Wednesday, August 08, 2007



Several of the constellations in the region of Perseus are connected to one Greek myth cycle. According to this legend Acrisius, King of Argos had a daughter Danae, but no male heir. So, as good kings in ancient Greece were wont to do he consulted the Delphic oracle. The oracle replied that he would never have a male heir, and to top matters off prophesied that he would be killed by one of Danae's children. Not too happy a reply.

To avoid this outcome Acrisius locked his daughter up in a bronze underground chamber. Far away enough from the local motorcycle hoods (chariot hoods in those days I guess) to save his daughter's honour - and his own ass besides. But not far enough away to escape the prying eyes of that ol' leader of the pack, Zeus king of the gods. Zeus came into the chamber in the form of a shower of gold and impregnated Danae with the child that was named Perseus.

Acrisius was ticked, but he was afraid to kill the child of Zeus outright so he ordered that Perseus and his mother be locked in a chest and thrown into the sea. The pair were washed ashore on the island of Seriphos where the fisherman Dictys took them in and raised the boy to manhood.

Dictys' brother Polydectes was the king of Seriphos, and he took a shine to Danae as well (seems that she was Ms popularity of the Aegean). Perseus had some objections to this match and so the King hatched a plot to get rid of the obstacle. He announced a banquet where each of the guests was expected to bring a horse so that Polydectes might gather them together to ask for the hand of Hippodamia, the "tamer of horses". He was, of course, just horsing around with this ploy and the real reason was to get rid of Perseus. as the adopted son of a fisherman Persues didn't know a horse from a codfish and had much more chance of getting the latter than the former. As an alternative it was proposed that he bring back the head of Medusa the Gorgon whose gaze turned people to stone.

The legend of Medusa has many variations. In some stories she is turned into a monster by the goddess Athena for having sex with the god Poseidon in a temple devoted to Athena. In others her "horse-like" nature(hence the equine connection above) is emphasized by saying that she was the monstrous filly of Demeter in her mare form when Poseidon took the form of a stallion to mount her. Once more, just horsing around.

As quests go this was a rather difficult one as Perseus 1)had no idea about where Medusa might be, 2)no idea of how to get there and 3)no idea of what to do once he found her. The god Hermes and the goddess Athena came to his aid. From Hermes he obtained an adamantine sword which was capable of slaying the Gorgon, and Athena gave him her highly polished shield that he might do the deed by seeing the Gorgon's reflections in it and avoiding looking directly on them. Perseus then began his journey through three realms of three goddesses each by visiting the spring nymphs, the Naiads. From them he obtained three gifts, the winged sandals that enables him to fly to any part of the world, a helm of invisibility and a sack in which to carry the head of Medusa once he did the deed.

They told him to go to the islands of the Hesperidae, daughters of Hesperus, god of the evening, in the far west. From them he learned that the Graeae knew the way to the lair of the Gorgons. The Graeae were three hags who had one tooth and one eyes between them. Perseus forced them to give him directions to the Gorgon cave by snatching the eye as they passed it one to the other. He refused to return it until they had told him the way.

Once in the cave of the Gorgons he snuck up on them using the shield of Athena to find his way. He beheaded Medusa and escaped from the other Gorgons by using the helm of invisibility. As he flew across the sea back to the Greek islands blood dripped from the sack holding Medusa's head, and when it struck the water the winged horse Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor were born from the mixture. As he entered the Mediterranean he met the titan Atlas and asked him for aid against the surviving Gorgons who pursued him. When Atlas refused Perseus punished him by turning him to stone with the head- hence the Atlas Mountains. Once more Greek mythology derives from many independent traditions, often wildly different from each other. despite being "stoned" by Perseus Atlas was in fully anthropomorphic form when he featured in the labours of Heracles, a descendant of Perseus.
The legend goes on to tell of how Perseus stopped in the Kingdom of Ethiopia on his way home. this kingdom was ruled by the Phoenician royal couple King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia (see the previous blog on the constellations near to Perseus). Cassiopeia had boasted that she was as beautiful as Aphrodite. This sort of thing always caused trouble in ancient Greece. In revenge Aphrodite sent a sea monster Ceto to ravage the land. To propitiate the goddess and the monster Cepheus prepared to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Ceto.

Perseus came upon the scene where Andromeda was chained on the shore, slew Ceto and rescued her. The couple were then married even though Andromeda had earlier been promised to a rival, Phineus. Never one to under use a good thing Perseus turned Phineus to stone with the Medusa head. Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters. One of them, Persus, was supposed to have been the ancestor of the Persian royal line. One son, Alcaeus, was the grandfather of Heracles.

Perseus continued his journey back to Seriphos, and on the way the blood of Medusa once more dripped out of the sack and fell on the sands of Libya. Here it birthed a brood of serpents which were to later kill one of the Argonauts. Back in Seriphos Perseus found that his mother had had to seek sanctuary from Polydectes. Here we go again. Another day, another stoning. Rock on Perseus ! Perseus then placed his foster father Dictys on the throne, and returned his magical gifts to the gods. Athena took the head of Medusa (which Molly imagines must have been getting rather rank by this time) and placed it on her shield, the Aegis.

The legends relate that Perseus then returned to the mainland and that he was responsible for the death of Acrisius. Some say that he was killed by accident by a discus thrown by Perseus during an athletic competition. The reported locations vary, perhaps Larissa, perhaps Pelasgiotis, both in Thessaly. Other tales report that he killed not Acrisius but Proetus, the brother of Acrisius by, guess how, turning him into stone with the gorgon head.

Perseus is then credited with the foundation of the city of Mycenae, 6 km north of Argos. Mycenae dominated the pre-Dorian age of Greece and lived on in the legend of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the high kings of the Greeks in the Trojan War. The city itself was captured by Argos in 462 BCE, and its inhabitants were expelled. It was the site of excavations by Schliemann, the "discoverer" of the site of ancient Troy.

If anyone is interested in reading English translations of some of the original classical sources from which these myths derive Molly recommends the following:



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