Perseus: The Argive Hero of Greek Mythology

While no longer as famous as Heracles or Odysseus, the Argive king and Greek hero Perseus has just an interesting story. A fellow child of Zeus, Perseus famously beheaded the snake-haired Medusa, fought a sea monster for Andromeda, and accidentally killed his grandfather while playing sport.

Is Perseus the Son of Zeus or Poseidon?

Due to his connection to the sea, many think that Perseus is related to Poseidon. But Perseus is, without a doubt, the son of the king of the gods, Zeus. No source of mythology states that Poseidon was his father, although the sea god does play a role in Perseus’ story. Rather than the father of Perseus, Poseidon is a lover of Medusa, a sea monster who Perseus slew. There is no evidence that Poseidon was angry about this action, however, and the god appears to play no other role in the story of the Grecian hero.

Who Was the Mother of Perseus?

Perseus was the child of Danae, a princess of Argos. More importantly, he was the grandson of Acrisius and Eurydice. The story of Perseus’ birth and the prophecy of his grandfather’s death would become the center of the myth known as “The Golden Shower.”

What Is the Story of the Golden Shower?

Danae was the firstborn child of King Acrisius, and he was concerned that he would not have a son to take over his kingdom. Acrisius spoke to the Oracles, who prophesied that the son of Danae would be the cause of the old king’s death.

Frightened by this prophecy, Acrisius imprisoned his daughter in a bronze chamber and buried her underground. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, the king of the gods became a golden rain and seeped into the cracks of the chamber. “Zeus had intercourse with her in the shape of a stream of gold which poured through the roof into Danae’s lap.”

Enraged that she was to fall pregnant, and believing that it was Proteus, not Zeus, that had gotten into the chamber, Acrisius dragged Danae back out of the chamber. He shut her up in a chest with Perseus and cast it into the sea. Pseudo-Hyginus states, “By Jove’s [Zeus’] will, it was borne to the island of Seriphos, and when the fisherman Dictys found it and broke it open, he discovered the mother and child. He took them to King Polydectes [his brother], who married Danae and brought up Perseus in the temple of Minerva [Athena].” 

Perseus and Medusa

The most famous story of Perseus is his quest to kill the famous monster, Medusa. Any man who saw her face would turn to stone, and it was considered a feat that Perseus could survive her presence, let alone kill her. Perseus only succeeded by owning special armor and weapons from the gods and later took advantage of holding Medusa’s head when confronted with the Titan Atlas.

What is a Gorgon?

Gorgons, or Gorgones, were three winged “daimones,” or “phantoms of Hades.” Called Medousa (Medusa), Sthenmo and Euryale, only Medusa was mortal. Some ancient Greek art would depict all three gorgons as having “serpentine hair,” tusks like pigs, and big round heads. 

Euripedes and Homer each only referred to a single Gorgon, Medusa. However, those myths which mention three women call them sisters, and say that the other two were punished simply because of Medusa’s transgressions. It was said that Sthenmo and Euryale tried to kill Perseus but could not find him due to the special helmet he wore.

Who was Medusa?

The full story of Medusa, taking into account the oldest myths and the younger poems and stories that survived through the Roman empire, is one of tragedy. The terrible monster beheaded by Perseus wasn’t always so horrifying or deadly.

Medusa was a beautiful young woman, a virgin priestess of the goddess Athena. She and her sisters were daughters of the primordial sea gods, Ceto and Phorcys. While her sisters were immortal gods themselves, Medusa was a mortal woman only. 

Medusa had promised to keep her chastity in honor of her deity, and took this vow seriously. However, according to multiple sources, she was a particularly beautiful woman and did not go unnoticed by the gods. Poseidon took special interest in her, and one day came down to Athena’s shrine and raped the poor woman. Athena, insulted that Medusa was no longer a virgin, punished her by turning her into a monster. For standing by their sibling, she did the same to the other two gorgons.

Where Did Medusa Get Her Powers?

Athena’s punishment came with great and terrible features. Medusa grew wings, tusks, and long claws. Her long, beautiful hair became a head of snakes. And anyone who looked upon the head, even after it was removed, would turn to stone. In this way, no man would ever wish to look upon the woman again.

Why Was Medusa Killed by Perseus?

Perseus had no personal grudge against Medusa. No, he was sent to kill her by King Polydectes of Seriphos. Polydectes had fallen in love with Danae. Perseus was quite protective of his mother, with all they had been through, and was cautious about the King.

While some myths suggest that Perseus volunteered to retrieve the head as a wedding gift, others say he was ordered to as a method of getting rid of the pesky young man. Either way, Perseus was known for boasting and would not shame himself by returning empty-handed.

What Objects Were Given to Perseus?

