Mythological Monsters: Did they ever exist?

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Moira Kelliey:
Modern theories about monsters state that the ancients came up with the idea of their mythological monsters from the bones of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures jutting throught the rocks.

But did those creatures ever really exist?

One point, every culture has the myths of giants, sea serpents and dragons. There has to be some basis for these myths, and I'm betting that the stories don't all relate to old fossils. Let's look at that, if everyone is game.

Moira Kelliey:
The Age of Fable



Chimera on a red-figure Apulian plate, ca 350-340 BCE (Musée du Louvre)

MONSTERS, in the language of mythology, were beings of unnatural proportions or parts, usually regarded with terror, as possessing immense strength and ferocity, which they employed for the injury and annoyance of men. Some of them were supposed to combine the members of different animals; such were the Sphinx and Chimaera and to these all the terrible qualities of wild beasts were attributed, together with human sagacity and faculties. Others, as the giants, differed from men chiefly in their size; and in this particular we must recognize a wide distinction among them. The human giants, if so they may be called, such as the Cyclops, Antaeus, Orion, and others, must be supposed not to be altogether disproportioned to human beings, for they mingled in love and strife with them. But the super-human giants, who warred with the gods, were of vastly larger dimensions. Tityus, we are told, when stretched on the plain, covered nine acres, and Enceladus required the whole of Mount AEtna to be laid upon him to keep him down.

We have already spoken of the war which the giants waged against the gods, and of its result. While this war lasted the giants proved a formidable enemy. Some of them, like Briareus, had a hundred arms; others, like Typhon, breathed out fire. At one time they put the gods to such fear that they fled into Egypt and hid themselves under various forms. Jupiter took the form of a ram, whence he was afterwards worshipped in Egypt as the god Ammon, with curved horns. Apollo became a crow, Bacchus a goat, Diana a cat, Juno a cow, Venus a fish, Mercury a bird. At another time the giants attempted to climb up into heaven, and for that purpose took up the mountain Ossa and piled it on Pelion.* They were at last subdued by thunderbolts, which Minerva invented, and taught Vulcan and his Cyclops to make for Jupiter.
[see also: Family Tree - The Children of Tellus and Uranus]
[see also: Creatures]
[see also: Images of Monsters from Greek Mythology]

* See Proverbial Expressions, no. 5.

Laius, king of Thebes, was warned by an oracle that there was danger to his throne and life if his new-born son should be suffered to grow up. He therefore committed the child to the care of a herdsman with orders to destroy him; but the herdsman, moved with pity, yet not daring entirely to disobey, tied up the child by the feet and left him hanging to the branch of a tree. In this condition the infant was found by a peasant, who carried him to his master and mistress, by whom he was adopted and called OEdipus, or Swollen-foot.
[see also: map of Greece - Thebes marked]

Many years afterwards Laius being on his way to Delphi, accompanied only by one attendant, met in a narrow road a young man also driving in a chariot. On his refusal to leave the way at their command the attendant killed one of his horses, and the stranger, filled with rage, slew both Laius and his attendant. The young man was OEdipus who thus unknowingly became the slayer of his own father.

Shortly after this event the city of Thebes was afflicted with a monster which infested the highroad. It was called the Sphinx. It had the body of a lion and the upper part of a woman. It lay crouched on the top of a rock, and arrested all travellers who came that way, proposing to them a riddle, with the condition that those who could solve it should pass safe, but those who failed should be killed. Not one had yet succeeded in solving it, and all had been slain. OEdipus was not daunted by these alarming accounts, but boldly advanced to the trial. The Sphinx asked him, "What animal is that which in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" Oedipus replied, "Man, who in childhood creeps on hands and knees, in manhood walks erect, and in old age with the aid of a staff." The Sphinx was so mortified at the solving of her riddle that she cast herself down from the rock and perished.
[see also: Oedipus and the Sphinx]
[see image: Oedipus and the Sphinx - Attic Red-figure kylix (drinking cup) 5th c. B.C.]
[see image (118K): Oedipus and the Sphinx - painting (1808) by Jean August Dominique Ingres]
[see images and commentary: Oedipus and the Sphinx - comparisons of art of Ingres, Moreau, and Khnopff]
[see poem: Oedipus (1906) - poem by K.P. Kavafis]

The gratitude of the people for their deliverance was so great that they made OEdipus their king, giving him in marriage their queen Jocasta. OEdipus, ignorant of his parentage, had already become the slayer of his father; in marrying the queen he became the husband of his mother. These horrors remained undiscovered, till at length Thebes was afflicted with famine and pestilence, and the oracle being consulted, the double crime of Oedipus came to light. Jocasta put an end to her own life, and Oedipus, seized with madness, tore out his eyes and wandered away from Thebes, dreaded and abandoned by all except his daughters, who faithfully adhered to him, till after a tedious period of miserable wandering he found the termination of his wretched life.
[see also: Apollodorus: Oedipus and the Sphinx]
[see also: The Death of Oedipus in the Epic Tradition]
[see also: The Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles]

Moira Kelliey:
In Greek mythology, the Chimera (Greek Χίμαιρα (Chímaira); Latin Chimaera) is a monstrous creature of Lycia in Asia Minor, which was made of the parts of multiple animals. Chimera was one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna and sister of such monsters as Cerberus and the Lernaean Hydra.


Homer's brief description in the Iliad[1] is the earliest literary reference: "a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle,[2] and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire".[3] Hesiod's Theogony follows the Homeric description: he makes the Chimera the issue of Echidna: "She was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. Her did Pegasus and noble Bellerophon slay"[4] The author of Bibliotheke concurs:[5] descriptions agree that it breathed fire. The Chimera is generally considered to have been female (see the quotation from Hesiod above); despite the mane adorning its lion's head. Sighting the chimera[citation needed] was a sign of storms, shipwrecks, and natural disasters (particularly volcanos).

While there are different genealogies, in one version it mated with its brother Orthrus and mothered the Sphinx and the Nemean Lion.

The Chimera was finally defeated by Bellerophon with the help of Pegasus at the command of King Iobates of Lycia. He shot the Chimera from the air, safe from her heads and breath, since Pegasus could fly;[6] a scholiast to Homer adds that he finished her off putting a lump of lead on his spear that melted when exposed to Chimera's fiery breath and consequently killed it, an image drawn from metalworking.[7]

The Chimera motif

The Chimaera was placed in foreign Lycia,[8] but its representations in the arts was wholly Greek.[9] An autonomous tradition, one that did not rely on the written word, was represented in the visual repertory of the Greek vase-painters. The Chimera first appears at an early stage in the proto-Corinthian pottery-painters' repertory, providing some of the earliest identifiable mythological scenes that can be recognized in Greek art. The Corinthian type is fixed, after some early hesitation, in the 670s BCE; the variations in the pictorial representations suggest to Marilyn Low Schmitt[10]a multiple origin. The fascination with the monstrous devolved by the end of the seventh century into a decorative Chimera-motif in Corinth,[11] while the motif of Bellerophon on Pegasus took on a separate existence alone. A separate Attic tradition, where the goats breathe fire and the animal's rear is serpent-like, begins with such confidence that Marilyn Low Schmitt is convinced there must be unrecognized earlier local prototypes. Two vase-painters employed the motif so consistently they are given the pseudonyms the Bellerophon Painter and the Chimaera Painter.

In Etruscan civilization, the Chimera appears in the "Orientalizing" period that precedes Etruscan Archaic art; that is to say, very early indeed. The Chimera appears in Etruscan wall-paintings of the fourth century BCE.

Robert Graves suggests[12] that "the Chimaera was, apparently, a calendar-symbol of the tripartite year, of which the seasonal emblems were lion, goat and serpent."

In Medieval Christian art, the chimera appears as a symbol of Satanic forces. Over time, the Chimera has also been lifted from mythology to represent not only the fantastic, but that which cannot be--a concept originating from the quixotic physical representations of the Chimera as impossible amalgam. In this way its usage was extended by classically-educated botantists: see Chimera (botany).


"Chimera of Arezzo:" an Etruscan bronze
Classical sources
The myths of the Chimera can be found in Apollodorous' Library (book 1), Homer's Iliad (book 6); Hyginus Fabulae 57; Ovid's Metamorphoses (book VI 339; IX 648) and Hesiod's Theogony 319ff.

