|by Charles Kingsley|
|Stories of the heroes of ancient Greece, told in fine poetic prose. Includes accounts of Perseus who slew Medusa the Gorgon, Jason who sought the Golden Fleece, and Theseus who slew the Minotaur. By preserving the Greek spirit in the retelling of these myths, Kingsley gives us plain strength and seriousness, courage, steadfastness, and beauty. Dozens of attractive illustrations by T. H. Robinson enliven the text. Ages 9-12 |
HOW PERSEUS VOWED A RASH VOW
 FIFTEEN years were past and gone, and the babe was now grown
to be a tall lad and a sailor, and went many voyages after
merchandise to the islands round. His mother called him
Perseus: but all the people in Seriphos said that he was not
the son of mortal man, and called him the son of Zeus, the
king of the Immortals. For though he was but fifteen, he was
taller by a head than any man in the island; and he was the
most skilful of all in running and wrestling and boxing, and
in throwing the quoit and the javelin, and in rowing with the
oar, and in playing on the harp, and in all which befits a
 And he was brave and truthful, gentle and courteous,
for good old Dictys had trained him well; and well it was for
Perseus that he had done so. For now Danae and her son fell
into great danger, and Perseus had need of all his wit to
defend his mother and himself.
I said that Dictys' brother was Polydectes, king of the
island. He was not a righteous man, like Dictys: but greedy,
and cunning, and cruel. And when he saw fair Danae, he
wanted to marry her. But she would not; for she did not love
him, and cared for no one but her boy, and her boy's father,
whom she never hoped to see again. At last Polydectes became
furious; and while Perseus was away at sea he took poor Danae
away from Dictys, saying, "If you will not be my wife, you
shall be my slave." So Danae was made a slave, and had to
fetch water from the well, and grind in the mill, and perhaps
was beaten, and wore a heavy chain, because
 she would not
marry that cruel king. But Perseus was far away over the
seas in the isle of Samos, little thinking how his mother was
languishing in grief.
Now one day at Samos, while the ship was lading, Perseus
wandered into a pleasant wood to get out of the sun, and sat
down on the turf and fell asleep. And as he slept a strange
dream came to him; the strangest dream which he had ever had
in his life.
There came a lady to him through the wood, taller than he, or
any mortal man: but beautiful exceedingly, with great gray
eyes, clear and piercing, but strangely soft and mild. On
her head was a helmet, and in her hand a spear. And over her
shoulder, above her long blue robes, hung a goatskin, which
bore up a mighty shield of brass, polished like a mirror.
She stood and looked at him with her clear gray eyes; and
Perseus saw that her eyelids never moved, nor her eyeballs,
but looked straight
 through and through him, and into his
very heart, as if she could see all the secrets of his soul,
and knew all that he had ever thought or longed for since the
day that he was born. And Perseus dropped his eyes,
trembling and blushing, as the wonderful lady spoke.
"Perseus, you must do an errand for me."
"Who are you, lady? And how do you know my name?"
"I am Pallas Athené and I know the thoughts of all men's
hearts, and discern their manhood or their baseness. And
from the souls of clay I turn away; and they are blest, but
not by me. They fatten at ease, like sheep in the pasture,
and eat what they did not sow, like oxen in the stall. They
grow and spread, like the gourd along the ground: but, like
the gourd, they give no shade to the traveller; and when they
are ripe death gathers them, and they go down unloved into
hell, and their name vanishes out of the land.
 "But to the souls of fire I give more fire, and to those who
are manful I give a might more than man's. These are the
heroes, the sons of the Immortals, who are blest, but not
like the souls of clay. For I drive them forth by strange
paths, Perseus, that they may fight the Titans and the
monsters, the enemies of Gods and men. Through doubt and
need, danger and battle, I drive them; and some of them are
slain in the flower of youth, no man knows when or where; and
some of them win noble names, and a fair and green old age;
but what will be their latter end I know not, and none, save
Zeus, the father of Gods and men. Tell me now, Perseus,
which of these two sorts of men seem to you more blest?"
Then Perseus answered boldly: "Better to die in the flower
of youth, on the chance of winning a noble name, than to live
at ease like the sheep, and die unloved and unrenowned."
 Then that strange lady laughed, and held up her brazen
shield, and cried: "See here, Perseus; dare you face such a
monster as this, and slay it, that I may place its head upon
And in the mirror of the shield there appeared a face, and as
Perseus looked on it his blood ran cold. It was the face of
a beautiful woman; but her cheeks were pale as death, and her
brows were knit with everlasting pain, and her lips were thin
and bitter like a snake's; and instead of hair, vipers
wreathed about her temples, and shot out their forked
tongues; while round her head were folded wings like an
eagle's, and upon her bosom claws of brass.
And Perseus looked awhile, and then said: "If there is
anything so fierce and foul on earth, it were a noble deed to
kill it. Where can I find the monster?"
