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The Mythical Monsters of Ancient Greece

Matthew's interests include writing, gaming, movies, and pretending to be Irish despite only having one Irish Great Grandparent.

The enraged Cyclops hurls rocks at Odysseus' ship.

The enraged Cyclops hurls rocks at Odysseus' ship.

Cultures across the world have contributed rich and imaginative mythologies to the collective consciousness, but few such literary landscapes have been as influential as that which was dreamed up by the Ancient Greeks.

Powerful and nightmarish creatures are to be found in famous epics composed by the likes of Homer and Hesiod. Though the role of the monster is primarily to be slain by a mighty hero, it also serves as a representation of what people of the time considered to be alien and unnatural.

Here are some of Greek mythology's most famous contributions to popular culture:

The Minotaur

The tale of Theseus and the Minotaur is one of the most iconic contributions made by any culture to popular storytelling. The image of a brave hero descending into a dark and twisted labyrinth to slay a terrifying beast never ceases to capture the imagination.

King Minos of Crete offends the sea god Poseidon, and his punishment is to sire a deformed son that has the head of a bull and the body of a man. To hide his shame, Minos imprisons the creature within a labyrinth designed by the genius Daedalus (father of Icarus).

He demands that the city-state of Athens, subjugated by Crete in a previous war, send seven young maidens and seven young men every nine years as a tribute to be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Meanwhile, a boy named Theseus from the village of Troezen finds out that he is the son of King Aegeus of Athens (although in some versions of the tale, he is actually the son of the sea god Poseidon).

He seeks out his father, who acknowledges him as son and heir. Prince Theseus finds out about the vile tribute that takes place every nine years and, despite his father's protests, volunteers himself as one of the fourteen youths.

Upon his arrival in Crete, he encounters King Minos' daughter Ariadne, who falls in love with him and decides to aid him in his quest. She beseeches Daedelus for a means of escaping the labyrinth, and he advises her to give Theseus a ball of thread and instruct him to tie it to the entrance of the maze.

The labyrinth is littered with the bones of the Minotaur's past victims, but Theseus is able to slay the beast, find his way out using the ball of thread, and escape with Ariadne and the surviving youths.

Descent into the unconscious mind

The myth can be interpreted in a number of interesting ways. For example, in The Labyrinth, Jelle Spijker proposes that Theseus' quest represents our journey into the unconscious mind (the labyrinth) to confront our primitive animalistic instincts (the Minotaur).

Meanwhile, the Minotaur can be viewed as a tragic character. Was he imprisoned in a labyrinth because he was a monster, or was he a monster because he was imprisoned in a labyrinth?

The Cyclops

The brutal one-eyed giant appears in Homer's Odyssey as one of the many adversaries that the hero Odysseus must face on his journey home from The Trojan War.

After landing upon the shores of a seemingly uninhabited island, Odysseus and his crew discover a cave where an abundance of wine, cheese and other provisions are stored. Odysseus' men want to steal the goods, but their ever-honourable leader insists on waiting for the denizen of the cave to return.

The Cyclops arrives with his flock of sheep, and Odysseus and his men realise why the cave is so large.

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The Cyclops, rather than being hospitable toward his new guests, seizes two of the men and dashes their heads against the wall before devouring them. He then rolls a giant stone in front of the entrance to the cave, trapping Odysseus and his men inside.

The next day dawns, and the Cyclops again brutally crushes two of the men and makes a meal of them, completely indifferent to their horrified screams. He herds his sheep out of the cave and seals the entrance behind him.

Odysseus, ever the cunning warrior, comes up with a plan to rescue his crew. Together they craft a spear from a large timber they find in the cave and hide it. That night, they wait for the Cyclops to fall asleep, then heat the tip of the spear and jam the red hot poker into the Cyclops' only eye, blinding him.

The Cyclops cries out in agony and rage, but the men manage to hide from his wrath. The next morning, Odysseus and his crew conceal themselves beneath the sheep as the Cyclops herds them out of the cave.

As they sail away from the island, Odysseus taunts the cyclops, who angrily hurls rocks at the ship from the shore.

But Odysseus will pay a price for this victory, for the Cyclops is the son of the sea god Poseidon. He beseeches his father to avenge him; and although Odysseus is a favourite of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom; Poseidon will hinder his journey nonetheless, ensuring that he is already an old man by the time he finally reaches home.

