“What is that which in the morning goeth upon four feet; upon two feet in the afternoon; and in the evening upon three?”Oedipus correctly answers the riddle: Man- who crawls on all fours as a child, then on two feet as an adult, and finally (with the help of a cane) on three feet during the sunset of life. Having been bested at her own game, the Sphinx throws herself from a high cliff. In some versions, the Sphinx devours herself out of anger and frustration. Had Oedipus not answered the riddle correctly, he would have been strangled and devoured by the creature, which had been the fate of so many travelers before him.
9. The Cyclops
Known from: The Odyssey
Confronted by: Odysseus
The cyclops were primordial giants that were said to have been born from Gaia, the earth. They were said to possess great strength and ferocity, with one bulging eye protruding from their forehead. Fearing their power, the cyclops were thrown into the pits of Tartarus by their father Uranus. The monsters remained imprisoned when the titan Cronus overthrew Uranus and took his place as ruler of the universe. It was only when the Olympians came to power did the cyclops find freedom. The mighty Zeus released the monsters, who in turn would craft thunderbolts for the young Olympian.
Perhaps the most famous story involving a cyclops involves Odysseus and his woeful travels. In book 9 of The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew find themselves trapped in the cave of the mighty cyclops, Polyphemus. The monster blocks their escape and devours the flesh of his captives day after day. Being known for his cleverness, Odysseus devises a plan to escape.
Odysseus offers to Polyphemus wine that the traveler brought along from his ship. The cyclops indulges and is soon very drunk. Feeling joyful, the monster asks the man his name. Odysseus replies that his name is “nobody.” When Polyphemus falls asleep from intoxication, Odysseus and him men blind the cyclops by stabbing him in the eye with a sharpened staff. Polyphemus, now enraged, cries out to the other cyclops of the island that “Nobody” has blinded him.
Odysseus and him men then escape from the cave of the monster by harnessing themselves to the under bellies of the numerous sheep that Polyphemus shepherds. Now completely blind, the monster feels the backs of the animals as they leave to graze; the cyclops is unaware that his captives are escaping silently, hiding under his flock. As Odysseus sails away, he boasts to the defeated monster who in turn attempts to sink the man’s ship by hurling boulders from a high cliff.
8. The Chimera
Known from: The Legend Of Bellerophon
Confronted by: Bellerophon
The Chimera was a ferocious, fire breathing monstrosity that possessed the body and head of a lion with the head of a goat protruding from it’s back and a snake for a tail. The brief description of the Chimera in the text of The Iliad is the earliest surviving record of the creature. The Chimera is traditionally considered to have been a female, and was said to have given birth to the Sphinx and the Nemean lion. The monster was feared and believed to have been an omen for storms, shipwrecks and other natural disasters.
The Chimera is best known for its role in the legend of Bellerophon. A hero born to the city of Corinth, Bellerophon would be ordered by king Lobates of Lycia to slay the monster in order to atone for his past sins. Bellerophon, knowing he would need assistance for such a task, prayed and then slept in the temple of Athena. Upon waking he saw the goddess before him, leading the mythical horse Pegasus, who possessed the ability of flight.
With Pegasus saddled, Bellerophon flew to the lair of the Chimera in Lycia. Knowing that the creature was ferocious and would not easily be defeated, Bellerophon devised a plan. He attached a large chunk of lead to the end of his spear. Riding Pegasus, he flew towards the monster. Just as the Chimera opened it’s mouth to scorch the hero with fire, Bellerophon drove the lead into the creatures mouth. The fiery breath of the Chimera melted the lead and caused the creature to suffocate and die.
7. The Empusa
Known from: General Mythology
Unlike the other creatures on this list, The Empusa is perhaps little known and does not appear in any traditional epic or popular legend. However her frightening appearance, and her ghastly tendency to feast on human blood and flesh, more than warrants her place as number seven on our list.
The Empusa is often depicted as a beautiful woman, who transforms into a creature with sharp teeth, flaming hair, and (in some interpretations) bat wings. Empusa was said to be a demigoddess under the control of the goddess Hecate, a being that is often associated with crossroads and entrance ways.
The Empusa would often seduce young men traveling alone. Once the unsuspecting youth was fast asleep, the creature would shift to her hideous form and devour the boys flesh and drink his blood for sustenance. The Empusa is probably best known for her appearance in Aristophanes’s The Frogs, where she terrifies the god Dionysus as he travels to the underworld.