Then the strange lady smiled again, and said: "Not yet; you
are too young, and too unskilled; for this is Medusa the
 the mother of a monstrous brood. Return to your
home, and do the work which waits there for you. You must
play the man in that before I can think you worthy to go in
search of the Gorgon."
Then Perseus would have spoken, but the strange lady
vanished, and he awoke; and behold, it was a dream. But day
and night Perseus saw before him the face of that dreadful
woman, with the vipers writhing round her head.
So he returned home; and when he came to Seriphos, the first
thing which he heard was that his mother was a slave in the
house of Polydectes.
Grinding his teeth with rage, he went out, and away to the
king's palace, and through the men's rooms, and the women's
rooms, and so through all the house (for no one dared stop
him, so terrible and fair was he), till he found his mother
sitting on the floor, turning the stone hand-mill, and
weeping as she turned it. And he lifted
 her up, and kissed
her, and bade her follow him forth. But before they could
pass out of the room, Polydectes came in, raging. And when
Perseus saw him, he flew upon him as the mastiff flies on the
boar. "Villain and tyrant!" he cried; "is this your respect
for the Gods, and thy mercy to strangers and widows? You
shall die!" And because he had no sword, he caught up the
stone hand-mill, and he lifted it to dash out Polydectes's
But his mother clung to him, shrieking, "Oh, my son, we are
strangers and helpless in the land; and if you kill the king,
all the people will fall on us, and we shall both die."
Good Dictys, too, who had come in, entreated him. "Remember
that he is my brother. Remember how I have brought you up,
and trained you as my own son, and spare him for my sake."
Then Perseus lowered his hand; and Polydectes, who had been
 this while like a coward, because he knew that
he was in the wrong, let Perseus and his mother pass.
Perseus took his mother to the temple of Athené, and there
the priestess made her one of the temple-sweepers; for there
they knew she would be safe, and not even Polydectes would
dare to drag her away from the altar. And there Perseus, and
the good Dictys, and his wife, came to visit her every day;
while Polydectes, not being able to get what he wanted by
force, cast about in his wicked heart how he might get it by
Now he was sure that he could never get back Danae as long as
Perseus was in the island; so he made a plot to rid himself
of him. And first he pretended to have forgiven Perseus, and
to have forgotten Danae; so that, for a while, all went as
smoothly as ever.
Next he proclaimed a great feast, and invited to it all the
chiefs, and land-owners,
 and the young men of the island, and
among them Perseus, that they might all do him homage as
their king, and eat of his banquet in his hall.
On the appointed day they all came; and, as the custom was
then, each guest brought his present with him to the king:
one a horse, another a shawl, or a ring, or a sword; and
those who had nothing better brought a basket of grapes, or
of game; but Perseus brought nothing, for he had nothing to
bring, being but a poor sailor-lad.
He was ashamed, however, to go into the king's presence
without his gift; and he was too proud to ask Dictys to lend
him one. So he stood at the door sorrowfully, watching the
rich men go in; and his face grew very red as they pointed at
him, and smiled, and whispered, "What has that foundling to
Now this was what Polydectes wanted; and as soon as he heard
 stood without, he bade them bring him in, and
asked him scornfully before them all,—"Am I not your king,
Perseus, and have I not invited you to my feast? Where is
your present, then?"
Perseus blushed and stammered, while all the proud men round
laughed, and some of them began jeering him openly. "This
fellow was thrown ashore here like a piece of weed or drift-wood,
and yet he is too proud to bring a gift to the king."
"And though he does not know who his father is, he is vain
enough to let the old women call him the son of Zeus."
And so forth, till poor Perseus grew mad with shame, and
hardly knowing what he said, cried out,:—"A present! who are
you who talk of presents? See if I do not bring a nobler one
than all of yours together!"
So he said, boasting; and yet he felt in his heart that he was
braver than all those scoffers, and more able to do some
 "Hear him! Hear the boaster! What is it to be?" cried they
all, laughing louder than ever.
Then his dream at Samos came into his mind, and he cried
aloud, "The head of the Gorgon."
He was half afraid after he had said the words; for all
laughed louder than ever, and Polydectes loudest of all.
"You have promised to bring me the Gorgon's head? Then never
appear again in this island without it. Go!"
Perseus ground his teeth with rage, for he saw that he had
fallen into a trap; but his promise lay upon him, and he went
out without a word.
Down to the cliffs he went, and looked across the broad blue
sea; and he wondered if his dream were true, and prayed in
the bitterness of his soul.
"Pallas Athené, was my dream true? and shall I slay the
Gorgon? If thou didst really show me her face, let me not
 to shame as a liar and boastful. Rashly and angrily I
promised: but cunningly and patiently will I perform."
But there was no answer, nor sign; neither thunder nor any
appearance; not even a cloud in the sky.
And three times Perseus called weeping. "Rashly and angrily I
promised: but cunningly and patiently will I perform."
Then he saw afar off above the sea a small white cloud, as
bright as silver. And it came on, nearer and nearer, till
its brightness dazzled his eyes.
