By Katherine Smyth, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Of divine conception, saved from certain death, and raised to manhood by his mother, Perseus’ life was never destined to be boring. But just who is the man behind the myth, and how did he achieve such legendary status? Keep reading and you’ll discover just who this hero really is.
The Name Behind the Man
Scholars have discussed the origin of Perseus’ name for years. Some assert that it is of Proto-Indo-European origin, others that it is closely linked to the name of the Goddess of Death, Persephone. But why should a young man carry such association? Well, his name is fitting if Robert Graves’ theory is correct, that πέρθειν (pérthein) means “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”. Meanwhile, Carl Darling Buck’s assertion that -eus is a suffix to create an agent noun, and thus Pers-eus becomes a sacker of cities…and Perseus definitely devastated the world around him as the classical world’s first recognizable warrior.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554)
A Divine Conception
So, how did he become this formidable warrior? Well, Perseus’ arrival into the world may sound a little familiar. As with many kings of his time, Acrisius, King of Argos, was fixated with having a male heir. Unfortunately for him, the Fates saw fit to give him only daughters. Danae, Perseus’ mother, was one of two daughters to the King of Argos and the only legitimate offspring.
Rembrandt’s Danaë, c. 1636.
In time, the boy-child was born and Acrisius began to panic. Fearful of offending the great god Zeus, he chose not to kill the child; instead he cast both mother and child into the sea in a wooden box and left their fate to Poseidon. Whilst the waves lapped at the sides of the box, Danae prayed to the gods to be spared and was shortly, thereafter, washed ashore on the island of Seriphos. Dictys, a local fisherman, rescued the stranded mother and child, gave them shelter and helped raise Perseus to manhood.
Once Perseus was grown his life took a turn that only the Fates could foresee. Whilst Dictys was a trustworthy man who respected Danae, his brother, Polydectes the King of Seriphos, was less than honorable. Perseus, fearing for his mother’s safety, kept the king from her door. Angered and feeling slighted, Polydectes hatched a plan to rid himself of the youth and bed Danae.
Perseus and the Sea Nymphs (The Arming of Perseus) by SIR EDWARD COLEY BURNE-JONES (1833-1898)
Polydectes organized a great party and the invitation was more of a summons with an extravagant gift as a requirement. What was the price of attendance? Horses, something Polydectes knew Perseus did not have. He also knew the young man would not offend the king by refusing to attend. To avoid punishment for his inability to present the requisite gift, Perseus asked Polydectes to name a gift he would accept as a substitute. Polydectes’ trap was a success; he asked the impetuous youth to get him the head of the mortal Gorgon Medusa, the woman whose gaze turned mankind to stone on the instant
The Legend Sets Forth
Luckily for our young hero, Athena gave Perseus information on how to locate the Hesperides; the nymphs who cared for Hera’s orchard and the keepers of the weapons he’d need to defeat Medusa. In order to secure these weapons, however, Perseus would have to extract their location from the Greae; sisters of the Gorgons who had only one eye and one tooth which they shared between them.
Perseus with the Sisters of the Gorgon
Perseus, being an agile young man, snatched the eye mid-air from the Graea and held it ransom for the location of the Hesperides. Once the information was gained, he handed the eye back the perpetual crones. The Hesperides gave Perseus a kibisis, or knapsack, to hold Medusa’s head once he’d killed her. Zeus armed his son with an adamantine sword, along with Hades’ helmet of darkness – which Zeus ‘borrowed’ – so that Perseus could sneak up on Medusa. Hermes and Athena also helped Perseus on his quest by loaning him winged sandals and a polished shield respectively. Thus armed, Perseus sought his quarry.
Into the darkness of the cave Perseus crept. There he discovered Medusa sleeping, viewing her slumbering form as a reflection in his shield. With a swift stroke Perseus severed Medusa’s head from her body and snatched the bundle of snake-hair into the kibisis before fleeing from the scene. The story of Pegasus and Chrysoar begin from this bloody-thirsty episode; both the winged-horse and golden-sworded son were born from the bleeding neck of the Gorgon.
