The Birth of Perseus

Published October 9, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Sorry the myth is a day late; I had a paper due on Thursday, so I couldn’t work on it ahead of time, and then on Thursday after class I had to stay at the library and do some stuff, and by the time I got home it was so late that I didn’t have time even to think about working on the myth.

Anyway, I wanted to tell some Halloween appropriate myths this month, which would have to mean monster-centric, but the only monsters I could think of off-hand that I hadn’t already told the tales of were either part of the life of Heracles and/or the voyage of the Argo, both of which were going to take too long to get there, or Typhon and Echidna, but I still haven’t figured out how to handle Typhon, because of all the disparate versions, so…anyway, all that was left that I could realistically get to was Medusa.  Kind of rote, and well known thanks to Ray Harryhousen, but…yeah, what else was I gonna do?

I guess, theoretically, I could have written about Apollo slaying Python, but I already covered that as a prophecy in the story of Apollo’s birth, so it hardly seems necessary, since there’s not really much to the tale.

Acrisios, the king of Argos, had never really gotten along with his brother Proitos.  Their mother used to say that they had quarreled even in the womb.  As the elder brother, Acrisios had gained the throne on their father’s death, but he always suspected that Proitos was going to usurp the throne at the earliest opportunity.

When it came time for him to take a wife, Acrisios married Eurydice, the daughter of Lacedaemon, who had founded a very strong city (which he had arrogantly named after himself) and would surely prove a useful father-in-law if Acrisios ever needed an army to beat off his brother’s ambitions.

Acrisios was in a hurry to get a son, and thus was very pleased when his wife became pregnant, but horribly disappointed when the child turned out to be a girl.  They named her Danae, and Eurydice doted on her considerably, but Acrisios resented the fact that she hadn’t been a son.  He tried over and over again to father a son on Eurydice, but she never again brought a child to term.

When Danae was of a marriageable age, Acrisios began to worry about the fact that his wife still hadn’t given him a son, so he made the journey to Delphi to beg Apollo for his aid in getting a son…or at least to ask the oracle if he would ever have such a son.  The Pythia told him that no matter what he did, he would never have a son, but that his daughter would have a son…and that son was destined to kill Acrisios.

For the entire trip back to Argos, Acrisios was consumed with worry.  What would happen to his throne if he couldn’t have a son?  He couldn’t simply marry off his daughter and let her husband inherit the throne the way his father-in-law had gained control of Laconia, because if he ever had a grandson, that grandson would kill him.  No, clearly Danae must never be married at all!

By the time he arrived home, Acrisios had come to the conlcusion that the only recourse he had was to sadly accept the death of his bloodline, and simply adopt a son who would carry on his wishes faithfully, unlike his traitorous brother.  As to Danae…perhaps she could be convinced to dedicate herself as a priestess to Athene or Artemis, thereby ensuring that she would remain chaste — and, more importantly, childless! — forever.

But when he entered his palace, he heard a commotion among the servants and slaves, but the commotion was quickly hushed, and none seemed willing to open their mouths to speak to him, though they glanced often and nervously in the direction of Proitos’ chambers.  Worried about what his brother might be up to, Acrisios hurried off to see for himself.

Once he got there, he wished he had never seen that sight.  For Proitos had seduced Danae, and now had a sickening look of self-satisfaction on his face, clearly convinced that Acrisios would arrange a marriage with due haste.  Well, Acrisios wasn’t going to stand for that!  If Proitos thought that he was going to get the throne of Argos by such an underhanded means — and kill off Acrisios in the process! — then he was about to learn just how wrong he was!

Acrisios banished Proitos from Argos, without even letting him put his clothes back on, and he had built a special chamber for Danae.  It was sunk deeply into the ground well outside the city walls, and lined on all sides with bronze.  There was a door in the top, through which Danae and an attendant nurse were lowered inside, and a smaller opening beside it through which air could enter the room, and food and drink could be lowered to the prisoners.  But there was no way out apart from the door in the ceiling, far too high for Danae and her nurse to reach, and the door was kept locked, and only Acrisios could open it.

Convinced that he had saved himself from the terrible fate Delphi had predicted — as the nurse assured Acrisios that Danae had not become pregnant with Proitos’ child — Acrisios went about his business as king, keeping an eye out for any worthy young man who might make a good heir, but mostly trying to hold onto his life as long as he possibly could.

Acrisios was a fool, though; he had not reckoned on the lengths that some suitors would go to in order to obtain the woman they wanted.

Divine suitors, especially, were not to be stopped by something so simple as imprisonement.

Zeus himself had noticed the furor as Acrisios dragged his screaming and crying daughter to the hole in the ground that was to be her new home, and he had been charmed by her beauty, and outraged by the way her father was treating her.  He watched Danae from Mt. Olympos for some time, and the more he saw of her, especially as she tried to maintain her cheerful spirits despite her dark imprisonment, the more he knew he just had to have her.

As king of the gods, Zeus could easily have torn open the prison and removed Danae to any location he wanted.  But he knew what the Pythia had predicted, and he didn’t want to deprive Acrisios of his well-deserved death!

