Metamorphoses IV:604-803 – Perseus


Artist Johann Whilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Nuremberg edition, 1703.

But nevertheless mighty Bacchus–worshipped by conquered India and to whom Achaea has built temples–brought solace to his grandparents, Cadmus and his wife, after they were turned into snakes. 

Acrisius, risen from the same lineage as Perseus, was the only ruler who still opposed Bacchus, driving him from the walls of Argos; nor did Acrisius believe his grandson Perseus was the offspring of Jupiter when Danae conceived in a shower of gold. Soon, however–for so obvious were the proofs of reality–Acrisius was made to regret that he’d fought against one god and had refused to recognize the offspring of another. For Bacchus joined the company of heaven, and Perseus, bearing the back the unique trophy of the serpent-haired monster, strode the thin air on thrumming wings. When he flew over the Lybian sands after his victory, drops of blood fell from the Gorgon’s head; where the soil absorbed them, they took life as many kinds of snakes. As a result, North Africa is a dangerous land crawling with vipers.

After that the blustery winds caught Perseus and drove him like a wisp of cloud here and there through the sky. He gazed down from the high heavens upon distant lands as he whirled above the whole world. Thrice he saw the frozen Arctic, thrice the tropics beneath Cancer’s spreading claws. Often was he driven beneath the sunset, often into the sunrise. Finally, as the day ended, fearful of commiting himself to the night, he landed on the Hesperides, the Kingdom of Atlas, and tried to sleep until the Morning Star should summon the flush of Aurora and Aurora call the chariots of the day.

Atlas, the son of the titan Iapetus, was the largest of all men. His was the westernmost land and the sea which received the Sun’s panting horses and his chariot’s squeaking wheels. A thousand flocks and as many herds wandered through his pastures, and no neighbors crowded his domains. On his trees, golden leaves sprouted from golden branches and shaded golden apples.

“Good host,” Perseus said to him, “if you’re interested in glorious lineage, my line springs from Jupiter himself. If instead you’re a man who honors deeds rather than birth, you will honor mine. I ask only quiet and your hospitality.”

Atlas was mindful of the ancient prophecy of Themis the Parnasian, who had said, “The time will come, Atlas, in which your trees will be stripped of their gold; and the one who robs you will be a son of Jupiter.” So, fearing theft, he’d enclosed his orchard in a solid wall and set a huge serpent to guard it, and he drove all visitors from his lands.

To Perseus Atlas cried, “Keep moving, lest Jupiter miss all these wonderful deeds you lie about.” He thundered threats in response to his visitor’s mild words and, when Perseus delayed, didn’t stop with words but tried to push him away with his hands.

Perseus was weaker–what man wasn’t weaker than Atlas?–but he cried, “Since my thanks mean so little to you, take this gift instead!” With his head averted, he raised the serpent-haired visage of Medusa in his left hand.

Because of his great size, Atlas became a mountain when he turned to stone. His beard and hair changed into forests, his shoulders and hands became ridges; what had been his head was now the mountain’s highest peak, and his bones were rock. Then all parts of his body grew to vast size–for so, Great Gods, you decided–and all the starry heavens rested on him.

When Aeolus closed the winds in their eternal prison and brilliant Lucifer rose into the high heavens to call men to their labors, Perseus bound wings to his feet. He belted on his hooked sword and split the clear air with his winged sandals. After flying over and beyond innumerable races, he saw the residents of Aethiopia and the kingdom of Cepheus. There the Oracle of Ammon had decreed that innocent Andromeda should pay undeserved punishment because her mother had boasted she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs.

As soon as Perseus saw Andromeda’s arms bound to the rocky cliffs–he might have thought her a marble statue, save that the light breeze ruffled her hair and a slow tear dripped from her eye–he felt the fires of love. He gaped, so taken by the beauty of her form that he almost forgot to beat the air with his wings. Hovering he cried, “O, you shouldn’t be bound with these chains but rather with the bonds that link lovers! Tell me your name, your nation, and why you are shackled here!”

At first the maiden said nothing, embarrassed to answer a strange man. She would have hidden her modest face in her hands had they not been bound. Her eyes were free; they brimmed with tears.

Finally after many false starts, afraid that it would seem her silence was hiding her own crimes, she told him her name and her country and explained that she was chained here because her mother had so boasted of her beauty. Before she could finish the story, the waves thundered and an oncoming beast towered over the great sea, hiding the waters beneath its breast.

The maiden cried out. Her sad-faced father watch and with him her mother; both were miserable but the woman’s misery was with better cause. They could offer no aid but they wept as the situation demanded, crying out and clinging to the girl’s bound body.

To them Perseus said, “You’ll have plenty of time to mourn, but the chance to do some good is a brief one. I seek your daughter’s hand. I am Perseus, son of Jupiter and she who though imprisoned Jupiter filled with golden seed; I am Perseus who overcame the snake-haired Gorgon and who dares to wing his way through the windy skies on swift-beating wings.

“For my past merits alone I should have preference over other suitors, but in addition I propose to offer your daughter’s life as my bride price. If with the help of the gods I succeed, I will enjoy her whom my courage has preserved.”

The parents accepted his offer–was there any doubt that they would?–with prayers of thanks and a promise of the kingdom as a dowry to accompany her.

Behold! Just as the ram of a warship driven by its oarsmen’s sweating backs cleaves the water, so the beast’s writhing torso shoved the waves aside. It approached as near to the cliffs a Balaeric slinger can fling his leaden bullet through the air. Then the youth leaped from the ground and drove high into the clouds. His shadow quivered on the surface of the sea and, thinking the shadow was a man, the beast savaged it.

Just as the eagle strikes from behind when he sees a serpent gleaming in the sunlit field below, driving his greedy claws deep in the scaly neck lest the snake twist back its fanged head, so Perseus plunged headlong through the empty sky to bury the hooked blade of his sword in the shoulder of the raging beast.

The deeply-wounded monster now leaped into air, now dived into the waves, now whirled in its own length like a ferocious boar when the yelping hounds worry it. Perseus avoided the hungry jaws on swift wings and struck again with his hooked sword whenever he could: now into the back armored with curved scales, now into the side ribs, now where the slender tail spreads into fins like a fish.

The beast’s mouth suddenly spewed seawater mixed with purple blood, soaking Perseus’ wings and making his flight heavy. He no longer dared to trust the soaked feathers, so he saw a crag whose peak now stood high above the waters, now was almost covered by the lashing waves. He struggled to it and gripped a ledge with his left hand, then drove his sword thrice and a fourth time through the beast’s loins.

The beast’s bellows echoed from the cliffs and filled the high houses of the gods. Cassiope and father Cepheus hail Perseus as son-in-law and ally, admitting he has preserved their house. With her chains cast off the maiden steps free, together the cause and the reward of heroism.

Perseus washes his victorious hands in the surging water. Lest he damage his snake-haired trophy by laying it on the rocky shore, he cushions the ground with a bed of leaves and reeds he’s pulled up from the water, then sets the head of Medusa, daughter of Phorcus, there face-down. The reeds, so fresh that the sap still flows in their veins, receive the force of the monster’s touch and harden, taking on a new rigidity in their branches and leaves.

The sea nymphs try the wonder and are delighted to find they can spread the effect to other reeds and even sow their seeds widely through the waves. Coral has retained this same nature ever after, hardening on contact with the air. Though flexible under water, it becomes stone above the surface.

Perseus built separate turf altars to three gods who’d aided him: on the left to Mercury; on the right to you, war maiden; and in the center to Jupiter. He sacrificed a heifer to Minerva, a calf to the wing-footed one, and a bull to you, greatest of the gods.

Then he took Andromeda, spurning the kingdom offered with her as the reward for his great deed. The marriage god Hymenaeus and Love shake the marriage torches, whose flames are rich with sweet scents. Wreaths hang from the roof gables, and everywhere sound lyres and flutes and singing, the joyful proofs of happy spirits. The doors are thrown back so that the whole golden palace lies open, and the chief men of the kingdom of Cepheus enter in grand state to take part in the banquet set there.

After they had eaten and flooded their spirits with abundant wine, Lyncides began to question Perseus about the agriculture and geography of the places he’d seen, and about the customs of their inhabitants. [Marked ellipsis.] He then went on, “Now, oh bravest of men, tell I beg you, what strength and skill allowed you to cut off the snake-haired head?”

So Perseus, the scion of Agenor, told of how in the shadow of Mount Atlas lies a place surrounded by walls of solid rock. At its entrance lived the twin daughters of Phorcus who shared the use of one eye between them. Perseus snatched the eye away while they were handing it from one to another, by putting his hand over that of the sister who was to receive the eye.

Then, by hidden tracks through those cliffs bristling with straggling trees which overlook the lands of the Gorgon, he reached fields and roadways where stood statues of men and beasts turned to stone when they came face to face with Medusa. He himself only looked at the image of terrible Medusa reflected in the polished bronze of the shield he wore on his left arm. While she and the serpents of her hair slept, he struck the head from her neck. From Medusa’s blood sprang winged Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor. He then recounted the long, dangerous journey back, the seas and lands he’d seen from on high and the constellations which his beating wings had brushed.

The audience wanted more when he fell silent. One of the nobles asked why only one of the three sisters had snakes mixed in her hair.

Their guest answered, “That a good question. What happened is this: Medusa had a very beautiful body which attracted the lust of many nobles. The crown of her beauty was her hair: this I was told by one who had seen her then. Poseidon, ruler of the sea, made love to Medusa in the temple of Minerva. The chaste daughter of Jupiter covered her face with the aegis, but she didn’t allow the profanation to go unpunished: she changed the Gorgonean hair into filthy snakes. Today Minerva also wears the serpent countenance on her breast to terrify her enemies.”

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