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Jason and the Argonauts faced one of Echidna’s children, the Colchian Dragon, which was guarding the golden fleece.  Taking a page out of Dashiell Hammett’s playbook, they slipped the monster a mickey and made off with the fleece while the dragon slumbered (pausing only to draw a mustache on the creature).  Not exactly a proud moment…but it was probably the least morally ambiguous thing they did during their dark quest.

Here is a painting of a very very fancy Jason, administering the potion to the dragon.  The fact that the monster is about the size of a terrier makes the whole scene even more hilarious but hey, that’s eighteenth century art for you.

Charming the Sleepless Dragon of the Golden Fleece (Giovanni Battista Crosato, 1697-1756)

Dante and Virgil encounter Cerberus" by Christopher ´Topher´ Allen Shepard

Pride of place among the monsters born of Echidna has to go to Cerberus, the great three headed dog that guards the underworld.  As a dutiful pet to Hades, ruler of the dead, Cerberus works hard to keep living beings out of the underworld and prevent deceased souls from returning to the world of life.  Getting past Cerberus on the way into and out of the underworld was therefore a chief problem for the heroes who visited the land of the dead.  Orpheus charmed his way past the dog with music.  Aeneas pragmatically fed the creature drugged honey cakes.   Psyche used sweet words and dog biscuits.

Hercules of course used brute strength.  In fact the demigod was in the underworld specifically to borrow Cerberus as a twelfth and final bravura labor. Capturing the hellbeast of course required bravery and raw force, but Hercules had become rather savvier by the time of his last labor, and he did some other things right.  Before going to the underworld he mastered the Eleusinian Mysteries so that, in case he never returned from the realm of the dead, he could at least enjoy a pleasant afterlife (the cult’s principal benefit).  Once he had entered the underworld through the winding subterranean cave Taenarum in Laconia, Hercules sough out Hades and asked permission to borrow his dog.  Hades granted it provided Hercules subdue the beast without using any weapons.  When Hercules wrestled Cerberus to submission, he took the creature back to Eurystheus who was so frightened he hid in a jar (which is how he is always portrayed) and freed Hercules from any further obligations.  Cleansed of his past sins, Hercules was free to pursue his own life.

Herakles, Cerberus and Eurystheus (from a black-figured Caeretan hydria vessal of Etruscan make, ca 525 BC)

Dante also described Cerberus.  The Italian poet’s version of the monster seems to be having doggy fun.  Virgil and Dante witness him tearing apart spirits and they feed him some dirt to play with in the following passage from Inferno:

In the third circle am I of the rain
Eternal, maledict, and cold, and heavy;
Its law and quality are never new.
Huge hail, and water sombre-hued, and snow,
Athwart the tenebrous air pour down amain;
Noisome the earth is, that receiveth this.
Cerberus, monster cruel and uncouth,
With his three gullets like a dog is barking
Over the people that are there submerged.
Red eyes he has, and unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands;
He rends the spirits, flays, and quarters them.
Howl the rain maketh them like unto dogs;
One side they make a shelter for the other;
Oft turn themselves the wretched reprobates.
When Cerberus perceived us, the great worm!
His mouths he opened, and displayed his tusks;
Not a limb had he that was motionless.
And my Conductor, with his spans extended,
Took of the earth, and with his fists well filled,
He threw it into those rapacious gullets.
Such as that dog is, who by barking craves,
And quiet grows soon as his food he gnaws,
For to devour it he but thinks and struggles,
The like became those muzzles filth-begrimed
Of Cerberus the demon, who so thunders
Over the souls that they would fain be deaf.

It is good that there is a family member of Echidna that did not suffer extinction at the hands of some hero. It is pleasant to imagine the three-headed dog enjoying a vigorous and rousing eternity with his master in the halls of hell.

Here is gallery of some images both ancient and modern, high art and low art, of the great monster.  Also I would like to give a hearty thanks to all of the creative people whose work is available on the internet.  You all are truly the best.

