Perseus, bronze sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545–54; in the elipsis
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Perseus, Perseos, or Perseas (Greek: Περσεύς, Περσέως, Περσέας), the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty there, was the first of the mythic heroes of Greek mythology whose exploits in defeating various archaic monsters provided the founding myths in the cult of the Twelve Olympians. Perseus was the hero who killed Medusa and claimed Andromeda, having rescued her from a sea monster.
Fearful for his future but unwilling to provoke the wrath of the gods by killing Zeus's offspring and his own daughter, Acrisius cast the two into the sea in a wooden barrel. 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, who raised the boy to manhood. The brother of Dictys was Polydectes, the king of the island.
Polydectes announced a banquet wherein each guest would be expected to bring him a horse, that he might woo Hippodamia, "tamer of horses". The fisherman's protegé had no horse but promised instead to bring him some other gift. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise. He immediately demanded the head of Medusa, one of the Gorgons, whose very expression turns people to stone. The Medusa was horselike in archaic representations, the terrible filly of a mare—Demeter, the Mother herself—who was in her mare nature when Poseidon assumed stallion form and coveted her. Another version of this story is that Medusa was in fact a mortal woman who had an affair with the god Poseidon. One day Athena caught the two of them in her temple and as punishment turned the poor woman into a hideous monster.
For such a heroic quest, a divine helper would be necessary, and for a long time Perseus wandered aimlessly, without hope of ever finding the Gorgons or of being able to accomplish his mission. According to the iconography of the vase-painters, the gods Hermes, Athena and Hades came to his rescue. Hermes gave him an adamantine curved sword, while Athena gave him a highly-polished bronze shield, and Hades gave a helmet of invisibility. For his further journey, the version of Aeschylus, in his lost tragedy, The Daughters of Phorcys must have "simplified the journey of Perseus through the realms of thrice-three goddesses and probably left out the first three, the spring-nymphs.... On an ancient vase-painting we see the nymphs receiving the hero, one bringing him the winged sandals (talaria), another the helmet of invisibility, the third the wallet, kibisis, for the Gorgon's head" (Kerenyi 1959:49-50).
They told him to go to the island of the golden apples to the west. He went there like a swift walker on the air (Nonnus, Dionysiaca xxv.32) and asked the Hesperidae where the Graeae were. They told him and made him promise to come back and dance with them. He went to the Graeae, sisters of the gorgons, three perpetually old women with one eye and tooth among them. Perseus snatched the eye at the moment they were blindly passing it from one to another so they could not see him and he would not return it until they had given him directions. With all this, "Like a wild boar he entered the cave" (This is the one line of Aeschylus' lost play, The Phorkides ["The Daughters of Phorcys"] that survives). After he was done with the Graeae sisters he threw the tooth and the eye into a lake. In the cave he came upon the sleeping Gorgons. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he could safely approach and cut off her head; from her neck sprang Pegasus and Chrysaor. The other two Gorgons pursued him, but under his helmet of invisibility he escaped.
On the way back to Seriphos, Perseus stopped in the Phoenician kingdom Ethiopia, ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, having boasted herself equal in beauty to the sea Nereids, drew down the vengeance of Poseidon, who sent an inundation on the land and a sea-monster, Ceto, which destroyed man and beast. The oracle of Ammon announced that no relief would be found until the king exposed his daughter Andromeda to the monster, and so she was fastened to a rock on the shore. Perseus slew the monster and, setting her free, claimed her in marriage.
In the classical myth, he flew using the flying sandals. Renaissance Europe and modern imagery has generated the idea that Perseus flew mounted on Pegasus.
Perseus married Andromeda in spite of Phineus, to whom she had before been promised. At the wedding a quarrel took place between the rivals, and Phineus was turned to stone by the sight of the Gorgon's head. Andromeda ("queen of men") followed her husband to Tiryns in Argos, and became the ancestress of the family of the Perseidae through her son with Perseus, Perses. After her death she was placed by Athena amongst the constellations in the northern sky, near Perseus and Cassiopeia. 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, the falling drops of Medusa's blood engendered a race of toxic serpents, one of whom was to kill the Argonaut Mopsus. On returning to Seriphos and discovering that his mother had had to take refuge from the violent advances of Polydectes, Perseus killed him with Medusa's head, and made his brother Dictys king.
The fulfillment of the oracle was told several ways, each incorporating the mythic theme of exile. In Pausanias 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's actions did not, in this variant, cause his death.
In Apollodorus' version, the inevitable occurred by another route: Perseus did return to Argos, but when he learned of the oracle, 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, Acrisius had been driven into exile by his brother, Proetus. Perseus turned the brother into stone with the Gorgon's head and restored Acrisius to the throne.
Having killed Acrisius, Perseus, who was next in line for the throne, gave the kingdom to Megapenthes son of Proetus and took over Megapenthes' kingdom of Tiryns. The story is related in Pausanias, which gives as motivation for the swap that Perseus was ashamed to 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 been a creative solution to a difficult problem; however, Megapenthes would have been required to avenge his father, which, in legend, he did, but only at the end of Perseus' long and successful reign.
Apart from these more historical references, we have only folk-etymology: Perseus dropped his cap or found a mushroom (both named myces) at Mycenae, or perhaps the place was named from the lady Mycene, daughter of Inachus, mentioned in a now-missing poem, the great Eoeae.
For whatever reasons, perhaps as outposts, Perseus fortified Mycenae according to Apollodorus 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. In any case, Perseus took up official residence in Mycenae with Andromeda.
Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons: Perses, Alcaeus, Heleus, Mestor, Sthenelus, Electryon and Cynurus, and two daughters, Gorgophone ("Gorgon Killer") and Autochthoe ("Born in the Land"). Perses was left in Aethiopia and became an ancestor of the emperors of Persia. The other descendants ruled Mycenae from Electryon down 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 helps to date Perseus roughly. 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.
Perseus might be from the ancient Greek verb, perthein, “to waste, ravage, sack, destroy”, some form of which appears in Homeric epithets. According to Carl Darling Buck (Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin), 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; that is, a soldier by occupation, a fitting name for the first Mycenaean warrior.
The origin of perth- is more obscure. J. B. Hofmann lists the possible root as *bher-, from which Latin ferio, "strike". This corresponds to Julius 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 perthein; that is, the Greeks preferred not to say *pherthein.
Graves carries the meaning still further, to the perse- in Persephone, goddess of death. John Chadwick in the second edition of Documents in Mycenaean Greek speculates as follows about the goddess pe-re-*82 of Pylos tablet Tn 316, tentatively reconstructed as *Preswa:
A Greek folk etymology connected the name of the Fars people, whom they called the Persai. The native name, however has always had an -a- in Iranian. Herodotusrecounts this story, devising a foreign son, Perses, from whom the Persians took the name. Apparently the Persians themselves knew the story, as Xerxes tried to use it to suborn the Argives during his invasion of Greece.
Cyrus Gordon, known for his daring theories, proposed that Perseus is a Semitic name, from p-r-s, "to cut." Nothing in the lore or the evidence excludes the possibility of Semitic elements among the early Greeks. The Greeks thought that Perseus meant "destroyer", but p-r-s would mean that as well.