The gods and goddesses were central in Greek mythology, but some of the most popular stories involved human characters. There were the heroes, the brave men of the past who performed extraordinary feats of strength, courage, and devotion.
One of the most famous of these heroes was Perseus. The mortal son of Zeus slayed the Gorgon, rescued a princess from human sacrifice, and became the founding king of the great city of Mycenae.
As a character, Perseus perfectly fit the standard of a Greek hero. This was established not only by his actions, most notably the killing of monsters, but also by the circumstances of his life.
Perseus did not only fit the Greek definition of a hero, though. His story lived on to influence the ways in which later cultures, even that of the modern world, viewed the heroic.
Perseus was one of the most famous heroes in Greek mythology. His legend remains popular today and parts of it have influenced many later stories.
There are certain attributes of Perseus and scenes from his life that make his status as a hero evident.
Like the other prominent heroes, Perseus was the son of a god and a mortal noblewoman. His parents were Zeus and the human princess Danae.
Danae’s father had been told by an oracle that his grandson would take his place as king of Argolis after killing him, so he locked Danae out of sight and out of reach of any man. By keeping his daughter from conceiving a child, the king could avoid his fate.
Instead, Danae was impregnated by a god. Zeus came into her chamber in a shower of gold despite her father’s attempts to maintain her chastity.
This type of divine parentage is almost universal among ancient heroes. Virtually all of the mortal women chosen to be consorts of the gods were princesses, and the gods changed their shape and disguised their true nature to get close to them.
Despite being born into a royal family, however, Perseus was not raised in a position of power. The king banished his daughter and her child in a final attempt to defy fate, and they were eventually taken in by a fisherman.
Similarly, other heroes were not raised as heirs to the kingdoms their grandfathers ruled even though there was not another direct male heir. There are many stories of Hercules being fostered and Theseus was raised in his mother’s kingdom instead of as the heir to Athens.
The heroes that were raised as princes faced the obstacle of having their kingdoms stolen from them. Jason, for example, had his rightful place usurped by his uncle while Bellerophon was exiled for an accidental crime.
In either case, Perseus was marked as a hero because he was denied the Earthly position that he should have rightfully inherited. Instead, he would have to work for the recognition he should have gotten by virtue of his birth.
The great heroes of Greek mythology were also sent on quests that were supposed to lead to their downfall. Perseus was tasked with killing the Minotaur, Bellerophon had to slay the Chimera, Hercules was given his twelve labors, and Jason had to fetch the Golden Fleece.
These tasks were assigned for a personal vendetta rather than as a simple demonstration of valor. In the case of Perseus, it was because the wicked Polydictes wished to force Danae into marriage and needed to dispose of her protective son.
The most notable exception to this was Theseus, who volunteered to slay the Minotaur instead of having the duty thrust upon him. This was still, however, a deadly quest that took place under the power of a corrupt king.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the classical heroes was that they were monster slayers. Perseus had the qualities of a potential hero, but cemented his status by defeating the Gorgon.
Like the other heroes, he also had divine favor in this task. Athena, the patroness of heroes, came to his aid as she did the other notable men of mythology.
The story of Perseus also featured elements that were not universal to all the stories of heroes but were repeated often enough to be included as attributes of the heroic type.
One of these was that he went on to become a powerful king despite his own relatively modest upbringing. Perseus inherited the throne of Argolis, as prophesied, but traded it and built the city of Mycenae.
Perseus founded not only his own city, but also a dynasty. His sons and grandsons went on to become founding kings themselves and established cities and empires throughout the known world.
One of his descendants, Hercules, continued this heroic tradition. While he did not become a king himself, his many sons were considered to be the founders of several cities and colonies.
Greek heroes could be roughly divided into two types. While the later heroes of the Trojan War had few of the hallmarks of their predecessors, the older heroes of legend had many similarities in their stories.
The fact that Perseus, like so many ancient heroes, fit into this archetype is hardly a coincidence. The stories of the legendary heroes were designed to fit into a predictable pattern.
