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Greek mythology is full of deities, demigods, monsters and hybrid beasts, both fascinating and terrifying.
Most of these fictional creatures are composites of humans and animals, predominantly combinations of feminine beauty with the hideousness of beasts. They typically featured in stories to demonstrate the wisdom, intelligence, ingenuity and sometimes the weaknesses of a hero.
Here’s a look at some of the most popular and unique creatures in ancient Greek mythology.
The Sirens were dangerous man-eating creatures, with bodies that were half-bird and half-woman. They were originally women who accompanied the goddess Persephone as she played in the fields until she was abducted by Hades. After the incident, Persephone’s mother Demeter turned them into bird-like creatures and sent them off to look for her daughter.
In some versions, the Sirens are depicted as part woman and part fish, the famous mermaids that we know today. The Sirens were famous for sitting on rocks and singing songs in their beautiful, seductive voices, mesmerizing sailors who heard them. In this way, they lured the sailors to their island, killing and devouring them.
While his depictions varied depending on the source, in general, Typhon was said to be gigantic and hideous with hundreds of different types of wings all over his body, eyes that glowed red and a hundred dragon heads sprouting from his main head.
Typhon battled with Zeus, the god of thunder, who finally defeated him. He was then either cast into Tartarus or buried under Mount Etna for all eternity.
The horse served Perseus faithfully until the hero died, after which he flew away to Mount Olympus where he continued to live out the rest of his days. In other versions, Pegasus was paired with the hero Bellerophon, who tamed him and rode him into battle against the fire-breathing Chimera.
Towards the end of his life, he served Eos, the goddess of dawn, and was finally immortalized as the Pegasus constellation in the night sky.
Satyrs were half-beast, half-man creatures that lived in the hills and forests of ancient Greece. They had the upper body of a human and the lower body of a goat or horse from the waist below.
Satyrs were known for their ribaldry and for being lovers of music, women, dancing and wine. They often accompanied the god Dionysus. They were also known for their inability to control their impulses and were lustful creatures responsible for raping countless mortals and nymphs.
In Greek mythology, Medusa was a beautiful priestess of Athena who was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple.
Angered by this, Athena punished Medusa by placing a curse on her, which turned her into a hideous creature with greenish skin, writhing snakes for hair and the ability to turn anyone who looked into her eyes into stone.
Medusa suffered in isolation for many years until she was beheaded by Perseus. Perseus took her severed head, using it to protect himself, and gifted it to Athena, who placed it on her aegis.
The Lernaean Hydra was a serpentine monster with nine deadly heads. Born to Typhon and Echidna, the Hydra lived near Lake Lerna in Ancient Greece and haunted the swamps around it, claiming many lives. Some of its heads breathed fire and one of them was immortal.
The terrifying beast couldn’t be defeated since cutting off one head only caused two more to grow back. The Hydra was most famous for its battle with the hero Heracles who successfully killed it by cutting off its immortal head with a golden sword.
The Harpies were small, ugly mythological creatures with the face of a woman and the body of a bird, known as the personification of the storm winds. They were called the ‘hounds of Zeus’ and their main role was to carry evildoers to the Furies (the Erinyes) to be punished.
The Harpies also snatched away people and things from Earth and if someone went missing, they were usually to blame. They were also responsible for causing changes in the winds.
The Minotaur had the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man. It was the offspring of the Cretan Queen Pasiphae, wife of King Minos, and a snow-white bull that Poseidon had sent to be sacrificed to himself. However, instead of sacrificing the bull as he should have, King Minos allowed the animal to live. To punish him, Poseidon made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull and eventually bear the Minotaur.
The Minotaur had an insatiable desire for human flesh, so Minos imprisoned it in a labyrinth built by the craftsman Daedalus. It remained there until it was eventually killed by the hero Theseus with the help of Ariadne, the daughter of Minos.
The Furies, also called the ‘Erinyes’ by the Greeks, were the female deities of retribution and vengeance who punished evildoers for committing crimes against the natural order. These included breaking an oath, committing matricide or patricide and other such wrongdoing.
The Furies were called Alecto (anger), Megaera (jealousy), and Tisiphone (avenger). They were depicted as extremely ugly winged women with poisonous serpents entwined around their arms, waists and hair and carried whips which they used to punish criminals.
A famous victim of the Furies was Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who was molested by them for killing his mother, Clytemnestra.
The Cyclopes were the offspring of Gaia and Uranus. They were powerful giants with enormous strength, each with one large eye in the middle of their foreheads.
