1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Perseus (mythology)

PERSEUS, in Greek legend, son of Danaë and Zeus. When Perseus was grown to manhood Polydectes, king of Seriphus, cast his eye on Danae, and, in order to rid himself of the son, exacted of him a promise that he would bring him the head of the Gorgon Medusa. The Gorgons dwelt with their sisters the Graeae (the grey women) by the great ocean, far away in the west. Guided by Hermes and Athena, Perseus came to the Graeae. They were three hags, with but one eye and one tooth between them. Perseus stole the eye and the tooth, and would not restore them till the Graeae had guided him to the Nymphs, from whom he received the winged sandals, a wallet (κίβισις, resembling a gamekeeper’s bag) and the helmet of Hades, which rendered him invisible. Thus equipped and armed by Hermes with a sharp sword like a sickle, he came upon the Gorgons as they slept, and cut off Medusa’s head, while with averted eyes he looked at her reflection which Athena showed him in the mirror of her shield. Perseus put the Gorgon’s head in his wallet and fled, pursued by Medusa’s sisters, to Ethiopia, where he delivered and married Andromeda (q.v.). With her he returned to Seriphus in time to rescue his mother and Dictys from Polydectes, whom he turned to stone with all his court by showing them the Gorgon’s head. The island itself was turned to stone, and the very frogs of Seriphus (so ran the proverb) were dumb (Aelian, Nat. anim. iii. 37). Perseus then gave the head of Medusa to Athena, and, with Danaë and Andromeda, hastened to Argos to see his grandfather, Acrisius, once more. But before his arrival Acrisius, fearing the oracle, had fled to Larissa in Thessaly. Thither Perseus followed him, and at some funeral games held in honour of the king of that country unwittingly slew his grandfather by the throw of a quoit, which struck him on the foot. Ashamed to return to Argos, Perseus gave his kingdom to Megapenthes (Acrisius’s nephew), and received from him Tiryns in exchange. There he reigned and founded Mideia and Mycenae, and became the ancestor of the Persides, amongst whom were Eurystheus and Heracles.

The legend of Perseus was localized in various places. Italy claimed that the chest containing Danaë and Perseus drifted ashore on the Italian coast (Virgil, Aen.. vii. 372, 410). The Persian kings were said to have been descended from Perses a son of Perseus, and, according to Pausanias of Damascus,[1] he taught the Persians to worship fire, and founded the Magian priesthood. His cult was transferred to the kings of Pontus, for on coins of Amisus he is represented with the features of Mithradates Eupator. Like Andromeda, Hesione, the daughter of Laomedon, king of Troy, was rescued by Heracles from a sea-monster, and both stories have been interpreted of the sun slaying the darkness, Andromeda and Hesione being the moon, which the darkness is about to devour. In one version of the story of Hesione, Heracles is said to have spent three days, like Jonah, in the belly of the beast, and it is noteworthy that the Greek representations of Andromeda’s monster were models for Jonah’s fish in early Christian art. Its bones and Andromeda’s chains were shown on a rock at Joppa. Perseus appears on coins of Pontus and Cappadocia, and of Tarsus in Cilicia, which he was said to have founded. The legend of St George was influenced by the traditions current regarding Perseus in Syria and Asia Minor.

For the slaying of the Medusa, see F. H. Knatz, Quomodo Persei fabulam artifices graeci et romani tractaverint (1893); and, on the whole story, E. S. Hartland, The Legend of Perseus (1894–1896).

  1. Author of a history of Antioch; he is quoted by John Malalas, Chronographia. pp. 37–38, ed. Bonn (1831) Nothing further is known of him (see C. W. Müller. Fragmenta historicorum graecorum, iv, 467).