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HOW PERSEUS SLEW THE GORGON

from The Heroes - Perseus





So Perseus started on his journey, going dry-shod over land and
sea; and his heart was high and joyful, for the winged sandals bore
him each day a seven days' journey.

And he went by Cythnus, and by Ceos, and the pleasant Cyclades to
Attica; and past Athens and Thebes, and the Copaic lake, and up the
vale of Cephissus, and past the peaks of OEta and Pindus, and over
the rich Thessalian plains, till the sunny hills of Greece were
behind him, and before him were the wilds of the north. Then he
passed the Thracian mountains, and many a barbarous tribe, Paeons
and Dardans and Triballi, till he came to the Ister stream, and the
dreary Scythian plains. And he walked across the Ister dry-shod,
and away through the moors and fens, day and night toward the bleak
north-west, turning neither to the right hand nor the left, till he
came to the Unshapen Land, and the place which has no name.

And seven days he walked through it, on a path which few can tell;
for those who have trodden it like least to speak of it, and those
who go there again in dreams are glad enough when they awake; till
he came to the edge of the everlasting night, where the air was
full of feathers, and the soil was hard with ice; and there at last
he found the three Gray Sisters, by the shore of the freezing sea,
nodding upon a white log of drift-wood, beneath the cold white
winter moon; and they chaunted a low song together, 'Why the old
times were better than the new.'

There was no living thing around them, not a fly, not a moss upon
the rocks. Neither seal nor sea-gull dare come near, lest the ice
should clutch them in its claws. The surge broke up in foam, but
it fell again in flakes of snow; and it frosted the hair of the
three Gray Sisters, and the bones in the ice-cliff above their
heads. They passed the eye from one to the other, but for all that
they could not see; and they passed the tooth from one to the
other, but for all that they could not eat; and they sat in the
full glare of the moon, but they were none the warmer for her
beams. And Perseus pitied the three Gray Sisters; but they did not
pity themselves.

So he said, 'Oh, venerable mothers, wisdom is the daughter of old
age. You therefore should know many things. Tell me, if you can,
the path to the Gorgon.'

Then one cried, 'Who is this who reproaches us with old age?' And
another, 'This is the voice of one of the children of men.'

And he, 'I do not reproach, but honour your old age, and I am one
of the sons of men and of the heroes. The rulers of Olympus have
sent me to you to ask the way to the Gorgon.'

Then one, 'There are new rulers in Olympus, and all new things are
bad.' And another, 'We hate your rulers, and the heroes, and all
the children of men. We are the kindred of the Titans, and the
Giants, and the Gorgons, and the ancient monsters of the deep.'
And another, 'Who is this rash and insolent man who pushes unbidden
into our world?' And the first, 'There never was such a world as
ours, nor will be; if we let him see it, he will spoil it all.'

Then one cried, 'Give me the eye, that I may see him;' and another,
'Give me the tooth, that I may bite him.' But Perseus, when he saw
that they were foolish and proud, and did not love the children of
men, left off pitying them, and said to himself, 'Hungry men must
needs be hasty; if I stay making many words here, I shall be
starved.' Then he stepped close to them, and watched till they
passed the eye from hand to hand. And as they groped about between
themselves, he held out his own hand gently, till one of them put
the eye into it, fancying that it was the hand of her sister. Then
he sprang back, and laughed, and cried -

'Cruel and proud old women, I have your eye; and I will throw it
into the sea, unless you tell me the path to the Gorgon, and swear
to me that you tell me right.'

Then they wept, and chattered, and scolded; but in vain. They were
forced to tell the truth, though, when they told it, Perseus could
hardly make out the road.

'You must go,' they said, 'foolish boy, to the southward, into the
ugly glare of the sun, till you come to Atlas the Giant, who holds
the heaven and the earth apart. And you must ask his daughters,
the Hesperides, who are young and foolish like yourself. And now
give us back our eye, for we have forgotten all the rest.'

So Perseus gave them back their eye; but instead of using it, they
nodded and fell fast asleep, and were turned into blocks of ice,
till the tide came up and washed them all away. And now they float
up and down like icebergs for ever, weeping whenever they meet the
sunshine, and the fruitful summer and the warm south wind, which
fill young hearts with joy.

