Who is Perseus?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

In Greek mythology, Perseus is one of a group of heroes which also includes Theseus, Achilles, Jason, Odysseus, Hercules, and Bellerophon. His story begins with his grandfather on his mother’s side, King Acrisius of Argos. An oracle told the king that he would be killed by his daughter Danae’s son, and he responded by locking her in a tower.

Perseus was able to slay Medusa.
Perseus was able to slay Medusa.

But Acrisius didn’t reckon with Zeus, who decided he wanted to woo Danae, and descended on her as a golden shower. The result of the liaison was the infant Perseus. Acrisius did not feel he could directly kill his daughter, so he put Danae and the child in a wooden chest and threw it into the sea. A fisherman on the island of Seriphos rescued them and the King of Seriphos, Polydectes, welcomed them to the court, and Perseus grew up there.

Perseus gave Medusa's head to Athena.
Perseus gave Medusa's head to Athena.

Polydectes’ initial kindness turned into desire for Danae, who had no interest in marrying. Given Perseus’s protection of his mother, Polydectes pretended to relent and to seek a bride elsewhere. He asked all his subjects to contribute to the bridal gift, and Perseus, who had nothing of material value to give, offered the king his services. Polydectes asked him for the head of the Gorgon Medusa, fully intending that the task be the young man’s doom, as Medusa’s glance turned people to stone.

And indeed, Perseus might have perished fighting Medusa had it not been for the intercession of Athena, who held Medusa as her enemy. Athena warned the hero about the danger of Medusa’s glance and gave him a shield so shiny it could serve as a mirror. Hermes gave him a sickle and a leather bag and directed him where to find the Graiae, sisters of the Gorgons, who could — if they would — direct Perseus as to where he could find Medusa as well as a cap of invisibility, and winged sandals, both of which he would need if he were to be able to vanquish the Gorgon.

The Graiae lived near Mount Atlas and were distinguished by having one eye that they shared between them. Perseus snuck up on them and snatched their eye as they were passing it among them. Since he refused to return it to them until they answered his questions and since they were helpless without their eye, he got what he wanted.

With these aides, Perseus was able to approach Medusa invisibly, kill her without looking at her, cut off her head, and place it in the bag. The winged horse Pegasus was born from Medusa’s headless body.

Flying home with his winged sandals, Perseus spotted Princess Andromeda chained to a rock in the ocean, fodder for a sea monster. The hero turned the sea monster to stone with a glimpse of Medusa’s head, and rescued the princess. Upon restoring her to her parents, King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia, he asked for Andromeda’s hand in marriage, and consent being given, they returned to Seriphos together.

Arriving in Seriphos, Perseus found that Danae had taken refuge with the fisherman who had first rescued them in order to escape Polydectes’ unwelcome overtures. Medusa’s head came in handy to petrify Polydectes, and the fisherman, Dictys, was made king, while Danae, Perseus, and Andromeda headed to Argos, after Perseus returned the shield to Athena and gave her Medusa’s head. Acrisius took off for Larissa to try to avoid his grandson and his fate, but Perseus received an invitation to Larissa to attend the funeral games of the king’s father. Participating in the funeral games, Perseus threw a discus that went astray and struck an old man in the stands — Acrisius — killing him. There are several variations on the ending of the story, depending on the author.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

anon253242

Who were Perseus' enemies?

anon174143

Why did Zeus decide to woo the "princess" and why did he fall in love with her?

anon129859

is Perseus Poisideon's son?

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