Explore the etymology and symbolism of the constellations

Perseus

the Champion, the Rescuer


Urania's Mirror 1825

Read what ancient writers have written on Perseus on this Theoi Project webpage, and a profile on Perseus at Wikipedia

Zeus (Jupiter) came to Perseus' mother, Danae, in the form of a shower of gold, and impregnated her resulting in the birth of Perseus, also called Perseus Eurymedon. As a young man Perseus undertook a mission to kill the Medusa. He was furnished with the sword, cap and wings of Mercury and the shield of Minerva. He killed the Medusa by cutting off her head and afterwards killed the sea monster Cetus and then rescued and married Andromeda. Perseus founded a city, having dropped his cap or found a mushroom (both named myces) at Mycenae.

"According to star lore, the Perseid Meteor Shower commemorates the time when Zeus, the king of the gods, visited the mortal Danae in the form of a Shower of Gold" [1].

Perseid meteorite shower
The Perseid Meteor Shower. In this picture from NASA these shooting stars give the appearance of a rain-shower.

The Perseid meteorite shower, the most impressive in the sky, does not actually come from the constellation Perseus but is the rubble left behind from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, the supposed parent of the Perseids. Comet Swift-Tuttle is within our solar system and orbits the Sun roughly every 130 years. The meteors appear to flow from the constellation Perseus (hence the name Perseids) in mid-August. The shower appears as shooting stars and are composed of fireballs, grains of rocky ice, chunks of space rock or dust still flying around out in space. Aratos' (ca. 310 BC – 240 BC) characterization of Perseus as "stirring up a dust in heaven" might relate to this phenomena. Little pieces of this debris rains down onto the earth. Bruce McClure's on this Astronomy Page says; "while you’re watching the fiery show, you could be seeing the original source of water on earth. Some scientists think that the vaporization of comet ice in meteors is where water on this planet first came from".

From Roman times Perseus has been associated with Mithras (see Allen below) and Mithraism, a mystery men-only religion practiced throughout the Roman Empire. Mithras' Hindu counterpart is Mitra, one of Mitra's functions was 'bringer of rain'. In modern Hebrew, the umbrella is called a mitriyah (compare mitra and mithras), from the same root as Hebrew matar = rain, shower (the Hebrew word geshem in Scriptures is usually associated with a heavy rain) [2].

In Greek mythology Perseus undertook a mission to kill the Gorgon Medusa, the snake-haired monster who had the power of turning anyone who looked at her into stone. In the portrayal of the constellation Perseus holds Medusa's severed head under his left arm, or is sometimes depicted holding the head up by his left hand, the star Algol, or beta Perseus, is positioned on this head. An adult jellyfish is a medusa (plural: medusae), named after the Gorgon Medusa. The Medusae jelly-fish have a umbrella-shaped body called a bell. The medusa's tentacles hang from the border of the bell. Its name derives from its tentacles, resembling the snakes borne by Medusa in place of hair.

Mushrooms and umbrellas have a similar shape, and mushrooms pop up after a shower of rain:

"Perseus founded Mycenae and called the city so because on its site the cap (myces) fell from his scabbard, and he regarded this as a sign to found a city. It is also said that Perseus, being thirsty, picked up a mushroom (myces), and drinking the water that flowed from it, named the site" [3].

The hilt of Perseus' sword fell off at Mycenaea and it was taken as a omen of the location to build the city. This 'cap' had the appearance of a mushroom [4]. The reconstructed Mycenaean Greek name of the place is Mukanai, Greek mukes, mushroom, is believed to be derived from this source, hence our word mycology from the Indo-European root *meug- 'Slimy, slippery; with derivatives referring to various wet and slimy substances and conditions. Related to *meus-'. Derivatives: emunctory (an organ or duct that removes or carries waste from the body, from Latin mungere, to blow the nose). Possibly Germanic *(s)muk-, referring to wetness and also to figurative slipperiness; smock (from Old English smoc, shirt), smug (from Middle Low German smucken, to adorn < 'to make sleek'), schmuck (from Middle High German smuck, 'clothing,' adornment, jewels), muggy (from Middle English muggen, to drizzle, from a source akin to Old Norse mugga, drizzle-), smuggle (from Low German smukkelen, smuggein, to smuggle 'to slip contraband through'), mold2 (from Middle English molde, mold, from a source akin to Old Norse mjukr, mold, mildew), meek (from Old Norse mjukr, soft, from Germanic *meuk-). Variant form *meuk-; moist, mucilage, muco-, mucosa, mucus, musty, (these words from Latin mucus, mucus). Zero-grade form *muk-; -mycete, myco- (fungus), mycology (the study of fungi), mycosis, saccharomyces, streptomyces, streptomycin, (these words from Greek mukes, fungus, mushroom). Suffixed form *muk-so-, match2 (for lighting a fire, 'wick of a lamp'), myxo- (these words from Greek muxa, mucus, lamp wick <'nozzle of a lamp' < 'nostril'). [Pokorny 2. meuc 44. Watkins] Also muck, mullet (from Latin mugil, are a family, Mugilidae, of ray-finned fish), Mycteria (a genus of large tropical storks), mycteric (pertaining to cavities of nose).

