King Acrisius of Argos was warned by an oracle that he would be killed in time by a son born to his daughter Danae. So he promptly locked Danae up in a dungeon. But the god Zeus got in, disguised as a shower of gold, with the result that Perseus was born. So Acrisius straightaway stuck daughter and infant into a chest and pushed it out to sea. Perhaps he expected it to sink like a stone, but instead it floated quite nicely, fetching up on a beach on the island of Seriphos.
Here a fisherman named Dictys came upon the unusual bit of flotsam and adopted a protective attitude toward its contents. Thus Perseus had the advantage of a pure and simple role model as he grew to young manhood. Then one day Dictys’s brother, who happened to be king in those parts, took a fancy to Danae and pressed his attentions upon her. “You leave my mother alone,” insisted Perseus, clenching a not-insubstantial fist. And the king, Polydectes by name, had no choice but to desist. Or, rather, he grew subtle in the means of achieving his desires.
The Bride Price
“Okay, okay, don’t get yourself into an uproar,” he said to Perseus, though not perhaps in those exact words. He put it out that, instead, he planned to seek the hand of another maiden, one Hippodameia. “And I expect every one of my loyal subjects to contribute a gift to the bride price,” he said, looking meaningfully at Perseus. “What have you to offer?” When Perseus did not answer right away, Polydectes went on: “A team of horses? A chariot of intricate devising? Or a coffer of gems perhaps?”
Perseus fidgeted uncomfortably. “If it meant you’d leave my mother alone, I’d gladly give you anything I owned – which unfortunately is precious little. Horses, chariot, gems, you name it – if I had ‘em, they’d be yours. The sweat of my brow, the gain of my strong right arm, whatever. I’d go out and run the marathon if they were holding the Olympics this year. I’d scour the seas for treasure, I’d quest to the ends of the earth. Why, I’d even bring back the head of Medusa herself if I had it in my power.”
Pausing for a breath against the pitch to which he’d worked himself up, Perseus was shocked to hear the silence snapped by a single “Done!” “Come again?” he queried. “You said you’d bring me the head of Medusa” Polydectes replied. “I presume you refer to the Gorgon with snakes for hair and hideous tusks for teeth, the creature so horrible that her very gaze can turn the mightiest hero to stone. Well, I say fine – go do it.” And so it was that Perseus set out one bright October morn in quest of the snake-infested, lolling-tongued, boar’s-tusked noggin of a Gorgon whose very glance had the power to turn the person glanced upon to stone.
Clearly, then, Perseus had his work cut out for him. Fortunately he had an ally in Athena. The goddess of crafts and war had her own reasons for wishing to see the Gorgon vanquished, so she was eager to advise Perseus. Why, exactly, Athena had it in for Medusa is not entirely clear. The likeliest explanation is that the Gorgon, while still a beautiful young maiden, had profaned one of Athena’s temples. For this sacrilege Athena turned her into a monster, but apparently this wasn’t punishment enough.
Now Athena wanted Medusa’s head to decorate her own shield, to magnify its power by the Gorgon’s terrible gaze. Athena told Perseus where he could find the special equipment needed for his task. “Seek ye the nymphs who guard the helmet of invisibility,” she counseled the young hero. And where, Perseus inquired, might he find these nymphs? “Ask the Gray Sisters, the Graeae, born hags with but a single eye in common. They know – if they’ll tell you.” And where were the Graeae? “Ask him who holds the heavens on his back – Atlas, renegade Titan, who pays eternally the price of defying Zeus almighty.” Okay, okay, and where’s this Atlas? “Why, that’s simple enough – at the very western edge of the world.”
The Grey Sisters
Before sending him off on this tangled path, Athena lent Perseus her mirrored shield and suggested how he make use of it. And while her directions were somewhat deficient as to particulars, Perseus did indeed track down Atlas, who grudgingly gestured in the direction of a nearby cave where, sure enough, he found the Graeae. Perseus had heard the version of the myth whereby these Sisters, though gray-haired from infancy and sadly lacking in the eyeball department, were as lovely as young swans. But he was disappointed to find himself taking part in the version that had them as ugly as ogres.
Nor was their disposition any cause for delight. Sure, they knew where the nymphs did dwell, but that was, in a manner of speaking, theirs to know and his to find out. With cranky cackles and venomous vim, they told him just what he could do with his quest. But the hero had a trick or two up his sleeve, and by seizing that which by virtue of its scarcity and indispensability they valued above all else, he made them tell him what he wanted to know about the location of the water nymphs.
At length Perseus found the nymphs in Hades, bathing in the river Styx, and got the gear. This consisted of the helmet of invisibility, winged sandals and a special pouch for carrying Medusa’s head once he’d chopped it off. Medusa would retain the power of her gaze even in death, and it was vital to hide the head unless occasion called for whipping it out and using it on some enemy. The god Hermes also helped out at this point, providing Perseus with a special cutting implement, a sword or sickle of adamant. Some add that it was Hermes, not the nymphs, who provided the winged sandals.
