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Perseus the Hero

Jean Lang

“We call such a man a hero in English to this day, and call it a ‘heroic’ thing to suffer pain and grief, that we may do good to our fellow-men.”
-Charles Kingsley

In the pleasant land of Argos, now a place of unwholesome marshes, once upon a time there reigned a king called Acrisius, the father of one fair daughter. Danaë was her name, and she was very dear to the king until a day when he longed to know what lay hid for him in the lap of the gods, and consulted an oracle. With hanging head he returned from the temple, for the oracle had told him that when his daughter Danaë had borne a son, by the hand of that son death must surely come upon him. And because the fear of death was in him more strong than the love of his daughter, Acrisius resolved that by sacrificing her he would baffle the gods and frustrate Death itself. A great tower of brass was speedily built at his command, and in this prison Danaë was placed, to drag out her weary days.

But who can escape the designs of the gods? From Olympus great Zeus himself looked down and saw the air princess sighing away her youth. And, full of pity and of love, he himself entered the brazen tower in a golden shower, and Danaë became the bride of Zeus and happily passed with him the time of her imprisonment.

To her at length was born a son, a beautiful and kingly child, and great was the wrath of her father when he had tidings of the birth. Did the gods in the high heavens laugh at him? The laugh should yet be on his side. Down to the seashore he hurried Danaë and her newly-born babe, the little Perseus, put them in a great chest, and set them adrift to be a plaything for winds and waves and a prey for the cruel and hungry sea.

“When in the cunningly-wrought chest the raging blast and the stirred billow and terror fell upon her, with tearful cheeks she cast her arm around Perseus and spake, ‘Alas, my child, what sorrow is mine! But thou slumberest, in baby-wise sleeping in this woeful ark; midst the darkness of the brazen rivet thou shinest and in the swart gloom sent forth; thou heedest not the deep foam of the passing wave above thy locks nor the voice of the blast as thou liest in thy purple covering, a sweet face. If terror had terrors for thee, and thou wert giving ear to my gentle words—I bid thee sleep, my babe, and may the sea sleep and our measureless woe; and may change of fortune come forth, Father Zeus, from thee. For that I make my prayer in boldness and beyond right, forgive me.’”
-Simonides of Keos

For days and nights the mother and child were tossed on the billows, but yet no harm came near them, and one morning the chest grounded on the rocky beach of Seriphos, an island in the Ægean Sea. Here a fisherman came on this strange flotsam and jetsam of the waves and took the mother and child to Polydectes, the king, and the years that followed were peaceful years for Danaë and for Perseus. But as Perseus grew up, growing each day more goodly to look upon, more fearless, more ready to gaze with serene courage into the eyes of gods and of men, an evil thing befell his mother. She was but a girl when he was born, and as the years passed she grew ever more fair. And the crafty eyes of old Polydectes, the king, ever watched her more eagerly, always more hotly desired her for his wife. But Danaë, the beloved of Zeus himself, had no wish to wed the old king of the Cyclades, and proudly she scorned his suit. Behind her, as she knew well, was the stout arm of her son Perseus, and while Perseus was there, the king could do her no harm. But Perseus, unwitting of the danger his mother daily had to face, sailed the seas unfearingly, and felt that peace and safety surrounded him on every side. At Samos one day, while his ship was lading, Perseus lay down under the shade of a great tree, and soon his eyelids grew heavy with sleep, and there came to him, like butterflies that flit over the flowers in a sunlit garden, pleasant, light-winged dreams. But yet another dream followed close on the merry heels of those that went before. And before Perseus there stood one whose grey eyes were as the fathomless sea on the dawn of a summer day. Her long robes were blue as the hyacinths in spring, and the spear that she held in her hand was of a polished brightness, as the dart with which the gods smite the heart of a man, with joy inexpressible, with sorrow that is scarcely to be borne. To Perseus she spoke winged words.

