LOL, this is the second post I’ve put up today called “Medusa“!
We’re picking up right where we left off last week.
When Perseus arrived home, he was surprised to see a stranger waiting for him. The man wore a traveler’s cloak, and a wide-brimmed traveler’s hat. So far as Perseus could tell, the man looked to be fairly young, but it was hard to make out any details in the shadow of that huge hat.
“Did you want something here, stranger?” Perseus asked, as he dismounted his horse. “Our family is poor, but you’re welcome to share what little we have.”
The traveler shook his head. “My father sent me here to help you,” he replied.
“Maybe I should say our father,” the man chuckled. “He wanted me to give you some advice. To help with that,” he added, pointing at Perseus’ beautiful horse.
“You know where I can find a Gorgon?” Perseus asked. “Where?”
“No, I don’t know where you can find one, but I know where you can find someone who does,” the stranger told him. “You’ll have to ask the Graiai…though I don’t know how an ordinary mortal like you can reach them in time to save your mother from being forcibly married off.”
Perseus felt more than a little annoyed by that statement, but he bit his tongue. If this man was telling the truth, and if Perseus’ mother was telling the truth, then this man was either a god or a demi-god, and based on his appearance, surely if he was a god, then he had to be Hermes. But if Zeus was looking after his former lover’s safety by sending Hermes to help Perseus, then why couldn’t Zeus just interfere directly to protect Danae from Polydectes?! However, it would be rude to ask such things of a god, so Perseus held back. “Where are these Graiai, then?” Perseus asked. “And just what is a Gorgon, anyway?”
“To start with the easy question, the Gorgons are three daughters of Phorcys and Ceto. They’re monstrous females, with snakes for hair, massive fangs and lolling tongues, and wings upon their backs; any man who looks on them will die.” The man shook his head. “You have to be careful to find Medusa, not Stheno or Euryale, though they’re all ageless, only Medusa can be killed; any attack on Stheno or Euryale will fail, and you’ll simply die.”
“How am I supposed to cut off the head of something I can’t look at?” Perseus asked. “Or do you mean that they’ll kill any man they see?”
The traveler chuckled. “They will most certainly kill any man they see,” he replied, “which is why Father asked me to give you this.” So saying, he held out a black cap of finely woven cloth.
It felt unearthly cold when Perseus accepted it, far more chill than even a gust of winter air. “What is it?” Perseus asked. No matter how cold, no matter how well-made, it still just looked like a simple cap, like any shepherd might wear.
“That is the Cap of Hades,” the stranger told him. “It renders mortals invisible to other mortals, and gods invisible to other gods.” He paused a moment, then frowned. “Uh, he’ll be wanting it back as soon as you’re done with it. And no mis-using it to watch pretty maids bathing. If I don’t get to use it to watch nymphs, you can’t use it to watch mortals.”
“While my mother is in peril?” Perseus repeated. “What do you take me for?!”
The stranger stared at him blankly for a moment. “You must take after our uncle,” he concluded, shaking his head. “Certainly nothing like Father…” he muttered.
“So this will protect me from the Gorgons killing me, yes?” Perseus asked, holding the cap up, trying to get back on topic.
“No, that will protect you from Medusa seeing you. But Stheno and Euryale will still be able to see you, because they’re immortal. And you still can’t look at any of them; you’ll be turned to stone if you do. So you have to avoid looking at Medusa, and avoid her sisters entirely.”
“Why…why is one of them mortal and the other two immortal, if they’re sisters?” Perseus asked.
“I don’t rightly know,” the traveler admitted, “but I suspect it was a jealous curse from Amphrite. Don’t tell anyone I said that, though!” He laughed loudly. “Anyway, the Graiai can tell you where to find them, but I’m not sure how you’re going to get to them; they live further east than any mortal man has ever traveled. You’ll want to be wary around the Graiai. They look like three old crones, but don’t be fooled! They were born old, and what they lack in strength they make up for in cruelty, brutality and treachery.”
Perseus frowned down at the cap in his hand. Part of him wanted to return the cap — politely! — and announce his attention of protecting his mother by murdering Polydectes and then going into exile. But was it really right to murder a man just for loving the wrong woman? Surely it couldn’t be…
“Even after being cut off, Medusa’s head will still be dangerous,” the stranger continued, withdrawing a tasseled bag from under his cloak, “so you’ll need to store her head in this. It will keep the blood in, and there will be no chance of anyone laying eyes on it after the fact and being accidentally petrified.”