The root *meug- 'Slimy, slippery', is related to the Indo-European root *meus- 'Damp; with derivatives referring to swampy ground and vegetation and to figurative qualities of wetness. Related to meug-' [Calvert Watkins, IE Roots]. Derivatives of *meus- include: moss (from Old English mos, bog), litmus (from Middle Dutch mos, moss., and from a Scandinavian source akin to Old Norse mosi, bog, moss, from Germanic *meus-, *mus-), mire (Swedish myra, Danish myre, myr, a bog, Old Norse myrr 'swamp'), quagmire (quag-mire, from Old Norse myrr, bog, from Germanic suffixed form *meuz-i-). Suffixed zero-grade form *mus-to-; must3 (fermenting juice expressed from fruit, especially grapes), mustard (from Latin mustus, new, newborn < 'wet'). Possibly suffixed zero-grade form *mus-so-; mysophobia (from Greek musos, uncleanness). [Pokorny I. meu- 741. Watkins]

Klein says the word mushroom, "from French mousseron was influenced in form by French mousse, 'moss', with which it has nothing in common".

Perseus is the Greek hero known as "the Champion" who slew the monster Medusa with a sword. The word Champion, is from Latin campus, field (of combat). The French and German word for mushroom is champignon, from Late Latin campaneus, 'pertaining to the fields', from Latin campus, field. Latin campus is the root of the following words: camp, campaign, campane, campanile, Campanula, camper, campion, Campo, campus, campylo-, champaign, champignon, champion, decamp, encamp, gamb, gamba (leg), gambol, gammon3 (ham, a side of bacon), scamp (a mischievous child), scamper, schanz, sconce ('cover'), the first element in Camponotus, Camptosorus, champerty, and the second element in elecampane, Kulturkampf. The hippocampus of the brain has a central role in memory processes and spatial orientation. Seahorses are the genus Hippocampus known for the males becoming 'pregnant'.

The Latin word for mushroom is fungus, Klein says that Latin fungus, 'mushroom, fungus', is a loan word from Attic sphoggos, from which we get the words sponge, spunk ("origin uncertain: perhaps via Irish sponc ‘tinder’ from Greek spoggia, 'sponge'").

The name Medusa and the word medicine come from the same Indo-European root; *med- (the name of the sorceress and drug-brewer Medea also comes from this root). The blood that flowed on Medusa's left side was said to be fatal poison. The blood from her right side was beneficial. The physician Aesculapius (Ophiuchus) used her blood to heal. Medusa had serpents for hair which might represent herbs and chemicals used in medicine (see Serpens). Snakes were seen as having the properties of different poisons (venom) according to their species; Isidore says "Of these animals there are as many poisons (venom) as there are kinds” [p.255.]

Some think that the name Perseus might be from the ancient Greek verb, perthein, 'to waste, ravage, sack, destroy' from the Greek verb perth-. Wikipedia on Perseus says the origin of perth- is obscure but believed to be derived from the Indo-European root *bher-, (ordinarily *bh- descends to Greek as ph-) from which Latin ferio, 'strike' derives. This corresponds to Julius Pokorny’s *bher-(3), “scrape, cut.” Listed as *bher-2 in Watkins dictionary, 'To cut, pierce, bore'. Derivatives: bore1 ('make a hole'), barrow3 (from OE bearg, barg, 'castrated pig'), burin (a steel cutting tool for scraping or carving, also called a graver), foramen (a cavity in a human or animal body), perforate (from Latin forare, to pierce, bore). Perhaps Greek pharunx, throat (< "a cutting, cleft, passage")> pharynx, Dukhobor (Russian Christian movement founded in the 18th century, from Slavic bor- to fight , to overcome). Boris (personnel name). [Pokorny 3 bher- 133. Watkins].

