What’s Up, Perseus?
by Tala Bar
Perseus had trouble with his flying. Hermes’ winged sandals were all very well, but he wished he had a pair of proper wings, like Eros for instance, or at least a winged horse to ride on. That Pegasus, who jumped out of Medusa’s blood when he had cut her head! Now, how did that happen? Of all the marvels he had seen since coming on this mission, he thought that might have topped them all.
He only regretted not having captured the horse when he had the chance. But everything happened so quickly, and besides, he was busy averting his eyes, looking into Athena’s mirror while cutting Medusa’s head. He had no wish to turn into stone, and even now, keeping that snaky head safely inside Athena’s bag, he felt a slight apprehension every time he looked at it.
Oops! He was faltering again. Better pay attention to his flying. Perseus managed at last to find the knack of flying straight with winged sandals. Now, who ever heard of such a flying machine! But it worked at last, and no thanks to anyone but himself... Well, except maybe to Hermes. Now, that’s a man for you, running here and there, free as the wind to do any mischief he feels like getting into. That’s what Perseus would have liked to do himself, instead of running errands for kings and goddesses...
But where was he now? Coming from Egypt — he could clearly see the pyramids! — and passing over the Mediterranean shore of the Sinai desert, he was flying fast now with the westerly wind behind him, reaching the sea’s eastern shore where some Cretan people had began to settle among the ancient peoples of Canaan. That’s why some people saw in Andromeda a distant relation to Ariadne...
Not that Perseus was really interested, but there always seems to be a muddle whenever it concerned women! Look how he himself was conceived: fathered on his mother Danae by a golden rain? Do me a favor! And in this case, it was all Athena’s fault, of course — goddesses were even worse than ordinary women!
Perseus wished he could put them in their place, for once. Always bossing him, telling him to do this and do that, never a moment’s rest. Even now he was not just flying for his own pleasure, but going to save that girl Andromeda from the sea monster. And why should he save her? What do her troubles have to do with him, anyway? Just because that stupid mother of hers had boasted of her beauty! Was she really all that beautiful? Medusa used to be beautiful, and look what happened to her! Snakes for hair, now, if you please!
Perseus had to slow down now; he was quickly reaching his destination. Looking down, he saw the shore he was supposed to land on. Joppa, was it called? They probably meant Jaffa, that place where the oranges came from... Not that he was so keen on oranges, so messy to peel and to eat — he’d much rather munch on an apple any day of the week.
Still — yes, the place was settled. Some white-washed square houses, like those in Greece, and there was the palace at a little distance, looming against the blue sea... Beautiful! That’s where Queen Cassiopea ruled together with her husband Cepheus. Perseus had heard she was much more a queen than he was a king. No one had even heard of him, but her place was right up among the stars, so famous for both her beauty and her hardship. Hard as nails, they said, no nonsense about her, and that’s exactly how the trouble with Andromeda, their daughter, had gotten started! All right, he’d see what’s what when he got down.
Perseus was doing it now, maneuvering in the air and making one bad move after the other, almost falling to the ground right on his face! At the last minute he managed to straighten himself up and persuade the winged sandals to take him down to the gravel in front of the grand palace that stood on the Mediterranean shore at Joppa.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” Queen Cassiopea burst out of the palace with the King in her wake. In spite of stories of their being Ethiopeans, both were of a definite Mediterranean type, no less than Perseus himself.
Cassiopea hugged the young man as a long lost beloved relative, crying out, “Welcome to Yaffo, our beautiful fortress, as you can see, because that’s what the name means, and you can see how beautiful everything here is, the shore and the palace and us... Beauty is an ideal for us, you know.” She paused, as if letting him absorb all that beauty around them. She, indeed, was a beautiful woman, though not so young any more, of course. But she did have that dignity of long rule, not very tall and slightly plump; but the magnificent arrangement of her dark brown hair added to her stature, and with the regular features of her face and her lovely bright, brown eyes, she could well be considered a beauty.
“Come now, let me show you around.” She pulled Perseus by the arm, almost ignoring her husband’s gesture to be introduced as well. She did it, though, a little reluctantly, and then went on with her explanations as they went through the palace’s gate. “You can see our Cretan building tradition here, though we were not above adding some oriental Canaanite style for variety. It was Agenor, you know, the Canaanite, who wanted to marry Andromeda, but she’s all yours if you save her from the monster. You will, won’t you?” Here Cassiopea paused and looked at Perseus, searching his face with her sharp eyes, examining him from head to sandaled feet.
