The Story of Perseus, Retold

Perseus is best known for his conquest of Medusa. But did you know that he was born of a virgin mother, married an Ethiopian princess, and committed parricide? PLUS: All these centuries, we’ve been misled to believe that Medusa was a rape victim who was punished for being one!


Featured photo: While Perseus was quite a steady character since ancient times, Medusa had so many faces: beautiful, monstrous, persecuted, narcissistic and vain, ugly and malevolent, unjustly punished victim.


Table of Contents

Scenes from Volterra: A mask welcomes visitors to the Etruscan Museum "Mario Guarnacci", Volterra, Italy

This post is a short story format and has more than 5,000 words.
Average reading time: 25 minutes.

Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

Perseus of Ancient Greece

Perseus to us was a legendary Greek hero. But for the ancient Greeks, he was a historical figure who founded the kingdom of Mycenae, and who lived in the mid-14th to early 13th century BCE. He was the ancestor of the Perseids which counted among its members the likes of Hercules, Helen of Troy, and Alexander the Great.

People today may only remember Perseus vis-a-vis the legend of Medusa. But his story starts even before he was born, and it is one of the oldest stories told by the Greek writers from the 8th century BCE.

The Perseus and Medusa story itself evolved over the centuries through the imaginations of Greek and Roman poets. Their Medusa memes ranged from the beautiful and persecuted, to narcissistic and vain, to ugly and malevolent, to an unjustly-punished rape victim. The most memorable depiction of these protagonists is Cellini’s sculpture in Florence, Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

The Problem with Ovid’s Medusa

In Ovid’s version of the story in his Metamorphoses, Medusa was fabulously beautiful with gorgeous normal hair. Because of this, Poseidon desired her and sexually violated her in Minerva’s temple. This sacrilege angered Minerva, and she (inexplicably) punished Medusa by turning the victim’s hair into snakes(?!)

Once Ovid did this, problems arose with ancient literary protagonists being out-of-character:
(a) Medusa was not singular, but was 1 of 3 Gorgons who were already born with snakes in their hair
(b) Medusa was a lover of Poseidon – not a helpless, hapless victim of rape
(c) Minerva (Athena) was not an unjustly punitive goddess – so why punish the victim?

The short story below is based on the oldest Greek versions of the myth before it was politicized by Ovid’s overwrought poem on the subject (see the box “The Problem with Ovid’s Medusa”). It’s sourced from the writings by Hesiod (7th century BCE), Aeschylus (6th century BCE), Simonides (6th century BCE), Pindar (5th century BCE), Strabo (1st century BCE), and (Pseudo) Apollodorus whose Perseus account is thought to be from Pherykides (5th century BCE).

In this re-telling, I provided some embellishments for the sake of connectivity and to rationalize some of the scenes, without fundamentally altering the essence of the original story as told by the ancients.

Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

DANAE OF ARGOS

An Oracle for the King

King Acrisius and Queen Eurydice of Argos had one daughter, the beautiful Princess Danae. The years passed but the queen had not been able to bear a son. 

Acrisius was getting anxious. He didn’t want his despised twin brother Proetus to inherit Argos. He had already given Proetus the other half of his kingdom, Tyrins.

Despairing of a male heir, King Acrisius asked the oracle what he should do. The oracle responded thus,

“Ah Acrisius, despair not. For, didn’t the fire-giver Prometheus foretell that your ancestress, Io, would be the progenitor of the greatest heroes of the land? His prediction has not fully played out yet. But out of your line will be the brave Gorgon-slayer and founder of a great city. And after him, his great-grandson will exceed him in power and fame, and become the world’s mightiest hero ever.”

Acrisius was overjoyed and started to raise his hands and cry out a grateful prayer to Zeus. But the oracle continued, 

“Unfortunately, your daughter’s son will also cause your demise.”

Stunned, Acrisius sputtered, “What? How? When?”

But the oracle had gone silent.

Seduction in the Brazen Chamber

Freaked out, King Acrisius lost a lot of sleep. Over and over, he thought of  ways to subvert the oracle’s prediction. 

Could he change fate? 

There was nothing else to do but try. He must devise a way to prevent Danae from socializing with any men, getting married, having children. 

Lock her up! Yes, for as long as he’s alive.

A tholos tomb in Pylos. Ref. (a-52).
A tholos tomb in Pylos. Ref. (a-52).

