Perseus and the Perseids

perseid over mt rainier

2015 Perseid meteor shower at Mt. Rainier National Park by Matt Dietrich

Do you still remember: falling stars,
how they leapt slantwise through the sky
like horses over suddenly held-out hurdles
of our wishes—did we have so many?—
for stars, innumerable, leapt everywhere;
almost every gaze upward became
wedded to the swift hazard of their play,
and our heart felt like a single thing
beneath that vast disintegration of their brilliance—
and was whole, as if it would survive them!

— Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow

The Perseid meteor showers are most vivid this time of year, available tonight for viewing.   The Perseid meteors radiate from the constellation of Perseus, part of what Bernadette Brady called “The Royal Family” of stars that sit below Draco and the two bears:  Cepheus the king, Cassiopeia the queen, Andromeda their daughter, and Perseus the conquering hero who marries Andromeda after rescuing her from bondage and torment by a sea monster.  This depiction is not limited to Greek culture and is found in numerous cultures including Japan,  as there is an associated Japanese myth involving a goddess rescued from an eight-headed monster by a watery hero who then marries her.  From one perspective, this is the typical “hero’s journey” story we hear about so much, embedded in so many tired stereotypes surrounding gender, we can feel like giving the story little thought.  As Bernadette Brady described:

Andromeda is a princess, daughter of the king and queen of the sky. She is therefore part of the sky stories showing the natural balance of the human tribe or civilization.  She is the young, fertile virgin, the marriageable daughter waiting for suitors.  She is in a passive, surrendering position, showing her readiness.  Her legs are apart.  However, this symbol of willing receptiveness of the fertile virgin ready to take a suitor, ready to receive, could have been altered by the Greeks to a symbol of a chained, helpless, powerless, and dependent position, a woman weak and needing the masculine to free her- at the time the collective stripped power from women. She probably received her chains at the same time as her mother, the queen, was chained to her throne, indicating the loss of female sovereignty.

–Bernadette Brady, Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars, p. 49

I began thinking more about Perseus and Andromeda recently for self-centered reasons in addition to the Perseid meteors, as I realized that I was born with Mirfak, the alpha star of Perseus, being the closest star by the minute to my natal Gemini Moon.  I’ve also been giving more and more thought to how stories such as the one in the stars of Perseus and Andromeda have a meaning that goes beyond the genders assigned to each character, similar to how I find an underlying meaning in the concept of the anima/animus developed by Carl Jung despite the traditional gender stereotyping he ascribed to them as a person of his time.  What I mean is there is a significant meaning in these stars that goes well beyond the idea of a male desiring a female, or a female chained to a rock that is rescued by a male hero, though it certainly does involve the type of burning, passionate, tormented desire that poets across time such as Sappho have invested into their verse.  The stars of the Perseus constellation stretch from the third decan of Taurus through the first decan of Gemini in the tropical zodiac at this point in time.  In their story, Andromeda represents the fertile magnetism of Taurus, Perseus the active, surging quality of Gemini.

Perseus and andromeda

Edward Burne-Jones (1884-5) The Rock of Doom

Instead of thinking of these characters as separate individuals, I’ve been thinking of how all of them reflect parts of ourselves.  In particular, the chained Andromeda awaiting a torturous death by the sea monster Cetus is a striking symbol of the vital potency within us we allow to be latent, hidden, repressed, or enchained by one reason or another.  Andromeda’s parents thought they had to expose their daughter to the sea monster after they were punished by Poseidon for boasting that Andromeda’s beauty rivaled that of the Nereids- an oracle led them to believe her sacrifice was necessary in order to stop the monster from wreaking havoc within their civilization.  Andromeda is not helpless or weak, but rather is full of force and power.  This is similar to the gifts and strength we have within but sometimes hold back from accessing until we are confronted with challenges.  In fact, her name is the Latinized form of the Greek Ἀνδρομέδα (Androméda) or Ἀνδρομέδη (Andromédē) that can be translated as “ruler of men.”

