Perseus: The Hero Who Killed the Gorgon
Perseus is one of the great heroes of ancient Greek mythology. Like Theseus or Heracles, his name is familiar to most people even if they don’t know all the details of his story.
Also like them, Perseus was a semi-divine man who was a favorite of the gods.
His most well-known exploit was the slaying of Medusa, the monster that could turn men to stone just by looking at them. With help, stealth, and trickery he was able to destroy the monster that most believed to be un-killable.
But there is much more to the story of Perseus than just his quest to fetch the Gorgon’s head.
His birth story stands out as one of the most magical and fantastic, even compared to the other affairs of Zeus. He was cast away to die as a baby, but miraculously survived and grew into a powerful, heroic man.Perseus was renowned not just for his heroic deeds, but also for his protectiveness, loyalty, and steadfast desire to do what was right. Click To Tweet
He had one of the few happy and successful marriages in Greek mythology and went on to be the ancestor of many of the most important names and kingdoms of legend.
From his magical conception to his rule as king, keep reading to learn all about Perseus, one of the great heroes of the ancient Greek world!
Like many of the great heroes of Greek mythology, Perseus was a son of Zeus. And, like many, he was born to a human mother.
His mother Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, the king of Argos. At the time, Argos was one of the most prosperous cities of Greece, situated on the fertile plain in a good strategic location.
Acrisius had a twin brother, Proteus, with whom he had quarreled his entire life. The two were so at odds that it was said they had fought each other constantly even while in their mother’s womb.
After the death of their father, the two had fought over his kingdom. Acrisius had expelled his brother, but Proteus returned with reinforcements from his in-laws.
Acrisius had been forced to compromise with his brother and split the kingdom. He retained control of Argos while Proteus was given control over Tiryns, a city that was less important at the time.
Danaë was known as a great beauty, but the king took little joy from her. She was his only child, a fact which threatened his control over Argos.
The king had no sons and was worried about his lack of an heir. He consulted an oracle to learn whether he would ever have a son to carry on his dynasty.
Instead, the oracle delivered disturbing news. She said that Acrisius would not have a son, but that he would be killed by the son of Danaë.
The king was determined to keep his daughter from ever having a child who would lead to his death. He locked her in a bronze chamber, forbidding anyone to come into contact with her.
Some versions of the story say that the chamber was built underground in the courtyard of the palace of Argos. Others claimed that the princess was shut away in a tower made entirely of bronze.
Acrisius had taken precautions against allowing men to have access to the princess, but he had failed to take the gods into account. Danaë’s prison was open to the sky.
Zeus soon noticed the beautiful maiden locked away in the courtyard and decided to make her his next mistress.
Zeus came to Danaë in a shower of golden rain. Nine months later she gave birth to his son, Perseus.
Acrisius feared the prediction made by the oracle more than ever. He also refused to believe his daughter’s story that she had been visited by Zeus in a magical form.
Paranoid and angry, he shut both his daughter and grandson in a wooden chest and set them adrift at sea. He could not risk angering the gods by killing his own family members, but he assumed they would die in the open waters.
Acrisius, believing he had avoided the oracle’s prophecy by sending his child and grandchild to their deaths, resigned himself to the fact that Proteus would become his heir.
Danaë, meanwhile, saw little chance of escape for herself and her newborn. The box was nailed shut so she could do nothing but drift blindly in the dark and pray to the gods for mercy.
Luckily for them, Zeus was looking out for his newborn son. Their box ran aground on the island of Seriphos.
They were found by Dictys, who was a fisherman and the brother of the island’s king. He took them in and raised Perseus as if he were his own son.
As the years passed and Perseus grew to manhood, Danaë remained beautiful. The king, Polydectes, decided he would make her his wife.
Perseus, however, was very protective of his mother. He did not trust the king, who could often be arrogant and demanding.
To marry Danaë, Polydectes would need to remove Perseus as an obstacle. But, as he would learn, it was not always easy to get rid of a son of Zeus.
The king devised a plan to rid himself of Perseus so that he could marry Danaë without opposition.
He told his court that he was marrying another woman and asked the men, including Perseus, to bring him suitable gifts. He asked for horses from the others, but trapped Danaë’s son with a boast.
When asked what he was willing to give the king, the young man said that he would bring him anything he wanted, even the head of the Gorgon. Polydectes decided to ask for just that.
Medusa, the Gorgon, was a terrifying monster who lived with her sisters in a cave at the edge of the world. All three were vicious and deadly, but Medusa was particularly terrible.
She had snakes for hair and the power to turn men to stone with a single look.
She was also the only one of the three sisters that was mortal, giving a sliver of hope to Perseus on his quest.
Polydectes was certain that the mission would kill the brash young man.
