: Perseus
: The Heroes

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 mos
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


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


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


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


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


'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


'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.