Halloween is approaching and, in the spirit of the season, I would like to present some great artworks of magnificent monsters from classical mythology (an exercise which should also help flesh out the deities of the underworld category). Leading up to October 31st I am going to highlight paintings of the different offspring of Echidna, the “mother of monsters,” whose brood cast a long, many-headed shadow over Greek mythology. But we come to an immediate problem: Echidna herself is under-represented in art (indeed her whole story is shrouded in uncertainty). Likewise, Typhon, Echidna’s husband and the “father of monsters,” is not as familiar to artists or poets as his dark progeny.
Echidna was an offspring of Ceto and Phorcys, primordial sea gods who ruled the ocean before the Olympian gods seized power. Possessing the body of a snake and the torso of a woman, Echidna was a fearsome creature in her own right. When Gaia, the great Earth mother, gave birth to her last and greatest child, the monstrous giant, Typhon, Echidna wed him and joined his rebellion against the Olympian Gods. This was a very bold romantic choice because Typhon was no Adonis. The giant has been described as being as tall as the stars with a hundred snakes in lieu of each arm. His legs were two enormous viper coils. His beard was a monstrous mop of ragged hair–which was presumably fire proof since flame flashed from his eyes. Typhon’s body was covered with wings and his voice was an unearthly combination of beast noises.
For a while it looked as though Tiphon would overthrow the Olympians: the great monster tore off Zeus’ muscles and kept them hidden in a cave. Only with the wily intervention of the trickster gods Pan and Hermes did Zeus recover his strength. In a final conflict of power, the King of the Gods hurled the mountain Etna upon Typhon, imprisoning the giant beneath the great mass. To this day the volcano heaves and belches flame. Echidna escaped (to rear her children sired by Typhon) and Zeus allowed her to do so in order that the monsters would provide a future challenge to heroes and demi-gods. The offspring she had are as follows:
- the Lernaean Hydra
- the Chimera (a fire breathing beast: part goat and part lion)
- the Caucasian eagle (who, every day, ate the regenerating liver of Prometheus)
- the Crommyonian Sow
- Colchian Dragon
- the Sphinx
- the Nemean Lion
- the Dragon Ladon
I think you will like the family pictures from this group!
In some stories Echidna preyed on mortals until finally the hundred eyed giant Argus put an end to her (I wish someone painted that fight!). In other tales she escaped to a lair deep beneath the earth where she bides her time, waiting to avenge her husband and her children. As a last peculiar note, that lovable and peaceful monotreme the echidna is named after her, not because of its ferocity, but because it was so strange and alarming to European taxonomists…