7th Voyage of Sinbad, Aeschylus, Apollonius, Arges, Argonautica, Aristophanes, automaton, Boreades, Brontes, bronze bulls, Catalogue of Women, Clash of the Titans, classics, Crete, Cronus, Cyclopes, Cyclops, Dead Man's Chest, Diodorus Siculus, Euripides, Euryale, forging, giant octopus, Gorgons, Greek, harpies, Helen, Hephaestus, Hesiod, Homer, hydra, Iliad, Jason and the Argonauts, Johnny Depp, King Phineus, Kres, magic, mechanical minotaur, Medusa, mermaids, metal-smith, Minoton, Moby Dick, monsters, myth, mythical creatures, Neptune, Odysseus, Odyssey, Orpheus, Penelope, Phinneas, Pindar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Polyphemus, Poseidon, Ray Harryhausen, sea monsters, sea snakes, Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Sicily, Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Siren's Song, Sirens, Steropes, Talos, Tartarus, Tauric Chersonese, Tennyson, The Erinyes, The Fates, The Golden Fleece, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, The Griffin, The Kraken, the sun, Theogony, Titans, Underworld, Uranus, Uriel, volcanoes, Vulcan, Zeus
Like most of you, I was first introduced to the ancient Greek monsters through watching films like Sinbad, Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts. I was also fortunate enough to end up doing a degree in Classics, so I got to find out more about the origins of the mythical creatures Ray Harryhausen magically brought into our hearts and minds, fascinating and captivating us with his animations. Because of him, pretty much most of you reading this will know what the Cyclops and Medusa look like.
I was so sad to read about Harryhausen’s death earlier this week, and it is to him that I dedicate this article. In the words of a friend, thank you for the magic Ray.
Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The name Sirens comes from the Greek Σειρηνες which translated is ‘seiraô’. It means ‘entwiners’ or ‘binders’. They are first mentioned by Hesiod in his Catalogue of Women, but they appear in many texts including the Argonautica, Euripides’ Helen and Homer’s Odyssey. The myths describe them as being three sea creatures who lure mariners to their deaths with enchanting songs. Jason and his Argonauts manage to pass by with the help of Orpheus who drowns out their singing with his music. Odysseus manages to pass by unharmed by asking his men to tie him to the mast of the ship, while they put wax in their ears so that they will not hear the Siren’s Song and perish. The Sirens are so upset that a man hears their song, but escapes, that they throw themselves into the sea and drown! What an odd tale indeed! And, of course, there are many theories on what it might all mean.
For starters, the word has survived in modern language. The siren is the sound of a warning bell or alarm, and generally means that there is trouble somewhere ahead. Did the Sirens foretell the coming of danger? Sometimes the Siren is a woman, or a woman with wings. Could it be warnings from women about dangers, or is it a warning that beautiful women are dangerous, or that men can be tempted into dangerous situations by beauty and desire? Certainly, Odysseus faces many temptations before he returns back to his dutiful and faithful wife Penelope. She is certainly more faithful than he is, that’s for sure!
Sirens, like the tales of mermaids, seem to be a symbol for dangerous seduction; the kind that lure men to their deaths. In this respect, therefore, they represent the desires of a man that he cannot have, or should not have, which will ultimately be his demise.
The Cyclopes: The Elder and the Younger
There are two breeds of Cyclopes, the one-eyed monster: The Elder and The Younger. The Elder Cyclopes first appear in Hesiod’s Theogony, a Greek creation story. Their names are Arges, Steropes, and Brontes and were cast into Tartarus (a part of the Underworld where people are tormented) by their father, Uranus, along with all the other Titans. They assist Cronus in usurping Uranus’ government, but Cronus then also throws them into Tartarus. Because Zeus releases them during his war with Cronus and the Titans, the Cyclopes give Zeus his thunderbolt and lightning, as well as a helmet for Hades (god of the Underworld) and a Trident for Poseidon (god of the sea). The Elder Cyclopes are eventually killed. Later, their tale appears in the Argonautica where they are shown to be metal forgers.