Perseus accepted the bag with dread. What had he gotten himself into?! “If she’s so deadly, will an ordinary weapon even be able to harm her?” The only weapon he had was very ordinary indeed, and not terribly sharp, either; it was an old sword some traveler had given to Dictys’ father as a gift to thank him for a night’s hospitality, and it had never been used since, except perhaps to cut a little bit of firewood when the axe got too dull…
“No, you’ll need a masterful blade to cut through her tough skin,” the traveler told him. “Hephaistos made this one specially for you,” he continued, withdrawing a fine blade in an exquisite scabbard. “This one is actually a gift, rather than a loan; you get to keep it.”
Perseus accepted the sword gladly, and withdrew it from the scabbard. It gleamed in the light, and looked sharp enough that he felt as though his eyes were being cut just gazing on it. “I’ve never seen its like…”
“I wouldn’t think so,” the stranger laughed. “He’s never made a blade for a mortal before.”
A lengthy silence fell, in which Perseus slipped the sword back in its sheathe, and slung the blade’s strap over his shoulder.
“Well, I suppose I should be getting back now,” the traveler announced, finally breaking the silence.
“Thank you for all you’ve done,” Perseus said, though inwardly he felt more than a bit let down that he wasn’t going to be provided with any assistance to get him to the end of the world and back.
“Don’t you dare!” a woman’s voice shouted in an imperious tone, making the stranger wince. Looking up, Perseus saw that a chariot was flying through the sky towards them. The woman driving it was wearing a breastplate over her gown, and a helmet made her face difficult to see. A spear rested in the chariot beside her. “If you dare to abandon him without doing as Father asked, I’ll see to it that you suffer for it,” the woman told the traveler as her chariot landed beside him.
The traveler scowled. “Would you obey if he told you to hand over your helmet or your spear?” he snapped at the woman. “Why didn’t he just ask me to give him my staff as well, while he was at it?”
“Do as you were told, Hermes,” the woman — who had to be the goddess Athene, surely! — warned him.
Hermes shook his head. “Look, now that you’re here, you can give him a ride in your chariot,” he suggested. “He doesn’t need to have my sandals.”
“He needs to have your sandals because Father ordered you to give them to him,” Athene retorted.
Hermes grimaced. “Fine,” he grumbled. “But it’s just a loan! I really need them!”
So saying, he walked around behind the chariot and took a seat on it, in order to remove the winged sandals from his feet. These he tossed roughly in Perseus’ direction. “Those will let you fly across many leagues in the span of time it would take you to walk only a single step,” Hermes told him. “It’ll probably still take you a day or two to get to the Graiai…and maybe just as long to get used to moving in the sandals.”
Perseus picked up the sandals, and sat down on a rock to remove his own sandals and put on Hermes’ surprisingly light sandals in their place. “Thank you so much,” he said, as he was doing so. “This could be the difference between saving my mother and failing her.”
“Still don’t see why you couldn’t just give him a ride in your chariot,” Hermes was grumbling.
“I can’t spend that long babysitting a mortal,” Athene replied.
Perseus was definitely a bit insulted at the notion that he would need to be watched over like a child, but he wisely refrained from commenting.
By the time he had finished changing his footgear, the chariot and the gods had vanished. He set the cap of Hades inside the bag so he wouldn’t lose it, and tied the bag to the belt of his sword.
Then he took a single step towards the house in which he had been raised, and found himself hurtling through the air. He was instantly far from home, so far he couldn’t even see the island of Seriphos at all! Shocked and a little frightened, he stepped backwards, and hurtled back again, landing hard in the sand near his horse, scaring it into flight.
“Mother!” Perseus called out, not sure how to walk without rocketing through the air again.
Danae emerged from the house, and looked at her son curiously. “What are you shouting at me from all the way over there for?” she asked. “That isn’t how a son of Zeus should behave!”
“I can’t get any closer,” Perseus said, uncomfortable with the idea that he couldn’t control his own motions. “But I’m going on a journey.”
“A journey? Why?”
Hastily, Perseus explained everything, omitting nothing, not even the visit of the gods. Then, before his mother’s astonished eyes, he set off running into the eastern sky, passing beyond the horizon almost instantaneously.