King Acrisius took inspiration from the burial chambers of his ancestors. He built a windowless circular chamber (tholos), buried in the hillside behind his palace. He lined the walls with brass, and kept the top open to the sky to allow for air. 

When it was finished, he convinced Danae to stay hidden in the brazen chamber because she would be in grave danger otherwise. Danae, who had no reason to doubt her father, reluctantly accepted her incarceration, hoping it won’t be for long.

Once, King Acrisius and Queen Eurydice visited Danae, to see how she was doing.

“I’m having the time of my life, father. I have been having the most glorious golden showers.”

“She’s turned nuts”, Acrisius told his wife. “The solitary confinement is making her mad, but she’s not going anywhere.”

Unbeknownst to Acrisius, the god Zeus, while looking down from the sky through the open roof of the chamber, spotted Danae and desired her. To avoid detection by his permanently suspicious wife, Hera, Zeus transformed himself into a shower of shimmering gold and seduced the beautiful prisoner. 

Lonely Danae willingly received the god’s hot showers. Very soon, she became pregnant. Several months later, Danae gave birth to a baby boy she named Perseus. When King Acrisius heard about this, he was livid.

“Was my brother Proetus responsible for this? Did he seduce you?”

“It was Zeus who came to me – he is the father of my child.”

Zeus, as a golden shower, seduces Danae - by H. Fantin-Latour. Ref. (a-60).
Zeus, as a golden shower, seduces Danae – by H. Fantin-Latour. Ref. (a-60).

The Lament of Danae

King Acrisius did not believe Danae. He wanted to have the child exposed. In ancient Greece, the head of a household may disown a child and have it exposed to the elements to die. But Danae refused to give up her child. 

Furious, he ordered the construction of a brazen chest. He threw in his daughter and baby Perseus inside, and cast them out to sea. Queen Eurydice was completely heart-broken and mourned her daughter’s and grandson’s fate.

An ancient Greek lyrical poet described Danae’s fear and trembling while being tossed around in the dark stormy seas:

When, inside the curiously designed ark     
the blowing wind and the crashing waves     
cast her down in fear, with wet cheeks     
she threw her arms around Perseus, and spoke:    
 
“My child, such grief I bear; but you slumber,     
dozing milk-filled in this joyless brass-bound box,       
stretched out in the dark night and murky gloom.     
You pay no heed to the deep swell     
of the waves rushing by above your head,     
nor to the voice of the wind,     
a lovely face lying wrapped in purple cloth.     
If this danger were indeed a danger to you,     
then you might offer your delicate ear to my words.     
But I say ‘sleep, my baby; let the sea sleep,     
And let the measureless evil sleep.’     
Perhaps some change of mind might reveal itself,     
Father Zeus, from you.     
But if what I pray is bold and improper,     
please forgive me.” 

– Simonides of Ceos (translated by P.A. Rosenmeyer, Ref. (a-21))
Danae and Young Perseus on the base of Cellini's Perseus and Medusa sculpture @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.
Danae and Young Perseus on the base of Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa sculpture @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.

Zeus seemed to have heard her prayers, for they were rescued by a fisherman named Dictys who caught the brazen coffin in his fishing net off the rocky island of Serifos.

Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

PERSEUS & MEDUSA

Perseus Grows Up in Serifos

Fisherman Dictys and his wife Clymene were a kind and modest couple. They adopted Danae and her baby. Raising Perseus together, he grew up to be a capable and fearless lad, who believed that Dictys and Clymene were his grandparents.

Polydectes was the king of Serifos, who also happened to be Dictys’ brother. For years, he desired the beautiful Danae. But Perseus, who was protective of his mother, was always in the way. 

The lecherous king devised a plan to get Perseus off the island. Polydectes pretended to compete for the hand of a princess from a nearby town. Hence, he required his subjects to donate a horse as part of his offering to the princess. 

Being of  modest means, Perseus did not have a horse to contribute. Instead, he offered his service to the king for any task that would make up for it. It’s exactly what Polydectes was waiting for.

“I need a powerful amulet, the Gorgoneion. It will protect me from my enemies in my quest for the princess’ hands in marriage. I have to fashion it with the head of Medusa, for she alone is mortal among the undying Gorgons. But only the bravest and smartest can confront her, for otherwise, her visage turns men to stone. Are you up to it?”