The Younger Cyclopes appear in Homer’s Odyssey. Here they are a giant race of lawless shepherds who live in South West Sicily and eat humans! They neglect agriculture, have no laws or political institutions and completely disregard Zeus (Hom. Od. vi. 5, ix. 106, &c., 190, &c., 240, &c., x. 200.)
They seem to represent natural forces, both destructive and creative. I can’t help wondering if perhaps volcanoes play a part. They too have one eye, and there are many in the area of Sicily. That they had a destructive force is obviously a given, but they do also possess the power of creativity. After eruptions, ash and lava form rich soil and land is fertile. Its power of creativity is, therefore, enhanced. Many different kinds of metal deposits are also found near underwater volcanoes and geothermal springs. Most of the metallic minerals mined in the world, such as copper, gold and silver, are associated with magmas found deep within the roots of extinct volcanoes located above subduction zones. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to envisage the possibility that settlers in these areas would mine for metals and be inclined to go into trades such as metal-smithing and forging, hence the association with Hephaestus (Gr)/Vulcan (L.). Furthermore, with just another little stretch of our imaginations it would be perfectly plausible to assume that these ancient people, who worship Vulcan, god of volcanoes (where the name comes from), might have drawn or tattoed an eye in the middle of their foreheads to represent their god, and the eye of the volcano…. These are how myths are born!
There’s probably much more to discover on this subject through studying the cults of Hephaestus/Vulcan. I’ll leave that for another day, though.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)/The Argonautica
A bronze automaton (see Minoton). Talos is forged by Haephastus. He is a massive statue from Crete who is given the task of patrolling the island three times a day and driving pirates away with rocks or a fiery death-embrace (see Cyclopes). His first appearance is the Argonautica. He was eventually destroyed when he tried to stop the Argonauts from landing on Crete. In one poem he is the son of the Cretan sun-god, Kres, as well as the father of Hephaestus, the fire god. His name means ‘the sun’ but also ‘to cut down’ in the Cretan dialect.
Harpies are the spirits of sudden gusts of wind. They are known as the hounds of Zeus and are sent by him to snatch things, including people! In Greek mythology, they are often blamed for sudden mysterious disappearances. They are usually shown as winged women or women with the body of a bird. They are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, by Hesiod in his Catalogue of Women and later in the Argonautica. The Harpy Eagle is also named after them!
Two harpies were assigned by Zeus to torment King Phineus of Thrace. In the film he is depicted as the blind prophet Phinneas. The King is punished for revealing the secrets of the gods by having his food snatched away by the Harpies. In the film it is for abusing his power of prophecy. They are captured by Jason and his crew in exchange for information. King Phineus is mentioned briefly in Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women and he was the subject of a play called Phineus by Aeschylus which is unfortunately lost. This story told of the arrival of the Argonauts at Phineus’ court, where the Boreades kill the Harpies and save Phineus. Thankfully a few fragments survive at least. The Harpies are mentioned in many other ancient texts including the Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s Theogony, both from round about 8th c BCE.
In mythology, the Hydra is an enormous nine-headed water snake. It is one of the twelve labours of Heracles (Gr.). Whenever he cuts off one head, two grow in its place! Eventually he cauterises the heads with fire. During the battle he crushes a giant crab, which has come to assist the Hydra, beneath his heel. Afterwards Hydra and the Crab became the constellations of Hydra and Cancer.
The Hydra first appears in Hesiods Theogony (8th/7th c BCE), and appears also in Apollonius’ Argonautica, as well as many other stories. The Hydra is certainly representative of some kind of obstacle, however it has also been suggested that it represented ancient serpent worship. This is something I would appreciate more information on, if anyone can enlighten me.
The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)
The Griffin is a beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. A tribe of Griffins guarded gold deposits in northern and eastern mountains of Greece, which could have the same significance as the story of the men who guarded the Golden Fleece (see Minoton). The Griffins are mentioned by several ancient Greek writers: Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound, Aristophanes in Frogs and Herodotus in Histories.
Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)
Minoton: The mechanical Minotaur
Of course, most of us will have heard of the Minotaur from the Theseus myth, but Automotons also existed in the ancient world. They are creatures crafted out of metal and given life by Hephaestus, the Greek smith-god. There are four fire-breathing bronze bulls, which Hephaestus makes for King Aeetes of Colchis. These appear for the first time in the Argonautica.
Diodorus Siculus informs us what they are a couple of centuries later. He tells us Aeetes puts up a wall where the Golden Fleece is and has it guarded by men of the Tauric Chersonese. He says that it is because of these guards that the Greeks invented monstrous myths. A rumour is spread that fire-breathing bulls and a sleepless dragon guard the fleece. The imagery of the bull breathing fire is used by these men because of their strength and also due to their cruel way of murdering strangers (2).
Clash of the Titans (1981)
Medusa is one of three Gorgons. She has snake hair and her gaze turns men to stone. The first written account appears to be by Hesiod who pictures The Gorgons as sea demons who have the ability to create reefs. They are therefore the personification of dangerous reefs which are a threat to sailors. In fact, another of the Gorgons is called Euryale, which means “she of the wide briny sea”. Medusa is possibly a personification of the sea storms that drive sailors to their deaths. It is also possible the three Gorgons are connected with The Furies, three ancient goddesses who represent drought, ruined crops and famine.
Interestingly, though possibly not important or relevant, the angel Uriel is the angel of wisdom who is associated with helping people to resolve conflicts. In The Erinyes by Aeschyles, The Erinyes (Fates) were transformed into goddesses of good judgement and wisdom. I just wonder if Uriel and Euryale have anything in common…
According to later classical poets, such as Pindar, Medusa is a beautiful maiden, “fair-cheeked”, who is turned into a monster by the goddess Athena for lying with the god Poseidon in Athena’s shrine. Poseidon is the god of the sea, as well as earthquakes, so there is another nautical connection. Could the myth simply mean that Medusa once represented the calm sea, and later represented the stormy sea? The fact that she was mortal might also tie her to animal or plant and certainly her totem animal must be considered to be the snake. Perhaps sea snakes. I would need much more time than I currently have to really look into all that, but if anyone already has information, please do post a comment. I’d be delighted to hear from you.
I had to save the best for last! Oh, but I am so sorry to disappoint you. The Kraken was never a part of Greek mythology. It first appeared in early Norwegian stories from the 12th c CE. In 1752 it was described as being like a floating island, with arms, about a mile and a half across. Later stories depicted it as a giant octopus. There is a reference to it in Moby Dick, and Tennyson wrote a poem about it.
It seems Ray Harryhausen just nicked it for Clash of the Titans, as did the the producers of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with Johnny Depp.
It probably just represents the dangers of the ocean from predatory creatures. There have been several accounts of large creatures wrecking boats, such as the giant octopus, which can grow to about thirty feet long. Tales of the Kraken probably grew from mariner’s tales and fears about sea creatures.
If you want to read more about Greek myths, I highly recommend you start with reading Hesiod, Homer (particularly the Odyssey), Aristophanes and Euripides. They are much easier to get through. I probably wouldn’t recommend the Argonautica – it’s not a big book, but it is pretty taxing to read.
Please do feel free to post comments, as it is impossible to fully cover such a vast subject in just a couple of days.
Until next week… As always, your friend, A.D.
(1) Strabo (first century BC) Geography I, 2, 39 (Jones, H.L. (ed.) (1969) The Geography of Strabo (in eight volumes) London
Tran, T (1992) “The Hydrometallurgy of Gold Processing”, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (UK), 17, pp. 356-365
“Gold During the Classical Period”
Shuker, Karl P. N. (1997), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings, Llewellyn
Renault, Mary (2004), The Bull from the Sea, Arrow (Rand)
(2)Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4. 47. 2 – 3 (trans. Oldfather) (Greek historian C1st B.C.)