Perseus: The Powerful Demigod of Greek Mythology
One of the most detailed stories within Greek mythology, the story of Perseus reads like an action-packed thriller. From being born of Zeus’ golden rain to slaying the fearsome Medusa, Perseus has been remembered as one of the most famous mythological heroes of all time.
Acrisius, the Prophecy and the Conception of Perseus
The story of Perseus is packed with adventure, as indeed befits a demigod. His grandfather was the King Acrisius of Argos, who with his wife, Eurydice, had a daughter named Danae. In the hope of having a son, Acrisius went to the Oracle of Delphi who told him that, not only would he have another child, but that child would be killed by the hand of a child born to his daughter.
To prevent this prophecy from coming true, King Acrisius built an underground chamber and covered the walls with steel plates, locking Danae in with her maid and surrounding them with guards to avoid her having contact with any man. Their only access to the outside world was through an overhead window. We should note here that in the Agora of Argos existed an underground chamber in which it was said the steel room of Danae had been built. According to Pausanias (150 AD), it was destroyed by the Argos tyrant Perilaus.
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Having grown fond of her, Zeus visited Danae’s cell in the form of golden rain which entered her womb and impregnated her. This was a common practice for Jupiter, the name of the Roman equivalent to Zeus, changing forms so that he could copulate with female humans, and is a strange phenomenon found in many ancient mythologies and religions. Interesting enough, a recently discovered ancient Coptic text appears to suggest that Jesus also had the ability to shapeshift. Nevertheless, even if we accept that Jupiter had the ability to transform, we have to ask ourselves what made him wish to acquire offspring with humans?
Danaë and the shower of gold, said to have caused the conception of Perseus. Side A from a Boeotian red-figure bell-shaped crater housed at the Louvre. (Public domain)
The Birth of Perseus and the Deceit of Pollux
The fruit of the union between Zeus and Danae was a son named Perseus who Danae managed to hide from her father for some time. When Acrisius found out about the birth, he ordered the maid to be killed and then had Danae and Perseus enclosed in a chest and thrown into the sea. Waves, calmed by Poseidon, led the chest to the coast of Serifos, which is where Perseus grew up to become a strong man. The trunk was found by Dictys. It is worth noting the similarity to Moses who, according to the Bible, was left in the Nile inside a box of papyrus.
Dictys was a fisherman and the brother of the king of the island, Polydeuces, or Pollux. He probably lived in the famous Cave of the Cyclop, as the chest could have washed up on the beach at the front of the cave. Dictys hosted Danae and Perseus in his home, and they became members of his family; but his brother, King Pollux, wished Danae to be his wife and denied Dictys this union with her.
Another obstacle to the king was Danae’s son, Perseus, who was an extremely protective son. In an attempt to get his way, Pollux proclaimed his marriage with Hippodamia and asked that each inhabitant of the island provide the wedding gift of a horse. Perseus, being a fisherman, had no horses but pledged to bring the king the head of Medusa, the Gorgon, instead. Pollux readily accepted this commitment, as no man had ever returned alive from an encounter with a Gorgon. Pollux decided to keep Danae in the palace until Perseus returned with Medusa’s head.
Danaë, the mother of Perseus, as depicted by Gustav Klimt. (Public domain)
Perseus and the Hunt for Medusa
Medusa was one of the three mermaids which, according to Hesiod, lived across the ocean at the edge of the earth near the Night. Unlike her sisters who were immortal, Medusa was mortal. According to one version of the myth, she was thought to be beautiful and was raped by Poseidon. An angry Athena then cursed her and turned her into a terrible monster, though early versions of the myth claimed she was already a scaly monster with snakes entwined in her copper locks, pig tusks, large mouths, and large eyes that shot lightning. All who met her terrible gaze were said to be turned to stone.
Perseus left Serifos on a ship in order to search for Medusa. On the way he met Athena and Hermes, who told him how to kill the Medusa and, along with the nymphs, gave him the following weapons:
- The helmet of Hades to make him invisible as he approached his target.
- A magic bag in which to put the terrible head.
- Winged sandals to fly him to the rock in the middle of the sea where Medusa resided.
- The glittering shield to look upon Medusa.
- A sharp sword or scythe, which would cut through the hard neck of Medusa.
It was Athena who gave him the glittering shield and Hermes his winged sandals, though according to another source, the helmet, the winged sandals and the magic bag were given to him by the nymphs, and he received the sharp sword and the helmet when Athena led him to the land of the Hyperboreans (testimony derived from Pindar) where he offered a sacrifice.
Now Perseus needed to find where Medusa resided. Athena led him to the Graiae sisters, who were relatives of the Gorgons and the only ones who knew where they resided. The Graiae were three foul-faced crones, who in tragi-comic style shared just one eye and a tooth which they exchanged between themselves. Perseus approached them unseen and, taking advantage of the time of the exchange, grabbed the eye. Under the threat of losing it, the Graiae revealed the abode of Medusa to the hero.
The marriage of Perseus and Andromeda disturbed by Phineus by Hugues Taraval. (Public domain)
Perseus and the Head of Medusa
When the hero approached Medusa he was invisible. Looking at her via the reflection on his shield, he cut off her head and put it in his bag. From her neck sprang the giant Chrysaor armed with a gold sword, and from the blood that fell in the ocean sprang Pegasus, the winged horse. These two creatures are said to have resulted from her mating with Poseidon. Why would Poseidon want to be united with such a monster, if not to create these two?
