A Book of Myths
Page: 60[Pg 115] borne this earth, and I grow aweary of my burden. When thou hast slain Medusa, let me gaze upon her face, that I may be turned into stone and suffer no more forever.”
And Perseus promised, and at the bidding of Atlas one of the nymphs sped down to the land of the Shades, and for seven days Perseus and her sisters awaited her return. Her face was as the face of a white lily and her eyes were dark with sadness when she came, but with her she bore the helmet of Pluto, and when she and her sisters had kissed Perseus and bidden him a sorrowful farewell, he put on the helmet and vanished away.
Soon the gentle light of day had gone, and he found himself in a place where clammy fog blotted out all things, and where the sea was black as the water of that stream that runs through the Cocytus valley. And in that silent land where there is “neither night nor day, nor cloud nor breeze nor storm,” he found the cave of horrors in which the Gorgons dwelt.
Two of them, like monstrous swine, lay asleep,
And ever turned her head from wall to wall,
And moaned aloud and shrieked in her despair,
Because the golden tresses of her hair
Were moved by writhing snakes from side to side,
That in their writhing oftentimes would glide
On to her breast or shuddering shoulders white;
Or, falling down, the hideous things would light
Upon her feet, and, crawling thence, would twine
Their slimy folds upon her ankles fine.”
In the shield of Pallas Athené the picture was mirrored, and as Perseus gazed on it his soul grew heavy for [Pg 116] the beauty and the horror of Medusa. And “Oh that it had been her foul sisters that I must slay!” he thought at first, but then—“To slay her will be kind indeed,” he said. “Her beauty has become corruption, and all the joy of life for her has passed into the agony of remembrance, the torture of unending remorse.”
And when he saw her brazen claws that still were greedy and lustful to strike and to slay, his face grew stern, and he paused no longer, but with his sword he smote her neck with all his might and main. And to the rocky floor the body of Medusa fell with brazen clang, but her head he wrapped in the goatskin, while he turned his eyes away. Aloft then he sprang, and flew swifter than an arrow from the bow of Diana.
With hideous outcry the two other Gorgons found the body of Medusa, and, like foul vultures that hunt a little song-bird, they flew in pursuit of Perseus. For many a league they kept up the chase, and their howling was grim to hear. Across the seas they flew, and over the yellow sand of the Libyan desert, and as Perseus flew before them, some blood-drops fell from the severed head of Medusa, and from them bred the vipers that are found in the desert to this day. But bravely did the winged shoes of Hermes bear Perseus on, and by nightfall the Gorgon sisters had passed from sight, and Perseus found himself once more in the garden of the Hesperides. Ere he sought the nymphs, he knelt by the sea to cleanse from his hands Medusa’s blood, and still does the seaweed that we find on sea-beaches after a storm bear the crimson stains.
[Pg 117] And when Perseus had received glad welcome from the fair dwellers in the garden of the Hesperides, he sought Atlas, that to him he might fulfil his promise; and eagerly Atlas beheld him, for he was aweary of his long toil.
And when Atlas looked upon her whose beauty had once been pure and living as that of a flower in spring, and saw only anguish and cruelty, foul wickedness, and hideous despair, his heart grew like stone within him. To stone, too, turned his great, patient face, and into stone grew his vast limbs and strong, crouching back. So did Atlas the Titan become Atlas the Mountain, and still his head, white-crowned with snow, and his great shoulder far up in misty clouds, would seem to hold apart the earth and the sky.
Then Perseus again took flight, and in his flight he passed over many lands and suffered weariness and want, and sometimes felt his faith growing low. Yet ever he sped on, hoping ever, enduring ever. In Egypt he had rest and was fed and honoured by the people of the land, who were fain to keep him to be one of their gods. And in a place called Chemmis they built a statue of him when he had gone, and for many hundreds of years it stood there. And the Egyptians said that ever and again Perseus returned, and that when he came the Nile rose high and the season was fruitful because he had blessed their land.
Far down below him as he flew one day he saw [Pg 118] something white on a purple rock in the sea. It seemed too large to be a snowy-plumaged bird, and he darted swiftly downward that he might see more clearly. The spray lashed against the steep rocks of the desolate island, and showered itself upon a figure that at first he took to be a statue of white marble. The figure was but that of a girl, slight and very youthful, yet more fair even than any of the nymphs of the Hesperides. Invisible in his Helmet of Darkness, Perseus drew near, and saw that the fragile white figure was shaken by shivering sobs. The waves, every few moments, lapped up on her little cold white feet, and he saw that heavy chains held her imprisoned to that chilly rock in the sea. A great anger stirred the heart of Perseus, and swiftly he took the helmet from his head and stood beside her. The maid gave a cry of terror, but there was no evil thing in the face of Perseus. Naught but strength and kindness and purity shone out of his steady eyes.
Thus when, very gently, he asked her what was the meaning of her cruel imprisonment, she told him the piteous story, as a little child tells the story of its grief to the mother who comforts it. Her mother was queen of Ethiopia, she said, and very, very beautiful. But when the queen had boasted that no nymph who played amongst the snow-crested billows of the sea was as fair as she, a terrible punishment was sent to her. All along the coast of her father’s kingdom a loathsome sea-monster came to hold its sway, and hideous were its ravages. Men and women, children and animals, all [Pg 119] were equally desirable food for its insatiate maw, and the whole land of Ethiopia lay in mourning because of it. At last her father, the king, had consulted an oracle that he might find help to rid the land of the monster. And the oracle had told him that only when his fair daughter, Andromeda, had been sacrificed to the creature that scourged the sea-coast would the country go free. Thus had she been brought there by her parents that one life might be given for many, and that her mother’s broken heart might expiate her sin of vanity. Even as Andromeda spoke, the sea was broken by the track of a creature that cleft the water as does the forerunning gale of a mighty storm. And Andromeda gave a piteous cry.