Prophecies and Vanities
The Tales of Perseus, Andromeda, Pegasus, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Cetus and Equuleus

Chapter 2: The Gorgon Medusa

Through the years, King Polydectes fell in love with the beautiful Danae. He wanted to marry her, but young Perseus would not allow it. So, one day, Polydectes conceived of a clever ruse. Calling together all of his friends, including young Perseus, he announced that he needed contributions from them to offer for Hippodameia's hand in marriage. "I need one horse from each of you. I must make a good impression if I am to win her. She is a mainland woman and must see that, just because I am from an island, I still have much to offer."

Perseus, of course, had no horses. But if Polydectes wanted to marry someone other than his mother, he certainly would help. "I have no horses, Polydectes," Perseus began, "but I will get for you whatever it is you want, even if it is the head of the Gorgon itself!"

"Excellent, Perseus," responded the king. "The head of the Gorgon Medusa would be a fine wedding gift. I thank you for the wonderful offer. How long will it take you to bring it?"

Perseus was in shock. He hadn't really meant it! He had only blurted out the most outrageous thing he could think of. That was a mistake. What was he going to do now? Why, the Gorgon Medusa had serpents for hair, her teeth were tusks like those of hogs and her face was so ugly it turned anyone who looked at her to stone. He heard that she had golden wings so he would never be able to escape if he got near her. Polydectes must want him dead. In a daze he left the gathering. All day he worried. He couldn't eat. He wouldn't respond to Danae when she asked him what was wrong. He went to bed, but he couldn't sleep. What was he to do?

"You will do just as you promised," said the soft voice of a woman.

"Who are you?" Perseus asked. "How can you read my mind?"

"I can read your mind because of who I am." She appeared at the edge of his bed. "I am Athena. I am here to help you fulfill your promise. Father sent me. He said you had gotten yourself into big trouble and, since I knew Medusa well, I was to come and help you out. So, here I am."

"How do you know Medusa?" Perseus asked.

"There are three Gorgon sisters. Stheno and Euryale are immortal, Medusa is the only mortal one. Medusa was also the beautiful one. But that was a long time ago," began Athena. "Of all about her that was lovely, her hair was the most exquisite, and she was very proud of it.

"There were many men and gods who wanted to marry her. She chose Poseidon, and they made love in my temple. As if that were not insulting enough, Poseidon said, 'It is fitting that we make love here, for you are more beautiful than Athena.' To this, Medusa laughingly agreed.

"I heard their comments and saw how they desecrated my holy temple. While they were in each others arms, I turned her hair to snakes. As she looked into the reflecting pond in the middle of my shrine, what looked back at her were the wiggling snakes on her head. As Poseidon looked, he let out a gasp, for in his arms was the ugliest woman on earth. Now she is so ugly that she can turn the living to stone." Athena, completing her story, gave young Perseus a polished golden shield as her gift. "Remember never to look directly at the Gorgons. Look only at their reflection in this shield."

"And use this sickle to cut off Medusa's head," Hermes called. He had just materialized and was standing by the door to Perseus' room. He walked to the bed and handed Perseus a sickle of black stone with a carved bronze handle. "Father sent me too," Hermes said. "He thought I should teach Perseus to fly."

Perseus was far less frightened with his mission now that he had the help of two gods. He was even beginning to look forward to the adventure. "Where do I start?" he asked excitedly.

Athena and Hermes looked at each other, realizing they would have to plan everything in detail. "In addition to the tools we have given you, you will need the kibisis knapsack, the flying sandals, and the helmet of Hades. These belong to the Stygian Nymphs," said Hermes. "But only the Graeae know where the nymphs can be found."

"The Graeae are sisters of the Gorgons, children of Phorcus and Ceto. Their names are Enyo, Pephredo and Deino. They looked like old women from the minute they were born," explained Athena. "Between them they only have a single eye and a single tooth that they must share. By nature, they are most uncooperative. To obtain their help you must first obtain their eye and tooth," the goddess suggested.

