Perseus, or Perseos (Greek: Περσεύς, Περσέως), the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty there, was the first of the mythic heroes of Greek mythology whose exploits helped establish the hegemony of Zeus and the Twelve Olympians in the mainland of Greece.
Origin at Argos
Perseus was the son of Danae, who by her very name was the very type and representative of all the Danaans (Kerenyi 1959:45), and the only grandchild of Acrisius king of Argos. Disappointed by his lack of male heirs, Acrisius consulted the oracle at Delphi, which warned him that, fated to remain without a son himself, one day he would be killed by his daughter's child. Danae was childless and, meaning to keep her so, he shut her up in a brazen chamber underground: this mytheme is also connected to Ares, Oenopion, Eurystheus, etc. But Zeus came to her in the form of a shower of gold, and impregnated her. Soon after, their child Perseus was born.
Fearful for his future but unwilling to provoke the wrath of the gods by killing his offspring, Acrisius cast the two into the sea in a wooden chest. Danae's fearful prayer afloat in the darkness has been expressed by the poet Simonides of Ceos. They 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 in the island.
Adventures with the Gorgons
After some time, Polydectes fell in love with Danae and desired to remove Perseus from the island. He thereby hatched a plot to send him away in disgrace. 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 the head of Medusa, one of the gorgons, whose very expression turns people to stone. The Medusa was horselike in archaic representations (Kerenyi 1959:48), the terrible filly of a mare—Demeter, the Mother herself— who was in her mare nature when Poseidon assumed stallion form and covered her. The issue of her foaling were the gorgon sisters. Polydectes held Perseus to his rash promise.
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 should he do so.
According to the iconography of the vase-painters, the gods Hermes and Athena came to his rescue. They did not know the way themselves, being of a younger generation of deities, but they knew ancient ones who would know; they led him 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 and would not return it until they had given him directions. He also received winged sandals, a magic wallet (kibisis), the cap of Hades that made one invisible, an adamantine sickle such as the one that reaped the genitals of Uranus, and a mirrored shield. With all this, "Like a wild boar he entered the cave" (Aeschylus, The Phorkides, where he came upon the sleeping gorgons. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his shield he could safely approach and cut off her head, while using the mirrored shield, subsequently turning her to stone. The other two gorgons pursued him, but in his cap of invisibility he escaped.
Marriage with Andromeda
On the way back to Seriphos, Perseus stopped in Aethiopia (not to be confused with Ethiopia, the modern name for Axum), ruled by King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, having boasted herself equal in beauty to the Nereids, drew down the vengeance of Poseidon, who sent an inundation on the land and a sea-monster, Cetus, which destroyed man and beast. The oracle of Ammon having announced that no relief would be found until the king exposed his daughter Andromeda to the monster, she was fastened to a rock on the shore. Here Perseus, returning from having slain the gorgon, found her, slew the monster, set her free, and married her 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 (Ovid, Metamorphoses v. 1). Andromeda followed her husband to Tiryns in Argos, and became the ancestress of the family of the Perseidae through Perseus' and Andromeda's son, 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 Corneille) made the story the subject of tragedies, and its incidents were represented in numerous ancient works of art.
On returning to Seriphos and discovering his mother had had to take refuge from the violent advances of Polydectes, Perseus killed him with Medusa's head, and made Dictys king.
The oracle fulfilled
Perseus then returned his magical loans and gave Medusa's head as a gift to Athena, who set it in her shield.
The fulfillment of the oracle was told several ways, each incorporating the mythic theme of exile. In Pausanias (12.16.1) 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.
In Apollodorus' version (2.4.4), the inevitable occured 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, Perseus struck Acrisius in the foot, killing him instantly.
In still a third tradition (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 5.177), 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 (loc. cit.), who gives as motivation for the swap the shame of Perseus over becoming king of Argos by inflicting death.
In any case, early Greek literature reiterates that manslaughter, even involuntary, requires by custom the exile of 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.
King of Mycenae
The two main sources regarding the legendary life of Perseus—for he was an authentic historical figure to the Greeks— are Pausanias and Apollodorus, but from them we obtain mainly folk-etymology concerning the founding of Mycenae. Pausanias (2.15.4, 2.16.3-6, 2.18.1) 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 we have only folk-etymology: Perseus dropped his cap or found a mushroom there (both named myces), or perhaps the place was named from the lady Mycene, daughter of Inachus, mentioned in a now missing poem, the great Eoeae, and in a now missing line of the Odyssey. Or, perhaps it was named after a youth, Mycenus. The ignorance of the Greeks concerning the name, which is plural, argues for a pre-Greek origin.
For whatever reasons, perhaps as outposts, Perseus fortified Mycenae according to Apollodorus (2.4.4, pros-teichisas, "walling in") along with Midea, implying 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 and Autochthoe. Perses was left in Aethiopia and became ancestor of the emperors of Persia, which etiologizes the similarity of the country's name and Perseus', as is mentioned above. The other descendants ruled Mycenae from Electryon down to Eurystheus, after whom Atreus got the kingdom. However, the Perseids included the great hero, Heracles, son 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 (4.07) 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. Taking 1223 as the start of Atreus'reign and assuming an average generation of 25 years brings the date for the start of Perseus'reign to about 1373, which is roughly consistent with the archaeology.
It would have been Perseus after all who had the Cyclopean wall built ca. 1350. The Egyptian embassy of about 1380 might have been for the purpose of cementing diplomatic relations with the new dynasties in power. It is logical to assume that the first act of the Pelopids when they obtained the throne of Mycenae would be to strengthen the defenses, adding the extension to the north and the secret cistern about 1220.
Because of the obscurity of the name and the legendary character of its bearer, most etymologists pass it by, on the presumption that it might be pre-Greek. However, the name of Perseus’ native city was Greek and so were the names of his wife and relatives. There is some prospect that it descended into Greek from Indo-european. In that regard Robert Graves has espoused the only Greek derivation available.
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 man who habitually sacks cities; that is, a soldier by occupation, a fitting name for the first Mycenaean warrior.
The origin of perth- is more obscure. J. B. Hofman ("Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Griechischen") 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:
- ”It is tempting to see...the classical Perse...daughter of Oceanus...; whether it may be further identified with the first element of Persephone is only speculative.”
The Greeks made a folk-etymologic connection with the name of the Fars people, whom they called the Persai. The native name, however has always had an -a- in Iranian. Herodotus (7.61) recounts this story, devising a foreign son, Perses, from whom the Persians took name. Apparently the Persians themselves (Herodotus 7.150) knew the story, as Xerxes tried to use it to suborn the Argives during his ill-fated invasion of Greece.
Perseus had a daughter called Gorgophone, whose name means "Gorgon Killer".
Abas was a good friend of Perseus.
- Kerenyi, Karl, 1959. The heroes of the Greeks.
|King of Argos
|King of Tiryns and King of Mycenae