Greek Monsters | Tales of Heroes’ & Gods’ Fearsome Enemies

Arnold_Böcklin_-_Odysseus_and_Polyphemus

Rather than existing to scare naughty children and warn people away from all things dark and watery, like many ancient mythologies, Greek monsters mainly exist as an enemy for gods and heroes to battle. They are often hybrids, and many of them are terrifying females.

 

In ancient Greek myths, mythological creatures exist in the past, during the age when gods walked on the earth. The Greeks did not believe that monsters were still among them, rather that this more magical time existed far in humanity’s past. This sense that magic once existed but no longer does is common to many cultures all over the world.

 

There are hundreds of monsters in Greek tales, but only a few consistently feature in centuries of ancient myth. We’ve put together a list of these formidable enemies, along with the main myth each of them feature in!

 

Quick list of Greek mythology monsters

One of the earliest known Archaic Sphinxes, from around 570 BC 

 

Cerberus – A three-headed dog who serves as companion to Hades and the guardian of the underworld.

 

Chimera – She breathes fire on her victims/opponents, and has the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and tail of a snake.

 

Gorgons – Three sisters with fangs, snakes for hair, and often wings; the most famous of these is Medusa.

 

Graeae – ‘The grey ones’; these are three women with one eye and one tooth shared between them.

 

Harpies – Monsters with the face of a woman and the body of a bird of prey.

 

Sphinx – ‘The Binder’; a creature with the head and chest of a woman, the body of a dog, front paws of a lion, wings, and a snake for a tail.

 

Typhon – A giant with a hundred snake-heads; he is the father of monsters.

 

Cyclopes – Giants with a single eye in the centre of their foreheads.

 

Erinyes/Furies – Spirits of divine vengeance, with snakes wound around their hair; they are often depicted holding whips and torches.

 

Echidna – With the upper body of a woman and a serpentine lower half, Echidna is the mother of many monsters and the mate of Typhon.

 

Monsters in Greek mythology

I’ve put together ancient descriptions of the mythical monsters, and a wider picture of who they are and what they look like. As well as the myths each of them feature in, and the heroes they battle!

 

Snake-haired Gorgons

Γοργών – gor-GON

 

Antefix with the head of a Gorgon, circa 400 BC

 

The Gorgons are one of the more widespread monster-myths – particularly the mortal sister, Medusa. The three Gorgons are sisters – Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa. All three can turn men into stone, but only Medusa is mortal, and in some stories, only she has snakes for hair, as the result of Athena’s curse.

 

Early myths describe these sisters as hideous, with scale-covered bodies, tusks, wings, and claws. A later Roman writer, Ovid, described the Gorgons as we know them now – extremely beautiful.

 

While the Gorgon sisters don’t appear in many myths, you’ll see their fearsome faces in a lot of Greek art and artefacts. This is because the Gorgoneion became a symbol to ward off evil, and was used on shields, breastplates, coins, doors, tombstones, etc.

 

Perseus and Medusa

Perseus is one of the most famous heroes in Greek mythology. His father, Zeus, impregnated his mortal mother as a rain of gold falling through the bars of the prison she was kept in by her father, who was told by the Oracle that his grandson would overthrow him.

 

But Perseus grew up big and strong, facing a number of hardships. Eventually, the man who was romantically pursuing his mother and wanted the son out of the way, sent Perseus to retrieve Medusa’s head. There was no other reason, really – the three sisters lived in a cave at the end of the world, so they weren’t much of a threat, despite their stoney abilities.

 

Perseus was aided in his task by the gods Hermes and Athena. They outfitted him with winged sandals, a sword or scythe, and a reflective bronze shield. So Perseus flew with winged feet to the island, and there he used the reflective shield to see Medusa indirectly and cut off her head. There wasn’t really a fight, as her ability lay in eye contact.

 

Perseus used Medusa’s snake-headed head to defeat his enemies for a while, turning them to stone long after she was dead. He did also end up killing his grandfather. And finally, he gave Medusa’s head to Athena, and she placed it on her shield. You’ll see the Gorgon’s head on most depictions of the warrior goddess.

