Evil Mythological Creatures

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Evil creatures in Greek and Roman mythology come in various forms, including mischievous gods, chaos-causing women, and strange animals. This lesson will examine some of the most well-known evil creatures and discuss their meaning.

What is Mythology?

Medusa, head full of snakes, turned men to stone. Cerberus, the three-headed dog, guarded the gates of the underworld. The Titans, giants trapped beneath the earth, were always ready to attack. The stories of Greek and Roman mythology (sometimes referred to as Greco-Roman mythology) have offered up weird and wonderful images of evil creatures, many of which have populated stories, books, and movies for generations.

Before we start digging into this strange evil, let's ask some basic questions. What, exactly, is Greco-Roman mythology? For that matter, what is mythology itself? Let us approach the second question first; scholars use the term mythology to refer to a set of tales and legends used by a particular culture to describe its gods, heroes, and monsters. The term typically applies to stories descended from ancient civilizations, but it can also describe any set of stories about powerful supernatural creatures and gods. Superhero comic books and movies, for example, are widely regarded as a modern version of mythology.

Now, let us return to the subject of Greco-Roman mythology. Although every ancient culture, from Africa to the Americas, had its own mythology, the myths of ancient Greece and Rome have enjoyed an outsized impact on European and American culture that corresponds to the long-standing cultural influence of the Roman Empire in general. Three types of evil creatures figure prominently in Greco-Roman mythology: evil gods, evil women, and evil animals.

Typhon, Father of Monsters
Typhon

Evil Gods

When we think of Greek gods, it is usually in reference to Zeus, Poseidon, Hades or the rest of that extended and famously dysfunctional family. Ancient Greeks regarded this family of gods, called the Olympians, as one of many races of gods who had ruled the earth; although the Olympians had defeated the bulk of the earlier gods, many of these deposed deities still hung around to make trouble.

The most well-known of these mischief-makers were the Titans, an old race of gods banished underground after being overthrown by the Olympians, who were actually Titans by birth. Various myths depict the ousted Titans, always endeavoring to escape from beneath the earth to reclaim power. In one particularly gruesome story, the Titans killed, dismembered, and boiled the body of the Zeus' infant son, Dionysus, who survived to become part of the Olympian pantheon. The Titans actually killed Dionysus at the behest of Hera, Zeus's murderously jealous wife, but this did not prevent Zeus from unleashing a deadly thunderbolt that consumed the assassins.

In the wake of the Olympian defeat of the Titans, Gaia, mother of earth and the defeated Titans, gave birth to the monstrous gods Typhon and Echidna; intended to serve as challenges to Zeus's authority, this pair went on to spawn some of the most notorious monsters of Greek mythology. So frightful a sight was Typhon, a storm demon with a hundred dragon heads, that even the Olympians ran away and hid from him. While Zeus defeated Typhon by trapping him beneath Mt. Etna, he allowed the she-dragon Echidna and her children to live on, serving to test the mettle of future heroes.

The Titans, Typhon, and Echidna played an important role in Greek mythology, reminding us that even the powerful and immortal Olympians have their limits. Even for a king of gods, the world was a chaotic place, where rivals and enemies always lurked.

Medusa
Medusa

Evil Women

As ancient cultures, neither the Greeks nor the Romans subscribed to particularly enlightened gender norms; thus, women were popular scapegoats for evil. Many of the most infamous beings in Greco-Roman mythology were female. Consider, for example, Pandora, the first mortal woman, who was given a jar containing all of the world's evils and warned never to open it. Well, we all know how that worked out.

Perhaps the most well-known female monsters were the Gorgons, three daughters born of Typhon and Echidna. This trio of sisters -- Sthena, Euryale, and Medusa -- had snakes for hair and turned men to stone just by looking at them. Medusa was the most famous of the three because she was not immortal (as her sisters were), and was thus able to meet a celebrated death at the hands of the hero Perseus.

Another group of evil women were the Sirens, whose beautiful song lured sailors to crash their ships on a rocky island shore. The Sirens were best known for their appearance in The Odyssey by Homer; in this vignette, Odysseus filled his ears with wax and had himself secured to the prow of his ship in order to avoid falling prey to the Sirens' spell.

The Sirens and the Gorgons were good reflections of the inconsistent and multi-faceted conception of women that dominated ancient Greek and Roman mythology. On the one hand, supernatural females were beautiful and seductive, always ready to tempt men off course; on the other, they were hideous monsters that needed to be defeated.

Cerberus, Guardian of Hades
Cerberus

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