Perseus, the Avenger

30 Mar

It was not easy to practice psychoanalysis in Athens in 1942. A year of German occupation had brought general fear, despair, and depression to the population of defeated Greece. The psychological crisis was a mass phenomenon.

Dr. Perseus Xanthin was able to see the effects of the war in many of the patients he dealt with in his downtown office. But the numbers of those seeking treatment from a Jungian analyst was falling, despite the horrendous conditions surrounding them. He could not understand the social forces inhibiting those with conflicts and personal problems. Had wartime life in Athens become too hellish for individuals in mental pain to seek relief? This was a riddle that Xathin could not himself solve.

Short, stringy, and gray-eyed, he presented an unnoticed figure as he walked from his apartment each morning in his black suit and panama hat. A German police car rushed past at breakneck speed toward the secret den of the Gestapo in the Greek capital. The psychoanalyst forced himself to appear indifferent to such symbols of the foreign occupation.

His mind was internally focused, on a recent discovery he had made that promised to turn his professional practice upside-down.

After sessions with two patients that morning, Perseus removed a sheet he had typed out the previous day and reread the ideas that he had formulated.

“The hero is the archetypal model of all mankind. His legendary life is a pattern that all humanity must live by. The stages of the hero myth provide the elements of the personal development of each and every individual being. The ancient story of Perseus has universal significance for human personality.”

He glanced down to the end of the page, locating his concluding thought on the subject of the Perseus archetype.

“The tale of Perseus is one of the self-emancipation of the ego from the power of the unconscious.”

All at once, a knock on his office door interrupted the train of his thought.

Xanthin rose from his oaken desk and slowly walked over to see who it might be. As soon as he opened the door he recognized the old man who stood there. The latter looked up and down the empty hallway, then spoke in a guarded whisper.

“I am carrying some papers that must be delivered in Volos at once, tonight.”

With a quick nod of his head, Perseus accepted the clandestine mission being assigned him. In a few minutes, he was at the Athens railroad station purchasing a ticket north to Thessaly.

The secret underground communications were in the inner vest pocket of his dark business suit.

As the train chugged through a narrow mountain pass, one passenger studied the two men and single young woman in his compartment. Could any of them be a collaborator who is shadowing me? wondered the carrier of a message. Traitors are not unknown in this country in 1942.

His sleepy, tired mind dwelt on the ancient monsters faced by the semi-human, semi-divine hero that he was named for. He recalled the three terrifying Gorgons: Medusa, Sthenc, and Euryale. And they had three sisters, the Gracae, who guarded them, sharing a single eye and a single tooth among themselves. Such hellish beings could be disguised behind modern masks, in modern clothing. Why not? shuddered the sympathizer with the Greek national resistance. His present mission of transporting messages placed him in potential danger of discovery and summary execution. Perseus was aware of the terrible risk he had taken on.

All at once, the uniformed conductor opened the compartment door and asked to check the passengers’ tickets. This he carried out with politeness and dispatch. Perseus sighed with relief when this inspection ended and the conductor left.

Within a few minutes, two male figures made their way into the compartment, disturbing the composure of the psychoanalyst. One was a tall, husky German officer in formal uniform with a swastika armband. His companion was a small, compressed Greek, obviously a plainclothes police agent of some undeterminable sort. The latter acted as spokesman for the foreign occupier.

“Please, show us your identity documents,” curtly ordered the officious Greek detective.

Moving to each passenger, the little man looked over the personal paper, then handed it over to the German for quick scanning and approval. It turned out that the last inspection in the compartment was that of Perseus, seated by the window.

The German colonel suddenly showed interest in the profession of the Athenian therapist. He asked Perseus a question in German, trusting that an educated individual would know that language.

“You are a follower of Sigmund Freud?” sharply inquired the Teutonic warrior.

“No,” answered Perseus with a friendly smile. “Carl Jung is my guide and compass.”

The officer gave him a quizzical look, then handed the identity document back to its owner.

Only when the pair of intruders had left did the passengers feel relief.

The Public Library in Volos was open for only a limited number of hours in the spring of 1942.