Medusa was one of 3 Gorgons – but she was the only one who was mortal. Gorgons had wings, fangs like those of wild boar, brazen hands, and snakes on their head and around their waist. Any man who looked at a Gorgon turned to stone.

Proud and brash, Perseus did not balk. Accepting the challenge, he said, “I have no fear, even for a Gorgon.”

Perseus and Hermes confront an archaic gorgon with wings, fangs, and snakes on the head and waist - on an olpe jar, by the Amasis Painter, 550-530 BCE. @ The British Museum, London. Ref. (e-2).
Perseus and Hermes confront an archaic gorgon with wings, fangs, and snakes on the head and waist – on an olpe jar, by the Amasis Painter, 550-530 BCE. @ The British Museum, London. Ref. (e-2).

The Gorgon Mission

For his Medusa quest, Perseus looked to friends in high places. He was, after all, the half-brother of the gods Athena and Hermes.

Athena (Minerva) on the base of Cellini's Perseus and Medusa sculpture, @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.
Athena (Minerva) on the base of Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa sculpture, @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.

The gods gave their sibling advice on how to proceed with his quest and what tools he would need. Athena loaned to him a shiny shield, and Hermes lent him a sword made of adamantine. 

Then they led him to the Graiae – 3 grey sisters – eternally old women who shared one eye and one tooth. They were sentinels who, with their eye, knew the lay of the land and where things were.

Perseus grabbed the eye and tooth as one of the Graiae was passing them to the next sister. 

Hermes (Mercury) on the base of Cellini's Perseus and Medusa sculpture @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.
Hermes (Mercury) on the base of Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa sculpture @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.

“Dear old ladies, I mean no harm, but I need your help. I will return your eye and tooth if you show me where the nymphs are. They who keep secure the magic gadgets of the gods. Next, I also need to know where your sisters, the 3 Gorgons, live.”

The Graiae were beside themselves with fury. Their perimeter had never been breached before. They had no choice but to comply and gave Perseus what he demanded.  

When he found the nymphs who guarded the gods’ closet, he borrowed a few magic articles to wear. On Hermes’ advice, he got a pair of winged sandals that would transport him speedily on air. And a messenger bag – silver, with golden tassels – which he wore across his body. Lastly, he donned a hat that belonged to Hades, and it made him and all his gear, invisible. 

Perseus outwits the 3 Graiae, by Edward Burne-Jones 1892. @ The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (State Gallery), Stuttgart, Germany. Ref. (a-59).
Perseus outwits the 3 Graiae, by Edward Burne-Jones 1892. @ The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (State Gallery), Stuttgart, Germany. Ref. (a-59).

Medusa Loses Her Head

Now properly attired and equipped, Perseus flew to the cave where the Gorgons lived and found them asleep. 

Since he must not look directly at them, he used the shiny shield from Athena to see their reflection. He could make out dark silhouettes prostrate on pallets of leaves, wings enveloping their bodies like a blanket.  He approached them awkwardly but stealthily, trying to find the right Gorgon. 

Gorgoneion on a Hydra from Tarquinia, 490 BCE. @ The British Museum, London. Ref. (e-1).
Gorgoneion on a Hydra from Tarquinia, 490 BCE. @ The British Museum, London. Ref. (e-1).

The first one was broad-faced with a broad nose, her long purple tongue lolling from her open mouth.

A second broad-face came into view, with fangs like that of a wild boar protruding from her mouth. Dark curly locks framed their hideous faces.

As he came closer to the third one, he was surprised to see the pale exquisite face of a woman. Oddly, she reminded him of his mother. No tongue or teeth stuck out of her mouth. Her pink lips formed a half-smile as if she was dreaming of flowers and green meadows. He resisted the temptation to turn his head and gaze at her directly.

Medusa Mosaic @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.
Medusa Mosaic @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

Then he gasped when he saw on the reflection the red flickering tongue of a snake that was beginning to stir on her head. Suddenly, the curly mass of hair began to move, sensing danger. This is she, he realized. 

He moved decisively, and with a backward swing, he swiftly brought the adamantine sword across Medusa’s neck. The head rolled off, with all its snakes now squirming with frenzy from the shock. In a moment, the scaly worms suddenly slumped, as dead as their mother.

Still using the reflective shield, he quickly grabbed Medusa’s head and stashed it into the silver messenger bag.

