Ladies of Legend: Danae, Andromeda and Medusa

The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Bulfinch’s Mythology (Gramercy Books, 2003) by Thomas Bulfinch, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip,,,

Trigger warning: references to incest

Danae is the daughter of Acrisius, with either Aganippe (not the horse Aganippe, or the nymph, a different one) or Eurydice (not the Eurydice who married Orpheus, a different one), depending on which version you read, and the granddaughter of Aglaia and King Abas of Argolis. This is important, because Abas and Aglaia had twin sons, Acrisius and Proetus, and when the time came to settle the succession, it was decided that they should take turns at ruling the kingdom. It’s a lovely idea that did not work at all. Proetus seduced his niece (the account is unclear on whether or not the encounter was consensual); outraged, Acrisius chased him out of the kingdom and Proetus took refuge in Lycia, where he married himself a princess and acquired an army to retake the throne. The ensuing war was as much of a standoff as everything else in the twins’ lives to date. They eventually split the kingdom into two, with Acrisius now ruling Argolis.

As Danae is his only child, Acrisius goes to an oracle to ask whether he will ever have male heirs and gets much more of an answer than he bargained for. Not only is he assured that he’ll never have sons, his future grandson is apparently destined to murder him. Acrisius does not respond well to the news. He locks up Danae in a prison of brass to prevent her ever falling pregnant, but does not factor in the epic libido of Zeus, leader of the Greek pantheon, god of lightning and wreaker of general emotional havoc. Zeus manifests in the prison as a shower of gold, has biologically confusing sex with Danae, and she falls pregnant. He promptly vanishes from her life for keeps. She gives birth to a son, naming him Perseus.

According to Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, it take Acrisius FOUR YEARS to find out Danae has had a baby, and what that says about her isolation is terrifying to consider. He does not believe her story of a divine encounter, suspecting instead that his brother may have reached her somehow – and he is certain that if he wants to live, her son has to die. To perform such an act himself, however, would bring down the wrath of the Furies, goddesses who take a very dim view of familial homicide. So he settles for locking Danae and Perseus in a wooden chest and throwing them into sea to drown, suffocate or starve – whichever happens first. Somehow this does not count as murder?

Only they do not die. The chest floats past the island of Seriphos and is caught by Dictys, a fisherman, who opens the chest and releases its traumatised occupants. He takes them to the court of his brother, King Polydectes, who allows them to live with him.

This offer does not, it should be noted, come from the kindness of his heart. He wants to marry Danae, but she is resolutely uninterested and manages to keep him at bay for years, despite her immensely precarious position. As time passes, Polydectes becomes more forceful – but Perseus has grown up into a strong young man and he is very protective of his mother. Once again, a king looks at Danae’s son and decides to get him out of the way.

Polydectes is at least capable of subtlety. He pretends to give up on courting Danae and announces his intention to marry Princess Hippodameia, daughter of Pelops. As a gift for his new love, he requires each of his friends to give him a horse, but Perseus has nothing of his own to offer. He promises to instead bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa, and Polydectes holds him to his word.

And who exactly is Medusa, that her severed head should be so prized? Once again, it depends on the story you read. There are three Gorgons. Euryale and Stheno are immortal; Medusa is not. In one version they are three sisters, the children of the sea goddess Ceto and sea god Phorcys. Their siblings are the dragon Ladon, the terrifying half-serpent Echidne and three more sisters known as the Graeae – Deino, whose name means ‘dread’, Enyo, meaning ‘horror’ and Pemphredo, meaning ‘alarm’ – who would later become the Gorgons’ guardians. Euryale, Stheno and Medusa were once very beautiful, until Medusa slept with Poseidon (the big name god of the sea, as opposed to all the other ones) in one of his niece Athene’s temples. Athene lost her temper. Poseidon was just fine, but Medusa and her sisters were transformed into monstrous creatures with huge teeth, bronze claws and serpents for hair. For a goddess who supposedly represents justice, Athene certainly lets her temper get the better of her.

