Dangerous Graeae In The Perseus Myth


Greek and Roman mythology is very interesting and has a great influence on modern society. Many people are fascinated with classics like the tale of Hercules, or the life of Zeus and his countless relationships. The further one gets into it the more they get intrigued. After one develops an interest in mythology, one sees traces of it and its influences pretty much everywhere. Not just in a literal sense (e.g. literal movies about Greek myths or paintings of deities), but one starts seeing things like the very famous Turkish/ Arab 'Nazar' and sees Medusa's eye behind it. Greek mythology is a part of our everyday life whether we like it or not. Sometimes hidden in a saying like, “like Castor and Pollux” (to demonstrate close friendship) or in an everyday conversation concerning someone's high self-esteem, i.e. Narcissism. Interestingly enough, it seems like most myths are quite ambiguous. Authors make them up to be, how they want them. For example, the myth of Perseus slaying the gorgon “Medusa”, and decapitating her is widely spread. But it seems like there different versions of the same myth, with slight differences. According to different artists, different characters (beside Perseus and Medusa) play an important role in guiding the hero to his main-quest, decapitating Medusa.

Sometimes Perseus gets his weaponry from Nymphs, sometimes Athena and Hermes themselves hand Perseus the equipment, needed to slay the Gorgon. But the one thing that many people seem to overlook are the Graeae. The Graeae, also known as Medusa's non-Gorgon sisters, seem to play a small role in this myth, by guiding Perseus (not willingly) to the Nymphs to get equipped or by guarding their Gorgon sisters, almost like guard-dogs. But interestingly even though they play such a small role, their depictions in literature differ from one another. So I asked myself the questions, who are the Graeae and what role do they play in this myth? In the following the main aspects of the Perseus myth will be introduced, afterwards, the different ways the Graeae are depicted in the literature will be contrasted and lastly, this paper will be concluded by summing the different depictions up and commenting on the reasoning behind them.

Perseus Myth

The legend of Perseus, son of Jove is infamous because of his two encounters with “Monsters” whom he slew. Ovid introduces the myth by explaining that Acrisius never acknowledged Perseus as the Son of Jove, which he later on regretted. What Ovid does not touch upon is what Acrisius did, after his daughter Danaë conceived Perseus “of a golden shower”. The King who previous to the birth of Perseus had gotten the prophecy, that a son born to his daughter Danaë would slay him, decided to hide Danaë away and only allowed himself and female servants to pay her visits. However, Jove liked Danaë and started visiting her disguised as a shower of gold, which led to her pregnancy with Perseus. After King Acrisius found out about his daughter's pregnancy with the Son of Jove, he did not believe her. He put her and her newborn son in a chest, and throw that chest into the sea. This way the gods spare their lives by guiding them to safe shores or to end their lives by getting them crushed by the waves. Jove chooses to protect his Son and Danaë and guided them, with the help of his brother Neptune, to Seriphos. In Seriphos, King Polydectes married beautiful Danaë and take care of her son. After Perseus had grown up, Polydectes sent him on a mission to behead the gorgon Medusa, which Perseus accepted. In some depictions, this mission is a way to get rid of Perseus, because Polydectes longs after Danaë who is being protected by her son. So he sends him on a mission to slay the gorgons' head, which seems impossible, in exchange for giving up Danaë and pursuing another woman. After getting equipped by the Nymphs, whom Perseus found with the 'help' of the Graeae, he slew the Gorgon. After he beheads, the only mortal Gorgon, Medusa Perseus was on his way home. On his way, he spotted a Damsel in distress, Andromeda. Andromeda was chained to a cliff, doomed to die at the hands, or more so tentacles of the giant Sea-Monster. Perseus stepped in, and for exchange of her hand in marriage, promised to rescue her from the giant monster. He successfully killed it and married Andromeda. In later years he once met his grandfather, and killed him, by accident thus making the prophecy come true. As a result of the Kings death, Perseus, his grandson inherited the Crown and thus became King of Argos.

