The tale of Perseus is one of the most famous in all Greek mythology. He is thought to be the oldest of all the Greek heroes, coming before Theseus, Heracles, Odysseus, and the rest. His story was recorded by many major Greek historians like Apollodorus and Pausanias. The Roman poet, Ovid, also included a version of Perseus' tale in his famous epic poem The Metamorphoses.
Fascination with Perseus' battle with Medusa continued long after ancient Greek and Roman times. Over the years, many famous artists have taken on the subject. Antonio Canova, Benvenuto Cellini, Edward Burne Jones, Paul Reubens, and more have created paintings or sculptures based on the story of Perseus and Medusa. (Psst. Check out our Photos tab for some examples.)
The story has continued to be popular even today. In 1981, it was turned into a movie called Clash of the Titans, which featured the amazing stop-motion animation of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. Clash of the Titans was remade in 2010 starring Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Gemma Arterton, among other Hollywood stars.
The story of Perseus and Medusa is a classic quest. Perseus leaves home with a mission – to get Medusa's head – and returns when he's completed the task. We bet you know lots of quest stories, like The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo leaves the Shire on a mission to dump the One Ring into Mount Doom, and then returns home again when he's succeeded. Since Perseus' story is a such a traditional quest, it makes sense that Perseus starts out at home (the island of Seriphus), leaves to embark on his adventures, and then returns home to Seriphus when he's achieved his goal.
Seriphus is an island in the Aegean Sea. This sea is a part of the Mediterranean that separates Greece and Turkey. Perseus' adventures take him to some distant, mythical places, including the home of the Graeae, the home of the Nymphai, and the cave of the Gorgons. Perseus even flies over Africa, where he happens upon the Princess Andromeda. Because he journeys to so many far off places, his adventures seem very epic.
The Hero's Journey is a framework that scholar Joseph Campbell came up with that many myths and stories follow. Many storytellers and story-readers find it a useful way to look at tale. (That's actually putting it lightly. Some people are straight-up obsessed.) Chris Vogler adapted Campbell's 17 stages of a hero's journey, which many screenwriters use while making movies. Vogler condensed Campbell's 17 stages down to 12, which is what we're using. To read a general explanation of the 12 stages, click here.
Perseus' story doesn't fit perfectly into the Hero's Journey structure, but we're giving it a shot. As the gross old saying goes, there's more than one way to skin a cat. Here's how we've diced up the story:
We start the story on the island of Seriphus, the home of Perseus and his pretty mother Danae. Though Perseus doesn't know it yet, Polydectes, the king of Seriphus, has the hots for Danae, but he needs to get Perseus out of the way before he can marry her.
King Polydectes orders Perseus to bring back the head of Medusa. (That sounds like a pretty effective way to get Perseus out of the way – permanently.) Perseus accepts the challenge even though it seems like an impossible task.
There's no refusal in this story. Though he might be inwardly freaking out a bit, Perseus hops to it.
Athena and Hermes guide Perseus to the home of the Graeae and give the guy some advice.
Perseus really commits to his adventure when he blackmails the Graeae into telling him how to find the Nymphai. At this point, he has entered the mythological world of strange creatures and gods.
Perseus' main test is finding out the location of the Nymphai. To do this, he has to trick and blackmail the Graeae, which he successfully does.
Next, Perseus gains two important allies. First of all, the Nymphai loan Perseus lots of useful stuff, like Hermes' winged sandals, Hades' helmet of invisibility, and the kibisis. Second, Athena offers Perseus some great advice about how to defeat Medusa (only look at the monster through the refection on your shield). Good thing Perseus has some friends.
With his borrowed magical gear, Perseus flies off to find the Gorgons' cave. The Gorgons will certainly be his enemies.
How convenient – the Gorgons actually live in a cave. When Perseus reaches the Gorgons' lair, he's about to embark on the most dangerous part of his adventure.
Perseus finds Medusa sleeping and chops off her head. The other two Gorgons chase him, but Perseus escapes with the help of Hades' helmet of invisibility (a.k.a. Helm of Darkness).
Perseus has got Medusa's head, which is certainly a kind of reward. While flying home to Seriphus, though, he also wins Princess Andromeda's hand in marriage.
Perseus flies back home with Medusa's head packed away in his kibisis.
This stage has a kind of funny name, because it isn't necessarily about death and resurrection: "This is the climax in which the Hero must have his final and most dangerous encounter with death. The final battle also represents something far greater than the Hero's own existence with its outcome having far-reaching consequences to his Ordinary World and the lives of those he left behind" (source).
What's at stake for Perseus is his mom's freedom. Perseus' last battle is with King Polydectes, who has be trying to force Danae to marry him. Perseus takes care of Polydectes by using Medusa's head to turn him into stone.
Perseus has returned home and saved his mom. His quest is over. He came home with the cure to his mom's desperate situation, and now he returns his magical artifacts to the Nymphai and gives Medusa's head to Athena.
Before there was Perseus, there was Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh stars in an ancient Sumerian poem called The Epic of Gilgamesh. In one episode, we hear all about how King Gilgamesh (who, like Perseus, is part god) sets off to destroy the evil demi-god, Humbaba. Just like Medusa, Humbaba is beheaded, and his head is stuffed into a sack.
You can read the full Epic of Gilgamesh here.
Beowulf is an epic Anglo-Saxon poem about a monster-slaying Viking hero named Beowulf. Sounds a bit like Perseus, right? In this story, Beowulf takes on two monsters: Grendel and then Grendel's mom. Grendel's mom turns out to be the harder monster to kill. This also links Beowulf and Perseus: both slay female monsters.
Psst. You can read a lot more about Beowulf on Shmoop. Just click here.
Believe it or not, pictures and carvings of Medusa's severed head were incredibly popular throughout the ancient world. The image of Medusa's snake-haired, sneering face was called the Gorgoneion, and it was plastered all over the place. The actual head of Medusa was even said to be on the shield of Athena.
In general, the Gorgoneion was a symbol of warning. It was emblazoned on warriors' shields to intimidate the enemy, and it was often carved into doors to scare potential intruders. The Gorgoneion was also chiseled into the face of many buildings and may have been a pre-cursor to the ugly stone critters we know as gargoyles. Many ancient coins were also imprinted with the face of Medusa.
Some have theorized that the image of the Gorgoneion pre-dated even the story of Perseus. It's possible that the image of Medusa's severed head became so popular that, one day, someone decided to make up a story as to how the head got separated from the body. The Gorgoneion continues to be used in modern times, most prominently as the symbol of Gianni Versace's fashion company.