Medusa

beasts-of-greek-mythology

Medusa is a woman with serpents for hair, and a visage so frightening to behold that those who lay eyes upon her are turned to stone (in some versions of the myth, she is described as both beautiful and terrifying).

Perseus, son of Zeus, slays the creature with the aid of a mirror shield that turns Medusa's dread gaze upon herself (the mirror is given to him by the goddess Athena, who appears in many Greek myths to aid the protagonist). He decapitates her and stuffs her head in a sack, spreading her terrible power wherever he goes.

First, he weds Princess Andromeda after rescuing her from the sea monster, but her parents try to have him killed at the wedding, so he uses Medusa's head to turn them and all their guests to stone. Then he returns home and does the same thing to his mother's troublesome suitor Polydectes and his followers. In the end, Medusa's head probably claims more lives in Perseus' hands than it did whilst on her body.

Medusa as a feminist symbol

Like many of Greek mythology's famous antagonists, Medusa is actually rather a tragic figure. She was once a beautiful maiden who served as a priestess of Athena but was cursed by the goddess for breaking her vow of celibacy when she engaged in an affair with Poseidon.

Feminist theorist Hélène Cixous explores this in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa, where she argues that the myth reveals a patriarchal society's fear of female desire.

Furthermore, in some versions of the myth, Poseidon forces himself upon Medusa, making her fate at the hands of Goddess Athena all the more unjust.


The Hydra

Hercules' second labour was to slay the Lernaean Hydra, a beast with multiple snake-like heads.

Many before him had tried and failed, for each time they struck off a head, two more would grow in its place. But Hercules realised that fire was the key, and he burnt the stump of each decapitated head to prevent regrowth.

Hercules faced many fearsome foes, but the Hydra is one of his most famous adversaries. An enemy is all the more terrifying when each seemingly fatal blow only makes it stronger.

The battle would have been futile for anyone but the hero whose very purpose is to accomplish the impossible. That said, Hercules took a vial of the Hydra's venomous blood with him to use as poison for his arrows, and that venom eventually brought about his downfall.

The Three Furies

The Furies torment Orestes.

The Furies torment Orestes.

The Furies are the instrument by which the gods inflict a terrible punishment on those who have sinned against the natural order. The three sisters; Alecto (anger), Megaera (jealousy) and Tisiphone (revenge); are similar to the Gorgans in appearance. Armed with thorny whips, they ruthlessly hunt down and torment the accursed, driving them to their deaths.

Anyone who has murdered a parent will feel the brunt of their wrath, as the Furies are especially protective of authority figures.

They are prominently featured in the tale of Orestes — the son of King Agamemnon. The king sacrificed his daughter to the gods in exchange for victory in the Trojan War, and returns triumphantly to his kingdom, only to be murdered in the bathtub by his wife out of revenge for her daughter's death. Orestes in turn kills his mother to avenge his father and is hunted by the Furies for the rest of his life.

Cerberus

The terrifying three-headed hound guards the entrance to the Land of the Dead, and feasts on any who attempt to escape. Cerberus is the child of Echidna; the half-woman-half-snake who gave birth to many mythical monsters.

The twelfth labour of the mighty hero Hercules is to capture the three-headed beast and present him to King Eurystheus as a gift. In some versions of the tale, he encounters his cousin Theseus during his time in Underworld and frees him from imprisonment by Hades, Lord of the Dead.

The Sphinx

Some monsters test a hero's mettle, others test their cunning. The Sphinx was a beast from foreign lands that took residence near Thebes and challenged those seeking passage to answer a riddle. Failure to answer correctly meant death.

Oedipus is so strongly associated with unknowingly murdering his own father and marrying his own mother (the Oedipus complex), that he hardly gets credit for his heroic deeds, which include confronting the Sphinx. It asked him the following riddle:

What goes on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening?

Oedipus correctly answered: a man, who crawls on four feet as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and relies on a stick in his old age. The Sphinx, defeated in this battle of wits, threw itself upon the ground and splintered into pieces.

Oedipus had proven the superiority of Greek intellect over this foreign influence. Unfortunately, his smarts couldn't prevent him from unknowingly fulfilling a prophecy that he would slay his father and marry his mother. The Sphinx would ultimately have the last laugh, as Oedipus failed to solve the greatest riddle of all; that of his own destiny.

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