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Mythological Monsters: Did they ever exist?

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Author Topic: Mythological Monsters: Did they ever exist?  (Read 2756 times)
Moira Kelliey
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« on: February 24, 2007, 08:39:52 pm »

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.
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2007, 08:41:41 pm »

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]
« Last Edit: February 24, 2007, 08:44:27 pm by Moira » Report Spam   Logged
Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #2 on: February 24, 2007, 08:47:28 pm »

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]
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #3 on: February 24, 2007, 08:49:36 pm »

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."]
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #4 on: February 24, 2007, 08:51:31 pm »

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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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #5 on: February 24, 2007, 08:53:55 pm »

Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth
by Ker Than

Dragons are awe-inspiring patchwork creatures found in the myths and legends of cultures all around the world. In Europe, they are nightmarish fire-spewing reptiles, large and lizard-like, with the forked tongue of a snake and wings like a bat. In the legends, they are reviled and feared because they liked to imprison maidens, destroy villages and hoard over mountains of gold.

In the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America, a divine feathered serpent known by various names was believed to renew the world after each cycle of destruction.

In China, dragons are amphibious creatures that dwell in oceans, lakes, rivers and even raindrops. They are revered as life-giving symbols of fortune and fertility, capable of unleashing rain in times of drought. They are animal mosaics, possessing the body of a snake, the scales of a fish, the talons of an eagle, the antlers of a stag, and the face of a gilin—another mythical creature that resembles a deer but whose body is wreathed in flames.

Despite their differences, many of the mythical dragons found throughout the world all began as vague serpentine ideas modeled after real creatures, beginning with a snake or some other fearsome reptile. Over time, they acquired more definite and exotic shapes as they absorbed the hopes and superstitions of the local people and borrowed the traits of local animals.

Our short list of creatures and natural phenomenon reveal what may have inspired the look of dragons as well as creatures that are truly dragon-like.

-- Ker Than

Chinese alligators may have been one of the inspirations for the Asian dragon. In Chinese mythology, dragons were closely associated with water: They were the guardians of life-giving rain, but in times of fury were also capable of unleashing punishing floods. Chinese alligators can grow to a length of about 6 feet, and can often be found floating just below the surface of the water, where they stealthily await their prey. The Chinese alligator is one of the most endangered reptiles in the world.

The frilled dragon is a small lizard found in the forest and woodlands of northern Australia. Like its name suggests, an expandable frill surrounds the dragon’s head and neck, which it can open like an umbrella when frightened. If this isn’t enough to scare off an enemy, the frilled dragon will rear up on its hind legs and run away-- but rather than fleeing with its tail tucked between its legs, the dragon can simply leave it behind to distract a predator.

The bearded dragon is also native to woodlands of Australia. It has numerous spiky appendages protruding from the skin around its head, and can inflate a pouch under its chin to make itself look more menacing. The bearded dragon can change shades of color, from light to dark, to reflect certain emotional states or to help regulate its body temperature. Like the frilled dragon, it can also rear up on its hind legs and run away.

Pythons are among the largest snakes in the world, and the reticulated python of India may have been one of the inspirations behind dragon lore in ancient times. Pythons are constrictor snakes, which means they squeeze to death the birds and small mammals that they feed on. While traveling through India, the Roman naturalist, Pliny, claimed to have seen a dragon so large it could strangle an elephant. Pliny was most likely describing the reticulated python, a snake that can grow to a length of more than 30 feet. In Pliny’s tale, the dragon also dies because it is crushed by the defeated elephant.

The flying dragon of Southeast Asia are small lizards that can glide between trees using wing-like folds of skin. They can grow up to 7 inches and they eat mainly ants and other small insects. Their wings are supported by five to seven ribs that extend from their bodies, and they can glide for distances of up to 30 feet. The wings are often brightly colored and patterned with stripes and dots, but they can fold their wings and blend into their surroundings when they want to remain inconspicuous.

