Acrisios and Perseus

Published October 30, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I noticed, in looking back on the previous part of this story, that I forgot something supremely important!  So if you read that one already and it didn’t have Hermes and Athene in it, then go back and read the new bit (near the very end), please.  It’s important, and it really doesn’t work if I stick it at the  beginning of this one.

Okay, anyway, now that that’s cleared up, we can start the final (and this time I really mean it!) chapter in the story of Perseus.

After living in Phoenicia for a year, Perseus was quite happy.  He was always at the side of his beautiful wife, Andromeda, and they now had a little baby boy, named Perses.  But one day his mother, Danae, came to speak to him, with tears in her eyes.

“I want to go home,” she told him.  “I don’t want to live out my final years in a foreign land where they worship strange gods.  I want to go home to Argos.  And I want to see you on the throne, where you belong!”

Perseus frowned.  He would, truly, have been quite content to remain in Phoenicia for the rest of his days.  But he couldn’t ask that of his mother; after all she had suffered because of him, it wouldn’t be fair to demand that she suffer further on his account.  Besides, there was the issue of his promise…

Unhappily, he went to talk to Andromeda about it.  But when he had explained what his mother had said, Andromeda just looked at him in confusion.  “Well, why can’t you just put her on a ship bound for Argos?  Our traders go to all the ports of the sea.”

“I promised her long ago that someday we would return to Argos together, and claim my inheritance from my grandfather,” Perseus explained.  “We can’t stay here.”

“Would you leave my father with no heir, condemning our kingdom to civil strife upon his death?” Andromeda asked.  “Surely if he cast you both aside, your grandfather must have no lack of heirs to take over his kingdom.”

Perseus shook his head.  “My grandfather has a brother, and his brother has sons, but my mother has no siblings.  But my grandfather’s brother was exiled before I was born, so I am really his only proper heir.  Your father need not be left without heirs, though; we can leave Perses with him.”

“He’s only an infant!” Andromeda exclaimed.  “You would leave our baby behind?!”

“Don’t you trust your parents to raise him?”

“That is not the issue, Perseus,” Andromeda said coldly.  “I don’t want to be parted from my baby so soon after his birth.”

Perseus rubbed his chin for a moment.  This was all becoming so terribly complicated.  “Well…then I suppose I could go with my mother and send for you when my inheritance is settled?” he suggested.  “Then you could have more time with the baby before having to be parted from him.”

“My only choices are being parted from my son and being parted from my husband?” Andromeda asked, her eyes narrow and her voice flat.

“What do you want of me?!” Perseus exclaimed.  “I promised my mother that she and I would go to Argos together to claim my inheritance, but I promised your father that he wouldn’t be left without an heir!  How am I supposed to settle both promises without you being parted from someone?!”

Andromeda sighed sadly.  “That was terribly thoughtless of you.  But I won’t ask you to break your word.  Very well, you go to Argos with your mother, and send for us when you’ve settled things.”

“Us?  We have to leave the — ”

“He can come back here when he’s a man, or when my father seems near death,” Andromeda said, cutting him off.  “There’s no reason for him to be raised here.”

“I don’t know how well your people would take to having a king who was raised in Argos,  but if your father thinks that will work, then I certainly don’t mind,” Perseus replied.  “But we can always have more sons, you know.”

“Children are not the same as horses; you can’t just procure more of them as replacements!  Each one is special and individual!”

Perseus sighed.  “Yes, I suppose they are,” he agreed…though at the moment his son was just a tiny little lump that wiggled its arms and screamed a lot.  He didn’t think there was much ‘special’ or ‘individual’ about that

Having more or less settled matters with his wife, Perseus went to explain his plans to his parents-in-law, then he and his mother took ship for Argos.  When they arrived, everyone at the port stared at them in wonder, thinking Perseus was a wealthy Phoenician prince.  He was quite dressed the part, after all.  Not wanting to cause a scene, he didn’t disillusion them, and simply asked directions to the palace.

Perseus, Danae and a handful of Phoenician messengers, traders and guards headed through the city to the palatial residence of Acrisios.  However, when they arrived, they were told that Acrisios was away in Larissa, attending a local prince’s funeral games, and having a meeting with his brother.  Acrisios had not told anyone what he was going to be discussing with his brother, but the servants knew that it had to be the question of inheritance, since Acrisios was without heirs, but his brother Proitos had a number of sons.

