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Category Archives: Monsters

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Female Monsters of the Odyssey

by July 10, 2018

By Julia Huse, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Limited
Of the monsters and mythological creatures Odysseus encounters during his long voyage from Troy to Ithaca, among the fiercest are female. Three of these are Circe, the Sirens and Calypso, who all prove to be difficult and terrifying obstacles to Odysseus’ journey home.
The Witch Circe

The witch Circe poisons Odysseus’ men, Alessandro Allori, 1580

After escaping the island of the cannibalistic Laestrygonians, Odysseus and his crew stumbleupon Aeaea and the home of Circe, who is referred to as both a witch and a nymph. She has a vast knowledge of potions and herbs, which Odysseus and his crew experience first hand. Odysseus and half his crew stay behind with the ships while the others go in search of Aeaea to see what people live there. The search party comes across the home of Circe, which is described as a large house in a clearing in the middle of a thick forest. All around the house are lions and wolves, which at first frighten the crew… until they notice how docile the beasts are. It is later found out that these are the previously drugged victims of Circe and her potions. In her house Circe welcomes Odysseus’ crew as guests, feeding them a meal of cheese and honey which she has drugged, turning the crew into pigs.
All but one crewmember is changed into a pig and he manages to escape to warn Odysseus and the other half of the crew what has happened. Odysseus ventures to Circe’s house to save his men, but is stopped along the way by the god Hermes, who was sent by Athena. Hermes tells Odysseus of an herb called moly that will protect him from the potions of Circe. Immune to her potions, Odysseus acts as if he is going to attack her. Afterwards, she tries to coax Odysseus into bed with her, which he avoids, due to Hermes’ advice. Having done all this, Odysseus convinces Circe to turn his crew back into humans and free them.
The Sirens
The Sirens in the Odyssey

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper

Odysseus also encounters the famous sirens during his wanderings. Typically in Greek depictions, the sirens they are half-woman half-bird creatures that perch on the rocks by the sea and sing beautiful songs that lure men who, refusing to leave, die of starvation.
In the Odyssey, Circe warns Odysseus about the sirens and tells him to plug his and his crew’s ears with beeswax in order to block their sweet songs from entering their ears. Being curious about the songs the Sirens sing, Odysseus only plugs his crew’s ears with beeswax and then has his men tie him to the mast of the ship, instructing them not to untie him… no matter how much he begs for it. Odysseus hears the song and begs and pleads that his crew release him, but his faithful crew only tighten the ropes more, binding him to the mast.
It is then revealed that the reason the songs allure and entice men is because they sing of past and future truths. They sing to Odysseus about his past endeavors, such as the glory and suffering he endured on the battlefields of Troy, and his future actions and what he will achieve… and they falsely promise that their hearers will live to tell these truths to others. Odysseus, of course, achieves this and this is how we are able to get this account from him.
The Nymph Calypso
The Greek monster Calypso

Calypso by Henri Lehmann (1869)

At the end of his wanderings Odysseus washes up alone on the island Ogygia, the omphalos, meaning navel or center, of the sea, and also the home of the nymph Calypso. Homer describes Calypso as the daughter of the Titan Atlas, who holds up the pillars of the sky and the sea. In Homer’s epic, Calypso keeps Odysseus on her island for seven years, accounting for a large part of his journey home. Calypso desires to make Odysseus her immortal husband and enchants him with her singing as she weaves on her loom. Odysseus performs all the duties of a husband for Calypso, including sleeping with her.
Even under Calypso’s spell Odysseus desires a different life. The promise of immortality does not sway him from missing his wife Penelope. Odysseus, a man, does not desire the life of a god; he much prefers the life of a mortal, even with all its hardships that are so clearly lacking on Calypso’s island. Noticing that Odysseus wants to leave the island, Athena asks Zeus to order Odysseus’ release. Zeus sends Hermes to tell Calypso to release Odysseus because it is not his fate that he should remain on the island forever anyways. Calypso eventually, and stubbornly, agrees to free Odysseus and sends him on his way with wine, bread and materials for a raft.
Beguiling Women of Ancient Greece
Beguiling women in Ancient Greek mythology

Telemachus and the Nymphs of Calypso MET DP169393

These women, although not necessarily terrifying in their looks, are certainly terrifying in their abilities to enchant mortal men. With much help Odysseus is able to resist or break free from these enchantments. Even the seemingly least threatening woman of the three, Calypso, manages to keep Odysseus detained for seven years, proving to be one of the greatest obstacles to his journey.
Clearly the women are seen as enchanters and deceivers of men, distracting them from their intended course or purpose… and this reflects a feeling found in Ancient Greece that women were deceitful creatures who could not control their sexual desires and sought to entrap men. This becomes especially clear when compared to male monsters, such as the Cyclops Polyphemus, who does not have the enchanting and deceiving nature of these woman. Odysseus immediately sees through his deceit and is able to win against Polyphemus with his own trickery. Whereas Odysseus can detect this deception on his own, when it comes to women monsters and goddesses, he needs the help of the gods and others to warn him and help him break free.