Perseus arrived there only an hour before closing time in the late afternoon. He rapidly found the bald, elderly little librarian who was to be his contact with the local network of the Resistance. The Athenian entered a small office in the rear of the old building, removed the papers he had brought with him, and handed them over to the man with pince-nez glasses. “I shall be acting like a reader seeking a particular book to look into,” said Perseus as he exited from the room.

It took him only a fraction of a minute to find the shelves containing works on ancient Greek mythology. He quickly located an old work published back in the 1890’s that he had never before read but had heard of.

Perseus took the book down off a high shelf and sat down with it at a study table. The large, musty room was devoid of librarians or the public. The message-carrier looked over the table of contents until he found a chapter dealing with the heroic demigod for whom he was himself named.

The reader soon became mesmerized by the strange and original interpretation of his namesake that the psychoanalyst discovered.

Perseus was born through interaction of the human with the divine. The history of how it came about began in the deep fears of his maternal grandfather, the King of Argos named Acrisias. This cowardly monarch came to harbor terrible dread of what a grandson, if born, might do to him. He dispatched a courier to the oracle at Delphi, asking for some indication of what the future might hold for him.

“Your daughter, Danae, shall have a son who kills you,” was the fatal prophecy of the inscrutable oracle.

Acrisias ordered the courier killed by beheading for bringing him this prediction of personal doom.

What was he to do in order to prevent this coming true? The fainthearted father had the beautiful young Danae walled up in a tower of brass with no doors and only one single window. This latter was too narrow for even an arm to fit through. A high spiked wall surrounded the tower. Armed guards and wild dogs patrolled the area outside.

The daughter continually wept, convinced that she was to die all alone by herself, with no one near or beside her. Only a single star was visible to her through the narrow window opening. She gazed at that star day after day, until it seemed to fill the entire sky. Her constant tears magnified the light, filling her chamber with golden rays. This blinding light gathered and thickened, taking on the form and shape of a man.

He was unlike anything she had ever witnessed before. Taller than any mere mortal, he had golden hair and burning golden eyes. In his hand was a shaft of pure blue light, his only weapon of war.

Danae knelt down, recognizing that she faced a god.

He told her not to be afraid, for he came to her as an ordinary man might. From then on, Zeus visited the tower every night, leaving her at dawn. Perseus was then conceived in the shower of gold that radiated from the divine lover of his mother.

From his palace, Acrisias watched this prison tower every night. Through the one narrow window, the building gave off a brilliant illumination. He hurried by horse to find out the source of the great golden light. His surprise was unlimited when he heard the wailing of a new-born baby. The walls had to be broken down for his soldiers to make a way for the king to enter. The daughter showed him her child, a boy. With an enigmatic smile, she announced that “the name of this boy shall be Perseus. He shall be the one to avenge me for all that I have suffered here in this tower.”

Realizing that she was under the special protection of Apollo and that that god spoke through the prophecies of the Delphic Oracle, Acrisias evilly devised a method of ridding himself of his daughter and grandson. He commanded that a chest be built in which the two could be placed and then abandoned at sea. No food or water was to be provided them, no sail or oar. Acrisias took a great gamble that no god would try to save Danae or the avenger boy born to her.

The librarian interrupted the reader in a whisper from behind. “Our local leaders wish to meet with you when this place closes, sir. Stay where you are and you will see them come in. There are certain tasks that they wish you to help them with.”

A short wait followed for Perseus, who was now too nervous to continue his reading in the old book. What does this new development mean? he wondered as the library emptied out and the lights were turned off.

What was he to expect next?

A group of three men in dark suits appeared, approaching him slowly and noiselessly. Their leader seemed to be the man in the middle, a tall and heavy figure who acted as their spokesman once they reached where Perseus was sitting.

“We have need of your services for a serious, important mission. Since you shall soon be returning to Athens, it is possible for you to take back certain documents and give them to our central unit there.”

“Documents?” inquired Perseus with obvious curiosity.

“Certain papers of the Germans have been taken,” the big man explained. “They indicate what the plans of the occupiers are in terms of surveillance and making arrests of Greeks. We believe that the information contained therein can save and preserve many people there in the capital. Will you agree to carry our packet to the Athenian leadership?”

“Of course,” replied the traveler. “It is my duty to our nation to transport these papers for the Resistance.”

