Who Is Perseus? Ancient Greek Dragon Slayer
Who was Perseus?
Perseus was a Greek lad who knew a few things about killing dragons. Let’s begin the story of Percy at the beginning—with his birth.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to refer to Perseus as Percy.
I hope he does not take offense. This guy has a nasty way of dealing with people who offend him as I shall soon explain.
The birth of Perseus
Percy was the son of Zeus, the supreme leader of the Greek gods, and was thus in a position to get a little help from his friends on Mount Olympus (the home of the gods) when he needed it.
His mother was Danae (who I shall call Dana). Her father, Acrisius (who I shall call Ace), the king of Argos, had received a prophecy from the oracle of Delphi that he would be killed by his daughter’s son. Ace locked Dana away in a tower so she would never marry or bear a child. Zeus however, discovered her, came to her as a shower of gold, and had his way with her. She gave birth to Percy.
When Ace discovered the child, he dared not kill the son of Zeus, Instead Dana and Percy were locked in a chest and cast out to sea. They washed up on an island of Seifos and were saved by a fisherman.
Years passed and Percy grew to manhood. It was then that the king of the island, Polydectes (who I will call Dick) decided that he wanted to marry Dana. Percy opposed the marriage, so the king wished to get him out of the way. Dick held a banquet and everyone was ordered to bring a gift. Percy had no money to buy a gift so he offered a service to the king instead. Dick demanded that Percy bring him the head of Medusa, a monster with living serpents for hair. Her visage was so fearsome that anyone who set eyes upon her would turn to stone.
The story of Perseus is told in a graphic novel.
Perseus begins his quest
Medusa is a Gorgon, one of three monstrous sisters. She is described as a monster, but might well have been a dragon because some dragons are depicted with multiple serpent heads.
The legend is that Medusa had once been a woman with beautiful long hair who had lain with Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Athena was outraged at this sacrilege and punished Medusa by turning her in a monster.
Percy went to Athena for help. Athena was the daughter of Zeus which meant Percy was her half-brother. (Athena had sprung full grown from the forehead of Zeus and thus she had no mother.) Athena was happy to help Percy—he was family. Also, she apparently was still angry at Medusa.
Athena tells Percy that he must find the Graeae, three old sisters who share one eye, passing it back and forth amongst them. The Graeae could tell Percy where to find Hesperides, nymphs who tended the orchards of the goddess Hera.
Percy visits the Graeae, and as one sister is passing the eye to the other, Percy snatches it. He refuses to return it until they tell him where to find the Hesperides.
Percy visits the Hesperides and receives several gifts from them and from various gods. He receives a knapsack which he will need to contain the severed head of Medusa. He receives a sword from Zeus. He receives a helmet from Hades which will render him invisible. Hermes lends him winged sandals so he can fly. Athena gives him a polished shield.
It’s a bit unclear why Percy had to trouble the Graeae for the information about the Hesperides. Surely one of the gods who were showering him with gifts could have told him. But heroes must have their little adventures. We wouldn’t want things to be too easy for them. If it were easy everyone would do it, and we want our heroes to be special.
Percy is now ready to kill his first dragon.
Perseus Arming for His Quest
Perseus slays Medusa
Percy proceeds to the Gorgon’s cave. He uses Athena’s shield as a mirror so he does not have to look directly at Medusa. He wears Hades’ helmet so he is invisible and can sneak up on Medusa. He uses Hermes winged sandals to flit around the flailing serpents that grow like hair on Medusa’s head. He uses Zeus’ sword to behead Medusa.
Mission accomplished. Perseus has slain his first dragon. He puts the severed head in the Hesperides’ knapsack being careful not to look at it. As we shall see, even in death, the head retains its deadly voodoo.
The winged horse, Pegasus, springs from Medusa’s severed neck as does a sword of gold. Apparently, two more gifts for the valiant Percy. It was a good thing getting Pegasus, because the winged sandals had to be returned.
Scenes from the movie, "Clash of the Titans." Perseus slays Medusa.
Perseus slays Cetus
But there is no rest for the weary. Before Percy can get home, there is another adventure in store for him.
The story of this adventure begins with King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia of Ethiopia. The queen was a vain and boastful woman who angered some sea nymphs, known as the Neriads, by claiming to be more beautiful than any of them. There is nothing a vain woman hates more than some other vain woman who is even vainer than she is.
The Neriads complained to the god of the sea, Poseidon. Ancient Greece was apparently lousy with dragons because Poseidon summoned one up and sent it to Ethiopia as punishment. The dragon promptly began to devastate the kingdom and feast upon its people. The dragon particularly favored young people.
The terrified people of Ethiopia consulted an oracle who told them they must hand over Andromeda (who I shall call Andie), the daughter of the King and Queen, to Cetus, a sea monster. Again the story refers to Cetus as a sea serpent or sea monster, but what is a sea serpent if not a dragon?
Poor Andie is tied naked to a rock by the sea to await her fate. Dragons do like tender young maidens.
The King and Queen tell Percy that if he can save their daughter he may marry her and rule over their kingdom. Andie is beautiful and the kingdom is prosperous so off Percy goes to slay his next dragon.
Percy once again dons his helmet of invisibility and takes his sword and shield to do battle with a dragon. His sword tears into the dragon’s flesh and gouges out the dragon’s heart. With the dragon dead, Percy removes his helmet of invisibility. Percy slices trough Andie’s chains with one thrust of his sword.
He is evidently a fine specimen of a man, as handsome as she is beautiful, and she is happy to be his bride as her parents had promised. But there is one more trial awaiting our dauntless hero.
Another man, Phineas, wants Andie for his own bride. He waylays Percy with an army, hoping to remove the competition. The resourceful Percy whips Medusa’s head from his knapsack, and his rival and all the men in his army are turned to stone.
Perseus Coming to the Rescue of Andromeda
Happily ever after
Percy marries Andie, and they have many children. One of their sons fathers Alemena, a daughter. This woman gives birth to Hercules who has an encounter with a dragon of his own. But that is another story.
Not so happily for Ace, the prophecy was fulfilled—Percy kills his grandfather albeit by accident. Accounts vary as to exactly how this happened, but Percy was involved in some kind of discus throwing contest or exhibition, and the throw went wild and struck Ace, killing him.
Percy kills a few more people with Medusa’s head, including Dick, his mother’s suitor who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. (A boy has to look out for his mom.) Eventually, Medusa’s head was given to Athena.
When Percy died as an old man, Athena placed him in the heavens as the constellation, Perseus, next to the constellations Andromeda, Cepheus, and Cassiopeia.
The Constellation Perseus
There is a big cast of characters in this story. Use this chart to help keep them straight.
King of Argos, Father of Danae
Granddaughter of Percy and Andie
Daughter of Ace, Bride of Percy
Goddess of wisdom, Daughter of Zeus
Queen of Ethiopia, Mother of Andie
King of Ethiopia, Father of Andie
Daughter of Ace, Mother of Percy
Three old sisters who share one eye
God of the underworld
Queen of the Greek Gods, Wife of Zeus
Nymphs who tend Hera's orchards
Messenger of the gods
Son of Zeus and Dana
Suitor for Andie
King of Serifos, Suitor for Dana
God of the sea
King of the Greek gods, Husband of Hera
A little poll just for fun.
I said Medusa and Cetus are dragons. What do you think?
© 2014 Catherine Giordano