O NCE upon a time there was a king of Argon named Acrĭsius, to whom it had been foretold that he would be slain by his daughter's son.
This troubled him greatly. So he built a high tower of brass, and imprisoned his daughter Dănăë in the very highest room. Having furnished her with provisions and amusements to last her all her life, he closed up all the entrances, so that nobody could get into the tower, and set guards all round it, so that nobody could even come near it. He did all this so that she should never marry and have a son who would grow up to kill him.
You may imagine what sort of a life Danae led, shut up in the brazen tower. She was made comfortable enough, and had plenty to eat and drink, and musical instruments, and pictures, and jewels, and all such things; but she never, from year's end to year's end, saw a face, except when she looked into the looking-glass, nor heard a voice but when she sang to herself—which she soon got tired of doing. She could not even look out of the window, because there were no windows to look from. She lived by lamplight, and she knew that this was to be her life for all the rest of her days.
So Acrisius felt safe and satisfied, and thought he had baffled Fate very cleverly indeed. And thus things went on for many years—what endless years they must have been to the imprisoned princess!—till one day she heard a little chinking noise, as if a gold coin had fallen upon the brazen floor of her room. She did not, however, pay any particular heed; indeed, she must by that time have got used to all sorts of queer fancies. But presently she heard it again. And, looking down in an idle way, sure enough she saw a couple of gold coins lying on the floor.
That seemed rather odd, for whence could they have come? Then a third coin joined the two others, and, raising her eyes to the ceiling, she saw coin after coin coming through a crack so small that she had not known till now that it was there. Faster and faster came the coins, till they became a shower, and the heap of gold on the floor stood higher than her head. Then the shower ceased, and the crack was still so small that she could not see whence the coins had fallen. As she stood wondering, the heap began to stir itself; the gold pieces melted into a single mass, which gradually seemed to take life and form. At last, where the gold had been, she saw the form of a man, but so stately and royal, and so much grander and nobler than any mere man could be, that she fell upon her knees before him.
"I am Jupiter," said he, raising her, "and I have chosen you to be my earthy bride."
So just that little crack in the ceiling, only just big enough for a thin gold coin to squeeze through, brought about what Acrisius had been at such trouble to prevent. And in time the news came to the king that a child had been heard crying in the brazen tower. He broke his way in, hurried up the staircase to the highest room, and there, to his rage and terror, he found Danae with a child, a boy, in her arms.
But he was determined not to let fate conquer him. He could not very well have his daughter and grandson put to death—at least openly. But he had them carried out to sea and then turned adrift in a small leaky boat without sail, oars, or rudder, so that they were certain to be drowned. This having been done, Acrisius felt happy and comfortable again.
Now there lived on the little island of Serīphus, more than two hundred miles away, an honest fisherman named Dictys. It is often rough weather about there, and bad for fishing; but he was a brave and skilful sailor, and the weather, in order to keep him ashore, had to be very rough indeed. You may think, therefore, how bad the weather was when, for the first time in his life, he was unable to cast his nets for many days and nights together,—so many that he began to wonder what in the world he should do to get food for his wife and children. He used to lie awake listening to the howling wind and roaring sea, and then, going down to the beach, sought for food among the rocks and pools, thinking himself lucky if he could find a damaged crab or a bunch of eatable sea-weed.
One morning while he was searching about with a heavy heart, he, passing a jutting rock, came suddenly upon a young and handsome woman, in clothes all torn and drenched by the waves, sitting with a baby in her lap, and forlornly rocking herself to and fro. Hard by were the broken timbers of a boat, which had doubtless been blown ashore by the wind. Dictys questioned her kindly, but she could not or would not answer; so, taking her by the hand, he led her to his cottage, where his wife, who was as good-hearted as he, made a big fire of wreck-wood, and gave the mother and child a share of what food they had left, though it could ill be spared. From their famished looks he judged that they must have been tossing about on the waves for many days. But though the woman thanked him gratefully, with tears in her eyes, she did not tell him anything of her story except what he could see for himself—that she had been lost at sea.
"Perhaps she has lost her memory," he said to his wife, when their guests were sleeping, worn out with all they had gone through. "What is to be done? We do not even know who they are."
"And look at their clothes!" said his wife. "For all their being in rags, they might have been made for a queen and a queen's son. But whoever they are," she said with a sigh, "we can't let them perish of hunger and cold. I never saw such a beautiful child—not even among our own."
