The Mythology of Greek Monsters’ by Heather Rae
Mythology is used to make sense of the world, to explain why things are as they are, from natural phenomena like volcanoes and the weather to human behaviour and society. Greek myths describe the lives of gods and heroes, their loves, interactions with other gods and mortals, and their battles with monsters.
Monsters make up a fair amount of the Greek mythical corpus – there are harpies, gorgons, giants, centaurs, satyrs, sirens, the minotaur, the chimera, werewolves, vampiric phantoms, the many-headed hydra, the sphinx, and other beings who threaten the society which the gods and heroes protect.
Monsters may walk among the people, but they tend to be found on the borders of the known world, acting as warnings or fantasies about the sort of people who may be encountered on a journey into the unknown, as well as being a way to explore the limits of human behaviour.
Their excessive, immoral, or threatening behaviour makes them monsters, but so do their bodies.Today I’m going to show you the changes in representation of the bodies of two female monsters: the gorgon Medusa and the dog-woman Scylla, and a race of male monsters: the Gigantes, Giants who attack the gods. I’m going to look at literature and art together because I think this a good way to get a comprehensive idea of how the monster is represented in Greek culture.
In particular I’m going to talk to you about the significance of the dual bodies of hybrid monsters. There tends to be a progression in the visual representations of the monsters we will look at from the Archaic monster to the human-animal hybrid that was popular in the fifth century B.C. Both representations equal monster, but for different reasons.
This progression in art is particularly obvious in Medusa. Medusa was the mortal gorgon, one of a set of three daughters of Ketos and Phorkys, a monster and a god. Medusa’s genealogy places her squarely within a monster typology: her sister Enchidna is described as ‘another impossible monster’ in Hesiod’s Theogony of the eighth century B.C., which suggests that Medusa, listed before her, is also an ‘impossible monster.’
The gorgons lived beyond Oceanus, hard by Night at the world’s edge. The liminality of her geographical location reflects the gorgon as a liminal figure between the categories of divine, human, animal and monster. As the only mortal gorgon, Medusa is the one who can be slain by Perseus.
To summarise the heroic myth: Perseus has to bring Polydectes, king of Seriphos, the head of Medusa, a supposedly impossible task that the king imposes so that he can marry Perseus mother without Perseus interfering. However, the goddess Athena gives Perseus her polished shield so that he does not have to look directly at the gorgon, whose gaze is supposed to turn men to stone. Hermes gives him his winged sandals for the journey, and the nymphs give him a cap of darkness, a super-sharp sword, and a bag.
After visiting the Graiae, who share one eye, Perseus finds the three gorgons asleep. He uses the gifts of the gods and nymphs to conceal himself and decapitate Medusa without looking at her face. From her neck, the warrior Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus are born. On his return journey he rescues Andromeda from a sea-monster, and marries her. Perseus uses the gorgon’s head to turn all who challenge his right to Andromeda to stone. He then uses the head against Polydectes, freeing his mother.
As you can see from that summary of the myth, the emphasis is on Perseus. What about the monster Medusa? The earliest sources describe her as a snake-haired creature whose gaze turns people to stone. Like most Greek myths, the legend of Medusa has more than one version depicted in literature and art, and art can provide evidence for the existence of a story in the oral tradition (or in the imagination of a particular artist) where there is no surviving or corresponding literature. In art, Medusa appears in two basic forms – the gorgoneion (which is the head only) and the hybrid woman-gorgon, whose body and face become progressively more human in Greek art.
The gorgoneion, the gorgon’s head, is usually bearded, not specifically feminine and characterised by the wide, fanged grin with protruding tongue. It appears before the bodied gorgon in both literature and art. It the terror of Hades in the Odyssey, connecting it to death. The gorgoneion has been interpreted, among other things, as a death mask, an underworld demon, and as an apotropaic device, a horror to avert horror, to protect the bearer from harm, and inspire fear in enemies, such as when she is a shield device.
Perseus can then be considered as an addition to the myth to explain how the gorgon’s head was decapitated. His name comes from the Greek verb perqein, meaning to waste or slay, and the older sources depict only the beheading – this was his role in her story, not her’s in his.
