A consistent reality seen in Greek myth relates to personal conflict of a very specific kind. As Zeus notoriously pursued mortal women, a number of demi-gods who were less than comfortable with this state of being were born. Perseus both reinforces this and challenges it because he assumes control of his own life, as he also takes advantage of his semi-divine status when necessary. The following then offers a brief description of Perseus’ background and being, which is followed by assessing him in terms of his slaying of the Gorgon, Medusa. What ultimately emerges is that Perseus is unique among Greek demi-gods in myth because he suffers less from the conflict of the dual heritages.
Perseus was born in the Greek city of Argos, and was the son of the princess Danae, daughter of King Akrisios, and Zeus. As so often happens in Greek myth, Zeus satisfies his lust for mortal women by adopting disguises and, with Danae, transforms into a shower of gold and impregnates her. In a sense, Zeus had no other option because Akrisios, having learned from an oracle that his daughter’s son would overthrow him, imprisoned her. This relates to an enemy of Perseus, as Akrisios was committed to eliminate this threat to his rule. When Perseus was born, then, the king had both mother and son locked in a chest and thrown into the sea. A good fisherman of the island of Seriphos, however, found the chest washed ashore, gave them refuge, and it was on this island that Perseus grew to manhood. He was devoted to his mother and Diktys, the fisherman. Interpretations offer varying ideas of Perseus’ character, but most are admiring, as he grew into a very athletic and physically attractive man. He is a hero seen as punishing only those who deserve it, and one who honors the gods.
Among his notable feats was the killing of Medusa, ordered by King Polydektes. Some hold that the mirror used by Perseus to kill Medusa is highly symbolic, as it represents both his semi-divinity and mortality. The reflection of the mirror shield suggests Perseus as a demi-god because of its divine power, but that he must use the shield also reinforces his weakness as a man. It is also important to note how Medusa and Andromeda, whom he saves, represent conflicting ideas of women in Greek myth. Essentially, they are completely objectified; Medusa is female as monster and Andromeda is the female as perfect object of desire, won by Perseus through sheer heroism.
The Medusa encounter supports how Perseus’ identity is different than those of other demi-gods. A victim of injustice and cruelty as a boy, he nonetheless grows to be brave and virtuous. He also only accepts gifts from the gods when necessary, such as the mirror shield which became the hero’s symbol. Then, his heroism aside, the myths of Perseus offer one primary lesson: it is far more important to live a life of virtue than one self-serving. Ultimately, Perseus is unique among Greek demi-gods in myth because his being as mortal and divine never creates misery or conflict for him.
- Corretti, Christine. Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa and the Loggia dei Lanzi. Boston, MA: BRILL, 2015.
- Greene, Liz, and Sharman-Burke, Juliet. The Mythic Journey: Use Myths, Fairy Tales, and Folklore to Explain Life’s Mysteries. Newburyport, MA: Weiser Books, 2017.
- Lowe, Dunstan. Monsters and Monstrosity in Augustan Poetry. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2015.
- “Perseus.” Theoi Greek Mythology. 2017, 30 Sept. 2017. http://www.theoi.com/Heros/Perseus.html