“Hmm, yes, I suppose, isn’t that’s why I am here?” he said. Having been only half-listening, he was not completely sure of the right answer.
“Come, young man,” the King intervened at last. “Leave him alone, Cassi, he’s probably tired from the trip, and hungry or thirsty or something. Let the man breathe, for the gods’ sake.”
“And which gods are you swearing by, pray?” She turned on her husband with a fury, which seemed to be a long-held grudge, although Perseus could not rightly say what it had to do with what the man had said.
“Oh, Athena, I suppose, but I don’t mind calling her Anat, as they do in these places. But I know that the local divinities still seem strange to you. Unless you want me to swear by Poseidon?” And he looked at her aslant, with a cunning expression Perseus would not have expected of him. “But you can say nothing against Athena, can you, since she’s the one who supports this young man?” Cepheus added.
“Does she?” she turned to the young prince.
“Yes. She’s the one who helped me get Medusa’s head, you know, without which I can’t accomplish the task of fighting the monster.”
“Medusa’s head, indeed? Do you have it here with you?” She sounded quite curious. “How thrilling! And frightening, I suppose. How’re you going to use it?”
“I think the idea is to turn the head toward the monster, that will petrify it before it can catch your daughter...” Again, he sounded not quite sure of himself, and Cepheus wondered about it. But the Queen paid no attention to the hesitations of the young man.
“Oh, very well then. Now, tell me, do you think the Goddess is as beautiful as I am? Of course, you haven’t seen Andromeda yet, so you can’t tell about her.”
“There!” cried the King, “are you starting all that again? The present danger is not enough for you?”
“Oh, shut up! Come, Perseus, let me show you to a place where you can rest, eat and drink before you go out to fulfill your task.”
The sun was slanting in the west over the Mediterranean when Cepheus and Perseus came out of the palace. Cassiopea said she could not bear to see her daughter tied up on the rock, expecting the monster to rise out of the sea at the beast’s regular time to come out to feed on young maidens. At least, that’s what they said. Not that anyone had ever seen that monster; and, in spite of what they said, there had never been a maiden sacrificed to the sea-monster before it had become Andromeda’s fate.
Many stories had been told about the Monster from the Sea, but no one had ever seen it except in dreams, or heard of it except in the tales of storytellers. Some people even said it was not the monster’s idea at all to have the Princess sacrificed to it but that Queen Cassiopea, who could not bear the competition she suffered from her daughter’s beauty... But these stories, which spread among common people, never reached the Palace and its dwellers. And now the King led the young Prince to the shore, where the waves broke at the rocks strewn between the gravel beach and the water, half-submerged. “There, can you see her?” he pointed.
Blinking his eyes as he looked toward the sinking sun, Perseus could vaguely see the rock, jutting out from among the waves a short distance out at sea. A figure, which seemed to be nude, was indeed attached to the rock. Bare skin glowed in the red and golden hues emanating from the sun.
Perseus thought he could see her moving about, perhaps struggling against the chains that were supposed to be tying her to the rock, but they were not visible at that distance in the blinding light. The woman could have been doing something altogether different, Perseus reflected for a moment, when something started to happen.
The sea, calm up till then, began to rise around Andromeda’s rock; waves suddenly started rolling at it, growing higher and higher. The King and the young man could see the figure lifting her arms, waving them in strange motions, and for one moment Perseus thought that perhaps she was not trying to defend herself from something so much as she was actually beckoning to it...
At that moment the waves broke open and an enormous shape rose out from among them. Like the girl’s skin, its scales glowed in the red and gold light of the sun; then a monstrous head, as large as Andromeda’s rock, loomed over the girl.
“Go!” the King cried out, tugging Perseus sharply by the arm, “go and save her! Petrify that monster with Medusa’s head!”
Perseus leapt in the air, then used the sandals’ wings to fly over to the rock, hovering above it. But what he saw was so astonishing that he almost faltered in mid-air and fell into the water. The monster was not attacking the princess but fondling her, dancing around her, while the girl was caressing its red and gold scales.
He also saw that the chains tying her to the rock were not metal but flowers, decorating her naked body! As he hovered, hesitating what he should do, the girl raised her arms, leapt in the air, and dove head first into the water! The monster, with a great flutter of its enormous tail, followed her. A minute later the sea was calm, as if nothing had ever happened right before Perseus’ eyes.
With the sun sinking into the Mediterranean Sea, Perseus flew back to shore and landed by the side of the dumbfounded king.
“Wh — Wha — What happened?” Cepheus stammered as he questioned the young man.
