24.THE STORY OF PERSEUS
Beyond where Atlas stands there is a cave where two strange women, the ancient daughters of Phorcys, live. They have been gray from their birth. They have just one eye and one tooth between them, and they pass the eye and the tooth, one to another, when they want to see or eat. These two sisters are called the Graiai.
A youth once came up to the cave where they lived. He was beardless, and the clothes he wore were torn and travel-stained, but he had shapeliness and beauty. In his leather belt there was an exceedingly bright sword. This sword was not straight like the swords we carry, but was hooked like a sickle. The strange youth with the bright, strange sword came very quickly and very silently up to the cave where the Graiai lived and looked over a high boulder into it.
One was sitting munching acorns with the single tooth. The other had the eye in her hand. She was holding it to her forehead and looking into the back of the cave. These two ancient women, with their gray hair falling over them like thick fleeces, and with faces that were only forehead and cheeks and nose and mouth, were strange creatures truly. Very silently the youth stood looking at them.
“Sister, sister,” cried the one who was munching acorns, “sister, turn your eye this way. I heard something move.”
The other turned, and with the eye placed against her forehead looked out to the opening of the cave. The youth drew back behind the boulder. “Sister, sister, there is nothing there,” said the one with the eye.
Then she said, “Sister, give me the tooth because I want to eat my acorns. Take the eye and keep watch.”
The one who was eating held out the tooth, and the one who was watching held out the eye. The youth darted into the cave. Standing between the eyeless sisters, he took with one hand the tooth and with the other the eye.
“Sister, sister, have you taken the eye?”
“I have not taken the eye. Have you taken the tooth?”
“I have not taken the tooth.”
“Someone has taken the eye, and someone has taken the tooth.”
They stood together, and the youth watched their blinking faces as they tried to discover who had come into the cave, and who had taken the eye and the tooth.
Then they said, screaming together, “May Mother Night smother whoever has taken the eye and the tooth from the Graiai, the ancient daughters of Phorcys,.”
The youth spoke. “Ancient daughters of Phorcys,” he said, “Graiai, I would not rob you. I have come to your cave only to ask the way to a place.”
“Ah, it is a mortal, a mortal,” screamed the sisters. “Well, mortal, what do you want from the Graiai?”
“Ancient Graiai,” said the youth, “I want you to tell me, for you alone know, where the nymphs live who guard the three magic treasures—the cap of darkness, the shoes of flight, and the magic pouch.”
“We will not tell you, we will not tell you that,” screamed the two ancient sisters.
“I will keep the eye and the tooth,” said the youth, “and I will give them to whoever who will help me.”
“Give me the eye and I will tell you,” said one. “Give me the tooth and I will tell you,” said the other. The youth put the eye in the hand of one and the tooth in the hand of the other, but he held their skinny hands in his strong hands until they told him where the nymphs who guarded the magic treasures lived. The Gray Ones told him. Then the youth with the bright sword left the cave. As he went out he saw on the ground a shield of bronze, and he took it with him.
He went to the other side of where Atlas stands. There he met the nymphs in their valley. They had lived there for a long time, hidden from gods and men, and they were startled to see a strange youth come into their hidden valley. They fled and so the youth sat on the ground, his head bent like a man who is very sorrowful.
The youngest and the fairest of the nymphs came to him at last. “Why have you come, and why do you sit here looking so sad, youth?” she said. Then she said, “What is this strange sickle-sword that you wear? Who told you the way here? What is your name?”
“I have come here,” said the youth, and he took the bronze shield upon his knees and began to polish it, “I have come here because I want you, the nymphs who guard them, to give to me the cap of darkness and the shoes of flight and the magic pouch. I must get these things because without them I must go to my death. “
When he said that he had come for the three magic treasures that they guarded, the kind nymph was more startled than she and her sisters had been by the appearance of the strange youth in their hidden valley. She turned away from him. But she looked again and she saw that he was beautiful and brave looking. He had spoken of his death. The nymph stood looking at him pitifully, and the youth, with the bronze shield laid beside his knees and the strange hooked sword lying across it, told her his story.
“I am Perseus,” he said, “and my grandfather, is king of Argos. His name is Acrisius. Before I was born a prophecy was made to him that the son of Danae, his daughter, would kill him. Acrisius was frightened by the prophecy, and when I was born he put my mother and myself into a chest, and he sent us adrift on the waves of the sea.
“I did not know what a terrible peril I was in, for I was a newly born baby. My mother came near to death. But the wind and the waves did not destroy us. Instead they brought us to a shore. A shepherd found the chest, and he opened it and brought my mother and myself out of it alive. The land we had come to was Seriphus. The shepherd who found the chest and who rescued my mother and myself was the brother of the king. His name was Dictys.
“My mother stayed with me in the shepherd’s hut, a little infant, and in that house I grew from babyhood to childhood and from childhood to boyhood. He was a kind man, this shepherd Dictys. His brother Polydectes had sent him away from the palace, but Dictys was not sorry about that, for he was happy minding his sheep on the hillside, and was happy in his little hut.
“Polydectes, the king, was seldom informed about his brother, and it was years before he knew of the mother and child who had been brought to live in Dictys’s hut. But at last he heard of us, for strange things began to be said about my mother—how she was beautiful, and how she looked like someone who had been favored by the gods. Then one day when he was hunting, Polydectes the king came to the hut of Dictys the shepherd.
