Literature Study GuidesMythologyPart 3 Chapter 1 Summary

Mythology | Study Guide

Edith Hamilton

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Mythology | Part 3, Chapter 1 : Perseus | Summary



King Acrisius of Argos fears his daughter Danaë is having a son because the child is prophesied to one day kill Acrisius, so he shuts her in an underground room with a roof open to the sky. Zeus visits her in the form of a golden rain, and Perseus is born. When Acrisius learns of his grandson, he sets Danaë and the baby adrift at sea in a great chest, hoping they will die without his having to kill them. They drift to a distant island where a fisherman named Dictys and his wife offer them refuge.

When Perseus is grown, Dictys's brother Polydectes, the island's ruler, falls in love with Danaë. To get her son out of the way, Polydectes announces his intention to marry, and Perseus, embarrassed he has no wedding gift, announces he will bring Polydectes the head of the Gorgon Medusa, whose face can turn men to stone.

The task seems impossible, but Hermes and Athena assist Perseus. Hermes sends Perseus to the Gray Women—three sisters who share one eye—who can tell him how to find the nymphs of the North. The nymphs, in turn, give Perseus the items he needs to defeat Medusa: winged sandals, a magic bag that will change size to fit its contents, and a hat that makes the wearer invisible. Along with an unbreakable sword from Hermes and a mirrored shield from Athena, Perseus travels to the Gorgons' island. Using the shield's mirror so he doesn't risk looking at Medusa, and with Athena and Hermes guiding his sword, Perseus takes Medusa's head and places it in the magic bag. The cap allows him to escape the other Gorgons unseen.

As he returns home, Perseus crosses Ethiopia and rescues a woman named Andromeda, chained to a rock by the sea as a sacrifice to a sea serpent because her mother, Cassiopeia, offended the gods by boasting about her beauty. Perseus beheads the sea serpent when it comes for Andromeda and wins her hand in marriage.

When Perseus returns home, he finds his mother and Dictys have fled and hidden from Polydectes. Perseus goes to Polydectes's hall and draws Medusa's head from his bag, turning Polydectes and his courtiers to stone. The islanders are glad to be free of Polydectes and make Dictys their king. Perseus, Danaë, and Andromeda return to Greece to see if Acrisius has changed his ways. Perseus takes part in an athletic contest hosted by the king of Larissa. Perseus throws a discus that swerves into the spectators and kills Acrisius. Perseus and Andromeda live "happily ever after" and their son Electryon becomes Hercules's grandfather. Athena takes Medusa's head and places it on Zeus's shield, the aegis. The Gorgon's head is symbolic of the conjoining of opposites—two facial profiles pressed against each other (horn-locked), which together present a symmetrical frontal face. This "glory face" shows up in both Hindu India and in ancient China.


As the son of a god—Zeus, no less—Perseus is destined to become a hero. Like Jason in the Quest of the Golden Fleece (Part 2, Chapter 3), Perseus's heroic journey follows many of the phases common to all heroes as outlined by the classical scholar Joseph Campbell. Like Jason, Perseus readily accepts the Call to Adventure, even though he stumbles into his quest through the combination of a king's treachery and overcompensation for a moment of social awkwardness at a fake engagement party. Unlike Jason, Perseus engages in his quest without the assistance of other mortals. He receives assistance from the gods, another typical feature of the hero's journey, and conquers a series of obstacles to obtain the object of his quest—Medusa's head. On the way home, Perseus faces a final obstacle common to most heroes' journeys, and he obtains another reward, a beautiful wife. Like other heroes, Perseus puts things to right in his home kingdom and unwittingly avenges his grandfather's treatment of his mother.

As a hero, Perseus embodies the valuable ideals of physical perfection, strength, and daring. He contrasts sharply with his predecessor, Jason, in his approach to personal relationships, however. Jason's relationships—with women, in particular—appear to be driven primarily by what Jason stands to gain from them. Perseus focuses on service to others. Perseus does not know Polydectes has designs on his mother when he volunteers to fetch Medusa's head; he only wants to give the king an impressive wedding gift. Perseus does not know he will marry Andromeda when he rescues her; he rescues Andromeda because it is the noble thing to do. When he returns home, he defeats Polydectes, not out of spite or revenge for Polydectes sending him on a dangerous quest, but to help his mother and the man who helped raise him.

The two kings in the story, Polydectes and Acrisius, demonstrate the abuse of power common to many of the monarchs who appear in myths. Acrisius tortures his daughter by imprisoning her and attempts to kill her and her young child out of fear of losing his power. He also carries out his attempt to kill his descendants in a uniquely cowardly manner, setting them adrift at sea with little hope of survival, while he is able to delude himself that his hands are clean. Polydectes is similarly sneaky and cowardly in his attempt to dispatch Perseus. He cannot kill Perseus outright or have him killed because Polydectes still wants to earn Danaë's favor, so he tricks Perseus into volunteering for an impossible quest. That both of these men meet their ends at Perseus's hands offers an important lesson about treachery: it always comes home to roost.

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