My name is Princess Andromeda. You may have seen my picture because I have been painted so many times by so many different artists down the centuries. Usually they show me more or less naked, chained to a rock by the sea, with a serpent about to come and devour me. Somehow they manage to show me looking pretty cool about the whole affair. It wasn’t really like that, I can tell you, I was screaming my head off – I mean wouldn’t you be ? That monster he was just so – ugh – ugly, slimy, covered in barnacles, and had obviously never cleaned his teeth in his life. He was taking his time, writhing around in the waves and lashing his tail and so as to cause me the maximum fright.
That really did happen to me. And do you know what ? – my own parents chained me to that rock. Yes, my Mother and Father – I thought they loved me ! My mother was always boasting about me – she told anyone who would listen that I was more beautiful than the Sea nymphs called the Nereids – I’m not saying that it wasn’t true – but you just can’t say that sort of thing. It’s called blasphemy. The Nereids are immortal, and they have a god-given right to claim the title for anything they want – including the most beautiful. But I was young, and I didn’t know that. The thing that really irked me was their plan to marry me off to my uncle. If it wasn’t bad enough that he was middle aged and ugly and my father’s brother – he was also – would you believe it – a pirate. His ghastly crews of cutthroats were menacing our ports, and he said they would do worse still if I could not be his bride. So mum and dad caved in without even asking my opinion. The wedding date was fixed, and invitations went out with a little ode by the court bard comparing me to the Nereids and saying that I topped them in the looks department. They even sent one of these little ditties to Poseidon the God of the Sea – well known for his stormy temper – and the proud father of the aforementioned Nereids. What a mistake that was! He didn’t just stir up the waves, he puked up a foul monster that came to ravage our coast. His priestess told my parents that the monster would not pull back until it had yours truly as a sacrificial breakfast. So now you know how I found myself in that rather nasty predicament chained to the rock. If that wasn’t irksome enough, there was the court painter up on the cliffs, recording the very first impression of Andromeda and the Sea Monster for mythology. I don’t know if I was more terrified, or more furious with my parents. I thought I would never see my seventeenth birthday.
But as I mentioned, the sea monster was dragging things out – I think he enjoyed the drama of it all. The crowds of spectators were going to get their money’s worth – but that was his big mistake.
I looked up to the sky to call out : “Oh Zeus, Lord of the Heavens, send me deliverance from this foul beast and these dumb parents of mine ! “ And who says that prayer has no power – because, out the clouds there appeared a strange bird. I saw right away that this was something out of the ordinary – he seemed more upright in the air than a normal feathered friend. I can’t say he swooped like an Eagle – at times it looked more like he was tossed by the winds – a real amateur flyer – but then he gained more control and started to streak towards us. I could see now that this creature of the air was equipped with a shield, a sword, and a helmet. His wings were on his feet – which accounted for his strange style of flying. He was encumbered by a sort of rucksack on his back. I held my breath. I was surely saved. Here was a god or a hero and he was going to use his sword to slice up that foul serpent of the sea. But oh – what an idiot ! Instead of coming to save me, he plonked himself down on the ground right by my parents. I learned later that he was demanding my hand in marriage in return for rescuing me. My father, as was his annoying way, was bargaining with him for a better deal. I took a deep breath and called out:
“Come on ! If you are going to save me, get on with it ! “
At which point, the winged hero finally got the idea that time was of the essence. He did his thing, and fluttered above the beast with his sword, swiping this way and that, until he finally struck home and kebabed it through the neck. That night we ate fried sea serpent on beach.
So I learned the name of my hero. He called himself Perseus, son of Zeus. I must admit, he was an improvement on my previous fiance. At least he was young and handsome, even if he was an incompetent flyer, and he liked the sound of his own voice a bit too much. He sat talking to my father about the politics of heaven and earth, and all his divine relatives, and all his heroic deeds and adventures. One thing I noticed – he never seemed to leave his rucksack, which was made out of goatskin, far from his sight. When he put it down on the beach, all the seaweed immediately turned to coral. Whatever was inside it had some pretty powerful magic.
When eventually he sat down next to me I asked :
“So what brought you here Perseus?”
“The winds” he said, “Or perhaps fate. My life has always been like that. When I was a baby, my father put me in a crate with my mother and dropped us into the Aegean Sea.”
“Aren’t parents wonderful?” I commented.
“Well he had his reasons. An oracle told him that I was fated to kill him,” he explained. “For five days my mother and I were the playthings of the winds, tossed by the waves this way and that. Eventually we washed up with the flotsam and jetsam on the shore of the island of Seriphos where were discovered by a fisherman. He brought us to King Polydectes who took us into his palace and looked after us. The only problem was, see, he fancies my mother, the beautiful Danae, the bride of Zeus. He came to her as a shower of golden rain.”
“As Zeus does,” I said.