Wikipedia says the name Perseus is likely to be related to Latin ferio. Latin ferire is the present active infinitive of ferio. Latin forare, 'to bore', is related to ferire to strike [Miriam-Webster]. Latin ferire is the root of the second syllable in interfere;  inter- + ferir, 'to strike' (from Latin ferire). The Latin verb ferire had the basic meaning of 'to strike', and also 'to strike a bargain' [1]. Klein gives more relatives (under 'bore'): brackish, broom, foralite, and says "compare bark, 'rind of a tree', barranca, board, 'table, plank', board, 'side of a ship'.

The name 'Perseus' seems to be related to the word 'pharynx'. In astrology the beta star of Perseus, i.e. Algol, is associated with Medusa. Perseus in Greek mythology severed Medusa's head at the neck. Astrologers note how this star is associated with "beheading, suffocation, choking, injuries to the neck" [http://ye-stars.com/oldalgol.htm].

Perseus is thought to be related to the word Persian, although it is said that Perses, the son of Perseus and Andromeda, is the eponymous ancestor of the Persians. Related words are; peach, from Latin persica, 'Persian apple', and perse, the color dark grayish blue or purple.

"The Persian peach (Persicus) is so called because Perseus - from whom the Ptolemies claimed that they sprang first planted that tree in Egypt. In Persia this tree produced a deadly fruit, but in our region the fruit is pleasant and sweet" [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.343.]

“The pagans also believed that Perseus and his wife Andromeda had been received into the heavens after they died, and so they traced out their images in stars and did not blush to name these constellations after them.” [The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, 7th century AD, p.106.]

© Anne Wright 2008.

Fixed stars in Perseus
Star 1900 2000 R A Decl 2000 Lat Mag Sp
Capulus M34 NGC869 22TAU48 24TAU12 2h15m30.0s +56°55'00" +40 21 51 4.40 C
chi (χ) 22TAU53 24TAU16 3h 55m 23s +31° 2' 45" +40 45 13 6.15 G6
Algol beta (β) 24TAU46 26TAU10 3h 8m 10.1s +40° 57' 20" +22 25 22 2.10 var B8
Misam kappa (κ) 26TAU19 27TAU42 3h 9m 29.8s +44° 51' 26" +26 04 47 4.00 G8
tau (τ) 26TAU32 27TAU55 2h 54m 15.5s +52° 45' 45" +34 21 56 4.06 G1
Miram eta (η) 27TAU18 28TAU41 2h 50m 41.8s +55° 53' 44" +37 28 44 3.93 K4
iota (ι) 27TAU52 29TAU15 3h 9m 4s +49° 36' 48" +30 37 59 4.17 G1
gamma (γ) 28TAU39 00GEM02 3h 4m 47.8s +53° 30' 23" +34 31 28 3.08 F7
Atiks omicron (ο) 29TAU45 01GEM09 3h 44m 19.1s +32° 17' 18" +12 10 45 3.80 B1
Mirfak alpha (α) 00GEM41 02GEM05 3h 24m 19.4s +49° 51' 40" +30 07 12 1.90 F5
zeta (ζ) 01GEM45 03GEM08 3h 54m 7.9s +31° 53' 1" +11 19 39 2.91 B1
nu (ν) 02GEM27 03GEM50 3h 45m 11.6s +42° 34' 43" +22 08 51 3.93 F4
delta (δ) 03GEM25 04GEM48 3h 42m 55.5s +47° 47' 15" +27 17 46 3.10 B5
Menkib xi (ξ) 03GEM35 04GEM58 3h 58m 57.9s +35° 47' 28" +14 56 15 4.05 O7
epsilon (ε) 04GEM18 05GEM41 3h 57m 51.2s +40° 0' 37" +19 06 31 2.96 B1
lambda (λ) 08GEM22 09GEM45 4h 6m 35s +50° 21' 5" +28 52 49 4.33 AO
mu (μ) 09GEM25 10GEM48 4h 14m 53.9s +48° 24' 34" +26 42 03 4.28 G2

Hevelius, Firmamentum, 1690

from Star Names, 1889, Richard H. Allen

There was the knight of fair-haired Danae born, Perseus.