Athena, Perseus, and a beautiful sleeping Medusa on Pelike Jar by Polygnotos - 450-440 BCE. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-3).
Athena, Perseus, and a beautiful sleeping Medusa on Pelike Jar by Polygnotos – 450-440 BCE. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-3).

Medusa Gives Birth in Death

As Perseus was turning to flee, a sudden clamor emanated from Medusa’s decapitated body.

Out of her bleeding neck – amid loud neighs and flapping noises – emerged a huge white, winged horse. This was the birth of Pegasus.

Perseus kills Medusa, and Pegasus springs from her neck. On a Lekythos pottery by Diosphos 500 BCE. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-4).
Perseus kills Medusa, and Pegasus springs from her neck. On a Lekythos pottery by Diosphos 500 BCE. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-4).

Then more life came out of Medusa’s neck when gigantic Khrysaor sprang up – fully grown and wielding a sword with a golden blade.

These were the offspring from Medusa’s affair with Poseidon.

Perseus did not have time to wonder at these events. The Gorgon sisters were awakened and realized their sister had been killed. They screeched vile sounds of anger and grief. Flapping their wings furiously, they rose in the air in search of the murderer. The snakes in their hair and around their waists writhing fiercely, hissing, their tongues moving quickly, tasting the air. 

But alas, they couldn’t see him. Perseus’ borrowed hat made him invisible, and he flew away from the Gorgons’ cave as fast as he could.

Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

PERSEUS & ANDROMEDA

Girl from Ethiopia

Perseus was preoccupied by a feeling of unease and regret with his victory over the Gorgons. He paid no attention to where he was going.

He had underestimated the power of his winged sandals – for he sped beyond the Mediterranean Sea and found himself in Ethiopia. 

Andromeda and the Sea Monster, 1694, by Domenico Guidi. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-2).
Andromeda and the Sea Monster, 1694, by Domenico Guidi. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-2).

Along the rocky coast, he beheld a strange sight. On a promontory, the rising waves were lashing against the body of a naked woman bound to the rock. He took off his invisibility cap and approached her, standing in midair, buffeted against the sea winds. Her long black hair was wet and clung to her soaked skin, the color of burnished bronze. 

“My lady, who are you and what is the meaning of this?”

Dazed, her dark grey eyes looked at him with a mixture of dread, shame, and amazement. 

“I am Princess Andromeda. The oracle Ammon said I must be sacrificed to the sea monster Cetus to stop the devastation of my city.” She shivered as she spoke.

Perseus was overcome with pity and outrage. He covered her with his cape, and moved to cut off her chains, but she said,

“Please, let me be. It’s the only way to save the city and my people.” She gazed towards the shore as her tears fell freely.

It was then that he noticed the huge crowd on the shore, where a faint wailing could be heard, almost drowned out by the din of the waves. Feeling a rising fury that such a virtuous maiden should be sacrificed to a sea monster, he rushed to the shore.

“Why are you allowing the sacrifice of your brave princess Andromeda?”, he confronted the crowd.

King Cepheus, who was supporting the wailing woman, Queen Cassiopeia, spoke in a distressed voice.

“Flying stranger, Poseidon, the Lord of the Sea, has been punishing us for months. He caused the sea monster Cetus to attack our people and inundate our city with floods.”

Queen Cassiopeia paused from her wailing, and told her story. “It’s all my fault. I was conceited and claimed that I was more beautiful than all the Nereids of the sea. This angered them so. I deserve to die for such hubris – but the oracle declared my precious daughter is the cure, not I.”

Perseus Battles the Sea Monster & the Ex-Boyfriend

Perseus, fresh from his conquest of Medusa, felt emboldened to liberate the city and its princess from ruination. Andromeda’s nobility stirred his young heart.

“I am Perseus, son of Zeus, and slayer of the Gorgon Medusa. I will destroy your sea monster and rescue the princess. If I am successful, will you allow me to marry your daughter?”

The desperate parents agreed. Andromeda was previously betrothed to her uncle, King Cepheus’ brother. But, he disappeared during Andromeda’s ordeal.

When the sea monster appeared from the deep to claim its prize, it was no match for the flying acrobatics of the Gorgon slayer and his adamantine sword. He whacked the sea monster to pieces and delivered the Ethiopians from Poseidon’s curse. He released Andromeda and professed his love for the brave and beautiful dark-skinned maiden.

Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea monster. From a painting by Piero di Cosimo, 1510-1515, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. Ref. (a-57).
Perseus rescues Andromeda from the sea monster. From a painting by Piero di Cosimo, 1510-1515, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. Ref. (a-57).

When King Cepheus’ brother – Andromeda’s ex-betrothed – learned of her rescue, he returned and plotted against Perseus. He raised an army and challenged Andromeda’s rescuer. Perseus exposed them to Medusa’s head and they all turned to stone.

After Perseus and Andromeda wed, he had to return to Serifos to fulfill his obligation to Polydectes. Before they left, they promised King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia that their first-born son would live with them in Ethiopia and become the king’s heir.

Perseus and Andromeda wed. It's rare to find a dark-skinned Andromeda in works of art. This one is from a painting by Piero di Cosimo, 1510-1515, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. Ref. (a-57).
Perseus and Andromeda wed. It’s rare to find a dark-skinned Andromeda in works of art. This one is from a painting by Piero di Cosimo, 1510-1515, at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. Ref. (a-57).
Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

REVELATIONS

Polydectes Gets a Wedding Gift

In Serifos, Polydectes discarded all pretenses and began his aggressive pursuit of Danae as soon as Perseus left on his quest.

Danae denied him for a long time until his advances turned to harassment. He declared they will wed, whether she liked it or not, and made preparations for their forced union. 

Desperate to escape, Danae pleaded with Dictys to send her to Argos. Dictys arranged for one of his boats to sail secretly for Argos with Danae, accompanied by some of his friends.

When Perseus arrived in Serifos with Andromeda, Danae was gone. Learning of the king’s duplicity, he stormed into Polydectes’ palace where he and his friends were organizing the wedding. 

“O King Polydectes, I have returned with the wedding gift you requested. Enjoy it for eternity!” With his head averted, he exposed the king and his friends to Medusa’s head and they all turned to stone.

Cellini's Perseus and Medusa bronze sculpture @ the Loggia dei Lanzi. Piazza della Signoria - Florence, Italy.
Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa bronze sculpture @ the Loggia dei Lanzi. Piazza della Signoria – Florence, Italy.

Perseus installed Dictys as the new king of Seriphos, who imposed a just rule on the island. Taking Andromeda with him, he bade goodbye to his grandparents, to search for his mother. 

Perseus Finds Out His Ancestry

They flew over the sea from Seriphos to the Peloponnese, and found Dictys’ boat as it was docking on the bay near Troezen. Perseus introduced his new wife to Danae, and gave her the news from Serifos.

“My grandfather Dictys is now the king, mother. The danger of Polydectes is gone, for he has become stone. We can now return and live peacefully in Serifos.”

It was then that Danae told him about his real grandfather.

“Son, your real grandfather is King Acrisius of Argos. When I begat you without a man, he didn’t believe that Zeus was your father. He became terribly angry and banished us.”

King Acrisius never told Danae the real reason he banished her and Perseus. Hence, she could not also relay the oracle about the danger Perseus posed to King Acrisius.

Perseus was shocked to learn that he was the grandson of a king who ruled over the famous kingdom of Argos.

“Mother, I will always regard Dictys and Clymene as my grandparents. But I do wish to meet King Acrisius – for I can explain that Zeus is really my father. And Hermes and Athena are my half-siblings who helped me slay the Gorgon Medusa.”

“Speaking of my half-siblings, I must first return to them the tools they loaned to me. Let’s rest here by the seaside at the fisherman’s inn before we go to Argos.”

Perseus’ Remorse & Medusa’s Redemption

Early the next day, the Gorgon slayer sought his half-siblings and returned the items he borrowed for his quest. Hermes went to the nymphs and restored the magic sandals, silver bag, and invisibility hat to their care. 

Perseus offered Medusa’s wrapped head to Athena. He confided to her the remorse he felt after slaying Medusa.

A modern rendering of the Head of Medusa. Cameo by Benedetto Pistrucci 1840-50. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-1).
A modern rendering of the Head of Medusa. Cameo by Benedetto Pistrucci 1840-50. @ The Metropolitan Museum, New York City. Ref. (d-1).

“Even with the horrific snakes in her hair, she was lovely. Smiling in her sleep. Pregnant. The moment I slew her, I felt sad and troubled. It was my pride that made me go on this quest.”