Medusa: Sympathy for a Monster

by September 22, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga 
What does it take to feel sympathy for a monster? In the case of Medusa, it may not be much. Though she is considered one of the most horrifying creatures of Ancient Greek mythology Medusa statue(coming in at second place on Classical Wisdom Weekly’s “Top Ten Most Terrifying Monsters of Greek Mythology”) her origin story is much more complex than most people realize—in fact, most people have never heard Medusa’s origin story at all.
This may be simply because the sources available to us today differ so widely in the telling of Medusa’s story—in fact, the tale functions as a brilliant example of the way in which myths evolve over time to suit changing societal needs. Though the myth started out simple, it quickly grew and, in some ways, changed drastically—leading to a great deal of confusion when modern readers and researchers attempt to put the pieces together into an accurate representation of ancient thought.
Medusa CaravaggioThere is, of course, some information about Medusa that never changes no matter what source you choose to look at. These are details that are incredibly well known, and seem to be passed along through a process of natural cultural osmosis. Medusa is a kind of creature called a Gorgon, she has hundreds of wild, venomous snakes for hair, and she can turn any person to stone with a single look. This concept has fascinated people for centuries, and various kinds of paintings, sculptures, cartoons, video games, and even brand labels have explored Medusa as a subject and character.
But these are the details almost everyone knows. Almost everyone knows who Medusa is, or at least what she can do. What is more interesting is how Medusa became the monster she is considered to be, and this is where the myth begins to warp and change as sources begin to disagree.
The concept of a monster such as a gorgon is an incredibly old one in Greek mythological history. We know from the creature’s appearance in the very ancient myths of Perseus and Zeus that the notion of a dreadful, snake-haired, deadly woman was born quite early. As far as the gorgon’s presence in classical literature goes, the earliest known mention of such a creature appears in Homer; and while no one can be sure of Homer’s timeline (or even his exact identity), some scholars believe that he penned his work around 1194-1184 BCE—indicating that the Ancient Greeks were talking about gorgons at a very early stage of their history.
HomerThough Homer’s exact timeline is unknown, his mention of the gorgon places the myth among some of the oldest recorded myths of Greek history.
In the Odyssey, the gorgon is a briefly mentioned inhabitant of the underworld—one whom Persephone could apparently “sic” on anyone who angered her. It isn’t until several years later that another author gives the gorgon more of a backstory. Hesiod, in his Theogony (700 BCE), describes the gorgons as three sister-monsters born of Phorcys and Ceto, two primordial ocean deities. He calls them Stheno (“the mighty”), Euryale (“the wide wandering” or “the far springer”), and finally, Medusa (“the cunning one” or “the queen”). He also describes a key difference between Medusa and her two sisters, one that becomes extremely important later: Medusa, unlike the other two gorgons (and for reasons not explained), is fully mortal.
In these earlier myths then, it’s assumed that Medusa was born a monster—complete with snakes and stony vision. However, there is evidence that the myth changed drastically over time.
OvidAround 8 AD, Ovid—a Roman poet celebrated for his faithful retelling of popular Greek myths—produced his famous Metamorphoses, an expansive book of myths which includes the myth of Perseus and his slaying of Medusa. In this section of the book, Ovid gives a completely different origin story for the terrifying creature.
According to Ovid, Medusa was born human and grew into an excruciatingly beautiful woman. Every man who saw her face and her gorgeous, silken hair immediately asked for her hand in marriage—all but one. The sea god, Poseidon, fell for her amazing looks but instead of asking for her hand, took her virginity—raping her inside the sacred sanctuary of Athena.
Athena, as the virgin goddess, was incredibly enraged by this defilement of her temple and chose to punish Medusa for her part in the whole affair—she cursed Medusa’s beauty. According to this version of the myth, it’s at this point that Medusa’s beautiful hair becomes a tangled mass of snakes, and she is cursed with her deadly power—the ability to turn whoever looks upon her to stone.
It’s important to stress here that Medusa has no control over this ability—should anyone at all look upon her face, they’ll be instantly transformed. In essence, Athena dooms Medusa to a life of solitude, a life in which Medusa will never have the comfort of looking at another human face without destroying it—all for the crime of being raped. After years of this torture, Perseus’ sword must have come as a welcome deliverance.
Medusa and PerseusOf course, this is just one version—but it has had a profound impact on the evolution of the myth and especially its propagation in modern times. These days, the most well-known (though that isn’t saying much) origin story for Medusa is closest to Ovid’s version, with only a few added details—that Medusa was a celibate priestess in the temple of Athena when she was raped, and that in addition to cursing her with a head of snakes, Athena transformed Medusa into a hideous old hag with greenish skin and fangs. But this isn’t the only version that is being passed along today.
As part of my research for this article, I read through several fan-based mythology forums, online blogs, and similar websites on which people had posted their own retellings of Medusa’s origin. The changes to the story that have taken place over time are fascinating, and are really testaments to the transformative power of imagination and word-of-mouth.
Many amateur mythology enthusiasts claim, for example, that Medusa was never raped at all. Instead, they say, she was obsessed with her own beauty and tired everyone around her by bragging about it incessantly. One day, she visited the temple of Athena with friends and spent the entire time claiming that she was more beautiful than the goddess herself, for which the goddess cursed her with an appearance so horrifying that it could turn people to stone.
This is a very interesting mixture of Ovid’s version (in which Medusa is punished for defiling Athena’s temple, though in this case the defilement is her insult to the goddess within its sacred walls) and what is possibly a misinterpretation of a line in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca (another collection of myths dating to somewhere between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD). According to Apollodorus:
“But it is alleged by some that Medusa was beheaded for Athena’s sake; and they say that the Gorgon was fain to match herself with the goddess even in beauty” (2.4.3.).
This tells us nothing about whether Medusa was once a beautiful human woman, and clearly does not claim that Athena transformed her into a Gorgon for her arrogance, but is instead referencing her much later beheading. Still, it’s likely that this idea was passed on, and eventually led to the modern interpretations that claim Medusa’s gorgon status was punishment for her vanity.
Whether Poseidon raped Medusa, or simply took on the role of a gentle lover, it’s clear that Medusa was doomed from the moment they stepped into Athena’s temple.
Still other modern story-tellers claim that Medusa’s life was a tragic love story—that Poseidon loved her, intended to marry her (or in some versions, did marry her) and the couple made the unfortunate (and inexplicable) decision of consummating that love in Athena’s temple. In that case, Athena’s curse (while obviously worse for Medusa) is a way of punishing them both—ensuring that they would never be able to look upon each other again.
It’s more difficult to trace the potential origins of this interpretation, but it’s possible that Hesiod’s description of Medusa’s relationship to Poseidon—in which the god beds her in a romantic field of wildflowers (lines 278-79 of Theogeny) may have had something to do with it—though again, it’s only two lines of text and does not specify whether Medusa was already a “monster” when Poseidon became interested (we all know the gods weren’t exactly picky).
MedusaWhat’s clear from all of this is that Medusa not only lives within the realm of myth, but also within a liminal space. As long as her story is so variable, she is both monstrous and beautiful, both born to kill and cursed to a life of solitude, both arrogant and humble, both loved and horribly raped. Her story is open for us to take from it what we choose—horror and derision for a simple mythological villain, or pity and sympathy for a girl whose life was taken out of her own hands and changed very much for the worse.
I know what I’m choosing.

