Medusa Story in Detail
As an educator and counselor, I often use tales from classic Greek Mythology as a way of relating common themes that speak to the human condition. One of my favorites is the Medusa story, sometimes referred to as “Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa”.
The heroic tale of Perseus includes many elements of the classic Greek epic—sibling rivalry, a prophecy, an unexpected birth, lust, revenge, a quest, and the inescapable nature of fate. It is, in its way, a morality tale, for it demonstrates how evil begets evil and the consequences of holding oneself as grander or cleverer than the gods.
What follows is a story with lessons for all, men and woman alike.
In Hellos, there were two princes, Acrisius and Proetus. They were twins born into great nobility and wealth. Their lands were filled to overflowing with grazing animals, swift horses, honey bees, and fruitful vineyards. They should have been the happiest of princes but they were terribly jealous of each other.
Even from the day they were born, they fought each other and when they had grown, Acrisius drove his brother Proetus out of Hellos, taking all the land and its bounty for himself. Proetus sailed off to a faraway land and brought back, not only a princess to marry, but a regiment of Cyclopes to fight Acrisius’ rule. After a great deal of fighting, Acrisius and Proetus decided to split up the land and everyone hoped for peace.
Acrisius did not welcome his brother’s presence in Hellos and continued to plot against him, but one day a soothsayer came to his court. He told Acrisius that because he had raised his hand in anger against his brother, he would die by his own grandson’s hand one day.
Hearing this, Acrisius hid his only daughter Danae in a cavern so she could never give him a grandson. He applauded himself for thwarting the soothsayer’s prophecy.
To Acrisius’ astonishment and chagrin, Danae became pregnant even while hidden in the cavern. The king quickly called for a large chest to be made, and as soon as Danae gave birth to a baby boy she named Perseus, Acrisius had her and the baby put in the chest. He then ordered his servants to toss them into the sea. Once again, he prided himself on outwitting the gods.
For several days, Danae and Perseus floated along in the sea. The mother cried tear after tear while the baby slept. Soon Danae grew so weary that she too fell asleep. Time passed until Danae woke at the jolting of the chest against some rocks. Looking up she saw a gray-bearded man with a crew of servants and a fishing net and spear in his hands. She shouted to catch his attention and the man, startled, tossed the fishing net over her and Perseus and drew the chest into shore.
When Danae found this man to be brother to the king of the island of Seriphos, she begged for shelter. Her rescuer welcomed her to his home and he and his wife took her in as their own daughter and Perseus as their own grandchild. Danae promised to weave and embroider as her contribution to the family. She hoped for both her sake and Perseus’ to never see her father Acrisius again.
Fifteen years later, Perseus was a head taller than any man on Seriphos and more skilled in sports, music, and sailing than anyone else. The people of Seriphos claimed he was not mortal but rather a child of the gods. Perhaps, they said, it was Zeus himself who visited Danae in her cavern prison to conceive Perseus.
Perseus set out on many adventures as a sailor and it was during one of these voyages that the king of Seriphos, Polydectes, decided he must have Danae for his wife. Danae knew that Polydectes was not kind like his brother, but cruel and conniving. She refused his offer of marriage and, enraged, he enslaved her in his house where she languished, weeping for Perseus’ return.
Not knowing what had happened to his mother, Perseus sailed from island to island and one day had a dream that Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, came to him and asked him if he were brave and strong enough to fight the monster, Medusa the Gorgon. She showed him a mirror-like shield in which Medusa was reflected.
Perseus was sickened by the face of the pale-cheeked woman with writhing snakes for hair, leathery wings, and claws for hands, and he told Athena that he would gladly hunt and kill a monster like the Gorgon. Athena was pleased to hear this, but said he was still too young and must return to Seriphos at once because his mother was in danger.
Perseus returned home and freed his mother, thereby making an enemy of the king. Polydectes schemed against Perseus, hitting upon a way to remove Perseus. He held a party and invited all the noblemen of the kingdom, also inviting Perseus.
All the guests brought presents for the king, and when Perseus, too poor to afford a gift, arrived with nothing, everyone jeered at him. Angry and embarrassed, Perseus swore he would bring the best present of all: the head of the Gorgon. The king promptly banished Perseus until he delivered what he had promised.
The Quest for the Gorgon
Determined to bring back the Gorgon’s head but not knowing how to accomplish this, Perseus went to the cliffs above the sea and called to Pallas Athena. In moments, she appeared along with Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Perseus marveled at the winged sandals on Hermes’ feet and at the sword fashioned from a single diamond in his hands. Athena praised Perseus for rescuing his mother and agreed that he should fight the Gorgon Medusa.
She told Perseus how Medusa had once been a beautiful but prideful woman who had been turned into a monster with vipers for hair, eagle’s claws for hands, and scales of brass and iron. Medusa’s heart was so cold and hateful that every living thing she looked at turned to stone. Perseus swore he would kill the Gorgon but had no idea of how to do it.
