Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 110

Invisible by virtue of his magic helmet, Perseus drew near the cave without fear of detection, and intercepted the eye while on its way from one sister to another. As soon as it was safe in his possession, he spoke to them, promising to restore it if they would [244] only give him accurate directions for finding Medusa. The sisters, eager to recover the treasured eye, immediately gave the desired information; and Perseus, having honorably fulfilled his share of the contract, departed in search of Medusa.

Death of Medusa.

Perseus at last perceived the Gorgon’s home in the dim distance; and, as he was fully aware of Medusa’s petrifying proclivities, he advanced very cautiously, holding his shield before him at such an angle that all surrounding objects were clearly reflected on its smooth, mirrorlike surface.

He thus discovered Medusa asleep, raised his sword, and, without looking at anything but her mirrored form, severed her head from her body, seized it in one hand, and, holding it persistently behind his back, flew away in great haste, lest the two remaining Gorgons should fall upon him and attempt to avenge their sister’s death.

Birth of snakes.

Perseus then swiftly winged his way over land and sea, carefully holding his ghastly trophy behind him; and as he flew, Medusa’s blood trickled down on the hot African sand, where it gave birth to a race of poisonous reptiles destined to infest the region in future ages, and cause the death of many an adventurous explorer. The drops which fell into the sea were utilized by Neptune, who created from them the famous winged steed called Pegasus (p. 154).

“And the life drops from thy head
On Libyan sands, by Perseus shed,
Sprang a scourging race from thee—
Fell types of artful mystery.”
Mrs. St. John.

The return journey was long and wearisome, and on his way the hero had many adventures. Once, when flying high above a mountainous country, he caught a glimpse of Atlas, his pale face turned up to the heavens, whose weight he had patiently borne for many a long year,—a burden which seemed all the more grievous after the short taste of freedom he had enjoyed while Hercules stood in his place (pp. 228-9),—


Refer to caption

PERSEUS.—Cellini. (Loggia de’ Lanzi, Florence.)

[246] “Supporting on his shoulders the vast pillar
Of Heaven and Earth, a weight of cumbrous grasp.”
Æschylus (Potter’s tr.).
Atlas petrified.

When Atlas saw Perseus flying toward him, hope revived, for he remembered that Fate had decreed that it was this hero who was to slay the Gorgon; and he thought, that, if he could but once gaze upon her stony face, he would be free from pain and weariness forever. As soon as the hero was within hearing, Atlas therefore addressed him as follows:—

“‘Hasten now, Perseus, and let me look upon the Gorgon’s face, for the agony of my labor is well-nigh greater than I can bear.’ So Perseus hearkened unto the word of Atlas, and he unveiled before him the dead face of Medusa. Eagerly he gazed for a moment on the changeless countenance, as though beneath the blackness of great horror he yet saw the wreck of her ancient beauty and pitied her for her hopeless woe. But in an instant the straining eyes were stiff and cold; and it seemed to Perseus, as he rose again into the pale yellow air, that the gray hairs which streamed from the giant’s head were like the snow which rests on the peak of a great mountain, and that in place of the trembling limbs he saw only the rents and clefts on a rough hillside.”