The Rambling Writer’s Reflections on Greece: Monsters and Mythical Creatures

The ancient Greeks populated their myths and tales with fantastical creatures. Join me for a sampling of images and monster stories from my recent visit in Greece. 

The relief carving above, with a centaur and dragon/serpent involved in a battle, was only one of the many museum artifacts with mythical creatures that Thor and I enjoyed on our recent trip through Greece. I’ve loved the colorful Greek myths since I was a girl, and they provided an important underlay for my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, as well as its sequel I’m writing.

So let’s start with the obviously relevant monster, the minotaur, who had a bull’s head on a man’s body. (Many of the mythical creatures combined attributes of different animals and/or humans.) King Minos of Crete kept the bloodthirsty creature imprisoned in a labyrinth, and his daughter Ariadne provided a thread to the Greek prince Theseus so he could enter to kill the minotaur and find his way out.

My near-future Ariadne is a healer who finds herself drawing on ancient wisdom, using the symbolism of the labyrinth for journeys inward to unlock secret powers. The original Ariadne fled Crete with Theseus, but he abandoned her on the island of Naxos, which setting is important in my novel-in-progress. On Naxos, ancient Ariadne met and married Dionysos, god of wine and ritual ecstasy. Two of his party pals were the satyr — half man and half goat, and 100% lusty — and diminutive winged Cupid with his arrows that inspired love in his targets.

Dionysos himself was somewhat of a shape-shifter, and is often portrayed with wings, as well as sacred serpents growing from his head, as in this fragment of a mosaic floor. He liked to ride dolphins, another of his special companions.

Most of us are familiar with another serpent-haired creature, Medusa, who was one of three Gorgon sisters cursed by Poseidon. (That god of the sea had a mean temper.) One glimpse of Medusa’s face would turn a person into stone.

One of my favorite source materials is Lawrence Durrell’s THE GREEK ISLANDS, a wonderful collection of photos and reflections on his many years in Greece. He ponders the Medusa:

“The Medusa is something which profoundly hushes the mind and heart of the observer who is not insensitive to myth embodied in sculpture.  The insane grin, the bulging eyes, the hissing ringlets of snake-like hair, the spatulate tongue stuck out as far as it will go — no wonder she turned men to stone if they dared to gaze on her…!

“The belt of snakes Medusa wears is significant and would provide the yogic interpretation….  The source of perfected consciousness lay slumbering, coiled like a spring at the root of the spine….  The two snakes of man’s basic (even genetic) dichotomy spiral round the central column and pass the holy influence up through a number of stations….  Yoga means yoke, and the two primordial forces are yoked and, when perfectly married, reach simultaneously the ultimate experience — the blinding zenith of Nirvana.  Our modern medicine still retains the symbol of the caduceus, though the meaning has long since been forgotten….

“All the sacred writings emphasize how delicate and how dangerous this procedure is.  When it fails, as perhaps it has done very often in the past, because the stress on human nerves is too great, or the techniques perhaps faulty — the result must have been madness. On the distorted face of the Gorgon we see something like an attack of acute schizophrenia…..  The hissing hair symbolizes a short circuit, a discharge of electricity — ideas which have overwhelmed her mind….  The old Gorgon reminds us of the ancient methods men chose to perfect themselves, and of the dangers which must be faced in order to achieve full selfhood.”

                                                            — Lawrence Durrell, The Greek Islands

My healer Ariadne is learning to summon these dangerous powers, and at one point she does short circuit and temporarily become a personification of Medusa. But eventually she learns to (mostly) control the sacred “serpents.”

Medusa figured in the story of Perseus, who was sent to kill the dangerous Gorgon, and given a mirrored shield so he could look safely at her reflection. When he cut off her head, the winged horse Pegasus sprang from her blood.

Perseus attached the Medusa head to his shield, which became a lethal weapon:

Later, he gave the Medusa head to the goddess Athena, who used it on her own shield. This statue in the Athens museum shows a serpent on the back of Athena’s shield, which may be a different representation of the lethal snakes:

Serpents beneficial and malevolent seem to pop up everywhere in Greek art. This unfortunate warrior may be meeting his end via a giant serpent:

The famous Laocoon marble statue, now in the Vatican, was the work of three post-classic era Greeks from the island of Rhodes. Laocoon was a priest of Troy who tried to warn his fellow citizens not to pull the Trojan Horse into the city, suspecting it was a trick by the attacking Achaeans. (In fact, it was a trick planned by wily Odysseus.) For saying something along the lines of “Don’t trust Greeks bearing gifts,” Laocoon and his sons were punished when two giant sea serpents attacked them. Thor and I had seen the original statue in the Vatican, as well as this excellent copy in the museum in Rhodes Town:

