Ovid's Metamorphoses: Perseus and Medusa

When you left Perseus, he had just struck a bargain with Andromeda's parents King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, but now he has to battle the sea monster! Then, after defeating the monster, he marries Andromeda and, at the wedding feast, he tells the story of how he defeated the Gorgon Medusa and took possession of her head, itself a deadly weapon. Later, the head of Medusa figured in Athena's famous "aegis," her special warrior's cloak. From this myth, the Greek word "aegis" itself has entered the English language: to be under someone's aegis means to be under their powerful protection.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Ovid's Metamorphoses unit. Story source: Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Tony Kline (2000).

(a continuation of the story of Perseus)


Perseus defeats the sea-serpent

See how the creature comes parting the waves, with surging breast, like a fast ship, with pointed prow, ploughing the water, driven by the sweat-covered muscles of her crew. It was as far from the rock as a Balearic sling can send a lead shot through the air, when suddenly the young hero, pushing his feet hard against the earth, shot high among the clouds.

When the shadow of a man appeared on the water’s surface, the creature raged against the shadow it had seen. As Jupiter’s eagle, when it sees a snake, in an open field, showing its livid body to the sun, takes it from behind, and fixes its eager talons in the scaly neck, lest it twists back its cruel fangs, so the descendant of Inachus hurling himself headlong, in swift flight, through empty space, attacked the creature’s back, and, as it roared, buried his sword, to the end of the curved blade, in the right side of its neck.

Hurt by the deep wound, now it reared high in the air, now it dived underwater, or turned now, like a fierce wild boar, when the dogs scare him, and the pack is baying around him. Perseus evades the eager jaws on swift wings, and strikes with his curved sword wherever the monster is exposed, now at the back encrusted with barnacles, now at the sides of the body, now where the tail is slenderest, ending fishlike. The beast vomits seawater mixed with purplish blood. The pinions grow heavy, soaked with spray. Not daring to trust his drenched wings any further, he sees a rock whose highest point stands above quiet water, hidden by rough seas. Resting there, and holding on to the topmost pinnacle with his left hand, he drives his sword in three or four times, repeatedly.

The shores, and the high places of the gods, fill with the clamor of applause.

Cassiopeia and Cepheus rejoice, and greet their son-in-law, acknowledging him as the pillar of their house, and their deliverer. Released from her chains, the girl comes forward, the prize and the cause of his efforts. He washes his hands, after the victory, in seawater drawn for him, and, so that Medusa’s head, covered with its snakes, is not bruised by the harsh sand, he makes the ground soft with leaves, and spreads out plants from below the waves, and places the head of that daughter of Phorcys on them. The fresh plants, still living inside, and absorbent, respond to the influence of the Gorgon’s head, and harden at its touch, acquiring a new rigidity in branches and fronds. And the ocean nymphs try out this wonder on more plants, and are delighted that the same thing happens at its touch, and repeat it by scattering the seeds from the plants through the waves. Even now corals have the same nature, hardening at a touch of air, and what was alive, under the water, above water is turned to stone.

Perseus tells the story of Medusa

To the three gods, he builds the same number of altars out of turf, to you Mercury on the left, to you Minerva, warlike virgin, on the right, and an altar of Jupiter in the centre. He sacrifices a cow to Minerva, a calf to the wing-footed god, and a bull to you, greatest of the gods.

Then he claims Andromeda, without a dowry, valuing her as the worthiest prize. Hymen and Amor wave the marriage torch, the fires are saturated with strong perfumes, garlands hang from the rafters, and everywhere flutes and pipes, and singing, sound out, the happy evidence of joyful hearts. The doors fold back to show the whole of the golden hall, and the noble Ethiopian princes enter to a richly prepared banquet already set out for them.

When they have attacked the feast, and their spirits are cheered by wine, the generous gift of Bacchus, Perseus asks about the country and its culture, its customs and the character of its people. At the same time as he instructed him about these, one of the guests said ‘Perseus, I beg you to tell us by what prowess and by what arts you carried off that head with snakes for hair.’

The descendant of Agenor told how there was a cave lying below the frozen slopes of Atlas, safely hidden in its solid mass. At the entrance to this place the sisters lived, the Graeae, daughters of Phorcys, similar in appearance, sharing only one eye between them. He removed it, cleverly, and stealthily, cunningly substituting his own hand while they were passing it from one to another.

Far from there, by hidden tracks, and through rocks bristling with shaggy trees, he reached the place where the Gorgons lived. In the fields and along the paths, here and there, he saw the shapes of men and animals changed from their natures to hard stone by Medusa’s gaze. Nevertheless he had himself looked at the dread form of Medusa reflected in a circular shield of polished bronze that he carried on his left arm. And while a deep sleep held the snakes and herself, he struck her head from her neck. And the swift winged horse Pegasus and his brother the warrior Chrysaor, were born from their mother’s blood.

He told of his long journeys, of dangers that were not imaginary ones, what seas and lands he had seen below from his high flight, and what stars he had brushed against with beating wings. He still finished speaking before they wished.

Next one of the many princes asked why Medusa, alone among her sisters, had snakes twining in her hair. The guest replied ‘Since what you ask is worth the telling, hear the answer to your question. She was once most beautiful, and the jealous aspiration of many suitors. Of all her beauties none was more admired than her hair: I came across a man who recalled having seen her. They say that Neptune, lord of the seas, violated her in the temple of Minerva. Jupiter’s daughter turned away, and hid her chaste eyes behind her aegis. So that it might not go unpunished, she changed the Gorgon’s hair to foul snakes. And now, to terrify her enemies, numbing them with fear, the goddess wears the snakes, that she created, as a breastplate.’




(1100 words)

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