“I am Pallas Athené,” she said, “and to me the souls of men are known. Those whose fat hearts are as those of the beasts that perish do I know. They live at ease. No bitter sorrow is theirs, nor any fierce joy that lifts their feet free from the cumbering clay. But dear to my heart are the souls of those whose tears are tears of blood, whose joy is as the joy of the Immortals. Pain is theirs, and sorrow. Disappointment is theirs, and grief. Yet their love is as the love of those who dwell on Olympus. Patient they are and long-suffering, and ever they hope, ever do they trust. Ever they fight, fearless and unashamed, and when the sum of their days on earth is accomplished, wings, of whose existence they have never had knowledge, bear them upwards, out of the mist and din and strife of life, to the life that has no ending.”

Then she laid her hand on the hand of Perseus. “Perseus,” she said, “art thou of those whose dull souls forever dwell in pleasant ease, or wouldst thou be as one of the Immortals?”

And in his dream Perseus answered without hesitation:

“Rather let me die, a youth, living my life to the full, fighting ever, suffering ever,” he said, “than live at ease like a beast that feeds on flowery pastures and knows no fiery gladness, no heart-bleeding pain.”

Then Pallas Athené, laughing for joy, because she loved so well a hero’s soul, showed him a picture that made even his brave heart sick for dread, and told him a terrible story.

In the dim, cold, far west, she said, there lived three sisters. One of them, Medusa, had been one of her priestesses, golden-haired and most beautiful, but when Athené found that she was as wicked as she was lovely, swiftly had she meted out a punishment. Every lock of her golden hair had been changed into a venomous snake. Her eyes, that had once been the cradles of love, were turned into love’s stony tombs. Her rosy cheeks were now of Death’s own livid hue. Her smile, which drew the hearts of lovers from their bosoms, had become a hideous thing. A grinning mask looked on the world, and to the world her gaping mouth and protruding tongue meant a horror before which the world stood terrified, dumb. There are some sadnesses too terrible for human hearts to bear, so it came to pass that in the dark cavern in which she dwelt, and in the shadowy woods around it, all living things that had met the awful gaze of her hopeless eyes were turned into stone. Then Pallas Athené showed Perseus, mirrored in a brazen shield, the face of one of the tragic things of the world. And as Perseus looked, his soul grew chill within him. But when Athené, in low voice, asked him:

“Perseus, wilt even end the sorrow of this piteous sinful one?” he answered, “Even that will I do—the gods helping me.”

And Pallas Athené, smiling again in glad content, left him to dream, and Perseus awoke, in sudden fear, and found that in truth he had but dreamed, yet held his dream as a holy thing in the secret treasure-house of his heart.

Back to Seriphos he sailed, and found that his mother walked in fear of Polydectes the king. She told her son—a strong man now, though young in years—the story of his cruel persecution. Perseus saw red blood, and gladly would he have driven his keen blade far home in the heart of Polydectes. But his vengeance was to be a great vengeance, and the vengeance was delayed.

The king gave a feast, and on that day every one in the land brought offerings of their best and most costly to do him honour. Perseus alone came empty-handed, and as he stood in the king’s court as though he were a beggar, the other youths mocked at him of whom they had ever been jealous.

“Thou sayest that thy father is one of the gods!” they said. “Where is thy godlike gift, O Perseus!”

And Polydectes, glad to humble the lad who was keeper of his mother’s honour, echoed their foolish taunt.

“Where is the gift of the gods that the noble son of the gods has brought me?” he asked, and his fat cheeks and loose mouth quivered with ugly merriment.

Then Perseus, his head thrown back, gazed in the bold eyes of Polydectes.

Son of Zeus he was indeed, as he looked with royal scorn at those whom he despised.

“A godlike gift thou shalt have, in truth, O king,” he said, and his voice rang out as a trumpet-call before the battle. “The gift of the gods shall be thine. The gods helping me, thou shalt have the head of Medusa.”

A laugh, half-born, died in the throats of Polydectes and of those who listened, and Perseus strode out of the palace, a glow in his heart, for he knew that Pallas Athené had lit the fire that burned in him now, and that though he should shed the last drop of his life’s blood to win what he sought, right would triumph, and wrong must be worsted.

Still quivering with anger, Perseus went down to the blue sea that gently whispered its secrets to the shore on which he stood.

“If Pallas Athené would but come,” he thought—“if only my dreams might come true.”

For, like many a boy before and since, Perseus had dreamed of gallant, fearless deeds. Like many a boy before and since, he had been the hero of a great adventure.