One of the trio handed Perseus a thin cardboard container that he had held in one hand till then.

Clutching the object tightly, the psychoanalyst watched as the three men turned about and soundlessly exited from the library.

As Perseus rose and made his way out, he came upon the short little librarian again. “Could I informally borrow this book on ancient mythology?” he asked the astounded man. “I find the material in it deeply engrossing and fascinating. You have my word that I shall return it to the library the next time that I come here to Volos.”

“Take it with you,” whispered the man in charge of the collections. Perseus then placed the volume inside the container he had been given, rose to his feet, and made his way out of the building soon to be closed.

The train ride from Volos back to Athens was taken up with reading further in the borrowed book. Vengeance was clearly the major theme and continuous thread in the mythical life of the demigod Perseus, the entranced reader quickly recognized. Almost every event and turn of the story was connected to that central motive and goal.

Mother and son floated over to the island of Sephiros, where a fisherman named Dictys brought them ashore. This humble man took the pair to King Polydectes, who became enchanted with the beauty of Danae. He provided them protection and shelter, allowing Perseus to grow up into a strong, handsome youth who had a courageous character, dedicated to the well-being of his mother.

At night by the fire, Danae told her son stories that came to have significance and importance for his future life. Perseus became fascinated with the tales concerning the Gorgons and the Graeae, monstrous daughters of the sea god named Phorcus.

Like his two sisters, Keto and Eurybia, and his brother Thaumus, this Phorcus was a child of the Pontic sea. All his siblings as well as he gave birth to terrifying monsters. The three Gorgons of Phorcus, named Medusa, Sthea, and Euryale, possessed metallic wings and hair made of serpents. Barbed and bearded, they had protruding tongues and bearlike tusks. These horrors had come about in a strangely curious way.

Medusa, the youngest sister, had once been an outstanding beauty. But she had flown into a temple of the Olympian goddess Athena in order to hold a tryst with Poseidon, god of the sea. Athena observed this and in her rage, turned Medusa into a horrid monster. Her eyes bulged forth, her tongue curled and blackened, her teeth became yellowed fangs. Each of her golden hairs became a snake. Poseidon then threw her aside and escaped into the sea. Weeping Medusa had to flee away to her ugly sisters. Sight of her had the weird power to turn a mortal to stone. These three Gorgons hid themselves away in a secret, unknown location, guarded by their three Graeae. The goal of their entire existence became th wrecking of vengeance upon Athena for what the goddess had done to Medusa.

As Perseus grew into a sinewy athlete, the sly mind of King Polydectes devised a scheme to take him away from his mother, upon whom this monarch now had designs for marriage. The ruler announced that he planned to marry an unidentified foreign maiden and invited the young men of his island to his palace. It was the custom for each of them to offer a gift to the bride.

Perseus, still poor and supported by the King, was unable to promise anything valuable. But Polydectes had foreseen what the youth might do in his terrible desperation. The audacious, heedless Perseus vowed to bring him the head of Medusa. Thus the trick of this pretended marriage had worked for the King. Perseus told Polydectes that if he did not return to him with the Gorgon’s head, he would make a sacrifice of his own.

But how was the youthful leader going to find the hidden Medusa? That seemed to be an insolvable problem.

The messenger god Hermes made an unexpected appearance before Perseus in order to aid and advise him.

Unending enmity and conflict with Poseidon drove both Athena and Hermes into hatred of the Gorgons. The winged Hermes explained to Perseus that his sister, the goddess Athena, felt deep responsibility for the monstrous face of Medusa that had the power to petrify mortal human beings.

Hermes took out of his pouch a pair of talaria, the sandals with silver wings that he himself wore and used for flight through the air and sky. Made by Athena, these sandals enabled Perseus to fly faster than an eagle.

The god Hermes instructed the young hero to head northward in search of the monster Gracae. “You must compel them to tell you where to find the Hesperide Nymphs of the West. These distant beings possess certain secret weapons that will enable you to kill the Medusa.”

Perseus thanked Hermes for his advice and asked him to give his thanks to Athena, as well. Then he rose and flow away in joy and ecstasy to slay and put an end to the Gorgon called Medusa.

