The Quest of Perseus
Medusa and her two sisters were named the Gorgons. The sisters had always been plain and ever terrible to see, but Medusa had once been fair to look upon.
When she was young and beautiful her home was in a northern land, where the sun never shone, so she begged Athene to send her to the south where sunshine made the long days glad. But the goddess refused her request.
In her anger Medusa cried, "It is because I am so beautiful that you will not let me go. For if Medusa were to be seen who then would wish to look at Athene."
Such proud and foolish words might not be suffered by the gods, and the maiden was sharply punished for her rash speech. Her beautiful curly hair was changed into serpents, living serpents that hissed and coiled around her head. Nor was this all, but whoever so much as glanced at her face was at once turned into stone.
Terrible indeed was Medusa, the Gorgon, whose head Perseus had vowed to bring as a gift to Polydectes. She had great wings like eagles and sharp claws instead of hands.
Now as Perseus wandered down to the shore after he had defied the king, his heart began to sink. How was he even to begin his task? He did not know where Medusa lived, nor did any one on the island.
In his perplexity he did as his mother had taught him to do; he prayed to Athene, and lo! even as he prayed the goddess was there by his side. With her was Hermes, the fleet-footed, wearing his winged sandals.
"The gods will aid you, Perseus," said Athene, "if you will do as they bid you. But think not to find their service easy. For they who serve the gods must endure hardship, and live laborious lives. Will this content you?"
Perseus had no fears now that he knew the gods would help him, and with a brave and steadfast heart, he answered, "I am content."
Then Pluto sent to the lad his magic helmet, which made whoever wore it invisible. Hermes gave to him the winged sandals he wore, so that he might be able to fly over land and sea, while Athene entrusted to him her shield, the dread Ægis, burnished bright as the sun. The shield was made from the hide of a goat, but the Hellenes thought of it as the great storm-cloud in which Zeus hid himself when he was angry. For it was the shield of her father Zeus that Athene used.
Upon Medusa herself Perseus would not be able to cast a glance lest he be turned to stone, but looking at the shield he would see her image as in a mirror.
The lad was now armed for his quest, but not yet did he know whither it would lead.
But Athene could direct him. She said that the abode of the Gorgons was known to none save three sisters called the Grææ. These sisters had been born with grey hair, and had only one eye and one tooth between them, which they used in turn. Their home was in the north, in a land of perpetual darkness, and it was there that Perseus must go to learn the dwelling-place of the Gorgons. So at length the lad was ready to set out on his great adventure.
On and on, sped by his winged sandals he flew, past many a fair town, until he left Greece far behind. On and on until he reached the dark and dreary land where the Grææ dwelt. He could see them now, the three grey sisters, as they sat in the gloom just outside their cave.
As Perseus drew near, unseen by them, because of his magic helmet, the sisters were passing their one eye from hand to hand, so that at that moment all three were blind.
Perseus saw his chance, and stretching out his hand seized the eye. They, each thinking the other had it, began to quarrel. But Perseus cried, "I hold the eye in my hand. Tell me where I may find Medusa and you shall have it back."
The sisters were startled by a voice when they had neither seen nor heard any one approach; they were more startled by what the voice said.
Very unwilling were they to tell their secret, yet what could they do if the stranger refused to give back their one eye? Already he was growing impatient, and threatening to throw it into the sea. So lest he should really fling it away they were forced to tell him where he would find the Gorgon. Then Perseus, placing the eye in one of the eager, outstretched hands, sped swiftly on his journey.
As he reached the land of which the Grææ had told him, he heard the restless beating of the Gorgon's wings, and he knew that his quest was well-nigh over.
Onward still he flew, and then raising his burnished shield he looked into it, and lo! he saw the images of the Gorgons. They lay, all three, fast asleep on the shore.
Unsheathing his sword, Perseus held it high, and then, keeping his gaze fixed upon the shield, he flew down and swiftly cut off Medusa's head and thrust it into a magic bag which he carried slung over his shoulder.
Now as Perseus seized the terrible head, the serpents coiled around the Gorgon's brow roused themselves, and began to hiss so fiercely that the two sisters awoke and knew that evil had befallen Medusa.
They could not see Perseus, for he wore his magic helmet, but they heard him, and in an instant they were following fast, eager to avenge the death of their sister.
For a moment the brave heart of the hero failed. Was he doomed to perish now that his task was accomplished?
He cried aloud to Athene, for he heard the Gorgons following ever closer on his path. Then more swiftly sped the winged sandals, and soon Perseus breathed freely once again, for he had left the dread sisters far behind.