Ovid's Metamorphoses: Perseus and Andromeda

Ovid eventually reaches the story of Perseus, the son of Jupiter and the woman Danae; Jupiter entered Danae's locked room by descending in a shower of gold. Their son, Perseus, killed the Gorgon Medusa, and the story begins as Perseus is flying through the air with winged sandals borrowed from Mercury (Hermes), carrying the deadly head of Medusa which has the power to turn people, and gods, into stone. Along the way he encounters the Titan god Atlas in the far west. After he turns Atlas into Mount Atlas, he then flies on to his next adventure: rescuing the princess Andromeda who has been chained to a rock as an offering to appease a terrifying sea monster because of the boastful words of her mother Cassiopeia.

[Notes by LKG]

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

Perseus and Atlas

Perseus, whom DanaĆ« conceived of a shower of gold, [...] was traveling through the gentle air, on beating wings, bringing back an amazing, monstrous prize, and as the victor hung above the Lybian sands, bloody drops fell from the Gorgon’s head. The earth caught them and gave them life, as species of snakes, and so that country is infested with deadly serpents.

He was driven from there by conflicting winds, carried this way and that, through vast spaces, like a rain cloud. He flew over the whole world, looking down, through the air, from a great height, at remote countries. Three times he saw the frozen constellations of the Bears, three times the Crab’s pincers. Often he was forced below the west, often into the east, and now as the light died, afraid to trust to night, he put down in the western regions of Hesperus, in the kingdom of Atlas. He looked to rest there a while, till Lucifer summoned up Aurora’s fires, and Aurora the chariot of dawn. Here was Atlas, son of Iapetus, exceeding all men by the size of his body.

The most remote land was under Atlas’s rule, and the ocean, into which Sol’s panting horses plunged, and where his straining axle was welcomed. He had a thousand flocks, and as many herds of cattle straying through the grass, and no neighbouring soil was richer than his. The leaves of the trees, bright with radiant gold, covered branches of gold, and fruit of gold. Perseus said to him ‘Friend, if high birth impresses you, Jupiter is responsible for my birth. Or if you admire great deeds, you will admire mine. I ask for hospitality and rest.’

Atlas remembered an ancient prophecy. Themis on Parnassus had given that prophecy. ‘Atlas, the time will come when your tree will be stripped of its gold, and he who steals it will be called the son of Jupiter.’ Fearful of this, Atlas had enclosed his orchard with solid walls, and set a huge dragon to guard it, and kept all strangers away from his borders.

To Perseus, he said, ‘Go far away, lest the glory of the deeds, that you lie about, and Jupiter himself, fail you!’ He added weight to his threats, and tried to push him away with his great hands, Perseus delaying resolutely, and combining that with calm words.

Inferior in strength (who could equal Atlas in strength?), he said, ‘Well now, since you show me so little kindness, accept a gift.’ And, turning away himself, he held out Medusa’s foul head, on his left hand side. Atlas became a mountain, as huge as he himself had been. Now his hair and beard were changed into trees, his shoulders and hands into ridges. What had been his head before was the crest on the mountain summit. His bones became stones. Then he grew to an immense height in every part (so you gods determined) and the whole sky, with its many stars, rested on him.

Perseus offers to save Andromeda

Aeolus, son of Hippotas, had confined the winds in their prison under Mount Etna, and Lucifer, who exhorts us to work, shone brightest of all in the depths of the eastern sky. Perseus strapped the winged sandals he had put to one side to his feet, armed himself with his curved sword, and cut through the clear air on beating pinions. Leaving innumerable nations behind, below and around him, he came in sight of the Ethiopian peoples, and the fields of Cepheus. There Jupiter Ammon had unjustly ordered the innocent Andromeda to pay the penalty for her mother Cassiopeia’s words.

As soon as Perseus, great-grandson of Abas, saw her fastened by her arms to the hard rock, he would have thought she was a marble statue, except that a light breeze stirred her hair, and warm tears ran from her eyes. He took fire without knowing it and was stunned, and seized by the vision of the form he saw, he almost forgot to flicker his wings in the air.

As soon as he had touched down, he said, ‘O, you do not deserve these chains, but those that link ardent lovers together. Tell me your name; I wish to know it, and the name of your country, and why you are wearing these fetters.’

At first she was silent: a virgin, she did not dare to address a man, and she would have hidden her face modestly with her hands, if they had not been fastened behind her. She used her eyes instead, and they filled with welling tears. At his repeated insistence, so as not to seem to be acknowledging a fault of her own, she told him her name and the name of her country, and what faith her mother had had in her own beauty.

Before she had finished speaking, all the waves resounded, and a monster menaced them, rising from the deep sea, and covered the wide waters with its breadth. The girl cried out; her grieving father and mother were together nearby, both wretched, but the mother more justifiably so. They bring no help with them, only weeping and lamentations to suit the moment, and cling to her fettered body.

Then the stranger speaks. ‘There will be plenty of time left for tears, but only a brief hour is given us to work. If I asked for this girl as Perseus, son of Jupiter and that DanaĆ«, imprisoned in the brazen tower, whom Jupiter filled with his rich golden shower; Perseus conqueror of the Gorgon with snakes for hair, he who dared to fly, driven through the air, on soaring wings, then surely I should be preferred to all other suitors as a son-in-law. If the gods favour me, I will try to add further merit to these great gifts. I will make a bargain. Rescued by my courage, she must be mine.’

Her parents accept the contract (who would hesitate?) and, entreating him, promise a kingdom, as well, for a dowry.

(1100 words)

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