The German military documents had to be delivered at once.

It was nearly midnight when Perseus reached Athens. Under the German curfew regulations, he was taking serious risks slinking through the streets of the sleeping city. The apartment he was headed to was where he had often met with underground operatives of the central district. There was certain to be someone there on duty from the Resistance.

Before he left on the train from Volos, Perseus had placed the volume from the library into the cardboard holder with the documents he was delivering. This made it easier to carry the entire load of paper.

The stillness of the late hour streets awed him. Never had the capital been this quiet as far back as his personal memory went. The German Occupation had cast a mantle of fear and anticipation over all of Greek life. Is this what Hitler plans to make of Greece, a cemetery? the walker asked himself several times.

All of a sudden, a shrill voice rang out through the dense shadows of the dead night.

“Stop! Halt where you are!” it commanded Perseus.

He decided in less than an instance that he had to make a run for it. There was no possible alternative. The person calling out to him had to be some police stooge of the German invaders. No foreigner could have spoken such naturally accented and pronounced Greek.

If he should be caught with the German documents, his life would be forfeit, that was immediately clear.

His escape would have to be in a backwards direction, the way he had come from the train depot. There was no time to lose. But the sudden illumination from a bright flashlight warned him that the way he had walked here was now blocked to him by whoever had addressed him a moment before.

As he stopped and looked about, Perseus spied the mouth of a narrow, dark alley. There was nothing left for him but to try that way out of the trap he was in. As the fugitive hurled himself into the blackness of this yawning space, his eye caught sight of a large, metal container that held trash and garbage from a restaurant closed for the night.

In a flash, Perseus realized what had to be done. He lifted up the circular lid of the big can and threw the cardboard case into it. But before placing back the lid, some inner voice instructed him to grab hold of the book from Volos and hold it tightly under his arm.

Several moments after the documents were disposed of, a team of plainclothes collaborators surrounded the psychoanalyst and seized hold of him, dragging Perseus away and throwing him into the backseat of an unmarked sedan that had just driven up to the entrance of the alley.

For some unexplainable reason, the Greek police did not take away their prisoner’s book on mythology. Alone in a tiny holding cell, Perseus waited nervously for the dawn to arrive. In a while, he had enough light through a barred window to read by. The story of the demigod’s adventures seemed to remove the arrested one from his present situation of mortal risk.

The hero named Perseus flew through the frigid air above a sea consisting of solid ice. Frosty snow fell everywhere. He finally found the three cackling gray sisters, the Gracae. They were skinny old hags with ashen hair that had grown to the ground. Their hideous gray skin was rough and wrinkled, unlike anything human. The trio had to share one single eye and one tooth among themselves. Seeing how these sisters were quarreling over these valuable items necessary for life, Perseus swooped down over them and grabbed hold of both the tooth and the eye.

The three Graeae gazed up at him in terror and awe, demanding the return of the treasures they had been fighting over.

“I will return these things only if you reveal a certain secret you have to me,” he told the three gray monsters.

Perseus then went on to threaten to crush the eye he had taken so that it could never again be of any use to them.

So it came about that the Graeae were compelled to reveal to him the way to get to the Hesperide Nymphs. These were daughters of the Titan named Atlas. They had been recruited by the wife of Zeus, Hera, to guard the location in the far west where the golden apple trees given to Hera by Gaea of the earth were hidden away. Why should a philanderer like Zeus have the opportunity to give such marvelous presents to his lovers? reasoned his wife. Hera had concealed the apples on a western island, appointing the Hesperide Nymphs to be their eternal protectors.

But Perseus cleverly outwitted these nymphs into granting him what he was after, promsing them kisses and embraces once his entire mission was accomplished. The love-starved Hesperidian Nymphs handed Perseus three valuable treasures: a sickle-shaped sword, a cap that could make its wearer invisible, and a mirror-bright shield on which he would be able safely to see Medusa’s reflection.

Perseus then flew away, promising that he would return and bring the nymphs supreme pleasure and delight once he was victorious and had defeated and destroyed the Gorgan called Medusa.

At an early morning hour, the prisoner was taken into an interrogation room and seated at the end of a long iron table. The single ceiling light left much of the space in obscure shadow.

