.
And so Hermes and Perseus came to the mythical land known as Hyperborea, which is pinpointed on no mortal maps, but which lies on the very northern edge of the world, near the place where further progress is blocked by a perpetual wall of ice and snow. The glade of the nymphs to which the pair came, however, was a place of eternal spring, inhabited by lovely maidens destined to remain forever in the springtime of their beauty. Hermes once again left his charge at the edge of the glade, then disappeared without a word. Perseus strode boldly forward to burst in upon the nymphs, who were, as usual, dancing and feasting. They evinced no fear toward the intimidating youth who now stood in their midst, but welcomed him kindly as a novelty whose presence could only add to the festivities.
Perseus managed to cut into their propositions of merrymaking and pleasure long enough to explain his mission to them. The nymphs showed no sign of surprise — only a modicum of dissatisfaction that he didn’t wish to “linger awhile and enjoy our company.” One of them reached into the hollow of a tree and produced three precious objects: a pair of winged sandals which would let their wearer fly like Hermes himself; a cap which would render its wearer invisible; and a bag of silver with bright tassels of gold which could hold any amount of anything, weightless, inside itself. “These things are our greatest treasures,” said the nymphs. “You may borrow them for a short time only.”
Perseus bowed his head in thanks. He put on the sandals and the cap, and packed the bag with the ambrosia and nectar the nymphs gave him, which, he was told, would make him immune to the poison of the serpents on the Gorgons’ heads. As soon as he left the nymphs’ glade, Hermes came to him again. (The cap of invisibility was of course of no use against a god.)
Now Perseus was ready for the final challenge, said Hermes. They flew together, side by side, almost as equals this time, thanks to Perseus’s own pair of winged sandals. And so they came to another strange land, a harsh place of rocky ground and hills with hardy but ugly trees clinging to their craggy sides. Somewhere near here, Hermes said, lived the Gorgons; the time had truly come for Perseus to prove his mettle. But before departing the god offered some final words of instruction: “You can only hope to kill one of the three — the one named Medusa — for the other two are impervious even to the sword I have given you. Medusa customarily sleeps in the middle of their camp.” And with that, he flew away, faster than Perseus could possibly follow.
Taking to the air himself, Perseus began his search. As he passed above the landscape, he could see signs of the Gorgons’ presence: in the fields and roads stood stony statues of men and beasts, the monsters’ victims. Finally, he spotted the camp of the Gorgons themselves in the lee of a hillside. He descended near its edge at dead of night while the monsters lay sleeping.
Perseus walked backward into the camp of the Gorgons as silently as he could, holding the shield of Athena before him reversed, looking only at the reflection of what lay behind him. He caught glimpses of the monsters in the shield, snoring contently, confident in their invincibility. The only sound to be heard above those he made himself was the placid hissing of the snakes that formed the Gorgons’ hair. As he stepped around Medusa’s sisters, his own excited breathing and pounding heartbeat seemed louder than the pipes and drums of war, his clumsy backward footsteps more deafening than those of any army on the march. He was certain the Gorgons must awaken at any instant — but they slept on.
At last, he stood above Medusa. With a silent prayer to Hermes, Athena, and his father Zeus, he inverted the shield back into a tool of protection on his arm, closed his eyes, drew his sword, whirled in place, and aimed a mighty thrust downward. A choked cry and a spray of blood against his leg told him he had struck true. He dropped the sword and threw himself on top of the thrashing creature, scrabbling for her head. When he found it, he gripped the snakes with one hand, heedless of the bites they delivered. Then he took up his sword again with the other hand and slashed downward where he judged the neck ought to be. He felt the head come away even as a spray of hot blood struck him full in the face.
Medusa’s two sisters were now awake. They leaped toward the commotion with horrible cries, but the cap Perseus wore made him invisible even to their keen eyes. Still keeping his own eyes tightly shut, he sheathed his sword, thrust his gruesome trophy into his magic bag, and sprang for the sky, silently bidding his magic slippers to carry him away. This they did, swift as thought. Only after the cries of the other two Gorgons had faded into the night did he dare open his eyes again.
Unknown to Perseus, his own divine forefather Poseidon had recently lain with Medusa. There jumped now out of her lifeless body the product of that union, a magnificent winged horse known as Pegasus. Having no love for his evil mother, much less his aunts, this noble beast too took to the sky. Eventually he made his way to Mount Olympus, where he joined the gods as Zeus’s favored mount. After his death, Zeus hung his spirit in the night sky where it can still be seen to this day, leaping joyously through the heavens as the constellation which bears his name.