With the narrative element of how she is beheaded, the gorgon gains a body. Like the gorgoneion, the Archaic bodied gorgon had curled hair which could blend into a beard, pierced ears, a flat nose, wide eyes, a wide grinning mouth with bared teeth, fangs and the characteristic protruding tongue. She was depicted with wings and with snakes on her head, in her hair or around her waist. Judging from their common appearance on funeral pots, snakes were associated with death.
The gorgon is depicted face-on in contrast to the artistic convention at this time of painting figures in profile. This stance emphasises interaction between image and viewer, suggesting the power of her gaze. The older sources depict only the moment before or after the beheading, suggesting that this is the crux of the myth.
Yet the decapitation of a monster is not the whole story. Hesiod terms the gorgon ‘Medusa with a grim fate’, perhaps alluding to her unwarranted decapitation by Perseus (though a petrifier of men, she does not set out to cause harm, staying home in her cave and possibly unable to control her power). Her grim fate is also implied in later Roman versions of her myth which give her own story as a beautiful human girl, raped by the god Poseidon in Athena’s temple.
The goddess is enraged at such behaviour in her temple, but true to patriarchal values, directs her wrath at Medusa. She transforms Medusa’s hair (which initially attracted Poseidon) into snakes and curses her with the power of petrification, dooming her to isolation. While this version of the myth is a Roman one by Ovid, the progressive humanization of Medusa in Greek art, which we are about to look at, suggests a correlation between the stories of the Roman Medusa in literature and the Greek one in art.
Between the fifth and late second centuries B.C the gorgon gains a neck and the size of the head becomes proportional to the body, creating a hybrid figure with gorgon head and female human body. She is shown in profile as a sleeping victim.
Artistic conventions which highlighted the gorgon as female were in place by the fifth century B.C. when the gorgon pursuing Perseus has white female flesh and is clad in an Ionic chiton, reflecting the fashion of the time. Her face is still a conventional gorgon mask, indicating that the female is seen as monstrous and threatening by the combination of a female body and a monstrous head.
Overlapping with this development is the type of gorgon who appears in art after the fourth century B.C. There is no beard, no fangs, no rictus grin. There may be wings attached to the head or body, but for the most part Medusa is now a human female in form, as is her severed head. She still has snakes for hair, but her features are human.
The images I’ve just shown you indicate a progression in the depiction of the gorgon. From the grinning monster, a bodiless head appropriated by Perseus and Athena, she becomes a sleeping (sometimes beautiful) victim. Her winged (hybrid) body and feminised head show that she represents the monstrosity of the female body.
The gendered nature of her monstrosity, or the monstrosity in her gender, is clear in her reproductive capability – as I’ve mentioned, she gives birth from her neck to Pegasus and Chrysaor as she is dying (this is described in Hesiod’s Theogony from the eighth century B.C.), and in the third century B.C. Apollonius describes how drops of blood from her severed head produce venomous snakes when they come into contact with the earth. The birth from her neck emphasises the sense of monstrousness underlying Greek ideas about reproduction and pollution.
The development in the gorgon’s portrayal also reflects the attitudes of the society that produced these images. In the myths, the gorgon’s head is only used against men, one striking example described by Pausanias being Perseus attack on Dionysus satyrs and maenads in Argos he petrifies the satyrs, but strikes the women down with his sword. Is it the case that the gorgon’s gaze does not affect women?
Or if the gorgon is only threatening to men, is it to do with her monstrosity in appearance, a by-product of her true meaning to the Greek male – the representation of that scary Other, the female and her body? Pandora, the mythical first woman, was known as the kalon kakon, the ‘beautiful evil’, a clear indication of the Greek ambiguous attitude toward women.
A slightly different perspective on the monstrosity of the female body is the externalisation of the monstrous way in which it is used by men – Medusa is raped by Poseidon and becomes the snake-haired Gorgon as punishment for his violation of Athena’s temple. The victim is further victimised and so becomes a source of horror to detract from the male’s responsibility for her condition, playing into the idea of the female as inherently bad, something that is expressed in literature from the eighth century B.C. Like Hesiod’s race of ‘deadly’ women, Ovid’s raped gorgon is the ‘dread Medusa’, whose head is worn by Athena to terrify her enemies.
