Perseus Confronting Phineus With The Head Of Medusa, By Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1659 – 1734)

This painting by the Italian artist, Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1659 – 1734), re-creates a deadly incident from the mythical saga of the Greek hero, Perseus. Chronologically, the scene is set after Perseus took the head of the dangerous Gorgon, Medusa, whose gaze could turn living beings into stone. With Medusa’s powerful head in his possession, Perseus, somehow found himself on the shores of North Africa. There, according to ancient myth and legend, Perseus wandered into the realm of a certain king named Cepheus, whose kingdom was in a state of utter chaos. As the story goes, the kingdom had been doomed by Cepheus’ wife, who had proclaimed for all to hear that she believed herself to be more beautiful than the divine Nereid nymphs. This unwise statement outraged the Nereids, which angered their sea god father, Nereus, as well as the even more powerful sea god, Poseidon. In their shared wrath, these water deities ravaged Cepheus’ realm with floods, and, to top it all off, also sent a sea monster to attack the kingdom. The high-god Zeus, meanwhile, had been observing the situation. While he did not want to contradict his fellow gods’ wishes, he also thought it a shame for the whole kingdom to suffer for the presumptiveness of the queen. Therefore, Zeus let Cepheus know through an oracle that the kingdom would be spared if the king’s daughter, Andromeda, was sacrificed to the sea monster. Zeus, perhaps, might have intended all along to save Andromeda, for it was at the exact moment that the princess was being chained up as a sacrifice that Perseus (Zeus’ son) arrived on the scene. Coincidence? Maybe; maybe not.

Whatever the case—chance, planning, or fate—Perseus reached Cepheus’ kingdom just in time to rescue the damsel in distress and save the kingdom. Perseus, however, did not work for free, and his declared price was Andromeda’s hand in marriage. Cepheus eagerly agreed on his daughter’s behalf, at which point Perseus flew out to sea with the help of his magical winged footwear and slew the sea monster. After that, the anger of the sea deities calmed, and the wedding of Perseus and Andromeda was planned without any interference from waves or beasts.

Although the sea deities were dormant, more trouble was brewing in Cepheus’ kingdom. Instead of gods and supernatural creatures, this time the threat would come from humans. Unbeknownst to Perseus, Andromeda had already been engaged to be wed before she was chained up for sacrifice. Her fiancé was a man named Phineus. Although he had been willing to let Andromeda be fed to a sea monster, Phineus now found that he could not bear to see her marry another man. Unfortunately for the newly-engaged couple, Phineus was a man of high rank and influence, able to pull together a sizable force with which he hoped to overpower Perseus and his supporters.

Details of what happened next differ depending on the ancient source, but the end result is the same. The longest (and most dramatic) ancient telling of this particular section of the myth came from the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE). In his account, Phineus waited until the time of the wedding banquet to make his move, crashing the party with a small army of armed supporters. When Phineus and Perseus came face to face, it did not take long for blood to spill. It all began when Phineus threw a spear at Perseus. The projectile polearm missed, and Perseus threw it right back at Phineus (and also missed). From then on, all order was lost, and the wedding banquet turned into a deadly brawl between the rival factions supporting the two different men. Ovid lingered long on describing this chaotic brawl within his masterpiece, Metamorphoses. The first spear was thrown in book 5, line 30; the brawl did not conclude until over 200 lines later. During that time, countless heads and limbs had been pierced, severed, crushed (you name it, it was likely done), and the weapons used in the melee varied from typical swords and spears, to the very furniture that had been lying about in the banquet hall. Perseus enjoyed the brawl for a time, getting his fill of swordplay and gratuitous violence, but he eventually decided to put an end to the fight by pulling out his ultimate weapon—Medusa’s head. Phineus and the remaining members of his faction were turned to stone. On Phineus’ demise, Ovid (speaking as Perseus) wrote:

“‘You shan’t be put to the sword, man.
No, I shall make you a lasting memorial for all posterity.
You’ll be on permanent view in the house of my father-in-law,
that my wife may console herself with her former intended’s likeness.’
With that he quickly carried Medusa across to display her
where Phineus had turned his quivering head. As the cowering villain
attempted to shift his eyes away again, his neck
grew stiff and the tears running down his cheeks were hardened to stone.
But still a coward’s face and the suppliant’s look were preserved
in marble, along with the pleading hands and the cringing posture.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 5.226-235)

Such was the end of the wedding banquet brawl, at least from Ovid’s telling of the tale. Another account, preserved by a scholar known as the Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), merely stated, “[Phineus] plotted against Perseus; but when Perseus learned of the conspiracy, he showed the Gorgon to Phineus and his fellow plotters, turning them to stone on the spot” (Apollodorus, Library, II.4). Sebastiano Ricci’s painting re-creates one of these final encounters between Perseus and Phineus. Banquet drama aside, the wedding of Perseus and Andromeda was a success. Perseus brought his bride back to Greece and, unlike many figures from ancient myth, most accounts of Perseus and Andromeda claim that they lived a long and seemingly happy life together.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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