Different Depictions of the Graeae in Literature

As already stated, the Perseus saga seems to have many Versions. The most ambiguous characters seem to be the Graeae. Three sisters who share an eye and a tooth, sometimes depicted as ghastly old women and sometimes as young attractive ones. Their role in the myth, according to different sources always changes. Often their role is to navigate the hero, Perseus, or to guard their gorgon sisters. Interestingly, their part in most tales is quite short. Sometimes they get mentioned with merely a few sentences and sometimes they get to enjoy the limelight, i.e. “Phorcides” (the lost play of Aeschylus). In the following, the different depictions of the Graeae in literature will be contrasted.

The Graeae were first mentioned in Greek literature when Hesiod published his poem 'Theogony' around 700 BC. In his poem, 'Theogony' Hesiod describes the Graeae as the nice cheeked daughters of Phorkys and Keto. In this depiction, only two Graeaes get mentioned, one being dressed nicely “Pemphredo” and the other dressed in dark-orange garments “Enyo”. He continues by naming their Gorgon-sisters, 'Stehnno, Euryale and Medusa'. He does not point out that they share an eye and a tooth.

Going on, Aeschylus published two pieces, that provide information about the Graeae. One being Prometheus bound which was published anywhere between 480-410 BC and the other being the lost play “Phorcides” which was published around 460 BC. First, the relevant parts of “Prometheus bound” will be described and afterwards, the depiction of the Graeae in the lost play will be specified. As mentioned before Aeschylus likely wrote “Prometheus bound” anywhere between 480-410 BC. In this tragedy, concerning Prometheus and his thoughts and conversations while being chained, the Graeae are briefly mentioned as “Phorcys’ daughters”. They are described as being three swan-shaped gray-haired, very light-skinned sisters, that neither see the sun-light nor the reflections of the light from the moon, and share an eye and a tooth. Within that period Aeschylus published his, now lost, play 'Phorcides' (ca. 460 BC). In his lost play, Aeschylus focuses on the arming of Perseus and the decapitation of the Gorgon Medusa. It is believed that in Aeschylean depictions, Perseus receives his weaponry straight from Hermes. Afterwards, he seeks the Graeae, whom Aeschylus gave a guard-like function, “to gain access to the Gorgons” (Howe 270). The sources are unclear, whether the Graeae were depicted (on stage) as gray-haired, old women or black-haired young women. But it seems like the shared eye and tooth were incorporated into the play.

Years later, a famous author of his time, Ovid wrote a 15 book series, about Greek/Roman mythology, which was published around 8AD. In this series called 'Metamorphosis', Ovid describes myths and tales as told by the legends themselves or people close to them. One of the myths he touches upon is the Perseus saga. In this illustration of the myth, Ovid locates the Graeae and Gorgons under Atlas. Once Perseus finds access to a 'place safe under the protection of the rocky mass' he sees two sisters, 'daughters of old Phorcys', who guard the entrance to the Gorgons. After taking over their shared eye (shared tooth is not mentioned), he gains entrance to secret pathways which ultimately lead to Medusa. In his depiction of the myth, Ovid does not characterize the Graeae; the only 'description' is that they are two sisters, not three and that they share an eye between the two of them.

About 1876 years later, W.H. Roscher published a book titled 'Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie' (1884). In his Lexicon, Roscher describes different myths and mythical creatures. One of those being the Graeae ('Graia'/ 'Graiai'), whom he describes using references from the prior mentioned three authors and some others (Hesiod, Aeschylus, Ovid). Firstly, he states that Phorkys and Keto are the Graeae's parents and that they are (full-)sisters of the Gorgons. He describes Phorkys and Keto as not only the parents of different monstrous creatures (e.g. Scylla, Sirens, Spinx = all half-siblings of the Graeae and Gorgons) but also as the siblings of powerful sea-gods. Going on, Roscher describes that in earlier works and written fragments only two Graeaes would be mentioned, but later on, in the literature (i.e. Prometheus bound) a third sister would be added. Afterwards, he specifies the Graeaes names, starting with 'Pephredo' who according to Roscher has quite an ambiguous name when it comes to the spelling ('Pamphede' in some variations). Next, he mentions that Enyo's name does not change in different variations of the saga.

