The only son of Zeus and Danae – and, thus, a half-god by birth – Perseus was one of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology, most renowned for beheading the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa, and using her severed head (capable of turning onlookers into stone) as a mighty weapon in his subsequent adventures. These famously include the slaying of the sea monster Cetus which led to the rescuing of the Aethiopian princess Andromeda, who would eventually become Perseus’ wife and bear him at least one daughter and six sons. One of these was Electryon, the father of Alcmene, whose union with Zeus produced the most complete Greek hero ever, Heracles. This makes Perseus both Heracles’ great-grandparent and his half-brother, both a symbolic predecessor and a worthy peer.
Perseus’ Early Life
Perseus was the demigod offspring of the unusual union between Zeus and Danae: the supreme god came to the imprisoned princess of Argos in the form of a golden shower through a crack in the roof of her chamber. Afterward, locked in a wooden chest, both were thrown into the sea by Danae’s father Acrisius, who had known from the oracle that he would eventually be killed by his grandson.
The Prophecy of Perseus’ Birth
Acrisius, the king of Argos, had a beautiful daughter by the name of Danae. Once he was told by the Oracle of Apollo that there would come a day when one of Danae's sons would kill him. To thwart the prophecy, Acrisius imprisoned his daughter in bronze, underground chamber; that way – he thought – she would never be able to marry, let alone have any offspring.
Zeus Impregnates Danae
Danae’s chamber was dark and desolate and featured no doors, the only opening being a tiny crack on the roof – but that was just enough for the supreme god of the Greeks to pay Danae a visit: spellbound by her beauty, one day, Zeus poured down into Danae’s lap transformed in a shower of golden rain.
The Banishment of Danae
During a routine visit sometime later, Acrisius was astonished to find Danae in her chamber with a baby boy in her hands. Refusing to believe the story of Perseus’ conceiving, the king locked Danae and the future hero in a large wooden chest and had the chest thrown into the vicious sea.
Possibly guided by the gods, the chest eventually arrived safely to the island of Seriphos, which was ruled by the relatively just king Polydectes. It so happened that the chest was caught in the fishing nets of the king's brother, Dictys, who not only freed Danae and her son but also offered them a place to live. It is in the modest home of Dictys that Perseus grew up to become a strong young man.
To prevent any eventual hostility, Dictys did his best to shelter Perseus and Danae from the curiosity of the Seripheans; and it seems that he managed the situation quite superbly, for it would pass numerous years before anyone found out about the existence of Danae and Perseus. As if Dictys was aware of something he wasn’t supposed to: the second Polydectes laid his eyes on Danae, he fell in love with her.
He tried wooing her and eventually even asked her hand in marriage, but the timid princess repeatedly spurned his advances. Now, rejections don’t suit a king’s reputation too well, so Polydectes resolved to win Danae by any means necessary. His only obstacle was, naturally, her son; so, the king devised a cunning plan to get rid of Perseus.
Namely, Polydectes pretended that he had proposed Hippodameia, the daughter of Oenomaus, the king of Pisa in Elis. On royal orders, every citizen of Seriphos was now obliged to bring a horse as a contribution for the bride-gift (Hippodamia means "tamer of horses"); being poor, Perseus could not oblige, so he asked Polydectes to name any other gift: “I will bring you anything you would ask.” Polydectes couldn’t believe his luck: “Fetch me the head of Medusa,” he commanded, fully aware that he may be sending Perseus straight to his death. After all, even a single glance from the snake-haired monster was sufficient to turn a man into a stone.
The Quest for the Gorgon Medusa
Perseus is most famous for his expedition against the Gorgons, during which he slew the only mortal of the three, Medusa, taking with him her severed head – capable of turning anyone into stone – and using it as a powerful weapon.
Athena and Hermes
Barely few days passed and Perseus set forth on his adventure; he wandered for days, searching in vain for the Gorgons’ lair, the whereabouts of which were known to no man. Fortunately for Perseus, the gods cast a merciful look upon his despair: a tall woman and a young man with winged sandals appeared before him and introduced themselves as the goddess Athena and the god Hermes. On their advice, Perseus headed off to find the Graeae, the sisters of the Gorgons, who were supposed to give him further directions.
The Graeae and the Nymphs
The Graeae were three grey-haired women who lived in a cave and shared a single eye and a tooth among them. When one of them was about to give the eye and the tooth to one of the others, Perseus grabbed them and blackmailed the Graeae to aid him. Having no choice but to oblige, the Graeae informed Perseus that he should go and visit certain nymphs of the north, who not only knew the location of the Gorgons but also owned winged sandals and a kibisis, probably something akin to a magic, impenetrable bag. Upon arriving among the hospitable nymphs, Perseus learned that they also keep possession of an even more precious item: Hades’ Cap of Invisibility.