A thick, stocky man in a black suit entered and sat down opposite the prisoner. Greenish emerald eyes stared at Perseus. They seemed to glow with an ancient evil intelligence. This was a Greek to whom the psychoanalyst instantly took a dislike.

“Let me introduce myself, Dr. Xanthin. I am Captain Adamas of the Security Corps.” The questioner made a feline smile.

“You know who I am, then?” reacted Perseus.

The face of Adamas turned to stone. “We know a lot about you, my good man. For instance, that last night you returned by rail from Volos, after a quick trip there and then back. Did you go there to complete some studies in the Public Library? Is that all that was involved, or was there more?”

Perseus made no immediate reply.

“What particular subject was so important as to induce such a journey as you made? And in wartime, as well?” asked the interrogator.

“Ancient Greek mythology,” answered the prisoner. “I borrowed a book that had been printed back in the nineteenth century. It is back in the cell that your men threw me into.”

Adamas suddenly coughed. “Why do you think that we have gone to the trouble of watching and following you? Do you believe that we have no knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes at this time?”

“I have no idea what you are talking about,” declared Perseus. “There is nothing that I wish to hide from your official security service, sir.”

The security official was unable to hide the anger he felt.

“I consider myself a Greek patriot, a true one. Under this German occupation of our country, it falls upon someone to cooperate with our new rulers. Others may fight and resist, but a person like me becomes necessary in order to protect and preserve ordinary, everyday Greeks from the harm that the victors could commit upon them. For I have no doubt but that Hitler will defeat his enemies and rule over many lands for decades. My task is to shield my country from the wild, unhinged factors like the Gestapo and the S.S. That is only possible through abject collaboration with the conqueror. Do you see what I am getting at?”

Perseus made no reply to the last question.

Adamas abruptly rose to his feet and exited, telling the plainclothes detectives outside to take the prisoner back to his cell.

With the cap of invisibility on his head, the demigod hero flew over the dark sea that surrounds the earth to the distant land of the Hyperboreans.

Here he landed next to a graveyard of stone statues. Perseus slowly, silently crept up to the three sleeping Gorgons. Two of them slept with their heads under their wings. The one he recognized to be Medusa he could only look at directly, through watching her reflection in the shield that he carried. Her horrid face grew larger as he approached. Her snakes writhed and swelled, biting each other as the stranger came nearer. When Medusa was directly below him, he lowered his shield to keep her in the center of his sight. Guided by the reflection of her in the mirror of the shield, he struck with his special sword.

The terrifying head was sliced off in an instant.

As he stuffed the bloody object in his pouch, Perseus saw two wondrous creatures spring forth from out of the Gorgon’s blood. Both of them had long been imprisoned in the womb of Medusa. They were the children of Poseidon that the Gorgon monster had been unable to release by birth. One was Chrysoar, a magnificent warrior. The other was Pegasus, a white horse with a golden mane, hooves, and wings for flying. Leaving them with the two remaining Gorgons, Perseus flew back to the Hesperidian Nymphs, as he had promised them he would.

All night long, Perseus danced wildly, madly, with these beautiful creatures. He ate a golden apple from their garden and flushed with ecstatic emotions. But all of a sudden, the ground quaked and the sky shook with thunder.

The father of the Hesperidian Nymphs, the Titan Atlas, had awaken and spied that an orgy was in progress. He boiled over with anger.

What was Perseus to do now? After long thought, he took Medusa’s head out of the pouch and raised it high against the present danger to himself.

At once, Atlas turned into a stone mountain that was holding up the western sky.

The victorious Perseus promised the nymphs to return each summer to dance with them, then the hero flew away.

Security agents took the psychoanalyst back to the same room to face Adamas a second time. The interrogator began by presenting a strange proposition to the prisoner.

“I am about to lay out a plan that cannot be revealed to anyone else but you, Dr. Xanthin. My superiors will be given no information about what I am going to tell you now. If you should ever reveal to anyone what I am about to say, your life will immediately become forfeit. I will deny having done anything that you may claim that I did.”

Perseus gave him a perplexed look, but said not a word yet.

