Gateway to the Classics: The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by Padraic Colum
The Golden Fleece and the Heroes by  Padraic Colum

The Story of Perseus

Beyond where Atlas stands there is a cave where the strange women, the ancient daughters of Phorcys, live. They have been gray from their birth. They have but one eye and one tooth between them, and they pass the eye and the tooth, one to the other, when they would see or eat. They are called the Graiai, these two sisters.

Up to the cave where they lived a youth once came. He was beardless, and the garb he wore was torn and travel-stained, but he had shapeliness and beauty. In his leathern belt there was an exceedingly bright sword; this sword was not straight like the swords we carry, but it was hooked like a sickle. The strange youth with the bright, strange sword came very quickly and very silently up to the cave where the Graiai lived and looked over a high boulder into it.

One was sitting munching acorns with the single tooth. The other had the eye in her hand. She was holding it to her forehead and looking into the back of the cave. These two ancient women, with their gray hair falling over them like thick fleeces, and with faces that were only forehead and cheeks and nose and mouth, were strange creatures truly. Very silently the youth stood looking at them.

"Sister, sister," cried the one who was munching acorns, "sister, turn your eye this way. I heard the stir of something."

The other turned, and with the eye placed against her forehead looked out to the opening of the cave. The youth drew back behind the boulder. "Sister, sister, there is nothing there," said the one with the eye.

Then she said: "Sister, give me the tooth for I would eat my acorns. Take the eye and keep watch."

The one who was eating held out the tooth, and the one who was watching held out the eye. The youth darted into the cave. Standing between the eyeless sisters, he took with one hand the tooth and with the other the eye.

"Sister, sister, have you taken the eye?"

"I have not taken the eye. Have you taken the tooth?"

"I have not taken the tooth."

"Some one has taken the eye, and some one has taken the tooth."

They stood together, and the youth watched their blinking faces as they tried to discover who had come into the cave, and who had taken the eye and the tooth.

Then they said, screaming together: "Who ever has taken the eye and the tooth from the Graiai, the ancient daughters of Phorcys, may Mother Night smother him."

The youth spoke. "Ancient daughters of Phorcys," he said, "Graiai, I would not rob from you. I have come to your cave only to ask the way to a place."

"Ah, it is a mortal, a mortal," screamed the sisters. "Well, mortal, what would you have from the Graiai?"

"Ancient Graiai," said the youth, "I would have you tell me, for you alone know, where the nymphs dwell who guard the three magic treasures—the cap of darkness, the shoes of flight, and the magic pouch."

"We will not tell you, we will not tell you that," screamed the two ancient sisters.

"I will keep the eye and the tooth," said the youth, "and I will give them to one who will help me."

"Give me the eye and I will tell you," said one. "Give me the tooth and I will tell you," said the other. The youth put the eye in the hand of one and the tooth in the hand of the other, but he held their skinny hands in his strong hands until they should tell him where the nymphs dwelt who guarded the magic treasures. The Gray Ones told him. Then the youth with the bright sword left the cave. As he went out he saw on the ground a shield of bronze, and he took it with him.


To the other side of where Atlas stands he went. There he came upon the nymphs in their valley. They had long dwelt there, hidden from gods and men, and they were startled to see a stranger youth come into their hidden valley. They fled away. Then the youth sat on the ground, his head bent like a man who is very sorrowful.

The youngest and the fairest of the nymphs came to him at last. "Why have you come, and why do you sit here in such great trouble, youth?" said she. And then she said: "What is this strange sickle-sword that you wear? Who told you the way to our dwelling place? What name have you?"

"I have come here," said the youth, and he took the bronze shield upon his knees and began to polish it, "I have come here because I want you, the nymphs who guard them, to give to me the cap of darkness and the shoes of flight and the magic pouch. I must gain these things; without them I must go to my death. Why I must gain them you will know from my story."

When he said that he had come for the three magic treasures that they guarded, the kind nymph was more startled than she and her sisters had been startled by the appearance of the strange youth in their hidden valley. She turned away from him. But she looked again and she saw that he was beautiful and brave looking. He had spoken of his death. The nymph stood looking at him pitifully, and the youth, with the bronze shield laid beside his knees and the strange hooked sword lying across it, told her his story.

"I am Perseus," he said, "and my grandfather, men say, is king in Argos. His name is Acrisius. Before I was born a prophecy was made to him that the son of Danaë, his daughter, would slay him. Acrisius was frightened by the prophecy, and when I was born he put my mother and myself into a chest, and he sent us adrift upon the waves of the sea.