“As time went by, and I grew older, Polydectes resented me more and more. He thought that I was keeping my mother from him. So when it was his birthday, he came up with a wheeze to get me out of the way. I asked him what he wanted as a present – and he replied, “The head of the Gorgon Medusa.”
“The head of who?”
“Medusa – she was once a beautiful woman, but she too found a way to anger the gods by violating the temple of Athena. The vengeful goddess gave Medusa the worst hair day in all history. She made her head full of snakes – hissing, spitting and writhing. She is so terrifying to behold that any man who looks at her immediately turns into stone. She is quite literally petrifying.”
“And women?” I asked.
“I do not know. I believe it is men who fear the head of Medusa most.”
“Well that’s quite a quest,” I said. “I wish you luck with it.” I thought perhaps, that when he next he flew off, he would never come back. It was a pity, because as I said, he was a nice looking chap. He had muscles alright. But we did not have time to chat more because who should turn up then, but the most annoying man in my life – and that’s saying something – Uncle Phineus, the pirate who thought he had a right to marry his own niece. Well now I had a protector who would show him. There was only one problem. My uncle had a whole army with him.
When my uncle and would-be husband saw Perseus sitting cosily close up to me, his eyes blazed with fury. He raised his spear ready to throw it at my boy . That wasn’t nice. My father stood up and called out :
“Brother, what are you doing? Perseus has won the right to marry my daughter. Do not blame him for losing your bride. It was Poseidon who meant to take her away from all of us by sending his sea serpent to devour her. “
But Phineus had a hot temper and would hear none of it. He threw his spear and missed. Perseus would have returned it with interest – but my uncle sought divine protection by diving behind the altar of Bacchus. Then there broke out an almighty brawl between Phineus’s army of pirates and my father’s body guards. Perseus was active too, cutting down pirates right and left with his sword, but it was clear that our side of the family was heavily outnumbered. When things were looking bad for us, Perseus picked up his goatskin sack. I thought “Uh, oh, he’s off, preparing to make his getaway,” but now I know that Perseus is not one to flee from a fight. He called out: “Our side, all look away – Now” and turning his own head away, he reached inside the bag and pulled out the head of Medusa. I could look at it because I am a girl, and we women are not so easily petrified by revolting stuff as men are. It was truly hideous – more so than that sea monster. It was the combination of a pale but beautiful face and those foul snakes – they made my blood run cold, but I did not turn to stone. The pirates of Phineus however, all instantly became statues. My Uncle had managed to look away at the last moment, and was shielding his eyes with his sleeve. Now he started to plead:
“Perseus. You are the rightful husband of Andromeda. I acknowledge that I was wrong to attack you. Show mercy. Spare me.” But my fiance called back:
“You shall not suffer the sword. I will cause you to be an enduring monument through the ages, and you will always be seen in my father-in-law’s palace.”
And he walked over to where Phineus was hiding and dangled the snakes over his face – and he too turned into a statue. A well deserved fate, I say.
By now I realised that Perseus had already completed his mission to cut off the gorgon’s head. He told me how Athena had given him the equipment he needed for the deed. She provided him with the shiny shield, and told him to look only at Medusa’s reflection, not at her directly. She gave him too the divine sword with which to cut off her horrid head. And Hermes, the messenger of the gods, provided him with the winged sandals and a cap of invisibility. It was a pity he didn’t give him a flying lesson too while he was about it.
The main problem was that Perseus did not know where on earth to find the Gorgon ladies and the Medusa. First off he flew to the lands of the snowy North, where days are short and the skies are dirty. There, in a damp and chilly cave, he found the three gray sisters who share one eye between them. They were relatives of Medusa, and surely knew where she lurked, but they were loath to betray their kith and kin. Perseus was quick and cunning, and as they passed the eye between them, sister to sister, he slipped in his hand and took it off them. Now the gray sisters were beside themselves :
“Return our eye you Greek thief !” they raged.
“Ah-ah, not until you tell me what I want to know..” he declared. And eventually the gray-ones had no choice but to give him directions to the land of the Gorgons, way to the south, where Medusa could be found.
And so armed with this knowledge, Perseus took flight once again. He flew down south to the lands that are hot and sandy, and discovered the temple of the serpent-headed Gorgon. He could hear the hissing of her snakes as her head lay on a grassy knoll. Stepping backwards, guided only by the reflection of his shield, he crept up on tiptoe holding his divine sword. It was with a swift swish that he cut off her head and bagged it in the goatskin nappsack that was on loan from Hermes, and was through which snakes could not bite.
