I am going to watch the Perseid meteor shower tonight. They are very fast moving meteors and they radiate from the constellation Perseus, and Perseus happens to be one of my beloved Greek heroes.
The birth of Perseus appears to have a lot to do with the miraculous meteor shower. I always find it fascinating when myth and the actual physical phenomena align like this. Perseus was mothered by Danae, a daughter of King Akrisios who ruled over the city of Argos. He had no son and wanted one badly, so he sought the oracle’s advice. The priestess at Delphi said to him that he would have a grandson, who would kill him. To prevent that Akrisios decided to lock his daughter in an underground chamber constructed of bronze. There was a small opening in the ceiling through which one night a golden rain, a shower of shimmering gold descended right onto Danae. It was Zeus (Roman Jupiter) who made Danae pregnant that night. A more magical conception is hardly imaginable.
Léon-François Comerre, Danae
Why was the chamber made of bronze? There are never accidental images in myths, all have significance. Bronze is an alloy of tin and copper. In alchemy, tin was related to the planet Jupiter while copper to the planet Venus. Bronze is the favoured metal of bell makers. The sound of the bell is a symbol of creative power. The bell is a sacred object suspended between heaven and earth, and its role is to deliver the message from above to below. The clapper inside the bell is its ‘tongue’ – used to communicate the message of heaven to the earth. In Tibetan Buddhism the sound of the bell is supposed to drive away evil spirits while the sound of the bell is the voice of Buddha teaching dharma.
The mythical story of Perseus makes a very interesting reading. His most famous feat was cutting off the monster Medusa’s head. He was assisted by Hermes in his quest. He led him to the three old crones called the Graiai, who had only one eye among them and only one tooth. He stole their eye and tooth and did not give it back until they revealed where Medusa (the serpent-haired Gorgon) was hiding. Other attributes of Perseus that he acquired with the help of Hermes were the winged sandals, an invisibility cap, a adamantine sickle, and a sack for holding bulky objects. He was not able to kill Medusa directly. Anyone who looked at the monster immediately turned to stone, so Perseus had to devise a way to kill her without looking at her and he managed it with the help of Athena, who presented him with a polished shield of bronze (!), which reflected the image of Medusa and was safe to look at.
In a brilliant essay called Lightness an Italian writer Italo Calvino attempts to retell the myth of Perseus in a new, fresh way. He writes:
To cut off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone, Perseus supports himself on the very lightest of things, the winds and the clouds, and fixes his gaze upon what can be revealed only by indirect vision, an image caught in a mirror. I am immediately tempted to see this myth as an allegory on the poet’s relationship to the world, a lesson in the method to follow when writing. But I know that any interpretation impoverishes the myth and suffocates it. With myths, one should not be in a hurry. It is better to let them settle into the memory, to stop and dwell on every detail, to reflect on them without losing touch with their language of images. The lesson we can learn from a myth lies in the literal narrative, not in what we add to it from the outside.
Caput Algol; a fixed star in the constellation Perseus at 26 degrees Taurus
The relationship between Perseus and the Gorgon is a complex one and does not end with the beheading of the monster. Medusa’s blood gives birth to a winged horse, Pegasus—the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite. With one blow of his hoof on Mount Helicon, Pegasus makes a spring gush forth, where the Muses drink.
Pegasus, a winged horse, the patron of poetry was born out of Medusa’s blood. Art cannot be just light and airy – it is deeply rooted in the sensual world of matter and the body. Liz Greene calls the winged horse the bridge between opposites: “an earthy creature which has the power to ascend into the spiritual realm.” Also, who fights demons if not poets?
Peter Paul Rubens, Perseus and Andromeda (detail Pegasus) (source: http://www.mythindex.com/greek-mythology/P/Pegasus.html)
The whole mythological story of Perseus seems to weave together the alchemical marriage of the active and the passive principles: the feminine and the masculine, light and darkness, life and death, gentleness and violence, spirit and matter, fatedness and overcoming it with creating one’s destiny. I might retell the story of his love for Andromeda another time and how he fulfilled the Delphi prophesy and killed his grandfather. His life was full of passion with many dramatic twists and turns. His fate seems to have comprised two Zodiac signs: Gemini (his brilliant mind and airy lightness symbolized by the winged sandals, his cunningness) and Scorpio (heavy and dark themes, death, suffering and cruelty, slaying monsters), which happen to be opposites of respectively Sagittarius and Taurus. The sign Sagittarius is ruled by Jupiter, Taurus by Venus, which brings us back to Perseus’ parents. In an ingenious way the story of Perseus weaves together these four Zodiac signs. Even the four attributes that I mentioned above appear to be linked to these four signs: the winged sandals to Gemini, the adamantine sickle to Sagittarius (the Buddhist diamond mind that slices through illusion), the invisibility clock with Scorpio and the sack for bulky objects with Taurus. This is at least my interpretation and I would be interested to hear from others if it makes sense at all.
I will be thinking of Perseus while looking at the Perseids tonight. Since ancient times shooting stars have been considered as gifts from the gods. They were symbolic of light and illumination coming from above. It is wondrous how they look like balls of light but are in fact stones. Light in the matter.
Source for the mythological content:
Richard P. Martin, Myths of the Ancient Greeks (I happen to love that book – the myths are told in a captivating manner, lots of dialogue and dynamic descriptions, they are accurate but there is no boring, scholarly baggage. I thoroughly recommend it.)