"I did not know what a terrible peril I was in, for I was an infant newly born. My mother was so hopeless that she came near to death. But the wind and the waves did not destroy us: they brought us to a shore; a shepherd found the chest, and he opened it and brought my mother and myself out of it alive. The land we had come to was Seriphus. The shepherd who found the chest and who rescued my mother and myself was the brother of the king. His name was Dictys.

"In the shepherd's wattled house my mother stayed with me, a little infant, and in that house I grew from babyhood to childhood, and from childhood to boyhood. He was a kind man, this shepherd Dictys. His brother Polydectes had put him away from the palace, but Dictys did not grieve for that, for he was happy minding his sheep upon the hillside, and he was happy in his little hut of wattles and clay.

"Polydectes, the king, was seldom spoken to about his brother, and it was years before he knew of the mother and child who had been brought to live in Dictys's hut. But at last he heard of us, for strange things began to be said about my mother—how she was beautiful, and how she looked like one who had been favored by the gods. Then one day when he was hunting, Polydectes the king came to the hut of Dictys the shepherd.

"He saw Danaë, my mother, there. By her looks he knew that she was a king's daughter and one who had been favored by the gods. He wanted her for his wife. But my mother hated this harsh and overbearing king, and she would not wed with him. Often he came storming around the shepherd's hut, and at last my mother had to take refuge from him in a temple. There she became the priestess of the goddess.

"I was taken to the palace of Polydectes, and there I was brought up. The king still stormed around where my mother was, more and more bent on making her marry him. If she had not been in the temple where she was under the protection of the goddess he would have wed her against her will.

"But I was growing up now, and I was able to give some protection to my mother. My arm was a strong one, and Polydectes knew that if he wronged my mother in any way, I had the will and the power to be deadly to him. One day I heard him say before his princes and his lords that he would wed, and would wed one who was not Danaë. I was overjoyed to hear him say this. He asked the lords and the princes to come to the wedding feast; they declared they would, and they told him of the presents they would bring.

"Then King Polydectes turned to me and he asked me to come to the wedding feast. I said I would come. And then, because I was young and full of the boast of youth, and because the king was now ceasing to be a terror to me, I said that I would bring to his wedding feast the head of the Gorgon.

"The king smiled when he heard me say this, but he smiled not as a good man smiles when he hears the boast of youth. He smiled, and he turned to the princes and lords, and he said: 'Perseus will come, and he will bring a greater gift than any of you, for he will bring the head of her whose gaze turns living creatures into stone.'

"When I heard the king speak so grimly about my boast the fearfulness of the thing I had spoken of doing came over me. I thought for an instant that the Gorgon's head appeared before me, and that I was then and there turned into stone.

"The day of the wedding feast came. I came and I brought no gift. I stood with my head hanging for shame. Then the princes and the lords came forward, and they showed the great gifts of horses that they had brought. I thought that the king would forget about me and about my boast. And then I heard him call my name. 'Perseus,' he said, 'Perseus, bring before us now the Gorgon's head that, as you told us, you would bring for the wedding gift.'

"The princes and lords and people looked toward me, and I was filled with a deeper shame. I had to say that I had failed to bring a present. Then that harsh and overbearing king shouted at me. 'Go forth,' he said, 'go forth and fetch the present that you spoke of. If you do not bring it remain forever out of my country, for in Seriphus we will have no empty boasters.' The lords and the princes applauded what the king said; the people were sad for me and sad for my mother, but they might not do anything to help me, so just and so due to me did the words of the king seem. There was no help for it, and I had to go from the country of Seriphus, leaving my mother at the mercy of Polydectes.

"I bade good-by to my sorrowful mother and I went from Seriphus—from that land that I might not return to without the Gorgon's head. I traveled far from that country. One day I sat down in a lonely place and prayed to the gods that my strength might be equal to the will that now moved in me—the will to take the Gorgon's head, and take from my name the shame of a broken promise, and win back to Seriphus to save my mother from the harshness of the king.

"When I looked up I saw one standing before me. He was a youth, too, but I knew by the way he moved, and I knew by the brightness of his face and eyes, that he was of the immortals. I raised my hands in homage to him, and he came near me. 'Perseus,' he said, 'if you have the courage to strive, the way to win the Gorgon's head will be shown you.' I said that I had the courage to strive, and he knew that I was making no boast.

"He gave me this bright sickle-sword that I carry. He told me by what ways I might come near enough to the Gorgons without being turned into stone by their gaze. He told me how I might slay the one of the three Gorgons who was not immortal, and how, having slain her, I might take her head and flee without being torn to pieces by her sister Gorgons.

