Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Mythical monsters

The Ancient Greeks did many great things, not least of which was their storytelling. The Trojan War has echoed down the ages, as has the plethora of Greek gods, titans and monsters.

One of the most evocative of twisted creatures is the gorgon Medusa. She has the lower portions of a giant snake, her head and torso are those of a human woman and her hair is a forest of writhing snakes. Worst (or best) of all, her very gaze turns a man to stone. Medusa’s best known for her appearance in the popular and oft-repeated 1980s film Clash of the Titans. I think I recall reading that she had two sisters, both of whom were invincible. If true, that would make her the wimpy runt monster.

The minotaur is a nameless brute that dwelt within the labyrinth of King Minos. After Minos cheated a god of his rightful sacrifice the god got his own back (rather dramatically) by bending the mind of Minos’ wife and persuading her and a bull to copulate. The resultant abomination was the minotaur: a man of great strength with the head and horns of a bull. He was eventually slain by the heroic Theseus.

The Twelve Labours of Heracles (NB not Hercules, unless you’re deliberately going for a Latinised version) include a number of fantastic beasts, but the most interesting of these was the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra had many heads (accounts vary somewhat) and vile, poisonous breath. Whenever a head was severed two more grew in its place. However, Heracles was helped by his nephew (and Argonaut) Iolaus, who sealed the stumps with fire. When the creature was finally slain Heracles dipped his arrowheads in its blood, which was potent venom (this would later have rather serious implications for the centaur Chiron and the titan Prometheus).

The Chimaera was a sort of special offer, three-for-the-price-of-one beast. It had a snake for a tail, a goat’s middle and a lion’s front, with three heads (the snakey tail, goat in the middle and a fire-breathing lion’s head). Some reckon that it’s an allegory for a mountain which had snakes at the base, goats in the middle and a volcano at the top. Not content with having three species, the Chimaera also manages to be both male and female, as it’s referred to as a female but has a mane. It’s very much an equal opportunities monster. Bellerophon slew it, although from a distance and Pegasus did most of the hard work.

Last but not least, my favourite: Typhon. Not a household name, unlike Medusa, but undoubtedly the toughest and most horrific of monsters. Descriptions vary a bit, but (if memory serves) his head brushed the stars, his lower portions were the coils of a snake and from his shoulders a hundred dragon heads sprouted, each breathing flame. When he attacked Olympus the gods ran off to Ethiopia, leaving Zeus to fight. Unfortunately for Zeus, Typhon kicked his arse, cut off all his sinews and put them in a jar, put the jar in a cave and set a guardian to protect it. The gods, meanwhile, decided that Zeus was a better ruler of the Universe than Typhon and stole back his sinews. Zeus, restored, fought a second bout with Typhon and finished the duel by dropping Mount Etna upon him.

In a fitting coincidence, volcanic eruptions sometime feature quite spectacular lightning, as explained here [which is also where the picture’s from]:



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