But Perseus leaped away to the southward, leaving the snow and the
ice behind: past the isle of the Hyperboreans, and the tin isles,
and the long Iberian shore, while the sun rose higher day by day
upon a bright blue summer sea. And the terns and the sea-gulls
swept laughing round his head, and called to him to stop and play,
and the dolphins gambolled up as he passed, and offered to carry
him on their backs. And all night long the sea-nymphs sang
sweetly, and the Tritons blew upon their conchs, as they played
round Galataea their queen, in her car of pearled shells. Day by
day the sun rose higher, and leaped more swiftly into the sea at
night, and more swiftly out of the sea at dawn; while Perseus
skimmed over the billows like a sea-gull, and his feet were never
wetted; and leapt on from wave to wave, and his limbs were never
weary, till he saw far away a mighty mountain, all rose-red in the
setting sun. Its feet were wrapped in forests, and its head in
wreaths of cloud; and Perseus knew that it was Atlas, who holds the
heavens and the earth apart.

He came to the mountain, and leapt on shore, and wandered upward,
among pleasant valleys and waterfalls, and tall trees and strange
ferns and flowers; but there was no smoke rising from any glen, nor
house, nor sign of man.

At last he heard sweet voices singing; and he guessed that he was
come to the garden of the Nymphs, the daughters of the Evening
Star.

They sang like nightingales among the thickets, and Perseus stopped
to hear their song; but the words which they spoke he could not
understand; no, nor no man after him for many a hundred years. So
he stepped forward and saw them dancing, hand in hand around the
charmed tree, which bent under its golden fruit; and round the
tree-foot was coiled the dragon, old Ladon the sleepless snake, who
lies there for ever, listening to the song of the maidens, blinking
and watching with dry bright eyes.

Then Perseus stopped, not because he feared the dragon, but because
he was bashful before those fair maids; but when they saw him, they
too stopped, and called to him with trembling voices -

'Who are you? Are you Heracles the mighty, who will come to rob
our garden, and carry off our golden fruit?' And he answered -

'I am not Heracles the mighty, and I want none of your golden
fruit. Tell me, fair Nymphs, the way which leads to the Gorgon,
that I may go on my way and slay her.'

'Not yet, not yet, fair boy; come dance with us around the tree in
the garden which knows no winter, the home of the south wind and
the sun. Come hither and play with us awhile; we have danced alone
here for a thousand years, and our hearts are weary with longing
for a playfellow. So come, come, come!'

'I cannot dance with you, fair maidens; for I must do the errand of
the Immortals. So tell me the way to the Gorgon, lest I wander and
perish in the waves.'

Then they sighed and wept; and answered--'The Gorgon! she will
freeze you into stone.'

'It is better to die like a hero than to live like an ox in a
stall. The Immortals have lent me weapons, and they will give me
wit to use them.'

Then they sighed again and answered, 'Fair boy, if you are bent on
your own ruin, be it so. We know not the way to the Gorgon; but we
will ask the giant Atlas, above upon the mountain peak, the brother
of our father, the silver Evening Star. He sits aloft and sees
across the ocean, and far away into the Unshapen Land.'

So they went up the mountain to Atlas their uncle, and Perseus went
up with them. And they found the giant kneeling, as he held the
heavens and the earth apart.

They asked him, and he answered mildly, pointing to the sea-board
with his mighty hand, 'I can see the Gorgons lying on an island far
away, but this youth can never come near them, unless he has the
hat of darkness, which whosoever wears cannot be seen.'

Then cried Perseus, 'Where is that hat, that I may find it?'

But the giant smiled. 'No living mortal can find that hat, for it
lies in the depths of Hades, in the regions of the dead. But my
nieces are immortal, and they shall fetch it for you, if you will
promise me one thing and keep your faith.'

Then Perseus promised; and the giant said, 'When you come back with
the head of Medusa, you shall show me the beautiful horror, that I
may lose my feeling and my breathing, and become a stone for ever;
for it is weary labour for me to hold the heavens and the earth
apart.'

Then Perseus promised, and the eldest of the Nymphs went down, and
into a dark cavern among the cliffs, out of which came smoke and
thunder, for it was one of the mouths of Hell.

And Perseus and the Nymphs sat down seven days, and waited
trembling, till the Nymph came up again; and her face was pale, and
her eyes dazzled with the light, for she had been long in the
dreary darkness; but in her hand was the magic hat.

