Overhead on any winter night, the stars play out a tale of vanity and jealousy, torture and rescue, cowardice and courage. Some of the stars involved are rather dim but it’s really worth hearing this story that’s even older than books.
It had been a long day. I’d been flying north and south in Mercury’s winged sandals, tracking down the dame they called Medusa – one of the Snake-Head gang. Her M.O. – turning people into stone with her bare eyes. She was a real beauty, though; maybe in other circumstances I wouldn’t have wound up flying home to Scriphos with her head wrapped in a sheepskin.
That’s my moniker on the door – Perseus – Private Hero since 1503 BC
Yeah – it had been a long day all right – and it was about to get even longer. The meter’s not running, so sit down and I’ll tell you the whole story.
So, I’d given Medusa a haircut at the neckline, if you know what I mean, and was flying up the coast of Libya. I spotted something that looked like trouble where the beach met the cliff. Sucker that I am, I drifted in for a closer look. I found trouble plenty – real damsel-in-distress type trouble, with the damsel in question chained to the cliff and the tide rising.
I stepped down onto the beach real casual-like and started in with the small talk.
“So, doll-face, d’you come here often?” O.K., a lame gambit, even for the minus-1500s.
“The name’s Andromeda, fly-boy,” she shot back, “You know, Princess Andromeda of Ethiopia. Daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus. Ring any bells, yet?”
“Well, Princess,” says I, “what’s a nice girl like you doing hanging around a cliff like this?” She wasn’t amused by my little joke, but I thought she might warm to me, anyway.
“My own parents chained me here,” she sniffed, “to be devoured by a sea monster!”
“Poor kid,” I said, shocked. Those were different times back then, and Kings, Queens and parents could do whatever they wanted. Well, nearly. “Why would they do that?”
“My mum, well, you know how mothers can get sometimes, and she sounded off about her beautiful daughter – moi – once too often, I guess. She said I was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. I am, but they went off crying to the big wet guy – you know – Poseidon himself. So he came uptown to the palace all mad-like. He threatened to flood all the land unless they fed me to the sea monster. And they agreed! Nice, huh?”
Well, Andromeda was a real looker, all right, but there are some things you just don’t say out loud!
A splash behind told me the monster was sneaking up, so I unwrapped Medusa’s head and turned the monster to stone. It looked like time to split, so I cut the chains and we flew back to the palace to meet the parents, a serious thing back then. So we were married and settled down a bit. Poseidon was O.K. with the way it all fell out, too. That’s why you can see us all up in the stars. He had the last laugh, though – he put Cassiopeia and Cepheus so close to Polaris that they spend half their time hanging upside down! You can see me there, too, reaching for Andromeda, and if you look closely, you can even see the chains on one wrist. The sea monster’s not far away, though some call it a whale, and even Poseidon himself is there, disguised as Auriga the Charioteer.
So, yeah, it was a heck of a day, but I wound up with a heck of a gal, so I guess I can’t complain, can I?
Apologies to any mystery writer, even Snoopy. By the way, that little oval near Andromeda’s knee is the great Andromeda galaxy, M31. You can see it naked-eye from any reasonably dark area, even though it’s 2.5 million light years away. Look at it through binoculars or a telescope at low power.