The Komodo dragons of Indonesia are the world’s largest living lizards. They can grow to 10 feet long and can run as fast as a dog for short stretches. Komodos hunt live prey and are capable of ambushing creatures much larger than themselves. They have a thickly muscled tail and a strong bite. Even a slight graze can be lethal and cause severe infection because of the septic bacteria that live in their saliva. Komodo dragons would have been a great candidate for the inspiration behind the mythical dragons in Europe -- except that Europeans didn’t discover them until 1910.

Although stockier and shorter than the Komodo, megalania prisca was a much larger animal. It grew to lengths of up to 30 feet and weighed nearly 1,000 pounds, making it the largest lizard the world has ever seen. Megalania roamed the Australian wilderness during the last Ice Age, and could ambush creatures twice its size and 10 times its own weight, killing them with its curved serrated teeth and large claws. It is very appropriate then that in Latin, its names means “ancient giant butcher."

Of all the creatures that ever lived, pterosaurs probably most closely resemble the dragons of European legend. Reptilian and featherless, pterosaurs flew on wings of hide that were supported by a single long and boney finger. The smallest pterosaur was the size of a sparrow, while Quetzalcoatlus -- named after the Aztec god -- had a wingspan of more than 40 feet, making it the largest flying creature ever. Quetzalcoatlus is shown here.

The sea dragon is a close relative of the sea horse. It can be found on the cool rocky reefs of southern and western Australia. While technically a fish, the sea dragon does not swim so much as sway as it imitates the movement of the seaweed and seagrass among which it makes its home. The sea dragon possesses leaflike fins and appendages that are nearly transparent, and a tube-like mouth that it uses to suction in the larval fishes and small shrimp-like crustaceans that it feeds on.

Dragons were often depicted as winged serpents with long tails, and they were often viewed as harbingers of doom or fortune. The name of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl literally means “feathered serpent.” To people living in ancient times, a comet streaking through the skies with an icy tail millions of miles long would have closely resembled such a creature. This image is of comet Hyakutake. If comets were the inspiration for some dragons, it could help explain why dragons are ubiquitous in the myths and legends of so many different cultures in all corners of the world.

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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #6 on: February 24, 2007, 08:57:52 pm »


Painting by Sebastiano Ricci, of Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous, king of the Lapithae

In Greek mythology, the centaurs (Greek: Κένταυροι) are a race of creatures composed of part human and part horse. In early Attic vase-paintings, they are depicted as the head and torso of a human joined at the (human's) waist to the horse's withers, where the horse's neck would be.

This half-human and half-animal composition has led many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, and as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths, or conversely as teachers, like Chiron.

The centaurs descended from Centaurus, who mated with the Magnesian mares. Centaurus was the son of either Ixion and Nephele (the cloud made in the image of Hera) or of Apollo and Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. In the latter version of the story his twin brother was Lapithus, ancestor of the Lapiths, thus making the two warring peoples cousins.
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #7 on: February 24, 2007, 09:01:48 pm »

Theories of origin

The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory goes that such riders would appear as half-man, half-animal. (Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that the Aztecs had this misapprehension about Spanish cavalrymen.)[6] Horse taming and horseback culture evolved first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.

The Lapith tribe of Thessaly, who were the kinsmen of the Centaurs in myth, were described as the inventors of horse-back riding by Greek writers. The Thessalians tribes also claimed their horse breeds were descended from the centaurs.

Of the various Classical Greek authors who mentioned centaurs, Pindar was the first who describes undoubtedly a combined monster. Previous authors (Homer etc) only use words such as Pheres (Beasts) that could also mean ordinary savage men riding ordinary horses. However, contemporaneous representations of hybrid centaurs can be found in archaic Greek art.

The armchair anthropologist and writer Robert Graves speculated that the Centaurs of Greek myth were a dimly-remembered, pre-Hellenic fraternal earth cult who had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea.