Another version has it that Medusa was originally a mortal woman, punished by Athene for the same offence and adopted by the other Gorgons, who come by their snake hair naturally. Medusa retains her beauty but is condemned to loneliness: if any man meets her eyes, he will turn to stone. She is, however, worshipped as the Serpent Goddess by the Amazons of Libya. One story even has her lead them in battle. Which makes me curious, what would happen if she looked at a woman? Could this be a beautiful lesbian love story?

If only. Unfortunately she has been roped into playing the villain for a heteronormative hero quest orchestrated by a creepy king and an angry goddess. Athene holds one hell of a grudge. She and the messenger god Hermes go to advise Perseus on his quest, beginning with a trip to the city of Deicterion to look at a picture of the Gorgons and identify which sister he plans to kill. Next Athene gives him a mirror-bright shield, a helmet that confers invisibility on the wearer (once the property of her other uncle Hades) and a strong bag suitable for containing a severed head. Hermes gives Perseus an adamantine sickle for the actual beheading and a pair of shoes like his own, with wings that will allow him to fly wherever he wishes. Directed to the kingdom of Night, Perseus goes to seek out the Graeae.

The Graeae, or Graiae, are the only ones who know where their sisters live. They also know the location of the Stygian Nymphs, who give Perseus his bag and sandals in an alternate story. The Graeae are grey-haired, sharing between them a single eye and a single tooth, over which they quarrel fiercely. Perseus exploits the conflict by seizing control of both and bargaining them back to their rightful owners in exchange for the betrayal of the Gorgons. The Graeae make the trade. What Perseus does next is up for debate: in one version, he carries his vile behaviour to the limit, throwing the eye and tooth in a lake, but obviously I prefer the story in which he keeps some semblance of decency and leaves the Graeae unharmed.

Perseus flies to the remote sanctuary of the Gorgons, in the land of the Hyperboreans. He finds the sisters asleep, surrounded by the weathered statues of men and animals unlucky enough to meet Medusa’s cursed eyes. Keeping his gaze carefully fixed on Athene’s reflective shield, Perseus picks his way to Medusa and beheads her while she sleeps. In the moment of her death, her long-ago union with Poseidon produces a delayed childbirth – the magical horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor arise full-grown from her corpse. Woken by the disturbance, Stheno and Euryale seek furiously for their sister’s murderer, but Perseus is concealed by the helmet and given unnatural speed by his winged shoes. He escapes with Medusa’s bloody head in his bag.

When he grows weary, he tries to rest in north-western Africa but is thrown back into the sky by the Titan Atlas, who bears the world on his shoulders and was once warned that he would be robbed by a son of Zeus. Perseus retaliates by exposing the head of Medusa. Atlas is turned to a stone mountain range, which frankly, given his occupation, might be doing him a favour.

Perseus flies on across the African continent. Over Ethiopia, he sees a young woman on a rock by the sea, naked apart from incongruously grand jewellery and struggling frantically against the chains that hold her in place. This is Andromeda, the daughter of King Cepheus of Ethiopia and his queen Cassiopeia. The queen is a very beautiful woman, but not a prudent one. She claimed aloud that she and her daughter were lovelier than the Nereids, who complained of the insult to Poseidon; he reacted by sending a flood to Cepheus’s kingdom, followed by a ravenous sea-monster just to make sure everyone got the point. The Oracle of Ammon – why do people KEEP CONSULTING ORACLES, it only ever makes things worse – told Cepheus that the only way to save his people was to sacrifice his daughter to the monster, so that was what he did.

Her beauty now saves her; an admiring Perseus kills the monster and frees Andromeda from her chains. He plans to marry her and take her home with him. Given that her father just left her to die and she was previously betrothed to her uncle (in another version, to the king Agenor), she has every reason to like this idea. Her parents are less pleased. They consent to a quick wedding, but during the celebrations her thwarted suitor brings armed men to the table.

In Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Cassiopeia and Cepheus are all for a change in groom. Perseus fights until the odds are too badly against him, then draws out Medusa’s head as a last resort. Everyone is at once transformed into stone, including Andromeda’s parents. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies takes a more generous view, suggesting Cassiopeia and Cepheus probably supported their daughter’s choice in husband and were exempt from the transfiguration.

Either way, the lovers are quick to leave Ethiopia. Returning to Seriphos, Perseus arrives to find Danae in desperate straits. With Polydectes no longer willing to accept no as an answer, she and her original rescuer Dictys have taken refuge in a temple. Perseus goes straight to the palace to display his promised gift to the king; Polydectes and his entire court are all turned to stone.

Perseus willingly gives up the weapon after that. It’s quite risky to have around, after all. Athene, having flayed Medusa’s corpse and turned the skin into a cloak, inflicts a last indignity on her dead enemy and takes the head for herself, to carry into battle.

Perseus also gives back the helmet and sandals to his divine supporters. He helps Dictys take the throne of Seriphos and then sets sail for his mother’s homeland of Argos, where Acrisius still holds the throne. Andromeda and Danae both accompany him. Suspecting that Perseus and Danae are plotting revenge, Acrisius flees to Larissa. Perseus just wants to forgive past murder attempts and move on, but where gods and oracles are concerned, nothing is so simple. At this time King Teutamides is holding an athletics competition as part of his father’s funeral and Perseus competes; during the discus-throwing, a fateful wind (let’s face it, probably guided by the spiteful gods) turns Perseus’s throw aside and the discus hits his grandfather in the foot. The shock kills Acrisius, fulfilling the prophecy he ruined his life – and the life of his daughter – to avoid.

Oracles suck. Pass it on.

Acrisius is buried in the temple of Athene. Perseus is unwilling to rule in Argos, so offers to trade territories with his great-uncle’s successor, Megapenthes. It’s unconventional, but Megapenthes agrees and Perseus becomes king of Tiryns, with Danae as his queen. They both live to a great age in what appears to have been a happy and faithful marriage. They had a large family of seven sons – Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon and Cynurus, according to Wikipedia, and Perseides, Alcaeus, Perses, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus and Electryon according to – and two daughters, Autochthe and Gorgophone. After her death, Andromeda was made into a constellation by the gods, along with her husband and mother.

Interestingly, Gorgophone made a name for herself by breaking tradition and remarrying after her husband Perieres died, instead of committing suicide, as was the tradition of the time. It seems that her mother and grandmother had too much experience with sacrifice to encourage it in her.

I like to think Danae and Andromeda got along very well. The sad thing is, I think they would have understood Medusa too. But they were never given the chance.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!


Ladies of Legend: Circe and Medea

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Circe is a sorceress from ancient Greek myth, the daughter of the sun god Helios and either his wife, the Oceanid Perse, or the goddess of dark magic, Hecate, depending on which version you believe. Given her life choices, I’m betting on Hecate.

 Circe’s name means ‘falcon’ and she was very beautiful, but with a destructive streak a mile long and a disastrous love life. When an Italian prince called Picus rebuffed her, she turned him into a woodpecker; when the sea god Glaucus preferred her half-sister Scylla to herself, Circe turned the poor girl into a terrifying sea-monster with twelve dog legs and six fanged heads. Though that particular curse is also attributed to the sea-nymph Amphitrite, it’s well within Circe’s abilities.

Another, less vicious example of her skills is the invention of a prophylactic draught using magical roots, allowing the drinker to be unaffected by disease. An Athenian princess called Procris made use of it to have a fling with Minos of Crete, since his wife Pasiphaë had cursed his sperm to become snakes, scorpions and millipedes when he took any lover but herself. The draught worked beautifully. Procris later died a violent yet completely unconnected death, because myths.

Circe ruled Aeaea, Island of the Dawn, a place rich with alder trees and oaks. Her palace at the centre was encircled by wolves and lions, but not for protection – the animals actually welcomed guests, because they were once humans themselves before she transformed them with her magic. Non-consensual transfiguration was one of Circe’s favourite hobbies, the other main ones being working at her loom and singing.

