Friday, July 27, 2012


I got about halfway through writing up this particular Greek myth when I came to an important realization: This story is friggin’ nuts! I mean, as Greek myths go, it’s actually pretty tame, but it’s still pretty ridiculous. I hope to Zeus these things made more sense in Ancient Greek and we just think they’re insane cuz something was lost in translation. In any case, English is what we’re dealing with here, so I had to go over the story again and add jokes. I like the story, in spite of its ludicrous twists and turns, so I didn’t just want to throw it out, but I thought if I played it for laughs a bit more, it might work better.

There are, of course, several different versions of the myth, and, as per usual, mine takes elements from a handful of tellings. So you might not see your favorite part of the story here.

Once upon a really quite very long time ago, there was a king called Acrissius who, like many narrow-minded kings, very much wanted to have a son. Instead, he got a daughter, whom he named Danae…wait, whom? Is that right? Who he named…he named…no, whom. Whom is right. What? Oh, sorry. As I say, King Acrissius’ only child was his daughter Danae. Being of a naturally curious disposition, the king went to see the Oracle at Delphi (Ah-ah-AH! choir of small children singing) and asked it whether he would ever have a son. The Oracle said that not only would Acrissius not have a son, but his daughter would, and that son would one day, and this is a direct quote: “defeat the king and wear the crown.”

King Acrissius was horrified at the thought of being overthrown by his own hypothetical grandson. Desperate to avoid this fate, he locked Danae in a tower and refused to ever let her out, reasoning that if she never had a child, he had no reason to fear her offspring. But Zeus, the king of the gods of Greece, was not a particular fan of Acrissius, and he was especially mad at him for defying the Oracle at Delphi (Ah-ah-AH! slightly larger choir of small children singing this time), and so he did one of those things that gods get to do: He performed a miracle. He sent Danae a son, and she named him Perseus since he was “from Zeus.” For many years, Danae and Perseus lived secretly in the tower until the child’s laughter was heard by his wicked grandfather. When King Acrissius found out that Danae had, against all logic and the very laws of nature, borne a son, he was acrimonious…no, he was mad. I don’t know why I said that other word, excuse me.

Whatever word you like, Acrissius decided to get rid of the pair of them once and for all. Mother and child were sealed in a wooden box and the box was thrown into the sea. But, once again, Acrissius had not reckoned with the gods, and Zeus’s brother, Poseidon, carried the box across the ocean to a new land called Seriphos. The box washed up on shore where it was found and opened by a kindly man named Dictys. When he heard of Danae and Perseus’ plight, he took pity on them and asked them to come and live with him. So that is how Perseus grew to be a man with the love of his mother and the guiding hand of Dictys.

Now, it just so happened. that Dictys had a brother, named Polydectes (I know, the names in this one are kind of tricky). It also happened that Polydectes was the king of Seriphos. And the law of the land entiteld him to take any woman he wanted for his bride. As it further happened, he had his eye on Perseus’ mother, Danae. Perseus, however, knew the kind of man Polydectes was and knew that he would not be a good husband to his mother.

“You may be king,” said Perseus, defiantly, “but I will never call you father.”

“You will, boy,” said Polydectes. “I will have your mother for my bride or both of you will be put to death.”

The fear of death has, in the past, been referred to as “a helpful motivator.” Such was the case with Danae. Not for her own sake so much, but for her son. She agreed to marry Polydectes and asked her son to get on board with the whole thing. She asked him to go to his future stepfather and ask his forgiveness and offer his blessing. Eventually, Perseus agreed and did so the next morning. As a gesture of apology for his harsh words, Perseus asked Polydectes what gift he should bring to the wedding. “Anything under the sky is yours to request,” said Perseus, never dreaming that he’d soon live to regret it.

“Anything?” said the sinister king. “Very well: Bring me…the head of the Gorgon, Medusa!”

(GASP! Dramatic sting!!)

For those of you who aren’t from around here, the Gorgons were three horrible monsters. Of these, two were immortal. The one who was mortal was Medusa. Some said she was once a beautiful human woman who, years ago, had offended the goddess Athena who had turned her into a monster as punishment. And a monster she was! Her hair was actually live snakes, and one look in her eyes would turn a man to stone! But Perseus had (stupidly) promised to bring Polydectes any gift he asked for, so he set forth the very next day to seek out the Gorgons.

