Classical Mythology: The Model Hero: Perseus

The Model Hero: Perseus

Could there be a hero more virtuous than Perseus? A model of chivalry, he rescued his future bride, Andromeda, from a monster and his mother from a lecherous and powerful king. A brave and resourceful adventurer, he ranks among the greatest monster-slayers of classical mythology.

A paragon of fidelity—one of the rarest virtues seen in Greek and Roman myths—Perseus remained true to Andromeda throughout their marriage. A beloved king, he not only ruled Tiryns for many years, but founded the neighboring city of Mycenae and fortified Midea as well.

Little wonder, then, that Homer called Perseus the “most renowned of all men.”

Against All Odds: Perseus's Conception, Birth, and Youth

The More Things Change ...

Sibling rivalry—over inheritance or political succession—pops up frequently in mythology. The most famous battling brothers in Greek mythology are the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, who killed each other over the throne of Thebes. Romulus slew Remus in a fight for the leadership of Rome. Much more recently, J. R. and Bobby Ewing fought for control of their daddy's oil empire in Dallas.

As so many classical myths do, the story of Perseus actually begins two generations earlier. His grandfather, Acrisius, king of Argos, had a twin brother named Proetus. Talk about sibling rivalry! Acrisius and Proetus were enemies even before their birth. While still inside their mother's womb, the two brothers began their lifelong quarreling.

The two brothers were supposed to grow up to rule Argos (a city in southern Greece) together. But as soon as they reached manhood, Acrisius and Proetus fought for the throne of Argos. Acrisius emerged victorious and forced his brother into exile. Proetus then became king of Tiryns, a neighboring city in Argolis—the region surrounding Argos. (The mighty fortifications of this city were so impenetrable, and the blocks of stone that comprised the wall so large, that the construction had been attributed to the Cyclopes—one-eyed giants who were renowned stonemasons—rather than to mere men.)

The Golden Shower

After many years of marriage to Aganippe, Acrisius had but one child: a daughter named Dana. Wanting a son to inherit his kingdom, Acrisius consulted an oracle and got nothing but bad news. He learned that not only would he have no sons, but his sole male heir, his daughter's son, would kill him.

Acrisius desperately tried to prevent this prophecy from coming true. He locked his daughter up in an underground chamber cast of bronze.

Despite these preventive measures, Dana conceived a child. Though some rumors held that the exiled Proetus had stolen into his niece's cell and impregnated her, Dana always insisted that Zeus had fathered the child. The god appeared before her in the form of a shower of gold, which poured through the roof of her chamber and fell into her lap. Thus Dana, despite her imprisonment, gave birth to a child, whom she called Perseus.

Some storytellers insist that Acrisius, alerted by a baby's cry, discovered his grandson almost immediately after his birth. Others maintain that mother and child spent more than a year imprisoned together—until Acrisius heard the toddler playing in the underground chamber. In any case, Acrisius acted quickly upon the discovery. He placed both Dana and Perseus in a large wooden chest and set it adrift in the Aegean Sea, consigning his daughter and his grandson to death.

A Fine Kettle of Fish

Mythed by a Mile

Some storytellers insist that Polydectes, as king, claimed whatever his brother caught in his net. When he learned that Dictys had netted Dana and Perseus, Polydectes either took Dana as a slave or he married her. In either case, the king brought her into his home, while Perseus grew up as a ward of Athena in her temple on Seriphus.

Fortunately for Dana and Perseus, Zeus guided the chest across the sea to the island of Seriphus. This island had its own pair of brothers. Though not so hostile toward each other as Acrisius and Proetus, these brothers were by no means close. Polydectes, king of Seriphus, enjoyed royal privileges, while Dictys lived the life of a poor fisher.

Dictys was out fishing one day when he spied the chest floating nearby and caught it in his net. After rescuing and releasing Dana and Perseus, kind Dictys took the two refugees into his home, claiming they were distant kin. (This claim turned out to be true, since both Dictys and Dana were descendants of Danaus, a former king of Argos.) Dictys cared for Dana and Perseus for many years, until the boy was fully grown.

Something Fishy Going On

The More Things Change ...

Like many heroes both ancient and modern, Perseus is called upon to do the impossible. Heracles (see The Labors of Heracles) performs a series of impossible tasks, including fetching the three-headed dog Cerberus from the gates of Hell. Just so, Dorothy Gale must bring back the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. In accomplishing what all thought impossible, our heroes show their mettle.

While mother and son were living in Dictys's home, King Polydectes fell in love with Dana. The king asked her to marry him, but Dana rejected his offer. Polydectes might have taken her by force, but by this time, Perseus had become a formidable young man. Perhaps afraid of opposing Perseus, Polydectes pretended to accept Dana's rejection with good grace. Yet he never stopped scheming to have her.

Soon after Dana's rejection, Polydectes announced his intention to ask for the hand of Hippodameia, a daughter of King Oenomaus of Pisa, a city in southwestern Greece. Polydectes arranged for a banquet in which each invited guest must traditionally bring a present for the intended bride. Polydectes demanded that each of his subjects bring a horse as a contribution.

This demand left Perseus in quite a bind. Whether the ward of a poor fisher or the son of a slave, Perseus had no horses. In all likelihood, Polydectes hoped that Perseus would be shamed into fleeing the kingdom. Instead, Perseus offered what must have seemed to Polydectes an even better solution. The young man acknowledged that he had no horses, but rashly promised to bring to the king anything else he desired—even the head of Medusa!

Polydectes, his evil intentions toward Dana well disguised, eagerly accepted Perseus's offer. For he knew that no man had ever survived a meeting with the Gorgon whose face turned men to stone.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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