Athena tried to assuage Perseus, and told him Medusa’s story.

“Indeed, Medusa was different from her undying grotesque sisters – she was mortal and  alluring. But she turned more men into stone than her sisters. Men just could not resist the temptation and looked at what was beautiful and terrible to behold. 

“Medusa hid from people to avoid these rock-turning incidents. She felt accursed, for these things happened outside her will, beyond her control.”

“She doesn’t sound like a bad monster then,” said Perseus.

Medusa

With her lay the Dark-haired One
in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.

— Hesiod (Theogony, 275)

“Her beauty captured the heart of Poseidon, for the snakey hair did not bother him, and they had a love affair. When she became pregnant, she tried to channel her power so her children would not become Gorgons like her.”

Perseus said, “I’d say she succeeded. A dazzling white winged horse and a giant of a man with a golden sword came out of her neck, after I slew her.”

“Indeed,” Athena replied, “the winged horse, Pegasus, will have wonderful adventures. While his sword-wielding brother, Khrysaor, will have a happy marriage and a son who will raise the best cattle in the world.”

Pegasus at the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy.
Pegasus at the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy.

Perseus was beginning to feel somewhat relieved. He asked, “What will you do with her head?”

“In death the potent power of a Gorgon’s visage can be turned into a protective device rather than a deadly one. A Gorgoneion. But it has to be done with the proper invocation. Avert your eyes brother.”

Athena unwrapped Medusa’s head and after invoking an indecipherable prayer, installed Medusa’s visage on her shield.

“You may look now, brother. From today, she will be with me in all my endeavors.”

Perseus gazed – without turning to stone – at the Gorgoneion in all its awesome glory on Athena’s aegis.

“Now, go and sacrifice a bull to the gods, to expiate your action and ask them to pacify your conscience.”

Journey to Argos

Having sacrificed to the gods and returned the magic equipment back to Hermes and Athena, Perseus felt the guilt and heavy load dissipate. The following day, he led the traveling party on the 50-mile journey from Troezen to Argos, across the Argolid peninsula.

They arrived in Tiryns, which used to be ruled by Danae’s uncle King Proetus – the estranged twin brother of her father. King Proetus had died, and his son, Megapenthes was now king. Despite their fathers’ enmity, Megapenthes welcomed his cousin Danae and her party.

He invited them to stay the night at his impressive hilltop megaron palace. He showed Perseus around the citadel which was surrounded by the largest stone walls Perseus had ever seen. 

“My father enlisted 7 giant cyclops from Lycia to build these fortifications. They skillfully fashioned the massive boulders from nearby mountains to form the citadel walls,” said Megapenthes. (To this day, we call them the Cyclopean Walls).

The Cyclopean Walls of Tiryns. King Proetus was said to have brought 7 Cyclops from Lycia to build these fortifications. Ref. (a-54).
The Cyclopean Walls of Tiryns. King Proetus was said to have brought 7 Cyclops from Lycia to build these fortifications. Ref. (a-54).
Ruins of the Cyclopean Walls of Tiryns. Ref. (a-55).
Ruins of the Cyclopean Walls of Tiryns. Ref. (a-55).

————— ♣ —————

News traveled fast from Tiryns to Argos about an incoming embassy led by the princess Danae and her son.

Queen Eurydice could not contain herself, for she had not forgotten her beloved daughter and grandson. But King Acrisius was conflicted. 

He was, to tell the truth, excited to lay eyes on his daughter and her son – his grandson – who was reputed to have slain the Gorgon Medusa. Such courage and might, he must have been fathered by Zeus after all, he thought. 

But he was also terrified. He had not forgotten the dire oracle about his grandson.  

“I hear our grandson is a grown man and is well-known for his brave deeds. But, lest the oracle come true, I must go away while they are here,” he told the queen.

He did not say where he was going. In fact, he traveled to Thessaly, more than 200 miles away.  

The Queen’s Confession

When Danae’s party arrived in Argos, Queen Eurydice was overjoyed to see her daughter and grandson again. King Acrisius was gone.

“The king regretted his banishment of you twenty years ago. We were not sure if you survived.” She wept, then told them about the oracle and how King Acrisius attempted to change fate.

“You see, Perseus, he believes you will be the death of him. And that is why he is not here today.”

