Perseus and the Gorgon of Today

June 14, 2020 Updated: June 19, 2020

As we know, there are seven deadly sins: anger, pride, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth. But since about the 1950s, an eighth sin has come to dominate the thinking of psychologists, philosophers, and personal development gurus. Indeed, thousands of books have been written on the topic, and we are wrestling with the issue even today as I write this. The pages of The Epoch Times are full of it as an underlying issue.

President F.D. Roosevelt presciently identified it and wrote about it in his first Inaugural Address in 1933. He said, “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” There it is: fear.

Our Obsession With Fear

Perhaps the book that most expresses our obsession with the topic is Susan Jeffers’s famous “Feel the Fear, and Do It Anyway.” This 1987 book is one of the key manifestos of the personal development movement. In fact, we learn from her bio that the author “has helped millions of people all over the world to overcome their fears.” Job done, then. No more fear. Well, as David Brooks observed, “The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.”

The point of fear and why it is so toxic is that it is alleged to be the root cause of many other psychological problems, including indecision, procrastination, anxiety, anger, and more generally a profound form of irrationality. In a fear state we cannot, as it were, think straight, and so we make suboptimal, weak, poor, or bad choices.

This is why the personal development movement especially dislikes fear; fear prevents us from realizing our full potential as human beings—it holds us back. Hence the subtitle of the Jeffers book: “Do It Anyway,” and so realize who you really are despite the fear. (We note in passing how mainstream this advice has become, with Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan exactly striking the contemporary note that enables it to sell and shift millions of units!)

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
Susan Jeffers’s bestseller that became one of the manifestos in making fear the eighth deadly sin.

But if self-help books don’t always work, what do the myths tell us about this chronic sin, vice, or problem that we have? Is there a specific myth that addresses fear head-on? I think there is: the story of Perseus and the Gorgon Medusa.

Herakles’s Great-Grandfather

Perseus is one of the greatest Greek heroes; he was the great-grandfather of the most famous of them all, Herakles. But unlike Herakles and most of the others, Perseus is an intriguingly bland sort of hero. We learn little about his inner psyche, and remarkably, unlike most of the other heroes, once he falls in love with the beautiful Andromeda and marries her, he stays in love.

“Andromeda Liberated by Perseus,
“Andromeda Liberated by Perseus,” circa 1515, by Piero di Cosimo. Uffizi Gallery. (Public Domain)

Compare his fidelity with, say, Odysseus, who loved Penelope, but … along the way … Circe, et al.! Perseus, a real, regular guy then; except … his destiny is to be a hero.

As an awkward young man, trying to advance in the world, Perseus tries to get an invitation to the king’s social event of the year. A horse is the admission fee, but rashly, Perseus offers to provide the head of the monster Medusa. Actually, as with many young men, he has no idea how he would go about getting that head, or even where it is located, and how he would overcome the formidable obstacle of Medusa herself resisting his efforts to decapitate her! But the king accepts the offer because he has designs on Perseus’s mother—and who wants a protective, big teenager lolling around?

Medusa (Queen), on the other hand, is one of three Gorgons. Her sisters, Stheno (Strength) and Euryale (Wide-Jump) are immortal, but Medusa is not. However, the terrifying aspect of Medusa is not just her dire appearance, including snakes for hair, but the fact that one glance at her petrifies organic matter into stone. The etymology of “petrify” here is, of course, directly relevant: When we are petrified, we mean we are terrified—fearful—to such an extent that we are immobilized. The word “petrify” comes from the Greek word meaning stone or rock.

Here we touch on the modern conception of fear, that it causes one of the three F’s: fight, flight, or freeze. Clearly, the freeze is the worst state of all since it paralyzes all action, literally petrifying us. As J.G. Ballard observed in his novel “The Drowned World,” “Nothing endures for so long as fear,” and being a rock perfectly captures that desperate, seemingly eternal state.

Maintaining the Fragile Cosmos

At this point, we need to keep in mind a few extra facts about this story. First, Perseus is the son of Zeus, begotten in a shower of gold upon Danae. Thus, he has pedigree and a destiny to continue Zeus’s work (which Zeus assumed upon becoming lord of all when he dethroned his father, Kronus). This work is no less than maintaining the fragile stability of the cosmos, its order, structure, purpose. And if we think about it, the ability to turn all living matter into mineral form, as Medusa does, undermines the cosmos and would ultimately lead to its extinction, for all living creatures would be stone. Thus, it is necessary to the divine order that Medusa be destroyed.