6. The Hydra
Known from: The Legend of Heracles
Confronted by: Heracles
Number six on our list is the deadly Hydra, a serpent like water monster with reptilian traits. A creature who’s venom was so dangerous, that even the breath exhaled by the Hydra could be lethal to any man. Additionally, the Hydra had the confounding ability to regrow any decapitated limbs with alarming speed. It was said that for every head that was severed, two more would grow in it’s place. Its lair was the lake of Lerna in an ancient part of the Peloponnese . The Hydra would hide in an underwater cave that was said to have been an entrance to the underworld.
The Hydra is known for being the second monster that Heracles encounters during his twelve labors. Before attacking the Hydra, Heracles covers his mouth and nose with cloth so that he will remain safe from the deadly toxins the monster emits from it’s many mouths. Heracles originally attacks the Hydra with either a sickle, a sword, or his trademark club. However the hero quickly realizes that for every head decapitated, the creature quickly grows two more. The battle would appear hopeless.
Heracles then devises a plan to turn the tide against the monster. As soon as the hero decapitates one of the Hydra’s heads, he immediately takes a torch to the stump of a neck. The wound is cauterized and the creature is unable to produce anymore menacing heads. Heracles eventually lobs off the final head of the Hydra, effectively killing the creature and completing his second task.
5. The Charybdis and Scylla
Known from: The Odyssey
Confronted by: Odysseus
You might argue that because the Charybdis and the Scylla are actually two different monsters, that they should not occupy the same spot on our list of nightmarish creatures. However the two creatures, who lived on opposite sides of a narrow strait, have become so synonymous that it is impossible to talk about one without mentioning the other. The Charybdis is never explicitly described, other than saying it is a ferocious sea monster that lives under a rock on one side of a narrow strait. The Charybdis regularly swallows massive amounts of water which create monstrous whirl pools that are capable of destroying an entire ship.
Similarly, the Scylla lives on the opposite side of the narrow strait and is believed to have been a many headed sea monster that fed on the flesh of sailors who unwittingly traveled too close to the beasts lair. The phrase “between a Charybdis and Scylla” now is understood to mean being stuck between two dangerous decisions with no apparent solution.
The Charybdis and Scylla are found within the pages of The Odyssey. Odysseus is forced to navigate the narrow strait during his travels and decides to travel closer to the Scylla, so as to avoid the massive whirlpool of the Charybdis. As the ship sails past, six of Odysseus’ men are swallowed up by the monster and eaten alive. Homer describes it…
“…they writhed, gasping as Scylla swung them up her cliff and there at her cavern’s mouth she bolted them down raw—screaming out, flinging their arms toward me, lost in that mortal struggle.” -Homer, The OdysseyLater in the story, Odysseus is stranded on a raft and must navigate the strait for a second time. This time he attempts to sail past the side where the Charybdis is waiting. His raft is sucked into the massive whirlpool, but Odysseus himself manages to stay afloat by holding on to a fig tree whose branches are dangling from shore. Odysseus eventually recovers his raft and sails away quickly.
Known from: General Mythology, The Legend of Heracles
Confronted by: Heracles
Cerberus is a popular creature in ancient mythology. Hades’ loyal guard dog, Cerberus was a massive hound with three heads that guarded the entrance to the underworld. It was said that the beast only had an appetite for living flesh and so would only allow the deceased spirits to pass, while consuming any living mortal who was foolish enough to come near him. It is said that the three heads were meant to symbolize the past, present and future. In other versions of the myth the three heads represent youth, adult hood, and old age.
While Cerberus was a notable creature of mythology, he is probably best remembered as the twelfth and final labor that Heracles most perform. Heracles must enter the underworld, wrestle the beast using no weapons, and then bring Cerberus to the surface world, alive, to present to the Mycenaean king Eurystheus, the man who had originally ordered Heracles to perform these tasks as recompense for his past sins.
Heracles manages to tackle the beast; then using his great strength, throws the animal over his shoulder and drags him to the mortal world. It was said that upon seeing Cerberus, Eurystheus was so terrified that he hid in a large vase and begged Heracles to return the hell hound back to Hades.