Virgil, in the Aeneid (book 5) employs Chimaera for the name of Gyas' gigantic ship in the ship-race, with possible allegorical significance in contemporary Roman politics.[13]

Theory about origin

"Even in antiquity the Chimaera was regarded as a symbol of the volcanic character of the Lycian soil," Harry Thurston Peck noted. (Peck 1898). Ctesias (as cited by Pliny the Elder and quoted by Photius) identified the Chimaera with an area of permanent gas vents which can still be found today by hikers on the Lycian Way in southwest Turkey. Called in Turkish Yanartaş (flaming rock), it consists of some two dozen vents in the ground, grouped in two patches on the hillside above the Temple of Hephaestus about 3 km north of Çıralı, near ancient Olympos, in Lycia. The vents emit burning methane thought to be of metamorphic origin, which in ancient times sailors could navigate by, and which today the custodian uses to brew tea. (Strabo held the Chimaera to be a ravine on a different mountain in Lycia.) [1]

Moira Kelliey:
When Perseus cut off Medusa's head, the blood sinking into the earth produced the winged horse Pegasus. Minerva (Athena) caught and tamed him and presented him to the Muses. The fountain Hippocrene, on the Muse's mountain Helicon, was opened by a kick from his hoof.

The Chimaera was a fearful monster, breathing fire. The fore part of its body was a compound of the lion and the goat, and the hind part a dragon's. It made great havoc in Lycia, so that the king, Iobates, sought for some hero to destroy it. At that time there arrived at his court a gallant young warrior, whose name was Bellerophon. He brought letters from Proetus, the son-in-law of Iobates, recommending Bellerophon in the warmest terms as an unconquerable hero, but added at the close a request to his father-in-law to put him to death. The reason was that Proetus was jealous of him, suspecting that his wife Antea* looked with too much admiration on the young warrior. From this instance of Bellerophon being unconsciously the bearer of his own death warrant, the expression "Bellerophontic letters" arose, to describe any species of communication which a person is made the bearer of, containing matter prejudicial to himself.
* [webmaster's note: Bulfinch's identification of the wife of Proetus as Antea, rather than Stheneboea, indicates his source is Homer's Iliad, Book VI]

Iobates, on perusing the letters, was puzzled what to do, not willing to violate the claims of hospitality, yet wishing to oblige his son-in-law. A lucky thought occurred to him, to send Bellerophon to combat with the Chimaera. Bellerophon accepted the proposal, but before proceeding to the combat consulted the soothsayer Polyidus, who advised him to procure if possible the horse Pegasus for the conflict. For this purpose he directed him to pass the night in the temple of Minerva. He did so, and as he slept Minerva came to him and gave him a golden bridle. When he awoke the bridle remained in his hand. Minerva also showed him Pegasus drinking at the well of Pirene, and at sight of the bridle the winged steed came willingly and suffered himself to be taken. Bellerophon mounted him, rose with him into the air, soon found the Chimaera, and gained an easy victory over the monster.

After the conquest of the Chimaera Bellerophon was exposed to further trials and labours by his unfriendly host, but by the aid of Pegasus he triumphed in them all, till at length Iobates, seeing that the hero was a special favourite of the gods, gave him his daughter in marriage and made him his successor on the throne. At last Bellerophon by his pride and presumption drew upon himself the anger of the gods; it is said he even attempted to fly up into heaven on his winged steed, but Jupiter sent a gadfly which stung Pegasus and made him throw his rider, who became lame and blind in consequence. After this Bellerophon wandered lonely through the Aleian field, avoiding the paths of men, and died miserably.
[see also: Apollodorus: Proetus, Iobates, and Bellerophon]

Milton alludes to Bellerophon in the beginning of the seventh book of "Paradise Lost":
"Descend from Heaven, Urania, by that name
If rightly thou art called, whose voice divine
Following, above the Olympian hill I soar,
Above the flight of Pegasean wing.
Upled by thee,
Into the Heaven of Heavens I have presumed,
An earthly guest, and drawn empyreal air
(Thy tempering); with like safety guided down
Return me to my native element;
Lest, from this flying steed unreined (as once
Bellerophon, though from a lower clime),
Dismounted, on the Aleian field I fall,
Erroneous there to wander and forlorn."

Young, in his "Night Thoughts," speaking of the sceptic, says:
"He whose blind thought futurity denies,
Unconscious bears, Bellerophon, like thee
His own indictment; he condemns himself.
Who reads his bosom reads immortal life,
Or nature there, imposing on her sons,
Has written fables; man was made a lie."
Vol. II., p. 12.

Pegasus, being the horse of the Muses, has always been at the service of the poets. Schiller tells a pretty story of his having been sold by a needy poet and put to the cart and the plough. He was not fit for such service, and his clownish master could make nothing of him. But a youth stepped forth and asked leave to try him. As soon as he was seated on his back the horse, which had appeared at first vicious, and afterwards spirit-broken, rose kingly, a spirit, a god, unfolded the splendour of his wings, and soared towards heaven. Our own poet Longfellow also records adventure of this famous steed in his "Pegasus in Pound."