So he prayed, “Come to me! I pray you, Pallas Athené, come! and let me dream true.”

His prayer was answered.

Into the sky there came a little silver cloud that grew and grew, and ever it grew nearer, and then, as in his dream, Pallas Athené came to him and smiled on him as the sun smiles on the water in spring. Nor was she alone. Beside her stood Hermes of the winged shoes, and Perseus knelt before the two in worship. Then, very gently, Pallas Athené gave him counsel, and more than counsel she gave.

In his hand she placed a polished shield, than which no mirror shone more brightly.

“Do not look at Medusa herself; look only on her image here reflected—then strike home hard and swiftly. And when her head is severed, wrap it in the goatskin on which the shield hangs. So wilt thou return in safety and in honour.”

“But how, then, shall I cross the wet grey fields of this watery way?” asked Perseus. “Would that I were a white-winged bird that skims across the waves.”

And, with the smile of a loving comrade, Hermes laid his hand on the shoulder of Perseus.

“My winged shoes shall be thine,” he said, “and the white-winged sea-birds shalt thou leave far, far behind.”

“Yet another gift is thine,” said Athené. “Gird on, as gift from the gods, this sword that is immortal.”

For a moment Perseus lingered. “May I not bid farewell to my mother?” he asked. “May I not offer burnt-offerings to thee and to Hermes, and to my father Zeus himself?”

But Athené said Nay, at his mother’s weeping his heart might relent, and the offering that the Olympians desired was the head of Medusa.

Then, like a fearless young golden eagle, Perseus spread out his arms, and the winged shoes carried him across the seas to the cold northern lands whither Athené had directed him.

Each day his shoes took him a seven days’ journey, and ever the air through which he passed grew more chill, till at length he reached the land of everlasting snow, where the black ice never knows the conquering warmth of spring, and where the white surf of the moaning waves freezes solid even as it touches the shore.

It was a dark grim place to which he came, and in a gloomy cavern by the sea lived the Graeæ, the three grey sisters that Athené had told him he must seek. Old and grey and horrible they were, with but one tooth amongst them, and but one eye. From hand to hand they passed the eye, and muttered and shivered in the blackness and the cold.

Boldly Perseus spoke to them and asked them to guide him to the place where Medusa and her sisters the Gorgons dwelt.

“No others know where they dwell,” he said. “Tell me, I pray thee, the way that I may find them.”

But the Grey Women were kin to the Gorgons, and hated all the children of men, and ugly was their evil mirth as they mocked at Perseus and refused to tell him where Medusa might be found.

But Perseus grew wily in his desire not to fail, and as the eye passed from one withered, clutching hand to another, he held out his own strong young palm, and in her blindness one of the three placed the eye within it.

Then the Grey Women gave a piteous cry, fierce and angry as the cry of old grey wolves that have been robbed of their prey, and gnashed upon him with their toothless jaws.

And Perseus said: “Wicked ye are and cruel at heart, and blind shall ye remain forever unless ye tell me where I may find the Gorgons. But tell me that, and I give back the eye.”

Then they whimpered and begged of him, and when they found that all their beseeching was in vain, at length they told him.

“Go south,” they said, “so far south that at length thou comest to the uttermost limits of the sea, to the place where the day and night meet. There is the Garden of the Hesperides, and of them must thou ask the way.” And “Give us back our eye!” they wailed again most piteously, and Perseus gave back the eye into a greedy trembling old hand, and flew south like a swallow that is glad to leave the gloomy frozen lands behind.

To the garden of the Hesperides he came at last, and amongst the myrtles and roses and sunny fountains he came on the nymphs who there guard the golden fruit, and begged them to tell him whither he must wing his way in order to find the Gorgons. But the nymphs could not tell.

“We must ask Atlas,” they said, “the giant who sits high up on the mountain and with his strong shoulders keeps the heavens and earth apart.”

And with the nymphs Perseus went up the mountain and asked the patient giant to guide him to the place of his quest.

“Far away I can see them,” said Atlas, “on an island in the great ocean. But unless thou wert to wear the helmet of Pluto himself, thy going must be in vain.”

“What is this helmet?” asked Perseus, “and how can I gain it?”