 

Graeae, the Grey Sisters

Γραίες – gr-EYE-ess

 

‘Ceto bore old women fair of cheek, white haired from birth: the immortal gods and men who walk on earth call them the Old Women’ – Hesiod

 

Perseus Returning the Eye to the Graeae. By Henry Fuseli, between 1790 and 1800

 

The Graeae are fearsome sisters who share one eye and one tooth between them. They aren’t very physically intimidating, clearly, but don’t be ageist – even old ladies can be scary. Named Deino (terrible), Enyo (warlike) and Pemphredo (she who guides the way), these three women are, in some myths, the goddesses of old age. Their shared eye gives them great wisdom and knowledge, allowing them to see all.

 

The grey sisters are also sisters of the Gorgons. When these women were cursed by Athena for Medusa’s “indiscretion”, the Gorgons entrusted their ancient sisters with the location of their cave. For a long time, the Graeae kept this secret between them, safeguarding.

 

Perseus and the Graeae

That is, until one day Perseus was tasked with bringing back Medusa’s head. He travelled to the home of the Graeae to discover the location of the Gorgons. And as they were sharing the eye of wisdom, passing it between themselves, Perseus grabbed it, and threatened to throw it in the swamp/lake unless they told him what he wanted to know.

 

You’ll notice that the heroes don’t always act very heroically, but no one was too concerned about monsters’ feelings.

 

And so, fearing that they would have to spend eternity blind, the old women gave up the location of their sisters. In some versions of the tale, Perseus gave them back their eye, and in others, he rather cruelly threw it into the lake.

 

Harpies, the Snatchers

Άρπυια – AR-pee-ah

 

‘Bird-bodied, girl-faced things they (Harpies) are; abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable’ – Virgil

 

Detail from the Harpy tomb in Lycia, circa 480 BC

 

Harpies are described a number of ways, sometimes as beautiful winged women, sometimes as birds with beautiful female faces, and sometimes as hideous winged creatures who dress really badly.

 

These monsters are wind-spirits, and are known to carry off people’s food, as well as, at times, the people themselves. Usually, they are carrying off evildoers to the vengeance-seeking Erinyes, or in the service of Zeus. They’re also known to carry the dead to Tartarus, tormenting them cruelly on the way.

 

King Phineus and the Harpies

The Harpies’ most famous role in ancient Greek literature is as the punishment for King Phineus’ betrayal of the gods. According to the most common form of this tale, this Tracian king was given the power of prophecy by none other than Zeus himself. But the king, perhaps shocked by what this prophecy foretold or seeking personal glory, revealed the god’s plan to mortal men.

 

For this crime, Zeus punished Phineus by blinding him, and depositing him on an island. Here, the god presented a buffet of food to the king, but sent the harpies to snatch away or befoul his food before he could ever satisfy his hunger.

 

Saved by the Argonauts

Thankfully, King Phineus was eventually saved from this dreadful fate during Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece. When they passed the king’s small island, they saw the scene (which had been going on a long time), and they could not pass without helping. When they approached the old man, he told them his tale, and they promised to rid him of the harpies if he could tell them which course to take on the treacherous seas.

 

The Boreads, sons of the North Wind, were among the group. These two could fly, and so it fell to them to aid the old man. They flew after the Harpies, and in most tales, were about to kill them before the goddess Iris stopped them. She promised that the creatures would harm Phineus no more.

 

Sphinx, the Binder

Σφίγξ – ss-FEE-gz

 

Guardian sphinx facing right. Left panel from a gable attributed to Building H in the Acropolis of Xanthos in Lycia, ca. 460 BC

 

In Egyptian mythology, the Sphinx is famous as a fearsome and benevolent guardian figure; in Greek mythology she is a merciless monster. Although it’s good to note that Sphinxes were often used on Greek grave steles as guardians to the dead. So religion and common practice may have diverged here.

 

She too is the offspring of Echidna and Typhon’s pairing (or the child of the Chimera and two-headed dog Orthrus, depending on sources). She has the tail and the body of a lion, the wings of a bird, and a woman’s face.

 

The Sphinx’s original depiction is imported or influenced by Greece’s ties with Egypt, and even in her myth, she came from the upper Nile region. She was sent by the vindictive mother goddess Hera to guard the entrance to the city Thebes as punishment for some crime.

