Mythical Creatures: The Monsters from Greek Mythology

Greek mythology is filled with fantastical creatures. The legends tell the stories heroes and gods, as well as the monsters around them. Eight of those monsters are described here.

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Cerberus

statue of Cerberus

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The hound of Hades is sometimes shown with two heads and various body parts, but the most familiar form is the three-headed Cerberus. While Cerberus, one of Echidna's children, is said to be fierce enough that the gods fear him, and flesh-eating, he is a watchdog in the land of the already dead.

One of the Labors of Hercules was to fetch Cerberus. Unlike the countryside devastating monsters that Hercules destroyed, Cerberus was harming no one, so Hercules had no reason to kill him. Instead, Cerberus was returned to his guard post.

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Cyclops

Odysseus in the cave of Cyclops

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In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men find themselves in the land of the children of Poseidon, the Cyclopes (Cyclops). These giants, with one round eye in the center of their foreheads, consider humans food. After witnessing the dining habits of Polyphemus and his morning routines, Odysseus figures a way out of the cave prison for himself and his surviving followers. In order to escape, they need to make sure the Cyclops can't see them hidden under the bellies of the flock of sheep Polyphemus carefully tends. Odysseus jabs Polyphemus' eye with a sharp stick.

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Sphinx

Oedipus and the Sphinx

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The sphinx is most familiar from surviving monuments from ancient Egypt, but it also shows up in Greek myth in the city of Thebes, in the story of Oedipus. This sphinx, a daughter of Typhon and Echidna, had the head and chest of a woman, bird wings, lion claws, and a dog's body. She asked passers-by to solve a riddle. If they failed, she destroyed or devoured them. Oedipus got past the sphinx by answering her question. Presumably, that destroyed her (or she threw herself from a cliff), and that is why she doesn't re-appear in Greek mythology.

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Medusa

mask of Medusa

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Medusa, at least in some accounts, was once a beautiful woman who unwittingly attracted the attention of the sea god Poseidon. When the god chose to mate with her, they were in the temple of Athena. Athena was furious. As always, blaming the mortal woman, she got revenge by turning Medusa into a monster so horrible that a single glance at her face would turn a man to stone.

Even after Perseus, with Athena's help, separated Medusa from her head—an act that allowed her unborn children, Pegasus and Chrysaor, to emerge from her body—the head maintained its lethal power.

The head of Medusa is often described as being covered with snakes instead of hair. Medusa is also counted as one of the Gorgons, three daughters of Phorcus. Her sisters are the immortal Gorgons: Euryale and Stheno.

  • Metamorphoses Book V, by Ovid - Tells the story of Medusa from Greek mythology. The story begins in Book IV at line 898.
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Harpies

medieval version of a Harpy

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The Harpies (by name Calaeno, Aello, and Ocypete) appear in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The blind King Phineas of Thrace is harassed by these bird-women monsters who pollute his food every day until they are driven away by the sons of Boreas to the Strophades islands. The Harpies also show up in Virgil/Vergil's Aeneid. Sirens share with Harpies the trait of being bird-women combinations.

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Minotaur

Minotaur in armor

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The minotaur was a fearful man-eating beast who was half-man and half-bull. He was born to Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete. To prevent the minotaur from eating his own people, Minos had the minotaur shut up in a complex labyrinth designed by Daedalus, who had also built the contraption that had permitted Pasiphae to be impregnated by the white bull of Poseidon.

To keep the minotaur fed, Minos ordered the Athenians to send over 7 young men and 7 young women each year. When Theseus heard the wails of the families on the day on which the young people were to be sent as feed, he volunteered to replace one of the young men. He then went to Crete where, with the help of one of the king's daughters, Ariadne, he was able to solve the labyrinthine maze and slay the minotaur.

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Nemean Lion

nemean lion with Athena and Hermes

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The Nemean Lion was one of the many offspring of half-woman and half-serpent Echidna and her husband, the 100-headed Typhon. It lived in Argolis terrifying people. The skin of the lion was impenetrable, so when Hercules tried to shoot it from a distance, he failed to kill it. It wasn't until Hercules used his olive-wood club to stun the beast, that he was then able to strangle it to death. Hercules decided to wear the Nemean Lion skin as protection, but couldn't skin the animal until he took one of the Nemean Lion's own claws to rip up the skin.

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Lernaean Hydra

Hercules Slaying the Hydra

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The Lernaean Hydra, one of the many offspring of half-woman and half-serpent Echidna and 100-headed Typhon, was a many-headed serpent who lived in the swamps. One of the hydra's heads was impervious to weapons. Its other heads could be cut off, but then one or two would grow back in its place. The breath or venom of the Hydra was deadly. The hydra devoured animals and people in the countryside.

Hercules (also Herakles) was able to put an end to the depredations of the Hydra by having his friend Iolaus cauterize the stump of each head as soon as Hercules cut it off. When only the head impervious to weapons was left, Hercules tore it off and buried it. From the stump, poisonous blood still oozed, so Hercules dipped his arrows in the blood, making them lethal.