This is a chapter of Once Upon A Time: Children’s Stories From The Classics by Blanche Winder.
One fine morning, in those days of long and long ago, a beautiful baby, the son of a still more beautiful princess, was born in a little room at the top of a high tower built of brass.
That was a strange birthplace for a prince, you will think, but the fact is that the whole matter was a close secret. The poor princess had been shut up in the tower for months, just because her father, the king, did not want her to get married. He had been told that someday he would be killed by his own grandson, so he decided that the best way to avoid this would be not to allow his only daughter to be married so that then he would never have any grandchildren at all.
But the princess, whose name was Danae, was so lovely that one of the Immortals, catching sight of her one day, as he flew along the sky, fell in love with her. He dropped straight down onto the open roof of the tower, hidden in a shower of rain, of which the drops were like sparkling fragments of gold. He and the princess got married immediately, and the golden shower fell all around Danae in a most beautiful wedding veil.
Well, when the king heard that he had a grandson after all, he made up his mind to send the poor baby straight out of the kingdom without delay. He had a large barrel sawn in two, and he launched one of the halves on the waters of the bay, where it rocked up and down like a big washing tub. Then he ordered his guards to go to the brass tower, bring the princess and the baby to the beach, and send them floating out to sea in this strange round boat.
The guards did as they were ordered, and away sailed Danae and her little son. He was the very prettiest baby, with hair as golden as the gold drops of the shower, fair skin, and blue eyes. His mother had named him Perseus, and she held him very tightly in her arms as the barrel swung up and down in the waves.
They sailed on until the land they had left was quite out of sight, but in front of them suddenly rose the blue mountains of another country. The barrel was carried by the tide right up to the shore, and a big wave lifted it gently up and then washed it safely onto the sands of a low beach.
Walking along the beach was a fisherman, and you may imagine how surprised he was to have a princess and a baby washed up in a boat like a washing tub at his very feet. This fisherman was the king’s brother, and he thought that anybody so lovely as Danae he had never seen. He gave her dry clothes and nice food, and a room in his own cottage to live in. And there Perseus grew up, tall and vigorous, and more beautiful every day of his life.
When this fair prince had just reached manhood, the king of the country, who had often seen him and his mother, suddenly thought that he would like to marry the fair lady who lived in his brother’s cottage, and he begged Danae to become his queen. But Danae refused indignantly. The king pressed her to consent, and young Perseus, angry because he saw his mother was vexed, sprang to her side and declared that no one, king or courtier, should trouble Danae so long as he was there to protect her.
The king, however, turned to the prince mockingly.
“If you are so strong and brave,” said he, “do something to prove it! For my part, I will not let you dictate to me unless you come to me with Medusa’s head in your hand!”
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Perseus was exceedingly startled, for Medusa was one of three sisters called Gorgons, who lived far away in a country of stony hills and dreadful, dark valleys. All three sisters were terrible, with tusks like boars, hands of brass, and strong bat’s wings made of gold; and of the three, Medusa was much the worst. She had live snakes growing out of her head instead of hair; and one look into her strange, wicked face would instantly turn anybody into stone. How could it be possible for a human being to kill her and carry away her head?
But Perseus felt he could do anything for his mother’s sake. He drew himself up proudly and gave the king a brave answer.
“I will!” said he, with flashing eyes. Then he went away to think how to do it.
Down to the seashore, he wandered, to the very spot where, years ago, he had arrived, a little baby, in a barrel. It began to grow dark, and, all at once, there was a sound of wings and a lovely light, and he thought for a moment that two big stars had fallen out of the sky. Then he saw that here, by his side, stood Athena and Hermes, Athena very magnificent and stately in her shining armor, and Hermes smiling and fluttering the wings on his heels.
They told Perseus, then, that his own father was one of the Immortals, and that all the Shining People on the Mountain were very much interested in him. And they said they were going to help him to secure the Gorgon’s head. So Athena gave him her own magical shield, which was as bright as a looking glass, and explained to him that if he did not look at Medusa herself, but only at her reflection in the shield, she would not be able to turn him into stone. And Hermes took off the wings from his heels and tied them to the feet of Perseus by little golden straps. He also placed a dark helmet on the prince’s head, with cloudy plumes that were black as the skies of night. It belonged to Hades himself, and anyone who wore it became invisible at will.
Then they bade him good luck and goodbye and told him to fly away on Hermes’s wings to the land of the Grey Ladies, who would reveal to him where the terrible Gorgons lived. So, with the helmet on his head, the wings on his feet, and the shield buckled to his arm, Perseus sprang lightly onto the waves of the sea, and flew, like some bright, new, ocean bird, along the glimmering water, towards the land of the Grey Ladies. This country was all dark with mists, and Perseus felt sadly lonely when he alighted on a rough rock and ran along the cliffs in a cold, thick fog. Presently, through the fog, came a low muttering sound, as if some old women were talking to each other, none of whom had any teeth.
Then Perseus knew he must be near the Grey Ladies because he had been told that they had but one eye and one tooth among the three of them. In order to see anything, they had to borrow the eye from one another, and, in order to eat anything, they had to borrow the tooth! What a dreadful life for three old women to lead in the middle of a dense fog! But, as they were not at all nice and would never do a kind turn to anybody if they could help it, perhaps it served them right.
Well, Perseus put up his hand and felt his helmet, to make sure that it was on his head, and that he was therefore quite invisible, and, going up to where he heard the sound of talking, found himself face to face with the Grey Ladies, who were quarreling as to which of them should have the eye for the next half hour. One of them was holding it tightly in her skinny fingers, and both the others were groping about, trying to get hold of it, so Perseus need not have been so particular about his helmet after all. At last, the old lady who held the eye consented to part with it. She produced it from where she was hiding it under her cloak, and one of her sisters held out trembling fingers for it. Quick as thought, Perseus thrust his own young hand above the withered palm and grasped the eye securely. And the startled Grey Ladies heard a clear voice bidding them say where was the hiding place of Medusa, for, if they would not tell, they would never get back their precious eye.
In frightened tones, they instantly told the secret. Then Perseus gave them back their eye, and, before they could recover from their fear and amazement, he was off again on his magical wings, flying fast for the country of the Gorgons.
This land was even worse than the country of the Grey Ladies. There was nothing to be seen but long stretches of sand, with trees and flowers and animals, all turned into stone. Whenever Medusa went for a walk, she left ever so many strange shapes, cold and hard as rocks, behind her. Presently Perseus came upon a number of stone figures that had once been princes brave as himself; and there, in the middle of them, lay Medusa asleep, her golden wings folded over her eyes, and nothing moving near her except the horrible snakes that grew on her head instead of hair.
Perseus had kept his eyes, all this time, on the reflections in Athena’s shield, and now he saw Medusa mirrored in it, quite clearly. Holding it before his face, he stepped lightly and silently past the stone figures, lifted his sword, and struck off the Gorgon’s head with a single blow. Then, very quickly indeed, he thrust the head deep down into a bag that he carried, and set off home as fast as he could, lest the other two Gorgons should come after him and kill him.
And that was the way in which Perseus got possession of Medusa’s head. What he did with it on the way home, and how, by its means, he was able to marry the most beautiful princess in the world, you shall hear in another story.