The Cyclopes were known for their impressive skills in crafts and for being highly capable blacksmiths. According to some sources they lacked intelligence and were savage beings that lived in caves eating any human they came across.
One such Cyclopes was Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, known for his encounter with Odysseus and his men.
The Chimera appears in Greek mythology as a fire-breathing hybrid, with the body and head of a lion, the head of a goat on its back, and a snake’s head for a tail, although this combination could vary depending on the version.
The Chimera resided in Lycia, where it caused devastation and destruction to the people and the lands around it. It was a terrifying beast that breathed fire and was ultimately slain by Bellerophon. Riding the winged horse Pegasus, Bellerophon speared the beast’s flaming throat with a lead-tipped lance and causing it to die, choking on the molten metal.
Griffins (also spelled griffon or gryphon) were strange beasts with the body of a lion and the head of a bird, typically an eagle. It sometimes had an eagle’s talons as its front feet. Griffins often guarded priceless possessions and treasures in the mountains of Scythia. Their image became extremely popular in Greek art and heraldry.
Born to the monsters Typhon and Echidna, Cerberus was a monstrous watchdog with three heads, a serpent’s tail and the heads of many snakes growing from his back. Cerberus’ job was to guard the gates of the Underworld, preventing the dead from escaping back to the land of the living.
Also called the Hound of Hades, Cerberus was eventually captured by Heracles as one of his Twelve Labors, and taken out of the underworld.
Centaurs were half-horse, half-human beasts that were born to the king of the Lapiths, Ixion, and Nephele. With body of a horse and the head, torso and arms of a man, these creatures were known for their violent, barbaric and primitive nature.
The Centauromachy refers to a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs, an event where Theseus happened to be present and tipped the scale in favor of the Lapiths. The Centaurs were driven off and destroyed.
While the general image of Centaurs was negative, one of the most famous Centaurs was Chiron, known for his wisdom and knowledge. He became the tutor of several great Greek figures, including Asclepius, Heracles, Jason and Achilles.
The Mormos were companions of Hecate, the Greek goddess of witchcraft. They were female creatures that looked like vampires and came after little children who misbehaved. They could also turn into beautiful woman and lure men to their beds to eat their flesh and drink their blood. In Ancient Greece, mothers would tell their children stories about the Mormos to make them behave.
The sphinx was a female creature with a lion’s body, eagle’s wings, a serpent’s tail and the head and breasts of a woman. She was sent by the goddess Hera to plague the city of Thebes where she devoured anyone who couldn’t solve her riddle. When Oedipus, the king of Thebes, finally did solve it, she was so shocked and disappointed that she committed suicide by throwing herself off a mountain.
Charybdis and Scylla
Charybdis, the daughter of the sea god Poseidon, was cursed by her uncle Zeus who captured her and chained her to the bottom of the sea. She became a deadly sea monster which lived under a rock on one side of the Strait of Messina and had an unquenchable thirst for sea water. She drank large amounts of water three times a day and belched the water back out again, creating whirlpools that sucked ships in under the water, to their doom.
Scylla was also a terrible monster who lived on the other side of the channel of water. Her parentage is unknown, but she’s believed to be the daughter of Hecate. Scylla would devour anyone who came closer to her side of the narrow channel.
This is where the proverb between Scylla and Charybdis comes from, which refers to facing two equally difficult, dangerous or unpleasant choices. It’s somewhat similar to the modern expression between a rock and a hard place.
Arachne was a highly skilled weaver in Greek mythology, who challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest. Her skills were far superior and Athena lost the challenge. Feeling insulted and unable to control her anger Athena cursed Arachne, turning her into a large, hideous spider, to remind her that no mortal is a match for the gods.
Lamia was a very beautiful, young woman (some say she was a Libyan queen) and one of the lovers of Zeus. Zeus’ wife Hera was jealous of Lamia and killed all of her children to make her suffer. She also cursed Lamia, turning her into a vicious monster that hunted and killed the children of others to make up for the loss of her own.
The Graeae were three sisters who shared a single eye and tooth between them and had the power to see the future. Their names were Dino (dread), Enyo (horror) and Pemphredo (alarm). They are known for their encounter with the legendary hero Perseus who got the better of them. Perseus stole their eye, forcing them to tell him the location of three special items he needed to kill Medusa.
These are only some of the most popular creatures of Greek mythology. These creatures were often the figures that allowed a hero to shine, showing their skills as they battled them and won. They were also often used as the backdrop to demonstrate the main character’s wisdom, ingenuity, strengths or weaknesses. In this way, the many monsters and strange creatures of Greek myth played an important role, coloring the mythology and fleshing out the stories of the heroes.