— Elton's translation of the Shield of Hercules.

Perseus, even amid the stars, must take

Andromeda in chains aetherial!

— Mrs. Browning's Paraphrases on Nonnus.

Perseus, the Champion, is the French Persee, the Italian Perseo, and the German Perseus, formerly was catalogued as Perseus et Caput Medusae. Perseus is shown in early illustrations as a nude youth wearing the talaria, or winged sandals, with a light scarf thrown around his body, holding in his left hand the Gorgoneion, or head of Medusa-Guberna, the mortal one of the Gorgons, and in his right the, or falx, (scythe) which he had received from Mercury. A title popular at one time, and still seen, was the Rescuer, for, according to the story, Perseus, when under obligations to furnish a Gorgon's head to Polydectes, found the Sisters asleep at the Ocean; and, using the shield of {Page 330} Minerva (Athena) as a mirror, that he might not be petrified by Medusa's (Algol) glance, cut off her head, which he then utilized in the rescue of Andromeda. Some one has written about this:

In the mirror of his polished shield

Reflected, saw Medusa slumbers take,

And not one serpent by good chance awake;

Then backward an unerring blow he sped,

And from her body lopped at once her head.

Aratos (ca. 310 BC – 240 BC) characterized the stellar hero as "stirring up a dust in heaven," either from the fact that his feet are in the celestial road, the Milky Way, or from the haste with which he is going to the rescue of Andromeda; and Manilius, describing his place in the sky, wrote:

Her Perseus joyns, her Foot his Shoulder bears

Proud of the weight, and mixes with her Stars.

His story probably was well known in Greece anterior to the 5th century B.C., for Euripides and Sophocles each wrote a drama based on Andromeda's history; and with them, as with the subsequent Greeks, he was Perseus, a word that may be derived from the Hebrew Parash, a Horseman, although Ctesias, in his Persika of about 400 B.C., had Parsondas as a stellar name from Babylonia that may be this. Parasiea, current in late Indian astronomy, is only another form of the Greek original.

Ippotes (Hippotes), the Horseman, and Profugus, the Flying One, also are titles for these stars.

Classical poets called it Pinnipes, referring to the talaria; Cyllenius, the Hero having been aided by Mercury; Abantiades and Acrisioniades, from his grandfather and father; Inachides, from a still earlier ancestor, the first king of Argos; and Deferens caput Algol, Victor Gorgonei monstri, Gorgonifer, Gorgonisue, and Deferens cathenam, from the association of Perseus with Medusa and the chain of Andromeda.

Alove probably came, by some error in transcription, from Al Ghul, more correctly applied to the star beta (Algol); while Bershawish, Fersaus, and Siaush are plainly the Arabians' orthography of the Greek title, the letter P not being found in their alphabet. They, however, commonly called it Hamil Ras al Ghul, the Bearer of the Demon's Head, which became Almirazgual in Moorish Spain, and was translated from Ulug Beg as Portans caput larvae, the same being still seen in the German Trager des Medusen Kopf.

The Celeub, Cheleub, and Chelub of the 1515 Almagest, Alfonsine Tables, and Bayer's Uranometria probably are from the Arabic Kullab, the Hero's weapon, although Grotius and others have referred them to Kalb, a Dog, which would render intelligible the occasional title Canis.

{Page 331} La Lande identified the figure with the Egyptian Khem, and with Mithras of Persia, Herodotus having asserted that Perseus, through his and Andromeda's son Perses, gave name to that country and her people, who previously were the Chephenes, as descended from Chepheus, the son of Belus, identified by some with the Cepheus of the sky. The kings of Cappadocia and of Pontus, similarly descended, represented the Hero on their coins.

Cacodaemon was the astrologers' name for this constellation, with special reference to Algol as marking the demon's head; while Schickard, Novidius, and the biblical school generally said that it was David with the head of Goliath; but others of the same kind made of it the Apostle Paul with his Sword and Book. Mrs. Jameson thought that the legend of Perseus and Cetus was the foundation of that of Saint George and the Dragon, one version making this saint to have been born at Lydda, only nine miles from Joppa, the scene of Perseus' exploit.