The night before his adventure was to begin, the gods appeared to him. They wanted to help him in his quest. Athena gave him a highly polished shield, the inside of which reflected like a mirror. Hermes lent Perseus his winged sandals to hasten his journey. Even Zeus himself gave him an adamani…admananium…adam…a magic sword with which to slice off Medusa’s head. Perseus was very grateful to the gods for their gifts and their advice:

“When you depart at tomorrow’s sun,” Athena said, “run to the other side of the world, where the sun has just set. There you will find the Graeae. They are cousins of the Gorgons and will help you to find your enemy.”

“Well, can’t you guys just tell me where they are?”

“No. No we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Er…do not question the ways of the gods! Just go find the Gray Ladies, okay?”

So, the next morning as the first rays of the sun shone upon him, Perseus ran with Hermes’ winged sandals to the other side of the world. Here night had just begun to fall. And on the cold, dark rocks at the edge of the sea he found the Graeae. These three old hags had only one eye that they shared between them. One would remove it and pass it to the next and they would all get a turn…yes, I agree, it’s disgusting, but it’s just a story. Anyway, as one passed it to the next, Perseus took it and held it out of their reach.

“Where is our eye?” cried the Graeae. “Who has our eye?”

“I,” said Perseus.

“Yes. Eye. Where is our eye?”

“No, I mean I as in me.”

“You? What about you?”

“No, I—never mind. I have your stupid eye and I won’t return it until you tell me how to find your cousins, the Gorgons.”

The Graeae agreed and told Perseus where he would find the Gorgons. Perseus returned their eye (gratefully, cuz it was pretty gross) and followed their directions until he came to the outskirts of the nation of Ethiopia (not the one you’re thinking of, this is a different one). It was a dark, gray place where it looked like the sun had never shone. Here is where the Gorgons lived and here is where Perseus found Medusa.

“Who seeks Medusa?” she asked, her back to her foe.

“I am Perseus. Son of Zeus and the mortal Danae. The man I will one day call ‘father’ has demanded your head and I will not leave this place without it.”

See? That’s how heroes talk in stories like this. Nobody talks like that anymore. How cool is that?

Anyway: “Then you will never leave this place!” hissed Medusa (or it might have been her hair) and she rounded on her enemy. “Look into my eyes!”

“No!” replied Perseus and he at once spun around and held up his shield. With his back to Medusa, he saw her reflection in his shield and by looking, memorizing the terrain then shutting his eyes and quickly turning around he was able to fight Medusa without ever looking directly at her. The battle raged on for many hours, and it was almost daybreak when the final blow was struck. With a mighty swipe of Zeus’ sword, Perseus sliced through Medusa’s neck and her lifeless head fell to the ground…again, pretty gross, huh?

Exhausted from his battle, Perseus used the last of his strength to put the severed head in his knapsack (very carefully, because her eyes were still open) and then he did what pretty much any demigod would do in the same situation: He collapsed to the ground and lost consciousness.

He awoke several hours later in a soft bed with maids attending him. “Where am I?” he demanded of them.

“You are in the palace of King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. The monarchs of Ethiopia.”

“How did I get here?” he asked. They explained how the sounds of the battle with Medusa had attracted the attention of some early-morning fishermen. They had seen Perseus behead Medusa and collapse on the rocks. They knew the other two Gorgons (the ones that didn’t die, remember) would soon discover him and tear him limb from limb for killing their sister, so they carried him into the city where news quickly spread of his defeat of the monster. The king and queen ordered him to be brought to their palace where, when he awoke, which was now, he would be their honored guest at a feast.

Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever beheaded a terrible monster after fighting for hours on end and then slept for more hours on more end (I don’t think that’s right, but let’s move on), but if you have you would know what Perseus knew, that what you’d really be in the mood for was a feast. He sat at the royal table between the king and queen and was called on to recount the story of his adventure which, when it was over, was met with cheers and applause the likes of which Perseus had never heard before. It was the greatest night of his life…until the end of the meal.

“Perseus,” said the King, hesitantly, “I should tell you, this feast is not just to celebrate your victory over Medusa.”

“It isn’t?”

“No,” said the Queen. “It is also to entice you to help us.”

“You see,” continued the King, “this very night, a terrible sea serpent is going to kill our daughter, Andromeda.”