Dictys sighed still more deeply, for to be burdened with two more mouths to feed in those bad times was a serious thing, even though his heart also bled for the misery of the mother and the beauty of the boy. . . . "I have it, wife!" he exclaimed at last. "As soon as they are rested, and as I've nothing else to do, worse luck, I'll take them to the king. He'll do something for them, I'm sure. And if he doesn't, why, we must do what we can, that's all, and hope for better times."
So when the mother and child were quite rested and refreshed, Dictys set off with them for the king's palace, doing his best to cheer them by the way. Seriphus is a very little island, not more than a dozen miles round, so they had not to go far, and fortunately they found the king at home. The King of Seriphus at that time was Polydectes, who, having heard the fisherman's story, and being struck with the beauty and high-born air both of the woman and of the child, kept them in his own palace, treated them as guests whom he delighted to honor, and was much too polite to ask questions. The mother told nobody anything except that her child's name was Perseus, and that hers was Danae.
Perseus grew up into such splendid manhood that for a long time Polydectes was fond and proud of him, and treated him as if he were his own son. He was strong and handsome, brave, noble-minded, and marvelously accomplished both in mind and body. He was devoted to his mother; and he could never do enough to show his gratitude to Dictys the fisherman, who had been kind to her in her need. But his very virtues became his misfortune. Polydectes gradually became jealous of him, for he could not help seeing that the people of Seriphus loved and honored Perseus more than the king himself, and he was afraid that they might rebel and make Perseus their king. Besides that, he wanted to have Danae in his power, and without a protector, so that he might marry her against her will. Therefore he bethought him of a plot by which he could get rid of Perseus forever in a seemingly honorable way.
So one day he called the young man to him, and said:—
"Perseus, I know how brave you are, and how fond of all sorts of difficult adventures. Did you ever hear of the Gorgons? Well, the Gorgons are three terrible demon sisters who live in the middle of Africa. Their bodies are covered with scales like dragons, which no spear can pierce; their hands are brazen claws; they have snakes instead of hair, just like the Furies—I mean the Eumenides; and they have teeth as long as the tusks of a wild boar; and whoever looks upon them is turned to stone. All three are dreadful; but the one who is named Medusa is the most dreadful of all. Now I have been thinking, as you are so fond of adventures, you might go and cut off Medusa's head. It would be something to be proud of for the rest of your days."
Perseus was rather taken aback by such an errand. In the first place, he did not know where to find the Gorgons; in the second place, how was he to kill a creature who would turn him into stone by one glance of her eyes? But he was much too brave to refuse, or even to think of refusing. "I will just bid my mother good-bye, and then I will start at once," said he. He did not tell his mother what he had undertaken to do for fear of alarming her; but he said good-bye to her as cheerfully as if he were only going for a night's fishing with their friend the fisherman. Then, having asked Dictys to take care of his mother till he came back again, he lay down to get a little sleep before starting.
He had a curious dream. He thought that Pluto, Minerva, and Mercury came to his bedside, and that each made him a parting present. Pluto gave him a helmet, Minerva a shield, and Mercury a pair of sandals, with little wings fastened to them, and a curious weapon, of which the blade was shaped like a scythe, and made of a single diamond. But the dream was not so strange as what he found when he woke. There, on his bed, actually lay the helmet, the shield of polished steel, the winged sandals, and the scythe-shaped dagger.
Well, somebody must have put them there. Perhaps they were parting gifts from King Polydectes. So first he put on the helmet; then he placed the weapon in his belt; then he slung the shield over his shoulders; last of all, he bound the winged sandals on his feet, and when the wings spread themselves at his heels, and carried him high up into the air, he began to think that the visit of the gods must have been something more than a dream.
He went up so high that the earth looked like a large map spread out below him, on which the island of Seriphus seemed but a mere speck in the sea over which he was drifting southward. After many hours of this strange sort of travel, he began to descend, and came down upon his feet in the middle of a hot sandy plain, where neither hill nor tree nor water was to be seen. He could not tell where he was. But he did not lose courage; and he set out across the desert, knowing that if he kept straight on in one direction, he must reach somewhere or other in time.
But not till nearly nightfall did he see, in the far distance, a cluster of palm-trees—the sure sign of water, which his long journey over the hot and glaring sand, under the blazing sun, had made him need sorely. Reaching the palm-trees at last, he found, in the midst of the cluster, a wooden hut. Wondering that anybody should live in such a place, but hoping to find food and guidance, he knocked boldly on the door with the hilt of his sword, and was bidden, by a hoarse, cracked voice, to come in.
