This week's reading was about Perseus. Edith Hamilton notes that the story is on the level of a fairy tale much like Cinderella with her godmother since magic plays a great part in the action. Perseus never would have managed the adventure completely on his own without the aid of Hermes and Athena. This was apparently also a much loved story in Greece, and I can see why. It's packed with lots of adventure and excitement and is really a story of a great quest that surely would have held the listener in rapt attention at the telling.
In one of last week's stories Pegasus, the winged horse of Bellerophon, came out of an adventure unscathed, though sadly the same couldn't be said about Bellerophon. Pegasus, I read last week, was made from the spilled blood of a Gorgon, the famed Medusa. While there is no mention of Pegasus here, I've finally met the monstrous Medusa. I always assumed Medusa was a woman (and she is), but Caravaggio's version of her is decidedly masculine, don't you think? Now that I've a number of myths under my belt I can see a pattern emerging and am learning what whims and desires that both the gods and mortals have and what problems they encounter when they try and sidestep their fates.
Once again the hero is put in harm's way in order to handily get rid of him without the perpetrator getting his hands dirty or maddening the gods. But when the oracle has spoken and fate has made known the outcome of an action, well, there's just no way around it however sneaky one tries to be.
Maybe if King Acrisius hadn't wanted a son so badly and gone off to Delphi to ask the god what his chances were of siring a boy were, he wouldn't have ended up in the trouble he later found himself in. Not only was he not to have a son, but the son of his daughter Danaë was destined to kill him. Bad luck. The easy way out for the king was to simply kill off his daughter, but the gods do not look kindly upon mortals who murder their kin. So that was out. Instead he put her in a bronze box with just part of the roof open to the sky and sunk her into the ground. How could a suitor find here there? Easily enough when the suitor is called Zeus. (I wonder just how many children had had anyway?).
Danaë kept her son Perseus hidden in her bronze house for as long as she could, but eventually King Acrisius discovered the boy. This time he put them both in a box and cast them out to sea. Surely they would be lost for good, but they were found by a kindly fisherman, Dictys. He and his wife cared for the two. Dictys's brother was keen on Danaë but not so much on Perseus. When Polydectes announced his marriage, everyone but Perseus (who had nothing to give) offered a gift to the bride.
Here's where the quest part comes in as Perseus sets off to kill Medusa, the only Gorgon who was mortal and could be killed, and bring back her head. An interesting nuptial gift, but they did things differently in ancient Greece. It's all a bit roundabout at this point in the storytelling, in order to kill Medusa Perseus must have three special things in his possession--winged sandals, a magic wallet, and a cap that would make him invisible. The Nymphs of the North had what he needed, but to find the nymphs he must first ask the Gray Women for directions. You might be familiar with the Gray Women (without realizing it). They share one eyeball between them. It's almost humorous to think about Perseus taking their eye, which he did by waiting until one was handing it off to one of the others. With much consernation they were willing to tell Perseus anything in order to get their eye back.
Once he had the three gifts from the nymphs in hand as well as a special sword from Hermes and a polished shield from Athena, he was ready to battle Medusa. He had only to make sure he didn't look at her for if he looked into her face he would instantly turn to stone. The feat is accomplished without much difficulty and Perseus even manages to bring back a fair maiden, Andromeda, with him.
Here's where the ironic part comes in. Remember King Acrisius? When Perseus finally returns to Greece, the king is nowhere to be found. Just when you think all is well and the King is safe, Perseus decides to take part in an athletic competition. When Perseus threw the heavy discus it struck the King who happened to be a spectator and knocked him dead. So you see, there is no escaping your fate. At least in Ancient Greece!
Next week: the story of Theseus.