Hence, Perseus is befriended by two of the most powerful Olympians, favorite children of Zeus: the goddess of wisdom, Athena; and the messenger god, the god of liminal spaces, Hermes. Through them, Perseus is shown the way and ultimately equipped with five necessary weapons: Hades’s cap of invisibility, the winged sandals of Hermes, a special bag (kibisis) that can contain the severed head (without turning to stone itself), an adamantine blade that can cut anything, and a shield that can be polished into a mirror.

“Perseus Armed by Mercury (Hermes) and Minerva (Athena)” by Paris Bordone. Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Ala. (PD-US)

So it is that Perseus becomes a “master over terror.” But consider the preparation necessary: First, the cause is right and the gods are behind him, for then doubt cannot assail him, which is the bridgehead to fear.

Then he moves with lightning speed (winged sandals), and becomes invisible (cap of Hades) as opposed to proclaiming his movements. He knows the nature of his enemy and avoids collateral damage (the kibisis), and has a weapon (adamantine blade) effective enough to cut through the enemy. And these are why, of course, the goddess Athena is so important: It is she who advises Perseus, for she is wisdom and part of wisdom is foresight.

It is worth mentioning that despite the support of the great gods Ares, Apollo, and Aphrodite, Troy fell because, for one thing, Athena was against them; she gives Odysseus the strategic idea of the Trojan Horse, which proves fateful.

Confronting Fear

Medusa represents a kind of terror that not only clouds the mind but also the vision: One cannot look on her without being overcome.

In one sense, the myth of Perseus is a myth of maturation. To become adults, we have to face the darkest aspects of our existence and not fall under the spell of its petrifying negativity. And to do this, we need the final weapon: the reflecting shield. We have to look, we have to see, which means to understand, but to do so in a way in which we do not partake of its reality.

If we remember the Garden of Eden problem: The eating of the fruit of good and evil meant not just that Adam and Eve “knew” good and evil, but that they became evil as a direct experiential result of the eating. So here, to directly look at the physical thing—Medusa herself—would be to incorporate what she represents into one’s own being: to become terror or fear itself. At that point, the heart stops and one becomes stone.

However, the shield reflects an image, and through it one can see an inversion of reality—like studying a photograph of an atrocity; knowing it’s not real means we are not completely caught up in its horror. In this way, Perseus can move in on fear and destroy her with one blow.

Minerva (Athena) Giving her Shield to Perseus
“Minerva (Athena) Giving Her Shield to Perseus,” 1697, by René-Antoine Houasse. Palace of Versailles. (Public Domain)

Thus, dealing with fear requires foresight, preparation, and decisive action. The final action, of course, is what we now might call “reframing” the fear. The shield reframes what we are seeing, and in this way enables us to deal with it.

Taming Horses

Two small but significant extra points emerge from this story. The first is that the death of Medusa immediately unleashes two living horses from her blood, Chrysaor (sometimes depicted as a man) and Pegasus. The latter is the most famous—and winged—horse in history. And that might give us pause for thought.

“The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor,” between circa 1876 and circa 1885, by Edward Burne-Jones. Southampton City Art Gallery, U.K. (PD-US)

The king wanted a horse as the price of admission to his party, it was a horse that led to Troy’s destruction, and now a winged horse appears. Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes, and all turbulent and disturbing emotions (for water represents emotion), was also god of horses. He is the father of Medusa!

What we are witnessing is the symbolism by which horses have always represented transcendence for human beings: Through horses, we can go beyond our own limits of speed and strength.

Poseidon gifted horses to humans, but Athena gifted the bridle to enable us to contain them effectively. Here, with the release of Pegasus, we have the ultimate in going beyond. Once we have defeated our fear, our terror, we too can fly—become heroes and heroines.

Second, in the aftermath of this, Athena attaches Medusa’s head to her own battle shield going into war. She did this, of course, to terrify her enemies. Here, we have godlike intelligence unaffected by fear and terror and using it strategically against those who oppose her.

Athena receives the head of Medusa
Athena receives the head of the Gorgon Medusa from Perseus. Attributed to the Tarporley Painter, circa 400–385 B.C. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Public Domain)

To be like Athena in the midst of war and chaos is perhaps truly to have godlike powers. At this point, we would not be fearing fear; we would be turning fear into an ally.

James Sale is an English businessman whose company, Motivational Maps Ltd., operates in 14 countries. He is the author of over 40 books on management and education from major international publishers including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge. As a poet, he won the first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition and spoke in June 2019 at the group’s first symposium held at New York’s Princeton Club.