He entered, and found three very old women warming their hands at a few burning sticks, although it was so hot in the desert that Perseus could hardly bear the weight of his shield. As he came in, the three crones turned their faces towards him; and he saw that one of them had only one eye and no teeth, that another had only one tooth and no eye, and that the third had neither teeth nor eyes.
"I am a traveler," said Perseus, "and have lost my way. Will you kindly tell me where I am?"
"Come in and show yourself," said the crone who had the eye, sharply. "I must see who you are before I answer," she added, though her one eye was looking straight at him all the while.
"Here I am," said Perseus, stepping into the middle of the room. "I suppose you can see me now."
"It's very strange—very strange!" said the old woman. "Sisters, I hear a man's voice, but I see no man!"
"Nonsense, sister!" said the one who had the tooth. "You can't have put the eye in right. Let me try."
To the amazement of Perseus, the first old woman took out her eye and passed it to the second, who, after giving it a polish, put it into her own face and looked round; but she also saw nothing.
The two wrangled for a while as to whether there was anything to be seen; and then the eye was passed round to the third sister. But she also failed to see Perseus, though the eye rolled in her head, and glowed like a live coal.
And so they kept passing the eye round from one to another, and yet nothing could they see. At last Perseus, feeling terribly hot and tired, took off Pluto's helmet to cool himself, when suddenly—
"There he is! I see him now!" exclaimed the old woman who, at the moment, happened to be using the eye.
The Perseus found out that his helmet made him invisible when he put it on; and he had already found out the use of his sandals. Perhaps the other gifts would have their uses too.
He let the old women have a good look at him each in turn, and then said—
"I am very hungry and thirsty and tired, and don't know where I am. Will you give me a little food, and tell me who such kind ladies are, and what this place is, and put me on the right road to where I want to go?"
It was the one who happened to have the eye in her head that always spoke.
"We will give you some food," said she, "for you seem a very well-behaved young man. This place is the great desert of Libya" (which is what we now call the desert of Sahara, in Africa) "and we are three sisters, called the Graiæ. And where do you want to go?"
"I want to visit the Gorgons, and particularly Medusa," said he. "Do you happen to know where they are?"
"Of course we know, for they are our own kinswomen! But never, no, never, will we tell you where they live, or the way to get there. Never will we let so handsome a youth be turned into stone!"
"Never!" croaked the old woman with the tooth.
"Never!" mumbled the third.
Perseus did all he could to persuade them, but they were so stubborn that he was only wasting words. Meanwhile they laid out supper, which they ate in a very strange way, each taking her turn with the one tooth which they had among them, and passing it round from one to the other, just as they did with their only eye. This made the meal rather long and slow, for they ate enormously. After supper they put the eye and the tooth into a little box while they took a nap, when Perseus, watching his opportunity, snatched up the box, put on his helmet, and cried out—
"Now tell me the way to Medusa, or else you shall never see or eat again!"
The poor old Graiæ went down on their knees, and implored him to give them back their only tooth and their only eye. But he said—
"It is my turn to be stubborn. Tell me where to find Medusa, and you shall have them back; but not a minute before."
"I suppose we must, then," said the eldest, with a sigh. "Well, it won't be our fault now, whatever happens. And after all, it's better that you should be turned into stone than that we should be blind and starved."
"Much better," her sisters groaned.
"Very well, then," said the eldest Graia, "you must go straight on, night and day, until you come into the country of King Atlas, which is called Mauritania. Near the king's palace is a garden where the trees bear golden apples, guarded by a dragon. If the dragon does not devour you, you must pass the garden gate, and go on, a long, long way, till you come to a great lake where, if you do not find the Gorgons, you will be a lucky man."
Perseus gave the old women back their tooth and eye, which they received with joy, and thanking them for their information, left the hut and traveled on. After many days and nights, during which he found it hard to find food, he came into a fertile country wherein stood a stately palace, so high that it seemed to touch the clouds. Hard by was a vast garden enclosed by a high wall, and at the gate, sure enough, sat a monstrous dragon with glaring eyes. But Perseus, wearing his invisible helmet, passed by safely, because unseen.
In time he came to the lake, where he took off his helmet to quench his thirst. While he was drinking, he was startled by the approach of what sounded like a mighty rush of wind, and he had but just time to put on his helmet again before he saw, reflected in the lake, the flying form of a terrible Medusa—the Gorgon whom he had vowed to slay, and who, not seeing him, sat down beside him with folded wings.