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HOW PERSEUS VOWED A RASH VOW

from The Heroes - Perseus





Fifteen years were past and gone, and the babe was now grown to be
a tall lad and a sailor, and went many voyages after merchandise to
the islands round. His mother called him Perseus; but all the
people in Seriphos said that he was not the son of mortal man, and
called him the son of Zeus, the king of the Immortals. For though
he was but fifteen, he was taller by a head than any man in the
island; and he was the most skilful of all in running and wrestling
and boxing, and in throwing the quoit and the javelin, and in
rowing with the oar, and in playing on the harp, and in all which
befits a man. And he was brave and truthful, gentle and courteous,
for good old Dictys had trained him well; and well it was for
Perseus that he had done so. For now Danae and her son fell into
great danger, and Perseus had need of all his wit to defend his
mother and himself.

I said that Dictys' brother was Polydectes, king of the island. He
was not a righteous man, like Dictys; but greedy, and cunning, and
cruel. And when he saw fair Danae, he wanted to marry her. But
she would not; for she did not love him, and cared for no one but
her boy, and her boy's father, whom she never hoped to see again.
At last Polydectes became furious; and while Perseus was away at
sea he took poor Danae away from Dictys, saying, 'If you will not
be my wife, you shall be my slave.' So Danae was made a slave, and
had to fetch water from the well, and grind in the mill, and
perhaps was beaten, and wore a heavy chain, because she would not
marry that cruel king. But Perseus was far away over the seas in
the isle of Samos, little thinking how his mother was languishing
in grief.

Now one day at Samos, while the ship was lading, Perseus wandered
into a pleasant wood to get out of the sun, and sat down on the
turf and fell asleep. And as he slept a strange dream came to him-
-the strangest dream which he had ever had in his life.

There came a lady to him through the wood, taller than he, or any
mortal man; but beautiful exceedingly, with great gray eyes, clear
and piercing, but strangely soft and mild. On her head was a
helmet, and in her hand a spear. And over her shoulder, above her
long blue robes, hung a goat-skin, which bore up a mighty shield of
brass, polished like a mirror. She stood and looked at him with
her clear gray eyes; and Perseus saw that her eye-lids never moved,
nor her eyeballs, but looked straight through and through him, and
into his very heart, as if she could see all the secrets of his
soul, and knew all that he had ever thought or longed for since the
day that he was born. And Perseus dropped his eyes, trembling and
blushing, as the wonderful lady spoke.

'Perseus, you must do an errand for me.'

'Who are you, lady? And how do you know my name?'

'I am Pallas Athene; and I know the thoughts of all men's hearts,
and discern their manhood or their baseness. And from the souls of
clay I turn away, and they are blest, but not by me. They fatten
at ease, like sheep in the pasture, and eat what they did not sow,
like oxen in the stall. They grow and spread, like the gourd along
the ground; but, like the gourd, they give no shade to the
traveller, and when they are ripe death gathers them, and they go
down unloved into hell, and their name vanishes out of the land.

'But to the souls of fire I give more fire, and to those who are
manful I give a might more than man's. These are the heroes, the
sons of the Immortals, who are blest, but not like the souls of
clay. For I drive them forth by strange paths, Perseus, that they
may fight the Titans and the monsters, the enemies of Gods and men.
Through doubt and need, danger and battle, I drive them; and some
of them are slain in the flower of youth, no man knows when or
where; and some of them win noble names, and a fair and green old
age; but what will be their latter end I know not, and none, save
Zeus, the father of Gods and men. Tell me now, Perseus, which of
these two sorts of men seem to you more blest?'

Then Perseus answered boldly: 'Better to die in the flower of
youth, on the chance of winning a noble name, than to live at ease
like the sheep, and die unloved and unrenowned.'

Then that strange lady laughed, and held up her brazen shield, and
cried: 'See here, Perseus; dare you face such a monster as this,
and slay it, that I may place its head upon this shield?'

And in the mirror of the shield there appeared a face, and as
Perseus looked on it his blood ran cold. It was the face of a
beautiful woman; but her cheeks were pale as death, and her brows
were knit with everlasting pain, and her lips were thin and bitter
like a snake's; and instead of hair, vipers wreathed about her
temples, and shot out their forked tongues; while round her head
were folded wings like an eagle's, and upon her bosom claws of
brass.

And Perseus looked awhile, and then said: 'If there is anything so
fierce and foul on earth, it were a noble deed to kill it. Where
can I find the monster?'

Then the strange lady smiled again, and said: 'Not yet; you are
too young, and too unskilled; for this is Medusa the Gorgon, the
mother of a monstrous brood. Return to your home, and do the work
which waits there for you. You must play the man in that before I
can think you worthy to go in search of the Gorgon.'

Then Perseus would have spoken, but the strange lady vanished, and
he awoke; and behold, it was a dream. But day and night Perseus
saw before him the face of that dreadful woman, with the vipers
writhing round her head.