Cerberus (by Allison Smith)Cerberus (by Evolvana)

Sorcier (David Teniers)

(by R'john-aka-THE LOCKER)

Cerberus (an amazing pencil drawing by Todd Lockwood, 1994)

I wrote yesterday that this would end my series on Echidna’s monstrous offspring–but it occurs to me I forgot the Colchian Dragon.  So tune in tomorrow for a special bonus monster!

Thanks MS Paint!

To celebrate the spooky season, we have been recounting the various fates of the brood of monsters descended from Echidna. While doing so, one aspect of the story has become glaringly apparent:  more than half of the family of monsters was defeated by Hercules. Cerberus, Ladon, Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the great Caucasian Eagle…the demigod bested them all as he bludgeoned and ripped his shining path through the world.  (I haven’t told the tale of Orthrus, the two headed dog who was best friend to the three-headed monster Geryon:  suffice to say, during his tenth labor, Hercules killed the poor pooch.)  One would expect a devoted mother to be enraged and thirst for vengeance.  However there is a story about Hercules and Echidna meeting, and it seems the mother of monsters desired something very different from revenge.  I’ll turn the storytelling over to Herodotus.  It is worth remembering that while people call Herodotus “the father of history”, historians call him “the father of lies”.  He tells a great many thrilling stories but he probably made them up while he was binge drinking in his library…. Anyway, here is the passage from Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson):

Hercules came from thence into the region now called Scythia, and, being overtaken by storm and frost, drew his lion’s skin about him, and fell fast asleep. While he slept, his mares, which he had loosed from his chariot to graze, by some wonderful chance disappeared. On waking, he went in quest of them, and, after wandering over the whole country, came at last to the district called “the Woodland,” where he found in a cave a strange being, between a maiden and a serpent, whose form from the waist upwards was like that of a woman, while all below was like a snake. He looked at her wonderingly; but nevertheless inquired, whether she had chanced to see his strayed mares anywhere. She answered him, “Yes, and they were now in her keeping; but never would she consent to give them back, unless he took her for his mistress.” So Hercules, to get his mares back, agreed; but afterwards she put him off and delayed restoring the mares, since she wished to keep him with her as long as possible. He, on the other hand, was only anxious to secure them and to get away. At last, when she gave them up, she said to him, “When thy mares strayed hither, it was I who saved them for thee: now thou hast paid their salvage; for lo! I bear in my womb three sons of thine. Tell me therefore when thy sons grow up, what must I do with them? Wouldst thou wish that I should settle them here in this land, whereof I am mistress, or shall I send them to thee?” Thus questioned, they say, Hercules answered, “When the lads have grown to manhood, do thus, and assuredly thou wilt not err. Watch them, and when thou seest one of them bend this bow as I now bend it, and gird himself with this girdle thus, choose him to remain in the land. Those who fail in the trial, send away. Thus wilt thou at once please thyself and obey me.”

Two of Echidna’s human children by Hercules proved to be disappointments and were sent away, but Skythes, the youngest son was indeed capable of wielding Hercules’ bow.  Skythes stayed in the land, became its king, and fathered the race of the Scythians, a (real) tribe of people whom the ancient Greeks regarded as being descended from union of the the greatest Greek hero and a primordial monster!  People who are familiar with the Scythians will be yelling and punching the air right now (because Scythians are just completely awesome), however, to quickly summarize; the fearsome Scythians were nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.  They were renowned for their formidable prowess at mounted warfare and for being general badasses. Roman historians described the Goths as Scythians.  The Scottish even called themselves Scythians!  in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, an open letter to the pope, the elite aristocrats of Scotland claim Scythia as their former homeland.  It goes without saying they were binge-drinking in a library when they wrote that puppy.

Scythian Warriors on the steppes (Painting by Angus McBride)

Speaking of puppies, tomorrow, we wrap up this series with everyone’s favorite child of Echidna…

The Garden of the Hesperides (Sir Frederic Leighton, 1892)

In the Greek view of the world, there was a tranquil garden of perpetual rosy twilight which was found at the sunset edge of all lands–so far west that the west came to an end.  The garden was inhabited by three nymphs of peerless beauty whose special task was to tend an apple tree in the middle of the garden.  The golden fruit of the tree would confer immortality upon anyone who ate one. But of course there was a catch.

