Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini, 1554

Perseus with the head of Medusa, Benvenuto Cellini, 1554

Having just passed through the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, I thought it appropriate to write a bit about the Greek Hero Perseus. The meteor shower is the result of debris trailing behind the Swift-Tuttle comet. Each year at this time, Earth passes through the comet’s debris field, which appears to originate in the Perseus constellation, hence the name Perseid, which means son of Perseus.

Perseus was the son of Zeus and the mortal Danae, daughter of King Acrisius of Argos. Because of a prophesy that he would be killed by the son of Danae, the king kept his daughter locked away in a tower. This was no deterrent to Zeus though, who visited her in the form of a golden rain shower. Nine months later, there was Perseus.

Acrisius locked Danae and the baby up in a chest and pushed them out to sea, sure that they would sink. Instead, they floated safely to the island of Seriphos, where they were rescued by the fisherman Dictys, who took them in and gave them a simple but happy life. After some years, the king of Seriphos, Polydektes, also the brother of Dictys, tried to claim Danae as his wife. No one thought this was a good idea, except for Polydektes. Perseus challenged the king, who said he would give up Danae in exchange for the head of Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon, who turned anyone who looked upon her to stone.

Athena, no friend of Medusa, who had once defiled her temple, encouraged Perseus in his task. She gave him a mirrored shield and sent him in search of the Hesperides water nymphs, who guarded other equipment he would need to kill Medusa. The way to the Hesperides passed first through the Titan Atlas, then through the Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons.

Perseus traveled to the western edge of the world, where Atlas stood holding the heavens on his back  (that’s another story). With directions from Atlas, Perseus found the Graeae, three cranky old hags who shared one eye between them and were loath to part with any information. Perseus grabbed the eye while they were passing it around and held it hostage until they gave up the location of the Hesperides. The nymphs provided an invisibility helmet, winged sandals and a secure bag for the head, which would retain its danger, whether or not connected to its body. Hermes also contributed his an indestructible sword.

Now very well armed, Perseus proceeded to the lair of the Gorgons, of which there were three, to collect the head of Medusa. There was no question he was in the right place. The petrified bodies of previous questers littered the yard and he had to be careful not to trip over them once inside the dim cave. He kept his eyes fixed to the reflection in Athena’s shield, located the sleeping Gorgon and cut off her head without ever looking directly at her. With the head safely in his special pouch and powered by his winged sandals, he was out of there in a flash, before the 2 remaining Gorgon sisters knew what happened.

On his way back to Seriphos, Perseus came upon the beautiful Andromeda chained to a rock on the shore of Ethiopia. She was waiting to be gobbled by a sea monster in order to appease Poseidon. Andromeda’s mother had offended the god of the Sea when she claimed that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids, Poseidon’s harem of sea nymphs. Perseus rescued Andromeda, took her back to Seriphos and married her. But before marrying Andromeda, he had to complete his initial rescue mission. He presented the head of Medusa to King Polydektes, who looked right at it and turned to stone.

Some years later, Perseus accidentally killed his grandfather Acrisius with a wayward discus and the prophecy that launched this tale was finally fulfilled. In ancient Greece, there was no escaping fate. There’s a subject for another post…

Look for the Perseus constellation in the winter sky of the Northern Hemisphere and in the summer in the Southern Hemisphere. This video will help you find it (the Plow = the Big Dipper).

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