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16th century painting by Paris Bardone which depicts Perseus being armed by Mercury (Hermes) and Minerva (Athena).

Perseus (Greek: Περσεύς),[note 1] the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty there, was the first of the mythic heroes of Greek mythology whose exploits in defeating various archaic monsters provided the founding myths of the Twelve Olympians. Perseus was the Greek hero who killed the Gorgon Medusa, and claimed Andromeda, having rescued her from a sea monster sent by Poseidon in retribution for Queen Cassiopeia declaring herself more beautiful than the sea nymphs.

Origin at Argos

Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danaë, who by her very name, was the archetype of all the Danaans.[1] She was the only child of Acrisius, King of Argos. Disappointed by his lack of luck in having a son, Acrisius consulted the oracle at Delphi, who warned him that he would one day be killed by his daughter's son. Danaë was childless and to keep her so, he imprisoned her in a bronze chamber open to the sky in the courtyard of his palace:[2] This mytheme is also connected to Ares, Oenopion, Eurystheus, etc. Zeus came to her in the form of a shower of gold, and impregnated her.[3] Soon after was born their child Perseus— "Perseus Eurymedon,[4] for his mother gave him this name as well" (Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica IV).

Fearful for his future but unwilling to provoke the wrath of the gods by killing Zeus's offspring and his own daughter, Acrisius cast the two into the sea in a wooden chest.[5] Danaë's fearful prayer made while afloat in the darkness has been expressed by the poet Simonides of Ceos. Mother and child washed ashore on the island of Seriphos, where they were taken in by the fisherman Dictys ("fishing net"), who raised the boy to manhood. The brother of Dictys was Polydectes ("he who receives/welcomes many"), the king of the island.

Overcoming the Gorgon

After some time, Polydectes fell in love with Danaë, yet Perseus, who knew that Polydectes had grim intentions, constantly protected his mother from him. Polydectes desired to remove Perseus from the island so he could have Danaë, so he therefore hatched a plot to send him away in disgrace. Polydectes held a large banquet where each guest was expected to bring a gift.[note 2] Polydectes requested that the guests bring horses, under the pretense that he was collecting contributions for the hand of Hippodamia, "tamer of horses". The fisherman's protégé had no horse to give, so asked Polydectes to name the gift, for he would not refuse it. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise, demanding the head of the only mortal Gorgon,[6] Medusa, whose very expression turned people to stone. Ovid's anecdotal embroidery of Medusa's mortality tells that she had once been a woman, vain of her beautiful hair, who lay with Poseidon in the Temple of Athena.[7] In punishment for the desecration of her temple, Athena changed Medusa's hair into hideous snakes "that she may alarm her surprised foes with terror".[8]

16th century fresco by Baldassare Peruzzi in the Villa Farnesina, Rome, which depicts Perseus and Medusa.

Athena instructed Perseus to find the Hesperides, who were entrusted with weapons needed to defeat the Gorgon. Following Athena's guidance,[9] Perseus sought out the Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons, to demand the whereabouts of the Hesperides, the nymphs tending Hera's orchard. The Graeae were three perpetually old women, who had to share one eye and one tooth among them. As the women passed the eye from one to the other, Perseus snatched it from them, holding it ransom in return for the location of the nymphs.[10] When the sisters led him to the Hesperides, he returned what he had taken.

From the Hesperides he received a knapsack kibisis to safely contain Medusa's head. Zeus gave him an adamantine sword and Hades' helm of invisibility to hide. Hermes loaned Perseus winged sandals to fly, while Athena gave him a polished shield. Perseus then proceeded to the Gorgons' cave.

In the cave he came upon the sleeping Stheno, Euryale and Medusa. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he safely approached and cut off her head. From her neck sprang Pegasus ("he who sprang") and Chrysaor ("bow of gold"), the result of Poseidon and Medusa's meeting. The other two Gorgons pursued Perseus,[11] but under his helmet of invisibility he escaped.

Marriage to Andromeda

On the way back to Seriphos Island, Perseus stopped in the kingdom of Ethiopia. This mythical Ethiopia was ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, having boasted herself equal in beauty to the Nereids, drew down the vengeance of Poseidon, who sent an inundation on the land and a sea serpent, Cetus, which destroyed man and beast. 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 to a rock on the shore. Perseus slew the monster and, setting her free, claimed her in marriage.

In the classical myth, he flew using the flying sandals. Renaissance Europe and modern imagery has generated the idea that Perseus flew mounted on Pegasus (though not in the great paintings by Piero di Cosimo and Titian).[note 3]

Perseus turning Phineus and his followers to stone. 17th century painting by Luca Giordano.

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 the Gorgon's head.[12] Andromeda ("queen of men") followed her husband to Tiryns in Argos, and became the ancestress of the family of the Perseidae who ruled at Tiryns through her son with Perseus, Perses.[13] After her death she was placed by Athena amongst the constellations in the northern sky, near Perseus and Cassiopeia.[note 4] Sophocles and Euripides (and in more modern times Pierre Corneille) made the episode of Perseus and Andromeda the subject of tragedies, and its incidents were represented in many ancient works of art.

