Perseus was one of the great heroes of classical mythology. He was the son of Jupiter and Danae, and is best known for his killing of the Gorgon Medusa. This was a rather complex task, as anyone who saw her hideous face would be turned immediately to stone--the Gorgons, according to Bulfinch, were "monstrous females with huge teeth like those of swine, brazen claws, and snaky hair" (Bulfinch's Mythology, 109). Perseus accomplishes it, however, by the aid of Pluto, Mercury and Minerva. Pluto lent his helmet of invisibility to Perseus, Mercury lent the hero his winged sandals, and Minerva allowed him the use of her shield. With the aid of the helmet and the sandals, Perseus was able to get within striking range without being detected by Medusa or the two immortal Gorgons. He then used the reflection on the shield to guide his killing blow, and flew off unharmed bearing the head of Medusa:
He was bringing back the Gorgon's head, the memorable trophy he had won in his contest with that snaky-haired monster. As the victorious hero hovered over Libya's desert sands, drops of blood fell from the head. The earth caught them as they fell, and changed them into snakes of different kinds. So it came about that that land is full of deadly serpents. Thereafter, Perseus was driven by warring winds all over the vast expanse of sky: like a raincloud, he was blown this way and that. He flew over the whole earth, looking down from the heights of heaven to the land which lay far below (Metamorphoses IV 615-624).
He was rather tired and wanted to rest when he arrived at the lands of Atlas, at the ends of the earth. Atlas, however, tried to turn him away with his considerably greater strength. Perseus was infuriated and showed him the head of Medusa, turning the Titan into "a mountain as huge as the giant he had been. His beard and hair were turned into trees, his hands and shoulders were mountain ridges, and what had been his head was now the mountain top. His bones became rock. Then, expanding in all directions, he increased to a tremendous size--such was the will of the gods--and the whole sky with its many stars rested upon him" (Metamorphoses IV 656-662). Perseus flew on until he spotted the beautiful maiden Andromeda, who was chained to the rocky shore as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Perseus promptly fell in love with her, killed the monster, and married the princess.
There are some variants on the myth of Perseus. According to some versions, he had to win the winged sandals and the helmet from the three Graeae, sisters of the Gorgons who shared one eye and one tooth among them. He stole the eye and the tooth, returning them only in exchange for the sandals and the helmet he needed to defeat Medusa.
When he died many years later, Perseus was immortalized as a constellation. He may be found near Andromeda and her parents, Cepheus and Cassiopeia, in the northern sky. The hero is depicted with a sword in one hand and the head of Medusa in the other; it is interesting to note the the eye of Medusa is the star Algol. Algol, which means "Demon Star" in Arabic, is an eclipsing binary star--it is normally about as bright as Polaris (second magnitude), but every two and a half days it becomes dimmer for roughly eight hours as the dimmer star of the pair passes between the brighter and the earth.
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These pages are the work of Cathy Bell
cmbell (at) comfychair (dot) org
originally for the Princeton University course CLA 212.