So he returned home; and when he came to Seriphos, the first thing
which he heard was that his mother was a slave in the house of
Polydectes.

Grinding his teeth with rage, he went out, and away to the king's
palace, and through the men's rooms, and the women's rooms, and so
through all the house (for no one dared stop him, so terrible and
fair was he), till he found his mother sitting on the floor,
turning the stone hand-mill, and weeping as she turned it. And he
lifted her up, and kissed her, and bade her follow him forth. But
before they could pass out of the room Polydectes came in, raging.
And when Perseus saw him, he flew upon him as the mastiff flies on
the boar. 'Villain and tyrant!' he cried; 'is this your respect
for the Gods, and thy mercy to strangers and widows? You shall
die!' And because he had no sword he caught up the stone hand-
mill, and lifted it to dash out Polydectes' brains.

But his mother clung to him, shrieking, 'Oh, my son, we are
strangers and helpless in the land; and if you kill the king, all
the people will fall on us, and we shall both die.'

Good Dictys, too, who had come in, entreated him. 'Remember that
he is my brother. Remember how I have brought you up, and trained
you as my own son, and spare him for my sake.'

Then Perseus lowered his hand; and Polydectes, who had been
trembling all this while like a coward, because he knew that he was
in the wrong, let Perseus and his mother pass.

Perseus took his mother to the temple of Athene, and there the
priestess made her one of the temple-sweepers; for there they knew
she would be safe, and not even Polydectes would dare to drag her
away from the altar. And there Perseus, and the good Dictys, and
his wife, came to visit her every day; while Polydectes, not being
able to get what he wanted by force, cast about in his wicked heart
how he might get it by cunning.

Now he was sure that he could never get back Danae as long as
Perseus was in the island; so he made a plot to rid himself of him.
And first he pretended to have forgiven Perseus, and to have
forgotten Danae; so that, for a while, all went as smoothly as
ever.

Next he proclaimed a great feast, and invited to it all the chiefs,
and landowners, and the young men of the island, and among them
Perseus, that they might all do him homage as their king, and eat
of his banquet in his hall.

On the appointed day they all came; and as the custom was then,
each guest brought his present with him to the king: one a horse,
another a shawl, or a ring, or a sword; and those who had nothing
better brought a basket of grapes, or of game; but Perseus brought
nothing, for he had nothing to bring, being but a poor sailor-lad.

He was ashamed, however, to go into the king's presence without his
gift; and he was too proud to ask Dictys to lend him one. So he
stood at the door sorrowfully, watching the rich men go in; and his
face grew very red as they pointed at him, and smiled, and
whispered, 'What has that foundling to give?'

Now this was what Polydectes wanted; and as soon as he heard that
Perseus stood without, he bade them bring him in, and asked him
scornfully before them all, 'Am I not your king, Perseus, and have
I not invited you to my feast? Where is your present, then?'

Perseus blushed and stammered, while all the proud men round
laughed, and some of them began jeering him openly. 'This fellow
was thrown ashore here like a piece of weed or drift-wood, and yet
he is too proud to bring a gift to the king.'

'And though he does not know who his father is, he is vain enough
to let the old women call him the son of Zeus.'

And so forth, till poor Perseus grew mad with shame, and hardly
knowing what he said, cried out,--'A present! who are you who talk
of presents? See if I do not bring a nobler one than all of yours
together!'

So he said boasting; and yet he felt in his heart that he was
braver than all those scoffers, and more able to do some glorious
deed.

'Hear him! Hear the boaster! What is it to be?' cried they all,
laughing louder than ever.

Then his dream at Samos came into his mind, and he cried aloud,
'The head of the Gorgon.'

He was half afraid after he had said the words for all laughed
louder than ever, and Polydectes loudest of all.

'You have promised to bring me the Gorgon's head? Then never
appear again in this island without it. Go!'

Perseus ground his teeth with rage, for he saw that he had fallen
into a trap; but his promise lay upon him, and he went out without
a word.

Down to the cliffs he went, and looked across the broad blue sea;
and he wondered if his dream were true, and prayed in the
bitterness of his soul.

'Pallas Athene, was my dream true? and shall I slay the Gorgon? If

thou didst really show me her face, let me not come to shame as a
liar and boastful. Rashly and angrily I promised; but cunningly
and patiently will I perform.'

But there was no answer, nor sign; neither thunder nor any
appearance; not even a cloud in the sky.

And three times Perseus called weeping, 'Rashly and angrily I
promised; but cunningly and patiently will I perform.'

Then he saw afar off above the sea a small white cloud, as bright
as silver. And it came on, nearer and nearer, till its brightness
dazzled his eyes.

Perseus wondered at that strange cloud, for there was no other
cloud all round the sky; and he trembled as it touched the cliff
below. And as it touched, it broke, and parted, and within it
appeared Pallas Athene, as he had seen her at Samos in his dream,
and beside her a young man more light-limbed than the stag, whose
eyes were like sparks of fire. By his side was a scimitar of
diamond, all of one clear precious stone, and on his feet were
golden sandals, from the heels of which grew living wings.

