Mythological Roman Monsters

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

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

Cyclops, the dreaded Gorgon, the Minotaur - all of these monstrous creatures bedeviled the lives of famous heroes from Classic Mythology. In this lesson, we look at several of these monsters and examine their importance.

What is Classical Mythology?

The Romans are, perhaps, unique in the ancient world in that, at a very early time, their native religion and mythology became so influenced by that of the Greeks that it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. Usually, it was only the names of certain Greek characters that changed after being adopted by the Romans. For example, the Greek Athena became the Roman Minerva, and Zeus became Jupiter. Because of this, many scholars talk about Greco-Roman, or Classical Mythology, rather than differentiating between them. It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that we find many of the same monsters in Roman mythology as we do in Greek mythology. Many of these monsters represented the untamed and dangerous side of nature and, not coincidentally, they were depicted as part human and part animal. We will examine some of the most well-known monsters.

The Gorgons

The Gorgons were a group of three sisters who were so terrifyingly grotesque that the very sight of them would turn whoever looked at them into stone. In the earlier versions of the story, there was only one Gorgon, Medusa. However, in later versions told by the Romans and the Greeks, Medusa was joined by her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale. It was said in some stories that Medusa had once been a beautiful young priestess of the goddess Minerva, but she had been seduced and raped by the sea-god Neptune. Minerva was incensed by this and punished Medusa, rather than her attacker, turning the beautiful maiden into a horrifying winged creature with snakes for hair, a serpent tongue, and the tusks of a bore. Of the three sisters, Medusa was the only one that was mortal, meaning that she could be killed. Eventually, the hero Perseus, armed with a curved sword and a shield polished to be a mirror,, tracked Medusa to her lair with the help of Minerva. Since he could not look at Medusa directly, he looked at her reflection in his shield and was able to slice her head off. He took her head and gave it to Minerva who attached it her shield, called the Aegis, which she then used in battle to terrify her foes.

The Minotaur

Perhaps one of the most famous creatures in Classical Mythology is the Minotaur, a beast with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. According to the stories, a great king named Minos ruled the land of Crete and a people known as the Minoans. He once asked the god Neptune for a great bull for his herd, and promised to sacrifice it in the god's honor. Minos, however, became enamored of the bull and chose to sacrifice another of his herd in its place. This greatly offended Neptune, who caused Minos's wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull and become impregnated by it. When the child was born, it was a horrid creature that was part bull and part man, and ate human flesh. Minos had the child locked away in a large maze, called the Labyrinth, so that no one would know of his shame. He also demanded that other cities in Greece send a total of seven young men and seven young women to Crete to be devoured every year by the creature. Eventually, the Minotaur was killed by the hero Theseus, who traveled to Crete from Athens, found his way through the Labyrinth and cut the monster down. There are some who believe that this story has some basis in fact and probably represents a tribute that the Athenians and other Greeks had to pay to the people of Crete when they were at the height of their power during the Bronze Age. Murals uncovered on Crete show that the Minoans had great respect for bulls, which featured in that land's rituals.

Pre-Human Monsters

Odilon Redon

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