"Then I knew that I should have to come on the Gorgons from the air. I knew that having slain the one that could be slain I should have to fly with the speed of the wind. And I knew that that speed even would not save me—I should have to be hidden in my flight. To win the head and save myself I would need three magic things—the shoes of flight and the magic pouch, and the dogskin cap of Hades that makes its wearer invisible.

"The youth said: 'The magic pouch and the shoes of flight and the dogskin cap of Hades are in the keeping of the nymphs whose dwelling place no mortal knows. I may not tell you where their dwelling place is. But from the Gray Ones, from the ancient daughters of Phorcys who live in a cave near where Atlas stands, you may learn where their dwelling place is.'

"Thereupon he told me how I might come to the Graiai, and how I might get them to tell me where you, the nymphs, had your dwelling. The one who spoke to me was Hermes, whose dwelling is on Olympus. By this sickle-sword that he gave me you will know that I speak the truth."

Perseus ceased speaking, and she who was the youngest and fairest of the nymphs came nearer to him. She knew that he spoke truthfully, and besides she had pity for the youth. "But we are the keepers of the magic treasures," she said, "and some one whose need is greater even than yours may some time require them from us. But will you swear that you will bring the magic treasures back to us when you have slain the Gorgon and have taken her head?"

Perseus declared that he would bring the magic treasures back to the nymphs and leave them once more in their keeping. Then the nymph who had compassion for him called to the others. They spoke together while Perseus stayed far away from them, polishing his shield of bronze. At last the nymph who had listened to him came back, the others following her. They brought to Perseus and they put into his hands the things they had guarded—the cap made from dogskin that had been brought up out of Hades, a pair of winged shoes, and a long pouch that he could hang across his shoulder.

And so with the shoes of flight and the cap of darkness and the magic pouch, Perseus went to seek the Gorgons. The sickle-sword that Hermes gave him was at his side, and on his arm he held the bronze shield that was now well polished.

He went through the air, taking a way that the nymphs had shown him. He came to Oceanus that was the rim around the world. He saw forms that were of living creatures all in stone, and he knew that he was near the place where the Gorgons had their lair.

Then, looking upon the surface of his polished shield, he saw the Gorgons below him. Two were covered with hard serpent scales; they had tusks that were long and were like the tusks of boars, and they had hands of gleaming brass and wings of shining gold. Still looking upon the shining surface of his shield Perseus went down and down. He saw the third sister—she who was not immortal. She had a woman's face and form, and her countenance was beautiful, although there was something deadly in its fairness. The two scaled and winged sisters were asleep, but the third, Medusa, was awake, and she was tearing with her hands a lizard that had come near her.

Upon her head was a tangle of serpents all with heads raised as though they were hissing. Still looking into the mirror of his shield Perseus came down and over Medusa. He turned his head away from her. Then, with a sweep of the sickle-sword he took her head off. There was no scream from the Gorgon, but the serpents upon her head hissed loudly.

Still with his face turned from it he lifted up the head by its tangle of serpents. He put it into the magic pouch. He rose up in the air. But now the Gorgon sisters were awake. They had heard the hiss of Medusa's serpents, and now they looked upon her headless body. They rose up on their golden wings, and their brazen hands were stretched out to tear the one who had slain Medusa. As they flew after him they screamed aloud.

Although he flew like the wind the Gorgon sisters would have overtaken him if he had been plain to their eyes. But the dogskin cap of Hades saved him, for the Gorgon sisters did not know whether he was above or below them, behind or before them. On Perseus went, flying toward where Atlas stood. He flew over this place, over Libya. Drops of blood from Medusa's head fell down upon the desert. They were changed and became the deadly serpents that are on these sands and around these rocks. On and on Perseus flew toward Atlas and toward the hidden valley where the nymphs who were again to guard the magic treasures had their dwelling place. But before he came to the nymphs Perseus had another adventure.

In Ethopia, which is at the other side of Libya, there ruled a king whose name was Cepheus. This king had permitted his queen to boast that she was more beautiful than the nymphs of the sea. In punishment for the queen's impiety and for the king's folly Poseidon sent a monster out of the sea to waste that country. Every year the monster came, destroying more and more of the country of Ethopia. Then the king asked of an oracle what he should do to save his land and his people. The oracle spoke of a dreadful thing that he would have to do—he would have to sacrifice his daughter, the beautiful Princess Andromeda.

The king was forced by his savage people to take the maiden Andromeda and chain her to a rock on the seashore, leaving her there for the monster to devour her, satisfying himself with that prey.

