In the myth where Zeus impregnates Danae through a golden shower, what is the significance of the water being golden? Rain is often symbolizing semen, but why is it golden? Does it simply indicate glory, since Zeus is king of the gods?
I'm afraid the myth is a bit pedestrian. Zeus transforms himself into gold (not golden water), a gift valuable enough to bend any reservations the young maiden might have had. That's all there is to it.
This interpretation is highlighted in three poems that appear in Greek Anthology:
Antipater of Thessalonica
[5.30] All Homer says is well said, but this most excellently that Aphrodite is golden. For if, my friend, you bring the coin, there is neither a porter in the way, nor a dog chained before the door. But if you come without it, there is Cerberus himself there. Oh ! grasping rules of wealth, how do you oppress poverty!
[5.31] Formerly there were three ages, a golden, a silver, and a brazen, but Cytherea is now all three. She honours the man of gold, and she kisses the brazen man and she never turns her back on the silver men. She is a very Nestor; I even think that Zeus came to Danae, not turned to gold, but bringing a hundred gold sovereigns.
[5.33] Thou didst fall in rain of gold on Danae, Olympian Zeus, that the child might yield to thee as to a gift, and not tremble before thee as before a god.
[5.34] Zeus bought Danae for gold, and I buy you for a gold coin. I can’t give more than Zeus did.
[5.217] Zeus, turned to gold, piercing the brazen chamber of Danae, cut the knot of intact virginity. I think the meaning of the story is this, “Gold, the subduer of all things, gets the better of brazen walls and fetters; gold loosens all reins and opens every lock, gold makes the ladies with scornful eyes bend the knee. It was gold that bent the will of Danae. No need for a lover to pray to Aphrodite, if he brings money to offer.”
Source: The Greek anthology, by Paton, W. R. Volume 1. London, W. Heinemann; New York, G.P. Putnam's sons, 1916-18
Cold Hard Cash
The overwhelmingly predominant interpretation, at least starting from the 1st century BC, is that the gold = money, although this view started out, it seems, simply as an accusation potentially made by Danae's father Acrisius in Euripides' (now fragmentary) tragedy Danae a few centuries prior to that.
In what we know from other sources, Danae swears to Acrisius that her child has been sired by Zeus but Acrisius refuses to believe it, thinking it must be some rich mortal man, or such the like, who paid with gold for her favours. The myth provided much fodder for comedians, who took the accusation and ran with it, except that in their jabs it really is Zeus who is paying to have Danae consort with him, and thus the divine gold explicitly becomes gold coinage, such as is claimed by Antipater of Thessalonica and by Parmenion in the Greek Anthology (as cited by yannis in his Answer).
Comedic though these writings are, they are nonetheless, attempts to rationalise away a fantastical element of the tale while still keeping Zeus in the picture as the perpetrator of this prostitution (allowing the writers to have their cake and eat it too). If, however, we're looking for a less rationalist-symbolic and more in-universe answer to the question, the aforementioned Antipater points the way, incidentally, if not necessarily deliberately.
Primordial Golden Man of the First Era
Antipater alludes to the epic myth, narrated by Hesiod and others, of different successive phases or breeds of men in primordial times, the first three of whom were made of gold, silver and then bronze. According to Hesiod's Works and Days, the first stock of men, made of gold, lived in the time of Zeus' father the Titan Kronos, and it seems that their time ended together with Kronos' reign. The silver men who replaced the gold ones were destroyed by Zeus and in turn were replaced by men of bronze prior to the Phase of Heroes (Zeus' and Danae's son Perseus being one of these heroes).
Antipater reduces all of this into a metaphor for the varying degrees of financial ability to pay in order to be "honoured" by Cythereia (i.e. Aphrodite, the goddess of sex). Maria Kanellou comments on this, saying1 that:
Antipater of Thessalonica cleverly blends together the concepts of golden Aphrodite, the golden age of the human race, and Zeus’ metamorphosis into gold. Aphrodite, the patroness of hetaerae, is constantly described as golden from Homer onwards, and in Antipater AP 5.30 = GPh 6 the speaker humorously argues that the epic poet rightly attributed the epithet to Aphrodite since one cannot have sex if one does not pay. In AP 5.31, Antipater expands on this idea, as Aphrodite is not just golden but also brazen and silver.
The adjective ‘golden’ joins together the two myths and makes easy the transition from the golden race of men to the golden client and then golden Zeus and the allegation that he paid 100 golden coins to have sex with Danae.
In Plato's Cratylus 398a, Socrates argues that when Hesiod calls the first mortal men "golden" he simply means that they were "good and beautiful." Apollodorus, and Apollonius Rhodius, however, give a report to the effect that the more general (rather than Platonic philosophical) belief was that different types of metallic men had actually lived on Earth back in the day, for both authors say that Talos, the gigantic brazen sentinel of Crete Island, is supposed to have been a survivor of the time of the bronze breed of men.
It is therefore quite plausible that Zeus appeared to Danae as one of the golden men of the Works and Days: the best men, from the paradisaical first stage in the history of mortals. When this group of men died out, say Lines 121-125 of this poem, the Earth covered them over and they became benevolent surface-dwelling daimones [daemons] who roamed all over the world, "clothed in mist" as they kept watch over humankind.
There are many points of resonance between that and Danae's impregnation narrative, in the latter of which:
- according to the oldest accounts thereof, her prison is located underground (the direction in which the golden men have gone upon their demise);
- she goes under the earth and thereafter is restored to the upper world from which she came, while Zeus descends into her chamber and then disappears thereafter, as mysteriously as he arrived (like the mist in which the golden daimones are enveloped); and
- she is eventually rescued from the sea, courtesy of the watchfulness of Zeus (according to Hyginus), having given birth to a hero who delivers from harm (like the daimones are said to do).
Foreshadowing the Hero
It might at first seem far-fetched to think that, consequently, Perseus was partially golden himself, but perhaps it warrants some consideration when noticing the manner in which the theme of gold crops up at nearly every highlight of this hero's career, upon more of which we arrive further below.
After Perseus dies his father places him into the sky as the constellation which bears his name. In Seneca's Hercules Furens, the dead hero's divine stepmother refers to him as "golden Perseus". She might be referring to the celestial star-cluster into which he has been made, or she could mean that the mortal man was himself, in some way, composed of the precious substance in view here.
Antipater, and his fellow epigrammatist Paul the Silentiary, and virtually every commentator on the story since their time have noted the juxtaposition of the gold into which Zeus transforms over against the cell of bronze within which Acrisius has imprisoned Danae, and which becomes the place where the golden Zeus impregnates the princess with Perseus. For them, however, the significance of the comparison between the two metals is simply as sexual innuendo or, at most, as symbolism representing the power of bribery over the toughest of obstacles.
The appearance of these substances at the beginning of Perseus' story, however, not only hearkens to Antipater's allusion to Hesiod's metal men, but it also sets up a thematic undercurrent in Perseus' adventures, which begin as soon as he is born. According to Danae's Lament, composed by the poet Simonides, the wooden chest which Acrisius casts into the sea, containing our "golden boy" Perseus together with his mother, is bolted with bronze. (According to Hesiod and Apollonius, the bronze stock of men was born from ash-trees, and so these mortals were probably partially wooden as well.)
The Gorgons, against whom Perseus contends, have bronze hands and golden wings, and one of the creatures born from the blood spilled by Perseus upon his beheading of Medusa is named Chrysaor, "Golden Blade," because he is born wielding a golden sword.
In his mission against the Gorgons, Perseus is outfitted with a bronze shield. In Hesiod's Shield of Heracles, Perseus appears upon the titular shield in the form of a fully golden man over whose shoulders is slung a sword "by a cross-belt of bronze." (The magic satchel he carries is silver, tricked out with golden tassels.)
In his encounter with Atlas in Libya, the conflict between him and the Titan is on account of Atlas' dread that a son of Zeus is destined to steal his golden apples. According to Hesiod's Theogony, Atlas dwells at the edge of the Earth, by the entrance to the Underworld where Night meets Day across a threshold of bronze. (In the same poem, Chrysaor's father Poseidon is closely associated with the bronze of the Underworld.)
Freedom and Transcendence
The bronze of Danae's prison, from ancient into Renaissance times, has typically been interpreted to represent restriction and prohibition, and it surely does stand in for these things. In that case the gold, whether we interpret it as something as mundane as money or as supernatural as a gigantic primaeval golden man, symbolises freedom for Danae.
For Perseus it introduces his worth: the hardiness making him equal to the task of going up against literally metallic monsters. It also represents transcendence: just as the Gorgons' golden wings allow them to fly, so too shall Perseus be a hero who can literally take to the skies, and having started out being born in a dungeon and nearly drowned at a tender age, he traverses the entire world, from the western edge of the cosmos in Libya to the land of the Hyperboreans in the north, and unto Ethiopia in the south. According to Hyginus, his translation into the sky as a constellation means that he also transcends death itself to become one of the immortals: Seneca's "golden Perseus".
Citing Ovid, Horace and the Vatican Mythographers, Ioanna Karamanou notes2 that "Certain Latin sources refer to Danae’s imprisonment in a tower rather than a chamber". This becomes the preferred version for Christian commentators on the story, upon whose work Madlyn Millner Kahr elaborates3 as follows in her article "Danaë: Virtuous, Voluptuous, Venal Woman."