This was the penultimate labor of Hercules: to bring back three of the apples of the Hesperides.  The tree was in the private garden of Hera herself and the apple tree was a wedding gift from Mother Earth to the queen of the gods.  Plucking the apples from the tree would bring instant death to any mortal, but the biggest problem of all was the garden’s true guardian, the dragon Ladon who was coiled around the apple tree.  As you might imagine, Ladon was one of Echidna’s offspring.  He is sometimes shown as a great python, other times as a more traditional dragon, and occasionally as a hundred-headed uber-dragon.

The Garden of Hesperides (Edward Burne-Jones, ca. 1870-1873)

Although dragons abound in Greek mythology, the snake-dragon curled around a sacred tree, seems to have arrived in Greek mythology from another canon altogether.  Scholars believe Ladon’s original form was the Semitic serpent god Lotan, or the Hurrian/Hittite serpent Illuyanka.  In fact, serpents/dragons wound around fruit trees are well-known in the three great monotheistic faiths of the present. In Greek mythology, Ladon only plays an active role in the story of Hercules 11th labor (and even then, the dragon’s role is curiously ambiguous).

Hercules and the Hesperides (Rubert Bunny, 1864 - 1947)

Hercules traveled through the Greek world having adventures, killing giants, and seeking the garden’s location.  It was during his search for the Garden of the Hesperides that he slew the Caucasian Eagle and freed Prometheus (who, in gratitude, told him what to expect at the garden of the Hesperides).  In order to obtain the apples, Hercules solicited the aid of the titan Atlas, who holds up the firmament.  Hercules assumed the burden of the heavens while immortal Atlas collected the apples. When Atlas betrayed Hercules and left the strongman holding the heavens, Hercules pretended to accept his fate–but he asked to adjust his lionskin first.  Once Atlas was holding the heavens again, Hercules picked up the apples and took them back to Eurystheus (who was rightly afraid of them, and gave them to Athena).  The fate of the dragon is a bit unclear.  In some versions Hercules kills him for good measure.  For example, in the story of Jason and the golden fleece, Ladon’s corpse is spotted by the Argonauts—the creature’s body is still heaving and trembling years after death while the heartbroken nymphs sob.  In other stories the dragon survives and, together with the nymphs, continues to look after the tree of life.

Because I can not resist, here are links to a very short and delightful comic strip consisting of a first, second, and third panel. The drawings contain mild nudity (which differs from that found in Lord Leighton’s painting above only in that the strip is contemporary). The creator, M.L. Peters, tried to add a feeling of fin de siècle illustration so as to give the comic punchline a deeper resonance, and I feel he succeeded admirably.  Additionally I love anchovies.

Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, with the sign of Cancer (by Baldassare Peruzzi, 1481-1536)

According to myth, the Lernaean hydra was a nine headed chthonic water monster which guarded the entrance to the underworld which lay beneath the waters of Lake Lerna.  The creature was so profoundly poisonous that even its footprints were toxic–to say nothing of its blood, bite, and breath.  When one of the hydra’s heads was cut off, two more would sprout in its place.  The hydra did have a weakness of sorts—only one of its heads was immortal.

Hercules’ second labor was to kill this fearsome monster.  After the trouble the Nemean Lion had given the hero, Hercules adhered more closely to the Boy Scout motto before facing the hydra: he prepared thoroughly for the confrontation by covering his face and eyes against the monster’s poison. He donned his impervious lionskin and took with him his club, a golden sickle-sword given to him by Athena, and, most importantly, an ally–his nephew (and lover), Iolaus.