3. The Minotaur
Known from: The Legend of Theseus
Confronted by: Theseus
A grotesque abomination that possessed the body of a man and the head of a bull, the Minotaur is best remembered for his affinity for devouring flesh and his cryptic home, deep within the confines of the twisted labyrinth. The labyrinth was an impossible maze constructed by the inventor Daedalus. It was said to have been located under the palace of Knossos, the home of King Minos of Crete.
The story goes that King Minos, the ruler of Crete, lost his son Androgeus, when the boy was murdered in Athens. Accounts vary, but one version tells that the prince was murdered because the Athenians were jealous of his many victories at the recent Panathenaic Games in Athens. King Minos would subsequently wage war on the Athenians, eventually finding victory. As penance for the murder of Androgeus, every year the Athenians were forced to send seven young men and seven maidens to the island of Crete, where they would be released into the labyrinth and systematically hunted and devoured by the Minotaur.
It is at this time that Theseus, the hero of Athens, volunteers to be sent to Crete as a sacrifice to the monster. Upon arriving Theseus is aided by Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos. Before the Athenians can be trapped within the labyrinth, Ariadne releases Theseus from his holding cell and brings him to the entrance of the great maze. Theseus navigates the labyrinth and discovers the Minotaur sleeping in the center of the vast dungeon.
Using the element of surprise, Theseus attacks the Minotaur and dispenses the monster with ease. The hero and the other Athenians, along with princess Ariadne, escape Minos’ palace and make a hasty retreat to Athens under the cover of night.
Known from: The Legend of Perseus
Confronted by: Perseus
A monstrous creature with the ability to turn to stone any person who gazed upon her face, Medusa remains a popular monster of ancient mythology. Interpretations of Medusa differ. Some accounts describe how Medusa was born to the archaic marine deity, Ceto. In this version of the tale, Medusa is born with a hideous face and a serpents tail where her legs should be. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was told to have once been a beautiful maiden who was transformed into a hideous monster after being raped in the temple of Athena by the sea god Poseidon. The one aspect of Medusa that remains consistent through various legends his her hair, which was said to have been composed of writhing, venomous snakes.
Medusa is confronted by the hero Perseus, who was bade by his stepfather to retrieve the head of the monster. Using a mirrored shield that was given to him by Athena, Perseus viewed Medusa’s reflection so as not to look directly at the monster. Perseus slays Medusa and chops off her head. From the neck of the dying Gorgon, sprang the winged horse Pegasus. Perseus would use the head of Medusa as a weapon against enemies; until he eventually presented it to Athena who attached it to the front of her shield.
Known from: The Theogony
Confronted by: Zeus
When making this list, I gave serious thought to who would occupy the seat as the most terrifying monster of Greek mythology. I asked several colleagues and took several polls. However, when we take time to truly consider all the legendary beast, there can be only one clear winner.
Typhon was known as the “Father of All Monsters.” He was birthed from Gaia (the earth) and Tartarus (the depths of hell). He was said to have been the most ferocious creature ever to roam the earth. Typhon was massive. It was said that when he stood upright, his head brushed against the stars. The lower half of his body consisted of two coiled viper tails that constantly were hissing. Instead of fingers, several dragon heads erupted from his hands. He was said to have wings that, when spread, could blot out the sun. Fire flashed from his eyes, striking fear into the heart of any living creature, even the might Olympians.
Typhon is described in Hesiod’s The Theogony…
“The hands and arms of him are mighty, and have work in them, and the feet of the powerful god were tireless, and up from his shoulders there grew a hundred snake heads, those of a dreaded drakon, and the heads licked with dark tongues, and from the eyes on the inhuman heads fire glittered from under the eyelids.” -Hesiod, The Theogony
Typhon was so mighty, that the only conceivable opponent to defy him was Zeus himself. While the other Olympians ran in fear, Zeus stood firm against the monstrous being. A great battle ensued that caused countless earthquakes and tsunamis. The war between Typhon and Zeus was so mighty that it threatened to break the planet in two.
Eventually Zeus would triumph over Typhon. By casting one hundred well aimed thunderbolts to the head of the monster, Typhon was cast down into the pits of Tartarus where he was sealed away for all time. However, the rage of this monster could not be contained. While he was trapped beneath the earth, he occasionally would experience fits of anger . His furry would manifest in the form of volcanic eruptions, and in this way Typhon continues to terrorize humanity from his earthly prison.