“I am aware that a number of intellectuals, students, and ordinary workers are volunteering to be members of the so-called resistance movement. Their hope is to cause large problems for the forces of Germany and contribute to their military defeat on fronts elsewhere in the world. This activity threatens to provoke severe reactions from our nation’s occupiers. Hostages are already being taken. The Greek people will be made to bear a lot of suffering due to the senseless deeds of such hot-heads.

“But there is a way to avoid violence from the German occupiers. There must be a Resistance that remains inert, that waits until the final round of the war before it takes any initiative. In that way, the general population can escape mass repression and violent repercussions. It will be safer than if there is an underground that acts prematurely, before the decisive moment of the international conflict that is now raging.”

The prisoner began to comprehend what Adamas was asking him to attempt to do.

“A silent, inactive Resistance that only watches and waits? Is that the idea that you want me to communicate?”

Adamas nodded yes without saying it. “I believe that you could play an important role in encouraging such an attitude among the enthusiasts for action.”

Perseus stared into the hard green eyes of the schemer.

“I must think out all the ramifications of a secret alliance with your security service,” he hesitantly whispered. “Could I have some time for that?”

“Certainly,” smiled the interrogator. “Certainly, my good man.”

The head of Medusa was pivotal in the winning of a wife by the demigod Perseus.

Cepheus, the king of Levantine Joppa, had a proud, haughty wife named Cassiopeia. She boasted in public that she and her only daughter, Andromeda, were lovelier than the most beautiful of the Nereids. The latter maidens, daughters of Poseidon, complained of this to their father, demanding retribution for the grave insult to them. The sea god sent a water monster, longer than a fleet of vessels, to harass the kingdom of Cepheus on the sea coast. The latter decided to consult the Delphic Oracle and was instructed to only child for the safety of the country he ruled.

Andromeda, naked and defenseless, was chained to a rock on the shore. A sea serpent sent by Poseidon approached and threatened to devour her. Perseus saw it coming and leaped into the water. With the head of Medusa and his special sword, he slaughtered the monster. He then broke the chains that bound Andromeda and returned her to the royal palace. When Cepheus tried to deny him the prize of possessing this beautiful maiden, Perseus grabbed Andromeda in his arms and flew away with her, headed for Sephiros and his mother.

The son arrived there in the neck of time.

King Polydectes was forcing Danae to wed him. The marriage celebration was in progress at the moment that Perseus returned.

“I have brought a gift back with me,” shouted Perseus. “It is for a different bride, but is the same present once again.” As he reached into his carrying pouch, he told his mother to look away and close her eyes.

The room at once became a graveyard of stone statues as the head of Medusa became visible to many unguarded eyes.

Perseus then returned the head to its place of concealment and told his mother to open her eyes.

The king, his followers, and the wedding guests were now lifeless stones. Among the latter, Danae and her son found the shape of Acrisias, her father and the grandfather of Perseus. He was the evil one who had imprisoned her in the tower where Perseus had been born of her and mighty Zeus.

A final vengeance had been won with the head of the Gorgon.

On his wedding night to Andromeda, Perseus gave thanks at the temple of Hermes and that of the god’s sister, Athena, for their having saved him. He gave back the cap of invisibility to Hermes and the mirror shield with the impression of Medusa’s face on it to Athena. He kept the magic sword and the winged talaria. The head of the monster Medusa he tossed into the Aegean Sea.

The psychoanalyst formulated what he was going to tell Adamas at their third session together.

“I agree that I will become the center of a new resistance organization and network. It will have to operate according to my own orders and requirements, without any interference from outside. The name that I have chosen for this new conspiracy shall be this: the Head of Medusa.”

The man from the Security Service laughed. “Because it will turn its members into inactive stone statues that only wait until the final moment?” he jokingly asked.

“Yes, something like that, I suppose,” muttered Perseus.

The latter was thinking, though, of the opposite of what Adamas was. The Resistance outside his own imaginary conspiratorial structure would continue and grow.

It would be the German occupiers and their Greek collaborators who would end up becoming statues of stone. So planned the prisoner under interrogation.

The day that Perseus was released he began a double life as agent for the Security Service and messenger for the Resistance. The one role would be a pretense, the other a true weapon of vengeance in the ancient tradition of his namesake, the demigod Perseus.


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