A childless king, praying for offspring, hears a voice asking him to choose between a son who will die and a daughter who will run away. By the advice of his subjects he chooses the latter; and a daughter is accordingly born. Some miles from his city the king has a palace in the midst of a fair garden. Thither he brings the child, with nurse and maid of honour, to keep her in safety; and he and his wife visit the little one but rarely. No sooner, however, had she arrived at the age of sixteen than the son of King Jonah, passing by, saw her and bribed her nurse to let him have access to her. The young people fell in love with one another, and were secretly married. In due time the bride gave birth to a son; and her father, learning this, refused to see her again. When the boy was fifteen years of age he went to find his grand-father, who would not so much as speak to him. He endured this silence for three or four months, and then demanded the reason for it, offering the king, if he would tell him, to go and cut off the Witch’s head for him. The king replied that this was just what he wanted him to do. Now, the witch in question was so terrible that all who looked at her became statues; and the king hoped that the youth would perish in the adventure. But on the way he met an old man who gave him a flying steed, and directed him to a palace wherein dwelt two women who had only one eye between them, from whom he was to obtain a mirror. And the old man warned him always to regard the witch in the mirror, and never to look at her otherwise, lest he should become a statue. The flying steed carried the adventurer safely over a mountain inhabited by all sorts of wild and ravenous beasts; and he arrived in due course at the palace of the one-eyed women. There, by possessing himself of the eye while one of them was handing it to the other, he extorted the mirror which enabled him to accomplish the object of his journey. After cutting off the witch’s head, he returned home another way; and coming to a seaport town he found a chapel by the sea-side, and a lovely maiden within it, clad in mourning garb and weeping. She bids him depart, lest he also be eaten by the seven-headed dragon whereto she has been offered, and whose coming she is then awaiting. He refuses to leave her. Instead of doing so, he attacks the dragon on its rising from the sea, turns it to stone, and cuts out its seven tongues, which he ties up in a handkerchief and puts in his pocket. But, having delivered the lady, he ungallantly refuses to see her home, saying that he wishes to see a little more of the world. Before leaving her, however, he makes an appointment to return in six months. This inscrutable conduct gives opportunity to a cobbler, who meets her alone, to threaten her with death unless she will tell her father that he is the slayer of the dragon. Deprived of her champion, she is compelled to submit to the terms; but when her father offers her in marriage to her supposed deliverer, she pleads for a delay of six months. Then the king sent placards through all his cities, announcing his daughter’s deliverance by a cobbler and her approaching marriage to him. Her real deliverer hears the placards, and returns to the capital just as the six months are expiring. He attends an audience, and inquires of the king how many heads the beast had, and whether the cobbler has any proof of his victory. The cobbler is summoned, and asked where are the dragon’s seven tongues? The damsel settles the question, however, by declaring that the youth it was who slew the dragon and cut out his tongues, and that the rascal of a shoemaker had taken her by force and compelled her to say that it was he. The shoemaker is promptly burned in the great square, and the hero married. He returns with his bride to his grandfather, to whom he shows the witch’s head, with the inevitable result, and then fetches his father from the garden where he had himself been born.
Edwin Sidney Hartland, in his three-volume Legend of Perseus (1894-1896), from which I took this story, traced hundreds upon hundreds of variants of the Perseus story and its related tales, collecting a spectrum of stories that revolve around the same core but differ one to the next gradually but inexorably from the Classical version preserved in the ancient authors (which wasn't consistent from author to author either).
So, if you're an ancient astronaut writer or an alternative historian, how do you deal with the fact that the stories you use to support your theories (and they have related Medusa to aliens) exist in a bewildering array of contradictory variants? What makes one version definitive and another less so?
These writers have two answers, both bad: 1) Each represents a separate incident of the same aliens performing a similar task (thus denying relationships or textual dependence). And: 2) Whichever version appears in standard manuals is by default the "correct" version (denying or being ignorant of the importance or existence of variants).
How many hundred versions of Perseus do you imagine trotted around after women who turned men to stone? Just one is needed, you might say; but there's the rub: in many variants, it isn't stone at all but something else, or the woman doesn't have snakes for hair, etc. Some of these stories are coeval with the Classical version, some are younger, and some may well be, at their core, older than the standard version. (It doesn't help that the Classical Medusa changed forms across Antiquity, from a weird animalistic monster to a beauty with snakes for hair, or that such imagery can be traced back to Mesopotamia and the giant Humbaba.) So how do we declare one "real" or establish a firm fact?
This problem isn't limited to Perseus, but extends to nearly every myth or legend used by alternative writers. Without some criteria for picking and choosing which variant to believe, there is no way of establishing the "facts" of a myth, much less any way to take one variant or another literally.
I feel strongly enough about this that I'm preparing a new single-volume abridgment of Hartland's Perseus to demonstrate just how many variations there are on even the most familiar of myths, thus greatly complicating ancient astronaut theorists' work. Hartland's book is very important and probably the most exhaustive collection of legends on a single theme ever assembled, but its unwieldy three volumes (print-on-demand OCR or scanned reprints run $30 per volume!) have caused it to be forgotten. Plus, Perseus is my second-favorite Greek hero. I think you can guess the first. (Hint: I'm named for him.) I hope to have this done by the end of the month, but we'll see. It's a really big book, and even the abridged version will run about 600 pages.