“Didst thou wear the helmet of the ruler of Dark Places, thou wouldst be as invisible as a shadow in the blackness of night,” answered Atlas; “but no mortal can obtain it, for only the Immortals can brave the terrors of the Shadowy Land and yet return; yet if thou wilt promise me one thing, the helmet shall be thine.”

“What wouldst thou?” asked Perseus.

And Atlas said, “For many a long year have I borne this earth, and I grow aweary of my burden. When thou hast slain Medusa, let me gaze upon her face, that I may be turned into stone and suffer no more forever.”

And Perseus promised, and at the bidding of Atlas one of the nymphs sped down to the land of the Shades, and for seven days Perseus and her sisters awaited her return. Her face was as the face of a white lily and her eyes were dark with sadness when she came, but with her she bore the helmet of Pluto, and when she and her sisters had kissed Perseus and bidden him a sorrowful farewell, he put on the helmet and vanished away.

Perseus Armed by the Nymphs by Walter Crane, 1892. Three nymphs stand around the seated Perseus, offering him a sword, shield, and helmet.Perseus Armed by the Nymphs by Walter Crane, 1892

Soon the gentle light of day had gone, and he found himself in a place where clammy fog blotted out all things, and where the sea was black as the water of that stream that runs through the Cocytus valley. And in that silent land where there is “neither night nor day, nor cloud nor breeze nor storm,” he found the cave of horrors in which the Gorgons dwelt.

Two of them, like monstrous swine, lay asleep,

“But a third woman paced about the hall, And ever turned her head from wall to wall, And moaned aloud and shrieked in her despair, Because the golden tresses of her hair Were moved by writhing snakes from side to side, That in their writhing oftentimes would glide On to her breast or shuddering shoulders white; Or, falling down, the hideous things would light Upon her feet, and, crawling thence, would twine Their slimy folds upon her ankles fine.”
-William Morris

In the shield of Pallas Athené the picture was mirrored, and as Perseus gazed on it his soul grew heavy for the beauty and the horror of Medusa. And “Oh that it had been her foul sisters that I must slay!” he thought at first, but then—“To slay her will be kind indeed,” he said. “Her beauty has become corruption, and all the joy of life for her has passed into the agony of remembrance, the torture of unending remorse.”

And when he saw her brazen claws that still were greedy and lustful to strike and to slay, his face grew stern, and he paused no longer, but with his sword he smote her neck with all his might and main. And to the rocky floor the body of Medusa fell with brazen clang, but her head he wrapped in the goatskin, while he turned his eyes away. Aloft then he sprang, and flew swifter than an arrow from the bow of Diana.

With hideous outcry the two other Gorgons found the body of Medusa, and, like foul vultures that hunt a little song-bird, they flew in pursuit of Perseus. For many a league they kept up the chase, and their howling was grim to hear. Across the seas they flew, and over the yellow sand of the Libyan desert, and as Perseus flew before them, some blood-drops fell from the severed head of Medusa, and from them bred the vipers that are found in the desert to this day. But bravely did the winged shoes of Hermes bear Perseus on, and by nightfall the Gorgon sisters had passed from sight, and Perseus found himself once more in the garden of the Hesperides. Ere he sought the nymphs, he knelt by the sea to cleanse from his hands Medusa’s blood, and still does the seaweed that we find on sea-beaches after a storm bear the crimson stains.

And when Perseus had received glad welcome from the fair dwellers in the garden of the Hesperides, he sought Atlas, that to him he might fulfil his promise; and eagerly Atlas beheld him, for he was aweary of his long toil.

So Perseus uncovered the face of Medusa and held it up for the Titan to gaze upon.

And when Atlas looked upon her whose beauty had once been pure and living as that of a flower in spring, and saw only anguish and cruelty, foul wickedness, and hideous despair, his heart grew like stone within him. To stone, too, turned his great, patient face, and into stone grew his vast limbs and strong, crouching back. So did Atlas the Titan become Atlas the Mountain, and still his head, white-crowned with snow, and his great shoulder far up in misty clouds, would seem to hold apart the earth and the sky.

