One of the most common elements in Greek legend was Zeus’s attraction to beautiful human princesses. He made many such young women his lovers, and several of them became the mothers of his heroic sons.
Danae was one such princess. Not even the strongest prison in Greece could keep Zeus away from her.
Danae’s father had locked her in her unique prison because he never wanted her to give birth to a son. According to an oracle’s prophecy, Danae’s son would someday kill him.
Through many misadventures and heroic deeds, Danae’s son became a great hero and king. He rescued his mother from a forced marriage and went on to become one of Greece’s most important legendary figures, accidentally killing his grandfather in the process.
Danae’s story ended with a happy marriage in an unimportant kingdom, but her legacy lived on. Through Perseus, she became the ancestor of some of Greece’s most important rulers and one of its greatest heroes.
Danae was born as the princess of Argos and only child of King Acrisius. The king was disappointed to not have a male heir and visited the oracle of Delphi to ask if he would ever have a son to inherit his kingdom.
He was told that he would not, but his daughter Danae would one day have a son. That boy would inherit the throne of Argos by killing Acrisius.
Danae was not yet married, and the king was determined to avoid the fate of being killed by her future son. Although he and his brother, Proteus, hated one another, Acrisius named Proteus as his heir in place of a grandson.
To protect his own life and avoid the fate the oracle had foretold, Acrisius built a bronze chamber beneath the floor of his palace and locked his daughter inside. There were no windows or doors, just a high skylight to allow air and food to enter the room.
Acrisius had taken precautions against allowing any man to ever have access to the princess, but not thought about preventing the gods from seeing her. The prison’s skylight was too high off the floor for a man to enter safely, but a god could come and go without ever being seen.
Zeus came to Danaë in a shower of golden rain when he decided to make her the latest of the beautiful princesses he seduced. The unusual form allowed him to enter through the skylight unnoticed.
Nine months later Danae gave birth to his child, Perseus. Despite all the king’s precautions, Danae had a son.
Danae had tried to tell her father that the child had been fathered by a god, but the king had refused to believe her story. He did not know how she had become pregnant, but knew that the child would bring his death.
Acrisus knew that his only hope was the child’s death, but killing his own family would bring the Furies down upon him for violating Zeus’s laws. The only way to avoid this was by ensuring that the child died in a way that was not directly connected to him.
He had Danae and her infant son put into a box which he sent floating away at sea, certain that they would die. By the will of Zeus, however, Poseidon and the water nymphs guided the wooden box safely to the island of Seriphos.
Danae and her son were taken in by a fisherman, Dictys, who was the brother of the local king, Polydectes. The king eventually came to love Danae, who remained beautiful even as she grew older.
The king sent Perseus to kill the Gorgon, Medusa, because he knew the protective young man would never allow him to marry his mother. With Perseus out of the way, Polydectes was free to pursue Danae.
When Perseus returned from his adventures, he found Danae and Dictys hiding in the sanctuary of a temple. Only there were they safe, since Polydectes had made it clear he intended to kill his brother if necessary to force Danae into marriage.
Perseus used the Gorgon’s head, the very trophy he had been ordered to retrieve, to turn Polydectes and his men into stone and rescue his mother.
Perseus could have claimed the throne of Seriphos for himself, but he ceded the crown to Dictys. The brother of Polydectes became a wise and just ruler.
He ruled with Danae by his side. After many years of friendship, Danae and Dictys were married and lived a peaceful life together as king and queen of their small island nation.
Danae was one of many princesses who became a mistress of Zeus. Like most of them, she eventually married a human king and lived out her life as his queen.
Danae is important, however, for the role her family and her son played in the legends of the Greek past.
Danae’s father was a king of Argos, one of the most important and powerful states of Bronze Age Greece. The kings of Argos and their family members figure into nearly every myth of the Age of Heroes.
The first king of Argos was Inachus, the father of Io. His daughter was pursued to Egypt by Zeus and eventually remained there, giving birth to his son.
They survived the Flood of Deucalion, making the Argive line one of the only pre-flood lineages to continue. The kings of Argos could therefore trace their lineage farther back than almost any other family in the region.
Io’s descendents eventually returned to Greece to reclaim their ancestral seat, but some stayed behind in Africa. The kings of Egypt and Libya were their descendents.
Other gods appeared in the lineage. Poseidon made one of Io’s granddaughters his mistress and Semele, one of the princesses born into the family, became the mother of Dionysus.
Had Danae and her son been killed by their father, this line would have ended. Instead, it continued through Perseus.
He built the great kingdom of Mycenae after becoming king of Tiryns by accidentally killing his grandfather. His children and grandchildren became rulers of Sparta, Athens, and Persia. One of his granddaughters, Alcmene, was the mother of Heracles.
The sons of Heracles did even more to spread the family line. The numerous Heraclides spread throughout the known world, founding new cities and kingdoms.
Virtually all of the rulers of Greece could trace their lineage through the Argive genealogy and Greece’s gods and heroes. For many of the powerful cities of the classical period, this was through Danae and her son.
This lineage gave legitimacy to rulers and the kingdoms they led. The Argive family tree linked them directly to the gods through heroes like Perseus and great women like Danae.
The Argive princess Danae was imprisoned by her father when an oracle warned him that her son would one day kill the old king. While Acrisius made the cell impossible for a man to access, it was no barrier to a god.
Zeus impregnated Danae in the form of a shower of gold. When she gave birth to Perseus, the king refused to believe that the child was the son of a god.
Instead he tried to cause both the baby and his daughter to die by setting them adrift at sea. The gods intervened and they were brought safely to the island of Seriphos.
Perseus was sent to bring back the head of the Gorgon by the king of that island. This was a pretext to get him out of the way, however, as the king intended to force Danae into marriage.
She was rescued by her son and instead married the king’s brother, Dictys, who had welcomed her to the island and protected her through the years. Danae spent the remainder of her life as the queen of a small, isolated island.
She was connected to many more kings and queens, however. Danae was important not just as the mother of a single hero, but as a central figure in the sprawling family tree of the Greek heroes and ruling families.
She was descended from the legendary line of Argive rulers, one of the oldest families in existence. Her extended family had founded great nations, given birth to children of gods, and even brought forth the god Dionysus.
Through Danae the line continued. Perseus and his children founded and married into other important dynasties and his great-grandson was the hero and demigod Heracles.
Danae’s role in Greek mythology was more than just that of a princess who gave birth to a god’s child. She was a key figure in the complex and ancient family tree that connected the rulers of the Greek world to one another and to the gods.