Greek mythology has been interwoven in human culture throughout time and still continues to be so today. In fact, the names of many consumer products are derived from Greek mythology. Many sports teams also choose names based on Greek mythology. While most of the focus tends to be on the heroes (e.g. warriors, gods, and goddesses), mythical creatures also played prominent roles in Greek legend. The following is a list of some of those legendary creatures.
Usually depicted as a bird of prey, this mythical creature is associated with the sun and has a close relationship with the sun-god Ra.
-Only one phoenix can exist as a time.
-They live to be about one thousand years old.
-The phoenix can sense when it’s going to die, so it builds its own funeral nest of aromatic twigs and sets it on fire. As the old phoenix dies, a new one rises out of the ashes.
Part lion and part eagle, the Griffin (also spelled Griffon or Gryphon) is the guardian of buried treasures. Griffins are also very strong and extremely wise. They are thought to have originated from fossil findings of the pentaceratops, a four-legged dinosaur with a beaked face. The bones of the pentaceratops closely resembles what the bones of the Griffin would have looked like–if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a mythical creature.
-Griffins became a symbol of strength and valor and are often used in heraldry and crests.
-Griffins sought out and hoarded gold.
-In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the queen orders a Gryphon to take Alice to see the Mock Turtle, and to hear his history.
This beautiful winged horse is the son of the sea-god Poseidon and the monster Medusa (we’ll get to her in a minute). He was given to Bellerophon, the son of Poseidon, to aid him in conquering the monster Chimera. Bellerophon successfully destroyed Chimera, then attempted to fly to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. The mountain was sacred and therefore off limits to mortals. To stop him, Zeus sent a horsefly to sting Pegasus. The winged horse threw Bellerophon from his back, and he fell to his death.
-Zeus placed a constellation called “Pegasus” among the stars to honor the horse, who was used in several missions to defeat evildoers.
-There are a couple of different accounts of Pegasus’ birth. One version says that he flew out of his mother’s neck after she was beheaded by Perseus. Another version says that he was born from the drops of blood that spilled after she was beheaded.
When you hear the name Medusa, the first thing that comes to mind is a hideous monster with snakes for hair. But, Medusa was once a beautiful young maiden. You just had to be careful not to gaze upon her beauty. Anyone who looked into her eyes was immediately turned into stone.
Medusa was the only mortal Gorgon (we’ll get to the Gorgons next) and was beheaded by Perseus, the son of Zeus and Danaë. King Polydectes of Seriphus wanted to marry Danaë, but she refused because she wanted to dedicate her time to taking care of her son. So, Polydectes tricked Perseus into bringing him the head of Medusa. Since anyone who looked at her was turned into stone, Polydectes thought that Perseus was sure to die. The plot failed, however.
DID YOU KNOW?
Medusa was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. As punishment for the crime of being raped, Athena turned Medusa into a monster.
6. The Gorgons
The Gorgons were three sisters with the ability to turn people into stone just by looking at them. The most famous of the Gorgons was Medusa. Like Medusa, her sisters also had venomous serpents for hair. Two of the sisters, Stheno (the Mighty) and Euryale (the Far Springer), were immortal. Medusa (the Queen), however, was mortal.
-The Greek poet Homer wrote about a single Gorgon who was a monster of the underworld. It was the Greek poet Hesiod who later increased the number of Gorgons to three.
-According to Attic tradition, the Gorgon was created by Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, to aid her sons against the gods.
Part man and part bull, this mythical creature was kept in the center of a labyrinth built by Daedalus. The Minotaur fed on human sacrifices, specifically children, who got sent to the maze. Theseus, king of Athens, volunteered to be sacrificed and was able to slay the Minotaur and escape the maze.
-The Minotaur was the son of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete. Poseidon gave Minos a bull to sacrifice, but the king decided to keep it instead. As punishment for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon cast a spell on Pasiphae, causing her to fall in love with the bull. She mated with him and bore the Minotaur.
-King Minos of Crete asked Daedalus to build the labyrinth to keep the Minotaur from escaping.
-Mary Renault’s 1958 novel The King Must Die is based on the story of the Minotaur.
-American company TSR published the video game Theseus and the Minotaur in 1982.
Half horse and half human, Centaurs are best known for their violent behavior. They were heavy drinkers who often got a bit rowdy. Legend has it that these creatures once showed up to a wedding (drunk, of course) and attempted to carry off the bride and other women. A fight ensued, and the Centaurs were defeated.
Not all Centaurs have a bad reputation, however. Chiron, the leader of the Centaurs, was a respected intellectual. He tutored both Hercules and Achilles. He was also skilled in medicine and music.
The Chimera was a fire-breathing female monster composed of several different animals–a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent for a tail. She terrorized the regions of Caria and Lycia. As a result, Bellerophon was ordered by a king to slay her. He did so by shooting lead arrows at her while riding on Pegasus’ back. However, the monster continued to live on in people’s imaginations.
-In art, the Chimera is depicted as a lion with a goat’s head in the middle of its back and a tail that ends in a snake’s head.
-The word Chimera is used to denote a fantastic idea or figment of the imagination.
-In architecture, the word Chimera, or chimère, refers to an imaginary beast used in decoration.
2. The Sirens
Half bird and half woman, Sirens lived on remote islands surrounded by rocky cliffs and would lure passing sailors with songs. The sailors would become enchanted by the singing, crash into the shore and cliffs, and die.
Sirens first appeared in Homer’s epic poem titled The Odyssey. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:
“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them… Therefore pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear.”
FUN FACT: Some people believe that the Sirens were the inspiration behind another popular mythical creature–the mermaid.
1. The Harpies
Like the Sirens, the Harpies were also half bird and half woman. They were far more evil, however. They were the guardians of the underworld and were known for abducting and torturing people. If a person suddenly disappeared from the earth, they were thought to have been carried off to the underworld by the Harpies.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus sent down the Harpies to punish the prophet Phineus. Phineus was gifted with remarkable foresight and began revealing things to mortals that Zeus didn’t want them knowing. So, he sent the Harpies to take away the Phineus’ food each time he sat down to eat. Sometimes they’d steal his plate altogether. At other times they’d replace his food with spoiled scraps.
FUN FACT: Harpies were lesser-known Greek creatures, and as a result, were more prominent in art than in literature. They appeared in the 1963 movie Jason and the Argonauts.
And that’s your history lesson for today, folks. Thanks for reading!