The revelation stunned Perseus and Danae.

Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

PROPHECIES COME TO PASS

Death by Discus

Andromeda was several months pregnant by the time they arrived in Argos. Queen Eurydice insisted that they stay in Argos until she has given birth.

Perseus spent his time exploring the Peloponnese together with the companions from Serifos, while the women stayed in Argos. They visited the various locales around the Argolid including Hermione, Midea, Epidaurus, and Mycenae. They ventured out to the neighboring Peloponnesian kingdoms of Sparta, Pylos, and Ephyra (ancient Corinth). 

Each place amazed them. Compared to the cities here, Serifos was really just a village, Perseus thought. 

One day, while they were resting on the Isthmian coast of Ephyra, Perseus asked a boatman who was docking his boat,

“What lies across this Saronic Gulf?”

“That would be Athens, young man, whose patron is the goddess Athena. They have a huge marketplace and temples. There is no city more lively, more crowded with visitors.”

Enticed, they took the ferry to Athens and spent a few days sightseeing and talking with the locals. There, they learned that the new king of a city called Larissa would be holding athletic games to honor his dead father. 

His companions urged Perseus to participate in the games. So they joined the throng of eager, athletic young men marching north to Larissa in Thessaly.

Perseus played in the five contests of the pentathlon. But when he threw the discus as powerfully as he could, it hit and killed a spectator in the audience. 

It was his grandfather, King Acrisius. Thus, the oracle was fulfilled.

Map of Perseus' Journey across Greece. Ref. (c-8).
Map of Perseus’ Journey across Greece. Ref. (c-8).

The First Mycenaean King

Perseus mourned and buried his grandfather in Larissa in the shrine of Athena.

Returning to Argos, he apologized to his grandmother and his mother for the death of the king. They forgave him and hailed him as the new king of Argos, since he was Acrisius’s only direct male descendant. 

But Perseus was embarrassed by the manner in which he inherited the throne of Argos. He went to his uncle in Tiryns, King Megapenthes, and negotiated a swap of their kingdoms. They agreed that Megapenthes would rule Argos, and Perseus would rule Tiryns.

Shortly after moving to Tiryns, Andromeda gave birth to Perses, who inherited her bronze skin and dark grey eyes, and his father’s strength. When he was a few years older, Perses went to live with his grandparents in Ethiopia, where he reigned after King Cepheus. (The historian Herodotus claimed that the Persians descended from him).

Later, Perseus decided to move his home base to Mycenae, 10 miles north of Tiryns. During his earlier exploration of the Peloponnese, he spotted an ideal hilltop that rose more than 250 meters above the existing town. From there he could see the plains of the Argolid, Argos, Tyrins, and the coast. On the highest elevation, he built a new megaron and citadel. Soon after, he employed the same Cyclops who made the fortifications of Tiryns to build the colossal stone walls of Mycenae.

The Cyclopean Walls of Mycenae were built in 14th century BCE. Ancient Greeks claim that Perseus employed the Cyclops to build these walls. Ref. (a-56).
The Cyclopean Walls of Mycenae were built in 14th century BCE. Ancient Greeks claim that Perseus employed the Cyclops to build these walls. Ref. (a-56).
Behind the Lion Gate along the Cyclopean Walls of Mycenae, dated to 1340 BCE. Ref. (a-53).
Behind the Lion Gate along the Cyclopean Walls of Mycenae, dated to 1340 BCE. Ref. (a-53).

Finally, the family moved to Myceanae, and there, the rest of Perseus and Andromeda’s children were born. They had 5 more sons, and 1 daughter: Alcaeus, Sthenelus, Heleus, Mestor, Electryon and Gorgophone.

Gorgophone was the ancestress of Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, and Orestes – who were subjects of Homer’s and the Greek tragedians’ stories.

Perseus' and Hercules' shared father - Zeus (Jupiter) on the base of Cellini's Perseus and Medusa sculpture @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.
Perseus’ and Hercules’ shared father – Zeus (Jupiter) on the base of Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa sculpture @ the Piazza della Signoria, in Florence, Italy.

The most famous descendant of Perseus was Herakles (Heracles, Hercules), the mightiest and greatest Greek hero. His mother descended from Alcaeus’ and Electryon’s lines, and his father – like Perseus – was the prolific Zeus. This makes Herakles the great-grandson of Perseus, as well as his half-brother.  

