The Birth of Perseus: The Greek Myth of Danae and the Shower of Gold

Danae and the Golden Shower

Danae by Henri Fantin Latour (1836-1904)
Danae by Henri Fantin Latour (1836-1904) | Source

Who was Perseus?

Perseus was one of the greatest and most famous heroes of Greek mythology. He is best remembered for his winged sandals, a gift from the god Hermes that enabled him to fly through the air, for his slaying the snaky-haired Medusa, and for rescuing the princess Andromeda who was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a sea monster.

The story of Perseus' birth and exile from his native city and his eventual return also exemplifies an important ancient Greek idea about Fate; that what is destined to happen will find a way of coming to pass however much a mortal tries to avoid it. Often in fact it will be those very actions that will cause that fate to come to pass.

The story of Danae's cruel treatment at the hands of her father in his effort to avoid his fate, her survival and that of the baby Perseus is the first adventure in the life of the hero and one crucial to understanding later events in his story.


The Fatal Prophecy

Acrisius, King of the Greek city of Argos and his wife, Eurydice (or Aganippe, according to another source) had a daughter called Danae. As the years passed, however, Acrisius fathered no sons and became concerned about the lack of a male heir. Eventually, he consulted an oracle for advice about the matter. The oracle warned him that his daughter Danae would bear him a grandson who would one day grow up to kill him.

Frightened by the prophecy and determined to prevent it from coming to pass, King Acrisius had a bronze chamber constructed under the earth with only a narrow grating at the top. There he imprisoned his luckless daughter in the hope that this would prevent any man from ever fathering a son upon her.

Greek krater 450-425 BCE showing Danae and the shower of gold. From the Louvre Museum.
Greek krater 450-425 BCE showing Danae and the shower of gold. From the Louvre Museum. | Source
Titian, 1545-6, National Museum of  Capodimonte, Naples.
Titian, 1545-6, National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples. | Source
Klimpt, 1907, private collection.
Klimpt, 1907, private collection. | Source

Zeus, Danae and the Golden Shower

Nothing, however, can be kept hidden from Zeus, King of the Gods. Discovering the beautiful young woman in her lonely prison, he was seized with desire for her. Turning himself into a shower of golden rain, Zeus poured through the grating and was joined with Danae. This story has fascinated a great many artists over the centuries from ancient Greek vase painters, to Titian in the Renaissance and to Klimpt and beyond, making it a favourite subject for paintings.

In time, Danae gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Perseus. When her father Acrisius discovered that, despite all his precautions, his daughter had given birth to a son he was both alarmed and very angry. Ignoring her protests that she had been visited by the god, he locked his daughter and his baby grandson into a wooden chest and set it to drift out to sea. In that way, he could feel very sure of them both drowning without taking on the guilt of killing them directly.

Danae and Perseus Reach Seriphos

For a long time, Danae and her baby Perseus were tossed about on the waves inside the chest, until eventually they drifted close to the little island of Seriphos on the Aegean Sea.

By chance, a fisherman called Dictys spotted the chest floating on the waves and managed to drag it ashore with his net. Opening it, Dictys discovered Danae and her baby still alive. In this way, Perseus the son of Zeus and Danae his mother were saved, despite all the efforts of King Acrisius to cheat the prophecy which still hung in the future.

Later, Danae came to the attention of Polydectes, King of Seriphos. He treated her badly, enslaving her and exerting pressure on her to consent to marriage. The young Perseus came to manhood at Polydectes' court where he soon learned to resent the King and did his best to stop him from harassing his mother. This was to lead to the start of his adventures.

Danae by John William Waterhouse, 1892
Danae by John William Waterhouse, 1892 | Source

The Descendants of Danae

Danae has an important genealogical role in Greek Mythology. An ancient name for the Greeks of Argos was Danaans (a term often used in Homer to refer to all the Greeks) as they recognised Danae as an ancestor. Danae was also the great great grandmother of the hero Heracles.

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Comments 2 comments

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 4 years ago from Wakefield, West Yorkshire,UK

Nicely written article, thank you. Amazing how Zeus had that wondrous ability to change into creature and element. His transformations always have me spellbound. Now I want to know if Perseus gained his revenge on his father - or was Zeus indestructible?


SarahLMaguire profile image

SarahLMaguire 4 years ago from UK Author

Thank you, glad you enjoyed it.

Yes, bulls, swans, showers of gold his ingenuity had no end...

There will be some scores to settle once Perseus grows up, but Zeus as a target is a bit ambitious even for him!

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