“He saw Danae, my mother, there. Immediately he could see that she was a king’s daughter and one who had been favored by the gods. He wanted her for his wife. But my mother hated this harsh and overbearing king, and she would not marry him. Often he came storming around the shepherd’s hut, and at last my mother had to take refuge from him in a temple. There she became the priestess of the goddess.
“I was taken to the palace of Polydectes, and there I was brought up. The king still stormed around where my mother was, more and more intent on making her marry him. If she had not been in the temple where she was under the protection of the goddess he would have married her against her will.
“But I was growing up, and I was able to give some protection to my mother. My arm was strong, and Polydectes knew that if he wronged my mother in any way, I had the will and the power to kill him. One day I heard him say before his princes and his lords that he would marry, and would marry someone who was not Danae, I was overjoyed to hear him say this. He asked the lords and the princes to come to the wedding feast. They declared they would, and they told him of the presents they would bring.
“Then King Polydectes turned to me and he asked me to come to the wedding feast. I said I would come. Then, because I was young and boastful, and because the king was now no longer a threat to me, I said that I would bring to his wedding feast the head of the Gorgon.
“The king smiled when he heard me say this, but he smiled not as a good man smiles when he hears the boast of a youth. He smiled, and he turned to the princes and lords, and he said ‘Perseus will come, and he will bring a greater gift than any of you, for he will bring the head of her whose gaze turns living creatures into stone.’
“When I heard the king speak so grimly about my boast I realized what I had said. I thought for an instant that the Gorgon’s head appeared before me, and that I was then and there turned into stone.
“The day of the wedding feast came. I came and I brought no gift. I stood with my head hanging for shame. Then the princes and the lords came forward, and they showed the great gifts of horses that they had brought. I thought that the king would forget about me and about my boast. Then I heard him call my name. ‘Perseus,’ he said, ‘Perseus, bring before us now the Gorgon’s head that, as you told us, you would bring for the wedding gift.’
“The princes and lords and people looked toward me, and I was filled with a deeper shame. I had to say that I had failed to bring a present. Then that harsh and overbearing king shouted at me. ‘Go out,’ he said, ‘go out and fetch the present that you spoke of. If you do not bring it back leave my country forever, for in Seriphus we will have no empty boasters.’ The lords and princes applauded what the king said. The people were sad for me and sad for my mother, but they could not do anything to help me. There was nothing I could do but go from the country of Seriphus, leaving my mother at the mercy of Polydectes.
“I said good-by to my sorrowful mother and I went from Seriphus—from that land that I could not return to without the Gorgon’s head. I traveled far from that country. One day I sat down in a lonely place and prayed to the gods that my strength might be equal to the will that now moved in me—the will to take the Gorgon’s head, and take from my name the shame of a broken promise, and return to Seriphus to save my mother from the harshness of the king.
“When I looked up I saw someone standing before me. He was a youth, too, but I knew by the way he moved, and by the brightness of his face and eyes, that he was an immortal. I raised my hands out of respect to him, and he came up to me. ‘Perseus,’ he said, ‘if you have the courage to try, the way to win the Gorgon’s head will be shown you.’ I said that I had the courage to try, and he knew that I was making no boast.
“He gave me this bright sickle-sword that I carry. He told me how I could get near enough to the Gorgons without being turned into stone by their gaze. He told me how I might kill the one of the three Gorgons who was not immortal, and how, having killed her, I could take her head and flee without being torn to pieces by her sister Gorgons.
“Then I knew that I should have to attack the Gorgons from the air. I knew that having killed the one that could be killed I should have to fly with the speed of the wind. I also knew that that just speed would not save me. I should have to be hidden in my flight. To win the head and save myself I would need three magic things—the shoes of flight and the magic pouch, and the dog skin cap of Hades that makes its wearer invisible.
“The youth said, ‘The magic pouch and the shoes of flight and the dog skin cap of Hades are in the keeping of the nymphs whose living place no mortal knows. I may not tell you where their living place is but from the Gray Ones, from the ancient daughters of Phorcys who live in a cave near where Atlas stands, you may learn where their living place is.’
“Then he told me how I could get to the Graiai, and how I might get them to tell me where you, the nymphs, lived. The one who spoke to me was Hermes, who lives on Olympus. By this sickle-sword that he gave me you will know that I speak the truth.”
Perseus stopped speaking, and she who was the youngest and fairest of the nymphs came nearer to him. She knew that he spoke truthfully, and besides she had pity for the youth. “But we are the keepers of the magic treasures,” she said, “and someone whose need is greater even than yours may sometime require them from us. But will you swear that you will bring the magic treasures back to us when you have killed the Gorgon and have taken her head?”
Perseus declared that he would bring the magic treasures back to the nymphs and leave them once more in their keeping. Then the nymph who had compassion for him called to the others. They spoke together while Perseus stayed far away from them, polishing his shield of bronze. At last the nymph who had listened to him came back, the others following her. They brought to Perseus and gave him the things they had guarded—the cap made from dog skin that had been brought up out of Hades, a pair of winged shoes, and a long pouch that he could hang across his shoulder.