Lastly, he goes on to talk about the third, later added, sister 'Deino', who may also be called 'Auferona', 'Inundona' or 'Chersis' according to different translations. Furthermore, he characterizes their appearance, for which he uses Hesiod's and Aeschylus' descriptions. As a result, the Graeae are very light-skinned, nice cheeked, gray-haired, well-dressed creatures that neither the Sun nor the reflective light of the Moon touches. And most importantly, they share an eye and a tooth between the three of them. He states that authors that solely mention the shared eye (e.g. Ovid) are either lazy or just want to emphasize the absurd situation. Later on, he tries to define their function, his first thesis is that the Graeae may be able to control thunderstorm, or at least are an instance that represents thunderstorms, as the white tooth they share is a symbol for lighting bolts or thunderstorms. He adds that the eye they share might represent the sunrise. Going on he argues that the Graeae might be cloud-goddesses, to prove his thesis he firstly emphasizes Hesiod's description, as Hesiod describes the Graeae's garments, which according to Roscher is often a metaphor for clouds. Going on, he states that swans, who are used to describe the Graeae by Aeschylus (cf. Prometheus bound), are also a symbol for clouds in Greek mythology. So Hesiod describes the sisters as clouds in the evening (dark-orange dress) and Aeschylus describes them as clouds during the day (swan-like).

This association also makes sense because their parents are portrayed as Gods of the Ocean and clouds arise out of the Ocean. Roscher strengthens his position when he states that the shared eye and tooth are a symbol for lightning-bolts. He argues that the exchange of the eye and tooth are a metaphor for sheet lightning, which seems to be a phenomenon where one can see a cloud light up, but can't hear thunder. This phenomenon seems to go from cloud to cloud and is a signal for an upcoming thunderstorm and can be used to locate a thunderstorm in distance. Roscher also describes the Graeae's position in the Perseus myth, he mentions two different depictions. One where the Graeae show Perseus the way to their sisters. So sheet lightning showing the way to a thunderstorm (Gorgons are a metaphor for thunderclouds). And the other, the Graeae as guards of the Gorgons, using sheet lightning as signals for each other (Roscher 1737). Another characteristic that the Graeae have is that they can give prophecies, as they are wise (gray-hair and old age are a symbol of wisdom). Like many other creatures that share this ability, the Graeae only give out prophecies or information when they are forced to do so. Looking back on the myth, in either depiction, Perseus takes away their shared tooth and eye, thus forcing them to assist him or grant him entrance to their sisters.

Just a few years later, eleven to be exact, Thomas Bulfinch published his book 'Bulfinch's Greek and Roman Mythology' (1895), where he lists different myths and uses parts from 'old' plays or poems to illustrate them further. Bulfinch names the Graeae, as three sisters, 'who were gray-haired from birth'. He provides no further information about the Graeae, other than that they are a representation of 'white-crested waves that dash against the rocks of the coast', or in other words, they are personifications of 'the terrors of the sea'. Even though he mentions both the Graeae and the Gorgons in the same paragraph, and classifies them both as 'terrors of the sea', he does not specify the relationship between them. The only thing that he specifies is, that the Graeae (and the Gorgon-sisters, except Medusa) do not play a big role in mythology.

About two centuries later, in 2000 Gustav Schwab published his comprehensive book, 'Sagen des klassischen Altertums', a similar book to Roscher's but more so illustrated for younger audiences. In his book, Schwab picks up different myths and legends and explain them through a simple narrative. In Schwab's depiction, Perseus goes to a region far off where the father of the monsters, Phorkys, resides. There he meets his daughters, the Graeae, who have had gray-hair since their birth, and share an eye and a tooth. Perseus in his attempt to find the Nymphs, who can equip him, took away their shared eye and tooth. After giving him directions Perseus returned their eye and tooth and went on with his quest.