Then Perseus again took flight, and in his flight he passed over many lands and suffered weariness and want, and sometimes felt his faith growing low. Yet ever he sped on, hoping ever, enduring ever. In Egypt he had rest and was fed and honoured by the people of the land, who were fain to keep him to be one of their gods. And in a place called Chemmis they built a statue of him when he had gone, and for many hundreds of years it stood there. And the Egyptians said that ever and again Perseus returned, and that when he came the Nile rose high and the season was fruitful because he had blessed their land.

Far down below him as he flew one day he saw something white on a purple rock in the sea. It seemed too large to be a snowy-plumaged bird, and he darted swiftly downward that he might see more clearly. The spray lashed against the steep rocks of the desolate island, and showered itself upon a figure that at first he took to be a statue of white marble. The figure was but that of a girl, slight and very youthful, yet more fair even than any of the nymphs of the Hesperides. Invisible in his Helmet of Darkness, Perseus drew near, and saw that the fragile white figure was shaken by shivering sobs. The waves, every few moments, lapped up on her little cold white feet, and he saw that heavy chains held her imprisoned to that chilly rock in the sea. A great anger stirred the heart of Perseus, and swiftly he took the helmet from his head and stood beside her. The maid gave a cry of terror, but there was no evil thing in the face of Perseus. Naught but strength and kindness and purity shone out of his steady eyes.

Thus when, very gently, he asked her what was the meaning of her cruel imprisonment, she told him the piteous story, as a little child tells the story of its grief to the mother who comforts it. Her mother was queen of Ethiopia, she said, and very, very beautiful. But when the queen had boasted that no nymph who played amongst the snow-crested billows of the sea was as fair as she, a terrible punishment was sent to her. All along the coast of her father’s kingdom a loathsome sea-monster came to hold its sway, and hideous were its ravages. Men and women, children and animals, all were equally desirable food for its insatiate maw, and the whole land of Ethiopia lay in mourning because of it. At last her father, the king, had consulted an oracle that he might find help to rid the land of the monster. And the oracle had told him that only when his fair daughter, Andromeda, had been sacrificed to the creature that scourged the sea-coast would the country go free. Thus had she been brought there by her parents that one life might be given for many, and that her mother’s broken heart might expiate her sin of vanity. Even as Andromeda spoke, the sea was broken by the track of a creature that cleft the water as does the forerunning gale of a mighty storm. And Andromeda gave a piteous cry.

“Lo! he comes!” she cried. “Save me! ah, save me! I am so young to die.”

Then Perseus darted high above her and for an instant hung poised like a hawk that is about to strike. Then, like the hawk that cannot miss its prey, swiftly did he swoop down and smote with his sword the devouring monster of the ocean. Not once, but again and again he smote, until all the water round the rock was churned into slime and blood-stained froth, and until his loathsome combatant floated on its back, mere carrion for the scavengers of the sea.

Then Perseus hewed off the chains that held Andromeda, and in his arms he held her tenderly as he flew with her to her father’s land.

Who so grateful then as the king and queen of Ethiopia? and who so happy as Andromeda? for Perseus, her deliverer, dearest and greatest hero to her in all the world, not only had given her her freedom, but had given her his heart.

Willingly and joyfully her father agreed to give her to Perseus for his wife. No marriage feast so splendid had ever been held in Ethiopia in the memory of man, but as it went on, an angry man with a band of sullen-faced followers strode into the banqueting-hall. It was Phineus, he who had been betrothed to Andromeda, yet who had not dared to strike a blow for her rescue. Straight at Perseus they rushed, and fierce was the fight that then began. But of a sudden, from the goatskin where it lay hid, Perseus drew forth the head of Medusa, and Phineus and his warriors were turned into stone.

For seven days the marriage feast lasted, but on the eighth night Pallas Athené came to Perseus in a dream.

“Nobly and well hast thou played the hero, O son of Zeus!” she said; “but now that thy toil is near an end and thy sorrows have ended in joy, I come to claim the shoes of Hermes, the helmet of Pluto, the sword, and the shield that is mine own. Yet the head of the Gorgon must thou yet guard awhile, for I would have it laid in my temple at Seriphos that I may wear it on my shield for evermore.”

