Daniel Ogden’s Perseus (review)

Last year, I reviewed Emma Stafford’s book on the hero Heracles. Daniel Ogden has written another book in the same series, published in 2008, that in a comparable way deals exhaustively with Perseus. Curiously enough, it’s one of the few monographs on this hero and, as the blurb explains, ‘the first scholarly book in English devoted to Perseus’ myth in its entirety for over a century.’

The first part, ‘Why Perseus?’, contains a single chapter, ‘Introducing Perseus’. Ogden suggests that Perseus has had a more or less continuous history from ca. 700 BC to the present day. His story seems archetypical in its basic outline, and the slaying of the sea-monster to save Andromeda recalls St George’s rescue of Sabra from the dragon.

The core of the book is formed by chapters 2 through 5, grouped together under the heading ‘Key themes’. Chapter 2 deals with ‘The family saga’, focusing on the impregnation of Danaë, the history of Acrisius and his feud with Proetus, Perseus’ childhood and his time on Seriphos, and so forth. This chapter also deals with an obscure war – first reported in traditions of the fourth century BC – that Perseus once waged against the god Dionysus, and even managed to kill the god!

Chapter 3 deals with ‘Medusa and the gorgons’, what we may regard as the core of the Perseus story. The origin of the Medusa quest is dealt with exhaustively across six pages: just why did Perseus go out to find and kill a gorgon? In this chapter, Ogden also discusses the importance of female groups in the Perseus myth (not just the gorgons, but also the Graeae, etc.), and spends some time comparing Perseus with Bellerophon and Jason.

Naturally, chapter 4 focuses on that other important element in the Perseus myth, namely ‘Andromeda and the sea-monster’. The earliest evidence for this part of the story dates to the first half of the sixth century BC and is thus more than a century younger than the earliest evidence for the quest for Medusa’s head. This would strengthen the case, put forward in an earlier blog post, that the adventures with Andromeda were later and perhaps not originally part of the Perseus myth, but Ogden doesn’t draw this conclusion. But Ogden does discuss other aspects, such as the fact that Ethiopian Andromeda is always singled out as white in skin colour (pp. 85–87), and the earliest evidence for Perseus’ use of Medusa’s head to defeat the sea-monster (pp. 92–93).

‘The use and abuse of Perseus’ is the subject of chapter 5. Here, Ogden focuses on how Perseus and the Perseus story was (ab)used in ancient times by various individuals, social groups, and even entire city-states and kingdoms. Naturally, Perseus loomed large in the Argolid, where he either founded or fortified Mycenae and Midea. But Perseus was also important in other cities, in Athens as well as Sparta, and of course on the island of Seriphos. The Persians were supposedly the descendants of one of Perseus’ sons, Perses. Later, the Macedonians and Romans also laid claim to the hero.

The final part of the book is called ‘Perseus afterwards’, and chapter 6 deals with ‘Perseus after Antiquity’. Reception and re-use of the Perseus story is the major theme here, but those interested in storytelling will be largely drawn, I suspect, to the parallels between Perseus and St George. Discussion of Clash of the Titans (1981), which Ogden considers ‘generally worthy’, is sadly relegated to a single foot note (page 160 n. 11).

The book’s one-page conclusion, ‘The personality of Perseus’, opens with the line that ‘Perseus is an easy hero to admire, but a hard one to like’ (p. 145). The reason for this Ogden attributes – fairly, I think – to his apparent lack of personality. He is, in Ogden’s words, ‘a cypher action-hero.’ He does not suffer much in the way of hardship, accomplishes everything that he sets out to do, and finally settles down to lead a comfortable life with Andromeda. This contrasts starkly with, for example, the rollercoaster of a life led by Heracles, or even the conundrums faced by Perseus’ father-in-law Cepheus or even his grandfather Acrisius.

Appendices with literary sources for the Perseus cycle and a family tree, extensive notes, suggestions for further reading and a more traditional bibliography, as well as an index, round out the book.  All in all, this is an excellent reference work on Perseus. If you have any interest at all in this, perhaps the earliest and most archetypical of all ancient Greek heroes, then you should try to find yourself a copy.

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