Perseus in contrast symbolizes the fiery activation of soulful spirit from within that penetrates into the world of matter and generates creative growth.  Magic envelopes Perseus from the beginning, as his improbable birth occurred despite his grandfather sealing his mother Danae in a bronzed chamber due to fear over a prophecy that his grandson would cause his death. Once again there is an act of oppression toward a daughter due to fear over a divined fate.  Yet there was no stopping the birth of Perseus, as meteor-like Zeus descended through the bronze ceiling in a rain of gold and impregnated Danae with Perseus.  Magic followed Perseus on his journey, as he later received the winged sandals of Hermes, the cloak of invisibility of Hades, the adamantine sword of Zeus, and a knapsack from the Hesperides, the evening nymphs of golden sunset.

Perseus and the sea nymphs

Edward Burne-Jones (1877) Perseus and the Sea Nymphs

Also contained within the constellation of Perseus through which the glorious Perseid meteor showers beguile our imagination is the blinking, binary star Algol, known as the severed head of Medusa.  There is probably no other fixed star in astrology that has had so much negativity projected upon it as Algol, also known by Arab astrologers as the Head of the Demon.  The negative descriptions of Algol as an omen of certain disaster is similar to the negative labels given to Lilith and other demonized feminine figures of myth.  As Bernadette Brady wrote, “Algol thus embodied everything that men feared in the feminine.”  Going beyond gender, I feel Brady’s most insightful description of Algol is as follows:

Algol represents a strong consuming passion that may devour you with anger and rage. If one can contain an unconscious compulsion to take revenge, and focus that passion into a more productive outcome, Algol is one of the most powerful stars in the sky.

–Bernadette Brady, Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars, p. 190

When Perseus decapitated Medusa, the winged Pegasus, the font of inspired poetry and artistry, was born and released.  In the Andromeda constellation, the alpha star Alpheratz is also believed to be a former member of the Pegasus constellation, linking the figures of Andromeda, Medusa, and Pegasus together.  Many have written previously of the compelling symbolism of the catalytic and traumatic birth of Pegasus and how it reveals the depth of torment, conflict, loss, courage, and passion at the heart of poetic inspiration.  When Bernadette Brady writes about Mirfak, the alpha star of the Perseus constellation, she describes it as signifying the pride of the warrior over their strength and skills that can gain them a trophy or treasure, yet whose overzealous nature may lead them to overestimate their abilities and disregard caution.  Even when our actions coming from the purest forms of desire and passion lead to feelings of tragic loss, however, it is the very fire of the vivifying spirit within that has been catalyzed that brings us alive and makes us feel that life in this world is worth living.  In the story of Perseus and Andromeda, Perseus slays the sea monster and frees Andromeda, symbolizing our capacity to unlock and liberate our strength and ability to create our own destiny from within.

Perseus (1875-1888)

Edward Burne-Jones (1888) The Doom Fulfilled

When we watch meteors and shooting, falling stars, we can’t help but make a wish for delights of imagination that transcend our current circumstances.   The story of Perseus and Andromeda contains the seeds of our own liberation we can create from within without needing to be dependent upon a romantic partner or rescuer, or any other external relationship or belief system.  As the meteors radiate from within Perseus, allow yourself to envision a life that goes beyond everything you feel currently restricts and limits yourself.

perseus baleful head

Edward Burne-Jones (1885) The Baleful Head

References

Brady, Bernadette. (1998). Brady’s Book of Fixed Stars. Weiser.

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10 thoughts on “Perseus and the Perseids

  1. Having viewed the Perseid meteor shower last night, I want to view it again after reading your insightful article. What limitations can I break through seeing these falling stars flash across the sky?

  2. Stunning post..you seem to always tap into deep processes and themes that are occuring within in such an eloquent way. ..mythology is so powerful..this particular myth is full of so many resonances..thank you so much..And the Burne Jones images are beautiful.

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