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Myth Monday - How Perseus Fits In

By July 16, 2012

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Image ID: 1624087  [Perseus engaged in combat] (1862-1864)

The Hero Who Looks Away

Image ID: 1624087 [Perseus [left; still wearing a special helmet, here with wings] engaged in combat] (1862-1864)
© NYPL Digital Gallery

Perseus is a very popular hero these days, appearing in the remade Clash of the Titans now showing up on television and its 2012 sequel Wrath of the Titans, as well as being the name of the hero of the Riordan series.

Leaving Thebes

Last week's Myth Monday looked at an offshoot (Narcissus) of the Theban complex in which Tiresias kept uttering devastating oracular wisdom. Among other momentous happenings at Thebes, Dionysus had arrived there -- at his ancestral home. A new god, freshly back from India, he was having trouble getting recognition, especially among his family members. Having set his family straight and established his rites, he set off to gain adherents elsewhere.

Worshipers of Hera and Dionysus

Dionysus' trouble continued beyond the mainland Greek borders of Boeotia (remember: that's where Thebes is located), across the Gulf of Corinth and into the nearby Peloponnesian city of Argos, where there was a special sanctuary to Hera.

There, in some versions of the story, Perseus ruled at the time when Dionysus came calling to demand worshipers. Like Dionysus' aunts, described in Dionysus, Dismemberment, and the Origin of Humans, those women who refused the ecstatic god, wound up destroying their own babies.

Sons of Zeus - Sibling Rivalry?

Although sharing as father the king of the gods, the two top men currently at Argos had uneven power: Dionysus was a god, but Perseus was only mortal, albeit blessed with divine favor and gifts like the winged sandals, and impelled by Hera's almost predictable, implacable hatred of her husband's by-blows. (Perhaps Hera's anger is not directed at Perseus because he is host of her special city; perhaps she has other motives for directing her anger only at Dionysus at this point.) Despite their imbalance, the siblings fought without fatality to either, ending their family fight amicably through the help of another half-brother, Hermes.

This outcome may surprise the reader because it came despite the report that Perseus had used his Medusa-head to lithify or a spear to transfix Dionysus' mortal wife, Ariadne. You may remember her as the Minotaur's sister whom Theseus had seduced, used, and abandoned. [See: Theseus Returns From Crete.]

Ancient Accounts of Perseus, Dionysus, and Ariadne

Here are some of the passages related to the intersection of the adventures of Dionysus, Ariadne, and Perseus, from passages by the second century A.D. Greek Pseudo-Apollodorus, the second century A.D. Greek travel writer Pausanias, and the 4-5th century A.D. Greek epic writer of Dionysiaca, Nonnus, in Theoi:

Apollodorus

[3.5.2] Having traversed Thrace and the whole of India and set up pillars there, he came to Thebes, and forced the women to abandon their houses and rave in Bacchic frenzy on Cithaeron. But Pentheus, whom Agave bore to Echion, had succeeded Cadmus in the kingdom, and he attempted to put a stop to these proceedings. And coming to Cithaeron to spy on the Bacchanals, he was torn limb from limb by his mother Agave in a fit of madness; for she thought he was a wild beast. And having shown the Thebans that he was a god, Dionysus came to Argos, and there again, because they did not honor him, he drove the women mad, and they on the mountains devoured the flesh of the infants whom they carried at their breasts.

Pausanias Description of Greece 1. 23. 7 - 8:

"They say that the god [Dionysos], having made war on Perseus, afterwards laid aside his enmity, and received great honors at the hands of the Argives, including this precinct set specially apart for himself. It was afterwards called the precinct of Kres (the Kretan), because, when Ariadne died, Dionysos buried her here. But Lykeas says that when the [new] temple [of Dionysos] was being rebuilt an earthenware coffin was found, and that it was Ariadne's. He also said that both he himself and other Argives had seen it."

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 23. 7 - 8:

"The Argives have other things worth seeing [in their town]; for instance . . . [the] temple of Kretan Dionysos. For they say that the god, having made war on Perseus, afterwards laid aside his enmity, and received great honors at the hands of the Argives, including this precinct set specially apart for himself. It was afterwards called the precinct of the Kretan god, because, when Ariadne died, Dionysos buried her here. But Lykeas says that when the temple was being rebuilt an earthenware coffin was found, and that it was Ariadne's. He also said that both he himself and other Argives had seen it."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 665 ff:

"[Perseus, king of Argos, battles the armies of Dionysos:] He [Perseus] shook in his hand the deadly face of Medousa [i.e. the decapitated head of the Gorgon Medusa], and turned armed Ariadne into stone. Bakkhos [Dionysos] was even more furious when he saw his bride all stone . . .
[Hermes descends upon the battlefield and addresses Dionysos:] 'She [Ariadne] has died in battle, a glorious fate, and you ought to think Ariadne happy in her death, because she found one so great [Perseus] to slay her, one sprung from heaven and of no mortal stock, one who killed the Keteos (Seamonster) and beheaded horsebreeding Medousa. The Moirai's (Fates') threads obey not persuasion . . . And your bride even in death shall enter the starspangled sky, and she will be seen near Maia my mother among the seven travelling Pleiades. What could Ariadne wish more welcome than to live in the heavens and give light to the earth, after Krete? Come no, lay down your thyrsus, let the winds blow battle away, and fix the selfmade image of mortal Ariadne where the image of heavenly Hera stands.'"

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 25. 104 ff:

"[Perseus, king of Argos, battles the armies of Dionysos:] [The River] Inakhos was witness to both [Perseus and Dionysos], when the heavy bronze pikes of Mykenai (Mycenae) resisted the ivy and deadly fennel, when Perseus sickle in hand gave way to Bakkhos with his wand, and fled before the fury of Satyroi cyring Euoi; Perseus cast a raging spear, and hit frail Ariadne unarmed instead of Lyaios the warrior. I do not admire Perseus for killing one woman, in her bridal dress still breathing of love."

Nonnus, Dionysiaca 48. 530 ff:

"The soul of dead Ariadne borne on the wind came, and beside Dionysos sleeping sound, stood jealous after death, and spoke in the words of a dream: 'Dionysos, you have forgotten your former bride: you long for Aura, and you care not for Ariadne. O my own Theseus, whom the bitter wind stole! O my own Theseus, whom Phaidra [Ariadne's sister] got for husband! I suppose it was fated that a perjured husband must always run from me, if the sweet boy left me while I slept, and I was married instead to Lyaios, an inconstant lover and a deceiver. Alas, that I had not a mortal husband, one soon to die; then I might have armed myself against lovemad Dionysos and been one of the Lemnian women myself. But after Theseus, now I must call you too a perjured bridegroom, the invader of many marriage beds. If your bride asks you for a gift, take this distaff at my hands, a friendly gift of love, that you may give your mountaineering bride what your Minoian wife gave you; then people can say--"She gave the thread to Theseus, and the distaff to Dionysos." You are just like Kronion changing from bed to bed, and you have imitated the doings of your womanmad father, having an insatiable passion for changing your loves. I know how you lately married your Sithonian wife Pallene, and your wedding with Althaia: I will say nothing of the love of Kronois, from whose bed were born the three Kharites (Charites, Graces) ever inseparable. But O Mykenai, proclaim my fate and the savage glare of Medousa! Shores of Naxos cry aloud of Ariadne's lot, constrained to a hateful love, and say, "O bridegroom Theseus, Minos's daughter calls you in anger against Dionysos!" But why do I think of Kekropia? To her of Paphos, I carry my plaint against them both, Theseus and Dionysos!'
She spoke, and her shade flew away like shadowy smoke. Bold Bakkhos awoke and shook off the wing of Hypnos (Sleep). He lamented the sorrow of Ariadne in his dream."

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?
  22. Pandora's Box
  23. Achilles and His Heel
  24. Hercules and His Labors
  25. The First Humans
  26. The Death of Pentheus
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