The myth of Perseus and his quest to slay Medusa is one of the first myths I ever learned: it was featured in one of the Sullivan Programmed Reading workbooks that children who grew up in the early 1970s may remember (below is the cover of workbook number twenty):
Somewhere in those old reading books, the story of Perseus and his mother Danae and the wicked king who sends Perseus off to slay Medusa was retold with great verve and vigor, along with vivid illustrations -- including the scenes in which Perseus uses the severed head of Medusa to turn his enemies to stone! So, somewhere between first and third grade, I learned about the Greek myths from these memorable reading workbooks, and the story of Perseus and the Gorgons and his rescue of the maiden Andromeda.
Later, I also devoured the D'Aulaire's books of Greek Mythology and Norse Mythology, which I recommend for the personal library of every home, if at all possible.
The myth of Perseus is one of the easiest myths to illustrate the undeniable fact that the world's ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories are based on celestial metaphor. We happen to have a constellation named "Perseus" in the sky, which makes it very easy to identify which constellation might play the role of the hero in this famous ancient myth.
It is important to point out that just because the constellation is named Perseus and does indeed play the role of the hero of the myth of Perseus and the Gorgons, this does not mean that the constellation Perseus can only be associated with that specific hero in that specific story. Constellations "play multiple roles" in different myths -- and sometimes will even play multiple roles within the very same myth. The constellation Perseus is an extremely important constellation and plays the role of many different figures (including King Midas in other Greek myths, and the prophet Balaam in the book of Judges in the Old Testament of the canonical Bible, among many others from cultures around the world).
In the story of the rescue of the beautiful princess Andromeda by Perseus, which takes place after the hero has already slain Medusa with the help of the gods Athena and Hermes, it is fairly easy to find a constellation associated with Andromeda in the heavens as well: of course, she is associated with the constellation Andromeda, adjacent to Perseus in the night sky and featuring short lengths of "chain" upon either wrist (check out H. A. Rey's indispensable book The Stars: A New Way to See Them for more explanation and diagrams).
However, this well-known myth also provides us with an important illustration of another aspect of the world's amazing ancient Star Myths, and that is the fact that for some myths, the "action" of the story will sometimes "move through" other constellations as well (often nearby constellations, or constellations found along the zodiac band, or constellations arranged along the line of the Milky Way, in some important examples discussed in my Star Myths of the World series, such as with the figures of Moses in the Bible or of Dionysus in ancient Greece and Rome).
In the story of the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus, Andromeda has been chained to a lonely rock upon a cliff facing the sea, as a human sacrifice to a sea monster described by ancient sources as "The Ketos" or "Cetus." The reason for this horrible situation appears to be yet another example of a mortal failing to acknowledge that the divine realm is the source of all the gifts we enjoy here in this mortal life, and instead declaring that one of the gifts of the gods (in this case, the beauty given to the princess Andromeda) was superior to the beauty of immortal beings who dwell in the infinite realm.
In this particular case, it was Andromeda's mother, Queen Cassiopeia, who proclaimed that either she herself or (in other variations on the story) her daughter Andromeda, was more beautiful than the Nereids who swim in the sea. For this grievous inversion of the proper order of the cosmos, the kingdom of Cassiopeia and her husband Cepheus (ancient Ethiopia, according to some sources) was flooded by the sea and assaulted by the dreaded monster Ketos.
An oracle informed the people of the kingdom that the only way to rectify the situation was to sacrifice the girl to the monster, by chaining her to a rock until the Ketos emerged from the sea to seize her and devour her. Andromeda appears to have been innocent in this situation, her mother the queen being the one who had made the ill-advised boasts, and in most versions of the story the king and queen do not want to follow the direction of the oracle, but the people of their country force them to do so, from fear of the Ketos.
There, Andromeda awaited her fate, chained to a lonely rock on a cliff overlooking the sea. And thus it was that Perseus spied the beautiful princess, as the hero sped homeward from his successful quest to slay Medusa. Perseus was flying back towards his home, using the winged sandals loaned to him by the god Hermes, when he happened to fly past the jagged cliffs and saw Andromeda in her precarious position.
He was none too soon either, for just as he pulled to a halt from his speeding flight, arrested by the incredible beauty of the unfortunate maiden, the waters of the sea began to boil and foam, announcing the arrival of the dreaded sea-monster, coming up from the depths to seize Andromeda.