In the day and a half that Perseus was running eastward, he experimented with the sandals, and by the time he came to the lands beyond Oceanos, he found he could control them well enough to be able to move as short a distance as he might if he was wearing his own sandals. He was surprised, as he came in to land on the shores of this unknown land, to find the chariot of Athene approaching him.
“I’ll show you where the cave of the Graiai is,” she told him, “but you must learn the location of the Gorgons for yourself, with no help from me.”
“It’s a test?” Perseus asked, hurt that he wasn’t fully trusted.
Athene laughed. “It could easily be, but it’s nothing so complex,” she assured him. “I have my own reasons for wanting to see Medusa dead, and the Graiai know that the Gorgons are the enemies of the gods. If they detect a god anywhere near them, they’ll never betray their sisters.”
Perseus nodded. Was this really an ordeal set on him by Polydectes, or was his father — his alleged father — using him as a tool to wipe out one of his enemies? Did the gods really operate like that? It should have been inconceivable, and yet…
Athene pointed out a cave, barely visible in the distance, and warned Perseus that he should observe the Graiai before entering, just in case. Perseus agreed readily, and fetched the Cap of Hades out of his bag. While he was placing it on his head, Athene and her chariot departed again. Idly, he wondered if the gods were always in the habit of showing up and leaving again so quickly.
Once he had the cap on his head, Perseus flew towards the cave, reaching it in the blink of an eye. The cave was located just outside a dark and dismal lake, the sort that looked as though it would be home to horrible monsters. And the cave was no less inviting than the lake, having dead vines hanging down and covering half its entrance. Standing just outside the cave mouth, he peered between the vines into the gloom inside, and saw three old crones leaning over a boiling cauldron. One of them had one eye open, and was stirring the cauldron, while the other two had both eyes shut.
“It smells good,” one of the two with closed eyes said. “Let me see it, Pemphredo.”
“It’s still my turn with the eye,” the one with one open eye said.
“It is not!” the third one snapped. “You were supposed to give it up at midday, and you still have it. But it’s my turn before it’s Enyo’s turn!”
“You’ve lost your addled wits,” the first cackled. “You’re the youngest, Deino, so you get it after me.”
“Since when am I the youngest?!” Deino snapped. “We’re all the same age!”
“Yes, we’re all ancient,” Pemphredo laughed.
“I’m going to prove it’s my turn next,” Enyo stated, heading away from the cauldron and towards some strange marks carved into the cave wall. But she hadn’t gotten halfway there before she stopped, and turned towards the cave mouth, sniffing. “Hmm, I smell something tasty,” she said, her blind face turned towards Perseus. “Smells like manflesh. Toss me the eye, Pomphredo. I want to see him.”
“I hope he’s young and tasty,” Pomphredo said, putting her hands to her face. “The stew could use some tender young meat. I don’t want another stringy, tough old man, though.” She moved her hands away from her head again, her eyes now fully closed. Then she tossed something towards Enyo. As it sailed through the air, Perseus could see that it was an eyeball.
Enyo caught it, and lifted it to her face. When her hands lowered again, she had one eye open, and she was looking straight at Perseus. “Ooh, a handsome ephebe!” she exclaimed. “He looks so delicious!”
For a moment, Perseus couldn’t understand why they could see him. Then, too late, he remembered that the cap only worked on other mortals; the Graiai must have been immortal…
Since he had been discovered anyway, Perseus stepped into the cave, and smiled at the Graiai politely. “Ladies,” he said to them, deciding that flattery was probably a good idea, under the circumstances, “I’ve come to seek your wisdom.”
They all cackled at him. Maybe the flattery had been too much?
“Think we can’t smell the Olympian blood in your veins?” Deino asked, moving towards him, her eyes still shut. “I bet your daddy sent you, didn’t he?”
“I…” Perseus wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Even if Zeus really was his father — and Hermes’ words implied that he most certainly was — it was hard to think of him that way.
“Too bad you can’t see him,” Enyo laughed. “He’s got all these pathetic little gifties from his kinfolk!”
“Well, I could see him if you’d let me!” Deino objected.
“Oh, fine!” Enyo reached up to her eyes, and soon was tossing an eyeball at Deino.
Deino caught it and pressed her hands against her own eyes, then opened one, and looked at Perseus. “My, does he think that cap is fashionable?” she chuckled. “Or did you think it would keep us from seeing you?”
“I…I…all I want is to know where to find the Gorgon Medusa,” Perseus answered, perhaps with a little bit of panic. These three old hags were odder than he had been expecting…
“Well, come give us a hand tenderizing the meat for our stew,” Pomphredo said, with a toothless grin. “It has to be very soft. We’ve only got one tooth between us.”