The Worship of Guilt: The Furies and Justice

by August 6, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga
If you think the Sirens are the only mythological beings capable of making music deadly, think again. Mythology gives us another, much older trio of ladies whose song was meant to torture and kill their victims. They go by many names, but at least one is eminently recognizable: they are often called the Furies.
furies pursuit

Orestes pursued by the Furies

According to most mythological accounts, the three Furies—named Alecto (the unceasing), Megaera (the jealous), and Tisiphone (the avenger)—were literally born of blood. They sprang into being after the Titan, Kronos, castrated his father, Uranus. The blood from Uranus’ wound fell to the earth (Gaia) and produced the Giants, the Furies (or Erinyes), and the Meliae (a kind of nymph).
This bloody backstory is particularly important to the Furies for two reasons.

First, it establishes their age and lineage—they are older even than the Olympians, and are the direct result of a co-mingling of two primeval forces (Uranus, the heavens, and Gaia, the earth). Second, they are also the result of a crime committed by a son against his father. Fittingly, then, for many years the Furies were considered avengers of violations to the natural order—if a man killed his parents, for example, he could expect to answer to the Furies.
By all accounts, the Furies were visually terrifying. They had the bodies and faces of twisted old women, with writhing snakes
The FuriesThe Furies
for hair, runny eyes, and tattered black clothing. They punished their victims with a wild paralytic song that aroused intense feelings of guilt and remorse—essentially, the Furies drove criminals mad by exposing them to their own guilt and fear.
The Furies were, for all intents and purposes, monsters. They may have been monsters seeking justice, but they were terrifying monsters nonetheless.
And yet, believe it or not, they were worshipped in Athens. They had their own sanctuary and sacred grotto, and were called the “Eumenides,” meaning “the kindly ones.”
Okay—what gives?
One of the best sources to look to when trying to understand Athens’ worship of the Eumenides is actually a trilogy of plays called The Oresteia, by an Ancient Greek tragedian named Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE). In these plays he not only tells the tragic story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, but also essentially gives us an origin story for Athens’ famous trial-by-jury system of justice.
It’s in the last play of this trilogy, called The Eumenides, that we can see a distinct shift in the function and identity of the Furies. But before we can understand how they went from being the Erinyes (“the angry ones”) to being the Eumenides (“the kindly ones”), we have to understand why they make an appearance in the trilogy in the first place.
According to legend, Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army in the Trojan War, was brother to Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, was taken by Paris (a crime against hospitality that started the war to begin with). Before the Greek army can set sail for Troy, Agamemnon and Menelaus are told that they must sacrifice Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis—otherwise they will be unable to sail.
ClytemnestraClytemnestra after the murder, by John Collier
To make a long story very, very short, Agamemnon ritually kills Iphigenia, devastating his wife, Clytemnestra, who, upon Agamemnon’s return from the long war, murders him in his bath. Orestes, their son, who was away from home at the time of his father’s murder, eventually returns home and avenges his father’s death by murdering Clytemnestra and her lover.
This, clearly, is where the Furies come in. Their purpose is to punish violations of the natural order, such as Orestes’ killing of his own mother, and they get to work almost immediately. Circumstances matter very little to them—it doesn’t matter that Clytemnestra killed her husband first, Orestes must still be punished for killing his mother (a much stronger blood tie than husband and wife). By the end of the play in which Clytemnestra’s murder takes place, The Libation Bearers, Orestes is tormented by “ghastly women, like Gorgons,/ with dark raiment and thick-clustered snakes/ for tresses” (1048-49). He runs offstage, screaming about their terrifying appearances.
Apollo (who encouraged Orestes to commit the murder in the first place, but the Furies care little about this detail) tells Orestes to travel to the sanctuary of Athena, where he must embrace her idol and beg for assistance.
Once Athena responds to Orestes’ plea and enters the action, she pulls together Athens’ first jury trial in order to decide once and for all whether Orestes deserves punishment for his actions, or whether he acted in the right.