As Perseus was flying in his return above the sands of Libya, according to Apollonius of Rhodes,[14] the falling drops of Medusa's blood created a race of toxic serpents, one of whom was to kill the Argonaut Mopsus. On returning to Seriphos and discovering that his mother had to take refuge from the violent advances of Polydectes, Perseus killed him with Medusa's head, and made his brother Dictys, consort of Danaë, king.

The oracle fulfilled

Perseus then returned his magical loans and gave Medusa's head as a votive gift to Athena, who set it on Zeus' shield (which she carried), as the Gorgoneion.

The fulfillment of the oracle[note 5] was told several ways, each incorporating the mythic theme of exile. In Pausanias[15] he did not return to Argos, but went instead to Larissa, where athletic games were being held.

He had just invented the quoit and was making a public display of them when Acrisius, who happened to be visiting, stepped into the trajectory of the quoit and was killed: thus the oracle was fulfilled. This is an unusual variant on the story of such a prophecy, as Acrisius' actions did not, in this variant, cause his death.

In Apollodorus' version,[16] the inevitable occurred by another route: Perseus did return to Argos, but when he learned of the oracle, 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.

In a third tradition,[17] Acrisius had been driven into exile by his brother, Proetus. Perseus turned the brother into stone with the Gorgon's head and restored Acrisius to the throne. Having killed Acrisius, Perseus, who was next in line for the throne, gave the kingdom to Megapenthes ("great mourning") son of Proetus and took over Megapenthes' kingdom of Tiryns. The story is related in Pausanias,[18] which gives as motivation for the swap that Perseus was ashamed to become king of Argos by inflicting death.

In any case, early Greek literature reiterates that manslaughter, even involuntary, requires the exile of the slaughterer, expiation and ritual purification. The exchange might well have been a creative solution to a difficult problem; however, Megapenthes would have been required to avenge his father, which, in legend, he did, but only at the end of Perseus' long and successful reign.

King of Mycenae

The two main sources regarding the legendary life of Perseus—for he was an authentic historical figure to the Greeks— are Pausanias and Apollodorus, but from them we obtain mainly folk-etymology concerning the founding of Mycenae. Pausanias[19] asserts that the Greeks believed Perseus founded Mycenae. He mentions the shrine to Perseus that stood on the left-hand side of the road from Mycenae to Argos, and also a sacred fountain at Mycenae called Persea. Located outside the walls, this was perhaps the spring that filled the citadel's underground cistern. He states also that Atreus stored his treasures in an underground chamber there, which is why Heinrich Schliemann named the largest tholos tomb the Treasury of Atreus.

Apart from these more historical references, we have only folk-etymology: Perseus dropped his cap or found a mushroom (both named myces) at Mycenae, or perhaps the place was named from the lady Mycene, daughter of Inachus, mentioned in a now-missing poem, the great Eoeae. For whatever reasons, perhaps as outposts, Perseus fortified Mycenae according to Apollodorus[20] along with Midea, an action that implies that they both previously existed. It is unlikely, however, that Apollodorus knew who walled in Mycenae; he was only conjecturing. In any case, Perseus took up official residence in Mycenae with Andromeda.

Descendants of Perseus

Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons: Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon, and Cynurus, and two daughters, Gorgophone, and Autochthoe. Perses was left in Ethiopia and became an ancestor of the emperors of Persia. The other descendants ruled Mycenae from Electryon down to Eurystheus, after whom Atreus got the kingdom. However, the Perseids included the great hero, Heracles, stepson of Amphitryon, son of Alcaeus. The Heraclides, or descendants of Heracles, successfully contested the rule of the Atreids.


Due to the obscurity of the name Perseus and the legendary character of its bearer, most etymologists pass it by, on the presumption that it might be pre-Greek. However, the name of Perseus's native city was Greek and so were the names of his wife and relatives. There is some prospect that it descended into Greek from the Proto-Indo-European language. In that regard Robert Graves has espoused the only Greek derivation available. Perseus might be from the ancient Greek verb, "πέρθειν" (perthein), “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”, some form of which appears in Homeric epithets. According to Carl Darling Buck (Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin), the –eus suffix is typically used to form an agent noun, in this case from the aorist stem, pers-. Pers-eus therefore is a sacker of cities; that is, a soldier by occupation, a fitting name for the first Mycenaean warrior.

The origin of perth- is more obscure. J. B. Hofmann[21] lists the possible root as *bher-, from which Latin ferio, "strike". This corresponds to Julius Pokorny's *bher-(3), “scrape, cut.” Ordinarily *bh- descends to Greek as ph-. This difficulty can be overcome by presuming a dissimilation from the –th– in perthein; that is, the Greeks preferred not to say *pherthein. Graves carries the meaning still further, to the perse- in Persephone, goddess of death. John Chadwick in the second edition of Documents in Mycenaean Greek speculates as follows about the goddess pe-re-*82 of Pylos tablet Tn 316, tentatively reconstructed as *Preswa:

”It is tempting to see...the classical Perse...daughter of Oceanus...; whether it may be further identified with the first element of Persephone is only speculative.”