“Tell me where to find the Gorgon first, and then I’ll help you,” Perseus suggested. He didn’t like the idea of getting any closer to that stew…
“Oh, he’s a cheeky one!” Pomphredo cackled.
“I want another look at him,” Enyo moaned, looking at Deino. “Give the eye back; it’s still my turn!”
“I’m not done looking at all his little geegaws,” Deino objected.
“Is that what we’re calling them these days?” Enyo asked. “Euphemisms have gone too far…”
“You ruin everything,” Deino said, her one eye glaring at Enyo. “Here, catch,” she added, reaching up for the eye.
As soon as the eyeball began its arc through the air, Perseus flung himself forward, and caught it before Enyo could. Then he hastened back to the cave mouth again.
“Now I have your eye!” he taunted them, holding it aloft, even though they couldn’t see it. “Tell me where to find Medusa, or I’ll take it with me!”
For several minutes they begged him to return it, then they tried threatening him if he didn’t give it back, but every time Perseus simply repeated his own threat, and eventually Pomphredo laughed.
“Why don’t we go ahead and tell him?” she said. “He’ll never be able to get there, and even if he could, the Gorgons would kill him.”
“Very well,” Enyo sighed. “The Gorgons live in the Hesperides.”
“Yes, on the other side of the world from here!” Deino cackled with vicious glee. “No mortal man can make that trip, and even if you could, you’d never survive! At the first sight of a Gorgon, you’ll become nothing but a pretty statue!”
“I’m prepared for that,” Perseus lied. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Now give us our eye back!” Enyo insisted.
“Did I say I’d give it back? I only said I wouldn’t take it with me.” Perseus turned and flung the eye into the lake. He didn’t trust these creatures not to attack him as soon as they could see him again. And he couldn’t be sure that they wouldn’t have a way of traveling to warn Medusa he was coming.
While the Graiai were screaming obscenities at him in a most unladylike fashion, Perseus turned and began to run through the sky towards the west. Even with the sandals of Hermes, it was a tediously long trip, but eventually he came to the Hesperides, and — near another cave — he found Athene waiting for him in her chariot.
“I suppose all you can do is point the way again?” Perseus sighed.
Athene smiled. It was amused, but also cold. “I could assist you in killing her if you like, but keep in mind that if I do, then you’ll never become a hero worthy of renown. No one will ever believe you’re a son of Zeus if you don’t do something to prove yourself mighty.”
Perseus had to admit that she was right, and he nodded glumly. “Why are you here, then?”
“I’ll be helping you in a lesser way,” she told him, then moved inwards, towards a crude stone building.
Annoyed by the enigmatic answer, Perseus followed her. Soon she disappeared inside, and Perseus continued following the goddess. Once inside, Athene motioned him to silence, and led the way past statues of men and beasts that were eerily realistic, then into a dark chamber. At the back of the room, Perseus could hear a faint hissing.
Athene removed her shield, and turned its inner surface to face Perseus. He found that it was so highly polished that he could see his own face reflected back at him. With another gesture for silence, Athene pointed at the reflection, and then slowly began to move deeper into the room. Perseus followed, keeping his eyes glued to the reflection.
After a short while, they stopped moving forwards, and Athene tilted the shield so that Perseus could see Medusa reflected in it. As Hermes had said, her hair was made of snakes, and she had massive fangs, between which her tongue hung down towards her chin. She wore a simple tunic, but belted with live snakes — or perhaps they were long pieces of her hair? — and sandals that were stained black with blood.
And she was moving towards him.
Perseus drew his sword, and hastily sliced off her head, keeping his eyes at all times fixed carefully on the reflection in Athene’s shield.
Once the head had fallen to the ground, Perseus removed the bag from his belt, and carefully scooped the head into it, still without looking away from the reflection.
As he was moving back towards Athene, Perseus was distracted by a strange noise coming from the rest of Medusa’s corpse. Without thinking about the possible danger, he turned back to look, and was so stunned by what he saw that he might as well have been petrified.
The opening at her neck, which should have been releasing only the black blood that was slowly oozing into the room, had widened, and a boy was climbing out of it. He was a small child, with golden hair, but there was something shifting and disturbing about the appearance of his body, and the sight of him made Perseus shudder. Once the boy was out, he started looking around himself in confused horror.