They looked upon Perseus keenly, and yet they never moved their
eyes; and they came up the cliffs towards him more swiftly than the
sea-gull, and yet they never moved their feet, nor did the breeze
stir the robes about their limbs; only the wings of the youth's
sandals quivered, like a hawk's when he hangs above the cliff. And
Perseus fell down and worshipped, for he knew that they were more
than man.

But Athene stood before him and spoke gently, and bid him have no
fear. Then -

'Perseus,' she said, 'he who overcomes in one trial merits thereby
a sharper trial still. You have braved Polydectes, and done
manfully. Dare you brave Medusa the Gorgon?'

And Perseus said, 'Try me; for since you spoke to me in Samos a new
soul has come into my breast, and I should be ashamed not to dare
anything which I can do. Show me, then, how I can do this!'

'Perseus,' said Athene, 'think well before you attempt; for this
deed requires a seven years' journey, in which you cannot repent or
turn back nor escape; but if your heart fails you, you must die in
the Unshapen Land, where no man will ever find your bones.'

'Better so than live here, useless and despised,' said Perseus.
'Tell me, then, oh tell me, fair and wise Goddess, of your great
kindness and condescension, how I can do but this one thing, and
then, if need be, die!'

Then Athene smiled and said -

'Be patient, and listen; for if you forget my words, you will
indeed die. You must go northward to the country of the
Hyperboreans, who live beyond the pole, at the sources of the cold
north wind, till you find the three Gray Sisters, who have but one
eye and one tooth between them. You must ask them the way to the
Nymphs, the daughters of the Evening Star, who dance about the
golden tree, in the Atlantic island of the west. They will tell
you the way to the Gorgon, that you may slay her, my enemy, the
mother of monstrous beasts. Once she was a maiden as beautiful as
morn, till in her pride she sinned a sin at which the sun hid his
face; and from that day her hair was turned to vipers, and her
hands to eagle's claws; and her heart was filled with shame and
rage, and her lips with bitter venom; and her eyes became so
terrible that whosoever looks on them is turned to stone; and her
children are the winged horse and the giant of the golden sword;
and her grandchildren are Echidna the witch-adder, and Geryon the
three-headed tyrant, who feeds his herds beside the herds of hell.
So she became the sister of the Gorgons, Stheino and Euryte the
abhorred, the daughters of the Queen of the Sea. Touch them not,
for they are immortal; but bring me only Medusa's head.'

'And I will bring it!' said Perseus; 'but how am I to escape her
eyes? Will she not freeze me too into stone?'

'You shall take this polished shield,' said Athene, 'and when you
come near her look not at her herself, but at her image in the
brass; so you may strike her safely. And when you have struck off
her head, wrap it, with your face turned away, in the folds of the
goat-skin on which the shield hangs, the hide of Amaltheie, the
nurse of the AEgis-holder. So you will bring it safely back to me,
and win to yourself renown, and a place among the heroes who feast
with the Immortals upon the peak where no winds blow.'

Then Perseus said, 'I will go, though I die in going. But how
shall I cross the seas without a ship? And who will show me my
way? And when I find her, how shall I slay her, if her scales be
iron and brass?'

Then the young man spoke: 'These sandals of mine will bear you
across the seas, and over hill and dale like a bird, as they bear
me all day long; for I am Hermes, the far-famed Argus-slayer, the
messenger of the Immortals who dwell on Olympus.'

Then Perseus fell down and worshipped, while the young man spoke
again:

'The sandals themselves will guide you on the road, for they are
divine and cannot stray; and this sword itself, the Argus-slayer,
will kill her, for it is divine, and needs no second stroke.
Arise, and gird them on, and go forth.'

So Perseus arose, and girded on the sandals and the sword.

And Athene cried, 'Now leap from the cliff and be gone.'

But Perseus lingered.

'May I not bid farewell to my mother and to Dictys? And may I not
offer burnt-offerings to you, and to Hermes the far-famed Argus-
slayer, and to Father Zeus above?'

'You shall not bid farewell to your mother, lest your heart relent
at her weeping. I will comfort her and Dictys until you return in
peace. Nor shall you offer burnt-offerings to the Olympians; for
your offering shall be Medusa's head. Leap, and trust in the
armour of the Immortals.'

Then Perseus looked down the cliff and shuddered; but he was
ashamed to show his dread. Then he thought of Medusa and the
renown before him, and he leaped into the empty air.

And behold, instead of falling he floated, and stood, and ran along
the sky. He looked back, but Athene had vanished, and Hermes; and
the sandals led him on northward ever, like a crane who follows the
spring toward the Ister fens.





Next: HOW PERSEUS SLEW THE GORGON

Previous: HOW PERSEUS AND HIS MOTHER CAME TO SERIPHOS



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