"When can I start?" Perseus jumped out of bed holding tight to his shield and sickle.

"We can go now, if you like," Hermes held out his hand. Perseus grabbed hold. Without even saying goodbye to his mother, Perseus flew into the dark, eager to find the gardens beneath the shadow of Mt. Atlas at the end of the world.

"I hear something. Give me the eye." One of the old sisters grabbed at the one next to her. "Give it to me, I say."

"I don't have it. Take your lousy hands off me," yelped the other. "Enyo has it. Now leave me alone."

"Enyo, give me the eye," snapped the first sister.

"No. I'm not through with it yet."

"Then you won't get the tooth when you're hungry. Deino and I will share it and you can starve."

Perseus and Hermes listened to the bickering. Moving stealthily behind Enyo, Perseus grabbed the eye out of her hand as she was busily embroiled in the argument.

"Who took the eye? Pephredo, give me back the eye," Enyo screamed.

"I don't have the eye, you moron. You do. What did you do, lose it, you imbecile?"

Perseus maneuvered to Pephredo, where he reached out and quickly snatched the tooth.

"Who took the tooth?" Pephredo yelled to her sisters.

"I did," announced Perseus. The sisters all gasped at this voice.

"And you have the eye too?" guessed Enyo.

"Yes, I do. I want your help," said Perseus. "I will give you back both your eye and your tooth if you tell me how to find the Stygian Nymphs."

"What do you want the nymphs for," demanded Deino.

"That is no concern of yours," responded Perseus. "You will only get back the eye and tooth if you tell me how to find them."

The sisters conferred for a few minutes, then told him where to find the nymphs. Politely thanking them, Perseus handed back their belongings. As he and Hermes flew away, they could once again hear disputes over the eye and the tooth.

The river made an abrupt turn as it wound around a mountain of purple rocks covered with golden shrubs, soft as silk to the touch. A mist arose from the cascading waterfall as it made the bend and lit the sky in a muted rainbow of hazy light. Willows covered the banks behind the purple mountain and as the wind whistled through their graceful branches giggles could be heard from those who bathed beneath the waterfall. As he approached, Perseus could see beautiful naked bodies dancing beneath the stream.

The Stygian nymphs knew Perseus' mission. Whether or not he completed it, they did not care. Their concern was only for the moment. "Come join us, Perseus," they called out.

He came closer. One of them looked into his eyes and smiled, then splashed him and laughed. He came closer yet. "Join our fun," she tempted. "The water feels good."

Perseus glanced over their heads to see Hermes, then he remembered his mission. "That would be nice, I'm sure; but I have a mission first," he said. "I need a knapsack, sandals and the helmet of Hades and I understand that they are in your care. I promise I will return them when I have finished."

"They are beneath the tree to your left," another nymph called to him as she continued bathing uninterrupted. Perseus and Hermes went to the tree and, in a small crevice at its base, found the special items.

Hermes went down on his knees and tied the sandals on Perseus' feet. "These will enable you to fly, just as we flew here," he instructed. Then he handed Perseus the knapsack. "Tie the kibisis to your belt so it will always be handy. You will place Medusa's head inside." Then he picked up the helmet. "This is the helmet of Hades," Hermes continued. "It will allow you to move in complete secrecy. When it is upon your head you will be invisible to everyone yet you will still be able to see." Hermes rose to put his arms around his young half-brother. He gave his blessing along with directions to the Gorgons. As quickly as he had materialized, Hermes was gone. Perseus placed the helmet of Hades upon his head and made sure the kibisis was tied firmly to his belt. With his shield in one hand and the sickle in the other, he focused on his winged sandals and slowly he rose above the ground and flew toward the ocean at the end of the world.