Read about Herakles’ 12 Labors, his battle with the monster Cacus, and his encounter with the centaur Nessus that ultimately cost him his life.

Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

TL;DR Version

Here’s a 2-minute recap of this entire post. Skinny and stripped of the most interesting insights, if you didn’t read the full story.

Danae

  • The setting is mid-14th to early 13th century BCE in Greece.
  • King Acrisius of Argos wants a son but only has one beautiful daughter Princess Danae.
  • An oracle tells King Acrisius that Danae’s son would cause his death.
  • To prevent her from meeting men, King Acrisius imprisons Danae in a brazen cell with no windows, but with an open roof.
  • From the sky, Zeus sees Danae and seduces her by appearing to her as a golden shower.
  • Danae gets pregnant and Perseus is born.
  • King Acrisius banishes Princess Danae and baby Perseus, throwing them at sea in a brazen chest.

Medusa

  • Fisherman Dictys adopts mother and son when the sea delivers their box on the island of Serifos.
  • Perseus grows up in Serifos. Dictys’ brother, Polydectes, king of Serifos desires Danae.
  • He makes Perseus go away on a quest to behead Medusa.
  • Medusa is one of 3 Gorgon sisters. She’s the only one who is mortal and beautiful. But, like them, she has wings, snakes in her hair, and her stare turns men to stone.
  • Gods Athena and Hermes assist Perseus in his quest lending him a shiny shield and a very sharp sword.
  • He also gets magic equipment from nymphs – flying sandals, a magic knapsack, and an invisibility hat.
  • Perseus finds Medusa through her reflection on Athena’ shiny shield. He beheads Medusa by using Hermes’ sword. 
  • In death, Medusa gives birth to a winged-horse Pegasus, and a golden sword-wielding giant Khrysaor.

Andromeda

  • Perseus flies away and reaches Ethiopia.
  • He encounters beautiful, dark-skinned Princess Andromeda. She is tied to a rock on the sea as a sacrifice for a sea monster because of her mother’s vanity. He kills the sea monster, then weds Andromeda.
  • He battles Andromeda’s her ex-betrothed, who also happens to be her uncle, turning him to stone with Medusa’s head.

Perseus, King of Mycenae

  • Meanwhile, in Serifos, Polydectes planned a forced wedding with Danae. With Dicty’s help, Danae secretly escapes back to Argos by boat.
  • Perseus returns to Serifos with Andromeda. He turns Polydectes to stone and installs Dictys as king of the island. 
  • He and Andromeda follow Danae to Argos. Danae tells him his real grandfather is King Acrisius of Argos.
  • They proceed to King Acrisius’ palace, but the king has left for Thessaly upon hearing about their approach.
  • Perseus travels to join a funerary game held by the King of Larissa in Thessaly. While playing the pentathlon, he throws a discus and hits a spectator, who is killed instantly. It is his grandfather, King Acrisius.
  • Perseus inherits Acrisius’ kingdom, Argos, but in his shame, he swaps kingdoms with his uncle who rules Tiryns. Later, he founds the city of Mycenae.
  • Perseus has many children with Andromeda. From them, Perseus counts as his descendants – Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and the demi-god Hercules.
Medusa Mosaic from a Roman necropoli (end of 1st-to mid-2nd century CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.(298-306 CE) @ Palazzo Massimo in Rome, Italy.

This tale is based on ancient versions of the story by Hesiod, (Pseudo) Apollodorus, Aeschylus, Pindar, Simonides of Ceos, and Strabo (see References 9, 15-21). For a complete list of sources and resources used on this webpage, please see the References page.


Related Posts

Cellini's Perseus and Medusa at the Loggia dei Lanzi, 1554 @ Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy. Ref. (a-63).

Find out how Cellini got the short end of the stick when Cosimo I de’ Medici only paid 3,500 gold crowns for his Perseus and Medusa masterpiece.

Visit the Italy page for more stories and travel tips …

BELLA ITALIA

Fascinating ancient stories.
Practical travel tales and tips.


A bull, a dragon, and a bear on the marble wall of the Tower of Pisa, Italy.
Let’s go! Andiamo! Abeamus! Vamonos! Tayo Na! Ikimashou!
Wander Virtually - wandervirtually.com logo

If you liked this story, Share It:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.