To escape the persecution of Medusa's sisters, Perseus flew away using the winged sandals, or according to other sources rode away on Pegasus. On the way back to Serifos, Perseus passed Ethiopia where he unexpectedly witnessed a strange spectacle. On a rock on the beach was chained a very beautiful woman, and around her stood a large, dumbfounded crowd, as well as a man and a woman dressed in mourning clothes.
Everyone was waiting for something. The chained woman seemed exhausted from crying and did not budge. Perseus, who flew into the air with his winged sandals, suddenly saw a big swirl of waves from which emerged a large sea monster. When the beast saw the young woman, it started to swim towards her.
Perseus took from his sack the head of Medusa and, like a predator bird, swooped down upon the monster. The beast stopped, slowly numbed, and turned into a rock that would not devour anyone else. The rescued woman was none other than Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus, king of the drone, and of Cassiopis, or Cassiopeia, granddaughter of Aeolus from Iopi. According to the myth, Andromeda had provoked the wrath of Poseidon because she boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids. The sea dragon had been sent by Poseidon as punishment. One would expect Poseidon to be angry with Perseus and want to avenge him. He did not, however, perhaps because Perseus brought to light his children, Chrysaor and Pegasus?
Perseus fell in love with Andromeda, although she was already engaged to her uncle Phineus, who had not raised any objections when his compatriots tied Andromeda to the rock as a sacrifice to the sea dragon. After her rescue, Andromeda agreed to marry Perseus. At the wedding Phineas and his supporters quarreled with and chased away Perseus and Andromeda. The hero escaped by pulling Medusa's head from his bag and pointing it toward his pursuers, turning Phineus to petrified stone.
The eldest son of Perseus and Andromeda, who was born in Ethiopia and was named Persian, stayed there and became the ancestor of the people who are known as Persians. Does this mean that the Persians came from the mixing of Ethiopians and Greeks?
Perseus Freeing Andromeda, by Émile Bin. (Public domain)
Perseus and the Fulfillment of the Prophecy
While Perseus was away, Pollux tried to take Danae—by force—to be his wife, but she resisted. As a result, when Perseus returned to Serifos he found his mother and Dictys bound by Pollux and prepared for sacrifice in the temple of Athena. Pollux refused to accept Perseus’ accomplishment, provoking the hero to show him Medusa’s head. The hero warned his own people not to look, and pulled the head of Medusa out of his bag. Those who looked at it, including Pollux, were petrified at once, and so Serifos came to be full of stones that looked like humans.
Perseus then devoted Medusa’s head to Athena, who picked it up and pinned it to the front of her shield, then handed it over to Hermes. Perseus also offered them the helmet of Hades, the kynin, the winged sandals, and the bag.
Meanwhile, Dictys assumed leadership of the island and Perseus prepared to return to Argos with his mother and wife. Perseus wanted to reconcile with his grandfather Acrisius, who although feeling proud of his grandson, wanted to avoid the meeting and therefore resorted to Larissa in Thessaly, which was built next to the River Peneus.
On the way to meet his grandfather in Argos, Perseus learned of the games held in Larissa. He sent his mother on to Argos, near his grandmother Eurydice, while he went to take part in the games. It was there, while taking part in the discus throw as part of the pentathlon, that Perseus threw the disk with great power and killed a spectator—who was none other than his grandfather, Acrisius. In the end, the prophecy of the Oracle at Delphi came true.
The constellation of Persus. (Public domain)
The Legacy of Perseus
Perseus heartily felt sorry for the unintentional death of his grandfather and refused to take the throne, instead agreeing with his cousin, Megapenthes, to give him the throne of Argos in return for the throne of Tirynth and Mycenae. Perseus then became king of Tirynth and founded the city of Mycenae, naming it after the end of the sheath of his sword, myces. He turned to the Cyclops for help building the city, which became famous for its Cyclopean walls, that are visible even today.
Perseus and Andromeda had six children: Alcaeus, Heleus, Sthenelus, Elios, Gorgophonis and Electryon. Alcaeus was the father of Amfitryon, whose wife, Alcmene, would later bring Hercules into the world. Thus by Perseus, son of Zeus, starts the famous generation of Hercules, also a son of Zeus.
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When Perseus died, the gods did not send him to Hades but, together with Andromeda and her parents Cepheus and Cassiopeia, sent him to the stars. Hence, the constellations of Perseus, Andromeda (consisting of 86 stars), and Cassiopeia and Cepheus were created in the northern hemisphere toward the polar star, capturing their stories on the celestial dome. Over the constellation of Andromeda is the Andromeda nebula, which looks like a bright cloud during the star-filled moonless nights.
Perseus and Dionysus
Another tradition relates Perseus and Dionysus to a relationship similar to the rivalry of Pentheus in Boeotia. Dionysus had gone to Argolis, defying the sovereignty of the local hero. The battle between them was fierce. On one side were Dionysus, his wife Ariadne and the Maenads, and on the other side was Perseus, who with the support of Hera killed a Maenad and petrified Ariadne by showing her the head of Medusa. The intervention of Hera inspired the two men to make peace, and a joint celebration with dances was setup in their honor. According to another tradition, Perseus killed Dionysus and dropped his dead body in the waters of Lerna.
The story of Perseus is one of the most incredible and detailed Greek myths, full of marvelous and powerful creatures, unimaginable weapons (that we couldn’t build even today), the interference of gods, and the accomplishment of magnificent deeds.
Top image: Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini. Source: Dimitris Kamaras / CC BY 2.0
By Natasa Tale
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