Perseus, flying near, heard the maiden's laments. He saw her lovely body bound with chains to the rock. He came near her, taking the cap of darkness off his head. She saw him, and she bent her head in shame, for she thought that he would think that it was for some dreadful fault of her own that she had been left chained in that place.

Her father had stayed near. Perseus saw him, and called to him, and bade him tell why the maiden was chained to the rock. The king told Perseus of the sacrifice that he had been forced to make. Then Perseus came near the maiden, and he saw how she looked at him with pleading eyes.

Then Perseus made her father promise that he would give Andromeda to him for his wife if he should slay the sea monster. Gladly Cepheus promised this. Then Perseus once again drew his sickle-sword; by the rock to which Andromeda was still chained he waited for sight of the sea monster.

It came rolling in from the open sea, a shapeless and unsightly thing. With the shoes of flight upon his feet Perseus rose above it. The monster saw his shadow upon the water, and savagely it went to attack the shadow. Perseus swooped down as an eagle swoops down; with his sickle-sword he attacked it, and he struck the hook through the monster's shoulder. Terribly it reared up from the sea. Perseus rose over it, escaping its wide-opened mouth with its treble rows of fangs. Again he swooped and struck at it. Its hide was covered all over with hard scales and with the shells of sea things, but Perseus's sword struck through it. It reared up again, spouting water mixed with blood. On a rock near the rock that Andromeda was chained to Perseus alighted. The monster, seeing him, bellowed and rushed swiftly through the water to overwhelm him. As it reared up he plunged the sword again and again into its body. Down into the water the monster sank, and water mixed with blood was spouted up from the depths into which it sank.


Then was Andromeda loosed from her chains. Perseus, the conqueror, lifted up the fainting maiden and carried her back to the king's palace. And Cepheus there renewed his promise to give her in marriage to her deliverer.

Perseus went on his way. He came to the hidden valley where the nymphs had their dwelling place, and he restored to them the three magic treasures that they had given him—the cap of darkness, the shoes of flight, and the magic pouch. And these treasures are still there, and the hero who can win his way to the nymphs may have them as Perseus had them.

Again he returned to the place where he had found Andromeda chained. With face averted he drew forth the Gorgon's head from where he had hidden it between the rocks. He made a bag for it out of the horny skin of the monster he had slain. Then, carrying his tremendous trophy, he went to the palace of King Cepheus to claim his bride.

Now before her father had thought of sacrificing her to the sea monster he had offered Andromeda in marriage to a prince of Ethopia—to a prince whose name was Phineus. Phineus did not strive to save Andromeda. But, hearing that she had been delivered from the monster, he came to take her for his wife; he came to Cepheus's palace, and he brought with him a thousand armed men.

The palace of Cepheus was filled with armed men when Perseus entered it. He saw Andromeda on a raised place in the hall. She was pale as when she was chained to the rock, and when she saw him in the palace she uttered a cry of gladness.

Cepheus, the craven king, would have let him who had come with the armed bands take the maiden. Perseus came beside Andromeda and he made his claim. Phineus spoke insolently to him, and then he urged one of his captains to strike Perseus down. Many sprang forward to attack him. Out of the bag Perseus drew Medusa's head. He held it before those who were bringing strife into the hall. They were turned to stone. One of Cepheus's men wished to defend Perseus: he struck at the captain who had come near; his sword made a clanging sound as it struck this one who had looked upon Medusa's head.

Perseus went from the land of Ethopia taking fair Andromeda with him. They went into Greece, for he had thought of going to Argos, to the country that his grandfather ruled over. At this very time Acrisius got tidings of Danaë and her son, and he knew that they had not perished on the waves of the sea. Fearful of the prophecy that told he would be slain by his grandson and fearing that he would come to Argos to seek him, Acrisius fled out of his country.

He came into Thessaly. Perseus and Andromeda were there. Now, one day the old king was brought to games that were being celebrated in honor of a dead hero. He was leaning on his staff, watching a youth throw a metal disk, when something in that youth's appearance made him want to watch him more closely. About him there was something of a being of the upper air; it made Acrisius think of a brazen tower and of a daughter whom he had shut up there.

He moved so that he might come nearer to the disk-thrower. But as he left where he had been standing he came into the line of the thrown disk. It struck the old man on the temple. He fell down dead, and as he fell the people cried out his name—"Acrisius, King Acrisius!" Then Perseus knew whom the disk, thrown by his hand, had slain.

And because he had slain the king by chance Perseus would not go to Argos, nor take over the kingdom that his grandfather had reigned over. With Andromeda he went to Seriphus where his mother was. And in Seriphus there still reigned Polydectes, who had put upon him the terrible task of winning the Gorgon's head.