“What?” said Perseus, understandably perplexed. “Why? How? Huh?”

The King explained that, some days ago, the Queen had said, only in jest, you understand, that she was more beautiful than the water nymphs of Poseidon. Poseidon (who only about ten years ago had saved Perseus and his mother, for those having a hard time keeping track) apparently took her boasts as blasphemy and said that he would send the serpent, Cetus, to destroy Ethiopia. When the King and Queen begged for mercy, Poseidon said “very well, I won’t destroy the entire city…only one…your daughter. Tie her to a stone on the edge of the city at sunset in three days’ time and I will spare the rest of your lives.”

“So you see,” the King implored, “what we really need right now is somebody who can kill a monster.”

“Please, Perseus,” begged the Queen. “You may be our only hope of saving our city and our child.”

Perseus agreed for some reason, and at sundown that very night, the princess Andromeda was brought forth. She was tied to a large stone at the very edge of the city and Perseus crouched down behind the stone, waiting for Cetus to attack. Sure enough, the tide rolled in and a huge, terrifying serpent slithered out of the sea. It was just about to attack Andromeda when…SLASH! Perseus leaped out from behind the stone and sliced off the serpent’s head. Poseidon was, of course, furious, but he had made a promise: If Andromeda was tied to the stone at sundown, he would not destroy the city. Andromeda was tied down, so, even though she wasn’t killed, he had to spare Ethiopia. In the end, however, he got his revenge on Cassiopeia: When she died, he used his power to hang her in the sky, upside down, for all eternity, as a mighty constellation of stars…but that comes later.

For now, Ethiopia was saved and the King and Queen were even more grateful to Perseus than they had been before and they asked if there was anything he wanted as a reward. And, as a matter of fact there was. To make a long story slightly less long, Perseus and Andromeda were married soon thereafter.

But, now was not the time for a honeymoon. Perseus had somewhere to be. He bid his new bride put her arms around him very, very tight. She did this and then, using Hermes’ winged sandals, he ran all the way back home to Seriphos, just in time for the wedding ceremony to begin. He entered the palace bearing the gifts from the gods, the knapsack over his shoulder and his new wife, Andromeda.

“Mom,” he said, “this is my wife, Andromeda. Andy, this is my mother.”

Danae was less than thrilled at finding out like this, but she embraced Andromeda anyway.

“Yes, yes, she seems lovely,” said Polydectes. “But I didn’t send you after a girl. Did you bring what I requested?”

“Yes, Father,” he said, possibly inventing sarcasm at that moment. “It’s right…here!” And with the kind of lightning fast reflexes that only a demigod could possess and which it would be pointless attempting if you’re not one, Perseus whipped the knapsack off his back reached in and pulled out Medusa’s head, pointing it straight at Polydectes. And the moment Polydectes eyes made contact with Medusa’s deathly gaze, he turned at once into solid stone.

So the Oracle at Delphi (The choir of small children thought they were done and left for the day) was right. Perseus grew up to defeat a king and wear his crown…just not the king Acrissius had expected. In case you’re interested, Acrissius lived a long and lonely life with no children and his very last thought before his death was sorrow at what he had done to his daughter and grandson. But why waste time worrying about that old jerk? Especially when Perseus was a hero, a husband and a king all at the same time. He had many more adventures and even founded his own kingdom, Mycenae, where he and his extended family lived very happily ever after…if you can believe that!


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • “Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Greek Myths” (1990; TV) Their version of Perseus’ story includes a cameo by Atlas who, contrary to popular belief, actually held up the sky, not the Earth. In this story, Perseus takes pity on the poor man and mercifully turns him to stone with Medusa’s head so he won’t feel the weight of the sky anymore.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (books/movie) The title character of these modern day myths is actually named after Perseus and the first story, the Lightning Thief, features several references to his legend. Medusa (played by Uma Thurman in the movie) even makes an appearance.
  • Clash of the Titans (1981/2010) This is an epic story of Greek mythology based on the loose framework of Perseus' story. The original is famous for the excellent stop-motion animation of the late, great Ray Harryhausen and stars Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Burgess Meredith and Harry Hamlin as Perseus. The big budget remake features Sam Worthington as Perseus along with Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Jason Flemyng (who you’d recognize if you saw him)

NEXT WEEK: "The Return of Shelly Hobbes: Master Detective...Again!"

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