Off the Beaten Track: Perseus must die

Travel expert Joe Yudin explores the only Greek myth that takes place in the Land of Israel.

August 19, 2012 13:03

Jaffa. (photo credit: Joe Yudin)

Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.

Only one Greek myth takes place in the Land of Israel, and it takes place in the heart of Philistine country.Jaffa to be exact. The Philistines were one tribe of “the Sea Peoples” who invaded Israel from Mycenae, which would later become Greece, after their failed expedition into Egypt. By 1175 BCE they had conquered most of the southern coastal plain of Israel.

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During this same period the Israelites were trying to extend their hold over all the land and according to the Bible, the Israelite tribe of Dan was allotted the southern coastal plain. This was problematic as the Sea Peoples, dominated by the Philistines, inhabited that part of the country. Eventually, during the judges period (1200-1040 BCE) the Danites gave up on the conquest of the Philistines and moved to the northern edges of Israel to the land between the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights at the headwaters of the Jordan River.


However before that took place, they lived between a rock and a hard place, between the largest most powerful Israelite tribe, Judah and the land of the Philistines in what is known as the Shephelah or the Judean Lowlands. It is during this period where we read about the Judge Samson and his Philistine wife Delilah.

The story of Samson is indeed an anomaly among the stories of the Bible. It reads like a Greek tragedy: The hero is a brutish, big strong riddle teller who fights, gambles and drinks and ends up with his eyes gouged out and later kills himself along with thousands of his enemies. It is not your typical Jewish story of triumph over ones enemies.

One view, based on an obscure biblical reference in the book of Judges (5:17), claims that the Danites were actually assimilated members of a Sea Peoples tribe called the Denyen who originated in the area called the Land of the Danuna. They believed that they were descendants of the first ship builder, north African King Danus. If this is true the story of Samson may actually be based on an old Mycenaean tale, incorporated into Israelite lore to integrate the Danites into Israelite society. This theory might also explain why the only Greek myth takes place in the city of Jaffa within territory held by the Philistines, on the land given to the tribe of Dan.

Jaffa (Joe Yudin)

The myth starts with the woman Danae, daughter of King Acrisius o fArgos and his wife Queen Eurydice.Danae’s father feared for his life by the hand of his future grandson, son of Danae as revealed to him by an oracle. Acrisius, not wanting to murder his own daughter, instead had Danae imprisoned and guarded by savage dogs so no man would go near her and she would not be able to have a son. However Zeus came to her in a golden rain, impregnating her and she did bear a son: Perseus.

After Perseus’ birth, Acrisus locked his daughter and grandson in a wooden ark and cast them off to sea. They were rescued and brought up in the house of King Polydectes. Polydectes wanted to marry Danae but she would have none of it. A deal was struck that Polydectes would not pursue Danae further if Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa and brought back her head. Helped by the gods with a golden shield, sickle, helmet of invisibility and winged sandals, Perseus did indeed slay Medusa without gazing into her eyes (which turned people to stone) and put her snake-ridden head into his pouch. Heading home over North Africa then over Philistia, Perseus glanced down over the city of Jaffa and saw the young, naked maiden, Andromeda, chained to a rock at the mouth of the seaport, and instantly fell in love.

Andromeda’s mother Cassiopeia, Queen of Jaffa, had claimed that she and her daughter were more beautiful than all the creatures in the sea. The god of the sea Poseidon wasn’t very happy about this and sent a sea monster towards Jaffa in order to destroy the city. After consulting the oracle, Cassiopeia had her beautiful daughter tied naked to a rock in the sea port as a sacrifice to the monster hoping to save the city and it is at this point where Perseus sees her and makes a deal with Cassiopeia that if he kills the monster he may marry Andromeda. Perseus immediately flew into the air and plunged his sickle into the neck of the monster decapitating it instantly. Cassiopeia was grateful but reneged on her offer after Andromeda’s fiancé Prince Agenor showed up.

“Perseus must die!” shouted Cassiopeia.

A battle ensued between Perseus and the men of Agenor and Jaffa. So outnumbered was Perseus that he was forced to use Medusa’s head and turn them all to stone. Poseidon then set the image of Cassiopeia in the night’s sky whose constellation still shines today. Hearing that his mother Danae was under siege by Polydectes, Perseus hurried home with Andromeda with the gorgon’s head, but was greeted by insults despite fulfilling his quest. He therefore took out Medusa’s head turning everyone to stone before setting sail for Argos.

The view from the top of this hill in Abrasha Park is truly breathtaking and the best place to begin a walking tour of Jaffa. Check out the sculpture which looks like an ancient gate. It tells the story of the ancient Israelites coming into the Land of Israel: The Binding of Isaac, the Conquest by Joshua and Jacob’s Dream. Looking through the gate you can see Herzl’s dream: Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv (Joe Yudin)

Explore the center of this ancient city. Don’t miss the Egyptian ruins just below the hill built by Pharaoh Ramses II during the time of the Exodus. Continue over the wishing bridge and down to the Kedumim Square. Underneath the square are ruins from the 1st century B.C.E and C.E. and on the opposite side of the square on the western side there is an overlook where you may look down on Andromeda’s Rock and the Old Port.

Below is where, according to the Bible, Jonah boarded a ship to Egypt against God’s wishes leading to his ingestion by a “big fish.” Explore the alleyways, including the cobblestone street leading to the house of Simon the Tanner where according to the New Testament Peter was told by an angel that he could eat non-kosher food. It is here where the new religion of Christianity broke away from Judaism.

Follow the alleyways back up behind the church of St. Peter to see some of the cannons used by Ottoman forces to defend the city against Napoleon’s army in 1799. Napoleon won the battle but lost the war eventually leaving the Holy Land forever. From here walk along the beach promenade with a stop at the wonderfully restored clock tower.

Andromeda’s Rock is visible from many parts of Old Jaffa but best from the old port itself. It’s the series of boulders in the midst of the mouth of the port with the Israeli flag planted on top.

Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land  of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.

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