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Perseus and Medusa

Perseus and Medusa - origins

When did the legend first appear?

Perseus head
  • Perseus' Head - Greek vase about 430 BC
  • Perseus is perhaps the earliest and greatest of the Greek heroes. Oral and poetic story telling was very important in Ancient Greece and many of the legendary heroes had a god for one of their parents, giving them the possibility of super powers. This also affirmed the status of the hero’s descendents as rulers whom the gods favoured. The Perseus legend also affirms the power of the oracles, whose prophesies will come true, however someone tries to escape their fate.

    We get a little about Perseus from Homer in “The Iliad”, his famous story of the Trojan War, written in the 7th or 8th centuries BC. Hesiod, a Greek poet who was writing about 700 BC, makes a passing reference to Perseus cutting off Medusa’s head in “Theogony”. However, the legend of Perseus is far older than that. For example, Perseus is attributed with founding the city of Mycenae, which later, was the home of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The hero, Hercules, famed for his strength, was the great grandson of Perseus and Andromeda.

    Depictions of Perseus beheading the Gorgon Medusa are amongst the earliest scenes of Greek mythology in their art. He was important enough to have a constellation in the Northern sky named for him.

    Who were the Graeae ( the Grey Sisters )?

    The Grey sisters
  • Perseus returning the eye (Henry Fuseli 1742 - 1825)
  • In Greek mythology, these three old women were the daughters of Phorcys (Phorkys), who was the sea god of the hidden dangers of the deep, and Ceto (Keto), goddess of dangerous sea creatures and monsters. They were believed to have been born old, and shared between them just one eye and one tooth, which they passed between themselves.

    Although usually shown as grey old women, some poets have described them as “beautiful” and, in other legends, they are depicted as half swan. They were believed to personify the white foam of the sea. However, their names make them sound more like monsters: Deino “the terrible”, Enyo “the shocking”, and sometimes Persis “the destroyer” or Pemphredo “alarm”.

    Their parents had also given birth to a number of dangerous sea monsters and, of course, the 3 Gorgons. The Graeae held the secret of the whereabouts of the nymphs who kept the objects which could enable Medusa to be killed.

    What was Medusa?

  • Winged Gorgon, from Etruria circa 580 BC
  • Medusa was one of the 3 Gorgons, daughters of Phorcys and Ceto. She was the only one who was mortal. According to the early legends, all three Gorgons had snakelike hair, staring eyes, big mouths, tusks of swine, tongues that lolled and, sometimes, short coarse beards.

    However, later stories give her a tragic tale. They say she was very beautiful and served the goddess Athena. However, she was seduced by Poseidon, god of the sea, in Athena’s temple. Athena was so outraged by this, that she turned Medusa’s beautiful ringlets into writhing serpents and her lovely looks into a hideous face that turned anyone who looked upon it to stone.

    However it happened, her power lasted beyond her death. The blood that dripped from her severed head, as Perseus was making his way home, was reputed to create poisonous serpents and sea coral. On the way, Perseus also turned the Titan, Atlas, to stone for his lack of hospitality, thus creating the range of mountains. Once he and Andromeda had returned home, he gave the head of Medusa to Athena for her shield.

    Who was Andromeda?

    Perseus and Andromeda
  • Ancient Corinthian vase
  • Andromeda was the lovely daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, who were king and queen of Ethiopia. She had been promised in marriage to her uncle, Phineus. However, her proud and foolish mother proclaimed that her daughter was more beautiful even than the Nerieids, sea nymphs who accompanied Poseidon and who often looked kindly upon sailors having problems in stormy weather. Poseidon was so angry that he sent a flood, followed by the sea monster Cetus, to devastate the kingdom.

    The desperate king consulted Apollo’s oracle who told him that the only way to stop the devastation was to sacrifice Andromeda to the monster. When Perseus rescued her, he demanded her hand in marriage which the king gladly gave. But Phineus was angry and brought his followers to demand his promised bride back. Again, the head of Medusa came in handy, petrifying Phineus and his band.

    Andromeda and Perseus had seven sons and two daughters, founding a line of rulers and heroes, to include Heracles and Agammenon. Legend states that when Andromeda died, Athena placed her as a constellation near Perseus, and her mother, in the Northern sky.

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