Over the last couple of weekends, I have assembled many significant paintings of the Perseus and Theseus myths, along with summaries of their literary narratives. This article brings them together with Christopher Booker’s theory of narrative expounded in his book The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories (2004).
In the first article in this series, I looked at one simple story which has been popular in narrative paintings, that of the fall of Icarus. Those of Perseus and Theseus are not only more extensive and complex, but are among Booker’s first examples of his first type of plot, Overcoming the Monster. To analyse paintings of these two stories, I first consider the types of monster depicted, against Booker’s three classes (p 32), then the five stages of their plots against those given by Booker (p 48).
As Booker points out, the story of Perseus has two monsters: Medusa the Gorgon, and Cetus the sea monster. While paintings of Cetus have varied considerably, those of Medusa have converged on a common visual account.
Her most enduring and familiar image is Caravaggio’s Medusa from about 1597, which follows traditional lines, with ample blood and abundant snakes, and captures the open-mouthed horror in her face. Her face is thoroughly human, which is in accord with literary accounts. Its danger rests in the fact that any mortal seeing her face directly (in contrast to seeing its reflection) is immediately turned to stone.
Booker’s types of monster (p 32) are:
- Predator, wandering the world looking for victims;
- Holdfast, guarding its treasures in a lair;
- Avenger, leaving its lair in pursuit of revenge.
Neither in literary accounts nor in paintings does Medusa appear to conform well to any of Booker’s three types of monster, perhaps coming closest to behaving as a Holdfast. Indeed, as painted and told, her most important role in the story of Perseus is providing the hero with a magical weapon, which he uses against Atlas, in some variants of the story against Cetus too, and again at his wedding to Andromeda.
Turning to the monsters in the story of Theseus, Booker points out that the hero’s early tasks before he arrives in Athens involve encounters with monstrous enemies, although these are in passing and not the principal monster he has to overcome, which is the Minotaur.
Paintings depicting the Minotaur are relatively uncommon. Perhaps the most explicit and impressive is that of George Frederic Watts, which was a response to a series of articles in the press revealing the industry of child prostitution in late Victorian Britain. His Minotaur has crushed a small bird in its left hand, and gazes out to sea, awaiting the next shipment of young men and virgin women from Greece.
The Minotaur also doesn’t fit easily into Booker’s categories of monsters, again being closest to a Holdfast.
Anticipation Stage and ‘Call’
Interestingly, Edward Burne-Jones starts his Perseus series with this painting titled The Call of Perseus (1877), showing a double image of Perseus with Athena outside the city. At the left, Athena approaches the pensive Perseus, who is pondering how he can obtain the head of Medusa, staring into a stream. At the right, Athena has transformed herself into her regular and recognisable form, and is giving Perseus her advice, and providing him with the mirror with which he can view Medusa in safety.
However, the Anticipation Stage starts with its own complicated story about Polydectes and Perseus’ mother Danaë which Booker elides, and doesn’t appear to have been painted either.
For Theseus, the Call itself is overshadowed by his recognition by his father Aegeus, which Booker surprisingly omits from his outline. Hippolyte Flandrin’s Theseus Recognized by his Father (1832) shows the moment immediately after Aegeus has recognised his son, with the cup of aconite lying spilt on the table. Theseus, conspicuously naked, stands in the middle of the canvas, while Aegeus stands to the left of centre, talking to his son quite emotionally. There are no visual references at all to Theseus’ future mission to kill the Minotaur, which doesn’t appear to have been painted.
Perseus’ mission starts with his visit to the sisters of the Gorgons, the Graiae, who in turn lead him to the Hesperides, who provide him with a kibisis, a small bag into which he will put Medusa’s head.
Burne-Jones shows Perseus with the three Graiae. He has just intercepted and seized their single, shared eye, which he holds in his right hand, and only returns once they have led him to the Hesperides. The Latin inscription provides a succinct summary of the whole series of paintings.
Perseus still needed four more items: Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and the helm of darkness from Hades, which enabled him to hide invisibly. Hermes lent out his winged sandals so that Perseus could fly like a god, and Athena provided him with a polished shield, with which he could avoid looking directly at Medusa’s face, which would have turned him to stone. These are referred to in some other paintings of this story.
Painted accounts of Theseus jump past this stage, to the arrival of the hero on Crete with the other sacrificial victims.
Booker describes this stage as the first encounter of the hero with the monster, in which the hero appears tiny and outclassed, putting their mission in grave doubt. This doesn’t appear in any of the painted accounts of either story that I have seen.
This is the “final ordeal” and “a nightmare battle”, which again appears absent from painted accounts of either story, even in backward reference.
The Thrilling Escape from Death, and Death of the Monster
Booker’s final stage, which he identifies as the ‘reversal’, or in more formal terms the peripeteia, is one of the most popular scenes in paintings of both stories.
Paolo Veronese’s Perseus Rescuing Andromeda (1576-78) encompasses both the death of Cetus and the rescue of the princess.
It’s probably Charles-Édouard Chaise’s painting of Theseus, Victor over the Minotaur (c 1791) which best shows Theseus standing in triumph over the lifeless corpse of the Minotaur, with the young Athenians whose lives he saved. This also includes the links to earlier events and the future, with Ariadne shown near the thread which she provided to enable Theseus to retrace his steps through the labyrinth.
The conclusion to the story of Perseus, in particular the deadly battle with Phineas at the wedding of Perseus and Andromeda, doesn’t appear to have a place in Booker’s stages. The story of Theseus becomes even more complicated after his success with the Minotaur; although Booker does mention this briefly, it has been painted perhaps even more frequently than events on Crete.
Lovis Corinth’s Ariadne on Naxos (1913) shows Ariadne lying in erotic langour on Theseus’ left thigh, at the left. He wears an exuberant helmet, and appears to be shouting angrily and anxiously towards Dionysus as he arrives at the right.
Theseus not only abandons Ariadne, the princess who he might have married, but forgets to hoist a white sail on his ship as it nears home, leading his father to kill himself in the belief that his mission failed. It’s only through the suicide of Aegeus that Theseus becomes king of Athens, and he still hadn’t married his princess.
Indeed, Theseus’ marriage to Ariadne’s sister Phaedra was hardly made in heaven. She was in any case his second wife, after Hippolyta, an Amazon and his first wife, was killed. The hero, his wife Phaedra and Hippolytus, the son of his first marriage, had fled into voluntary exile in Troezen, a town to the southwest of Athens, on the opposite side of the Saronic Gulf. That was because Theseus had murdered a local king and his sons.
When they were in exile, Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, her stepson, and initially intended to die with her honour intact. That’s the scene which Alexandre Cabanel’s large canvas of Phaedra (1880) depicts, with the lugubrious young Phaedra spread languidly across a couch, starving herself to death.
In a complicated sequence of events, parts of which have been painted, Phaedra commits suicide, following which Theseus discovers her note claiming (falsely) that Hippolytus had raped her. That drives Theseus to call on his joint father Poseidon to avenge Phaedra’s death on the innocent Hippolytus, who falls from his chariot and is dragged to his death.
Few paintings are ever able to tell a complete story in the way that literary narrative normally does. The one exception in these examples is Edward Burne-Jones’ Perseus series, which includes scenes across almost the whole story. Despite several years of careful preparation, those paintings are structured quite differently from Booker’s stages.
Other narrative painters, when choosing and composing scenes, normally followed the convention in visual art to depict the moment of peripeteia, according to Aristotelian poetics. It’s not surprising that the most popular painted scenes from both stories thus show Booker’s final stage.
Both stories contain stages which don’t appear in Booker’s sequence.
In the case of Perseus, these are complicated by the initial sub-story of Medusa which is too incomplete to warrant analysis in terms of Booker’s stages, and appears primarily as an explanation for the hero obtaining the unique weapon of the Gorgon’s face. Equally, the concluding stage of the wedding and battle with Phineas falls outside the five stages given by Booker. Yet scenes with Medusa and Phineas turned to stone at the wedding have proved popular in paintings.
The story of Theseus is even further from Booker’s five stages, which can’t account for events before his Call, notably recognition by his father, nor for those after the departure of Theseus and Ariadne from Crete. Only four of the twenty-three paintings which I used to summarise the story of Theseus cover Booker’s five stages of Overcoming the Monster.
You may think that I’m being unfair in considering the whole of these two stories in terms of a single plot type. However, they are both examples quoted by Booker, and he includes events throughout each of them in the summaries he gives in his book.
As far as visual narrative is concerned, these two stories fit better with Aristotelian poetics than Booker’s five stage plot.
A life of Perseus in paintings 1
A life of Perseus in paintings 2
A life of Theseus in paintings: 1 Whose are those sandals?
A life of Theseus in paintings: 2 Killing the Minotaur
A life of Theseus in paintings: 3 Fights and failed relationships
Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2