Jump to content


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
King of Argos
Founder and king of Mycenae
Slayer of Medusa and Cetus
AbodeSeriphus, then Argos
SymbolMedusa's head
Personal information
ParentsZeus and Danaë
SiblingsSeveral paternal half-siblings
ChildrenPerses, Heleus, Alcaeus, Sthenelus, Electryon, Mestor, Cynurus, Gorgophone, Autochthe

In Greek mythology, Perseus (US: /ˈpɜːr.si.əs/, UK: /ˈpɜː.sjs/; Greek: Περσεύς, translit. Perseús) is the legendary founder of the Perseid dynasty. He was, alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles.[1] He beheaded the Gorgon Medusa for Polydectes and saved Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. He was the son of Zeus and the mortal Danaë, as well as the half-brother and great-grandfather of Heracles (as they were both children of Zeus, and Heracles' mother was descended from Perseus).


Because of the obscurity of the name "Perseus" and the legendary character of its bearer, most etymologists presume 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 idea that it descended into Greek from the Proto-Indo-European language. In that regard Graves proposed the only Greek derivation available: Perseus might be from the Greek verb πέρθειν (pérthein, "to waste, ravage, sack, destroy") some form of which is familiar in Homeric epithets.[2] According to Buck, 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]";[3] that is, a soldier by occupation, a fitting name for the first Mycenaean warrior.

The further origin of perth- is more obscure. Hofmann lists the possible root as *bher-, from which Latin ferio, "strike".[4] This corresponds to 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 pérthein, which the Greeks would have preferred from a putative *phérthein.[5] Graves carries the meaning still further, to the Perse- in Persephone, goddess of death.[2] Ventris & Chadwick speculate about a Mycenaean goddess pe-re-*82 (Linear B: 𐀟𐀩𐁚), attested on tablet PY Tn 316, and tentatively reconstructed as *Preswa.[6]

A Greek folk etymology connected Perseus to the name of the Persian people, whom they called the Pérsai (from Old Persian Pārsa "Persia, a Persian"). However, the native name of the Persians – Pārsa in Persian – has always been pronounced with an -a-. Herodotus[7] recounts this story, devising a foreign son of Andromeda and Perseus, Perses, from whom the Persians took the name. Apparently the Persians also knew that story, as Xerxes tried to use it when bribing the Argives during his invasion of Greece,[8] but ultimately failed to do this.


The Birth of Perseus[edit]

King Acrisius of Argos had only one child, a daughter named Danaë. Disappointed by not having a male heir, Acrisius consulted the Oracle at Delphi, who warned him that he would one day be killed by his own grandson. To keep Danaë childless, Acrisius imprisoned her in a room atop a bronze tower in the courtyard of his palace:[a] This mytheme is also connected to Ares, Oenopion, Eurystheus, and others. Zeus came to her in the form of a shower of gold, and fathered her child.[10] Soon after, their child, a son, was born; Perseus-"Perseus Eurymedon,[b] for his mother gave him this name as well".[11]

Fearful for his future, but unwilling to provoke the wrath of the gods and the Erinyes by killing the offspring of Zeus and his daughter, Acrisius cast the two into the sea in a wooden chest.[12] 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.

Perseo trionfante by Antonio Canova (1801) Musei Vaticani, Rome

A Horrifying Wedding Gift[edit]

When Perseus was grown, Polydectes came to lust for the beautiful Danaë. Perseus believed Polydectes was less than honorable, and protected his mother from him; then Polydectes plotted to send Perseus away in disgrace. He held a large banquet where each guest was expected to bring a gift.[c] Polydectes requested that the guests bring horses, under the pretense that he was collecting contributions for the hand of Hippodamia, daughter of Oinomaos. Perseus had no horse to give, so he asked Polydectes to name the gift; he would not refuse it. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise and demanded the snake-haired Medusa's head.

Overcoming Medusa[edit]

Medusa and her two immortal older sisters, Stheno and Euryale, were Gorgons, monsters with snakes for hair, sharp fangs and claws, wings of gold, and gazes that turned people to stone.