This is a fascinating section of the play which normally deserves a great deal of attention, but for now we are focusing on the Furies. So, to make a long story short (again), the jury of Athenian men finds Orestes “innocent” in the sense that his actions were justified. The Furies are, of course, extremely unhappy with this answer, and Athena has to do some damage control. She asks the Furies to stay in Athens—and she asks them no fewer than four times (sweetening the deal each time) before the terrifying trio decides to stay.
If the Furies represent such a pernicious form of torment, why is Athena so desperate to have them stay in Athens? On the one hand, she must protect her city from the threat of the Furies, who specifically proclaim that if Orestes is freed, they will spread venom throughout the land: “a canker, blasting leaves and children…speeding over the ground/ shall cast upon the land infections that destroy its people” (785-787).
Although it seems that banishing the Furies before they have a chance to curse the land is the obvious solution, the text actually implies that the Furies’ curse would come about as a result of their permanently leaving the land.
The Erinyes, after all, are in many ways a personification of righteous guilt. If guilt were to leave Athens forever, the city would be destroyed. This is why the Furies mention children in their threat—human beings who feel no guilt or shame could do any number of horrible things to each other without having to fear the internal torment of remorse. In a world like that, it would be difficult to trust anyone, and without absolute trust there can be no love or marriage, without which there would be no children. The Furies, by abandoning Athens, would devastate the family, and without family there can be no Polis. Athena cannot let this happen to her city.
After all, she recognizes that guilt and fear are absolutely essential to the health of civilization. Even if a lack of guilt didn’t pose a serious threat to families, it could still destroy civilized society from the inside out, resulting in absolute anarchy. How could Athena’s newly implemented trial-by-jury legal system be sustained in such a place? “And what city,” say the Furies, “or what man/ that in the light of the heart/ fostered no dread could have the same/ reverence for Justice?” (522-525). Fear and guilt are absolutely essential to the formation of the Athenian legal system, and this is why Athena tells her people that “they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared/ For who among mortals that fears nothing is just?” (698-699).
There is simply no Justice without the Furies.
But of course, the Furies are not exactly happy with Athena—convincing them to stay is not going to be easy—and in order to make them forget their anger, Athena must “sweeten the pot” pretty heavily; but to do this, interestingly enough, she has to fundamentally change the Furies’ role in society.
XXXOrestes pursued by the Furies, by Louis Lafitte
To please the Furies, Athena offers them a legally recognized home in Athens, tells them that they will be worshipped after every marriage and childbirth, and that they will also have the power to bring fortune to Athens by controlling the earth, sea, and sky (essentially they will have power over the weather).
These tasks are clearly not what the Furies are used to—and, after all, they are very passionate about bringing evildoers to Justice—why should they accept a new set of duties? Because, in essence, their new roles would still make them fundamentally important to the carrying out of Justice.
As representations of unrelenting guilt, the Furies could never have taken part in Athens’ legal system. The constant presence of unrelenting, overwhelming guilt would paralyze a jury, making it impossible for them to make a decision (for fear of making the wrong one). When Athena gives the Furies power over the weather and over childbirth—things that are fundamentally natural—she instead makes them representations of everything that humans and politics cannot control. By constantly pointing to the forces of nature, the Furies would remind humans that they are limited and imperfect.
This is absolutely crucial to an effective legal system. As a reminder of human limitation and imperfection, the Furies can act as a release from the paralyzing guilt that might make a jury incapable of functioning. A juror who recognizes that he is only human and that he might make a mistake is not overwhelmed by that possibility and is thus able to make a decision. It is a principle that emphasizes the necessity of a decision—of a legal system—over the repercussions of occasionally “getting it wrong.” The Furies are thus transformed into the Eumenides–from fury to “good anger,” from forces of vengeance to forces absolutely necessary to the carrying out of justice.
According to Aeschylus, it’s for this reason that the Furies received their new name and were subsequently worshipped in Athens with an extreme amount of reverence (and more than a little righteous fear). Thanks to Athena’s clever thinking, a trio of horrifying monsters whose only purpose was to torture their victims became a trio of worshipped goddesses who worked together with the Polis to ensure the health of a groundbreaking legal system—a legal system that still lives on in many forms today.
Clearly, the Eumenides have been doing a good job.

