On a beautiful August evening, David and I took a walk around Mount Tabor before bed. The city lights were muting the sky with a pale tangerine glow and it wasn’t quite dark enough yet to view the Perseids, which everyone was there for. Couples were out strolling in hand-holding pairs, while giggling duets echoed from unseen places under the cover of trees. Still others lay swaddled in blankets on the grass looking up together—like campers whose tents had blown away and we walked among little private moments exposed. A young couple lay turtled on their backpacks in the middle of a paved loop of road. Car headlights approached, a disenchanting insult with blazing eyes from an alien world. We all had to move aside and allow the metal monster to pass settling back into the mood and the turtle couple crawled back to their spot.
I looked up to see where their view might be, to find the familiar shapes; Perseus and nearby Pegasus with Andromeda in between. Behind the shapes I saw the story suspended in the sky above. The myth behind the reason we friends and lovers were out here. Just returned from slaying the serpent-haired Gorgon Medusa, her severed head clutched in hand, his sickle/sword in the other, Perseus finds his would be wife, Andromeda naked and chained to the rocky shoreline, an offering set to be devoured by the sea monster, Cetus.
Perseus, meaning “from Zeus,” is a nod to his Olympian god of a father. Zeus had arrived as a golden shower through the bronze walls of a dungeon (or sometimes, through the window in a bronze tower), where Perseus’ mother, Danaë, was held captive by her father, the King Acrisius. This, so she would never bear a son who would, according to the orcale’s prophecy, murder him. But really, any man who would lock his child daughter in a subterranean prison or tower to prevent her from knowing any other man but him, could probably stand some killing, and if there’s anywhere you’ll be certain to find god, it’s jail.
Danaë, whose name means “parched,” is thirsty and becomes the eroticized, transformed virgin, visited by the heavenly, virile light of Zeus, sometimes pictured in Renaissance paintings as gold coins spilling from above into the waiting lap of Danaë. (And into the apron of her chambermaid) because, hey . . . Zeus’ reputation for erotic escapades that result in powerful offspring precedes him. And when the “father of Gods and men” is making it rain, the lowly maidens and nymphs apparently, lay in wait.
And where’s the dutiful wife in all of this? Well, Hera, Zeus’ lady is the queen of gods, derivative of the Aegean triple goddess aspect, and the goddess of women and sacred marriage. In her hand, she bears the pomegranate, the red seed and the blood, a representation of the dual-nature of the goddess and woman as both life-giving and death-dealing. She is beautiful and merciful, but jealous and vengeful (traits unfairly assigned to many light/dark yin/yang creation goddesses), but who could blame her with a philanderer like Zeus? Who would refuse the pomegranate of life and love—the edible, red gift, the many-vessled chambers of a woman’s heart?
In one of his conquests, Zeus disguises himself as the husband of a mortal woman, Alcmene and impregnates her with Heracles (stolen by the Romans and renamed Hercules with adventures and divine myths intact). Zeus even tricks Hera when he brings home his illegitimate, future heroic son, who she does not recognize, yet nurses him out of pity. Heracles suckled fiercely, drawing supernatural powers from the mother’s milk. In her pain, Hera pushes and unlatches him and the breast milk that sprays across the heavens leaves a pale streak across the sky, forming the Milky Way.
But back to the imprisoned woman at hand . . . Danaë is the Mother Mary of her era. Mother Mary, like Hera, is also depicted with a pomegranate in her hand, as was yet another desirable and imprisoned woman of the underworld, Persephone, daughter of Demeter and Zeus (my gods that guy gets around!) Danaë as the virgin mother seeks to protect her anointed son, but unlike the baby Moses, Perseus doesn’t have to go it alone in the wooden basket on the water. Danaë, and Perseus are instead thrust into a wooden (sometimes bronze) chest by Acrisius and cast out to sea together. They wash up on the island of Seriphos, rescued by a fisherman named Dictys (more Jesus allusions!) but they are noticed by the wicked brother and ruler of the island, Polydectes, a similar king who desired to possess, rape, and hold Danaë captive, like her father and not unlike like Zeus the “father of Gods and men”.
Perseus is raised to manhood to become both protective of his mother and mistrustful of Polydectes’ intentions, and with good reason. Because all the ever meanwhile, evil wannabe stepdad Polydectes pretends to seek marriage from another woman, when his true aim is Danaë, and requests the gift of horses from the attendees of a celebration banquet, knowing this is not within Perseus’ means. Like the little drummer boy, Perseus has no gift to bring, but boldly declares he will provide whatever is asked, prompting Polydectes to create a ruse and send him on a distracting, manly quest to bring the head of Medusa to him as a wedding present.
Being a proud and dutiful son, Perseus sets out and with the help of Hermes and Athena, is given a shield as protective mirror from the deadly gaze of Medusa, winged sandals, an adamantine sword, and the Cap of Invisibility. Perseus, under the guise of watchful gods, is successful but has to make a quick pit-stop over in Ethiopia, to rescue Andromeda, his future wife, before he returns to his mother and his island home.
