Ovid begins the story of Perseus roaming the “balmy skies,” high among constellations, holding up the severed head of Medusa. The Gorgon’s head is dripping blood so that when each drop falls to earth the blood transforms into snakes, thus populating the land with Medusa’s curse. It isn’t Perseus’s intent to propagate deadly serpents on random islands, but the viperous Gorgon, Medusa, is nearly as dangerous dead as she was alive.
Also, Perseus has his mind on other things. Now that he’s done the job of killing the Gorgon, he must bring her head back to the king, who wanted nothing more than to own Medusa’s head. But actually, the king has sent Perseus on a dangerous mission for the single purpose of getting rid of him.
Ovid’s myth, which he knew from the Greek tales, is told with epic imagery and lots of dramatic landscapes, mindlessly-homicidal monsters and shape-shifting gods. The lines are poetic and flowing – penned in elegiac couplets:
“Thence through the firmament the warring winds propelled him like a rain-cloud back and forth.
From heaven’s height he gazed down on the lands
Far, far below and flew the whole world over.”
Perseus, the son of Zeus, flies with winged shoes and carries an invisible wallet, (not a wallet for holding money but a “wallet” in which to drop Medusa’s cutt off head,) and he wears an invisibility cap and magic sword. All of these magical items, Perseus obtains from the nymphs, those divine creatures that frequent rivers and forests and often favor young men like Perseus. In this case, the god, Hermes, and the goddess, Athena, also favor Perseus, as they assist him in the job of defeating Medusa. Perseus has to sever the head while not looking directly at Medusa, for to do so would turn him into stone. This is how powerful one look from Medusa would be. So the goddess, Athena, lends Perseus her breast-shield to use as a mirror in which to peer instead of looking at the Gorgon directly.
The Greek gods, like Hermes and Athena, are often depicted as being unpredictable, unavailable, or even vengeful, but when the gods are on your side, you cannot lose! As a reward, Perseus obtains Pegasus, the winged horse, finally a non-threatening animal, who springs up from Medusa’s blood.
Once he has the Gorgon’s head in hand, Perseus is on his own, but he is tired and needs a rest. This is when he comes upon, the giant, Atlas, something of a gentle giant, of whom Perseus asks the favor of lodging for the night. Plot-turns such as these seem a bit out of context: why would a hero with the powers to fly around the world as fast as Superman need to ask for a place to sleep? But, this is how the tales were formed, and Ovid was the best at interpreting and enhancing details for the sake of posterity as well as poetry!
The giant, Atlas, refuses Perseus because of something the giant heard about Zeus’s son from an oracle. Perseus tries politely to entreat the giant again, but Atlas still says no, so Perseus makes use of Medusa’s head and, turning his gaze away, transforms Atlas into a mountain with trees, cliffs, stones…
And on his shoulders rested the whole vault
Of heaven with all the innumerable stars.
In Ovid, nature is an intrinsic part of the story. The Greeks were unfathomably close to nature: forests, rivers, seas, the sky and even the winds are beautifully personified. Thus, the ancient narrative has a lingering quality that urges us to read on to the next mythic adventure.
Next post: Perseus and Andromeda
Excerpts: Book 4 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by A.D. Melville. This includes all 15 “books” and over 100 myths.