Assyria: Land of Demons

by February 19, 2015

By Benjamin Welton
There is a story (most likely untrue) that begins with a team of European archaeologists overseeing a dig in northern Iraq. They are somewhere near Mosul, the current stronghold of the Sunni extremist group ISIS in Iraq. They have come to this part of the world in order to excavate relics from the bygone empire of Assyria – a brutal, but effective state composed of warrior kings and their dreaded armies.
For the archaeologists themselves, the importance of Assyria is twofold: first, the Assyrian state ruled for a time the world’s largest and most powerful empire. They reigned by the point of the sword, and tales of their shocking inhumanity on their vanquished foes still have the ability to terrify even the sternest of imaginations.
Secondly, the Assyrians, and the empire they created, were one of the great foes of both the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah. As such, Assyrian villains are sprinkled throughout the Old Testament. Indeed, the Book of Nahum details the fall of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, the most reviled fortress city in the ancient Near East. For the Jews, the early prophecy that Nineveh, the:
“city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder” (Nahum 3:1), would fall must have seemed like a divine gift of salvation.

Besides this biblical prophecy, our European archaeologists would have undoubtedly been aware of the fact that Jesus Christ spoke the Aramaic language, the lingua franca of the Near East. This was a tongue which had been used by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, along with the older Akkadian language, as a tool for imperial unification in the realms of trade and government.

While the European archaeologists rock themselves to sleep with ideas of discovering some proof of the historical Jesus, or maybe uncovering something that had been lost to recorded history for thousands of years, their local workers, most of whom are pious Muslims, pray for the expedition to not find anything. After all, it would not be wise to upset the old gods, which to them represent powerful demons.
But in the morning, underneath the hot, arid sun of old Assyria, the workers stumble upon something large.
After frantically removing the earth, they recognize a face. The face has a long, square beard, braided with three rows of curls. Above his hair is a crown of sorts.

More digging reveals wings.