Perseus, too, was uncertain of his success. He did not even know where to find the Gorgons, let alone how he would manage to kill the most deadly of them.
As Zeus’s son, though he was given help.
Athena appeared to her half-brother and advised him to seek out the Hesperides. These nymphs were in the service of Hera and, according to Athena, had gifts that would enable the young hero to complete his quest.
Their garden, however, was also hidden. Perseus first had to seek out the Greae.
These three sisters of the Gorgons also lived together. They shared one eye and one tooth between them, taking turns to look out over the world and to eat.
Their cave was easier to find than his other objectives, and Perseus knew that with their powerful and ever-watchful eye the Greae would know how he could find the Hesperides’ garden.
He hid in the shadows, taking care to remain still and quiet so the sisters would not know he was there. At the moment they passed the eye between each other, he dashed out and stole it from them.
Perseus told the three old women that he would give them back their eye if they told him how to reach the Hesperides.
They did, but the legends differ on how Perseus responded. Some said he returned the eye and left peacefully, others said he threw it into the ocean and left the Greae blinded.
With their directions, though, he was able to find his way to the Hesperides. Just as Athena had said, the nymphs had great gifts to help him in his quest.
First, the Hesperides presented him with a knapsack that could safely contain the monster’s head. Then his divine family arrived to lend their aid as well.
Athena gave him the use of her polished shield. His half-brother Hermes allowed the hero to borrow his winged sandals.
Zeus himself had gifts as well. He lent his son a sword made of adamantine and his brother Hades’ helmet that granted invisibility to the wearer.
Now armed by the gods, Perseus was ready to slay the Gorgon.
He crept into the monsters’ lair while they were asleep. He held the shield of Athena before him so that, by not looking directly at Medusa, he could find his way without the risk of being turned to stone.
Using the adamantine sword, he cut the monster’s head off in a single stroke.
He stuffed the head into the knapsack and put on the helmet of invisibility. When Medusa’s sisters awoke, they could not see the killer among them.
Infuriated, the remaining Gorgons began to claw wildly at the air. Using the sandals of Hermes gave Perseus the speed to evade their grasping hands and flee the cave before they could find him.
With his quest completed, the only thing left for Perseus to do was to present the gift to Polydectes.Using the sandals of Hermes, Perseus was able to fly home much more swiftly than he had travelled at first. Click To Tweet
According to some stories, he found a use for the Gorgon’s head along the way. He passed the Titan Prometheus, who had been bound eternally for going against Zeus, and turned him to stone.
As he flew above the Libyan desert, blood dripped from the knapsack that held Medusa’s head. Wherever a drop fell, a viper came to life in the sand.
These were not the only children born of Medusa’s blood. When she was beheaded, she had given birth to Chrysaor and the famous winged horse Pegasus.
His next great adventure, however, began when he arrived at the kingdom of Aethiopia.
Queen Cassiopeia had offended Poseidon when she claimed that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than the Nereids. To avenge the insult, Poseidon had sent a terrible sea monster against the Aethiopians.
The god of the sea had flooded Aethiopia so his monster, a Cetus, could cause more destruction. Desperate to save his country, King Cepheus consulted the Oracle of Ammon.
He was told that no relief would come to his lands until he exposed Andromeda to be eaten by the sea serpent. Perseus arrived to find the princess chained to a rock on the shore.
When Perseus saw her it was love at first sight, and he promised to kill the Ketos (Sea-Monster) and rescue the girl in return for her hand. Oaths were sworn, after which Perseus faced and slew the monster, and set Andromeda free.
Kepheus’ brother Phineus, who was previously engaged to Andromeda, conspired against Perseus, but Perseus learned of the plot, and by displaying the Gorgo [Medusa’s head] to Phineus and his colleagues in the conspiracy, turned them instantly to stone.
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2. 43 – 44 (trans. Aldrich)
Perseus had freed the princess both from the sea monster and from marriage to her uncle. The two were married at once and returned to Seriphos.
When they arrived, Perseus learned that his mother had gone into hiding. When he had left, Polydectes had made his intentions clear and had attempted to violently abduct Danaë and force her to marry him.
The king was also planning to have Perseus murdered in the event that he did return from his quest.
Furious, Perseus stormed into the king’s palace. He announced that he had retrieved the gift asked of him and pulled Medusa’s head from the knapsack.
The wicked king was turned to stone the moment he looked at it. Perseus had saved his mother at last.
Dictys became king in his brother’s place, and was a much better ruler. The new king, who had always been a father figure to Perseus, also married Danaë with both her consent and her son’s blessing.
Unlike many gods and heroes, Perseus enjoyed a happy marriage with Andromeda. They had seven sons and two daughters together.