The Prince pondered for a moment. “You know, I’m not quite sure,” he replied. “It seemed to me there was no enmity between the monster and your daughter, and it certainly did not devour her.”
“Do you think it hypnotized her, made her come to it?”
“I can’t answer that. I know nothing about hypnotism.”
They turned to go into the palace. When Cassiopea heard their story, she raged and fumed, seeming not at all glad that her daughter had not been devoured by the sea snake. But there was nothing to be done that evening, and after a nice meal they all went to bed, not exactly in the right mood for celebration.
It was the middle of the night when a deafening noise was heard all over the palace. People burst out of their rooms and out of the palace gates half-dressed or not dressed at all. Perseus, who had had the presence of mind to put on his trousers, was rather amused to see Cepheus with his nightcap and gown, running barefoot on the gravelly ground, jumping and skipping to avoid the sharp edges of the little stones. Cassiopea at least had put her sandals on, but her shapely breasts were bare, to the young man’s delight. Still, no one had time to enjoy the sight of each other, they were all overwhelmed by the sight that appeared before their eyes.
Coming out of the sea, lifting their monstrous heads and roaring as they approached the palace, were not one but two sea snakes. They slithered and meandered over the gravel, glimmering in the light of the bright stars and the half-moon rising in the east.
The people of the palace stood shocked as if hypnotized, as the monsters paused in front of the palace entrance. The two creatures started twisting their bodies in a terrible dance, intertwining their bodies together until there was no way to distinguish between them, growling and roaring at the same time as if giving music to their dance. Everyone was watching with their mouths open, until at last Cassiopea recovered, clapped her hands and shouted, “Enough!”
Slowly, the monsters ceased their movement, separated and turned glaring eyes at the Queen. Then one of them shuddered throughout its whole body, its skin crumpled and fell apart, and a beautifully shaped girl stepped out of it, naked as at the day she was born. Her skin glowed milky white under the moon and the stars gleamed in her dark eyes; her black hair flowed, half-covering her body.
“Andy!” the King cried out, running toward her with his arms stretched, “You’re alive!”
“Hi, father,” she bent her head to kiss the top of the head on his shorter form, then produced a smile that glowed in the darkness. “And why shouldn’t I be alive?”
For the Queen, however, her daughter’s being alive was not enough. “Andromeda! What is the meaning of all that? What is this monster doing here — and it seems you’re no less a monster as well... Answer me, please!”
“Well, Mother, you should know where you got me, shouldn’t you? Was it not Poseidon himself? You should not be surprised, then, that I am sister to this son of the sea, whom, by the way, I decided to take for my mate rather than that miserable human...” and she sent a contemptuous gaze at Perseus, who was standing there, half-amused and half-furious at his vain effort on her behalf.
“Get her, Perseus!” the Queen shrieked in answer. “Petrify them both! Perseus, what are you waiting for?”
“Children of the Sea god! Not likely, Your Majesty,” he answered. He did not feel as calm as he looked, because he knew very well there was an issue here between divinities, not just human beings. But the Queen would not let him alone, screaming and shouting, especially as she was watching her child turning back into a sea snake and following her mate into the sea.
“Go after them! Get them!” The Queen rushed at Perseus as she continued shouting, raising and waving her arms as though attacking him in place of her rebellious daughter.
Perseus was terrified. Cassiopea’s powers as a witch might not affect sea monsters, but who knew what she could do to him, a mere human! He desperately fumbled for a weapon, and his hands fell on Athena’s bag. It opened, as if by a miracle, and he pulled out Medusa’s head and waved it in the face of the Queen. “Take that, you monster!” he screamed.
In an instant, Cassiopea turned to stone. It was unfortunate that the King and the rest of the palace’s personnel were standing right behind the Queen, and as befitting her rank, even as a statue she had her suitable company of stone attendants. In the ensuing silence, Perseus looked with trepidation at that new collection of sculptures he created. “Sorry about that. This bag seems to be dangerous. I’m sure the gods can find someone else to make better use of it...”
He lifted in the air and, looking at the stars for direction, he flew off toward Greece. As he looked at the Polar star, he could see some brilliant stars grouping in the shape of his hosts and of their monstrously lovely daughter.
[Author’s note: The myths of Perseus and Andromeda can be found at Paleothea.com. The idea that the Sea monster was Andromeda herself is Robert Graves’, but I find it, with the identification with the Babylonian Sea monster — the Mother goddess Tiamat — quite valid.]
Copyright © 2006 by Tala Bar