The progression in representations of Medusa shows how the female body is hybridised to indicate the monstrosity and Otherness of the female gender, and so myth is used to explain the Greek world-view. This can also be seen in the development of the monster Scylla, who is the female made bestial in appearance and behaviour.
She is a man-eater with wild dogs adjoined to her body. Like Medusa, Scylla lives on the edges of the known world, the realm of monsters, and her myth is intertwined with that of a hero, in her case, Odysseus and his journey home. Odysseus must sail past Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis in order to progress with his journey. The semi-divine witch, Circe, warns him that both are dangerous, and avoiding one means sailing past the other.
The whirlpool will destroy his whole ship; Scylla will eat six of his crew. Circe instructs him to choose Scylla as the lesser of two evils, but to hide from Scylla because she cannot be defeated. Odysseus attempts to fight her anyway, but is unsuccessful, and she eats six of his men.
According to Homer, Scylla is a monster with twelve legs, six necks with ‘frightful’ heads atop and three rows of teeth ‘full of dark death’. Since the heads and her body are left to the imagination, the noise Scylla makes seems to have aided the artists in their interpretation. The dog-like yelps which she emits, and are indicated in her name (sku&lac means puppy in Greek) may have inspired artwork depicting a many-legged, dog-headed monster beside a ship.
There is a proto-type in Eastern art – this tenth-century B.C gold bowl depicts a sea-god with dog-heads protruding from his back. The association with dogs connects Scylla to nature and a threatening nature at that – in literature dogs are carrion-eaters associated with death and unburied corpses, and even the more domesticated are regarded in this way: in the Iliad, Priam wonders whether Hector’s body is still beside the ships, or whether Achilles has already cast him to his dogs. The cave in which Scylla consumes her victims is a ‘dread chasm’, and she, an ‘immortal evil terrible and fierce’. The ‘immortal evil’ is not a goddess and so her immortality is as threatening as her man-eating. She is apparently impossible to outwit or defeat in any way.
Odysseus’ encounter with Scylla shows that strength is useless against the ‘evil monster’. Usually a god provides a hero with the knowledge or means to overcome a monster, as we saw in the Medusa/Perseus myth. Circe, however, can only tell Odysseus how to prevent a second attack and so a first must occur and Scylla eats six of his companions.
Since her swift and inevitable attack could not be defeated, Scylla symbolised power and might. She appeared on late fifth and early fourth-century B.C. coins as a many-headed monster, aligning the city state with her unstoppable form of attack – perhaps as a symbol of imperialist power.
However, Scylla’s development in iconography mirrors that of Medusa. She begins as the Homeric monster with no significantly female attributes. The many-headed marine canine (Homer’s six-headed dog whose lower half is underwater) is the oldest type of representation, although this only appears from approximately 460 B.C, which is quite late on for images of mythical monsters, usually a popular subject – this may be because Scylla cannot be defeated, and archaic images of monsters were usually part of a heroic encounter where the hero always wins. Soon after the monster Scylla appears in art, images of a hybrid also appear.
This Scylla has a human female torso and head (her hair is elaborately set and in a head-band) and she has a fish-tail protruding from under her skirt. Sometimes she wields a sword. The alteration to a human body indicates that the female form and female action outside of accepted roles was regarded as threatening in an androcentric society.
In addition to the beautiful fish-human hybrid, are images of a woman with dog heads sprouting from her shoulders or waist, as well as having the fish tail. While the feminisation of Scylla can be seen as an attempt to civilise female monstrosity, what I think this actually shows is anxiety about the female and the female body in particular, thus playing up the idea of the female as monstrous.
The beautiful Scylla mirrors the changing iconography of Medusa from archaic monster to classical hybrid. And, like Medusa, Scylla has her own myth in Latin literature (again Ovid) in which she is a beautiful human girl, who either betrays her father and then throws herself into the sea, becoming a fishy monster, or one who refuses the love of the sea-god Glaukus and then has her bath-water poisoned by the witch Circe in revenge. Circe’s drugs cause the dog heads to sprout from her waist. The Latin poet Hyginus claims that Scylla’s revenge for this action lies in attacking (male) sailors. Like Medusa, she is a threatening female for men.