Perseus wondered at that strange cloud, for there was no
other cloud all round the sky; and he trembled as it touched
the cliff below. And as it touched, it broke, and parted,
and within it appeared Pallas Athené, as he had seen her at
Samos in his dream, and beside her a young man more light-limbed
than the stag, whose eyes were like sparks of fire.
By his side was a scimitar of diamond, all of one clear
 precious stone, and on his feet were golden sandals, from the
heels of which grew living wings.
They looked upon Perseus keenly, and yet they never moved
their eyes; and they came up the cliffs towards him more
swiftly than the sea-gull, and yet they never moved their
feet, nor did the breeze stir the robes about their limbs;
only the wings of the youth's sandals quivered, like a hawk's
when he hangs above the cliff. And Perseus fell down and
worshipped, for he knew that they were more than man.
But Athené stood before him and spoke gently, and bid him
have no fear. Then—
"Perseus," she said, "he who overcomes in one trial merits
thereby a sharper trial still. You have braved Polydectes,
and done manfully. Dare you brave Medusa the Gorgon?"
And Perseus said, "Try me; for since you spoke to me in Samos
a new soul has come into my breast, and I should be
not to dare anything which I can do. Show me, then, how I
can do this!"
"Perseus," said Athené, "think well before you attempt; for
this deed requires a seven years' journey, in which you
cannot repent or turn back nor escape; but if your heart
fails you, you must die in the unshapen land, where no man
will ever find your bones."
"Better so than live here, useless and despised," said
Perseus. "Tell me, then, oh tell me, fair and wise Goddess,
of your great kindness and condescension, how I can do but
this one thing, and then, if need be, die!"
Then Athené smiled and said,—
"Be patient, and listen; for if you forget my words, you will
indeed die. You must go northward to the country of the
Hyperboreans, who live beyond the pole, at the sources of the
cold north wind; till you find the three Grey Sisters, who
 but one eye and one tooth between them. You must ask
them the way to the Nymphs, the daughters of the Evening
Star, who dance about the golden tree, in the Atlantic island
of the west. They will tell you the way to the Gorgon, that
you may slay her, my enemy, the mother of monstrous beasts.
Once she was a maiden as beautiful as morn, till in her pride
she sinned a sin at which the sun hid his face; and from that
day her hair was turned to vipers, and her hands to eagle's
claws; and her heart was filled with shame and rage, and her
lips with bitter venom; and her eyes became so terrible that
whosoever looks on them is turned to stone; and her children
are the winged horse, and the giant of the golden sword; and
her grandchildren are Echidna the witch-adder, and Geryon the
three-headed tyrant, who feeds his herds beside the herds of
hell. So she became the sister of the Gorgons, Stheino and
Euryte the abhorred, the daughters of the
 Queen of the Sea.
Touch them not, for they are immortal: but bring me only
"And I will bring it!" said Perseus; "but how am I to escape
her eyes? Will she not freeze me too into stone?"
"You shall take this polished shield," said Athené "and when
you come near her look not at her herself, but at her image
in the brass; so you may strike her safely. And when you
have struck off her head, wrap it, with your face turned
away, in the folds of the goat-skin on which the shield
hangs, the hide of Amaltheié, the nurse of the Ægis-holder.
So you will bring it safely back to me, and win to yourself
renown, and a place among the heroes who feast with the
Immortals upon the peak where no winds blow."
Then Perseus said, "I will go, though I die in going. But
how shall I cross the seas without a ship? And who will show
me my way? And when I find her, how
 shall I slay her, if her
scales be iron and brass?"
Then the young man spoke: "These sandals of mine will bear
you across the seas, and over hill and dale like a bird, as
they bear me all day long; for I am Hermes, the far-famed
Argus-slayer, the messenger of the Immortals who dwell on
Then Perseus fell down and worshipped, while the young man
"The sandals themselves will guide you on the road, for they
are divine and cannot stray; and this sword itself, the
Argus-slayer, will kill her, for it is divine, and needs no
second stroke. Arise, and gird them on, and go forth."
So Perseus arose, and girded on the sandals and the sword.
And Athené cried, "Now leap from the cliff and be gone."
But Perseus lingered.
"May I not bid farewell to my mother
 and to Dictys? And may
I not offer burnt-offerings to you, and to Hermes the far-famed
Argus-slayer, and to Father Zeus above?"
"You shall not bid farewell to your mother, lest your heart
relent at her weeping. I will comfort her and Dictys until
you return in peace. Nor shall you offer burnt-offerings to
the Olympians; for your offering shall be Medusa's head.
Leap, and trust in the armour of the Immortals."
Then Perseus looked down the cliff and shuddered; but he was
ashamed to show his dread. Then he thought of Medusa and the
renown before him, and he leaped into the empty air.
And behold, instead of falling he floated, and stood, and ran
along the sky. He looked back, but Athené had vanished, and
Hermes; and the sandals led him on northward ever, like a
crane who follows the spring toward the Ister fens.
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