- Curious Peoples
The Quest for Medusa’s Head
Perseus, a legendary hero of Greek mythology and a son of Zeus, is renowned for his brave deeds, including slaying the Gorgon Medusa and rescuing Andromeda from a sea monster. His adventures are some of the earliest mythological scenes depicted in art, dating back to the late 7th century BCE.
The story of Perseus begins with his mother, Danae, daughter of Akrisios, King of Argos. Fearing a prophecy that his grandson would cause his death, Akrisios imprisoned Danae in a bronze underground chamber. However, Zeus, transforming into a shower of golden rain, entered the cell and fathered Perseus. Danae and her newborn were later cast into the sea by Akrisios, sealed in a wooden chest. Zeus intervened, ensuring calm seas under Poseidon’s watch, allowing the chest to safely reach the island of Seriphos, where they were rescued and cared for by a local fisherman.
Ancient bell-krater depicting Zeus’s golden rain impregnating Danaë, dating to approximately 450–425 BCE
Growing up in Seriphos, Perseus became known for his physical strength and bravery. However, his presence became a hindrance to King Polydectes’ intentions towards Danae. Seizing an opportunity when Perseus boasted of his ability to slay Medusa, the king challenged him to fulfill his claim, threatening to take Danae if he failed.
Despite the daunting task, Perseus received divine guidance from Hermes and Athena. They advised him to consult the wise Graiai, sisters to the Gorgons, who shared one tooth and one eye. Perseus stole their eye, bargaining its return for information on obtaining Hades’ invisibility cap, winged boots for flight, and a special bag for Medusa’s head. Hermes also provided him with a unique adamantine sword for the task.
Among the three Gorgon sisters—Sthenno, Euryale, and Medusa—only Medusa was mortal. Living in flowered meadows at the Earth’s end, the Gorgons were fearsome, with wings, claws, and snake-filled hair. Using his gifts, Perseus approached the Gorgons, viewing them through his shield’s reflection to avoid their petrifying gaze. Invisible and swift, he decapitated Medusa and escaped the pursuit of her sisters with Athena’s assistance.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini, 1554
On his victorious journey home, Perseus was captivated by the sight of Andromeda, a beautiful princess chained to a rock. Daughter of the Ethiopian King and Queen Kassiopeia, Andromeda was a victim of Poseidon’s wrath. Angered by Kassiopeia’s claim that her beauty surpassed that of the Nereids, Poseidon had sent a catastrophic flood followed by a sea monster to ravage the kingdom. The only solution to avert further calamity was to offer Andromeda as a sacrifice to the beast.
Struck by love at first sight, Perseus proposed a deal: he would slay the monster in exchange for Andromeda’s hand in marriage. The desperate king agreed. Perseus, wielding the head of Medusa with its lethal gaze still intact, confronted and petrified the sea monster, saving Andromeda. However, their union faced a challenge from the king’s brother, who claimed Andromeda as his betrothed. Perseus quickly resolved this by exposing him to Medusa’s head and turning him to stone as well.
Perseus freeing Andromeda after killing a sea monster, 1st century CE fresco from Pompeii
Upon returning home, Perseus discovered that King Polydectes had mistreated his mother during his absence. Fulfilling his promise, he showed the king Medusa’s head. The king’s gaze met the head’s deadly stare, turning him to stone. Perseus then gifted Medusa’s head to Athena, who placed it on her shield as a symbol of protection and power.
Perseus then returned with his mother to her homeland of Argos. There, in a tragic twist of fate, he accidentally killed his grandfather Acrisius with a discus throw, fulfilling the long-standing prophecy.
The legend of Perseus, rich with adventure and dramatic turns, has been a popular theme in both ancient and Renaissance art. The principal figures of the Perseus story—including Perseus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and the sea monster Cetus—have been immortalized as constellations, eternally adorning the night sky.
Words of wisdom
“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“All cruelty springs from weakness.” —Seneca
“A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.” —Jack London
“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” —Mark Twain
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