King Acrisius of Argos has a stunningly beautiful daughter but wants a son, so he prays to the gods. Apollo tells him not only that Acrisius will never have a son, but also that the son of his daughter will kill him. The only way to fully prevent this prophecy would be to kill his daughter, Danae, but Acrisius fears what the gods would do to him. Instead, he imprisons Danae in a bronze house without a roof and guards her carefully.
Arcisius does not expect, however, that Zeus will come to her and impregnate her. Perseus is born, and after Acrisius discovers the baby, he puts Perseus and Danae in a box and sets it out in the ocean. Luckily (or thanks to Zeus), the box washes up on a small island, where a kind fisherman named Dictys takes Danae and Perseus in. They live happily until Dictys's brother, King Polydectes, falls in love with Danae and decides to get rid of her son. Polydectes convinces Perseus to kill the Medusa, a horrifying beast with snakes for hair. But this feat seems impossible because whoever looks at the snakes will turn instantly to stone.
Hermes gives Perseus guidance and a sword stronger than the Medusa's scales. He tells Perseus that to fight the Medusa Perseus will need special equipment from the Nymphs of the North. Their location is a mystery, and Perseus must ask the Gray Women, three sisters who live in a gray land and are gray themselves. They share only one eye among the three, and they alternate using it. Before Perseus sets out to find them, Athena gives him her shield and tells him that he must look at the Medusa through the shield, like a mirror, in order to avoid turning to stone.
Perseus finds the Gray Women and steals the eyeball, holding it hostage in exchange for the location of the Nymphs of the North. Hermes helps Perseus travel there, where he finds a land of happy people, always banqueting and celebrating. They give him his three gifts: winged sandals, a magic wallet that changes to the size of whatever its contents, and, most important of all, a magic cap that will turn whoever wears it invisible.
With Hermes and Athena at his side, Perseus finds and kills Medusa. He puts the head in his wallet and flies, invisible, back toward his mother. On the way, he passes a beautiful woman chained to a rock, Andromeda, and falls in love with her instantly. She was chained there because her foolish mother had thought herself more beautiful than any goddess, so as punishment the gods told her to chain her daughter to a rock, where she would be eaten by a serpent. Perseus kills the serpent and takes Andromeda home.
When he returns to the island, he discovers that Danae and Dictys have gone into hiding because Danae will not marry Polydectes. The evil king, meanwhile, is hosting a banquet with all his supporters. Perseus barges in and holds up the head of Medusa. Unable to look away in time, all the men turn to stone. Perseus finds his mother, makes Dictys king, and marries Andromeda.
Optimistic, Perseus and Danae return to Argos to find her father, King Acrisius. They hope that his heart has warmed since he put them in a box out to sea, but when they reach Argos they realize that he fled the land. One day, Perseus competes in a discus-throwing contest. His disc veers far to the side and lands on a spectator in the crowd, killing him instantly. This is Acrisius, in fulfillment of Apollo's prophecy.
This famous tale underscores the inescapable nature of fate and prophecies in the course of telling a hero's story. Although Acrisius took drastic action to change destiny, short of killing his own daughter he can do nothing to prevent his fate. Perseus is too strong to be kept down and on an island, so it is fitting that his fate is to go on adventures and quests and to be helped by gods. He fits the heroic model of an honorable man overcoming all obstacles to reunite his family and do justice.
It is interesting to note that the story does not indicate whether fate or Zeus guided Perseus's box to the island. As in the Creation of Earth, the reader must wonder who is in charge. Is there a difference between fate and Zeus, and if so, what is that boundary? Who controls Zeus's fate?
To the extent that Zeus does help Perseus, the story also illustrates the benefits that come with honorable behavior. Zeus, Hermes, and Athena all help Perseus at critical moments, allowing him to successfully complete his missions. Perseus, of course, contributes to his own success as well.
Hospitality again proves to be beloved by the gods: Dictys, the fisherman, becomes king. In this way, the story highlights that great people can have humble beginnings. Baucis and Philemon, the most clear examples of humble hospitality, share with Dictys a selflessness that ultimately the gods reward. The gods shower these humble characters with material wealth, but why? If humility and selflessness are important, why would physical wealth be the appropriate reward? Perhaps the answer lies in the context of such physical wealth and what it means to the characters.
As Perseus deals with the Gray Women, we see the imaginative nature of Greek mythology. These distinct characters, sharing one eye, all shades of gray, last in the reader's mind and expand the universe which the mythology depicts. Moreover, when Perseus actually defeats them, the story underscores the recurring theme of human ingenuity.
Perseus, of course, stands as a premiere example of Greek heroism. He overcomes all obstacles to defend his family and exact revenge. He proves honorable and valiant, calm and clever. As he fights for his mother's respect and hopes for his estranged father's love, he values family and loyalty above all else.
Medusa, by contrast, is one of the most famous mythical beings. In her case, it is not beauty but ugliness that causes problems for the observer. She is so terrible that one direct look at her turns a person to stone. Medusa is a direct contrast to the many beautiful characters (Adonis, Narcissus) who appear throughout the tales.
In this story, as in other tales of heroes, the Greek myths become adventure tales with unforgettable drama, high stakes, and imaginative characters. Such adventures and quests make eachstory live on throughout time as astounding literature that captures our imagination.