My God, they’ve uncovered a statue of Lamassu, a protective deity. They have awakened the old gods. They flee in terror.
Or so the story goes…
But you see, the old gods of Mesopotamia are not to be taken lightly. According to the famous British Egyptologist Sir E.A. Wallis Budge’s book Amulets and Superstitions, the:

“literature of the Sumerian and Babylonians…proves that the people who occupied Mesopotamia from about 3000 BC downwards attached very great importance to magic in all its branches, and that they availed themselves of the services of the magician on every possible occasion.”

A large part of this ancient magic involved protection against the many demons who plagued them, from the spirits of the angry dead to the archfiend Lamashtu, the female demon who lived in the mountains and cane brakes and preyed upon pregnant women and children.
Again, Budge was succinct when he stated that from the earliest moments of recorded time, the people of Mesopotamia, “were in perpetual fear of the attacks of hosts of hostile and evil spirits which lost no opportunity of attempting to do them harm.”
In order to understand Assyrian demonology, one must appreciate the peoples who came before, for the Assyrian religion, and even the Assyrian way of war, was inherited (although the Assyrians did add excessive cruelty, so they can be credited with at least one innovation).
It started in Sumer, the first great civilization in Mesopotamia (modern day southern Iraq). They created not only writing, but also a whole pantheon that would serve their successors up until the coming of Alexander the Great. The Sumerian gods included: Enlil, the Lord of the Storm and the heroic head of the pantheon, the air goddess Ninlil, and Inanna, the female god of fertility, war, and wisdom.
The Sumerians built impressive ziggurats, or stepped temples, for the purposes of worshipping these gods. Cities such as Uruk, Nippur, and Eridu (which the Sumerians considered ancient – thus making it arguably the world’s oldest city) served as commercial and religious centers.
There were city-specific deities, but also monsters, such as Tiamat, the primordial chaos demon of the ocean who serves as the primary antagonist in the Babylonian creation myth, The Enûma Eliš.

[Side Note: This text, along with the Neo-Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, were both re-discovered in 1849 by the British archaeologist Sir Austen Henry Layard at the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Ashurbanipal was the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.]

Likewise, dark, malevolent gods were present in their cosmology… and none was more vile that Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld, or Irkalla. Along with Nergal, the plague god, Ereshkigal acted as the tyrant of Irkalla and was the chief judge of the dead.
The story of Inanna’s descent into the underworld provides a glimpse into Ereshkigal’s wickedness:

Naked and bowed low, Inanna entered the throne room.
Ereshkigal rose from her throne..
Inanna started toward the throne..
The Annuna, the judges of the underworld, surrounded her..
They passed judgment against her..
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death..
She spoke against her the word of wrath..
She uttered against her the cry of guilt..
She struck her..
Inanna was turned into a corpse,.
A piece of rotting meat,.
And was hung from a hook on the wall… .

Inanna, who is more commonly known by her Akkadian name of Ishtar, manages to defeat the machinations of Ereshkigal and returns to the world of the living. For her pain, Ereshkigal threatens Inanna with a show of her power, to send her army of the dead above ground as a moving pestilence bent upon destruction.

Empire Map
To their enemies, the Assyrian hordes must have seemed like Ereshkigal’s army of the ravenous dead; they were a nation of fearsome warriors. And although their rise was slow and their fall spectacular, the Assyrians left an indelible mark on the regions that they conquered… More than anything else, they spread fear.
Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the early Jews turned the Assyrian gods into demons. Astarte, the Assyrian version of Ishtar, became Astaroth, the Crowned Prince of Hell. Similarly, the Assyrian Bel, who would be called Baal by the Canaanites, would become Beelzebub, the demonic “Lord of the Flies.”
Although these later Judeo-Christian interpretations form the Western world’s view of the Mesopotamian religion as being thoroughly evil, the Assyrians themselves weren’t without their own demons.

(Again, most Assyrian demons were present beforehand, in the mythos of earlier Mesopotamian societies. These include the Sumerian ekimmu, a type of vampiric ghost, or the Akkadian lilu and lili, who were male and female demons that more than likely served as the inspiration behind Lilith in the Old Testament. Demons that were specific to the Assyrians – or at least more often used by them – include Ilu Limnu, the “evil god” who is never given definite characteristics, and the gallu, or bull demon.)

In The Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, the Assyriologist Reginald Campbell Thompson details the various “demons, ghouls, vampires, hobgoblins, ghosts” that cursed the regions around the Tigris and Euphrates… as well as the Babylonian and Assyrian incantations that were used against them.
According to Thompson, the Assyrians held a great fear of sorcerers, whom they called the “Raiser of the Departed”.
However, they feared the ekimmu and wind spirits above all else.


