In the last 15 years, the Percy Jackson series has become one of the most popular book and movie franchises of our time. Fans of the series will know that Percy’s adventures mirror many of the deeds of the Greek hero Perseus, the inspiration for his character. But how well do you know the real story of Perseus and his nemesis, Medusa? In this blog post, we’ll delve into the real mythological story of Perseus and Medusa. So, take a seat and get ready to learn about gods and demi-gods, love, drama, monsters and heroes!
1. How everything began
Perseus and his mother, Danae, were happily getting on with like on the island of Scriphos. The King, Polydectes, fell in love with Danae and made it clear that he wanted to marry her. However, the jealous, strong half-god Perseus (his father was Zeus), didn’t much like the idea of the King shacking up with his mom! But, having set his sights on Danae, Polydectes was determined to have her, and didn’t intend to give up. We all know what happens when a King and a hero don’t agree on something: battles with monsters, divine encounters, struggles and life-threatening adventures are about to change Perseus’ life.
2. How did Medusa come into it?
The tricksy King Polydectes developed a cunning plan. He pretended that he had proposed to Hippodamia, another mythological figure (it seems no one thought to ask how Hippodamia felt about being used as a pawn in all this). Quite the groom-zilla, Polydectes asked all the citizens to bring a horse to their wedding. Perseus wasn’t wealthy and couldn’t afford to buy a horse (which were REALLY expensive at the time). But, pleased to think that Polydectes’ wedding meant that his mom would be left alone, he asked the King to name any other gift. Clever Polydectes said: “Bring me the head of Medusa, then!”. The King was of course aware that he was sending Perseus straight to death. After all, Medusa could turn people to stone just by looking at them!
3. Who doesn’t need some divine help?
Travelling was harder before Google Maps. Perseus looked for Medusa for several days and couldn’t find her. But, luckily for him, some gods were about to descend from Olympus and to offer some help. Athena and Hermes gave him directions and some powerful accessories which would prove necessary to kill Medusa: the bronze shield of Athena and the sickle of Hermes. Perseus then stopped to meet the nymphs of the north who gave him a pair of winged sandals to fly, a magic bag to contain the head of Medusa, and, crucially, a Cap of Invisibility from Hades, King of the Underworld.
4. Perseus and Medusa’s fight
Now that he had all the necessary tools, Perseus put the cap of invisibility over his head, and approached Medusa. Carefully looking at the snake-haired monster through her reflection on Athena’s shield (remember, he had to avoid her gaze), Perseus raised the sickle and cut off her head. Afterwards, aware that Medusa’s head was still powerful, he quickly put it in his magic bag. Finally, using his winged sandals he flew away before the sisters of Medusa, the Gorgons, could catch him. According to mythology, after hearing the lament of the mourning sisters, Athena invented the sound of the double pipe, the aulos.
5. How Perseus used the head of Medusa
After some other adventures, Perseus knew that it was time to go back to Polydectes and to gift him the head, as promised. Once there, he learnt that Polydectes had never married Hippodamia, and that the King had been busy harassing his mother since the moment he left. Perseus was, understandably, furious! But a (non-diplomatic) solution was right in his magic bag: he took the head of Medusa and her powerful eyes turned Polydectes and his friends into stone. At this point, Perseus could return the divine items to the gods and also decided to gift the head of Medusa to Athena, who placed it at the centre of her aegis (shield).
6. A very popular myth
Talking of Gorgons, did you know that there was a Greek painter known as “The Gorgon Painter”, because this is what he depicted on his most famous Dinos? This wonderful vase is part of our Treasure Hunts at the Louvre, and it shows the first example of a narrative frieze in Greek art! Before this, artists decorated their vases with unrelated subjects, all painted together with no coherence. After the Gorgon Painter, vases become a bit like books: artists could use them to recount mythological stories. Continuous Narrative is a difficult art-history term. If you’d like to explain it to your kids, check this THATKid Tuesday Post.
Perseus was such an interesting hero that some later sculptors also decided to portray him in their works. An obvious example is that of Cellini’s statue in Florence (at the Loggia del Lanzi) where we hope to expand soon! If you’ve taken part in a V&A Treasure Hunt, you may have seen a copy of Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa, in the Cast Courts.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to learn more about the subject, check out our kid-friendly art-history class about Perseus and Medusa, below. And if you’re interested in Greek mythology, we have plenty more on the subject on the blog, and over on our Instagram and Facebook pages!