The changing representations from the monstrous to the feminised in these female monsters points to ideas about the female’s potential for monstrosity, highlighting anxiety about the female as the definitions of gender roles were being developed in Greek society. The Periclean laws of 451/450 B.C. defined the role of women in Greek society through defining citizenship.
Women were seen as an extension of their male relatives or as the property of their husbands. The contradictions in the legal and social positions of women (they were needed for the continuation of oikos and state and had to be regarded as ‘citizens’ to produce citizen sons) possibly led to views on how a woman should behave. At this time, following the Persian wars, the male population was low, and it was considered important to marry a good woman. There was an increase and emphasis in law and literature on notions of purity and an increase in advice to women on chastity and not being perceived as a prostitute by wearing too much make-up.
Beauty contests in fifth and fourth-century Athens show that beauty in women at this time centred on sexual morality and good management of the household, as well as natural physical beauty, not the contrived beauty achieved by cosmetics. For men, the contests were about manliness, strength and physical beauty shown in an athletic and healthy body. The winners had a role in dedications or the performance of religious rites, showing how they were prized and praised for their qualities.
The unrealistic ideals in literature exhorting women not to use cosmetics (which in daily life were part of a bride’s ritual preparation) suggest a historical context of changes at Athens. The Persian wars left an imbalance in population, which led to anxieties over citizenship, legitimacy and inheritance. Stress was placed on female chastity, and the external was considered symbolic of life-style choices. I think that these concerns are mirrored in the changing forms of the female monsters at this time, as it is in the fifth century that Medusa and Scylla are most hybridised.
Which leads to the question: Do male monsters also display gendered monstrosity in their body forms and behaviour? We’ve looked at two female monsters who become hybrids, what about male monsters who become hybrids? This pattern only seems to occur for the Gigantes.
To summarise their myth: Gaia, Earth, has had enough of having sex with Ouranos, Sky, and so she convinces her son, Cronos to castrate him. Cronos does this while Ouranos is having sex with Gaia. The blood and sperm spurt everywhere, some landing on the earth, and thus the Gigantes are born. They are characterised by their great size, strength, and war-like natures and they decide to attack the Olympian gods in a bid to rule the earth. Their impiety and excessive masculine traits are punished by the gods after they defeat them.
As an overly large humanoid, the giant shows human nature in excess, usually violent or hubristic excess linked to the fact that giants are male. Over time, though, the Gigantes change from warriors to barbarians to hybrids in Greek art, gaining them increasingly monstrous bodies to reflect their monstrous behaviour. Is the connection between body and behaviour in these figures simply seen in moral terms, or, as for the female monsters, does it relate to the views on gender of the culture that produces these figures?
Hesiod is the first to write of the Gigantes origins. In his section on the castration of Ouranos in the Theogony Earth receives the drops of blood and bears the Gigantes, ‘shining in their armour, holding long spears in their hands’. This description immediately associates them with battle and a war-like nature, as it directly follows their birth.
These associations are found in archaic art, in which they are presented as hoplites (the citizen-soldiers of Greek city-states), as for example on the North frieze of the Siphnian treasury at Delphi. Early depictions of the battle between Gigantes and gods focused on the martial element, presenting the giants as warriors with conventional armour and weaponry.
On the treasury frieze, Apollo and Artemis attack the Gigantes, who are formed into a phalanx, a battle-line of hoplites with overlapping shields. While the phalanx suggests united strength, this image is juxtaposed with a dead giant lying stripped on the ground. The lion drawing the chariot of Themis, the goddess of law and order, also shows the ultimate vulnerability of the Gigantes to the superior force of the gods by bringing down one of the giants.