A Greek folk etymology connected the name of the Persian people, whom they called the Persai. The native name, however has always had an -a- in Persian. Herodotus[22] recounts this story, devising a foreign son, Perses, from whom the Persians took the name. Apparently the Persians themselves[23] knew the story, as Xerxes tried to use it to suborn the Argives during his invasion of Greece, but ultimately failed to do so.

Perseus on Pegasus

Perseus and Andromeda, 16th century painting by Francis Cleyn.

The replacement of Bellerophon as the tamer and rider of Pegasus by the more familiar culture hero Perseus was not simply an error of painters and poets of the Renaissance. The transition was a development of Classical times which became the standard image during the Middle Ages and has been adopted by the European poets of the Renaissance and later: Giovanni Boccaccio's Genealogia deorum gentilium libri (10.27) identifies Pegasus as the steed of Perseus, and Pierre Corneille places Perseus upon Pegasus in Andromède.[24] Modern representations of this image include sculptor Émile Louis Picault's 1888 sculpture, Pegasus.[25]

Modern uses of the theme

In Hermann Melville's Moby-Dick, the narrator asserts that Perseus was the first whaleman, when he killed Cetus to save Andromeda.[26] Operatic treatments of the subject include Persée by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1682) and Persée et Andromède by Jacques Ibert (1921).

Chimera, the 1972 National Book Award-winning novel by John Barth, includes a novella called Perseid that is an inventive, postmodern retelling of the myth of Perseus.

In Rick Riordan's fantasy series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the protagonist Percy Jackson, a son of Poseidon, is named after and similar to Perseus.

The 1981 fantasy/adventure film Clash of the Titans, later remade in 2010, loosely follows the myth of Perseus.


  1. Perseos and Perseas (Greek: Περσέως, Περσέας) are not used in English.
  2. Such a banquet, to which each guest brings a gift, was an eranos. The name of Polydectes, "receiver of many", characterizes his role as intended host but is also a euphemism for the Lord of the Underworld, as in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter 9, 17.
  3. For the Greeks, the tamer and first rider of Pegasus was Bellerophon
  4. Catasterismi.
  5. The ironic fulfillment of an oracle through an accident or a concatenation of coincidental circumstances is not a "self-fulfilling prophecy".


  1. Kerenyi 1959:45; see also Danaus, the eponymous ancestor.
  2. "Even thus endured Danaë in her beauty to change the light of day for brass-bound walls; and in that chamber, secret as the grave, she was held close" (Sophocles, Antigone). In post-Renaissance paintings the setting is often a locked tower.
  3. Trzaskoma, Stephen; et al (2004). Anthology of classical myth: primary sources in translation. Indianopolis, IN: Hackett. ISBN 9780872207219. 
  4. Eurymedon: "far-ruling"
  5. For the familiar motif of the Exposed Child in the account of Moses especially, see Brevard S. Childs, "The Birth of Moses" Journal of Biblical Literature 84.2 (June 1965), pp 109-122, and Donald B. Redford, "The Literary Motif of the Exposed Child (Cf. Ex. ii 1-10)" Numen 14.3 (November 1967), pp 209-228. Another example of this mytheme is the Indian figure of Karna.
  6. Hesiod, Theogony 277
  7. Ovid, as a Roman writer, uses the Roman names for Poseidon and Athena, "Neptune" and "Minerva" respectively.
  8. Ovid, Metamorphoses iv, 792-802, Henry Thomas Riley's translation
  9. "The Myth of Perseus and Medusa", obtained from
  10. "PERSEUS : Hero ; Greek mythology" obtained from
  11. Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 2. 37-39.
  12. Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.1-235.
  13. Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons: Perseides, Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, and Electryon, and one daughter, Gorgophone. Their descendants also ruled Mycenae, from Electryon down to Eurystheus, after whom Atreus attained the kingdom. Among the Perseids was the great hero Heracles. According to this mythology, Perseus is the ancestor of the Persians.
  14. Argonautica, IV.
  15. 12.16.1
  16. 2.4.4
  17. Metamorphoses, 5.177
  18. loc. cit.
  19. 2.15.4, 2.16.3-6, 2.18.1
  20. 2.4.4, pros-teichisas, "walling in"
  21. Hofmann, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Griechischen (Munich) !950.
  22. Herodotus, vii.61
  23. Herodotus vii.150
  24. George Burke Johnston "Jonson's 'Perseus upon Pegasus'" The Review of English Studies New Series, 6.21 (Jan., 1955), pp. 65-67.
  25. "Flight of the Chum"; Pawn Stars; History Channel; Premiered March 8, 2010
  26. Melville, Hermann (1851), Moby-Dick. Chapter 82: The Honor and Glory of Whaling
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Perseus. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.