Perseus

Parents: Zeus and Danae
Consort: Andromeda
Children: Perses

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Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, 1554, Florence.

Early Life

Acrisius, the king of Argos, consulted the oracle at Delphi and was told that his own grandson would kill him one day. Scared by the prophecy, King Acrisius decided to deprive his daughter Danae of any contact with the opposite sex and so he built a room beneath the earth and imprisoned Danae there.

However after falling in love with Danae, Zeus came to her in the form of golden rain, pierced through the walls of chamber, and her body. She gave birth to a son, Perseus. Hearing the news but not believing that Zeus was the father, Acrisius put his daughter and grandchild and threw it into the sea. They eventually came to the island of Seriphus, where they were saved and adopted by a local fisherman, called Dictys, the brother of the king of the island, Polydectes.

When Perseus grew up to become a handsome and strong young man, the evil king desired his mother Danae to be his wife. However, he knew that Perseus would never allow this and so he hatched a plan to send Perseus not only far away but also on a dangerous mission. Polydectes told Perseus to bring him the head of the Gorgon Medusa.

Perseus and Medusa

Medusa was once a beautiful woman who was transformed into a monster, with snakes for hair and a gaze that could turn anyone to stone, by Athena as punishment for lying with Poseidon in her shrine.

For this monumental task, Perseus asked Athena and Hermes for help and the two of them, provided winged sandals to fly him to the end of the world where Gorgons lived, a sword and a mirrored shield. The latter was the most important tool Perseus had, since it allowed him to see a reflection of Medusa’s face and to avoid being turned into stone.

Perseus by Antonio Canova ,1801, Vatican Museum.

When he cut Medusa’s head off, from her neck suddenly appeared two offspring: Pegasus and Chrysaor, a giant. These were Medusa’s children with Poseidon.

Perseus and the head of Medusa. Roman fresco from Stabiae.

Andromeda

On the way back to Seriphus, Perseus stopped in the kingdom of Aethiopia. This mythical Ethiopia was ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, having boasted that her daughter Andromeda was equal in beauty to the Nereids, drew the vengeance of Poseidon, who sent a sea monster, which destroyed much of the kingdom. The oracle of Ammon announced that no relief would be found until the king exposed his daughter Andromeda to the monster, and so she was fastened naked to a rock on the shore. Perseus slew the monster and, setting her free, claimed her in marriage.

Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus, depicted on an amphora in the Altes Museum, Berlin.

Perseus married Andromeda in spite of Phineus, to whom she had before been promised. At the wedding a quarrel took place between the rivals, and Phineus was turned to stone by the sight of Medusa‘s head that Perseus had kept.

On returning to Seriphus and discovering that his mother had to take refuge from the advances of Polydectes, Perseus killed him with Medusa‘s head, and made his brother Dictys, king.

Perseus then returned his magical loans and gave Medusa‘s head as a votive gift to Athena, who set it on her shield, as the Gorgoneion.

Oracle Fulfilled

Perseus then returned to Argos but when Acrisius learned of his grandson’s approach, mindful of the oracle he went into voluntary exile in Pelasgiotis, Thessaly. There Teutamides, king of Larissa, was holding funeral games for his father. Competing in the discus throw, Perseus’ throw veered and struck Acrisius, killing him instantly.