This is one of the few depictions of a hoplite phalanx in Greek art (and the only one in archaic art), and since the phalanx was a characteristic aspect of Greek warfare, its presentation is significant. Here, its significance is not what might be expected (for example, civic virtue), but is associated with the impious Gigantes. Since the hoplite was a fairly constant model of Greek manhood, and the giants represent excessive behaviour, the combination of hoplite armour and giant form then emphasizes their impiety and excessive masculinity. Morals and masculinity were linked in the Greek concept of manliness.
While the Gigantes presentation as hoplite warriors in art brings out the theme of impiety against the civilized Olympian order, as well as that of excessive masculinity, opposition to the civilized order has another effect on the presentation of the giants. Homer described giants as ‘insolent’, ‘reckless’, and ‘wild’. While these giants are not directly identified as the Gigantes who fight the gods, the theme of wild and insolent giants corresponds to those who challenge the gods and the civilized order.
This theme is emphasised in art of the fifth century B.C. and becomes common by the fourth century B.C. The Gigantes are now clad only in animal-skin cloaks and use rocks for weapons, their non-textile cloaks and nudity beneath the cloaks operating with their natural weapons to indicate their primitivism and wildness.
This barbaric aspect to the Gigantes became even more prominent in art after the mid-fifth century B.C. Barbarians were seen as monstrous by Greeks, whose ethnographies of this time present other cultures as inferior in terms of morality and social norms, and even as marvellously Other to the point of monstrosity. Making the Gigantes into barbarians increases the perceived monstrosity in their forms, demonstrating that they and their behaviour were seen as socially and morally unacceptable.
The impious aspect of the barbaric Gigantes is also expressed in art after the mid-fifth century B.C. through the positioning of giants and gods. It is after this point that the gods are placed higher than the Gigantes on vases, rather than being level with them.
Placing gods above and giants below visually reflects the place of each in the Greek view of morality. The Gigantes display hubris, a hard concept to define in English, but one that encompasses intent to insult or harm, and indicates an arrogant pride. The Athenian concept of hubris also comprised sexual excess, greed, lawlessness, offence to the state, and self-indulgent behaviour – a definition which could describe several types of male monster, such as centaurs and the giants.
The giants express masculinity in excess through their overly large and nude bodies, as well as in their violent and impious behaviour. In Greece, the ideal body was the young athletic or warrior male. While the nude in Greek art was a purified representation of human nature, monsters express the aspects of human nature that are omitted from the ideal. The Giants’ ferocity, and their use of primitive weapons, such as boulders and branches present them as wild, excessive men, acting against the social order.
Having transformed from warriors to barbarians in Greek art, the next stage in the Gigantes presentation was as hybrids, furthering their association with the wild.
The trend of serpent-footed giants began in literature of the eighth century B.C. with Typhoeus, the snake-legged giant who dared to attack Zeus. In addition to the animal act of biting making the hybrid giant a ferocious creature, a moral application of the hybrid form is suggested by the comparison to Typhoeus. Likewise, the Gigantes attack the gods, and their socially/morally monstrous behaviour leads to a monstrous form. The hybrid bodies of the giants display their wildness and immorality, beyond the giant form symbolising the excess they demonstrate.
The excess of the giants is related to the Greek concept of masculinity. Masculinity is a complex concept separate from biological sex. The Greek concept of manliness, andreia, had ethical and political connotations, as well as martial. What constitutes a masculine man changes according to social, political and historical context. Luckily, the qualities that are typical of the monstrous masculine seem to be fairly constant over the periods under discussion. These qualities are about excess and lack. Giants are Herculean bodies modified into Otherness by being overlarge, or hybridized making them automatically excessive men, and they demonstrate this excess (and a lack of self-control, the big issue for Greeks and Romans) in their behaviour.
Unlike the discussions in literature about appropriate behaviour for women, the examples for men are a little less direct. Speeches detailing accusations of improper behaviour give evidence for what was considered proper and improper for Athenian men, as do literary genres like comedy. However, the excessive behaviour in these sources is usually to do with indulgent behaviour – sexual excess, or over consumption of food and drink. The places where dangerous and violent behaviour are explored seem to be ethnography (threatening races found outside Greece) and mythology (heroes and monsters).