Her life intersected with that of Odysseus, the notorious adventuring king, when he came across her island after the fall of Troy. He sent a group of men to scout the land and Circe turned on the charm for them, spreading out a feast of cheese, barley, honey and wine. Only one man, Eurylochus, lingered outside, distrusting her motives. Sure enough, as soon as his friends started eating, Circe hit them with a wand and turned them all into pigs.

Odysseus was, naturally, livid. On his way to confront Circe he was intercepted by the messenger god Hermes and given a white flower called moly that would make him resistant to Circe’s magic. When her wand bounced uselessly off his shoulder, he drew his sword but she broke into dramatic tears and offered him a life of luxury on her island (plus a place in her bed) if he would let her live. Odysseus, I should point out, was en route at the time to his home of Ithaca, where his beautiful and very competent wife Penelope was patiently awaiting his return. Being a terrible husband, he agreed to Circe’s offer on the condition that she restored his men and did not plot against him again. They lived amicably enough for some time – long enough for her to bear three sons, Agrius, Latinus and Telegonus.

Eventually, however, Odysseus wanted to return home. Either she was already tiring of him too or had matured in her attitude toward relationships since the woodpecker incident, because Circe took the break-up exceptionally well. She sent him to see the seer Teiresias in Persephone’s Grove first, to predict what would await him in Ithaca – and yes, I mean that Persephone, this is the land of the dead – not only offering very precise advice on how to get there and what to do when he did, but also a sacrifical ram and ewe, and a favourable breeze to carry his ship. Odysseus was counselled by numerous spectres in the Grove, including his own dead mother Anticleia (who interestingly did not mention her daughter-in-law’s suitor infestation, possibly aware of how badly her hypocritical son would take that information).

Afterwards he returned to Aeaea for more of Circe’s excellent advice. Knowing his journey would take him past the Sirens, whose singing was even more perilous to hear than Circe’s own, she suggested the sailors plug their ears with beeswax and if Odysseus absolutely had to listen – she knew him pretty well by that point – she advised he be tied securely to the mast so he couldn’t do anything reckless. He eventually reunited with Penelope and his son Telemachus in Ithaca, but in Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, even this homecoming is not a happy ending, because Circe’s youngest boy Telegonus later mistakenly launched an attack on Ithaca, killed his father and married poor Penelope. In the same version of the story, Telemachus goes on to marry Circe. EW.

Circe was not Helios’s only child. Pasiphaë of Crete was actually her sister. The sun god also had a son called Aeetes, the king of Colchis, who in turn had a daughter called Medea. There is an argument to be made that much of what happened in Medea’s life was the result of divine argument. The very powerful goddess Hera developed a deep grudge against King Pelias when he had a woman killed in Hera’s temple, and recruited Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to her cause; Medea was their weapon of choice. I think we can credit the princess with some agency, however. She’s too ingeniously murderous to be anyone’s pawn.

And for another thing, Pelias was the kind of person to make enemies everywhere. Dethroning his half-brother, he claimed the throne of Iolcus and tried to rid himself of his nephew Jason too, promising to relinquish the throne if Jason brought home the legendary Golden Fleece. Jason pulled together an ancient Greek version of the Avengers, including big names of the day such as Orpheus and Heracles. They set off on a ship called the Argo to fetch the Fleece, encountering characters along the way such as the genocidal Queen Hypsipyle of Lemnos (with whom Jason had a lengthy affair) and King Amycus, who challenged any male visitor to a boxing match to the death. Though they lost a few friends on the way, the Argonauts eventually reached the palace of Aeetes.

The king was not at all inclined to give up the Fleece. Jason could only take the treasure if he first completed three tasks: matching Aeetes’ fire-breathing bulls in plowing a field, taking the Fleece away from its guardian serpent and lastly, sowing a dragon’s teeth and defeating the warriors that grow from them. Jason did not have a hope. Medea, however, was a sorceress like her aunts and had fallen head over heels for Jason. To survive the bulls, she gave him a magical ointment that protected his skin from their heat. For the next task, she met him at midnight in a grove sacred to Ares, the god of war, where Jason swore to marry her, be faithful to her and take her away to Greece in exchange for the Fleece. Her engagement gift to him was to sing the fearsome guardian serpent to sleep, allowing Jason to claim his prize.