 

The Sphinx and Oedipus

 

This is our photo of a gold signet ring from a Mycenaean tomb – currently exhibited at The National Archeological Museum in Athens

 

This monster is famous for a riddle that is still asked today – although the stakes are lowered these days. When someone tried to enter the city, she asked them her riddle. But she always received the wrong answer, and would swiftly devour them. No one was able to enter the city.

 

The riddle goes “What being has four legs, then two, and then three?”, and in some versions,  “What has four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening?”.

 

Eventually, the Sphinx’s lair was littered with the bones of the dead. The king of Thebes was desperate to save his kingdom, and finally offered the city to anyone who could solve the riddle and save his people.

 

Oedipus, the tragic hero who accidentally fulfilled the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and gave his name to Freud’s Oedipus Complex, came upon Thebes while fleeing Corinth. He was given the riddle, and after giving it some thought, replied, “A man, who crawls on hands and knees in childhood, walks erect when grown, and with the aid of a stick in his old age” (Apollodorus).

 

Upon hearing the correct answer, the Sphinx jumped off the cliff rock she rested on, killing herself. And the people were saved.

 

Snake-headed giant Typhon

Τυφάων – tee-FOW-on

 

Chalcidian black-figured hydria. Side B: Zeus preparing to strike Typhon with lightning, circa 540 – 530 BC

 

Typhon, or Typhoeus, is the father of monsters, the most fearsome and deadly of all creatures. He is actually a god – the son of Gaia (Mother Earth) and Tartarus (the primordial personification of a dark abyss, which lay far below Hades and is used as a horrid prison).

 

Most writers describe Typhon as a giant with a hundred snake heads emerging from his shoulders and emitting the sounds of every creature and noise, as well as fire! He has many arms, often serpentine coils for feet, great wings, and the only humanoid part of him is his immense torso. All in all, a god so incredible that he cannot really be physically depicted – which is probably why he very rarely is.

 

Zeus and Typhon’s battle for the cosmos

Zeus and Typhon had many battles, the most important of which followed the Titanomachy. The Titans were Typhons siblings, and when they were sent to Tartarus, the monster-god raged and challenged Zeus for the rule of the cosmos.

 

When they fought, the land and sea seethed with the heat of Typhon’s fire and Zeus’s lightning. The Olympian gods balked at such might, and took on animal forms to hide from his fury. But when Typhon moved to take Mount Olympus, Zeus gathered the last of his strength.

 

‘So when Zeus had raised up his might and seized his arms, thunder and lightning and lurid thunderbolt, he leaped from Olympus and struck him, and burned all the marvellous heads of the monster about him.’ – Hesiod

 

Zeus zapped him with a hundred thunderbolts, raining unceasing fire on the monstrous form. Then, when Typhon’s energy was spent and his blood poured over the earth, Zeus threw the monster to the ground, bound him, and locked him away in Tartarus to join his Titan brethren there.

 

The one-eyed giant Cyclopes

Κύκλωπες – KEE-klo-pess

 

‘The Cyclopes, a fierce, lawless people who never lift a hand to plant or plough but just leave everything to the immortal gods’ – Homer

 

Funerary proto-Attic amphora. Odysseus and his men blinding the cyclops Polyphemus. By the Polyphemos Painter, circa 660 BC

 

The Cyclopes aren’t an evil people – rather, they’re a lazy bunch, who live in caves rather than building houses. Their island is verdant, offering them everything they need. But if someone does choose to step on this land and pose a threat, the cyclops are a fearful enemy. Sometimes, they also like the taste of human.

 

Of course, this is only according to some myths. In others, these one-eyed giants are metalworkers and craftsmen – still not evil – who help Hephaestus in his great forges. The earlier myths have them this way. Sons of Gaia and Ouranus, they are imprisoned in Tartarus by their sibling Titans, before Zeus frees them. For this, they give him his signature thunderbolt. ‘

 

They’re also considered accountable for building the immense Cyclopean walls of various Greek Acropoli, including the famous Acropolis of Athens.

 

Polyphemus is perhaps the most famous of the Cyclopes. He is the son of Poseidon and the sea nymph Phoosa and is often portrayed humorously, seeking romance while unaware of his massive size and musical incompetence. In later portrayals, he is a more impressive character, successfully wooing the ladies and producing good music.