Before setting out on his quest, Perseus prayed to the gods and Zeus answered by sending two of his other children – Hermes and Athena – to bless their half-brother with the weapons needed to defeat Medusa. Hermes gave Perseus his own pair of winged sandals to fly with and loaned him his harpe sword to slay Medusa with, and Hades' helm of darkness to become invisible with. Athena loaned Perseus her polished shield for him to view Medusa's reflection without becoming petrified, and gave him a kibisis, a knapsack to safely contain the Gorgon's head which the goddess warned could still petrify even in death. Lastly, Athena instructed Perseus to seek out the Graeae, the Gorgons' sisters, for the snake-haired women's whereabouts (in other versions, it was the Hesperides nymphs who gave Perseus the weapons after he sought out the Graeae).

Following Athena's guidance, Perseus found the Graeae, who were three old swan-shaped witches sharing a single eye and a single tooth. As the witches passed their eye from one to another, Perseus snatched it from them, holding it for ransom in return for the Gorgons' location. The Graeae informed Perseus that the Gorgons lived on the Island of Sarpedon. Perseus then gave the Graeae their eye back and proceeded to the island.

On the Island of Sarpedon, Perseus came across a cave where Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa lay sleeping. Using Athena's reflective shield, Perseus overcame the looking taboo, walked into the cave backwards, safely observing and approaching the sleeping Gorgons. With Athena guiding the sword, Perseus beheaded Medusa. From Medusa's neck sprang her two children with Poseidon: the winged horse Pegasus ("he who sprang") and the giant Chrysaor ("sword of gold"). To avenge their sister's death, Stheno and Euryale flew after Perseus, but he escaped them by wearing Hades' invisibility helm.[13] From here he proceeded to visit King Atlas who had refused him hospitality; in revenge Perseus petrified him with Medusa's head and King Atlas became the Atlas mountains.[14]

Marriage to Andromeda[edit]

On the way back to Seriphos, 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 more beautiful than the Nereids, drew 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 sacrificed his daughter, Andromeda, to the monster, and so she was fastened naked to a rock on the shore. Wearing the winged sandals given to him by Hermes, Perseus reached Andromeda and used the harpe to behead the monster (in other versions, Perseus used Medusa's head to petrify Cetus). By rescuing Andromeda, Perseus 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 been previously engaged. At the wedding, a quarrel took place between the rivals, and Phineus was petrified by the sight of Medusa's head.[15] 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.[d] After her death she was placed by Athena among the constellations in the northern sky, near Perseus and Cassiopeia.[e] 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,[16] the falling drops of Medusa's blood created a race of toxic serpents, one of whom was to kill the Argonaut Mopsus. Upon 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 Dictys, who then married Danaë, the new king of Seriphos.

Perseus and Andromeda, 1st century AD fresco from the Casa della Saffo, Pompeii

Prophecy fulfilled[edit]

Perseus then returned his magical loans and gave Medusa's head as a votive gift to Athena, who set it on her aegis (which Zeus gave her) as the Gorgoneion. The fulfillment of the oracle was told several ways, each incorporating the mythic theme of exile. In Pausanias[17] 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 the Bibliotheca,[18] the inevitable occurred by another route: Perseus did return 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. In a third tradition,[19] Acrisius had been driven into exile by his brother Proetus. Perseus petrified the brother with Medusa's head and restored Acrisius to the throne. Then, accused by Acrisius of lying about having slain Medusa, Perseus proves himself by showing Acrisius the Gorgon's head, thus fulfilling the prophecy.

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,[20] who gives as motivation for the swap that Perseus was ashamed to have 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 proved a creative solution to a difficult problem.

King of Mycenae[edit]

Perseus Freeing Andromeda by Piero di Cosimo (c. 1515) – Uffizi

The two main sources regarding the legendary life of Perseus—for the Greeks considered him an authentic historical figure—are Pausanias and the Bibliotheca. Pausanias[21] 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, the only accounts of him are from folk-etymology: Perseus dropped his cap or found a mushroom (both named myces) at Mycenae, or perhaps the place was named after the lady Mycene, daughter of Inachus, mentioned in a now-fragmentary poem, the Megalai Ehoiai.[22] For whatever reasons, perhaps as outposts, Perseus fortified Mycenae according to Apollodorus[23] 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. Perseus took up official residence in Mycenae with Andromeda where he had a long, successful reign as king.