The most famous Assyrian wind spirit known widely today is Pazuzu, the son of the god Hanbi and the demon of the southwestern wind. With the body of a lion or dog, a scorpion’s tail, wings, talons, and a serpentine phallus, Pazuzu brought famine and locusts during the dry seasons. In an odd twist, Pazuzu was the rival of Lamashtu (the goddess who preyed on pregnant women and children), and as such, his image was often used to combat other demons.
Of course, Pazuzu’s notoriety is the result of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Although the film is more obvious than the book in depicting the spirit of Pazuzu as a monstrosity haunting young Regan MacNeil (neither, however, directly state that the demon is indeed Pazuzu), the message is still clear. Blatty’s decision to make the chief evil in The Exorcist a pre-Christian, Assyrian demon is in keeping with the Western tradition of seeing all things Mesopotamian as depraved.
Furthermore, by beginning his novel, and thus the film, in northern Iraq, Blatty made the conscious decision to play upon his audience’s preconceived notions…

Namely, that the land of the old Assyrians is indeed a land of demons.

Pursuing the Gorgon Medusa

by July 16, 2014

By John Mancini
The Gorgon Medusa, with her serpentine hair, lolling tongue and deadly gaze, is one of the most recognizable icons in mythology. Her popularity not only predates Classical Greece, but also extends through The Middle Ages, and can still be felt today. A mythical motif for centuries of artists, the Gorgon image appears in countless sculptures and paintings, especially in the Mediterranean – adorning everything from doorways of temples to sarcophagi of kings…
But was she seen as a Sea Monster or a Mother Goddess?
In the Greco-Roman world, the Gorgoneion-bearing aegis was a protective amulet, similar to the “evil eye” of witchcraft, appearing on the shields of Athena and Zeus. Its power could be transferred to whoever possessed it, an attractive feature to both gods and men. Apollo, for instance, harnessed the power of the Gorgoneion and used it to fight the Achaeans, while the mythical Perseus famously used the entrancing magic of the Gorgoneion gaze as a weapon, turning his enemy Polydectes to stone.
Real men, too, desired the deadly effects or protection of the Gorgon. Indeed, some of the earliest depictions of the Gorgoneion in Greece appear on the shields of warriors in the mid-fifth century B.C. where she is represented as a goat-bearded monster with tusks rather than a female demon.

Most contemporary readers, however, know the Gorgon as the snake-haired goddess from the myth of Perseus-Medusa in which she is one of three sisters, a trio of sea nymphs who occupy an island at the far edge of the ocean.

According to the poet Hesiod, after her defeat at the hands of the hero Perseus, Medusa’s blood spilled from her severed head and created the coral reef of the Red Sea, which tormented ancient mariners.

While the “Gorgoneion” was a popular motif in ancient art long before the Greek story of Perseus-Medusa, it only caught on rapidly in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. This is when the full-bodied Gorgon began to appear on temples to Athena and Artemis, as well as on coins, where she has been pictured opposite the owl of Athena or sun god Apollo.
Around 415 BC in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the Gorgon is portrayed as three swanlike snake-haired sisters who share one eye and loathe mankind. By contrast, Pindar claimed that Medusa was in fact “fair-cheeked” and Ovid later confirmed that she was irresistible to whomever encountered her.
So… was she hideous or beautiful?
Like Hermes advised Heracles when he pursued the Gorgon in the Underworld – it depends very much on how you look at her. Clearly, her description has changed over time and from poet to poet… but what was the first depiction? From where did this mysterious creature originate?
Well, the Gorgon Medusa is thought to have been a sea goddess born of Cetus and brought to Greece by way of seafaring tribes from Babylonia. In these early myths, she was a female deity who shared lineage with Artemis, Demeter, Cybele and Rhea.
The Gorgons represented a fear of and reverence for the awe-inspiring wildness of nature and animals. To the Greeks, the Gorgon’s challenging grimace was the very personification of Fear itself: Phobos. And in tracing the origin of the Gorgon, archeologists have linked her to just about every natural phenomenon imaginable, including the roar of the ocean, the eruption of volcanoes, the crack of thunder-clouds – as well as beasts such as boars, lions, cephalopods and of course, owls.
Although Greek depictions of the Gorgon monster did not properly appear until after the Geometric Period, the sisterhood of demonic winged snake-goddesses extends to ancient Phrygia, Phoenicia, Babylonia and Persia. This includes not only the great nature goddesses of Asia Minor, like Artemis, but also those from farther east, such as the multi-armed Hindu Goddess Bhavani, the wrathful counterpart of Parvati.

