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Greek Myths - Perseus

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Greek Myths: The Origins | Centaurs | The 12 Olympians | Achilles
Gods of Greek Mythology | Heroes of Greek Mythology | The Trojan War
Heracles | Sirens | Prometheus | Perseus | Pygmalion and Galatea
Jason and the Argonauts | The Children of Nyx | Death and the Underworld

Perseus was the son of Danae, the daughter of King Acrisius, and Zeus. King Acrisius had been told by a prophet that his grandson would kill him, so he locked his daughter in a brass tower so she could not have children. Despite this, she secretly married Zeus and became pregnant.

When King Acrisius found out about the baby, he was frightened. Not wanting to kill them, he put Danae and Perseus into a chest and cast them into the sea. The chest washed up onto an island in the Aegean Sea called Seriphos, where a fisherman called Dictys let them out and looked after them while Perseus grew up.

The Challenge

The King of Seriphos, Polydectes, was a cruel man, and when he met Danae he was enchanted with her beauty. He did everything he could to persuade her to marry him. Scared, Danae refused, but Polydectes would not leave her alone. He was trying to force her to marry him, by pretending to marry another woman. When Perseus turned up at the wedding without a wedding present, Polydectes scorned him for being a lazy good-for-nothing. Perseus reacted furiously, boasting that he could get anything in the world that the king wanted; the king demanded the head of a Gorgon. Perseus recoiled in horror, but accepted the challenge, impossible though it seemed. The king had succeeded in getting rid of Perseus. He thought Perseus would never return.

The Gorgons

There were three Gorgons: Medusa, Stheno and Euryate. All were once very beautiful women. So beautiful that Poseidon seduced Medusa in one of Athena's temples. As Athena was already jealous of Medusa's looks, she turned Medusa and her sisters into hideous monsters. They had bronze wings, claw-like hands, tusks for teeth, and live snakes for hair. Anyone who looked into their eyes would be turned to stone forever.

Perseus knew that he would probably die trying to get the Gorgon's head, but he had to try for his mother's sake. As he left the king, he was surprised by two figures suddenly appearing before him. It was Athena, goddess of Wisdom, and Hermes, messenger of the gods. They brought Perseus five gifts from his father, Zeus, and advised him to travel north until he came to the sea, and then to seek help from the Graeae1. They disappeared again, and he looked at the gifts: a sharp sickle, a bright polished shield, a cap, a bag to hang from his shoulder, and winged sandals. Perseus was much happier now, especially when he found that the cap made him invisible and the sandals made him fly. With such help from the gods he could not fail in his task.

The Graeae

Perseus flew north toward the sea. When he came to the shore of a dark, misty sea he did not know where he was nor where to find the Gorgons. He saw the Graeae on the beach below and stopped to talk to them. They were old, very ugly, and just one tooth and one eye to share between them. They were the only people who knew where to find the Gorgons, but they would not tell Perseus. He flew away, put on his cap, then hovered above them until they were passing the tooth and the eye between each other. He flew down, snatched the tooth and eye, and threatened to throw them into the sea unless the Graeae gave him the information. They finally gave in and, after he had dropped the tooth and eye next to them on the beach, he flew on toward the Gorgons.

The Gorgan's Lair

As Perseus entered the lair, he saw all around him figures of stone men and animals, all killed by one look into the Gorgon's eyes. He approached quietly and found the sisters asleep. He was able to look on them safely. The snakes were awake and were writhing and hissing at him. Fearing that they would wake and open their eyes, he used the bronze shield as a mirror and cut off the head of the nearest sister, Medusa. He grabbed her head, put it in his bag, and quickly flew off before the others could catch him. Behind him, from Medusa's blood sprang the winged horse, Pegasus, the symbol of grace and beauty.

The Journey Back

On the way back to Seriphos, he flew past Atlas. Feeling sorry for him for having to hold up the heavens, Perseus turned him to stone so he would no longer feel the weight.

He stopped at Larisa so that he could join in some games, but when he threw a discus, it hit and killed an old man. That man was King Acrisius - the prophecy had come true. Saddened, Perseus flew on.

As he flew past an island on the way back to Seriphos, Perseus saw a girl, Andromeda, chained to a rock. He stopped to help her and found out that Poseidon had sent a sea monster, Cetus, to terrorise the islands as a punishment for Andromeda's mother boasting that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. The only way to stop the monster was Andromeda's sacrifice. As Perseus prepared to rescue her, the monster appeared. He took the Gorgon's head out of the bag and held it behind him, facing the monster. It was immediately turned to stone. He took Andromeda back to Seriphos to be his wife.

When they arrived back at Seriphos, Perseus went straight to the palace. Polydectes was in the middle of a feast and obviously had not expected to see Perseus again. The king did not believe that he had managed to bring back the head of a Gorgon. Perseus took the head out of the bag and showed them. They all turned to stone. Danae was left in peace, as the king had not been able to force her to marry him. Perseus gave back the gifts of the gods and made Athena a present of the Gorgon's head, as thanks for her help.

Perseus and Andromeda had many children and became the great-grandparents of Heracles.

1The Grey Ones. The three sisters of the Gorgons.

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