In our pilgrimage to the ancient center of the Greek world, site of the Delphic Oracle, Thor and I saw this reproduction of the original column that was topped by a three-headed serpent. The ancient oracle was originally the province of the Pythia, a subterranean serpent/dragon whose vapors inspired the prophecies of the oracle:

More musings from Lawrence Durrell:

“The force is still there buried in the rocky cliffs.  It could speak if it wished and overturn everything with one reverberating statement….

“But the [Delphic] oracle, the Pytho?  Once again the historians begin to stammer.  Apollo killed the Dragon and left the corpse of this gigantic dead beast to rot.  Out of this grew the oracular power of the Pytho.  The word means to rot….  The modern Greek poet George Seferis ventures a thought.  ‘In such fertilizing compost the power of the god of harmony, light, and prophecy took root and sprouted.  Perhaps the myth means that the dark powers are the light’s yeast; and that the stronger they are, the more intense the light when they are overcome.'”

                                                    — Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place

In previous posts here, from my “The Rambling Writer Returns to Greece” series, I described the journeys of Odysseus and Oedipus, who each encountered monsters. Odysseus, on his way home from Troy, ran into more than his share of dangerous creatures. The Cyclops was a giant, one-eyed man-eater. Scylla was a many-headed monster who grabbed his sailors from the ship and ate them. He had heard about the sirens, beautiful women with wings and bird feet, whose songs enchanted sailors and lured them to their doom. Odysseus softened wax to plug the ears of his sailors and then had them tie him to the mast so he could safely hear their songs as the men  rowed past. Odysseus clearly enjoyed the song, while crabby Poseidon with his trident scowled as the ship passed by.

In the ages-old story of Oedipus (of more recent Freudian complex fame), he solved the riddle of the sphinx, who was terrorizing the countryside by killing anyone who failed to answer correctly. Her roots were in ancient Egypt.

One more fanciful creature, the centaur. Thor and I loved this mosaic, on Rhodes, of a centaur with a rabbit. Somehow, with its lively earthiness, it convinced us that these creatures must have lived and roamed the land in ages past. (And we hoped the poor rabbit didn’t end up as dinner.)

*****

You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

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The Rambling Writer’s Reflections on Greece: Monsters and Mythical Creatures — 15 Comments

  1. Fascinating stuff. I tended to skip any story involving monsters as a kid, so my knowledge of Greek myth has always been spotty. I’m enjoying how you’re pulling it all together here.

  2. It’s interesting that snakes are so revered in Greek myth when they are one of the few animals that humans and primates tend to have a natural fear of. For example monkeys raised in a lab, who have never encountered a snake, will freak out at the sight of one or even of a piece of hose. Dragging that dead Medusa head around is pretty nasty.

    • Yes, those ancient Greeks excelled at the creatively bloodthirsty! The push/pull of serpent imagery is fascinating to me. Many cultures did have sacred or healing serpents, as well as dangerous serpents/dragons.

  3. I should have added that Thor created a university course, “Monsters,” with poet Bruce Beasley, that examined multicultural monsters in the context of art (Bruce) and science (Thor). So I dedicate this blog post to them!

    • Just so everyone knows, Thor has quite a collection of skulls that he rotted out from donated dead critters (the skulls were used in his teaching about evolution, etc.), so the “sacred rot” of the Pythia is right up his alley!

  4. Have you read Adrienne Mayor’s book, The First Fossil Hunters? She points out that Greek terrain exposes a lot of fossils from several different eras, and that some of these, interpreted creatively by the Greeks, could easily have been the inspiration for some of the myths.

  5. Thanks, Kit! I’ve heard about it, I think from Thor. He probably read it for the Monsters course he taught, or maybe for some Paleontology teaching angle. It makes sense, and I might see if there’s a copy around here to check out more.

    • I found it really interesting, and she proved her case, pretty much, or so I thought. For instance, if you turn a mastodon or mammoth skull upside down, the hole where the trunk came through looks very much like a single eye-socket for a cyclops.

  6. Looking at the bottom picture, the centaur may be holding a hare rather than a rabbit. Hares are often portrayed as love gifts on Greek vases, though I suspect their ultimate destination was indeed the pot.