Gods, goddesses, demigods, horrible monsters and beasts of hybrid forms roam the world of Ancient Greek mythology. Their heredity shaped many of the fictional and fantastical creatures of our time. From Sirens that lure sailors to their death by their sweet voice, ravenous Sphinx guarding the entrance to a city, and evil Lamia who has an insatiable appetite for the flesh of small children. These Greek mythological creatures that combine female beauty with beastly ugliness have been titillating fantasies of generations of artists and inspired them to create their well-known masterpieces. Here is the list of the most popular creatures and famous artworks devoted to them.
Arachne was a daughter of a shepherd and a talented weaver who challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and craft, to a weaving contest. There are several versions of the story with different accounts of who won the contest, but whatever is the result, it never seems to end in Arachne’s favor. In Ovid (43 BCE)’s version of the myth, Arachne, far more superior in her craft, defeats Athena. But her weaving depicting how gods mislead and abuse the mortals enrages Athena, and, for insulting gods and comparing herself with them, the goddess turns the girl into a spider.
The 19th-century French artist and printmaker Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) produced a print illustrating the torments of Arachne for Dante (1265-1321)’s Divine Comedy (14th century).
Half woman and half bird, these creatures first appeared in Homer’s (c.800-701 BCE) Odyssey (ninth century BC). Their enchanting voices allure sailors to their doom to nearby rocks, sandbars, and shoals. Homer wrote:
“First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.” (The Odyssey, XII)
It is often considered that Sirens might have inspired the creation of Mermaids, another popular mythological creature.
Works of the 19th-century artist John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) show the scenes of Greek mythology in a romanticized manner. Regardless of how horrid the creatures, the females in his works are always beautiful and gracious.
Harpies are also creatures with the head of a woman and the body of a bird, but compared to Siren’s, they are known to be way more horrid and evil. They are one of the guardians of the Underworld – the realm of the god Hades – and agents of punishment who abducted and tortured people. When a person suddenly disappeared from the earth, it was said that he/she has been carried off by the Harpies. The Roman poet Virgil (first century BC) describes Harpies in his Aeneid, III as:
Saved from the sea, the Strophades we gain,
So called in Greece, where dwells, with Harpies,
Ne’er sent a pest more loathsome; ne’er were seen
Worst plagues to issue from the Stygian mire
Birds maiden-faced, but trailing with obscene,
With taloned hands and looks for ever pale and lean.
The famous artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), who painted the iconic Scream (1893), is also known to favor eerie, uncanny and mystical subjects. Below is his sketch depicting a Harpy extending her claws over, evidently, a deceased body.
According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8th century AD), Scylla was a beautiful ocean nymph. The sea god Glaucus fell in love with her, but Scylla, repelled by Glaucus’ fishtail, fled to the dry-land away from him. Desperate Glaucus goes to Circe, daughter of the Sun, for a love potion. But Circe falls in love with him and, out of vengeance and jealousy, prepares a potion for Scylla that turns her into a monster so scary that even she couldn’t bear to look at.
Since then, Scylla inhabits in the sea strait near the current-day Sicily, and her counterpart Charybdis dwells in the open sea. Whoever sails in those waters have to make a tough decision to either get devoured by Scylla or get their ship wrecked by Charybdis. The deadly duo makes an appearance in Homer’s Odyssey. Odyssey chooses to sail closer to Scylla and sacrifice six of his men.
In the following artwork by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) you can see the encounter of Scylla and Glaucus before the horrid events ensue.
While the description of Gorgons varies across Greek literature, the earliest source defines them as three sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, who had hair made of venomous serpents. Whoever looks them in the eye immediately turns into a stone. Whilst two of the sisters, Stheno and Euryale are immortal, Medusa, on the other hand, gets slain by the hero Perseus. According to the legend, Perseus was given a shield by the goddess Athena and scythe by Hermes, emissary, and messenger of the Greek gods. He chopped Medusa’s head with the scythe, looking only at her reflection on the shield.
The disembodied head of Medusa is a common theme in art and craft, and in the work below the gruesome sight has been captured by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).
Gorgons are also sisters of our next heroines, Graeae. Pronounced as /ˈɡraɪiː/, meaning “grey witches”, those are three sisters, Deino, Enyo, Pemphredo, who share one eye and one tooth between three of them and possess the power to look into future. We’ve all become familiar with them as ugly old women from the popular Disney animated film Hercules (1997). But in some variations of the mythology, they were described as ‘fair-cheeked’ or as ‘half-swans’. In the legend of Perseus, the hero steals their eye and forces them to give out the location of three items needed to kill their sister Medusa.
The advocate of Classical beauty and the member of the British Pre-Raphaelite movement Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) gave the sisters an appealing and romantic appearance in his following work.
Mormo’s are the Ancient Greek grand-grand-mothers of one of, if not, the most popular mythical creature–vampires. In Greek mythology, they were first described as companions of Hecate, the goddess of magic, herbs, ghosts, and necromancy. Mormo’s were described as female vampire-like creatures, that came after misbehaving Greek children. They also assumed the forms of beautiful women to lure young men to their beds to feed on their flesh and blood.
The most iconic female vampires of the popular culture, are unarguably fruits of Bram Stoker’s (1847-1912) archetypal novel Dracula (1897), and its 1992 namesake screen adaptation by director Francis Ford Coppola. In art, however, the most famous painting of a vampire might be Edvard Munch’s Vampire, 1893-94, which recently fetched 19 million USD at an auction.
Sphinx is most commonly known as a creature with man’s head and body of a lion guarding the ageless pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs. However, Greeks adopted the mythical creature in their literature as a treacherous and merciless monster with the head of a woman, the haunches of a lion, wings of an eagle and the tale with a serpent’s head. It guarded the entrance of the Greek city Thebes and asked a riddle from travelers who wished to enter the city. Anyone who failed to answer was eaten alive.
Famous poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) even devoted a tantalizing male-fantasy poem The Sphinx to this mythical creature:
In a dim corner of my room for longer than my fancy thinks
A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me through the shifting gloom […]
Come forth, my lovely seneschal! so somnolent, so statuesque! Come forth you exquisite grotesque! Half woman and half animal! […]
And let me touch those curving claws of yellow ivory and grasp
The tail that like a monstrous Asp coils around your heavy velvet paws! […]
Who were your lovers? Who were they who wrestled for you in the dust?
Which was the vessel of your Lust?
What Leman had you, every day?
Did giant Lizards come and crouch before you on the reedy banks?
Did Gryphons with great metal flanks leap on you in your trampled couch?
And from the brick-built Lycan tomb what horrible Chimera came
With fearful heads and fearful flames to breed new wonders from your womb? […]
Your horrible and heavy breath makes the light flicker in the lamp,
And on my brow I feel the damp and dreadful dews of night and death.
According to Greek mythology, Lamia was a beautiful woman and a mistress of god Zeus. Zeus’ jealous wife Hera kills all of her children and transforms her into a monster that hunts and eats children of others. There are several versions of the story, as well as her appearance. Some describe her as having a serpent tale below her waist, others, as seen in John William Waterhouse’s painting, Lamia has snakeskin wrapped around her arm and waist. She is also Mormo’s sister. If you really think about it, Greek mythology is a story of one big, extended, dysfunctional family, isn’t it?