Nathan (vovat) wrote,

The Andromeda Strain

All right, as I indicated last week, this week's myth will be that of Perseus. This Greek hero's story started when his grandfather, Acrisius of Argos, was told by the oracle at Delphi that he would be killed by his own grandson. In order to prevent this, he locked his daughter Danae up in a tower, apparently unaware of the mythological rules that: 1) any attempt to thwart fate will simply set into motion events leading to its fulfillment, and 2) a tower is hardly an effective means of birth control when your chief god is a horny bastard. Sure enough, Zeus showed up in a shower of gold and impregnated Danae, who gave birth to Perseus. Upon learning of this, Acrisius put the both of them in a wooden chest, which he set afloat on the sea. They ended up on the island of Seriphos, where King Polydectes fell in love with Danae. Wanting to get Perseus out of the way, he set the demigod up on a wild goose chase. Actually, more accurately, it was a wild Gorgon chase, to fetch the head of Medusa.

I'm sure everyone knows about Medusa, the woman with snakes for hair who would turn anyone to stone at a glance. While early mythology tended to speak of only one Gorgon, there were later three, quite possibly to match all the other triads of sisters in ancient lore. Perseus had to consult another one of these groups of three, the Graeae, in order to find out the whereabouts of the Gorgons. These three monstrous women shared one eye and one tooth between them, which must have been a hassle during mealtimes. Perseus wasn't left on his own to face all these monsters, however, having been given a helmet of invisibility by Hades, winged shoes (and/or a sword) by Hermes, and a mirror shield by Athena. There are many stories, both ancient and modern, in which supernatural assistance basically means the hero doesn't have to do anything but go through the motions, but Perseus must have had some skill of his own, since he was able to decapitate Medusa while looking at her through a mirror. The Gorgon's head retained its power of petrifaction, and Perseus used it in several subsequent adventures, sometimes including his encounter with Atlas. But his most significant exploit before returning to Seriphos involved his rescue of the Princess Andromeda from a sea monster at Joppa. So where's Joppa? Well, it's actually in Israel, and is more commonly known as Jaffa. Yet its rulers, King Cepheus and Queen Cassopeia, are referred to as Ethiopians. I've seen some speculation that this was a different Ethiopia than the one in Africa; but there's also Isaac Asimov's speculation that this was a time when Israel was dominated by Egypt, and they myth-makers confused the two African nations, or something like that. Regardless, Perseus rescues Andromeda, and they get married and eventually go on to become the ancestors of the Mycenaean rulers. But if Andromeda is Ethiopian, does that mean her union with Perseus was a mixed-race marriage? This was presumably not the intent, but I think it would have been cool. These nineteenth-century paintings definitely show her looking awfully white, but it's not like painters didn't do the same thing with Jesus.

Anyway, Perseus went on to use the Gorgon's head to petrify Polydectes, and ended up accidentally killing his grandfather with a quoit or a discus. I remember this last part being presented as almost an afterthought in the versions of the myth I've read, as if the author had finished and then thought, "Oh, harpy crap, I forgot to resolve this bit about the oracle from the beginning!" I have to say I know how that is, since one of my Oz manuscripts has the Soldier with the Green Whiskers receiving a mysterious box, and then its barely being mentioned again after that. I have an idea for how I can use this box if I ever get around to editing the story, but that's another topic entirely. With myths, however, there are always multiple versions and no single recognized author, so it might just be that the editors of the versions I read (many of which were geared toward kids) chose to focus on the action scenes instead of the fatalism.

The story of Perseus was immortalized in the stars, with Perseus, Andromeda, Cepheus, Cassiopeia, and the sea monster Cetus all being constellations. The Ethiopian king and queen actually look more like a child's drawing of a house and the letter W, respectively, but we can chalk that up to astronomical license. The constellation Perseus is right next to that of Pegasus, who is incorporated into less famous takes on the myth with the winged horse as the hero's means of transportation, rather than Hermes' footwear. The most interesting constellation, however, is Andromeda, as that's where the nearest spiral galaxy to our own can be seen from Earth. Because of this it's known as the Andromeda Galaxy. And if there are any camels there, I assume they're Andromedaries.

Tags: art, monsters, mythology, writing
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