By the time the boy started crying, another being was emerging from the neck. It looked to be a snow-white foal, but after it had gotten far enough out, Perseus could see that it had the wings of a swan on its back.
“Are you going to stand there and wait for her sisters to kill you?!” Athene demanded, grabbing Perseus by his shoulder.
Shaken out of his confusion at the sight of two beings — the sons of his uncle Poseidon, though Perseus didn’t know that — being born out of the severed neck of their mother, Perseus turned, and followed Athene back out of the building. By that point, screams of grief and rage could be heard within.
“Her sisters will be coming after you for revenge,” Athene told him. “Run as fast as you can, and don’t look back. I’ll distract them, once we’re far enough away.”
“Why not distract them now?”
“I don’t want Pegasus to be raised by his aunts,” Athene replied, smiling. “Such a beautiful horse should be allowed to roam free.”
Perseus didn’t entirely understand that, but he could hear the other two Gorgons charging through the building, crushing statues — petrified people! — before them, and he didn’t want to stay to meet them, so he set off running towards the east and home.
I based my description of the Gorgons — what little description there was — on the classic relief of Medusa on the Temple of Artemis from Corfu. (Though it doesn’t have the fangs I remember. I was sure that was the one that had the fangs…) You can find pictures of the relief here. (NB, I haven’t read any of the text on the page; it was just the first solid result in an image search for that relief. Being Wikipedia, it may be wildly inaccurate, or it might be right; depends who the last person was to edit it, ya know?)
I was not about to repeat Ovid’s misogynistic transformation of Medusa. (And according to Timothy Gantz, there is no record of such a transformation earlier than Ovid.) Besides, I didn’t have Burgess Meredith to be the one to tell it. (Though I admit I contemplated having Hermes introduce himself as Amon or the son of Amon, since Zeus Amon is one of the…uh…dang. My brain is fried, and I don’t remember now what that’s called. “Epithet” is definitely wrong, and “cognomen” is too Latin…nope, it’s been too long a week to try to remember things. I’ll come back and fill it in if I remember it later.)
There’s nothing in any of the ancient literature to account for Medusa being mortal when her sisters are immortal, so I just made something up. Seemed reasonable enough…though you don’t usually hear about Poseidon’s wife ever getting jealous of his affairs. (Probably because they’re left over from an older tradition. If you think about it, a lot of his affairs (excluding the possible affair with Aithra, and the possible affair with Bellerophon’s mother) end up with some really grotesque (or at least inhuman) children, some of them with decidedly inhuman mothers. So Poseidon is probably the combination of a much less human, probably less friendly pre-Greek god with an early Greek god of the standard sort. Or they revamped him to make him match Zeus and the other main gods. That’s also easily possible. Most of the other gods connected with water (Oceanos, Pontus, Nereus, Proteus) tend not to be terribly human-like, or at least to have myriad non-human forms.)
Actually, come to think of it, I ended up making up altogether too much of the padding material. Problem is that this is one of those myths where we have only very late summaries, and all the major texts have been lost.
I apologize for the encounter with the Graiai. I cannot think of them without thinking of the version in Clash of the Titans. It doesn’t seem like we really have any actual texts on them — Gantz had almost nothing on them — so it’s highly likely that their cannibalistic ways were invented by the Harryhausen team. But…it’s not like Greek myth is short on man-eaters (the Cyclopes and Laistrygonians in the Odyssey, for example) so…I went with it. At least I’m admitting my error, right? (Their names are genuine, however…though some accounts only had two Graiai rather than three, but the one with names had three, so…three it was.)
As to the birth of Chrysaor and Pegasus…well, for one thing, it was complicated by the fact that there’s no text in existence that describes what Chrysaor is. His only role — that we know of — is to father some monstrous kids. The metope relief depicts him (if that is, indeed, Chrysaor) as a normal-looking youth, and the fact that his name, which means “golden sword,” is also an epithet of Apollo does somewhat suggest that he might look normal. Then again, he’s the son of Medusa, born from her bleeding neckhole, and his full brother is a winged horse. So…yeah, no idea what Chrysaor is. (This actually came up in my quasi-YA novels, only I took the cheap way out and said that he was mortal, and had already died. Or rather than he was dead. In those books, immortality works a little differently than in most things.)
Anyway, I’ll pick up from here next week, when Perseus goes about rescuing damsels in distress. (Well, only two of them…)