According to the Suda, Perseus, after he married Andromeda, founded a city and called it Amandra (Ἄμανδραν). In the city there was a stele depicting the Gorgon. The city later changed the name to Ikonion because it had the depiction (ἀπεικόνισμα) of the Gorgon. Then he fought the Isaurians and the Cilicians and founded the city of Tarsus because an oracle told him to found a city in the place where after the victory, the flat (ταρσός) of his foot will touch the earth while he is dismounting from his horse. Then he conquered the Medes and changed the name of the country to Persia. At Persia, he taught the magi about the Gorgon and, when a fireball fell from the sky, he took the fire and gave it to the people to guard and revere it. Later, during a war, he tried to use Medusa's head again, but because he was old and could not see well, the head did not work. Because he thought that it was useless, he turned it toward himself and he died. Later his son Merros (Μέρρος) burned the head.[24]

Regnal titles
Preceded by King of Argos Succeeded by
Preceded by King of Tiryns Succeeded by
Preceded by
King of Mycenae Succeeded by


Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons: Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon, and Cynurus, and two daughters, Gorgophone and Autochthe. Perses was left in Aethiopia and was believed to have been an ancestor of the Persians. The other descendants ruled Mycenae from Electryon 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.

A statement by the Athenian orator Isocrates[25] helps to date Perseus approximately. He said that Heracles was four generations later than Perseus, which corresponds to the legendary succession: Perseus, Electryon, Alcmena, and Heracles, who was a contemporary of Eurystheus. Atreus was one generation later, a total of five generations.

Descendants of Perseus and Andromeda Before the Time of Heracles to the Aftermath of the Trojan War
Children Perses Alcaeus Sthenelus Heleus Mestor Electryon Cynurus Gorgophone Autochthe
Grandchildren Achaemenid Persians Amphitryon, Anaxo, Perimede Eurystheus, Alcyone, Medusa Hippothoe Alcmene, Stratobates, Anactor, Gorgophonus, Phylonomus, Celaeneus, Amphimachus, Lysinomus, Archelaus, Chirimachus, Licymnius Aphareus, Leucippus, Tyndareus, Icarius
Third Generation Descendant Melas, Argius, Oeonus, Iphicles Admete, Perimedes, Alexander, Iphimedon, Eurybius, Mentor Taphius Heracles, Iphicles, Oeonus, Melas, Argius, Idas, Lynceus, Peisus; Hilaeira; Castor and Pollux, Helen, Clytemnestra, Timandra, Phoebe, Philonoe; Penelope, Perileos, Thoas, Iphthime, Aletes, Imeusimus, Damasippus
Fourth Generation Descendant Iolaus Pterelaus Heraclides, Iolaus Mnesileos; Anogon; Cleopatra Alcyone; Iphigenia, Electra, Orestes, Chrysothemis, Laodice,[f] Aletes, Erigone, Helen; Ladocus; Telemachus, Poliporthes, Acusilaus, Italus
Fifth Generation Descendant Leipephilene Chromius, Tyrannus, Antiochus, Mestor, Chersidamas, Eueres, Comaetho Leipephilene Medon, Strophius; Tisamenus, Penthilus; Persepolis, Latinus, Poliporthes


On Pegasus[edit]

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.[26] Various modern representations of Pegasus depict the winged horse with Perseus, including the fantasy film Clash of the Titans and its 2010 remake.