Thus Perseus was equipped – one might even say overequipped – for his task. A quick escape would be essential after slaying Medusa, since she had two equally monstrous sisters who would be sure to avenge her murder, and they had wings of gold or brass which would bear them in swift pursuit of the killer. So at least the winged sandals were a good idea. But if this supernatural appliance guaranteed the swiftest of escapes, why bother with a helmet of invisibility, which made it just about impossible for the Gorgons to find you even if you didn’t deign to hurry away? Because it makes for a better myth, that’s why.
And so Perseus sought out Medusa’s lair, surrounded as it was by the petrified remains of previous visitors, and he found the Gorgon sleeping; Yes, even though he had the good old magic arsenal, Perseus was not so foolhardy as to wake Medusa. And even though her gaze could hardly be expected to turn anyone to stone while her eyes were closed, he used the device provided by Athena to avoid looking at Medusa directly. (This suggests that you could be turned to stone just by gazing at Medusa, though most versions of the myth have it that it was the power of her gaze that counted.)
Entering, then, somewhat unglamorously into the fray – if “fray” is the right word to describe a battle against a sleeping opponent – Perseus whacked Medusa’s head off. At just that instant, the winged horse Pegasus, offspring of Medusa and the god Poseidon, was born from the bleeding neck. Then Perseus donned his special getaway gear and departed victoriously before Medusa’s sisters could take their revenge. Though these sisters were immortal, Medusa clearly was not. She died when her head was severed, which required the special cutting implement given to Perseus by Hermes.
Even in death Medusa’s gaze could turn things to stone, so Perseus quickly stored his trophy in the special sack provided by the water nymphs. And taking wing once more on his flying sandals, he began his return trip to Seriphos. He got as far as Ethiopia when, from his aerial perspective, he spied an arresting sight. Chained to a seaside rock was a beautiful maiden. Perseus forthwith descended to inquire more closely into this strange situation.
The maiden turned out to be the daughter of King Cepheus, whose wife had claimed to be more beautiful than the daughters of the ancient god known as the Old Man of the Sea. For this impertinence, the gods sent a sea monster to ravage the kingdom. An oracle foretold that the king’s only hope was to sacrifice his daughter to the beast. Perseus offered to rescue the princess, whose name was Andromeda, in return for her hand in marriage. The king gave his consent just in time, for the sea monster now hove into sight and bore down upon Andromeda’s perilous perch.
The Sea Battle
Perseus took to the air on his winged sandals. When the beast darted at the hero’s shadow on the water, Perseus plunged down and buried his sword into its shoulder. Repeatedly he stabbed at the scaly flank and tail until the creature spouted seawater mixed with blood. Perseus feared that he could no longer remain aloft on his spume-soaked sandals, so he descended to a rock where he continued to stab at the sea-monster until it finally succumbed. (In another version, he tried to freeze the monster with the Gorgon’s head but was thwarted by its lack of eyes. So he strangled it to death instead.) Cepheus and his queen welcomed their savior, and Andromeda, unshackled, was led off to her wedding feast by the weary but satisfied hero.
That night Perseus regaled one and all with tales of his prowess, until suddenly there was a commotion at the door. It turned out to be Andromeda’s uncle Phineus who, as King Cepheus had omitted to mention, had been promised her hand in marriage. Phineus had brought along a number of allies who supported his prior claim to the princess. Challanges and taunts were exchanged, and then the banquet erupted in bloody warfare. Eventually Perseus was so worn out with hacking and hewing that he resorted to his secret weapon.
“All who are my friends, turn aside your eyes!” he commanded, as he drew Medusa’s head from his sack. Amazingly, not one of the enemies was smart enough to heed this tipoff, and at least one ally was dense enough to fail to look askance. Perseus proceeded to turn each and every one of Phineus’s cohorts to stone. Phineus himself begged for mercy, claiming that he had acted out of love for Andromeda rather than enmity for the hero. Perseus callously rejected this supplication, stating that his soon-to-be wife would benefit from having a lasting memorial of her former fiancee. Phineus was accordingly frozen forever in a cringing attitude.
Taken for Granite
Meanwhile, back on Seriphos, King Polydectes had gone back to pestering Danae just as soon as Perseus was out of sight. Returning at last to his mother’s rescue, the hero marched boldly into Polydectes’ court. There, in cushioned splendor, sat the king surrounded by his sycophants. “Well,” he sneered, “what have you brought me?” Perseus produced the bag. “The Gorgon’s head, as promised,” he replied. “Would you like to see it?” Polydectes made the mistake of saying yes.
The ensuing years of prosperity and contentment for Perseus and Andromeda were somewhat marred by what happened next. Leaving the kindly fisherman Dictys on the throne of Seriphos, Perseus returned to his native city of Argos. His grandfather heard he was coming and, ever mindful of the oracle’s prophesy, left town. Perseus innocently followed. Invited to