Remember how Circe was reputed to be Hecate’s daughter? Medea was Hecate’s priestess. In Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies, the goddess of dark magic manifested triplefold in the tradition of maiden, mother and crone: Persephone, goddess of spring and queen of the Underworld, being the maiden, the harvest goddess Demeter as the mother, and Hecate herself as the crone. The concept of this triptych certainly adds an interesting depth to Circe’s familiarity with Persephone’s Grove.

Jason managed to defeat the warriors of the dragon’s teeth with his own trickery and ruthlessness. With Medea aboard, the Argo ses sail for home, pursued by the warships of Colchis. Medea was prepared. According to one version of the story, the pursuit was led by her half-brother Apsyrtus, who tried to make a deal with Jason to keep the Fleece if he left Medea behind, and was killed by the lovers instead. In an uglier version, Apsyrtus was a baby snatched from his cradle by the fleeing Medea, who butchered him and threw the pieces into the sea so that her father would leave off the chase to collect the remains of his son.

The Greek gods might be capricious and brutal, but the only one willing to forgive such an act was Hecate; all the others turned against Jason and Medea after that. Medea took her lover to Aeaea for a ritual cleansing from her rather unwilling aunt. Though Circe wouldn’t allow them in her house, she performed the purification.

The return journey to Ioclus was just as demanding and eventful as the way to Colchis, and Medea’s magic proved a decided asset. Upon arriving home, Jason found his father Aeson deathly ill and Medea once again showed her skills by ordering the old man dismembered and boiling him…back to life…in her magic cauldron. Improbable as this sounds, it worked. Even his youth wasrestored. Hoping to receive a similar treatment, Pelias submitted to the same ritual, but she did not perform the same magic and he was left very dead. That she had his daughters do the dismembering is a particularly nasty touch.

As a result, she and Jason were both exiled to Corinth by Pelias’s son Acastus. For a decade their love remained strong and Jason was faithful, as he promised. Then, unfortunately, he got it into his head to marry Princess Glauce of Corinth instead, putting aside Medea by claiming their marriage was invalid. All Medea’s passionate arguments meant nothing to him. So, being Medea, she sent Glauce a poisoned dress that burned the bride, her father and their entire castle to the ground. She then stabbed her own sons to death. Devastated, Jason either committed suicide, or – in one even more morbid version – lingered on as a broken and forsaken man until a piece of his own mighty and now decaying ship fell on his head, killing him. Talk about heavy-handed metaphors.

And still Hecate stood by her priestess. Medea escaped the scene of carnage in a chariot pulled by dragons and went to Athens, where she married King Aegeus and had a son named Medus with him. Unfortunately for her, Aegeus already had an heir, though he didn’t know it until Theseus – he of the Minotaur episode – turned on the doorstep. Medea tried to have Theseus killed, but his influence won the day and Medea was exiled with her son. Aegeus, surprisingly, survived the break up. Well, Medea didn’t kill him, anyway. Theseus managed to bungle up that one all by himself.

Having sort of run out of banishment locations, Medea went home to Colchis. In her absence Aeetes had been dethroned by his brother Perses, whom Medea promptly murdered so her father could take back the kingdom. Medus went on to be a king as well. As for Medea, she claimed a place called Aria and called everyone ‘Medes’ in her own honour. There is no reference to her death in these stories.

I have a particular aversion to the phrase ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’. It makes it sound like female anger is a baseless hysteria, almost a joke. Revenge is unisex. Circe knows precisely how to get what she wants. Medea is a woman with no priority higher than her own survival; she’d wade through any amount of blood to get where she wanted to be. To quote Moriarty from the TV show Elementary, “As if men had a monopoly on murder.”

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!