“But Acrisios has an heir!” Danae exclaimed, setting her hand on Perseus’ shoulder.  “This is his grandson, Perseus, the son of Zeus!”

The servants murmured among themselves for a few minutes, then one of them suddenly ran off.  The man returned shortly, leading along an old woman.  At the sight of her, Danae burst into tears, ran over and embraced her.  “Mother!” she cried.

The old woman wrapped her arms around Danae and stroked her hair.  “My little girl?  Is it really you, Danae, after all this time?”

“Yes, I’ve come home, safe and sound, and look how well my son has grown up!”

The aged queen looked at Perseus with worry.  “Your son…?  Oh, but, Danae…the prophecy…”

“No, Perseus is a good boy; he would never do something like that, I assure you,” Danae told her mother, clutching her hands, “even though Father tried to kill us.”

“Your majesty, what should we do?” one of the servants asked in a shaking voice.  “I know what the king’s orders were, but…he has soldiers with him….”

“They’re just an honor guard,” Perseus assured him.  “My wife is their king’s only daughter, so they don’t want anything to happen to me.  But just what did my grandfather order?”

“When the oracle kept telling him the same thing, even after he had sent you both to drown, my husband began to get paranoid,” the queen sighed.  “He was worried that the prophecy actually meant that he would be killed by someone claiming to be his grandson, rather than by his actual grandson.”

“Killed?!”  Perseus was quite aghast at the notion that anyone could believe him capable of killing his own grandfather.

“So he ordered that any young pretenders should immediately be put to death,” the queen continued, shaking her head.  “I’m glad to say there’s never been a need to execute the order.”

“But if this young man is claiming to be the king’s grandson…” the servant squeaked.

“But his claim is genuine, so he isn’t a pretender,” the queen pointed out.  “You can leave us alone now,” she added, and the servants uncomfortably departed.  “I suppose you came here to claim the throne?” she asked, looking at Perseus.

“Of course he did,” Danae said.  “I want to see my son on my father’s throne.  What’s so wrong with that?”

“Then you should hurry on to Larissa before Acrisios gives it away to one of his nephews,” the queen told them.  “He only left yesterday, so you should be able to catch up to him.”

In order to travel as quickly as possible, Perseus suggested that he should go to Larissa alone, but the queen replied that if he did, Acrisios would never believe he was telling the truth.  Instead, she sent with him one of Acrisios’ oldest and most trusted advisers, and the two rode to Larissa at top speed, getting there shortly after Acrisios himself had arrived.  The adviser hastily explained everything to Acrisios, who looked at Perseus with a mixture of relief and fear.

“I don’t know why the oracle told you something so terrible,” Perseus assured him, “but I would never harm my own kin, I promise you.”

“Then why have you come here?” Acrisios asked, still suspicious.

“My mother wanted to spend her life in her native city, despite all that had happened there.  Otherwise, I should have been quite happy to stay in Phoenicia.”  So saying, Perseus explained how he had met and married Andromeda, though he left out everything about the Gorgon’s head.  Best not to go spreading that story about, surely.

Though Acrisios still had his suspicions, he also didn’t want to hand over Argos to his brother’s sons, so Perseus soon won him over, and throughout their time in Larissa, Acrisios repeatedly apologized for having tried to kill Perseus as a child, and by the end, he even meant it.  Of course, Proitos was not pleased to learn that his sons were no longer going to inherit Argos, but he was delighted to hear that the beautiful Danae was unharmed (though he did, of course, have a wife now, but when did that ever stop men such as Proitos?) and pretended to be pleased that Perseus, too, was unharmed.  He would have been more pleased, of course, if he thought Perseus was his own son, but given that the youth repeatedly stated that he was the son of Zeus, Proitos was not given that particular pleasure.

Since everything was working out so nicely, and there was no need for lengthy negotiations, they all decided to stay for the funeral games.  Perseus, of course, being young and strong, opted to compete, while his grandfather and great-uncle joined the spectators.

Perseus won every event he competed in, until the discus.

As soon as he threw his discus, an enormous gust of wind rose up and blew the discus off course, into the spectators.  The discus struck Acrisios in the head, then the gust of wind died out as quickly as it had arisen.