The circumstances of their births were what allowed them to outshine more ordinary people. As the sons of gods, these men were granted attributes such as exceptional strength.
Their mothers, too, played a role in legitimizing them as heroes. The Greeks believed that the circumstances of a person’s birth reflected their worth, so the princesses who gave birth to heroes were, by virtue of their birth, capable of passing their own noble attributes on to their sons.
These princesses also gave them a claim to material wealth and power. What distinguished the heroes from ordinary princes, however, was that they had to earn this power.
They did so by defeating a monster, an act that both demonstrated strength and courage and had important symbolic meaning.
The monsters of ancient Greece often embodied real threats that existed in the world. They were extreme examples of the dangers faced in daily life.
In defeating these creatures, the heroes symbolically made the world safer and easier to manage. The dangers of the sea that Medusa represented still existed, but they no longer actively hunted down those that faced them.
The heroes also often defeated an earthly power, usually in the form of a usurping uncle or cousin. In doing so, they restored the natural order of rightful inheritance that made society, as the Greeks saw it, stable and able to flourish.
This also allowed the heroes to be incorporated into local legends. As the founding kings of their cities, or the father of those kings, they legitimized the state and its rulers by giving a direct link to both the legendary past and the gods.
The heroes of ancient Greece were often venerated in hero cults, which had their own shrines and rites. While most were believed to have been human, they were thought to have a special position in the afterlife that allowed them to still be aware of the affairs of the living world.
The story of Perseus fit all of these standards for the portrayal of the heroic in Greek mythology, but he also influenced later views of the hero.
Because of their position, the heroes were idealized, but that did not mean that they exhibited virtues that the modern world would find laudable. Hercules, for example, was a notorious womanizer and Theseus abandoned Ariadne after they eloped.
Perseus, however, more closely resembled the type of man that later readers would find heroic. His story, more than that of any other Greek hero, influenced the modern heroic ideal.
After killing the Gorgon, Perseus rescued Princess Andromeda, who had been offered as a sacrifice to appease a sea monster. This is the earliest example of what would become a common motif in heroic tales, the rescue of the damsel in distress.
He also fought off and killed the king’s men on his return not for his own benefit or safety, but to defend another. By killing Polydictes and his men, Perseus ensured the safety of his mother.
Perseus was not the only hero to father several children, Hercules was said to have dozens, but unlike his great-grandson he was by all accounts loyal to his wife and their marriage was not marred by later disaster, betrayal, or trauma.
In rescuing and marrying Andromeda, Perseus did not only establish the heroic precedent of winning the endangered princess’s love. He also became the first hero to end his story happily ever after.
The Greek heroes who predated the Trojan War had a number of similarities. These were what defined them as true heroes.
Almost all were the sons of gods and human princesses. This gave them exceptional strength and virtue, in addition to a claim on worldly power.
Most were not raised as the heirs to their kingdoms, however. If they were, they were expelled before taking the throne and had to fight to win it back.
The heroes were then sent on a quest, usually by a wicked king, that would almost certainly lead to death. Their own attributes and the favor of the gods, however, allowed them to kill a monster that was considered nearly invincible.
In killing these monsters, the heroes symbolically killed a real-world threat. With each great action of a hero, the world became less threatening and more stable for later generations.
Many heroes then returned to their homelands and reclaimed their inheritance. They became founding kings of great cities within Greece, while their sons and grandsons established states elsewhere.
Perseus met all of these standards for a Greek hero, but his legend went on to influence later ideas about heroism.
His actions after the defeat of Medusa fit into later ideas of virtue that were not as prevalent in the Greek view of the world. In rescuing both Andromeda and his mother, for example, he came to be seen as one who defended the innocent rather than fighting for his own position.
The rescue of Andromeda established a new motif in the European ideal of the heroic. Many later stories would similarly feature the rescue and love of a princess who was offered as a sacrifice to a monster or dragon.
By establishing a prosperous city and enjoying a long, faithful marriage, the story of Perseus was also one of the first to end with a happy life, setting the standard for heroic tales for centuries to follow.