 

Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus

Arnold Böcklin’s 1896 Odysseus and Polyphemus, Odysseus boasting at the helm of the ship while Polyphemus hurls a rock

 

Homer’s Odyssey is the best and earliest portrayal of Polyphemus and Odysseus. In the epic poem, our hero lands on the shores of the Cyclopes’ island while travelling home after the Trojan War. He and his men enter a cave stocked with provisions – Polyphemus’ cave.

 

When he finds them there, the giant scoffs at the important tradition of hospitality. He eats some of Odysseus’ men, trapping the rest of them inside the cave with a giant boulder. The next night, Odysseus gets the one-eyed giant drunk on undiluted wine, and when Polyphemus drunkenly asks him his name, he replies ‘Ούτις’, meaning ‘nobody’.

 

The giant falls into a drunken slumber. While he sleeps, Odysseus and his men sharpen and harden a stick in the fire, and drive it into Polyphemus’s single eye. He wakes with a roar and calls out to the other cyclopes. But his cry, that ‘Nobody’ has hurt him, makes them believe it is a divine affliction, not some little mortal. So they recommend prayer.

 

In the morning (after, I’m sure, a pretty harrowing night for the cyclops), he lets his sheep out to graze. Odysseus and his men have very cleverly tied themselves to the underbellies of the sheep, allowing them to escape undetected!

 

The men cram onto their boat and push off land, the cyclops realising their trick and roaring behind them. But they get out to sea in time, and Polyphemus throws rocks but does not hit them. In a foolish act of hubris, Odysseus boastfully tells him his real name now that they’re safe. But Polyphemus prays to his father Poseidon to curse this puny mortal, and Odysseus ends up unable to find his way home for a decade.

 

Erinyes/Furies, spirits of divine vengeance

Ερινύες – er-in-EE-ess

 

‘the Erinyes, that under earth take vengeance on men, whosoever hath sworn a false oath’ – Homer

 

Orestes Pursued by the Furies. By William Bouguereau, 1862

 

The Erinyes are chthonic deities of vengeance. In most myths, they are primordial, born from the blood of Ouranos which fell when his son Kronos castrated him. Or the children of Hades and Nyx, the goddess of night. There are an indeterminate number of Erinyes, but Virgil, and later Dante Alighieri, portrayed three women; many artistic depictions follow suit.

 

Erinyes have hair, arms and waists entwined with snakes. They are winged and ugly, often with bat’s wings and/or dog heads. They pursue their victims relentlessly, often wielding whips. These women do not always appear in physical form – rather, they can also manifest as madness or disease.

 

Orestes punished by the Erinyes

One of my favourite ancient plays is Aeschylus’s Oresteia, a chronological sequel to Homer’s Iliad.

 

In the Iliad, King Agamemnon coldly sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis, praying for good weather for their trip to Troy to fight in the Trojan War. Rough. The Trojan wars then happen, and the Oresteia picks up after that.

 

The first play of the Oresteia trilogy starts before Agamemnon gets back from the war. When he returns, his wife, Clytemnestra, kills him for sacrificing their daughter. And then, in the second play, Orestes (the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) returns home to kill his mother. There’s a lot going on.

 

This brief moment where Orestes kills his mom is where the Erinyes come in (sorry, it’s not the most exciting monster-based story – more of a broody drama than a gory action flick). Because the Erinyes were born from a crime committed by a child against his parent, they are particularly prone to avenging cases like this. So they arrive to torment the poor Orestes, driving him mad.

 

Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog

Κέρβερος – KER-ve-ros

 

‘An impossible creature, unspeakable, the ravening Cerberus, Hades’ dog with a voice of bronze’ – Hesiod

 

Black-figure hydria. Side A: Herakles, Cerberus and Eurystheus, circa 525 BC

 

Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed dog, guards the entrance to the dark Underworld, ensuring that no one escapes (as, in Greek mythology, this Underworld is an actual physical place, technically reachable from our Middle Earth).

 

In most stories, the dog has three heads, but in others he has up to fifty! He also has a snake for a tail, and in some myths, snakes sprouting up from other parts of his body, too. He is the offspring of two other ancient Greek monsters on the list, Echidna and Typhon.