Perseus was the son of Zeus, and the god of gods wanted to protect him on his quest. So Zeus and his brothers got together armor and weapons to help Perseus succeed against Medusa. Hades gave Perseus the helmet of invisibility, Hermes his winged sandals, Hephaestus a mighty sword, and Athena a reflective bronze shield.

The Helmet of Hades

The Helmet of Hades was one of the gifts of the Cyclopes to the young Olympian gods when they first fought the Titans in the Titanomachy. At this time, Zeus was given his thunderbolts, and Poseidon his famous Trident. As such, the helmet would have been Hades’ most important object, and to offer it to Perseus was a great symbol of the underworld god’s care for his nephew.

The Helmet of Hades was also used by Athene in the battle of Troy and Hermes when he fought Hippolytus, the giant.

The Winged Sandals of Hermes

Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, wore winged sandals that let him fly at supernatural speed around the world to pass messages between gods, and also bring warnings and prophesies to mortals. Perseus is one of the few people besides Hermes to wear the winged sandals.

The Sword of Hephaestus

Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and blacksmith to the Olympians, would create armor and weapons for many heroes over the years. He made armor for Heracles and Achilles, arrows for Appolo and Artemis, and an Aigis (or goat-skin breastplate) for Zeus. No human-made weapon could pierce the armor of the great blacksmith, and only a weapon he made himself had a chance – the sword of Hephaestus. This he gave to Perseus, and it was only ever used once.

The Bronze Shield of Athena

While Athena, the goddess of women and knowledge, was often portrayed as holding a shield, the story of Perseus is the only surviving account of it being used. The bronze polished shield was quite reflective, which came in very handy. Today, many surviving bronze shields from ancient antiquity are carved with the Gorgon’s head as a warning for all who face the wielder.

How did Perseus Kill Medusa?

The items brought by Perseus were integral to the killing of the Gorgon Medusa. By looking at the bronze shield’s reflection, he never had to gaze directly upon the monster. By wearing the winged sandals, he could move in and out quickly. One swipe of the sword and the Gorgon was beheaded, her snake-covered face quickly placed in a bag. Medusa’s siblings awoke but could not find her killer as he wore the Helm of Hades. Perseus was gone before they ever understood what had happened.

When Perseus beheaded Medusa, from the remains of her body came the winged horse, Pegasus, and Chrysaor. These children of Poseidon would go on to have their own stories in Greek mythology.

A Possible Historical Version of Medusa

Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, offers a historical version of Medusa that may be worth mentioning. In his work, he says that she was the queen of those around Lake Tritonis (modern-day Libya), and faced Perseus and his army in battle. Rather than die on the field, she was assassinated during the night. Perseus, admiring her beauty even in death, beheaded her to show the Greeks upon his return.

Another account in the same text says that Procles, a Carthaginian, believed Medusa to be a “Wild Woman” of Libya, a form of big-foot, who would harass the people in nearby towns. She was someone who would kill anyone who saw her, and the snakes were simply the curly and knotted hair that was naturally on her head.

Did Gorgons Invent Flutes?

In a strange little side-note, an interesting fact about Medusa and her sisters were integral to the invention of the flute. While the instrument itself was created by Pallas Athene, Pindar says that she “wove into music the dire dirge of the reckless Gorgons which Perseus heard” and “imitate with musical instruments the shrill cry that reached her ears from the fast-moving jaws of Euryale.” Yes, the high-pitched notes of the flute were the screams of the Gorgons as they mourned over the death of their sister.

What Happened When Perseus Returned With the Head of Medusa?

Returning to the island of Seriphos, the Greek hero discovered his mother in hiding. Polydectes had been abusing her. Perseus hunted the King down and showed him the head of the Gorgon – literally. He turned the king to stone. According to some tellings of the myth, Perseus turned all the king’s soldiers and even the entire island to stone.  He handed the kingdom to Dictys, who had protected Danae from his brother. 

Perseus, upon saving his mother, returned to Argos. There Perseus killed the current King, Proteus, and took his place on the throne. Proteus was the brother of Acrisius (Perseus’ grandfather) and their own war had lasted decades. For Perseus to take his place as King would be considered a good thing for many of the people of Argo. It is also said that Perseus built the towns of Mideia and Mycenae, and fought to stop the Dionysian mysteries. 

Perseus and Atlas

According to Ovid, as Perseus traveled back to Polydectes, he stopped in the lands of Atlas. The fields of Atlas contained the golden fruit, some of which the old Titan had previously given to Heracles. However, Atlas also remembered the sayings of an Oracle, as told by Themis.

