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Commentary

Chapter 21: Perseus and the Legends of Argos


The saga of Perseus contains an unusual number of genuine folktale motifs, indicating that the tale of the local hero (Perseus) has been combined with motifs that are widespread (if not universal) in folktales. Such motifs are:

  • the magic conception of the hero.
  • discovery of the infant hero through the noise of his playing.
  • the shutting up of the hero and his mother in a chest.
  • the villainous king and his good and humble brother.
  • the hero’s rash promise.
  • the help supernatural helpers and magic objects in completing the hero’s task.
  • the three wise women.
  • the ferocious and ugly monsters.
  • the vindication of the hero and the punishment of the villain.

Although the conception of the hero is indeed magical, the shower of gold represents a variation of the archetypal holy marriage in which the rain of the god of the sky fertilizes mother earth. Also it is easily interpreted as an allegory of the power of gold to corrupt.

Unusual in Greek saga is the help of two gods (Hermes and Athena) and the gift by one god of a magic object (the scimitar of Hermes).

The saga of Perseus (“The Gorgon’s Head”) was the first tale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A Wonder Book (1851), in which the hero is presented consistently with Hawthorne’s view that Greek myths were “legitimate subjects for every age . . . to imbue with its own morality.” Hawthorne mentions the legend of Andromeda only incidentally.

The Gorgons and the Gorgon’s Head. The location of the Gorgons (like that of the kingdom of Cepheus in the legend of Andromeda) is somewhere on the edge of the world, sometimes in the far west of Africa, or in the far north, the land of the Hyperboreans (described by Pindar), an imaginary land which, says Pindar “you would not find either with ships or on foot.”

The terrifying head of a monster is a universal motif in art and poetry. The Greeks, exceptionally, incorporated the Gorgon’s head into their ordered world as a symbol of the disorder or punishment awaiting those who transgressed or opposed their laws. Appropriately it is placed on the shield of Athena, the goddess of civic excellence, above all on the statue of Athena Parthenos in her temple on the Acropolis of Athens. Homer places it on the aegis of Athena when she arms for battle (Iliad< 5.741) along with personifications of the terror of battle, and again Agamemnon’s shield (Iliad 11.36) has the Gorgon’s head at its center with Fear and Terror around it. Yet Ovid dwells on the beauty of Medusa. The Gorgon’s head is very common on Greek vases and in sculpture, sometimes as an architectural filler or ornament, often by itself or in a decorative scheme.

Perseus and Andromeda. In the original story Perseus would have gone straight back to Seriphos. The legend of Andromeda (a variant of the universal folktale of the Beauty and the Beast) is an addition, popular because of its romantic and visual elements. The maiden chained to a rock, threatened by a monster and saved by a chivalrous hero, is a popular motif in art and literature. Both Andromeda and Cassiepeia became constellations (in the Catasterisms of pseudo-Eratosthenes at Alexandria, ca. 225 B.C.), and the Gorgon’s head became the Arabic monster Algol, part of the constellation of Perseus. Algol returned to its classical form of Medusa's head in Dürer’s Sky-Map of the Northern Hemisphere in 1503 (see Classical Mythology in Art).

Io and the Danaids. The connection between the Greek Io and Egyptian religion is confusing and does not seem to have a genuinely religious or mythological basis. Io was originally a priestess of Hera, and her identification with Isis derives in part from the fact that in her statues her head was horned, like that of Isis.

Aeschylus wrote a trilogy (perhaps 463 B.C.) on the Danaïds, of which the first play, Suppliants, survives. The story of Io is told in this play, and Io herself has a major role in Aeschylus’ tragedy, Prometheus Bound.

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