As she ceased to speak, Perseus awoke, and lo, the shield and helmet and the sword and winged shoes were gone, so that he knew that his dream was no false vision.

Then did Perseus and Andromeda, in a red-prowed galley made by cunning craftsmen from Phœnicia, sail away westward, until at length they came to the blue water of the Ægean Sea, and saw rising out of the waves before them the rocks of Seriphos. And when the rowers rested on their long oars, and the red-prowed ship ground on the pebbles of the beach, Perseus and his bride sought Danaë, the fair mother of Perseus.

Black grew the brow of the son of Danaë when she told him what cruel things she had suffered in his absence from the hands of Polydectes the king. Straight to the palace Perseus strode, and there found the king and his friends at their revels. For seven years had Perseus been away, and now it was no longer a stripling who stood in the palace hall, but a man in stature and bearing like one of the gods. Polydectes alone knew him, and from his wine he looked up with mocking gaze.

“So thou hast returned? oh nameless son of a deathless god,” he said. “Thou didst boast, but methinks thy boast was an empty one!”

But even as he spoke, the jeering smile froze on his face, and the faces of those who sat with him stiffened in horror.

“O king,” Perseus said, “I swore that, the gods helping me, thou shouldst have the head of Medusa. The gods have helped me. Behold the Gorgon’s head.”

Wild horror in their eyes, Polydectes and his friends gazed on the unspeakable thing, and as they gazed they turned into stone—a ring of grey stones that still sit on a hillside of Seriphos.

With his wife and his mother, Perseus then sailed away, for he had a great longing to take Danaë back to the land of her birth and to see if her father, Acrisius, still lived and might not now repent of his cruelty to her and to his grandson. But there he found that the sins of Acrisius had been punished and that he had been driven from his throne and his own land by a usurper. Not for long did the sword of Perseus dwell in its scabbard, and speedily was the usurper cast forth, and all the men of Argos acclaimed Perseus as their glorious king. But Perseus would not be their king.

“I go to seek Acrisius,” he said. “My mother’s father is your king.”

Again his galley sailed away, and at last, up the long Eubœan Sea they came to the town of Larissa, where the old king now dwelt.

A feast and sports were going on when they got there, and beside the king of the land sat Acrisius, an aged man, yet a kingly one indeed.

And Perseus thought, “If I, a stranger, take part in the sports and carry away prizes from the men of Larissa, surely the heart of Acrisius must soften towards me.”

Thus did he take off his helmet and cuirass, and stood unclothed beside the youths of Larissa, and so godlike was he that they all said, amazed, “Surely this stranger comes from Olympus and is one of the Immortals.”

In his hand he took a discus, and full five fathoms beyond those of the others he cast it, and a great shout arose from those who watched, and Acrisius cried out as loudly as all the rest.

“Further still!” they cried. “Further still canst thou hurl! thou art a hero indeed!”

And Perseus, putting forth all his strength, hurled once again, and the discus flew from his hand like a bolt from the hand of Zeus. The watchers held their breath and made ready for a shout of delight as they saw it speed on, further than mortal man had ever hurled before. But joy died in their hearts when a gust of wind caught the discus as it sped and hurled it against Acrisius, the king. And with a sigh like the sigh that passes through the leaves of a tree as the woodman fells it and it crashes to the earth, so did Acrisius fall and lie prone. To his side rushed Perseus, and lifted him tenderly in his arms. But the spirit of Acrisius had fled. And with a great cry of sorrow Perseus called to the people:

“Behold me! I am Perseus, grandson of the man I have slain! Who can avoid the decree of the gods?”

For many a year thereafter Perseus reigned as king, and to him and to his fair wife were born four sons and three daughters. Wisely and well he reigned, and when, at a good old age, Death took him and the wife of his heart, the gods, who had always held him dear, took him up among the stars to live for ever and ever. And there still, on clear and starry nights, we may see him holding the Gorgon’s head. Near him are the father and mother of Andromeda—Cepheus and Cassiopeia, and close beside him stands Andromeda with her white arms spread out across the blue sky as in the days when she stood chained to the rock. And those who sail the watery ways look up for guidance to one whose voyaging is done and whose warfare is accomplished, and take their bearings from the constellation of Cassiopeia.

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