So that was how Perseus collected the snaky head of Medusa. He flew off for home, his wings beating the gentle air. As he passed over Libya, the Gorgon’s blood dripped from his bag and landed on the desert sand. Ever since then it has been a place beset by snakes. As he reached the coast the winds began to blow – he was at their mercy – carried this way and that – just as he had been as a baby on the waves of the sea. A current of air lifted him high into the sky and tossed him down onto the edge of the world – the place where the giant Atlas lives. Now Atlas jealously guarded his orchard, the garden of the Hesperides, where golden apples grew on the trees. The suspicious strongman suspected that the son of Zeus had come to steal his precious fruit. Giant as he was, he thought that no puny man could defeat him – how could he? and he came to thump Perseus and drive him down into the Underworld. But he did not reckon on the hero’s secret weapon. Perseus pulled the beastly snakehead out his goatskin nappsack. Medusa’s face petrified Atlas. His hair and beard became trees. His hulking body turned into the rock and earth of a mountain. His head was its summit. He grew into an immense height and the whole sky with its many stars rested on him. And now, and forevermore, it is the body that was once Atlas that hold up the top of the world.
The storm had settled , and Perseus could resume his journey – but he was so blown off course that he did not know where he was. That is how he found himself drifting over the rock where I was chained. It was chance that brought him to me. But no, nothing is chance. The gods meant it to be. It was fate.
The day after the fight with the pirates, I was married to Perseus. And I must say I was content. We were, after all, a handsome couple, matched in beauty, but not in brains. I of course was ten time as smart as he was. A few weeks of near perfection passed and then, one morning, he said to me:
“My darling Andromeda. It is high time you met my mother.”
Now girls, just so you know, this is something that all men get round to saying sooner or later. It’s just something you have to go through.
“But she lives far across the sea,” I protested, “How are we going to get to her place?”
“Fly,” he said.
“Fly? If you think I’m hitching a lift on your back while you flutter around on those winged sandals, you’ve got another thing coming. No thank you. I’m a ground-loving girl. “
Perseus was quite naturally put out by this speech – but I mean- did he really think I was going to entrust myself to what he called “the winds of fate?” No way. But a few days later he came back with a more acceptable idea. When he killed Medusa, apparently a winged horse called Pegasus had hopped out of her neck. He had done a bit of private praying to his half-sister Athena, and she told Pegasus to hop it over the seas, and to pick us up and carry us back to his home. And yes, that was the way to fly ! What a journey ! – the two of us on that magnificent, brilliant white horse with a proper wing span that could beat the air and carry us smoothly above all the turbulence. The sea below us, the sky above – all stretched out and curved at the edges – just like it was there for us and only us. I could see ships and dolphins and shimmering waves feathered with white surf. Golden sunset. Silvery moon. Rosy dawn – it was was just like we were gods !
When we reached the Island of Seriphos, we went straight to the palace to meet the king.
“Welcome back Percy” he said patronisingly – I for one don’t like that nickname and always call him Perseus. “I see you’ve got yourself a fine horse and a pretty bride. But what have you brought me? The Gorgon’s head proved too much for you eh ? though you be son of Zeus.”
“Behold,” said Perseus, extracting the hideous thing from his bag. And the King beheld his birthday gift, the head of Medusa, and he turned to stone.
And next I met my husband’s mother, Danae. He had not exaggerated. She was indeed a true beauty and a fitting bride for Zeus. Perseus then had to see another important woman in his life – his half-sister Athena. He returned the shield and the sword to her. He also gave her the Medusa’s head, which she affixed to her shield, so that all her enemies would be petrified. Hermes took back his winged sandals – good riddance to them I say – and his goatskin bag.
But Perseus was still my hero. Beautiful, strong, a bit thick. And that is not quite the end of the story. A few years later, he took part in some athletic games. It was, after all, something he was good at. He was about to win the Javelin contest, throwing his spear to its target well and true. But at that moment and old man, in a bit of a daze, stepped into its path. He was killed instantly. And so the life of Perseus was again determined by fate. He had killed his father, King Arcisius, who all those years before had set him and his mother adrift in a crate on the seas.
And what became of me? Well I was a mortal, and so after many years, it was my fate to die. But as I was the wife of a hero and a demigod, Zeus decided to honour me. He turned me into a constellation called, naturally enough, Andromeda. My mother, my father, the winged horse Pegasus, and that beastly sea monster are all up here with me. Perseus is a bit further away. What’s it like being a constellation? Will life up here is pretty glitzy, as you can imagine. We have everything we need to sparkle and shine and look beautiful. We have wonderful views of the planets and the infinite majesty of space. But oh yes, I do miss the warmth of human blood in my veins, and the embrace of my hero, Perseus.
And that was the story of Perseus and Andromeda, from Greek mythology. Bertie’s asked me to tell you, in case you don’t know, that the word “petrified” can mean both terrified and ‘turned to stone”. It comes from the Greek word “petros” meaning rock. The name Peter also means “rock” and in the Bible Jesus calls Peter “the rock” of the church. So now you know !