Athena gave Perseus her mirror-bright shield, telling him to look at Medusa only in its reflective surface while fighting her. She gave him a goatskin to bundle her head into, and instructed him to find the three Gray Sisters at the top of the world.
Perseus took the shield and the goatskin, but asked how he could journey there without a ship. Hermes then gave Perseus his winged sandals, as well as his diamond-edged sword.
Strapping the sandals to his feet and taking the sword, shield, and goatskin in hand, Perseus felt himself lifted into the air and whisked along toward the north where the three Gray Sisters lived, sharing one eye and one tooth among them.
Perseus asked for their help, but they shunned him, being cousins to the Titans and the Gorgons and no friend to mortals or the gods on Olympus. Perseus watched for his chance and when one of the sisters handed him the eye by mistake, he snatched it up and held it for the ransom of assistance. The three sisters told Perseus how to find Atlas, thus starting him off on a seven-year journey.
Perseus traveled on and on until he found Atlas and his nieces, the Nymphs, who danced around a tree of golden fruit and sang to the dragon that circled it. Atlas, weary of holding the heaven apart from the earth for all time, made Perseus promise that he would show him the face of the Gorgon on his return so he might be turned to stone.
Perseus gave his vow and Atlas sent one of his nieces down to Hades to recover the hat of darkness, so that Perseus could draw near the Gorgons without being seen. Perseus donned the hat and vanished from sight.
Perseus flew on again until he found the Gorgons’ island and hovered over them, looking at their reflections in Athena’s shield. Medusa’s fellow Gorgons were sleeping soundly, snoring heavily like enormous hogs, but Medusa was tossing and turning, her beautiful face full of pain and suffering.
Perseus Slices Off Head of Medusa
Perseus felt sorry for her and did not want to take off her head, but when the snakes that made up her hair began to hiss and strike at him, he sliced off her head and bundled it into the goatskin. Once again, he took flight on the winged sandals, outracing the angry Gorgons awakened by Medusa’s flowing blood.
And then he headed homeward, but first stopped to show the Gorgon’s head to Atlas so he would turn to stone and never again feel the burden of shouldering the heavens.
Perseus Finds a Wife
As Perseus flew home, drops of Medusa’s blood fell to the deserts below him and each one turned into a poisonous viper. He flew over deserts and valleys and mountains ever onward toward his homeland and the winged sandals never wavered from their course.
Perseus wished to land and walk around a bit, so when he saw a tall cliff by the sea, he circled a while and then began to descend. But a pale figure on a ledge of the cliff caught his eye so he hovered nearer.
Perseus was surprised to see a young woman chained to the rock, flinching from the sea spray and crying for her mother. She could not see him since the hat of darkness was still upon his head, so he drew nearer still. Landing on the ledge next to the girl, Perseus took off his hat and she screamed to see him suddenly appear.
He calmed her and cut through her chains with his sword, telling her that now she was free and should come with him. But she cried even harder and said she had been put there as a sacrifice to the sea gods.
Her name was Andromeda and her mother Queen Cassiopeia had boasted one to many times of her daughter’s beauty so that the goddess of the fishes and her brother, the god of fire had laid waste to their kingdom.
Perseus only laughed, and when the sea monster reared up out of the waves to devour Andromeda, he held Medusa’s head aloft so that it turned to stone. Pallas Athena appeared then and took back the sword and shield, the hat of darkness and the winged sandals, telling Perseus that he had done well and that Andromeda was his reward.
Andromeda was very pleased to go with Perseus, and led him over the rocks to her parent’s home. The king and queen were so grateful to Perseus that they agreed to let him marry Andromeda and gave him a ship and soldiers and sailors to help him make his way home.
Perseus Returns Home
Perseus and his new bride sailed back to Seriphos and found his mother and adoptive family well and happy to see him. Perseus took his goatskin bundle to the castle where Polydectes was feasting with his nobles. When the king saw Perseus, he scoffed at him for making promises he could not fulfill.
The nobles also laughed, but when Perseus pulled the Gorgon’s head from the goatskin, they began to grow rigid, until finally everyone at the table was solid stone. Perseus gave the kingdom over to his adoptive grandfather and sailed away toward the home of his birth with his wife and mother.
When Perseus reached Argos, he found his uncle Proetus had driven his grandfather Acrisius from his lands. Perseus quickly reclaimed the kingdom and went in search of Acrisius. He found him on an island in the midst of sporting games and decided to win his grandfather’s affection by showing his agility, speed, and strength.
Acrisius sat on the dais with the island’s king and marveled along with everyone else at the sporting prowess of this stranger. When Perseus threw the javelin farther than anyone else, all the spectators shouted for him to throw it even farther.
Perseus gave a mighty toss, but just then a wind sprang up and carried the javelin off-course. It landed on Acrisius’ foot and before Perseus could reach him, the old man died.
And so Perseus unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy delivered to Acrisius by the soothsayer so many years before. No one blamed Perseus as the javelin had been directed by the gods, but Perseus mourned the loss of his chance to reconcile with his grandfather.
He returned to his homeland to reign for many years with Andromeda and his mother by his side.