The Slaying of Medusa
Equipped with all the necessary pieces, Perseus “slung the bag (kibisis) about him, fitted the sandals to his ankles, and put the cap on his head. Wearing it, he saw whom he pleased, but was not seen by others. And having received also from Hermes an adamantine sickle, he flew to the ocean and caught the Gorgons asleep.” Tiptoeing, he approached Medusa – the only one of the three Gorgons who was mortal – all the while carefully gazing at the reflection of the monster in Athena’s bronze shield. Guided by the goddess, Perseus raised the sickle and violently struck off Medusa’s head. To his utter amazement, a golden-sworded soldier and a winged horse sprung out of her neck – Medusa’s two unborn children, conceived during her union with the sea god Poseidon at a time when she was still a beautiful mortal. Fully aware that Medusa’s head was still potent, Perseus quickly thrust it into his magic bag and, using the power of his winged sandals, managed to escape the golden-winged Gorgons, who disgruntledly returned to their lair to mourn their sister. To emulate the sound of this lament, Athena invented the music of the double pipe, the aulos.
Perseus’ Later Adventures
On his way back to Seriphos, Perseus encountered the Titan Atlas and turned him into a stony mountain; afterward, he killed the sea-monster Cetus and, thus, earned the hand of the Aethiopian princess Andromeda, who was supposed to be sacrificed to him. Back in Seriphos, upon learning that he had harassed his mother, Perseus turned Polydectes into stone. Afterward, accidentally, he killed his grandfather Acrisius as well, thus fulfilling the prophecy which caused his wanderings in the first place.
On his way back to Seriphos, Perseus came across the Titan Atlas, condemned to hold the heavens on his shoulders. Either because he didn’t want to grant him hospitality or because he wanted to be released of his pain, Perseus pulled out from his bag Medusa's monstrous head and turned Atlas into a vast rocky elevation, known to this very day as the Atlas Mountains.
Cetus and Andromeda
Traversing further through Africa, Perseus reached the land of the Aethiopians ruled by the good, but unfortunate king Cepheus. Namely, through no fault of her own – and merely because her mother Cassiopeia had once boasted to be more beautiful than all the Nereids – Cepheus’ daughter Andromeda was waiting to be devoured by the sea monster Cetus, chained to a rock on the edge of the sea. Perseus fell in love with Andromeda at first sight and made a deal with her father: he vouched to kill Cetus, and Cepheus promised to give Perseus Andromeda’s hand in marriage. When the monster appeared, Perseus flew over its head and killed it, either by striking a vicious blow with the adamantine sickle from above or by pulling Medusa's head out of the bag at the height of Cetus’ eyes. Upon witnessing his bravery, Cepheus gladly gave Andromeda in marriage to Perseus. Within a year the couple had its first child, Perses, the ancestor of all future Persian kings.
Back in Seriphos, Perseus learned from Dictys the full extent of Polydectes’ ploy: not only he never really married (or had any intention to), but also, the minute Perseus left, he started harassing Danae. More than furious, Perseus stormed to Polydectes’ palace, and, upon finding the king and his attendants feasting all together, he raised Medusa's head “and all who beheld it were turned to stone, each in the attitude which he happened to have struck.” After making Dictys king in the place of his petrified brother, Perseus returned the divine items he had held in his possession, gifting the Gorgon’s head to the goddess Athena who subsequently put it in the center of her shield, aegis, to be its most recognizable emblem forevermore.
By this time, Perseus was done with his obligations to fate, but fate didn’t seem done with her obligations to him. With the intention of making peace with Acrisius, Perseus took Danae and Andromeda to Argos. Upon hearing this, Acrisius, still painfully aware of the oracle’s prophecy, left Argos and went to the Pelasgian land. Ironically, that’s precisely where Perseus headed after not finding Acrisius in Argos, stopping at Larisa, so that he could compete in the athletic games king Teutamides held in honor of his dead father. When Perseus threw the discus, it accidentally hit an old man on the foo, killing him on the spot. As it should be evident by now, that old man was none other than Acrisius; thus, the prophecy was fulfilled.
After burying Acrisius outside of Argos, Perseus was too ashamed to go back there and ask for the throne. So, he went to Megapenthes who ruled at Tyrins and made an exchange with him, surrendering Argos into his hands and getting Tyrins in return. After some time, he also founded Mycenae, where he and his wife Andromeda lived happily for many years to come and raised at least one daughter and six sons – though some add one more of each. Most of their descendants became great kings, the greatest of them all being Heracles, their great-grandson, the most famous of all Greek heroes.
The story of Perseus is best summed up in Apollodorus’ “Library” and visited at length by Ovid at the end of the fourth and the beginning of the fifth book of his “Metamorphoses.” Pindar sings of Perseus and the discovery of the aulos in his 12th Pythian Ode.