So Zeus turned himself into a shower of gold, and poured down through the opening in the ceiling onto Danae’s lap as her nurse was sleeping.

What followed his return to a more human form had to be kept very quiet, lest they wake the nurse.

In due time, Danae gave birth to a fine, strong son, who she named Perseus.  Her nurse was very perplexed to see the child — she was quite sure that he didn’t belong to Proitos, and yet she didn’t see how anyone could have gotten into their prison! — but agreed to help keep him quiet when the guards came round with food, because she was fearful of what Acrisios would do to his infant grandson.

By the time Perseus was three or four years old — it was difficult to judge time in that hole in the ground — it began to be nearly impossible to keep him quiet.  They did all they could, but eventually the guards reported to the king that they heard shouts and cries from within the hole that didn’t sound like they came from Danae or her nurse; they sounded like a child.

Horrified at the idea, Acrisios hurried to Danae’s prison to check.  Since it wasn’t feeding time, Danae and her nurse weren’t even trying to keep Perseus quiet, and he could be heard shouting quite loudly.  “Mama, look!  Look what I can do!  Look, Mama, look!”  There could be no doubt in Acrisios’ mind; Danae had given birth to his brother’s son after all!

Enraged, Acrisios unlocked the door to the prison, and ordered his guards to fetch out all three of the prisoners.

The nurse was brought up first, and Acrisios slew her without a moment’s hesitation, he was so angry.  Once Danae and her son were brought up together, Acrisios aimed his bloody sword at them, ready to stop the prophecy for good.  But Danae glared at him and told him that the Furies would never rest hunting him down if he dared turn his blade on his daughter and grandson.  Zeus himself would drive them on to destroy Acrisios, body and soul!

Acrisios hesitated, then put his sword away.  He didn’t want to tangle with the Furies.

Instead, he dragged Danae to the temple of Zeus, and thrust her against the altar, where he was sure any lies would be violently punished by the Thunderer.  “Tell me who fathered that child!” he demanded.

“Zeus himself,” Danae assured him, pointing at the statue of her lover that overlooked the altar.

“How dare you utter such blasphemy at this most holy altar!?” her father roared back at her.  “Who really fathered that child?!”

“He said he was Zeus himself,” Danae repeated, shaking her head.  “He came to me in a shower of gold!  If he wasn’t Zeus, he could only be Apollo, but I can’t imagine Apollo bothering to lie that he was his own father.”

Acrisios was livid.  He was sure that her tale of a divine lover was nonsense, and that the boy really belonged to his brother.

And yet…

…he didn’t quite have the nerve to outright execute her or the child.  After all, what if she was telling the truth?

Instead, he had a chest built, and thrust both mother and child inside.  It was large enough to hold them comfortably, and it had been constructed to be water-tight.  Acrisios had the chest carried to the sea, and set adrift with his daughter and grandson inside.  If she had truly been united with a god, then that god would surely keep her from drowning.  But since she surely hadn’t, she would eventually sink below the waves and take her son with her, and then Acrisios would be safe from his murderous blade.

He had no choice!

It had to be done!

But Acrisios was a fool, because Danae had — as we know — been telling him the truth.  Zeus asked his brother Poseidon to guide the chest safely across the waves to a land far from Argos, where Danae and Perseus would be safe.

And Poseidon — unlike Proitos — was a good brother, so he did as his brother had asked.  The chest soon enough was caught in the nets of a fisherman from the island of Seriphos.  The fisherman, a kindly man named Dictys, felt deep pity for the beautiful girl and her charming little son, so he brought them to his home — which was very nice for a fisherman’s home, as his half-brother was quite wealthy and important — and told the local villagers that Danae was his cousin, so that she could stay at his home without any suspicions.

And for many years, they lived there happily, and the growing Perseus looked on Dictys almost as a father, even though his mother had often told him that Zeus was his father.

Not the best ending, but I’ve spent too long on this already, so it’s gonna have to do.

Oh, btw, Proitos is the same guy whose wife was coming on to Bellerophon.  So I may need to re-write Bellerophon’s myth a bit, because it had Proitos in Argos, not in Tiryns, which he is supposed to have founded.  (Which would make Tiryns older than Mycenae!)  But maybe by Bellerophon’s time, Perseus has already killed his grandfather and Proitos took the throne of Argos when Perseus refused it?  Hmm.  I’ll need to look into that…whenever I have time again. 😦

I calculated this week’s reading, and it comes to 746 pages.  That’s 106 pages a day, roughly.  And I’m only taking two classes!  Ugh.

Now I must depart and immerse myself in Sallust and the life of Simon Bolivar.  (Yeah, that’s a weird combination.  But better than later days this week, when Sallust will give over to…ugh…Cicero.  Bolivar will give over to San Martin and to more general analyses of the early portion of war for independence in the Spanish Americas, but that’s not such a big change.  (Especially since the biographies of Bolivar and San Martin are written by the same historian.))

And keep in mind that both of these classes end with massive research papers, so in addition to all the assigned reading, I should, really, be reading at least 50-60 pages a day of personal research for each class.

Ugh.  I had no idea just how badly adjusted I was too graduate level work, if I’m feeling this badly overworked by only two courses.



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