How Did Perseus Kill Medusa?
The Gorgon Medusa was killed by Perseus, but the way in which he ended her life was not typical for the stories of Greek heroes.
Medusa was a Gorgon, one of three monstrous sisters who shared a cave on the edge of Oceanus. She was the only one of the three who was mortal.
She also had a unique ability. A single glimpse of Medusa’s face had the power to turn anyone who looked at it into solid stone.
Killing a monster you cannot look at, who is protected by immortal siblings, would be an almost impossible task. But Perseus was able to accomplish it by only using his weapon a single time.
Instead, Perseus used his wits and the help of the gods. By using the powers of both Athena and Hermes, the young and inexperienced hero was able to behead the fearsome Gorgon and live to tell the tale.
How Medusa Was Killed
Perseus was the child of Zeus and a human princess named Danae. King Polydictes, wishing to marry Danae but Perseus, sought a way to get rid of Perseus so he could not oppose the union.
Polydictes asked for gifts from his men, and young Perseus had nothing to offer. He told the king that he would give him the head of the Gorgon if he could.
Seizing the opportunity, Polydictes challenged him to do just that. He ordered Perseus to prove himself by killing the Gorgon and bringing her head back to his court as a gift.
Medusa was a terrible monster whose gaze could turn men to stone. She lived with her two immortal sisters, known man-eaters, in an uncharted cave at the edge of the world.
Polydictes was certain that Perseus would die on his quest. He would be free to marry the young man’s beautiful mother without opposition.
Perseus had no idea where to even find the monster’s lair, but he was given aid by two of his half-siblings.
Athena and Hermes outfitted the young man with a powerful sword. Athena lend him her bronze shield and Hermes gave him his winged sandals.
The Hesperides, a sisterhood of nymphs, were guardians of a garden at the edge of the world. They had more items belonging to the gods that would help Perseus in his quest, but he would have to seek these out himself.
His first mission was to find and defeat the Graeae. Only they knew the location of the Hesperides and their garden.
The three gray-skinned croned were sisters of the Gorgons. They were born with only one eye which they shared between them, and one tooth which they took turns eating with.
Athena told Perseus where to find the Graeae. When he came to their cavern he hid, waiting in the dark for the perfect time to strike.
When two of the sisters were passing the eye between each other, he snatched it from their grasp. He agreed to return it only if they told him the information he needed.
They told him how to find the garden of the Hesperides. Sources differ on whether he left them in peace or threw their only eye into the sea as he left.
When he reached the garden, the nymphs gave him two powerful tools. He took a strong bag in which to hold the Gorgon’s head and the helmet of Hades, which made its wearer invisible.
When he reached the Gorgons’ cave, all three sisters were asleep. He crept in as quietly as he could to avoid waking them.
As he did show, he held the gleaming shield of Athena before him and stared into it. The sight of Medusa turned a man to stone, but by focusing only on the reflections in the shield he could find her without actually looking directly at her.
When he was close enough he swung down hard with the sword. Perseus beheaded the Gorgon with a single stroke, having never looked directly at her.
Her dying scream, however, woke up her man-eating sisters. Before they could strike, Perseus put on Hades’ helmet and disappeared from sight.
The Gorgons groped around the space to find their sister’s killer, but Perseus had made use of Hermes’s magical sandals. He flew out of the cave, quickly dodging them and making his escape unseen.
His escape was probably aided by additional sources of chaos in the dark cavern. When Medusa was beheaded her children, Chrysaor and Pegasus, sprang from her neck and further confounded the Gorgons’ search.
Perseus flew away, stopping in Ethiopia to rescue Andromeda from a sea monster before returning to his own homeland. When he found King Polydictes attempting to force Danae into marriage, he pulled the Gorgon’s head from his bag and turned the king and all his men to stone.
He soon returned the gods’ gifts to Athena. In thanks for her help, he gave her the Gorgon’s head as a trophy.
My Modern Interpretation
Many stories of Greek heroes involved exceptional feats of strength. Hercules, for example, was well-known for defeating many enemies with both his powerful weapons and in unarmed combat.
Perseus, however, did not succeed because of his mastery of weapons or sheer brute strength. He used the skills favored by his divine patrons, Athena and Hermes.
Athena was the goddess of wisdom and warfare, who was known to always show favor to those who fought for a just cause. While she often helped the heroes of Greek legends, she showed particular care to those who used their intelligence when they fought.
Perseus did not rush immediately into an unwinnable fight against impossible odds. He sought out information, strategized, and planned out his course of action.
While Athena was often associated with heroes who employed wisdom in their fighting, Hermes was a less common patron of noble causes. As a trickster god, however, his help was invaluable to Perseus.
Hermes was the patron god of thieves, and Perseus used many similar tricks to complete his quest. He crept through the shadows and used a theft, that of the eye of the Graeae, to achieve his ends.
When Medusa’s sisters awoke, Perseus did not fight his way out. He was again stealthy, using the chaos of the moment as a diversion to enable his escape.
Athena and Hermes, his half-siblings, took the roles of dual patrons to the hero that embodied both of their divine domains.
Perseus was a much different type of hero in the way he handled Medusa than was common in Greek mythology.
He had a powerful weapon, but he only used it once. Even to kill his human enemies, he relied on the power of the Gorgon’s head, the very trophy Polydictes had demanded, rather than try to defeat them in combat.
Heroes like Hercules may have sometimes tracked their foes and waited for them, but stealth did not play as large of a role in their stories. And while many heroes used carefully-planned strategies, the majority of the story of Medusa’s death involved gathering information and supplies.
Perseus continued on his adventures and became a renowned king. But his first quest was not one that featured the traditional attributes and actions of a Greek hero.
The Gorgon Medusa was beheaded by Perseus, a mortal son of Zeus.
Unlike Hercules or Theseus, he had little fighting experience before he faced his most infamous foe. He had been raised by a fisherman and sent on his quest to ensure his death.
Perseus had the favor of two gods, however. Athena and Hermes both helped their half-brother in his quest to kill the Gorgon.
Athena gave him information and her shield, which he could use to avoid looking directly at the monster’s petrifying face. Hermes lent the hero his winged sandals.
Perseus utilized not only these gifts, but also the attributes the two gods held in the greatest esteem.
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, favored his careful planning and gathering of information. By planning his attack, he was able to acquire more tools to ensure his safety.
Hermes, the god of thieves, inspired Perseus to use stealth and trickery to meet his goals. The hero became a thief himself, taking the eye of the Graeae to compel them to give him information.
Had Perseus acted like most heroes and relied on weapons and strength, he would have almost certainly lost to Medusa and her sisters. Instead, he used the powers of Athena and Hermes to outwit and outrun his opponents.