We usually think of ancient stories and characters as being firmly rooted in mythology. They were tied not only to a culture, but also to the religion its people worshipped.
Characters like Perseus were not just heroes in Greek mythology. They were also demigods whose stories were influenced by the deities of ancient religion.
When those religions died out, therefore, it’s easy to assume that the stories that were told as part of them became less important as well.
In some cases, however, these stories did more than just live on. They were even added to, becoming important tales in another culture.
The story of Perseus is one that outlasted the Greek mythology it had come from. Nearly two thousand years after it was first written, the famous demigod’s story continued to paint him as a cultural hero.
The story of Perseus was one of the most famous in Greek mythology. The heroic son of Zeus was famous for killing the Gorgon, Medusa, and bringing her head to Athena.
After Medusa’s death, Perseus married Princess Andromeda of Ethiopia after rescuing her from being sacrificed to a sea monster. As the king and queen of Mycenae and Tiryns, they became the ancestors of many legendary heroes, kings, and queens.
Perseus became an important figure beyond Greek mythology. His story was relevant in Rome as an ancestor of Latinus and Italus and the Persians used their supposed family connection when negotiating with their Greek neighbors.
While the legends of many Greek and Roman heroes faded over time, however, one text makes it clear that Perseus remained an important figure in some parts of the world.
The Suda was a 10th century encyclopedia. Written in the Byzantine Empire, it combined both classical and Biblical traditions to give origins for words and names that were in use at the time.
Little is known about the author of the Suda beyond his name, Suidas. Based on the stories included in his encyclopedia, most historians believe he was a Christian.
Even though the author used Biblical words and stories in his work, he also included elements of classical mythology. For modern historians, this is the only record that exists for some of the Greek and Roman works he referenced.
Interestingly, the Suda gives accounts of Perseus’s influence on the world that go even farther than the traditional stories that were passed down from more ancient Greek mythology.
While older sources claimed that Perseus had founded the city of Mycenae, or at least built it into a major power, the Suda implied that he and Andromeda did not settle there indefinitely.
The city was later renamed Ikonion because of this image. The site is today the location of Konya, a city with a population of over two million people.
His time in Asia Minor was not done, however. He moved inland, conquering the natives there, and founded Tarsus. Today, that city has roughly three million inhabitants.
Pushing further west, Perseus encountered the people of Medes. He conquered them as well and renamed their lands.
While some writers of Greek mythology claimed that Persia had been named for a son of Perseus, the Suda said that he had given the name himself. The Medes became the Persians after the hero came to their lands.
In Asia, Perseus instructed the Magi, who were Zorastrian priests. The ball of fire at the heart of their religion had supposedly fallen from the sky when Perseus told them about the Gorgon.
The Suda also gave an account for the death of Perseus that was not documented in Greek mythology.
Suidas claimed that Perseus had not given the Gorgon’s head to Athena, but had instead kept in throughout his life. In his old age, he tried to use it in battle as he had many times before.
Because of his age, however, the hero’s eyesight had begun to fail. He inadvertently turned the head on himself and died in Persia.
His son Merros, who was not mentioned in Greek mythology, carried on his father’s legacy in Asia. He burned Medusa’s head, destroying it forever so it could never kill another man.
The stories the Suda tells about Perseus are not known in classical Greek mythology. In many cases, they directly contradict the older established legends.
While they do not tell us more about how Perseus appeared in Greek mythology, however, they do show how the hero was seen in later culture.
The legend of Perseus and Medusa is believed by many historians to be one of the oldest in Greek mythology. As evidenced by the Suda, it was also one of the most enduring.
The Byzantines considered themselves to be the heirs of the Roman Empire, which had fallen in the West several hundred years before Suidas lived. They were Greek-speaking people, however, whose culture was greatly influenced by the ancient Greek influences in the region.
A thousand years earlier, the people of Anatolia had told stories about their cities being founded by the children and grandchildren of Greece’s most famous heroes. These stories legitimized the Turkish colonies as Greek places with ties to the gods and myths.
The Suda continued this tradition. It directly tied Perseus to important places in the Byzantine world.
In 10th century Byzantium, the old gods of Greek mythology were no longer revered. The temples had been closed and their rituals banned in the 4th century.
Although Christianity was the Empire’s official religion, its Greco-Roman identity was still important. As the heirs of Greece and Rome, the Byzantines saw their cultural history as the key to their continued power.
This was particularly true by the 10th century. The empire had been losing land and power to Arab invasions for nearly two hundred years.
Emphasis on both Greek traditions and Christian faith unified the Byzantine people. Their conflicts with the Arabs were not just over land, they were a battle for cultural supremacy.
While the Byzantines did not believe in the gods of Greek mythology anymore, they still saw heroes like Perseus as important and possibly historical figures. Without the ancient religion, these characters could link medieval Byzantium to the ancient past.
By bringing Perseus himself to Turkey and having him directly influence the region’s culture, the Suda strengthened the ties to the ancient Greek past. It provided a direct cultural link to one of Greek mythology’s most important and famous figures.
The story of Perseus in Greek mythology was one of the earliest and most popular legends. The son of Zeus killed the Gorgon and went on to found Mycenae and establish an important family line.
In ancient history, this lineage connected Rome and Persia to the Greek hero. As with many other myths, later additions linked Perseus to even more places and people.
This tradition did not end with the decline of classical culture and its religion. Perseus remained an important ancient figure even when Greek mythology was regarded as truth.
In the 10th century, a Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda showed that the mythology of Perseus continued to expand even in a Christian context.
According to the writer of the Suda, Perseus and Andromeda had moved to Anatolia after founding Mycenae. There, they went on to influence the local culture by establishing more cities, imparting their knowledge to the Magi, and conquering the Persians.
These stories of Perseus in Asia at times directly contradicted older Greek mythology, but they served to connect Byzantine Greek culture and its past. Although the ancient religion was no longer practiced, Perseus was still an important character in maintaining the cultural identity of ancient Greece’s successors.