Argive genealogy in Greek mythology[edit]

Argive genealogy in Greek mythology
Colour key:


Perseus constellation[edit]

Perseus has a constellation named after him. The legend says that because he was so brave fighting Cetus for someone else he was given a place in the stars forever. It is located in the east in the winter at about the Latitude 10-N. It is not far from the stars Betelgeuse and Sirius; his wife's constellation Andromeda is also nearby. It is southward from Cassiopeia, and to the left of Taurus. His constellation contains the most famous variable star Algol and some deep sky objects such as Messier 34, the Double Cluster, the California Nebula, and the Little Dumbbell Nebula (Messier 76). There are eight named stars in the constellation Algol, Atik, Berehinya, Menkib, Miram, Mirfak, Misam, and Muspelheim. It was cataloged in the 2nd century by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy and is known for the famous Perseid Meteor Shower. There is in fact a whole family of constellations based on the myth of Perseus, which includes Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cetus. There is also a molecular cloud in the constellation that is 600 light years from our solar system. There is also a cluster of galaxies called the Perseus cluster. There is one galaxy in the cluster named Caldwell 24 which is a powerful source for radio and X-ray waves. It has a visual magnitude of 12.6 and is 237 million light years away from the Milky Way galaxy.[27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "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".[9] In post-Renaissance paintings the setting is often a locked tower.
  2. ^ Eurymedon: "far-ruling"
  3. ^ 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 "Hymn to Demeter". Homeric Hymns. 9, 17.
  4. ^ 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 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.
  5. ^ See article Catasterismi.
  6. ^ Laodice may be the daughter of Agamemnon mentioned by Homer, who is generally equated with Electra.


  1. ^ Kerenyi, Karl, 1959. The Heroes of the Greeks (London: Thames and Hudson) p. 75.
  2. ^ a b Graves, R. (1955). The Greek Myths. London, UK / Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-014310671-5; e‑pub ISBN 978-110158050-9.
  3. ^ Buck, C.D. (1933). Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  4. ^ Hofmann, J.B. (1950). Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Griechischen (in German). Munich, DE: R. Oldenbourg.
  5. ^ Pokorny, J. (2005) [1957–1969 (1st edn.)]. Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch [Indo-Germanic etomological dictionary] (in German) (5th ed.). Tübingen / Bern / Munich, DE: A. Francke. ISBN 3772009476.
  6. ^ Ventris, M.; Chadwick, J., eds. (1974) [1956]. Documents in Mycenaean Greek (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-08558-6 – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ Herodotus. Histories. 7.61.3.
  8. ^ Herodotus. Histories. 7.150.2.
  9. ^ Sophocles. Antigone (stage play).
  10. ^ Trzaskoma, Stephen; et al. (2004). Anthology of Classical Myth: Primary sources in translation. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. ISBN 978-0-87220-721-9.
  11. ^ Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.1514
  12. ^ For the familiar motif of the Exposed Child in the account of Moses especially, see Childs, Brevard S. (1965). "The birth of Moses". Journal of Biblical Literature. 84 (2): 109–122. doi:10.2307/3264132. JSTOR 3264132. or Redford, Donald B. (1967). "The literary motif of the exposed child (cf. Ex. ii 1–10)". Numen. 14 (3): 209–228. doi:10.2307/3269606. JSTOR 3269606. Another example of this mytheme is the Indian figure of Karna.
  13. ^ Apollodorus, 2.4.3
  14. ^ Godwin, William (1876). Lives of the Necromancers. p. 39 – via Archive.org.
  15. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.1–235
  16. ^ Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.1505 ff.
  17. ^ Pausanias, 2.16.2
  18. ^ Apollodorus, 2.4.4
  19. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 5.177
  20. ^ Pausanias, 2.16.3
  21. ^ Pausanias, 2.15.4, 2.16.23 & 2.18.1
  22. ^ Hesiod, Megalai Ehoiai fr. 246
  23. ^ "pros-teichisas, "walling in"". Perseus.org. 2.4.4.
  24. ^ Suida, s.v. mu, 406
  25. ^ Isocrates. [no title cited]. 4.07.[full citation needed]
  26. ^ Johnston, George Burke (1955). "Jonson's 'Perseus upon Pegasus'". The Review of English Studies. New Series. 6 (21): 65–67. doi:10.1093/res/VI.21.65. JSTOR 510816.
  27. ^ "Perseus Constellation," 2022, n.p.
  28. ^ "Perseus Mythology," 2022, n.p.


External links[edit]