The Greek word kentauros could be etymologized as ken - tauros = "piercing bull". Another possible etymology can be "bulls slayer". Some say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name "piercing bull", from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the god Baal who represents rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with his horns the demon Mot who represents the summer drought. (In Greece, Mot became the constellation of Lupus.) Later in Greece, the constellation of Centaurus was reinterpreted as a man riding a horse, and linked to legends of Greece being invaded by tribes of horsemen from the north. The idea of a combined monster may have arisen as an attempt to fit the pictorial figure to the stars better.

Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons theorized that the word is derived from the Semitic Kohen and Tor via phonetic shift the less prominent consonants being lost over time ,with it developing into Khen Tor or Ken-Tor, and being transliterated phonetically into Ionian as Kentaur.

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« Reply #8 on: February 24, 2007, 09:04:52 pm »


In Greek mythology, the Gorgons ("terrible" or, according to some, "loud-roaring") were vicious female monsters with sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes.

Baroque Medusa combined beauty and horror: Medusa, after 1590, by Caravaggio
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #9 on: February 24, 2007, 09:06:09 pm »

Classical tradition

Gorgons are sometimes depicted as having wings of gold, brazen claws, and the tusks of boars. According to the myths, seeing the face of a Gorgon turned the viewer to stone.

Homer speaks of only one Gorgon, whose head is represented in the Iliad as fixed in the center of the aegis of Zeus:

"About her shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis, fraught with terror...and therein is the head of the dread monster, the Gorgon, dread and awful, a portent of Zeus that beareth the aegis."(5.735ff)
Its earthly counterpart is a device on the shield of Agamemnon:

"...and therein was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout."(11.35ff)
In the Odyssey, she is a monster of the underworld:

"...and pale fear seized me, lest august Persephone might send forth upon me from out of the house of Hades the head of the Gorgon, that awful monster..."(11.635)
Hesiod (Theogony, Shield of Heracles) increases the number of Gorgons to three—Stheno (the mighty), Euryale (the far-springer) and Medusa (the queen), and makes them the daughters of the sea-god Phorcys and of Keto. Their home is on the farthest side of the western ocean; according to later authorities, in Libya. The Attic tradition, reproduced in Euripides (Ion), regarded the Gorgon as a monster, produced by Gaia to aid her sons the giants against the gods and slain by Athena. Of the three Gorgons, only Medusa is mortal.

According to Ovid (Metamorphoses), Medusa alone had serpents in her hair, and this was due to Athena (Roman Minerva) cursing her. Medusa had copulated with Poseidon (Roman Neptune), who was aroused by the golden color of Medusa's hair, in a temple of Athena. Athena therefore changed the enticing golden locks into serpents. Aeschylus says that the three Gorgons had only one tooth and one eye between them (see also the Graeae), which they had to swap between themselves.

Other sources claim that each of three Gorgon sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, had snakes for hair, and had the power to turn anyone who looked at them to stone. Apollodorus (11.2.6, 2.4.1, 22.4.2) provides a good summary of the Gorgon myth, while Pausanias (5.10.4, 8.47.5, many other places) supplies the details of where and how the Gorgons were represented in Greek art and architecture.

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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #10 on: February 24, 2007, 09:07:21 pm »

Perseus and Medusa
Baroque Medusa combined beauty and horror: Medusa, after 1590, by CaravaggioMedusa was the only one of the three who was mortal; hence Perseus was able to kill her by cutting off her head while looking at her in the reflection in a mirrored shield he got from the Graeae. Some authors say that Perseus was armed with a scythe by Hermes (Mercury) and a mirror by Athena (Minerva). Whether the mirrored shield or the scythe, these weapons allowed him to defeat Medusa easily. From the blood that spurted from her neck sprang Chrysaor and Pegasus (other sources say that each drop of blood became a snake), her two sons by Poseidon. He gave the head, which had the power of turning into stone all who looked upon it, to Athena, who placed it in her shield; according to another account, Perseus buried it in the marketplace of Argos.