Perseus ran over to his grandfather in dismay, but the discus had struck him so hard that he never regained consciousness, and before the day was out, he had died.

As Acrisios’ body was being prepared to be sent back to Argos for his funeral, the king in Larissa purified Perseus of the death — even though it had been accidental, he still had to be purified — and Perseus asked Proitos if he would send one of his sons to rule over Argos; he didn’t want to inherit it in this terrible manner.

Proitos smiled, and shook his head.  “No, I won’t send one of my sons.  I’ll rule it myself.  Will you be coming back with us for the funeral?”

“No, that would be improper.  I killed him, so I must go into exile,” Perseus replied sadly.  “You will explain to my mother, won’t you?”

“Of course I will,” Proitos assured him.  “I’m looking forward to seeing her again.”

“I don’t know where I’ll go now,” Perseus sighed.  “Back to Phoenicia, I suppose.”

“Let us trade thrones,” Proitos suggested.  “You’re the rightful heir to Argos, and I am the king of Tiryns — a city of my own foundation — so if I am going to take the throne of Argos, you should take the throne of Tiryns.”

“But what about your sons?” Perseus asked.

“They can join me in Argos, and inherit it when I am dead.  My herald will go with you to Tiryns and explain everything to them.”

Perseus nodded.  “All right.  When you get to Argos, please explain to the men who came from Phoenicia with me, and tell them that they can come join me or go home, as they please.”

Proitos of course agreed to this request, and after the two had spent a little more time discussing the details, the matter was entirely settled to everyone’s satisfaction.  Soon enough, they were on their way; Proitos setting out for Argos with the wagon containing his brother’s remains, and Perseus heading towards Tiryns with Proitos’ herald.

Upon his arrival in Tiryns, Perseus was glad to meet his cousins — though he was surprised at how many there were, as Proitos had more daughters than sons — but sorry that they had to meet under such terrible conditions.  Once the herald had explained everything, Proitos’ wife, Anteia, supervised the packing up of their entire household for the trip to Argos.

Tiryns seemed like a nice place, but Perseus wasn’t sure he wanted to call it home, and he spent many weeks just exploring the territory all around the city, letting his advisers run the city in his absence.

Once, when he was out riding, he realized that he wasn’t going to be able to return to Tiryns before nightfall.  Instead, he went looking for a place to stay.  Surely, he thought, there would be a small village, or at least a farmstead, but as he rode and rode, he found nothing but wilderness.

Eventually, he decided to settle down for the night near a stream at the base of a hill.  At least he would have water in the morning!

When the sun rose, Perseus went for a walk near the stream, to look for something to eat.  On top of the hill, he found a few edible mushrooms, and as he was eating them, he gazed at the hilltop.  It was wide and there were many craggy cliffs nearby to provide natural defense.

“This would be an excellent place for a city,” Perseus said to himself.  “I could build a much finer city here than in Tiryns…”

After finishing his meager breakfast, Perseus returned to Tiryns, but that hilltop continued to eat at him.  He wanted to live there, not where he was.  He wanted to build a city there that would be finer than any other city in Hellas; he wanted to build a city that would surpass all the cities in Phoenicia, and rival the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians.

He tried to tell himself that such fantasies were mere vanity, and forget them, but the notion still plagued his dreams.

When Andromeda arrived in Tiryns, it had been a full year since Perseus left Phoenicia.  He was so delighted to see his beautiful wife again that Perseus didn’t even notice until the next morning that she hadn’t brought their son with her.

“My mother convinced me that it was too dangerous to travel with such a small child,” Andromeda explained.  “I hated leaving him behind, but…well, perhaps it’s for the best.  He won’t remember us when he grows up, so it won’t pain him to be parted from us.”

Perseus nodded, and kissed her sweetly.  “We’ll just have to hurry and have more children so you won’t be lonely,” he said.

“Is my husband planning on leaving me alone again?” Andromeda asked, with a teasing smile.

Perseus promised her he was never going to leave her alone again, and kissed her again.

By the time Andromeda had been in Tiryns for several days, Perseus had told her everything that had happened to him in the year they had been apart, and Andromeda had told him everything that had happened to her in that year, though most of hers was more about Perses than anything else.

“Let’s ride out to that hill,” Perseus suggested one day.  “I want to show it to you.”