Shakespeare alludes to Pegasus in "Henry IV.," where Vernon describes Prince Henry:
"I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuishes on this thighs, gallantly armed,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,
And witch the world with noble horsemanship."

[webmaster's note: also see the Dauphin's exercise in equine hyperbole
in Shakespeare's Henry V:
"...I will not change my horse with any that treads but on four pasterns.
Ca, ha! he bounds from the earth, as if his
entrails were hairs; le cheval volant, the Pegasus,
chez les narines de feu! When I bestride him, I
soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth
sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his
hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes."]

Moira Kelliey:
These monsters were represented as men from the head to the loins, while the remainder of the body was that of a horse. The ancients were too fond of a horse to consider the union of his nature with man's as forming a very degraded compound, and accordingly the Centaur is the only one of the fancied monsters of antiquity to which any good traits are assigned. The Centaurs were admitted to the companionship of man, and at the marriage of Pirithous with Hippodamia they were among the guests. At the feast Eurytion, one of the Centaurs, becoming intoxicated with the wine, attempted to offer violence to the bride; the other Centaurs followed his example, and a dreadful conflict arose in which several of them were slain. This is the celebrated battle of the Lapithae and Centaurs, a favourite subject with the sculptors and poets of antiquity.
[see also: details from Parthenon Marbles - Lapith and Centaur]

But not all the Centaurs were like the rude guests of Pirithous. Chiron was instructed by Apollo and Diana, and was renowned for his skill in hunting, medicine, music, and the art of prophecy. The most distinguished heroes of Grecian story were his pupils. Among the rest the infant AEsculapius was intrusted to his charge by Apollo, his father. When the sage returned to his home bearing the infant, his daughter Ocyrhoe came forth to meet him, and at sight of the child burst forth into a prophetic strain (for she was a prophetess), foretelling the glory that he was to achieve. AEsculapius when grown up became a renowned physician, and even in one instance succeeded in restoring the dead to life. Pluto (Hades) resented this, and Jupiter, at his request, struck the bold physician with lightning, and killed him, but after his death received him into the number of the gods.
[see also: The Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus]
[see also: Healer Cults and Sanctuaries]

Chiron was the wisest and justest of all the Centaurs, and at his death Jupiter placed him among the stars as the constellation Sagittarius.
[see also: The Origin of the Centaur]

The Pygmies were a nation of dwarfs, so called from a Greek word which means the cubit or measure of about thirteen inches, which was said to be the height of these people. They lived near the sources of the Nile, or according to others, in India. Homer tells us that the cranes used to migrate every winter to the Pygmies' country, and their appearance was the signal of bloody warfare to the puny inhabitants, who had to take up arms to defend their cornfields against the rapacious strangers. The Pygmies and their enemies the Cranes form the subject of several works of art.
[see source: Homer's Iliad]
[see also: Aristotle's History of Animals, 597a.1]
[see also: detail from foot of Kleitas vase - graphic: 44K]

Later writers tell of an army of Pygmies which finding Hercules asleep, made preparations to attack him, as if they were about to attack a city. But the hero, awaking, laughed at the little warriors, wrapped some of them up in his lion's skin, and carried them to Eurystheus.

Milton uses the Pygmies for a simile, "Paradise Lost," Book I.:
" that Pygmaean race
Beyond the Indian mount, of fairy elves
Whose midnight revels by a forest side,
Or fountain, some belated peasant sees
(Or dreams he sees), while overhead the moon
Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course; they on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear.
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds."

The Griffin is a monster with the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and back covered with feathers. Like birds it builds its nest, and instead of an egg lays an agate therein. It has long claws and talons of such a size that the people of that country make them into drinking-cups. India was assigned as the native country of the Griffins. They found gold in the mountains and built their nests of it, for which reason their nests were very tempting to the hunters, and they were forced to keep vigilant guard over them. Their instinct led them to know where buried treasures lay, and they did their best to keep plunderers at a distance. The Arimaspians, among whom the Griffins flourished, were a one-eyed people of Scythia. Milton borrows a simile from the Griffins, "Paradise Lost," Book II.:
"As when a Gryphon through the wilderness
With winged course, o'er hill and moory dale,
Pursues the Arimaspian, who by stealth
Had from his wakeful custody purloined
The guarded gold," etc.


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