He came to Seriphus and he left Andromeda in the hut of Dictys the shepherd. No one knew him; he heard his name spoken of as that of a youth who had gone on a foolish quest and who would never again be heard of. To the temple where his mother was a priestess he came. Guards were placed all around it. He heard his mother's voice and it was raised in lament: "Walled up here and given over to hunger I shall be made go to Polydectes's house and become his wife. O ye gods, have ye no pity for Danaë, the mother of Perseus?"

Perseus cried aloud, and his mother heard his voice and her moans ceased. He turned around and he went to the palace of Polydectes, the king.

The king received him with mockeries. "I will let you stay in Seriphus for a day," he said, "because I would have you at a marriage feast. I have vowed that Danaë, taken from the temple where she sulks, will be my wife by to-morrow's sunset."

So Polydectes said, and the lords and princes who were around him mocked at Perseus and flattered the king. Perseus went from them then. The next day he came back to the palace. But in his hands now there was a dread thing—the bag made from the hide of the sea monster that had in it the Gorgon's head.

He saw his mother. She was brought in white and fainting, thinking that she would now have to wed the harsh and overbearing king. Then she saw her son, and hope came into her face.

The king seeing Perseus, said: "Step forward, O youngling, and see your mother wed to a mighty man. Step forward to witness a marriage, and then depart, for it is not right that a youth that makes promises and does not keep them should stay in a land that I rule over. Step forward now, you with the empty hands."

But not with empty hands did Perseus step forward. He shouted out: "I have brought something to you at last, O king—a present to you and your mocking friends. But you, O my mother, and you, O my friends, avert your faces from what I have brought." Saying this Perseus drew out the Gorgon's head. Holding it by the snaky locks he stood before the company. His mother and his friends averted their faces. But Polydectes and his insolent friends looked full upon what Perseus showed. "This youth would strive to frighten us with some conjuror's trick," they said. They said no more, for they became as stones, and as stone images they still stand in that hall in Seriphus.


He went to the shepherd's hut, and he brought Dictys from it with Andromeda. Dictys he made king in Polydectes's stead. Then with Danaë and Andromeda, his mother and his wife, he went from Seriphus.

He did not go to Argos, the country that his grandfather had ruled over, although the people there wanted Perseus to come to them, and be king over them. He took the kingdom of Tiryns in exchange for that of Argos, and there he lived with Andromeda, his lovely wife out of Ethopia. They had a son named Perses who became the parent of the Persian people.

The sickle-sword that had slain the Gorgon went back to Hermes, and Hermes took Medusa's head also. That head Hermes's divine sister set upon her shield—Medusa's head upon the shield of Pallas Athene. O may Pallas Athene guard us all, and bring us out of this land of sands and stone where are the deadly serpents that have come from the drops of blood that fell from the Gorgon's head!

They turned away from the Garden of the Daughters of the Evening Land. The Argonauts turned from where the giant shape of Atlas stood against the sky and they went toward the Tritonian Lake. But not all of them reached the Argo.  On his way back to the ship, Nauplius, the helmsman, met his death.

A sluggish serpent was in his way—it was not a serpent that would strike at one who turned from it. Nauplius trod upon it, and the serpent lifted its head up and bit his foot. They raised him on their shoulders and they hurried back with him. But his limbs became numb, and when they laid him down on the shore of the lake he stayed moveless. Soon he grew cold. They dug a grave for Nauplius beside the lake, and in that desert land they set up his helmsman's oar in the middle of his tomb of heaped stones.

And now like a snake that goes writhing this way and that way and that cannot find the cleft in the rock that leads to its lair, the Argo  went hither and thither striving to find an outlet from that lake. No outlet could they find and the way of their homegoing seemed lost to them again. Then Orpheus prayed to the son of Nereus, to Triton, whose name was on that lake, to aid them.

Then Triton appeared. He stretched out his hand and showed them the outlet to the sea. And Triton spoke in friendly wise to the heroes, bidding them go upon their way in joy. "And as for labor," he said, "let there be no grieving because of that, for limbs that have youthful vigor should still toil."

They took up the oars and they pulled toward the sea, and Triton, the friendly immortal, helped them on. He laid hold upon Argo's  keel and he guided her through the water. The Argonauts saw him beneath the water; his body, from his head down to his waist, was fair and great and like to the body of one of the other immortals. But below his body was like a great fish's, forking this way and that. He moved with fins that were like the horns of the new moon. Triton helped Argo  along until they came into the open sea. Then he plunged down into the abyss. The heroes shouted their thanks to him. Then they looked at each other and embraced each other with joy, for the sea that touched upon the land of Greece was open before them.

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