You Gotta Know These Greek Mythological Monsters
- Typhon (also Typhoeus or Typhaon) and Echidna are known as the Father and Mother of All Monsters due to their numerous monstrous offspring, including the two-headed dog Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the Chimera, and Cerberus. Typhon was the last son of Gaea and Tartarus, while Echidna’s parentage is obscured by ancient sources; most often, she is listed as a daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. In the Theogony, Hesiod describes a climactic battle between Zeus and Typhon following Zeus’ defeat of the Titans: Typhon rips out Zeus’ sinews and is nearly victorious, but Hermes restores Zeus’s sinews and Zeus finally overpowers the giant monster. Typhon was then trapped under Mount Etna, where he is believed to cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
- Polyphemus, the most famous Cyclops in Greek mythology, is the son of Poseidon and the sea nymph Thoosa. The most notable myth involving Polyphemus is his appearance in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus and his crew land on Polyphemus’ island after escaping the Lotus-Eaters. Polyphemus eats two of Odysseus’ crew, imprisons the rest in his cave, and eats four more before the survivors can escape. To escape, Odysseus gets Polyphemus drunk on wine and blinds the one-eyed giant with a stick; the next morning, Odysseus and his crew ride out of Polyphemus’ cave, hiding underneath the Cyclops’ sheep. When Polyphemus asks Odysseus’ name, Odysseus responds “No one” or “No man” (translations vary), and Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon to make Odysseus’ journey home treacherous. In another myth, Polyphemus falls in love with the nymph Galatea, who in turn loves the human Acis. Polyphemus then kills Acis with a boulder out of jealousy.
- Medusa is the only mortal member of the Gorgons, a trio of monstrous daughters of Phorcys and Ceto who had brass hands, fangs, and venomous snakes for hair; the other two were Stheno and Euryale. Many early sources state that Medusa was born a monster, though Ovid’s Metamorphoses state that Medusa was a beautiful woman until she was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple and cursed by the goddess. Gazing directly into Medusa’s eyes resulted in the onlooker being turned into stone. She was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who was sent to retrieve her head by the tyrant Polydectes, whom Perseus then killed with the head. Perseus gave the head of Medusa to Athena, who placed it on her shield, the aegis. When Medusa was beheaded, the winged horse Pegasus and the giant warrior Chrysaor emerged, her sons by Poseidon. According to Ovid, Medusa’s head was also used to petrify the Titan Atlas.
- The Minotaur (also Asterion) was a half-man, half-bull monster kept in the Labyrinth on Crete by King Minos. Minos prayed to Poseidon to send a snow-white bull as a sign of support during Minos’ quarrel with his brothers for the throne of Crete, but instead of sacrificing the animal to the sea god, Minos kept it for himself. Angered, Poseidon caused Minos’ wife Pasiphaë to lust after the bull, so Daedalus built her a wooden cow so she could mate with the bull. The product of this encounter was the Minotaur (lit. “Bull of Minos”). After Minos’ son Androgeus was killed by Athenians, Minos demanded seven Athenians males youths and seven Athenian female youths, to be selected by lots every seven or nine years (accounts vary) as retribution; these victims were fed to the Minotaur. On the third drawing of the lots, the Athenian hero Theseus volunteered to vanquish the beast; with the help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who gave Theseus a ball of string so he could find his way out of the Labyrinth, Theseus slew the Minotaur. On the return voyage from Crete, Theseus forgot to change his sails from black back to white, and his father Aegeus jumped into the sea, believing his son had died.
- The Lernaean Hydra was one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. The Hydra was a multi-headed water serpent that breathed poisonous gas and had toxic blood, and every time one head was cut off, two more grew back in its place. The Hydra dwelled in the Spring of Amymone in the swamp or lake of Lerna near the Peloponnese, beneath which was said to be an entrance to the Underworld. The Hydra was killed by Heracles as his second labor for Eurystheus during a battle in which Heracles’ nephew Iolaus provided aid by cauterizing the neck stumps after Heracles cut each head off, preventing additional heads from growing back. After killing the monster, Heracles dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood; the poisoned arrows were later used against the Stymphalian Birds, Geryon, and the centaur Nessus.
- Cerberus was the three-headed (or, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, 50-headed) dog who guarded the gates to the Underworld. A child of Typhon and Echidna, Cerberus is described as a hellhound with a mane of snakes, the claws of a lion, and the tail of a deadly snake. As Heracles’ twelfth and final labor, he had to bring Cerberus back from the Underworld, which he did following an intense wrestling match. Prior to the task, Heracles was instructed in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and freed Theseus from being stuck on a chair in Hades. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the Cumaean Sibyl gives Cerberus three drugged honeycakes so that she and Aeneas can enter the Underworld.
- The Chimera was a hybrid monster who was also a child of Typhon and Echidna. She is most commonly described as a lioness with a goat’s head protruding from her back and a tail that ended in a snake’s head. She was a fire-breathing menace to Lycia until Bellerophon slew her on orders from King Iobates. Flying on the back of Pegasus, Bellerophon shot at the Chimera and ultimately killed the beast by affixing a block of lead to his spear and causing the Chimera to melt the block with her fiery breath, suffocating her in the process.
- The Sphinx, identified in the Theogony as “Phix,” was a hybrid monster whose parentage varies widely from source to source. She was a lion-bodied, winged monster with the face of a human, who terrorized the city of Thebes in the generations before Oedipus. She would give a riddle—“What creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?”—and eat anyone who was unable to answer correctly. It is possible that the Sphinx was sent to Thebes from Ethiopia by either the goddess Hera or the war god Ares. Eventually, Oedipus correctly answered the riddle—“Man”—and the Sphinx threw herself off her mountainside perch to her death.
- The Sirens were beautiful women who appeared harmless and sang a beautiful song to passing sailors, only to prove vicious and bloodthirsty when the sailors ventured too close. The Greeks often said that the Sirens were the daughters of the river god Achelous, while the Romans named their father as Phorcys. In the Argonautica, Chiron warns Jason that Orpheus will be instrumental on his journey, and Orpheus later saves all of Jason’s crew (save Butes) by playing his lyre when they pass the Sirens to drown out their beautiful and alluring song. Odysseus also encountered the Sirens, tying himself to the mast of his ship so that he could safely hear their song while his crew plugged their ears with beeswax, on the advice of the sorceress Circe.
- The Calydonian Boar was a monstrous beast sent by Artemis to wreak havoc in Calydon after king Oeneus neglected to honor her while sacrificing to the gods. Oeneus’s son Meleager led a group of heroes, including Theseus, the twins Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux), and Achilles’s father Peleus, as well as the huntress Atalanta, on what became known as the Calydonian Boar Hunt. Atalanta drew first blood, and Meleager finished off the beast. Meleager, who had fallen in love with Atalanta, then insisted on honoring her by giving her the hide. Meleager’s uncles protested, Meleager killed them, and Meleager’s mother avenged the death of her brothers by burning up the log that represented Meleager’s lifespan, killing him.
This article was contributed by NAQT writer Justin Millman.