Quickly, Perseus shouted to Andromeda to avert her eyes, and he drew forth the severed head of Medusa, which he was carrying safely within a special pouch loaned to him by the gods (this purse or pouch is called the kibisis). Flying fearlessly towards the Ketos with the head of the Gorgon extended before him, Perseus attracted the monster's attention -- and that was the end of the terrible Ketos, for when it beheld the head of Medusa, it was immediately turned to stone.
Below is an illustration by a rather famous and important artist from the 1700s, William Hogarth (1697 - 1764), showing this very moment from the story, when Perseus has drawn forth the head of Medusa and is flying towards the approaching sea-monster (while the princess Andromeda is chained to the rock below the hero):
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
Note that the famous illustrator has very clearly patterned his composition after the constellations of the heavens, with the sea-monster Ketos (or Cetus) patterned after the constellation which bears the same name, Cetus the Whale, and Perseus flying towards the monster holding the severed head (still dripping with gore) in very much the same posture and location as the constellation Aquarius, the outline of which appears to be holding a water-vessel pouring out streams of water (but which could also be envisioned as a severed head, still dripping blood).
Below Perseus (who in this scene is associated with the constellation Aquarius, rather than the actual constellation Perseus) we see the beautiful Andromeda, walking in one direction and looking over her shoulder in the opposite direction -- a distinctive characteristic of the constellation Sagittarius, and one which features prominently in many ancient myths and sacred stories, including the story of Lot's unfortunate wife (who looks back at Sodom as her family is leaving the doomed city, and is herself turned into a pillar of salt, in Genesis 19: 26).
Note that the arms of Andromeda are even positioned on the same side of her body as the "bow" of Sagittarius, which I have demonstrated to sometimes be envisioned in various world myths as hands which are bound or tied (such as in the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, sold into captivity by his brothers) or which in other cases are folded in reverence or in meditation.
Below we see the same illustration from the 1700s, juxtaposed with a star-chart showing the constellations as they appear in the night sky, with outlines based on the outlining system first published by H. A. Rey in 1952. It should be quite evident that Rey's system actually corresponds to a much, much older system, one which in fact can be shown to go back as far as ancient Egypt, ancient India, and ancient Mesopotamia and to correspond to artwork and scriptures which have survived from those ancient civilizations:
Note that in the heavens, the "water-vessel" carried by the constellation Aquarius can be seen to be pointing directly towards the "face" of the constellation Cetus, which explains why this ancient myth describes Perseus flying with the severed head towards the Ketos and turning it to stone. Other figures who carry severed heads in other myths (such as Gilgamesh carrying the severed head of Humbaba, in the texts from ancient Mesopotamia) are also likely to correspond to Aquarius carrying this "water-vessel" feature of the constellation.
In the star-chart above the illustration, we can also see why Sagittarius is often envisioned as walking in one direction and looking in the other direction, and why Andromeda is likely to be associated with Sagittarius in this particular scene (even though the mythical figure Andromeda is also associated with the constellation Andromeda itself).
Finally, the rock to which Andromeda is chained in the illustration corresponds in its details to the outline of the nearby constellation Ophiuchus, which plays the role of a hill or mountain in so many myths that the association is really beyond any doubt (see discussion of this aspect of the constellation Ophiuchus in my most-recent book, for example, which is called The Ancient World-Wide System).
At the top of this post is a drawing I made today based on the original by William Hogarth from the 1700s. I decided to depict Perseus with his famous harpe sword (a hook-shaped sword which is actually based on a feature in the outline of the constellation Perseus in the heavens), as well as his characteristic Phrygian cap (which is how the cap of invisibility, loaned by the god Hermes, and closely associated with the hero Perseus as well as with other figures in the ancient world, is usually portrayed). I have argued that the features of the Phrygian cap itself are likely inspired by the outline of the constellation Perseus in the heavens.
I also chose to change the shape of the Ketos a bit, even though in doing so I have made the sea-monster less like the outline of the constellation than the monster envisioned by William Hogarth in his artwork.
If you would like to further explore the important ancient myth of Perseus and Andromeda and the quest to slay Medusa, and some of its amazing messages for our lives right now in this very present moment, you may also enjoy this video which I published in early October of this year: