Mythical Monsters: Greece
From the man-eating Minotaur to the vicious three-headed Cerberus, Greek mythology is responsible for some of the most iconic creatures in Western fiction, fantasy, and legend.
This week Mythos takes a look at some of the most famous figures of Greek Myth, examining where they came from, what they were like, and how (or if) they were defeated.
Even for Greek myth, the origins of the Minotaur are rather disturbing.
Minos wished to be crowned king of Crete over any of his brothers. He prayed to the gods to legitimise his claim and Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull as a sign that Minos should be named king. Minos would then sacrifice the bull to Poseidon in repayment of his debt. Minos, however felt that the bull was too fine a creature to kill. He hid it amongst his own herds and sacrificed a different bull to the god.
Poseidon was not to be fooled and was furious at the betrayal. In revenge, he had Minos’ own wife, the queen Pasiphae, fall deeply and insatiably in love with the bull. After a time, Pasiphae fell pregnant, and bore the bull’s son. The creature, the minotaur, had the upper half of a bull, and the lower half of a human. Realising what had happened, King Minos was enraged. He ordered that a great labyrinth be built, with the minotaur locked inside.
Years later, Minos’ son, Androgeos, was killed by Athenians. In reparation, Minos demanded that each year seven boys and seven girls should be sent to Crete and locked in the labyrinth to feed the Minotaur. One year, the hero Theseus joined the sacrifices. With the help of Minos’ daughter (and the Minotaur’s half-sister) Ariadne, a ball of thread, and sword, Theseus managed to kill the Minotaur and make his way back through the labyrinth to safety.
Scylla and Charybdis
Appearing together, Scylla and Charybdis were said to be located on opposite sides of a narrow sea. Someone travelling through that sea would have to choose to pass close to one or the other, and both would pose a terrible challenge to get past.
Scylla was once a beautiful nymph who was turned into a hideous monster. In one version of the legend, she was transformed by Amphitrite who was jealous of her and poured poison into the pool she bathed in. In another, Circe fed her a potion which caused the transformation. Scylla became a six headed creature, with sharp needle-like teeth. When boats sailed past, her heads would lash out, plucking six men from the deck at a time and consuming them.
Charybdis was the daughter of Poseidon, said to have been banished under the sea by Zeus. Three times a day she would suck in great volumes of water, creating a whirlpool that would destroy ships. Three times a day she would vomit the water up, causing tidal waves.
When forced to travel between the two, Odysseus chose to stay close to Scylla, reasoning that losing some men to her jaws was better than the entire ship being destroyed and them all drowned. In the end his gambit failed to pay off. Not long after they survived Scylla, a storm destroyed Odysseus’ ship and drowned his crew. Odysseus was swept back to Charybdis’ jaws where he only barely managed to escape death.
The Cyclops are generally depicted as giant, ogre-like creatures with one large eye in the middle of their forehead.
The three cyclops brothers, Arges, Brontes and Steropes were the sons of Uranus and Gaia, they were blacksmiths who forged Zeus’ lightning bolts. As blacksmiths, they later became associated with the god Hephaestus. While they may not seem particularly scary, they are not the only cyclops to feature in Greek mythology, and their fellow was both far more famous, and far more fierce.
Polyphemus was a cyclops who appeared in Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. Landing on his island, Odysseus and his men entered the cave where Polyphemus lived and helped themselves to his food and drink. When Polyphemus returned home, he trapped the crew in his cave by sealing the entrance with a rock and brutally killed and ate several of Odysseus’ men. Odysseus and his men managed to blind Polyphemus and escape his cave by hiding among the blinded Polythemus’ flock of sheep. As Odysseus escaped, Polyphemus cursed him, praying to his father Poseidon to punish Odysseus for injuring him. Poseidon complied, and Odysseus journey home became even more filled with peril and misfortune.
Typhon and Echidna
Not only hideous creatures themselves, Typhon and Echidna are known, respectively, as the father and mother of monsters.
Typhon was a Titan, one of the ruling deities before they were overthrown by the gods. Typhon’s appearance was always accompanied by terrible storms and thrashing winds, making it difficult for him to truly be seen, though some claimed that he had a hundred dragon heads. His wife, Echidna was equally disturbing to look upon, part woman and part serpent. Their children were all equally monstrous as their parents, with their number including the Lernean Hydra.
Typhon attempted to steal control of the cosmos from Zeus, king of the gods and the two fought. The battle raged for a long time, eventually ending with Zeus using his thunderbolts to defeat the monstrous Titan. Typhon was imprisoned beneath the earth, some sources claiming he was chained in Tartarus – the deepest depths of the Underworld – in others he was placed beneath a volcano, usually Mount Etna, where his struggles to be free caused volcanic eruptions.
Sometimes taken to be one of Echidna’s children, the Chimera is a hybrid monster which once terrorised the people of Lycia. It was made up of three animals: a goat, a lion, and a snake. Typically, the Chimera was depicted as having the head of a lion, the body of a goat (with a goat’s head protruding from its back) and a snake for a tail.
In addition to his claws and teeth, the Chimera had one great advantage which made it terrifying to fight – it was capable of breathing fire. No man was able to kill the Chimera, until the hero Bellerophon. The hero attacked from the sky, with the aid of his helpful companion Pegasus. Stabbing the Chimera in the throat with a lead-tipped spear, the Chimera’s fire-breath worked against it, melting the lead and turning it into deadly molten metal.
Another of Typhon and Echidna’s terrible children, Cerberus guarded the gates of Hades. In his most common form, he was depicted as a giant dog with three heads and a serpent for a tail. In his role as guard dog, he prevented souls from escaping the underworld, and barred entrance to living humans.
Though this was his duty, Cerberus actually failed in his role several times, being defeated by various heroes. During Hercules’ twelve labours, Hercules was charged with retrieving Cerberus. The hero was seriously injured by the monster but manged to overpower Cerberus and brought him back to Mycenae with him. In another legend, the hero Orpheus managed to subdue Cerberus by playing such a sweet song that Cerberus either let him pass or fell asleep to the music.