Along the way, an unusual horse is born from the neck of Medusa as her blood mixed with the foam of the sea. Pegasus, a winged, alabaster horse is sired by Poseidon. Poseidon, is Zeus’ brother, the “God of the Sea,” “Earth-Shaker,” and the “tamer of horses.” This guy rivals as a terrible kinky counterpart, and no one escapes his lust—men, women, or beasts. His consorts and children are many, he begets this most famous flying horse, and another horse, Arion. He also rapes Caeneus but grants her wish to become a male warrior, so as to never be raped again. Who knew that Greeks dealt with transgenderism?! But back to the flying horse of another color . . .
Pegasus is tended to and raised by the Muses, and becomes the inspiration for artists, writers, and musicians. Pegasus, the “Fountain Horse” from the Greek pegai, or pege, a spring, and pegazo, ‘spring forth’ or ‘to gush forth.’ Pegasus’ hooves pawed and struck the Earth, causing springs to erupt, such as Hippocrene (‘horse spring’).
When Perseus returns to the island of Seriphos he discovers his mother, Danaë has fled to seek refuge in the temple of Athena because she has been abused and raped by Polydectes. Perseus storms into the assembled banquet of “noblemen” and presents his “gift,” the head of Medusa rendering Polydectes and his cronies into stone.
Perseus weds Andromeda, the “ruler of men,” preventing her from marrying her uncle Phineus she was promised to. Perseus again, shows the head of Medusa to Phineus when the rights to marriage battle gets fierce and he turns to stone (who IS this champion of womankind and slayer of abusive men?!) Perseus and Andromeda go on to have seven sons and two daughters and their children fall like brilliant stars between them.
All of this to tell you that this is what the Perseids are—falling children, a fountain of little stars, light from their father, carried through their mother, spilling over the back of a white winged horse.
This is what I see when I look up at the sky.
I looked back down at the young turtles.
“Are you under the winged horse?” I asked. Pointing up to the Great Square body of Pegasus, where the descending cascade of stars could be focused on. I see Markab, the bright star in the horse’s scapula. Markab which means “something to ride” “vehicle” or “saddle.”
“I don’t know,” the boy mumbled in the dark.
“We’re here to watch the meteors,” the girl added.
“Yes, the Perseids, that come from Perseus to Pegasus . . .” I trailed off from what would possibly be to them, a boring, scholarly Greek Mythology, misogyny, and astronomy lesson. You know, as I just laid out for you above.
“The Portland Mercury told us to be here,” David whispered mockingly to me in private. I snickered.
And he’s right. Our information about the world can be had from one good Google session, opening doors and links to the same topic of a meteor shower from scientific, astronomical, historical perspectives or boiled down to a story in the local hip paper, “holy crap, bright shiny things are falling from the sky and all the cool kids are going to be there in the dark to watch.” And that’s ok too. It’s a matter of perspective, and most of them are correct and lovely and tell us what we want to know. And there is a lot to know.
So, taking things in their simplest, most unadorned form is something I am relearning—to think and to see as a primitive, as an imaginative, child, as the uninitiated. A delicate unnaming of things, mere observation without any assessment or explanation.
But knowing the stories our ancestors told about the heavens and the nature of the cosmos makes our tired, modern lives and distractions so much richer. Reconnecting to our myths gives meaning. Continuing ancient tales offers the vital reminder of the rewarding quest to seek beauty and symbolism in the natural world around us. There may even be ways we can invent new mythologies, and rediscover or repurpose the everyday magic in our world. Even if it is divided and scattered sometimes by unnatural, man-made elements, there is always a way to incorporate the old with the new.
David and I gaze out on the water in the reservoir from the dark forest path and see not the random, bent and rippling refraction patterns of orange sodium vapor light. We lose our sight to the wild dancer made of metallic-amber flame, sparkling, leaping from out of the water. A line now, of dancers skittering along the waves and blinking out in the dark oil-slicks of the still and untouched shadows where the breath of wind cannot reach, only to reappear in a new shape, reborn in another part of the dance in another swell of moving water. Much like our heroes, buried in our histories, cast into the water, only to reemerge as new reflections. Our stories are the flickering stars, the reborn fires that stand out and forge new meanings and new ways of looking at our world.
There are epic battles fought by Titans, timeless stories of star-crossed lovers, mortals gifted with the tools to navigate the worlds above, below, and in between—stories layered with animals, creatures and demigods, both superhuman and subhuman. The historical, mythical-magical tales are all there floating in the known and the unknown just above us, like elements plucked down, woven into our storytelling, conveyed to us through our symbols and words in both the mundane and meaningful journeys we take. Sometimes, we see a little piece of nature and are reminded of the origins of the tales, old as the stars themselves.
The stories we make are just as important as the ones we retell. There is always something deeper coursing beneath why we wander up through the trees to an open hillside or out to a field where flowers dot the green meadow like fallen confetti, that we are compelled to look upon the ocean or the lake, and to wander as friends and lovers into the dark to look up at the sky without being told. To both get lost and to collect a piece of ourselves. And most importantly, to experience and tell the story with someone we love.