The constellation is 28° in length, — one of the most extended in the heavens, — stretching from the upraised hand of Cassiopeia nearly to the Pleiades, and well justifying the epithet perimeketos, "very tall," applied to it by Aratos. It offers a field of especial interest to possessors of small telescopes, while even an opera-glass reveals much that is worthy of observation. Argelander gives a list of 81 naked-eye stars, and Heis 136.

The former has suggested that within its boundaries may lie the possible central point of the universe, which Madler located in the Pleiades and Maxwell Hall in Pisces, — all probably unwarranted conclusions.

Delta, psi, sigma, alpha, gamma, eta, and others on the figure's right side, form a slight curve, open towards the northeast, that has been called the Segment of Perseus.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]


Algol

beta Perseus

Algol, the Demon, the Demon Star, and the Blinking Demon, from the Arabians' Ra’s al Ghul, the Demon's Head, is said to have been thus called from its rapid and wonderful variations; but I find no evidence of this, and that people probably took the title from Ptolemy. Al Ghul literally signifies a Mischief-maker, and the name still appears in the Ghoul of the Arabian Nights and of our day. It degenerated into the Alove often used some centuries ago for this star.

Ptolemy catalogued it as ton en gorgonio o lampros, "the bright one of those in the Gorgon's head," which Al Tizini followed in his Na’ir, for, with pi, rho, and omega, it made up that well-known group, itself being the Gorgonea prima; the Gorgonion of Chrysococca, Gorgoneum Caput of Vitruvius, Caput Gorgonis of Hyginus, and the Gorgonis Ora of Manilius.

With astronomical writers of three centuries ago Algol was Caput Larvae, the Spectre's Head. Hipparchos and Pliny made a separate constellation of the Gorgon stars as the Head of Medusa, this descending almost to our own day, al­though always connected with Perseus.

The Hebrews knew Algol as Rosh ha Satan, Satan's Head, Chilmead's Rosch hassatan, the Divels head; but also as Lilith [*1], Adam's legendary first wife, the nocturnal vampire from the lower world that reappeared in the demonology of the Middle Ages as the witch Lilis, one of the characters in Goethe's Walpurgis Nacht.

The Chinese gave it the gruesome title Tseih She, the Piled-up Corpses. {Page 333} Astrologers of course said that it was the most unfortunate, violent, and dangerous star in the heavens, and it certainly has been one of the best observed, as the most noteworthy variable in the northern sky. It "continues sensibly constant at 2.3 magnitude during 2½ days, then decreases, at first gradually, and afterward with increasing rapidity, to 3.5 magnitude"; its light oscillations occupying about nine hours; its total period being stated as 2 days 20 hours 48 minutes 55 seconds. Al Sufi, a good observer for his day, yet strangely making no allusion to its variability, called it a 2nd-magnitude; and the phenomenon was first scientifically noted by Montanari during several years preceding 1672. This was confirmed by Maraldi's observations of 1694, and, later, by those of the Saxon farmer Palitsch, [Palitsch also was famous for his discovery of Halley's comet on Christmas night, 1758.] but its approximate period seems to have been first announced by Goodricke in 1782, who even then advanced the theory of a dark companion revolving around it with immense velocity, which periodically cut off its light. This, reaffirmed by Pickering in 1880, was made certain by the spectroscope in the hands of Vogel of Potsdam in 1889. Chandler thinks that there must exist another invisible body larger than either Algol or its companion, around which both revolve in a period of 130 years; but Tisserand has shown that the phenomenon on which Chandler bases this opinion can be explained in a different and simpler way. Its name is used for the type indicating short-period variables whose changes may be explained by this theory of "eclipses." Of these seventeen are now known.

[*1] Allen notes at end of page 332: We are indebted to the Talmudists for this story, which probably originated in Babylonia; and they added that, after Adam had separated from Lilith and their demon children, Eve was created for him. Our Authorized Version renders the original word, in Isaiah xxxiv, 14, by "screech owl"; the Revised Version, by "night-monster"; Cheyne adopts the Hebrew Lilith in the Polychrome Bible; and Luther's Bible had Kobold, but this corresponded to the Scottish Brownie and the English "Robin Goodfellow," —  Shakespeare's "Puck." Saint Jerome's Vulgate translated it "Lamia," the Greek and Roman title for the fabled woman, beautiful above, but a serpent below, that Keats reproduced in his Lamia.

[Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Richard H. Allen, 1889.]