Gateway to the Classics: Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men by  Caroline H. and Samuel B. Harding

Perseus and the Medusa

T HERE was once a king in Greece who did a very cruel thing. An oracle had foretold to him that he would be killed by his own grandson. He was determined that this should not come to pass, so he tried to cheat the gods. He placed his beautiful daughter and her baby son in a chest, and threw them into the sea, thinking that by doing this he would never see them again, and need never fear his little grandson.

But the waves were kind to the princess and her child. The chest floated lightly upon the water, and at last came to rest upon the sandy beach of an island. Here it was found by a fisherman, and the princess and her child were received and cared for by the ruler of the island. They lived there for many years, while the boy, who was called Perseus, grew to be a strong and active youth. For some time the people were very kind to them; but at last the ruler of the island became vexed at the mother of Perseus, and made her his slave. Then, because Perseus had become such a strong young man, the king began to be afraid that he would try to avenge the injury which had been done to his other. So he sent him far away on a dangerous journey, to the very ends of the earth.

There dwelt a terrible woman called Medusa, the Gorgon. The hair of the Gorgon was a mass of living snakes; and she was so hideous to behold, that just to look upon her turned one to stone. Perseus was commanded to bring home the head of this woman; and although he set out obediently, he did not know at all where to find her. But while he was wandering helplessly about, the god Hermes and the goddess Athena came to his aid, and gave him courage for his dreadful task. They told him that he must have a pair of winged sandals to help him on his way, and also a helmet which would make him invisible.

These wonderful things were in the cave of some water-nymphs, and he could find out where these nymphs were only by going to some dreadful old woman who had but one eye and one tooth among them. These they were obliged to pass around from one to the other as they needed them. Hermes led Perseus to these old women, and then left him. At first Perseus could not get them to tell him what he wished to learn. But when he stole their one eye as they passed it from one to another to look at him, they were glad enough to tell him what he wanted, in order to get back their eye again.

When at last Perseus reached the cave of the nymphs, he easily obtained the sandals and the helmet. Putting these on, he soon reached the cave of Medusa, and found her lying asleep on the ground. But he did not dare to approach her face to face, for fear lest he should be turned to stone. Then it was that the goddess Athena came to his aid, and gave him her bright shield to use as a mirror. Holding this before him, Perseus walked backward, looking not upon Medusa, but only upon her reflection in the shield. When he was near enough, he struck off her head with a curved sickle which Hermes had given him, and, still without looking at it he thrust the head into a bag, and hurried away.

As he journeyed back from the ends of the earth toward his home, many adventures befell him, and he found that the Gorgon's head was a wonderful weapon. It was better than a sword or a spear; for, if he wished to harm his enemies, he had only to take Medusa's head from its bag, and hold it before their eyes; then at once they were turned to stone.

One of his adventures ended in his gaining a beautiful princess as his wife. As he passed through the country of the Ethiopians, he found every one in great distress. The queen of the country was a very vain woman, who had boasted that she was more beautiful than the nymphs who lived in the sea near by. This had made the nymphs so angry that they had begged the great god Poseidon to punish the queen. He did this by rolling a great flood of his salty water upon the land, and sending with it a sea monster, that devoured both beasts and men. The country suffered so much from these misfortunes that the king sent to an oracle, to discover how they might escape from t hem. The oracle replied that the only help was to sacrifice the king's daughter Andromeda to the sea monster.

For a long time the king refused to do this; for Andromeda was a beautiful girl, and he loved her dearly. But at last he could resist the wishes of his suffering people no longer. Andromeda was led from her father's house to a rock upon the seashore, and chained there alone, to await the coming of the monster. But, before she had been harmed, Perseus passed that way. He wondered at finding a beautiful maiden weeping in chains, and went to her aid. He killed the monster as it came out of the deep, and broke the chains that found Andromeda. Then they went together to her father's city; and Perseus claimed Andromeda as his bride, because he had saved her from a dreadful death.

The people were glad enough to be rid of the monster, and to have their beautiful princess back alive one more; but they did not wish to give her away again to this strange young man. So Perseus took her without their consent; and when some of them tried to prevent it he turned the men to stone with his Gorgon head, and went on his way homeward with Andromeda at his side. When he came to his old home, he used Medusa's head again. This time it was the man who had mistreated his mother whom he turned to stone. In his place as king he put the good fisherman who had found him and his mother in the chest on the shore of the sea.

Then Perseus went across the sea to find the grandfather who had been so afraid of him when he was a little child. When the old king learned that his grandson had not been drowned after all, and that he was alive and coming to see him, he was more afraid than ever. Now he was sure that the oracle would come true, and that this young man would kill him for what he had done so long ago to him and his mother So he fled from his city, and hid himself. But Perseus followed him and found him, and showed him that he came only to do honor to him. Then his grandfather welcomed him, and ceased to fear him, and caused games to be held to celebrate the coming of this strong and noble grandson who had come to him in his old age. But, alas! In the midst of the games a dreadful accident happened. One of the games was hurling the quoits; and as Perseus was throwing the round, flat piece of iron, it slipped from his grasp, and struck his grandfather so that he fell dead. So the oracle was fulfilled at last.

Perseus was so sorry for what he had done, that he would not accept the throne of his grandfather, though the people wished him to do so. He exchanged this kingdom for another one, where he would not always be reminded of what he had accidentally done; and there he lived happily with Andromeda for many years.

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