 

Herakles and Cerberus

The last and most dangerous of Herakles’ Twelve Labours was to go down to the Underworld and kidnap the monstrous dog. King Eurystheus, who presented Herakles with the Labours, believed this task to be simply impossible, as Cerberus was famous as the impassable guard.

 

Herakles was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and encountered various heroes and creatures on his underground travels. No mortal man had ever returned from Hades, but Herakles was reasonably confident, with Zeus as his father and a slew of successful labours beneath his belt.

 

Finally, the hero found the god Hades, and asked him to borrow his dog (basically). Hades said yes, provided Herakles could win a fight against the beast with his bare hands. And Herakles did, grappling Cerberus, being bit by the dog’s snake-tail, and fighting him until he had him under submission.

 

But Cerberus’ story is unusual! Because after being dragged up, presented to Eurystheus and paraded around for a little ooh-and-aahing, Cerberus was returned to Hades and his guard-dog role, with nothing amiss but a little wounded pride.

 

Chimaera, fire-breathing monster

Χίμαιρα – HEE-meh-ra (but the H is like the H in hummus if you say it properly)

 

‘Chimaera, who breathed invincible fire, a terrible great creature, swift-footed and strong’ – Hesiod

 

Etruscan bronze statue depicting the legendary monster. It was originally part of a group with Bellerophon and Pegasus, c. 400 BC

 

Another offspring of the frightening Echidna and Typhon, and sibling to Cerberus, the Chimaera has the body of a lion and, again, a snake for a tail, as well as a goat head that breathes fire protruding from the lion’s back!

 

The creative pairing of these parts have led the term ‘chimera’ to mean anything made of disparate parts, and even has a role in genetics!

 

Bellerophon and the Chimaera

Pebble mosaic depicting Bellerophon killing Chimaera, circa 300 – 270 BC

 

But back to the creature itself – she was ‘a bane to many men’ (Homer), before the Corinthian hero Bellerophon came a-calling. Bellerophon is the son of Poseidon, and famed tamer of the winged horse Pegasus.

 

According to the myth, Bellerophon was accused of raping a queen after she had fallen in love with him and been rejected. He was sent to the queen’s father, who set for the hero the impossible task of killing the Chimaera, hoping that instead, he would be killed.

 

So Bellerophon flew with Pegasus, his trusty steed, and found the fearsome creature. But it was an unfair fight, as the hero could remain in the air, and shoot arrows at it from above. He was, however, blasted with fearsome fire. But finally he had weakened the creature enough to get up close.

 

He attached a lump of lead to the end of his spear, and plunged it straight into the monster’s mouth (one of them). The fire in her throat melted the lead, and it poured into her stomach and solidified her innards.

 

Echidna

Έχιδνα – EH-hee-thna (hee like hummus as for chimaera!)

 

‘The wondrous Echidna stern of heart, who is half a nymph with fair cheeks and curling lashes, and half a monstrous serpent, terrible and huge, glinting and ravening, down in the hidden depths of the numinous earth’ – Hesiod

 

A version of the Echidna, in an unknown location

 

As Hesiod’s description says, Echidna is a monstrous hybrid, the upper half of her a beautiful woman, the lower a coiling serpent. Echidna is very seldom depicted or discussed, but I wanted to include her, because she is the mother of many of the monsters on our list.

 

Echidna’s parentage is foggy, but most say she was child of the primordial sea deities Porcys and Ceto. Or, like her mate Typhon, her parents are Gaia and Tartarus. And that’s it! She does not have a hero to slay her, she is eternal.

 

Last thoughts on Greek monsters and the heroes that battle them

So there you have it! The most famous monsters in Greek mythology. Some of these are considered gods, others spirits or daemons, but all are the progeny of divinity.

 

What I love about the creatures of Greek mythology is that because they exist far in the past, they can be absolutely incredible with little connection to reality. They aren’t the personification of human fears around murky water or dark forests or failing crops. What do you think of these monsters and their role in Greek myths and understanding of the world?

 

Ancient sources

Hesiod, Theogony. Translated by M. L. West, 1988

Homer, Odyssey. Translated by E. V. Rieu, 2003

Homer. The Iliad. Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924

Apollodorus, The Library. Translated by J. G. Frazer, 1921

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