In the twelfth century, the allegorical interpretation of myths was already well established in the service of Christian moral teachings. Danaë became a symbol of modesty, Pudicitia, and the tower that protected her virtue represented Chastity. Danaë even served as a parallel to the Virgin Mary in a Moralized Ovid as early as 1328.
Some sixty years later the Dominican monk, Franciscus de Retza, wrote: "If Danaë conceived from Jupiter through a golden shower, why should the Virgin not give birth when impregnated by the Holy Spirit?" ... A woodcut✭ in the first Basel edition (ca. 1490) of Franciscus de Retza's Defensorium Inviolatae Virginitatis Marie shows the chaste Danaë leaning out of the window of her tower, which resembles a chessman more than a prison. The germinating power of the sun represents Jove's golden shower...
Allegorical interpretations based on the tradition of the chaste Danaë also survived in Renaissance texts. Pierio Valeriano wrote: "The poets related that gold poured into the lap of Danaë, the most beautiful of women. They mean by 'Danaë' the beauty of the soul, which comprises the natural virtues that God loves; indeed, they signify by the 'golden shower' the abundant flow of heavenly favor, which must be sought from the love and mercy of God...
Of all the sixteenth-century examples, the Danaë in 1527 by Jan Gossaert✭✭ was the most explicitly a "good Danaë" in the tradition of the medieval Pudicitia type. Gossaert's Danaë represents a direct parallel to the Virgin of Humility. Her robe is blue, a color associated with the Virgin Mary. She wears a delicate diadem, like that worn by the Madonna in Gossaert's painting in Prague, Saint Luke Painting the Virgin. Though humble, Mary is Queen of Heaven, and Danaë is a princess. Danaë's exposed breast might link her with Maria lactans, mother of all, although the breast, like her bare legs, could also be construed as sexually suggestive. She sits on cushions on the floor, a token of her humility in the presence of the divinity, toward whose manifestation she lifts her eyes. In her skirt she collects the drops of gold that stream into her lap from above. Her airy environment suggests grandeur rather than imprisonment, an impression strengthened by the fact that other imposing buildings are visible between the graceful Renaissance columns of her chamber. Jove's golden presence recalls the medieval association of gold with the highest Christian values.
In the 21st century AD, at least two paintings, Gene Gould's Danae and Kyle Staver's Danae and the Parakeet, actually depict the shower upon the princess as real rays of sunlight.
Returning to the older configuration of the myth, if Zeus's descent underground, into Danae's dungeon (rather than into a tower), happened to go via the chamber's roof and cause damage to it, he may have brought actual sunlight into the cell, which, depending on the design, may not have previously had access to natural light.
According to the "magical impregnation" article6 of the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend:
Widespread, in Siberia, Oceania, Latin America, Africa, China, North America, is the belief in the fertilizing power of the sun’s rays falling on a woman. Not only is this reflected in the mythology of these regions, but in practice great care is taken to keep girls, especially in their first menstruation, away from all contact with sunlight... Some such belief and practice may underlie the Danae story, for sunlight and gold are often synonymous in imagery, and the seclusion of the girl who nevertheless is impregnated by the sun's rays may easily be read into the myth.
Somewhat offhandedly, Footnote 20 of Kahr's article says7 that "Danaë is also associated with Mother Earth, requiring rain for germination." She does not elaborate further on this at all, but it seems that it is an opinion shared by Robert Graves, who also links Zeus in this story to the sun. On pp. 243-244 of The Greek Myths (1960, Penguin Books) he claims that
Zeus's impregnation of Danaë with a shower of gold must refer to the ritual marriage of the Sun and Moon... It can also be read as a pastoral allegory: 'water is gold' for the shepherd, and Zeus sends thunder-showers on the earth – Danaë.
1. See p. 261 of Greek Epigram from the Hellenistic to the Early Byzantine Era, Edited by Maria Kanellou, Ivana Petrovic, & Chris Carey (2019), Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.
The relevant section is Ch. 15 of this book (pp. 249-271), written by Kanellou, and entitled "Mythological Burlesque and Satire in Greek Epigram—A Case Study: Zeus’ Seduction of Danae."
2. From p. 9 of her January 2005 Doctoral Thesis "A Commentary on Euripides' Danae and Dictys" in University College London's Department of Greek and Latin, Published by ProQuest LLC, 2013, Ann Arbor, MI.
3. In The Art Bulletin Vol. 60, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), pp. 43-55. (Quotes taken specifically from p. 44).
4. Ibid, pp. 45-46.
5. MrArifnajafov. 8 February 2012, "Jan Gossaert gen. Mabuse (1478-1532) Danae (1527)," Privatarchiv Foto von MrArifnajafov fotografiert, viewed 9 May 2020, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Danae_(1527).JPG
6. On p. 661 of Volume Two: J-Z, Ed. Maria Leach & Jerome Fried (1950), the Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York.
7. The Art Bulletin Vol. 60, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), p. 46.