Erich S. Gruen

 

On his book Rethinking the Other in Antiquity

Cover Interview of September 21, 2011

A close-up

If a reader were to browse at random in the book, where would s/he find a representative section that brought its central thesis most clearly to the fore? No single portion does that job as a whole.

One segment, however, entitled “Perseus as Multiculturalist,” offers a neat and intriguing illustration of the theme.

The Greek legend of the hero Perseus took a variety of forms as it meandered around the Mediterranean, massaged in different ways by diverse peoples who fastened upon it to add luster to their own self image. The great hero, who slew the hideous and deadly Gorgon and then rescued the beautiful damsel Andromeda, chained unjustly to a rock, from the assaults of a sea monster, held great appeal and fascination.

Perseus was Hellenic in conception and character. But the Greeks had no exclusive rights to him. Persians seized upon the coincidence of names and reshaped the fable to have Perseus’ son, conveniently called Perses, stay with the hero’s father-in-law who happened to dwell in the land which subsequently took his name as Persia.

The Persians even employed the fictive kinship to argue for an ancestral bond between their nation and the ancient Greek city of Argos, Perseus’ home town. The fiercest foes of antiquity, Greece and Persia, thus had a common forefather whose legend transcended conflict and warfare and challenged the concept of “Otherness.”

That was not the end of the story. Egypt got into the game as well, stressing the Egyptian roots of Perseus that went back to the myth of the god Zeus’ union with princess Io in Egypt, leading to the line of Danaids who migrated to Argos and eventually issued in the birth of Perseus himself. Egyptians then assimilated Perseus to an Egyptian deity thus appropriating Greek lore to create a combined construct.

Most remarkably perhaps, the Jews too entered into this legendary thicket. The Phoenicians had seen the attractiveness of the story and transferred the location of Andromeda’s binding and rescue to a Levantine setting, namely the harbor city of Jaffa.

When that port came under Jewish control, the Jews neatly capitalized on the classical myth. By making Jaffa the seat of Andromeda’s kingdom and the site of her rescue, they could even promote the town as a tourist attraction. They showed visitors ancient shrines dedicated to the maiden’s father, a pool of red water where Perseus wiped the blood of the leviathan off his hands, and the very marks of the chains that had bound Andromeda to the rock. A rock jutting off the coast at Jaffa still retains to this day the designation “Rock of Andromeda.” The Jews of antiquity had shrewdly adopted a Hellenic legend and transferred it to Jewish soil. They managed both to espouse a relationship with Greek tradition and to adapt it to a Jewish setting.