“O Atlas,” the oracle said, “mark the day a son of Zeus shall come to spoil; for when thy trees been stripped of golden fruit, the glory shall be his.” Worried that this son was Perseus, Atlas was always careful. He had built a wall around his fields, and protected them with a dragon. When Perseus sought a place to rest, Atlas refused him. For this insult, Perseus showed the severed head of Medusa, and the old Titan turned to stone. To this day, the god can be seen as Mount Atlas.

Of this, Ovid said, “Now his hair and beard were changed into trees, his shoulders and hands into ridges. What had been his head before was the crest on the mountain summit. His bones became stones. Then he grew to an immense height in every part (so you gods determined) and the whole sky, with its many stars, rested on him.”

How Did Perseus Save Andromeda From The Sea Monster?

Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the story of how Perseus, traveling back from killing the Gorgon, came across the beautiful Ethiopian, Andromeda, and saved her from a vicious sea monster (Cetus).

Perseus had been traveling home from slaying Medusa when he came across a beautiful woman by the sea. Andromeda had been left chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Andromeda’s mother boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, so Poseidon sent the monster to attack the city. The oracles of Zeus told the King that, by sacrificing Andromeda, the monster would be appeased and go once more.

Just as Andromeda had told Perseus her tale, the monster rose from the waters. Perseus made a deal – if he dealt with the monster, Andromeda would become his wife. Her parents agreed. Perseus flew into the air like an ancient superhero, drew his sword, and dived at the creature. He stabbed it multiple times, in the neck and back, and attacked every time the creature rose to the surface. Eventually, it died.

Unfortunately for the city’s people, the celebrations did not last long. Phineus, brother of the king and uncle to Andromeda, had been promised the beautiful maiden as his wife. Angry at Perseus (instead of the gods that wished her to be sacrificed) he took up arms and started a great fight. It ended with Perseus taking the Gorgon head from its bag and turning the entire Ethiopian army into stone. 

Perseus took the beautiful woman with him back to Argos. There, he married Andromeda, and she would live to old age, giving Perseus many children. When she eventually died, Athena took her body into the sky and made her a constellation.

Perseus Against Dionysus

It isn’t one hundred percent clear if Perseus was against the worship of Dionysus; mythology texts say that the King of Argos was, but some versions mean Proteus. In the versions that name Perseus, the story is grim. It is said that the priestesses of Chorea, women who followed Dionysus, were slaughtered by Perseus and his followers and dumped into a communal grave.

The best-known story of Perseus and Dionysus comes from Nonnus, who wrote an entire biography of the bacchic god. In book 47 of the text, Perseus kills Ariadne by turning her into stone, while a disguised Hera warns the hero that, to win, he would also need to kill all the Satyrs. Dionysus could not be turned to stone, however. He owned a giant diamond, “the gem made stone in the showers of Zeus,” which prevented the magic of Medusa’s head.

Dionysus, in his rage, might very well have leveled Argos and killed Perseus if it wasn’t for Hermes. The messenger god stepped in.

“It is not Perseus’ fault,” Hermes told Dionysus, “but Hera, who convinced him to fight. Blame Hera. As for Ariadne, be happy. All die, but few get to die at the hands of a hero. Now she is in heaven with the other great women, like Elektra, my mother Maia, and your mother Semele.”

Dionysus calmed and let Perseus live. Perseus, realizing he had been tricked by Hera, changed his ways and supported the Dionysian mysteries. According to Pausanias, “they say that the god, having made war on Perseus, afterward laid aside his enmity, and received great honors at the hands of the Argives, including this precinct set specially apart for himself.”

Why Did Perseus Kill His Grandfather?

Unfortunately for Acrisius, the oracle’s prophesy eventually came true. Perseus was eventually the person to kill his grandfather. However, instead of it being in battle or any form of murder, death came only as an accident.

Whether it is Pausanius or Apollodorus you read, the story is remarkably the same. Perseus was attending sporting games (either for competition or part of funeral celebrations), where he was playing “quoits” (or discus throw). Acrisius, not knowing his grandson was present and not being careful as a spectator, was struck by one of these discs and died instantly. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled, and Perseus was officially the rightful claim to the throne of Argos. In some stories, it was only then that he went and killed Proteus, but the chronology is different throughout history.

Who Kills Perseus?

Perseus was eventually killed by Megapenthes, son of Proetus. It is said he was killed because of the death of Proetus. Both Proetus and Megapenthes were King of Argos, and Magapenthes was the cousin of Danae. 

According to another tale, Perseus lived to old age, founding the city of Tartus and teaching the magi of Persia. Eventually, he turned the head of Medusa upon himself and turned to stone. His son, Merros, then burned the head so that it could never be used again.

What are 3 Trivia Facts About Perseus?