Ogden published his book 'Perseus' in 2008. With his book, he tries to sum up all parts of the saga. After he describes the myth in-depth and characterizes the key characters, he describes the female groups, that take part in the myth. He starts by characterizing the Graeae, who 'first appear in Hesiod's Theogony, where they are two'. He states that Hesiod's depiction implies that the sisters, even though being born gray 'were whole and otherwise youthful', he also implies that their gray-hair may be interpreted as light-blonde colored hair. He describes that in Aeschylus' 'Phorcides' two old sisters were depicted, sharing an eye and a tooth. He lastly interprets Prometheus bound, which he states could have also been written by someone else, but Aeschylus. In this depiction, the Graeae are again described to be three old women that share an eye and a tooth and look like swans.

Ogden seems to take the description literally as he, later on, states that the depictions in art of the same period, portray regular old women, not swans. Seemingly all the depictions during that time include the Graeaes blindness. Going on he describes the names of the Graeae. Starting with Pemphredo whose name can be translated as 'Wasp', then Enyo whose name means 'War' and lastly the later added sister Deino whose name can be translated with 'Terror'. Afterwards, he goes on to describe the relationship between the Graeae and the Gorgons, as being full-sisters as they are both children of Phorkys and Keto. Last but not least, Ogden states that the Graeae are dangerous because they bite their victims after spotting them with their shared eye. Even though a bite with just a single tooth, does not seem that bad, he implies that such a bite might be deadly.


In conclusion, the Graeae seem to be two or three gray-haired sisters. They are daughters of Phorkys and Keto and thus full-sisters of the Gorgons. They share an eye and probably also a tooth, and can give prophecies. Their names are Pemphredo (or some form of this name), Enyo and probably Deino. They could be very old, but as some depictions show them as young and beautiful women, one cannot be sure about that. They only give prophecies or help outsiders, if they are forced to, for example, Perseus only receives their 'help' by taking away their eye and tooth, thus forcing them to help him. The Graeae may be cloud-goddesses that use sheet lightning to communicate or Water-Nymphs representing water dashing against rocks. They are located near their sisters, the gorgons in Marrocco (under atlas). And they can be very dangerous, as their bite seems to be deadly.

After reading all these different depictions, one has a clearer picture in mind. The Graeae are three sisters, that share an eye and a tooth and (unwillingly) help to navigate the hero. While answering the questions, asked beforehand, another question arose, why do some authors only mention them briefly, as a side note? They seem like interesting characters, but if they add nothing to the story, why do they incorporate them. In some depictions (e.g. “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters”) they simply add comedic relief, but in other depictions, it almost feels like the author is missing a great opportunity. Also, just briefly mentioning their existence, because they are part of the myth, does not do them justice. It almost makes the Graeae seem like old-ugly women that want to be left alone, and at that point, Perseus taking away their eye and tooth almost seems a little unnecessary. Though one should take into consideration, that when most of the literature dealt with in this paper was published, more people were acquainted with Greek and Roman mythology, they probably knew that the Graeae were dangerous without further explanation.


  1. Bulfinch, Thomas. Bulfinch's Greek And Roman Mythology. New York: Dover Publications, 2012. Print.
  2. Goins, Scott E. “THE DATE OF AESCHYLUS' PERSEUS TETRALOGY.” Rheinisches Museum Für Philologie, vol. 140, no. 3/4, 1997, pp. 193–210. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41234278.
  3. Hesiod., and Otto Schönberger. Theogonie. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 1999. Print.
  4. Howe, Thalia Phillies. “Illustrations to Aeschylos' Tetralogy on the Perseus Theme.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 57, no. 4, 1953, pp. 269–275. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/501143.
  5. Johnston, Ian. AESCHYLUS PROMETHEUS BOUND. Nanaimo: Vancouver Island University, 2012. Web. 13 Aug. 2019.
  6. Naso, Publius Ovidius, and Frank Justus Miller. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964. Print.
  7. Ogden, Daniel. Perseus. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.
  8. Roscher, Wilhelm Heinrich. Ausführliches Lexikon Der Griechischen Und Römischen Mythologie. Hildesheim [u.a.]: Olms, 1992. Print.
  9. Schwab, Gustav (Schriftsteller). Sagen Des Klassischen Altertums. Frankfurt am Main u.a.: Insel, 1988. Print.
09 March 2021
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