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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #11 on: February 24, 2007, 09:09:35 pm »

Archaic fanged goggle-eyed gorgoneion flanked by sphinxes on a hydria from Vulci, 540-530 BC
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #12 on: February 24, 2007, 09:11:04 pm »

The Gorgon just before being beheaded by Perseus as exhibited at the Archaeological museum of Corfu. Note the oversized eyes. According to myth anyone looking at the Gorgon's eyes was petrified (turned to stone)The concept of the gorgon is at least as old in mythology as Perseus and Zeus. The name is Greek, being from gorgos, "terrible." There are a few cognates: Old Irish garg, "wild", Armenian karcr, "hard". Hoffman's suggested root is *gragnis; Émile Boisacq's, *greg-. The root would not be a commonly used one.

The name of the most senior "terrible one", Medusa, is better Greek, being the feminine present participle of medein, "to rule over." The masculine, Medon, "ruler", is a Homeric name. The Indo-European root, *me-, "measure", generates a large number of words.

The name of "queen" and the magical powers indicate Medusa was a bronze-age deity, and yet deities are not beheaded by mortals and terrible ones are not really terrible if they ward away enemies. The snakes are reminiscent of the Cretan snake goddess. It is possible that the story represents the subordination of a pre-Greek religious infrastructure by new Greek superstructures able to attribute the power of life and death to themselves.

On the other hand, Marija Gimbutas ("Language of the Goddess") believed she saw the prototype of the Gorgoneion in Neolithic art motifs, especially in anthropomorphic vases and terra cotta masks inlaid with gold. The gorgon descends from the pre-Indo-European goddess of life and death, represented in various forms, of which the Gorgoneion is one.

The motif is an accretion of motifs. The large eyes, as well as Athena's flashing eyes, are a symbol termed "the divine eyes" by Gimbutas (who did not originate the perception), appearing also in Athena's bird, the owl. They can be represented by spirals, wheels, concentric circles, and other ways. They radiate the sun's rays and weep the spring rains.

Snakes also possess the eyes. The fangs of the gorgoneion are snakes' fangs. Snakes are a symbol of appeasement and increase. The round face is the moon. Sometimes Gorgoneia are endowed with birds' feet or bee wings, more symbols of regeneration. The mouth is open so that streams may flow from it. The lolling tongue is a symbol of death.

It cannot be said that these motifs belong exclusively to the European Neolithic and not to the Indo-Europeans. They appear among the Celts and Germans as well. The Balts kept snakes as household pets. As Gimbutas points out, masks with staring eyes are portrayed in Paleolithic cave art. Very likely, the goddess precedes any Indo-European/non-Indo-European distinction.

Athena wears the primitive form of the Gorgoneion; cup by Douris, early 5th century BCAt Mycenae, traces of the ancient religion are found in elements considered characteristically Greek. A tholos tomb, there or elsewhere, is a symbol of the uterus. Solar discs studded the walls of some. The "death masks" of the shaft graves should probably more aptly be called life masks. In Paleolithic art, the dancer, who puts on a reindeer head with staring eyes, very likely became the reindeer in the dance. Similarly, a masked corpse overcame death by putting on the mask of life, a different concept from our death mask.

Gimbutas cites Gorgoneia with bees' heads on some classical Attic pottery and with bees'heads, snake heads or owl faces on some Cycladic pottery. She regards them as transitional between the ancient and classical Gorgoneia. As for the name, it is not from a solid Indo-European root. It could have been from a more ancient language, or could have translated a word in another language.

In Greek myth, only Perseus and Zeus (through Athena) own the Gorgoneion. The two must be tied together in some way; that is, the king of Mycenae was the earthly counterpart of Zeus from whom he derived his authority. The Iliad clearly expresses this divine right of bronze-age kings, which the wrath of Achilles undermined. By assuming the Gorgoneion, Perseus put on as a mask the power of life and death personified by Medusa, the cosmic queen.

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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #13 on: February 24, 2007, 09:13:43 pm »

Athena wears the primitive form of the Gorgoneion; cup by Douris, early 5th century BC
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Moira Kelliey
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« Reply #14 on: February 24, 2007, 09:16:32 pm »

Gorgon decorates the shield of Achilles at the Corfu Achilleion
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