Next time there is a trivia night, it might be more interesting to choose questions about Perseus than Hercules, and there are some fun facts that make perfect questions. Here are just three great ones for you to use.

Perseus is the Only Hero to Wear Items From Four Separate Gods. 

While Hermes used the helm of Hades, and many heroes wore the armor of Hephaestus, no other character in Greek mythology obtained that many accouterments from different gods.

Through Mortal Bloodlines, Perseus was the Great-Grandfather of Helen of Troy.

Gorgophone, daughter of Perseus, was to give birth to Tyndareus. He would then marry the princess, Leda. While it was Zeus that fathered Helen and Pollux by sleeping with Leda while in the form of a Swan, Tyndareus was considered their mortal father.

Perseus Never Rode Pegasus

Despite releasing the winged horse when he killed Medusa, no ancient mythology has Perseus ever riding Pegasus. The other Greek hero, Bellerophon, tamed the magical beast. However, classical and renaissance artists loved depicting the creature being ridden by the better-known hero, so the two myths are often confused. 

What Do We Know About Historical Perseus?

While much was written about the Perseus legend, modern historians and archeologists have been unable to uncover anything about the real Argive king. Both Herodotus and Pausanias wrote passages about what they could discover about this king, including his possible connections in Egypt and Persia. In Herodotus’ Histories, we learn the most about the mortal Perseus, his possible family, and the role his heritage might have played in ancient wars.

Herodotus names Perseus as the son of Danae but points out that it is unknown who his father may have been – this compared to Heracles, whose father was Amphitryon. Herodotus points out that Assyrians believed Perseus to have been from Persia, hence the similar name. He would become a Greek, rather than be born one. Modern linguists, however, dismiss this etymology as a coincidence. However, the same text says that Danae’s father, Acrisius, was of Egyptian stock, so Perseus may have been the first Greek in the family through both lines.

Herodotus also records that when Xerxes, the Persian king, came to conquer Greece, he attempted to convince the people of Argos that he was the descendent of Perseus, and, therefore their rightful king already.

In Egypt, there was a city called Khemmis, which Herodotus records had a temple to Perseus:

“The people of this Khemmis say that Perseus is seen often up and down this land, and often within the temple, and that the sandal he wears, which is four feet long, keeps turning up, and that when it does turn up, all Egypt prospers. This is what they say; and their doings in honor of Perseus are Greek, inasmuch as they celebrate games that include every form of contest, and offer animals and cloaks and skins as prizes. When I asked why Perseus appeared only to them, and why, unlike all other Egyptians, they celebrate games, they told me that Perseus was by lineage of their city”

How is Perseus Portrayed in Art?

Perseus was often represented in ancient times in the act of removing Medusa’s head. In Pompeii, a fresco shows an infant Perseus, holding aloft the Gorgon’s head, and this pose is replicated in statues and artwork around Greece. Some vases have also been found that depict the story of the golden shower, in which Danae is locked away.

In later times, Artists would paint quite detailed works of Perseus holding the head of Medusa, and they would inform similar beheadings, such as David and Goliath, or the beheading of John the Baptist. Artists of the Renaissance, including Titian, were also interested in the story of Perseus and Andromeda, and this subject gained popularity once again in the mid-19th century.

Who is Perseus Jackson?

Perseus “Percy” Jackson, is the main character of a popular YA book series called “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” Written by Rick Riordan, the series of books follows a modern story of a demi-god fighting to stop the “Titans” from taking over the world. While the books are filled with characters and tropes from Greek mythology, they are original tales set in modern times. “Percy” trains as a god at “Camp Half-Blood” and travels America on adventures. This series is often compared to the British “Harry Potter” series, and the first book was adapted into a film in 2010.

How is Perseus Otherwise Portrayed in Modern Culture?

While the name “Perseus” has been given to a number of ships, mountains, and even early computers, the Greek hero doesn’t have the same name recognition today as Heracles/Hercules. It is only those interested in the stars that may see the name appear commonly, and that is because there is a very famous constellation named after the Argive king.

Where is the Perseus Constellation?

The Perseus Constellation was cataloged in the 2nd century by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy and has been the source of great study ever since. It is bordered by Taurus and Ares to the south, Andromeda to the west, Cassiopeia to the north, and Auriga to the east. The best-known star within the constellation is Algol, Horus, or Beta Persei. In ancient Greek astronomy, it represented the head of Medusa. Interestingly, in all other cultures, including Hebrew and Arabic, it is a head (sometimes “Ras Al-gol” or “demon’s head”). This star is approximately 92 light years from earth.

It is from the Perseus Constellation that we also see the Perseid Meteor Shower, which has been documented since 36 AD. This phenomenon can be viewed yearly in early August and is the result of the path of the Swift-Tuttle Comet.

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