Meanwhile Perseus had no idea how to find his way back to Seriphos with Polydectes’s hard-won wedding gift. He flew hither and yon aimlessly, snacking on the nectar and ambrosia. Eventually, he came to the edge of an unknown ocean, where he glimpsed a forlorn figure standing on the bluffs above the shore. At first, he believed it to be a finely-sculpted marble statue of a young girl, but, coming closer, he saw its blond locks blowing in the wind, and saw tears streaming down from its eyes. The living girl was naked, chained there to a pole, exposed to the elements. Perseus was so captivated that he nearly fell out of the sky — for she was beautiful, more beautiful than any nymph to his eyes. He knew at once that he had to have her for his wife.
He alighted near her, doffed his magic cap of invisibility, and approached her gently. His recent brushes with the gods had transformed his manner; there was little trace left of the simple country boy he had been when he left Seriphos. “Oh, thou, undeserving of these chains, but rather of those by which anxious lovers are mutually united,” he declaimed, “disclose to me thy name, and why thou wearest these chains.”
After considerable coaxing, the shy maiden told her sad story. “My name is Andromeda. My mother dared to boast that I was as lovely as the sea nymphs who dwell in this part of the world. This angered the god Poseidon. In order to punish my mother for her pride, he told my village that they must bind me here to become the food of a great sea monster. If they failed to do so, he would send a flood to destroy the village utterly. My parents could not protect me against the will of the entire village. They can only stand below in despair and wait with me for the end to come.” Here she pointed to a middle-aged couple standing knee-deep in the water down at the base of the bluff, looking up and waving, hoping against hope that their daughter had found a rescuer. “It will not be long now; the monster is expected with the high tide.”
Perseus flew nimbly down to Andromeda’s parents. He waved off their tearful entreaties. “Plenty of time will be left for your tears hereafter,” he said. “The time for giving aid is but short. I am Perseus, the son of Zeus and of her whom, in her prison, Zeus embraced as an impregnating shower of gold. I am Perseus, the conqueror of the Gorgon with her serpent locks, who has dared, on waving wings, to move through the ethereal air. To so many recommendations I endeavor to add merit, if only the deities favor me. If I were to demand your daughter in marriage, I should surely be preferred before all as your son-in-law. I only stipulate that she may be mine, if preserved by my valor.”
The couple rushed to give their consent, promising their daughter’s hand in marriage and a million other material things besides. So, Perseus took to the air. A short distance out to sea, he espied the monster — a veritable dragon of the sea, bigger than any ship, with scaled hide tougher than any armor, cutting the waves before it as it drove toward the bluff where its helpless prey waited.
Luckily, the monster was as stupid as it was savage. Perseus dodged and weaved above it, sending his shadow skittering across the surface of the water; the sea dragon chased it futilely, never thinking to look up. When the creature was thoroughly confused, Perseus dived from the heights to land on its back, plunging the sword of Hermes deep into a gap he had spotted between its scales, just over its right shoulder. The dragon screamed and bucked with such force that it was all Perseus could do to pull his sword out of the wound before taking to the air again. He continued to torment the creature like a stinging bee, alighting to strike again and again and then flying away just as quickly. He found more points of vulnerability between the scales on the monster’s back, in the soft flesh beneath its flightless wings, on its long tail. At last, the harried sea dragon washed up on the shoreline, thrashing wildly, oozing blood from its many wounds. Perseus leaped to the ground and plunged his sword once, twice, thrice, four times deep into its belly. It rolled over and lay still.
Standing there, exhausted but triumphant, Perseus realized with a wry shake of the head that, entranced as he had been with Andromeda’s beauty, he had neglected to don his cap of invisibility again before making his rash charge into battle. He washed himself in the water, begged his forefather Poseidon’s forgiveness for killing a second pet (his ancestry may very well have been all that saved him from the god’s wrath), and went up to claim his bride.
There was much feasting and celebration in the village that night: fires heaped high with perfumes, flutes and lyres and pipes and voices raised in song around them. The next day, there was a wedding, followed by more feasting and celebration. And the day after that, Perseus departed with his bride, having refused all of the dowries offered by her grateful parents. The villagers had told him how to reach the civilized part of the world once again. Following their advice, he flew ever northward. It had now been some months since he had left Seriphos, and he was eager to see his mother and adoptive grandparents again.
The pair alighted next to the cozy little seaside cabin where he had grown up. But they found the cabin deserted, the neat garden behind it overgrown with weeds.