Perhaps most direct influence to the Greeks was the Babylonian Humbaba, a demonic grinning monster that guarded the mythic cedar forest and was slain by the hero Gilgamesh.

The Gilgamesh-Humbaba legend provided the model for the Perseus-Medusa myth, while visual elements from other Babylonian deities, like Abzu and Ishtar, which were also incorporated and re-interpreted by the Greeks. The fact that “sacred prostitution” was an ancient custom in Babylonian temples devoted to Ishtar may shed additional light on how the story evolved in Greece – in particular, the detail of Medusa’s rape by Poseidon in Athena’s temple.

Medusa’s appearances in Greek art during the 7th century B.C. in early Corinthian pottery were influenced by Assyrian art.

In these examples, the Gorgon is often pictured with a snout and tusks of a boar, as well as horns or wings, in addition to the snakes that traditionally crown her head.

One only has to look at the Mesopotamian terracotta plaque from 1750 B.C. known as the Burney Relief, which depicts Ishtar as a vampire-like goddess with wings, clawed feet and a serpentine halo of hair, to see an obvious resemblance to the Medusa of Archaic Greek art.

Although Medusa’s character may have become more distinct in the Greek myths, she still retained the features of the original nature goddess. As mentioned, she was related to Artemis, the patroness of wild animals, whose encounter with Actaeon was extremely bloody. Actaeon caught Artemis and her nymphs bathing in a wooded spring, which resulted in his transformation into a stag and subsequent demise at the jaws of his own hounds.
However, Actaeon only transformed once, while the Gorgon went through many alterations over the centuries. In The Middle Ages, the Gnostics christianized Medusa by surrounding her head with a halo of biblical scripture. In folktales she became the mermaid Melusine who transforms into a fierce sea creature after she is caught bathing – for to gaze on the naked goddess uninitiated has always been considered a profanation of the mystery of nature, one worthy of ultimate punishment.
In the late 20th century, the mermaid Melusine experienced worldwide resurgence in popularity when Starbucks chose her as its company mascot, and the Versace clothing company also adopted the Roman Gorgoneion as its logo.
It is Sicily, however, that still has the longest running claim to the Gorgon Medusa. Since 300 B.C. that Western Island basking in the Mediterranean sun has consistently incorporated the Gorgoneion into coinage and door handles, temples and sarcophagi. Sicily has even used the Gorgon on its flag since the 13th century. It can still be seen there today, surrounded by the triskelion, the three running legs of the Gorgon, as well as three shafts of wheat.
But perhaps one of the most compelling depictions of Medusa is an earlier one from the Temple of Artemis at Corfu, an island on the western coast of Greece. Dating back to 580 B.C., the temple was one of the largest of its kind. There, the winged Medusa resides prominently on the western pediment, flanked by two lions, as well as her offspring, the flying horse Pegasus and Chrysaor the warrior. Larger than Zeus, who hurls a lightning bolt over at the far end, her authority is unmistakable, and the power of her dual nature can be more clearly understood.
She is the Earth Mother, guardian of the natural world – both demon of the oceanic unconscious and mistress of wild beasts. To a soul worthy of her gaze, one need not worry about having the mirrored Athenian shield… as long as one approaches her with equal amounts of courage and respect.

Top Ten: Most Terrifying Monsters Of Greek Mythology

by October 31, 2013

10. The Sphinx
Known from: The Legend Of Oedipus
Confronted by: Oedipus

sphinxThe first creature on our list is the sphinx; a monster that was said to have the body of a lion, the head of a woman, and the wings of an eagle.The sphinx is perhaps known best for her role in the legend of Oedipus.The story goes that as Oedipus was traveling down the road to Thebes, he is confronted by the mysterious creature. The sphinx blocks Oedipus’ path and confronts him with a riddle. Although the exact riddle is not mentioned in early Greek legend, the popular version of the story tells that the Sphinx poses the following riddle to the young traveler…
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

cyclopsThe 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,polyphemus 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.
ChimeraThe 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 willHydra 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

ScyllaYou 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 OdysseyOdysseus is forced to navigate the narrow strait during his travels and scylla2decides 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.

4. Cerberus
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.
cerberusWhile 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

MinotaurA 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.

2. Medusa
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. Somemedusa 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.

1. Typhon
Known from: The Theogony
Confronted by: Zeus

TyphonWhen 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 Typhon and Zeusensued 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.