"When you see the sunlight glint off golden apples on a tree standing at the chasm of the edge of the world, turn south until palm trees rustle in the breezes that blow toward earth from the void. Where the river rises above ground you will find a cave which is home to the Gorgons. From the moment you step into the cave, look only at the reflection on your shield." These had been the directions of Hermes, and Perseus was following them carefully.

Rising from its underground source, the river surfaced beneath the palms and, in a torrent, fell off the end of the world; the length of its fall unmeasurable. He slowly descended to earth and stepped down upon the rocks of the riverbank. It was daybreak and the birds called out to warn of the invader. He shrank back as he neared the cave. He could smell death coming from the cave's entrance. It stunk like decaying teeth. Gathering his courage, he held his sickle and positioned his shield, then carefully went into the cave, looking only at his shield.

The passageway was dimly reflected on his shield. Dim though it was, it was a golden image and made it seem as though he was walking through a dream. Golden stalactites grew down from the ceiling and as he descended deeper into the mouth of the earth, they were joined by sharp stalagmites like huge golden teeth. He walked between them into the throat of the cave.

Golden skeletons, petrified and long decayed lay along the path, not forgotten in their failed attempt to escape. As the entrance shrank into the distance, a new light appeared ahead. The hall in which he traveled started opening into rooms lit by torches fixed against the walls. Golden curtains softened and cloaked the rooms in privacy. Perseus could hear water bubbling over rocks as the stream opened in the underground chamber. Then he heard the sound of snores breaking the golden mystery.

Carefully, he reached out in front of him, probing for signs of life. He saw an underground river which spread wide and flickered with the reflections of the torchlights. Waterlillies floated along the edge, next to mounds of cushions. It was on these cushions that he saw a leg move. His mirrored shield flickered as it reflected an iridescent gown.

"Which of the Gorgons was this?" he pondered as he moved for a better angle to see her head and hair. The golden image in his shield displayed not hair, but writhing snakes. He was in luck for he had found Medusa and it appeared she was asleep.

Losing no time, he silently flew across the water using only his shield as a guide. Firmly planting his feet as he positioned himself next to her head, he fiercely gripped the sickle, raised it and, in one motion, severed Medusa's head.

Dropping his weapon, he picked up the head and carefully placed it in the knapsack which hung securely from his belt. Blood spattered across his golden mirror and, as his focus once again returned to its images, he saw two bodies rise from the severed neck of Medusa. A small foal and a white winged horse rose from her fallen body; they were her children by Poseidon. The winged horse was called Pegasus, and the foal was his brother Chrysaor. As Medusa's children drank at the pool, Perseus, his task successfully accomplished, flew away with the head of a mother the winged horses would never know.

Perseus began his return flight, but just as he spied the golden apples at world's end, he realized how tired he was. In front of him rose Atlas, holding up the sky. "Good sir, please let me rest here. I have been without sleep for days," Perseus said. "I have just returned from a dangerous mission. You can trust me for I am the son of Zeus."

Atlas was uncertain about Perseus until he heard that he was the son of Zeus, then he did not trust him at all. Old Atlas remembered the words of the oracle, Themis of Parnasus. "You will be entrusted to guard Hera's tree of golden apples, but a son of Zeus will steal the apples and bring down Hera's wrath." He was certain this young man would fulfill the prophesy so he denied Perseus access and told him to be on his way.

Tired and angry; with a powerful weapon at his side, Perseus took quick revenge. He called out, "Atlas. See what I have for you!" He looked away as he pulled Medusa's bloody head from the knapsack.

One look turned Atlas to stone. The hairs upon his body turned to trees, his ribs and shoulders became mountain ridges, while the top of his head became the mountain peak holding up the sky.

Perseus, full of his new power, no longer was tired. He flew away from Mount Atlas, watching the scene far below. As he watched, beneath him he saw the blood of Medusa leak from the knapsack and spill across the desert into the sand. Wherever it fell, snakes rose, each born from a single drop of Medusa's blood.

Chapter 1: Danae and Perseus | Myth Index | Chapter 3: The Princess on the Rock

Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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