So, they made their way to the one city on the island, where Perseus inquired what had become of his family. The people there, after they got over their wonder at the transformation the youth had undergone and the beauty of the girl who accompanied him, told him timidly that the royal marriage which had been the cause of his adventure had been a sham. As soon as Perseus had left, Polydectes had broken off his engagement and demanded instead that Danaë marry him. When she had refused, he had given her 24 hours to think it over; if she refused him again, he had said, he would order her adoptive parents killed and take her by force. The desperate family had fled under cover of darkness into the island’s wilderness. No one had seen them since.
Leaving Andromeda in the care of the people, an enraged Perseus marched straight into Polydectes’s palace, casting aside like irritating children the guards who attempted to bar his path. He entered the throne room, where the king was banqueting with some of his fawning courtiers. “I have completed my quest,” he announced. “I have returned with the head of a Gorgon.”
Polydectes tried to conceal his discomfiture. “Ah, yes?” he said. “We are not sure we believe you. We see no such object before us.”
“I give you a proof of the truth!” said Perseus. And with that, he whipped the head of Medusa out of the magic bag and lifted it high. Instantly, the king was turned to stone, right in the middle of a sneer. Many of his courtiers suffered the same fate before Perseus returned the head to the bag.
Perseus left the impromptu sculpture garden and took to the sky again, looking for his family. He soon found them — alas, only two of them! — huddled in the forest outside the rude cave that had become their home. The rough living conditions had been too much for his adoptive grandmother; she had died.
Perseus flew them back to the city, where his sorrow at his grandmother’s death was mixed with his joy at introducing his bride to what remained of his little family. The people, who had been suffering more and more of late under Polydectes’s decadent rule, begged Perseus to assume the throne, but he demurred. “I am of divine blood, but not of this island’s royal line,” he said. “Dictys should become king. He is older and wiser than I, and, though his own remaining span of years may be short, I am sure he will choose a worthy successor when the time comes.” The old man was reluctant — he really wanted nothing more than to return to his seaside cabin and live out his remaining years quietly with his memories of his beloved wife — but the people’s entreaties convinced him. And he did indeed become a just and thoughtful king, who before his death chose a successor almost equally worthy from among the people.
As a reminder of what had once been, Dictys had his brother’s statue placed in the palace garden; everyone agreed that the sneering expression frozen in place on the face of stone was a fine evocation of Polydectes’s personality in life. Thus did the story of him and his brother become another proof of the adage that those who seek power over their fellow mortals eagerly are the last who should be entrusted with it.
The night after Dictys assumed the throne, Hermes and Athena came to Perseus for a last bit of unfinished business. Perseus was allowed to keep the sword of Hermes and the shield of Athena, but the former god took away the other treasures to return them to the nymphs of Hyperborea, while the latter took the head of Medusa to place in the center of the shield she herself bore. All of these objects, the gods explained, were far too potent for a mortal to be allowed to possess for very long — even a mortal of divine parentage like Perseus. But in partial compensation for his loss, Athena gave Perseus a few drops of Medusa’s blood in a tiny vial. “This blood is the most deadly poison known to mortals,” she explained. “Use it wisely.” And the two gods also told Perseus the full story of how and why he had come to Seriphos as an infant. “As the only child of the only princess of Argos, you are the rightful heir to that throne,” they said. “It is time now for you to go and claim your heritage.”
Danaë wasn’t pleased when Perseus told her that he had learned of his real birthright, but she knew it would be futile to deny such a direct message from the gods. So, Perseus, Andromeda, and a reluctant Danaë set sail for the Peloponnese. At the pleading of the women, Perseus agreed to attempt a reconciliation with his true grandfather, despite the grievous wrongs he had done to his grandson.
But when they arrived in Argos, the party learned that King Acrisius had set off just days before on a long journey to the city of Larissa, which lay in the northern region of Greece known as Thessaly, where the biggest athletic competition of that year was to be held. Perseus, Andromeda, and Danaë set off immediately in the same direction. They pursued the king’s party doggedly, but it too moved swiftly, and they weren’t able to make up much ground. (How Perseus wished he still had his winged sandals!) In the end, they arrived in Larissa the day after Acrisius, just as the games were beginning.
They found the stadium of Larissa packed with spectators. King Acrisius and his courtiers enjoyed a desirable spot right in the center of the stands; Danaë spotted him instantly in all his royal finery. But even as the three were about to go to him, Perseus was being set upon by the spectators all around them: “The pentathlon is about to begin. Surely a young man as well-built as you should be down there on the field, not up here in the stands with us oldsters, women, children, and sluggards!”