Then all the Nymphs kissed Perseus, and wept over him a long while;
but he was only impatient to be gone. And at last they put the hat
upon his head, and he vanished out of their sight.

But Perseus went on boldly, past many an ugly sight, far away into
the heart of the Unshapen Land, beyond the streams of Ocean, to the
isles where no ship cruises, where is neither night nor day, where
nothing is in its right place, and nothing has a name; till he
heard the rustle of the Gorgons' wings and saw the glitter of their
brazen talons; and then he knew that it was time to halt, lest
Medusa should freeze him into stone.

He thought awhile with himself, and remembered Athene's words. He
rose aloft into the air, and held the mirror of the shield above
his head, and looked up into it that he might see all that was
below him.

And he saw the three Gorgons sleeping as huge as elephants. He
knew that they could not see him, because the hat of darkness hid
him; and yet he trembled as he sank down near them, so terrible
were those brazen claws.

Two of the Gorgons were foul as swine, and lay sleeping heavily, as
swine sleep, with their mighty wings outspread; but Medusa tossed
to and fro restlessly, and as she tossed Perseus pitied her, she
looked so fair and sad. Her plumage was like the rainbow, and her
face was like the face of a nymph, only her eyebrows were knit, and
her lips clenched, with everlasting care and pain; and her long
neck gleamed so white in the mirror that Perseus had not the heart
to strike, and said, 'Ah, that it had been either of her sisters!'

But as he looked, from among her tresses the vipers' heads awoke,
and peeped up with their bright dry eyes, and showed their fangs,
and hissed; and Medusa, as she tossed, threw back her wings and
showed her brazen claws; and Perseus saw that, for all her beauty,
she was as foul and venomous as the rest.

Then he came down and stepped to her boldly, and looked steadfastly
on his mirror, and struck with Herpe stoutly once; and he did not
need to strike again.

Then he wrapped the head in the goat-skin, turning away his eyes,
and sprang into the air aloft, faster than he ever sprang before.

For Medusa's wings and talons rattled as she sank dead upon the
rocks; and her two foul sisters woke, and saw her lying dead.

Into the air they sprang yelling and looked for him who had done
the deed. Thrice they swung round and round, like hawks who beat
for a partridge; and thrice they snuffed round and round, like
hounds who draw upon a deer. At last they struck upon the scent of
the blood, and they checked for a moment to make sure; and then on
they rushed with a fearful howl, while the wind rattled hoarse in
their wings.

On they rushed, sweeping and flapping, like eagles after a hare;
and Perseus' blood ran cold, for all his courage, as he saw them
come howling on his track; and he cried, 'Bear me well now, brave
sandals, for the hounds of Death are at my heels!'

And well the brave sandals bore him, aloft through cloud and
sunshine, across the shoreless sea; and fast followed the hounds of
Death, as the roar of their wings came down the wind. But the roar
came down fainter and fainter, and the howl of their voices died
away; for the sandals were too swift, even for Gorgons, and by
nightfall they were far behind, two black specks in the southern
sky, till the sun sank and he saw them no more.

Then he came again to Atlas, and the garden of the Nymphs; and when
the giant heard him coming he groaned, and said, 'Fulfil thy
promise to me.' Then Perseus held up to him the Gorgon's head, and
he had rest from all his toil; for he became a crag of stone, which
sleeps for ever far above the clouds.

Then he thanked the Nymphs, and asked them, 'By what road shall I
go homeward again, for I wandered far round in coming hither?'

And they wept and cried, 'Go home no more, but stay and play with
us, the lonely maidens, who dwell for ever far away from Gods and
men.'

But he refused, and they told him his road, and said, 'Take with
you this magic fruit, which, if you eat once, you will not hunger
for seven days. For you must go eastward and eastward ever, over
the doleful Lybian shore, which Poseidon gave to Father Zeus, when
he burst open the Bosphorus and the Hellespont, and drowned the
fair Lectonian land. And Zeus took that land in exchange, a fair
bargain, much bad ground for a little good, and to this day it lies
waste and desert with shingle, and rock, and sand.'

Then they kissed Perseus, and wept over him, and he leapt down the
mountain, and went on, lessening and lessening like a sea-gull,
away and out to sea.





Next: HOW PERSEUS CAME TO THE AETHIOPS

Previous: HOW PERSEUS VOWED A RASH VOW



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