Attic Black Figure on White Ground from Funeral Lekythos (Attributed to the Diosphos Painter, ca 500 - 480 BC)

But for all of his physical preparations, Hercules attacked the monster with a characteristic lack of tactics.  First he fired flaming arrows into the hydra’s favorite lair, the unquenchable well of Amymone until the creature emerged. Then Hercules started lopping off heads and bashing away with his club.  Soon a veritable forest of poisonous serpentine monster heads was striking at him, and all seemed lost until Athena stole up beside Iolaus and gifted him with a flaming brand and the idea of cauterizing each neck before new heads could sprout.  With the combined efforts of Iolaus, the ever-victorious goddess Athena, brute strength, the golden sickle-sword, and good ol’ fire, Hercules gradually cut and cauterized his way through the beast.  But, the Hydra was not lacking for allies either:  Hera sent a great crab to reinforce the wounded creature.  Using superhuman strength Hercules crushed the crab with a mighty foot and at last faced only the Hydra’s immortal head.  With one mighty slice he finished decapitating the monster and he placed the still living head beneath an immense rock on the sacred roadway between Lerna and Elaius.  Hercules then dipped his arrows in the Hydra’s blood so that they would be lethal to all mortal  things –a cruel stroke of genius which was to ultimately prove his downfall.  Hera placed her defeated hydra and crab in the night sky.

Of all of Echidna’s offspring, the hydra seems to have the most resonance with contemporary artists.  Painters, sculptors, and draftspeople are attracted to a theme which so elegantly exemplifies the hopelessness of struggling against a multi-headed entity capable of renewing itself exponentially.  The hydra is emblematic of viruses, invasive animals, crabgrass, terrorists, crooked politicians, and corporations.  Such a contest clearly presents the fundamental nature of individual striving.  Hercules’ victory thus resounds as the ultimate triumph of the individual over the many…except…well, he had Iolaus, a magic weapon, magic armor, and the goddess Athena (as well as a sanction from his omnipotent father).  In fact, his great accomplishment was deemed unacceptable as a “labor” because he utilized so much help.

I’ll leave you to contemplate the fact that even great Hercules needed a support team.  In the mean time, enjoy this crazy gallery of amazing contemporary artworks depicting the hydra:

Hydra (Sculpture by Elford Bradley Cox)

A performance art troop, Fluid Movement, presents "The Dance of the Hydra"

Figure 24.3: Hydra (by Richard Oden)Hydra (Installation piece made from muslin and transistor radios by Kelley Bell, 2002)

Hydra 1 (ironwood sculpture by Cody Powell & Ben Carpenter)

A hydra drawn on a styrofoam cup with marker by Cheeming Boey aka Boy Obsolete

Hydra (painting by Travis Lampe for "Beasts 2)

The Hydra of Madison Avenue, (by Todd Schorr, 2001): a vivid nightmare of corporate mascots run amok

The Chimera

I have a special affection for the next monster on my list.  Of all of Echidna’s brood, the Chimera seems like the most fanciful: she was a mixed-up creature with three heads from completely different animals.  The Chimera had the body and head of a lioness, but a goat head protruded from her back, and she had a live snake instead of a tail. The Chimera breathed fire and haunted the volcanic mountains of Lycia.  Even in mythology, this was an improbable beast, and therefore, since classical times, writers and poets have called unbelievable fabrications “chimeras.”

Zoomorphs! The chimerical building toy

I am fond of the Chimera because I designed a line of toys, the Zoomorphs, which is a kind of do-it-yourself chimera kit.  The toy consists of a set of plastic animal parts which can be snapped together to make an actual creature like a Tyrannosaurus, a dog, a goldfish, or a parrot (to name only a few).  The user can also pop the different pieces together to make crazy fantasy creatures such as a dino-dog with parrot’s wings and a fish tail.  You can find them for sale at finer independent toy stores.  Here’s a link to the company site. Sorry for the shameless plug—but it was germane to the subject.  Anyway…back to mythology….