His wife and his mother, being both equally proud of him, soon joined the chorus: “There will be plenty of time to confront your grandfather. Go now, and give him cause to realize what sort of man the baby which he tried to murder has grown up to become.”
So, Perseus went down to the field, where he effortlessly put the other athletes to shame. He jumped so astonishingly far in the long jump that the games were delayed while the additional measuring sticks that were needed to record his leap were brought up from the town; he threw his javelin right over the walls of the stadium and into the empty plain behind it; he lapped his nearest competitor several times during the footrace; he swatted them all to the ground like flies when the time came to wrestle.
And then came the discus throw, the last event of the competition. The crowd buzzed with excitement as the exotic stranger with the physique and the bearing of a god walked onto the field. He didn’t disappoint them; he gave the discus a mighty heave indeed which ought to have carried it, like his javelin before it, well beyond the bounds of the stadium. But the discus was not well-made; it disintegrated under the sheer torque of Perseus’s throw. Chunks of it flew into the crowd, and one of them came down on the proud white head of Acrisius, killing him instantly. And thus was the prophecy of the oracle at Delphi fulfilled — moved from the inscrutable but unalterable tapestry of the Fates into flesh-and-blood reality, like so many before and after it.
All in Larissa agreed that the death of his grandfather had been a terrible accident for which Perseus himself was blameless. Nevertheless, he was tormented by guilt. He no longer had any desire for the throne of Argos. He went instead with his wife and mother to Tiryns, a smaller town in Argolis, and came to an agreement with the king there, whose name was Megapenthes: they would trade kingdoms, the latter going with his family to become the ruler of Argos, Perseus becoming king of Tiryns. This was a deal which Megapenthes was only too happy to make, for Argos at that time was a much larger and richer city than Tiryns.
And so Perseus ruled in the humble city of Tiryns for many years. Over the course of that time, Tiryns became markedly less humble, growing greatly in size, prosperity, power, and importance under his wise stewardship. Its peace and civil harmony were such that Perseus never had cause even to think of using the vial of Medusa’s blood on anyone; in fact, he gave it away late in his reign to a friendly king from Athens, a place as famous for its courtly intrigues as Tiryns had become for its lack of same. He had many children with the beautiful Andromeda before going peacefully to his rest, some years after Danaë had done the same.
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(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)
8 Comments for "Chapter 3: The Adventures of Perseus"
So is that the first reference anywhere to the place named Hyperborea?
It’s difficult to say what reference is “first” because all of the written sources for the Greek myths are really documenting oral traditions which date back much further, and Hyperborea plays a role in a number of these stories. This chapter is largely drawn from Apollodorus, who wrote around 150 BC, and Ovid, who wrote around 20 BC. But the events they purport to chronicle date back to well before 1000 BC according to the Greek chronology of mythical history.
Or, put another way: Hyperborea is an invention of the Greeks from prior to our recorded history of them. More than that we cannot say…
shoved it into her one of her own sockets
-> into one
Also, I‘m already curious about the direction this second series will take. I am enjoying it a lot and it‘s rather intriguing to be far from being able to venture an educated guess what you may be up to in the long run this time.
Keep ’em guessing, that’s what I say. 😉 Seriously, it’s been great fun to try a more embodied form of storytelling. I do have a plan for the whole…
I hate to be that guy, but this series just doesn’t have that same “hook” as the last one.
A part of the problem may be a lack of setting a specific context through which the events can be understood. Perhaps this is intentional, on the other hand maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Rest assured I did my best to describe the problem this reader, at least, is having here. I hope you will take the comment in stride, if nothing else.
No worries. I’m definitely trying something very different here, out of the belief that, while the Pyramids of Giza can be understood largely as physical objects, the Oracle of Delphi needs to be approached at least partially through the lens of myth. This style may not be for you, or it may just be wrong-headed on my part. I realize I’m going well out on a limb here, but the approach I took last time — all sober archaeology and history — just didn’t feel right for this topic. I hope you’ll at least give it a few more chapters, by which time some more of the larger story I’m telling here should start to fall into place and some patterns should start to become clear. One of the reasons I launched this site was to have a place to take a more chances and experiment a bit more. Whether this one will pay off remains to be seen, for me as much as you.
In the second-to-last paragraph you say “fratricide” when you mean “patricide”. (Unless there’s a specific word for grandfather-killing?)