“The one where you want to build your fabulous city on a hill?” Andromeda giggled.

“Yes, that one.  I know it would make a much better location than this!”

Perseus had the stables prepare a horse for them, and they rode out to the hill, where they were stunned to see several gigantic men building walls with enormous stones.

Perseus dismounted from the horse some distance away, and told Andromeda to wait there, and to ride back to Tiryns as quickly as she could if anything happened to him.  He approached the huge men warily, ready to draw his sword if need be.  “Who are you?” he called out as he drew near.  “What are these walls you’re building?”

One of the men turned away from his work — though the others continued without pause — and Perseus was shocked to see that he had but one enormous eye in the center of his forehead.  “Your father sent us here to build the walls of your city for you,” the Cyclops explained.  “We don’t usually get to leave the forge where we make his thunderbolts, so we were glad to do it.”

“My father…” Perseus repeated, astonished.  It had been two years, after all, since the last time the gods had done anything for him, and he had thought that surely it would never happen again.  It was hard to know how to react!  “It…he didn’t need to do that…men can build walls…ah, I’m sorry, I….Thank you.  Thank you for your kindness, and please tell my father that I’m very grateful for this — no, for everything he’s done for me.”

The Cyclops laughed.  “See, that’s why he’s always looking out for you.  Most mortals…well, the less said about most mortals, the better.”  All three Cyclopes roared with laughter, even as the third returned to work.

Unsure what else to do, Perseus watched as the Cyclopes finished the walls of his new city, then thanked them once more as they departed back to the immortal forge where they usually worked.

After taking a tour of the empty walls, Perseus and Andromeda settled in to sleep in their shelter, as it was now quite late.  In the morning, they returned to Tiryns, and Perseus announced that he had founded a new city nearby, and his court would be moving there, but the city needed people to fill it.  Any man of Tiryns who had extra sons was asked to consider sending one to the new city, and messengers were sent to the nearby cities, asking them, too, to send their extra population.

Then Perseus and Andromeda led the way back to the new city, which Perseus had decided to name “Mycenae.”

The Cyclopean walls were soon filled with mortal-made buildings, and Mycenae flourished into the most powerful city in Hellas under Perseus’ kindly rule.  He and Andromeda had many more children, and lived a long, happy and peaceful life together.

Phew.  Finally finished!  BTW, there are almost no traditions regarding Perseus’ death.  There was one reported in Early Greek Myth, but it was a late and odd tradition that didn’t really square with most of the other Perseus myths.  He seems to be the only one of the major heroes who simply lived “happily ever after.”  Pity he’s the first of the major heroes instead of the last.  (It would make a chronological compendium of myths a more satisfying read if the last hero got to have a happy ending.  Although, I suppose, if one makes Odysseus the last of the heroes then he can have a happy ending, depending on which of the myriad versions of his death you decide to go with…)

Anyway, the only version in EGM regarding the building of the walls of Mycenae had the Cyclopes simply arriving in Argos with Perseus and Andromeda, with no explanation of why or how they came to be traveling with the pair.  Even though this is kind of coming the heck out of nowhere, I thought it made more sense.  Oh, and the deal with the mushrooms was because that’s one of the “etymologies” of the name Mycenae.  (Later Greek writers liked to try to figure out the etymological origins of names.  Their false etymology for the name “Achilleus” (which is almost certainly pre-Greek) is particularly famous, for example.  They also liked to assign namesake mythological characters, like Perses as the ancestor of the Persians, Medus (son of Medea) as ancestor of the Medes, and Rhoma as the ancestress of the Romans, or at least namesake of the city.  (The latter being among the tales adopted and repeated by the Romans themselves, at least in the pre-Aeneid days.))

There are a lot of versions of the death of Acrisios, but they all follow the pattern of “Perseus accidentally killing him while competing in games.”  Sometimes he knows his grandfather and has made up with him — as in my version — and sometimes it’s a complete shock to him to find out that it was his grandfather he just accidentally killed.  I went with the combination of events that seemed to flow best.  (Though I admit that I don’t know if there was ever a version that had Acrisios preparing to name one of his nephews as his heir, but there is a version that has Perseus ask Proitos if he can trade kingdoms with him, because in all versions, Perseus doesn’t want to inherit the throne of the grandfather he had personally killed.)


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