Like a surprising number of the monsters born of Echidna, the Chimera was slain for no good reason–thanks to a sequence of events which had nothing to do with her.  Bellerophon, prince of Corinth (and the grandson of wily Sisyphus) fled from his father’s court after committing murder.  He took refuge in Tiryns, where he was a favorite guest until the queen accused him of ravishing her.  The king of Tiryn sent Bellerophon to his father-in-law with a sealed note to kill the bearer (coincidentally, do such death warrants ever work properly in fiction?). The father-in-law also had qualms about murdering a guest, and so he dispatched Bellerophon on a suicide mission to kill the Chimera.  With assistance from Athena and Poseidon, Bellerophon tamed the magnificent winged horse Pegasus.  In order to deal with the Chimera’s fiery breath, Bellerophon attached a hunk of lead to a spear.  When the Chimera breathed on the lead the soft metal melted down the creature’s throat causing the poor animal to suffocate.

Bellerophon fighting the Chimera (watercolor by Walter Crane, 1895)

Bellerophon performed a few other heroic deeds and ultimately became king.  However the dark shadows in his character did not vanish with a crown. After a few years of increasingly tyrannical behavior, he resolved to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympos and join the gods as an equal.  Zeus sent a blowfly to sting the winged horse, and Bellerophon was thrown down into a thorn bush.  Maimed and blinded, he wondered Greece as a beggar, while former subjects pretended not to recognize him. The moral of the story is that Greek gods can tolerate murder, rape, chimeracide, and despotism, but woe to those guilty of hubris!  And thus does Bellerophon’s troubling story come to a stupid end.

Fortunately modern biologists do not agree with nonexistent gods (or their adherents) as to what constitutes hubris.  This is relevant because the creation and study of “chimeras” in biology has become widespread.  In the context of biology, a chimera is an organism (or a part of an organism) with tissues created from more than one distinctive sets of genetic information. Such an organism can come about through organ transplant, grafting, or genetic engineering.  Some chimerical organisms have a long history and are familiar–like grafted rose bushes or organ-transplant recipients.  Other chimeras, particularly those created by genetic tinkering, are rather more apt to stir up passion among the traditionally-minded.  For example, in 2003, Chinese biologists created an early stage embryo which combined rabbit and human parts. Bio-ethics and our transgenic future merit further writing, however splicing the genes of organisms together is about to become more frequent.  Why not join the wave of the future with some delightful, high-quality morphing toys!

You are not getting off this merry-go-round!

Oedipus and the Sphinx (by Francois Xavier Fabre)

The Sphinx, another daughter of Echidna, was a monster with a human head (and torso), a lion’s body, the wings of an eagle, and a serpent for a tail.  Although the Egyptians and the Cypriots had long mythological traditions incorporating many different sphinxes, to the Greeks the Sphinx was one individual monster sent by Hera (or possibly Ares) to torment the city of Thebes.  She sat on a bluff outside the city and accosted travelers with a question.  When they were unable to answer correctly, she sprang down and strangled them to death. The question she asked is probably the most famous riddle in existence, “What goes on four legs in the morning, on two in the afternoon, and on three in the evening?”

Long-suffering Oedipus may have been accursed by ghastly fate but he alone was able to see through the monster’s abstract symbolism and give the correct answer—man, who crawls on all four as a baby, walks upright as an adult, and leans on a cane in his dotage. The sphinx had really counted on the metaphoric “day” to throw people off.  In fury and despair she hurled herself to her death once her question was answered.

The riddle challenge is ancient and its roots wind down into the advent of literature (and probably long before).  There are riddles in the bible and in Sumerian epic poetry. The internet, however, has fundamentally changed the challenge.  Back in the eighties if someone asked you a riddle and you were stumped, that was it.  Either you had to beg them for the answer, or you were out of luck.  Now you can always scour the web until you find the answer.  Here are a few of my favorite riddles.  The first is a somewhat frustrating riddle from the bible [hint: imagine you are a long-haired killing machine].  The second was asked to me by my first lover (I could never solve it and she wouldn’t tell me the answer—I finally had to ask my friend Adam for a solution).  The third was by literary giant Jonathan Swift who famously loved riddles. The fourth is a Stephen King riddle and my personal favorite (quiet you highbrows!).  I made up the fifth and sixth myself–which explains why the meter is more important than the meaning.  The last riddle is of course from Lewis Carroll.  Good luck!  I’ll give you the answers on Sunday:

1. And they said unto him, Put forth thy riddle, that we may hear it. And he said unto them, Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness. And they could not in three days expound the riddle. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that they said unto Samson’s wife, Entice thy husband, that he may declare unto us the riddle, lest we burn thee and thy father’s house with fire: have ye called us to take that we have? is it not so?