It is in becoming a hybrid that the moral comment on the Gigantes is made clear. The hybrid giant shows that the hybrid form is used to express certain things about character and behaviour, so that the giant is not only an excessive and proud human, but also a primitive, wild and monstrous being. That the hybrid form is associated with the Gigantes who take on the gods shows that the Gigantomachy has a particular function in defining the Gigantes by their behaviour. This excessive behaviour is then related to their monstrous bodies and monstrous excessive masculinity. Like the female monsters, the giants relate to the moral attitudes of the culture that produced them. The example of the Gigantes shows that impiety, pride, and violence are punished by the ruling order – they are soundly defeated by the gods.
So, fictional monstrous bodies represent the extremes of human behaviour and can act as warnings or threats concerning social activity: female hybrid monsters like Medusa and Scylla express ideas about female behaviour and bodies, while the male hybrid Gigantes explore the constraints of social morality in their impiety and excessive masculinity. Greek myths, and monsters in particular, were used to explain Greek life.
- Slide 1. Medusa head http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/10700/10702/medusa_10702_lg.gif; Skylla http://www.pureeviltm.com/justice/scylla.jpg Imperial Roman marble sarcophagus, 2nd century A.D. Vatican Gallery of Statues 549. LIMC V. 1994. Gigantes. Figure 502. ZÃ¼rich, Artemis Verlaag.
- Slide 2. Black-figure amphora. c.550-40 B.C. Paris, Louvre, F53. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/L3.5B.html
- Slide 3. Metope, Temple C, Selinus. Late 6th C. B.C. Palermo, Museo Archeologico Nationale. Carpenter, Thomas. 1991. Art and Myth in Ancient Greece: a Handbook. Figure 154. London: Thames and Hudson
- Slide 4. Black-figure hydria, c.450-440 B.C. Richmond, Virginia Museum, 62.1.1. http://www.class.uidaho.edu/monsters/ivan/images/gallery/Athena_Perseus_Medusa_Nausi.jpg
- Slide 5. Attic red-figure amphora, c.490 B.C. Munich, Antikensammlungen, 2312. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/P23.1B.html
- Slide 6. Red-figure hydria, c.500-450. London, British Museum, E181. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/P23.7.html
- Slide 7. Apulian red-figure krater, c.400-385 B.C., Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1970.237. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/P23.2.html
- Slide 8. Skylla statue group c.4-26 A.D., Sperlonga, Sperlonga Museo Nazionale. http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Arts/Polyphemos/ScyllaRec.jpg
- Slide 9. Gold bowl, 10th C. B.C. Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Museum. Hanfmann, George M. A. 1987. The Scylla of Corvey and Her Ancestors. Figure 8. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 41, 249-60
- Slide 10. Terracotta Skylla c.460-50 B.C. London, British Museum, GR 1867.5-8.673. http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Images/SkyllaBM621.jpg
- Slide 11. Red-figure krater, c.450-25. Paris, Louvre, CA 1341. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/P27.4.html
- Slide 12. Red-figure amphora, c. 400-390 B.C. Paris, Louvre S1677. http://www.theoi.com/Gallery/L20.1.html
- Slide 13. North frieze of Siphnian Treasury, c. 530-25 B.C., Delphi. Woodford, Susan. 2003. Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity. Figure 90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Slide 14. Attic red-figure hydria, c.480 B.C. London, British Museum E165. LIMC V. 1994. Gigantes. Figure 329. ZÃ¼rich, Artemis Verlaag.
- Slide 15. Apulian red-figure krater c.350 B.C. St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum B1714. Rae, Heather. 2010. The Politics of Monstrosity: Giant Bodies and Behaviour in Classical and Renaissance Literature and Art. eSharp 16. Figure 3. http://www.gla.ac.uk/departments/esharp/issues/16winter2010-politicsaesthetics/
- Slide 16. Apulian lekythe, 1st quarter 4th C. B.C. Berlin, Staatliche Museum V.I.3375 LIMC V. 1994. Gigantes. Figure 389. ZÃ¼rich, Artemis Verlaag.
Heather did her talk On Tuesday, the 14th December, 2010 the following talks were put on in The Wise Monkey in Glasgow…