Greek Mythological Creatures

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

The half-human, half-horse Centaur; the alluring, yet dangerous, Sirens; the semi-divine nature spirits known as Nymphs - these are but a few of the many fabulous creatures in Greek mythology. This lesson looks at these creatures and more.

Greek Mythology

Greek mythology is a collection of stories and beliefs that evolved along with Greek religion beginning in the Bronze Age and continuing through the Classical Age. As Greek civilization spread and became influential throughout the Mediterranean, Greek mythology also became popular and many peoples in the region began to incorporate stories or ideas from Greek myths into their own mythologies. The most famous example is the Romans, who adopted nearly all of the stories and ideas from Greek mythology, but substituted their own names for the Greek gods' names. Because the two mythologies are so similar, together they are sometimes referred to as Greco-Roman mythology.

Many of these stories involve tales of the gods and heroes, but they also include a number of different mythological creatures. As you will see, many of these creatures were associated with nature and represented either nature's beneficial side, or its untamed side.

Satyrs and Centaurs

Perhaps two of the most visually striking creatures to appear in Greek mythology are the Satyrs and the Centaurs. Both of these creatures are part man and part horse, although they serve very different functions in mythology.

The Satyrs have the upper body of a man, and the hind legs and tail of a horse; they also have long shaggy hair and horse ears. They were nature spirits and closely linked with the god Dionysus, the god of wine, ecstasy, and fertility. Because of this, they were often shown in art to be drinking, or playing musical instruments like the pipes or the tambourine. These instruments, and the drinking of wine, were involved with ritual orgies that were important in the worship of Dionysus. In later times, Satyrs were sometimes depicted as half human and half goat, rather than horse, because Roman authors merged them with the human-goat creatures known as Fauns that were popular in Italy.

Herakles and Centaur
Herakles and Centaur

Like the Satyrs, the Centaurs are also half human and half horse nature spirits. The Centaurs also have the upper body of a man, but their lower body is four-legged and entirely horse. Centaurs originally lived in the region of Thrace, deep in the mountains and forests. Some stories say that the creatures were the result of the rape of a nymph by an immoral king. Centaurs were great archers and warriors; the hero Achilles of the Trojan War was even trained in the art of war by a Centaur teacher. They could also be aggressive and violent, and were known to carry away human women to make them their wives.

Nymphs and Sirens

Another group of nature spirits associated with the Centaurs were the Nymphs. We have already seen that it was a nymph who gave birth to the Centaurs after she was raped by a king. Nymphs were actually considered to be minor goddesses who were associated with particular landscapes: forests, rivers, mountains, and the ocean. Whatever landscape they were associated with, Nymphs were believed to protect and love it. They also often acted as companions to the major Greek gods: Poseidon's court in the ocean was populated by many nymphs; and Artemis, goddess of the hunt, always had a band of loyal Nymphs at her side. Nymphs occasionally intermarried with mortal humans or fellow gods, and many heroes, such as Achilles, had a Nymph for a mother.

The Sirens were a special kind of Nymph. They were closely associated with the sea and sailors. They have the lower body of a bird and the upper body of a woman. These nymphs were in no way beneficial towards humanity and, in fact, were greatly feared by many Greek sailors. This is because the Sirens were known to have a beautiful voice and, when any man heard it, he became hypnotized and threw himself into the sea, where he drowned. The only Greek hero to pass them by was Odysseus, who did so by ordering his men to tie him to the mast of their ship and to plug their own ears with wax so they would not hear the beautiful Siren song.

Odysseus and the Sirens

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