2. What does God never see that a king sees seldom, that we see every day?

3. We are all very little creatures;
all of us have different features.
One of us in glass is set;
One of us you’ll find in jet.
Another you may see in tin,
And a fourth is boxed within.
If the fifth you should pursue,
It can never fly from you.
What are we?

4. With no wings, I fly. With no eyes, I see. With no arms, I climb. More frightening than any beast, stronger than any foe, I am cunning, ruthless and tall; in the end, I rule all.

5. It’s short on spring but long in fall.  It has a bluff that you can’t call.  It has a wall but lacks a roof.  It has a foot that’s not a hoof.

6. Devours muck but has sweet breath. Arrives with love and then with death.

7.  Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Um...can I have another hint?

Theseus Fiighting the Crommyon Sow and Phaea (Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. From Vulci)

In Greek myth, the Crommyonian sow was a great she-pig which lived on the Isthmus of Corinth and tormented travelers until the Athenian hero Theseus came along and killed her.  In some tales the sow was a lone wild animal, but in other stories she had a human woman named Phaea associated with her: it is unclear whether this woman was young or old, lovely or haggard, a rude swineheard or a great sorceress.  A few sources indicate she herself might have been a shapeshifter who became the pig.  Whatever the case, Theseus slew her in addition to her sow.  The Borghese Gallery has a very strange relief sculpture by Vincenzo Pacetti which portrays Theseus handling Phaea’s nude (human) corpse and looking perplexed.

It’s kind of unclear what happened here. Of all the children of Echidna, the Crommyonian sow seems to get the shortest shrift in art and literature.  The sow vanishes from almost everything made after the fifth century BC.  There are numerous red and black vases depicting Theseus fighting the great pig and/or her associated sorceress, so it seems like the story was important to Athenians.  However the full version of this myth seems to have been lost in the mists of time and all we have are allusions and brief conflicting accounts [this sentence could apply to just about everything—ed].  Strabo asserts that the sow was the mother of the great Calydonian boar, whose mythical life and death engendered much strife, chauvinism, murder, and grief in the pantheon of Classical heroes. So perhaps, like Echidna, the sow found her greatest fame through her descendants.

A Wild Sow with her Shoats

I am going to go with Strabo and assume that the Calydonian Boar has a place in my musings about Echidna (being her grandson and all).  The boar was sent by Artemis to obtain revenge on King Oeneus the winemaker who forgot to honor the goddess with ritual sacrifices.  The monster destroyed the king’s vineyards and murdered his subjects, but it was only when Oeneus gathered the heroes of his age and sent them out (with his beloved son Meleager) to kill the boar that the virgin goddess obtained her true and terrible revenge.  The machinations behind the story are long and complicated (and sad), but the story of the hunt of the Calydonian boar suits my Halloween theme for an entirely different reason.  This was a favorite theme of sarcophagus makers who enjoyed sculpting beautiful armed nudes in the passion of the hunt.  Beneath is a gallery of Calydonian boar themed sarcophagi from the lost classical world.  The makers knew the story’s terrible fatalist tragedy (which I am not telling you) and they found it a most fitting subject for funerary art:

Roman marble sarcophagus from Vicovaro (municipality northeast of Rome), carved with the Calydonian Hunt (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome)

Attic sarcophagos. Pentelic marble. Found at Ayios Ioannis, Patras.

Greek Sarcophagus of the Calydonian Boar Hunt (Piraeus Archeological Museum, Athens)

Sculpted neo attic sarcophagus representing the Calydonian boar hunt with Atalanta and Meleager in the Thessaloniki Archaeological Museum (Second quarter of the 3rd c. AD)

A Sarcophagus with the Calydonian Boar Hunt (provenance unknown)

Etruscan cinerary urn with boar hunt, 2nd C BCE, Volterra Museo Guarnacci

 

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