Perseus and Medusa Vase, Attic Red figure, ca. 460 B.C
Now, with the head of Medusa safely in the bag, Perseus set off to return to the island of Seriphos. On the way he stopped at Aethiopia, where he met King Cephus and Queen Cassiopeia, a woman who was not burdened with humility, and their beautiful daughter, Andromeda
The King and Queen had insulted Poseidon and his offspring due to boasting of their daughter’s great and unmatched beauty that was far superior to that of the nymphs. As such, their land was being flooded as punishment and the only way to appease the sea god was to kill Andromeda by feeding her to Cetus, Poseidon’s pet monster.
This is the predicament that met Perseus on his arrival, and being the hero that he was, he intercepted Cetus and killed the beast before taking Andromeda as his wife. Andromeda sailed happily away with Perseus to Tiryns in Argos, and eventually became the ancestress of the royal family who ruled the kingdom of Perseidae, through her son Perses.
The Doom Fulfilled, 1888, Southampton City Art Gallery, part of a series of paintings revolving around Perseus, created by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones
Not forgetting his mother’s plight, Perseus then returned to Seriphos, and discovered that Polydectes advances had become violent. His mother was now forced to hide in mountain caves to escape the King. Perseus sought out Polydectes
, and killed him on-sight by showing him the bounty of his quest: Medusa’s head. With Polydectes turned to stone, and his mother safe, Perseus made Dictys the new King with his mother as consort.
With his mother protected and happy, Perseus then returned his magical aides to their owners, and gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who then set it upon Zeus’ shield, which she was charged with keeping. It is perhaps this respect that Perseus showed Athena that ensured honor to Andromeda upon her death; she was placed in the heavens as a constellation
, near her husband and mother.
Perseus then returned with his wife to Argos. There are several variations of how Perseus fulfills the prophecy of slaying his grandfather. One is that upon hearing of his grandson’s return and approach, Acrisius exiled himself to Pelasgiotis (Thessaly). There, the King of Larissa, Teutamides, holds funeral games for his father and they are interrupted when Perseus accidentally kills Acrisius during the discus event.
Another version has it that Acrisius’ twin brother, Proetus, drove the King into exile after seizing the kingdom. Perseus turns his uncle to stone with the Gorgon’s head and restores his grandfather to the throne. However, Acrisius insults Perseus by stating that the hero lied, Perseus then shows the king the head and the prophecy is fulfilled.
The Death of Acrisius by Sybil Tawse
The third version is that Perseus did not return to Argos, instead that he went to Larissa. There, at the funeral games, he displayed his newly invented game called ‘quoits’ and an errant ring flew loose striking King Acrisius; it killed him instantly and fulfilled the prophecy.
Now with Acrisius dead, Perseus was by default the next King. But, as he was also responsible for his death, he was unable to inherit due to manslaughter laws and a guilty conscious. Rather than go into exile himself and abandon his people, Perseus swapped his throne in Argos
with his cousin’s throne in Tiryns. With both kingdoms then safe under the rule of the cousins, life settled down for Perseus, at least for a little while.
Sadly, Megapenthes, son of Proetus, could not forgive and forget the family rivalry over the kingdom of Argos. After many years of peace, Megapenthes sought out his cousin and avenged the death of his father Proetus. This act of aggression, unfortunately, catapulted the two families into several generations of disputes, battles and persecutions that would eventually leave the kingdom of Argos to a distant third family line.
Perseus Turning Phineus and his followers to Stone, by Luca Giordano
As a legacy, Perseus was the great-grandfather of Heracles, by his son Electryon, and became the progenitor of the Persian peoples by his son Perses. He has been portrayed as a rider of the tamed Pegasus, where he replaced Bellephron since classical times, and of course, as the constellation that bears his name that still watches over us from the northern sky.
So, whilst the origin of his name may remain shrouded in mystery, the hero Perseus certainly left his mark on ancient Greece and western civilization at large. Son of the god of all gods Zeus, he protected his blessed mother and was a hero to his nation, and the progenitor of one of mythology’s greatest heroes. Perseus truly is the Original Hero.