These children were responsible for more than just a few minor stories, though. Through his nine children, Perseus became the ancestor to many of the most celebrated heroes of Greece and several lines of kingship.
Their children were:
- Perses – He remained in Libya and became the founder of the first ruling dynasty of Persia.
- Alcaeus – His son, Amphitryon, was the stepfather of Heracles.
- Sthenelus – He became king of Mycenae.
- Mestor – His grandson founded the island city of Taphos. By the time of the Trojan War it was part of Odysseus’s kingdom of Ithaca.
- Electryon – The king of Tiryns after his father, his daughter Alcmene was the mother of Heracles.
- Gorgophone – The queen of Sparta, she was said to have been the first woman to ever marry twice. Her son Tyndareus married Leda and was the moral father of her children – Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux.
- Autochthe – She was one of the many wives of King Aegeus of Athens whom he divorced because they could not give him male heirs.
- Cynurus – He founded the city of Cynurus in southeastern Greece.
- Heleus – The town of Helos was said to have been founded by him.
The children were collectively known as the Perseids.
Through their many children, Perseus and Andromeda became the ancestors of some of Greece’s most notable individuals.
Perseus and Andromeda did not stay on the island of Seriphos to raise their family, though.
First, they paid a visit to Athena. Perseus returned the gifts the gods had lent him and presented the Gorgon’s head to the goddess who had aided him.
Athena mounted the head on her shield, where it became one of her defining attributes.
The couple then went to Thessaly, where the king of Larissa was holding funeral games in his father’s honor.
Perseus did not know his grandfather, Acrisius, was also in attendance. He had not seen the king since he was an infant and did not recognize him.
While they were both competing in the discus throw, Perseus’s throw veered off trajectory. It struck the king of Argos in the head, killing him.
The oracle’s prophesy had been fulfilled and Acrisius had been killed by Danaë’s son, albeit accidentally.
Perseus was, under the law, now the heir to his grandfather’s kingdom. He felt guilt, however, at the way in which he had gained the throne.
Although it had been an accident, the killing of a family member was a major sin to an upright prince like Perseus. He could not stomach the idea of taking power for himself under such circumstances.
Tradition also stated that anyone who killed a countryman, even if it was accidentally, had to be exiled from that land until they were purified and had atoned for the crime. Even though he was the heir, Perseus could not rightfully take his place as king.
A compromise was reached when Perseus reached out to his cousin, Magapenthes. The son of Proteus, Magapenthes had been next in line when Argos had lacked a more direct heir to the throne.
They came to an agreement that the two would trade kingdoms. Instead of ruling Argos, Perseus became the king of Tiryns.
Magapenthes was more than happy with this arrangement, as his family had sought Argos for many years. Tiryns was a less celebrated city, but Perseus thought it was a fair trade-off to avoid angering the gods and violating the natural law.
Perseus and Andromeda settled in the Mycenaean city where he became a successful and well-loved king.
To the Greeks, Perseus was not a figure from mythology. They believed he was a real, historical king who ruled Mycenae in the distant past.
They believed that the hero was central in founding Greek culture. When he took over Tiryns, it was a small city-state with little political importance.
Perseus built his new kingdom into Mycenae, a kingdom that dominated Bronze Age Greece. The culture of the entire eastern Mediterranean region in the 2nd millennium BC is referred to as Mycenaean because of the state’s importance in culture and trade.Through Perseus, many of the most important Greek kingdoms could trace their kings and heroes back to this great culture. Click To Tweet
In establishing Mycenae as a major power, Perseus also became an ancestor to everyone who shared Greek culture. The Mycenaeans established much of the art, mythology, philosophy, and law that would come to define all of Greece.
Perseus was not just an ancestor to more heroes and kings than most other figures in Greek mythology, but as a founder of Mycenae he was a spiritual ancestor to all Greek people.
Perseus is remembered as one of the most famous heroes in Greek mythology.
The Greeks themselves were fond of him. Although he never ascended to become a god, he was still revered at shrines in the ancient world as a venerated ancestor.
As a son of Zeus and a favorite of Athena, his name became associated with the gods even if he was not one of them. Unlike many other heroes, not one of the Olympians opposed him or tried to make his task more difficult.
And unlike many of the other heroes, he never wavered from his commitment to doing what was right. He was a protective son, a faithful husband, and a just king.
While Heracles inherited his father’s womanising ways, Bellerophon gave in to hubris in flying toward Olympus, and Theseus abandoned Ariadne, Perseus remained steadfastly devoted to doing what was right.
His adventures helped to connect locations in the Greek world and beyond. From the home of Andromeda in far-off Aethiopia to the plains of Argolis, Perseus left an impact throughout the Mediterranean.