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Phorcys & Ceto in Greek Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Greek mythology is full of monsters, but where did they come from? In this lesson, we are going to explore the myths of Phorcys and Ceto and see how they were connected to the monsters of the Greek world.

Phorcys and Ceto

In Greek mythology, power was often a sign of divinity. Almost everything that was really powerful was somehow connected to the gods. That makes sense, but remember that Greek mythology is also full of really powerful monsters. Yes, many of those monsters were somehow connected to the family trees of the gods.

One of the clearest cases of this is with Phorcys and Ceto. These two figures were children of the Titans, ancient beings who created the gods. This makes them among the most ancient of deities, believed to have ruled over Greece before the creation of the gods and before the arrival of the Greek people to the land.

Phorcys (left) and Ceto (right) in an ancient mosaic
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Phorcys

Let's start by getting to know each of these figures independently. In most Greek myths, Phorcys was the son of the Titaness Gaia (who personified the earth) and the Titan Pontus (who personified the sea). Gaia was one of the most ancient beings in the cosmos, and Pontus exercised great authority over the vast and dangerous seas, so it is no surprise that Phorcys was pretty powerful himself.

So, what was his realm of authority? Phorcys was a god of the sea, like his father, but was specifically associated with all the hidden dangers of the water. That was his specialty: controlling and creating the submerged and unseen things that Greek sailors would come to fear. Phorcys' appearance reflected this; he was often depicted as having a mermaid-like tail, the red skin/shell of a crab, crab forelegs, and often crab claws as well. That's a deity and danger you would hope stays hidden in the depths.

Ceto

Phorcys' wife was Ceto, who was also a child of Gaius and Pontus. Ceto was also a goddess of the sea, but she was specifically associated with sea monsters, whales, and sharks. In fact, the name Ceto may be derived from the word for whale or sea monster. In keeping with most of Greek mythology, this female deity tends to be depicted as more human and beautiful than her monstrous husband.

Ancient sailors wrote of many monsters of the deep. The Greeks associated these monsters with Phorcys and Ceto
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The Phorcydes

So, what happens when you combine the crab-god of the dangerous depths with the goddess of sea monsters? Nothing good. In Greek mythology, Phorcys and Ceto are most remembered for the vast number of monstrous children they produced, collectively known as the Phorcydes. In general, Phorcys and Ceto were associated with most of the sea monsters of the hidden depths, but several do appear prominently in Greek mythology by name. Here are a few of the most notable members of the Phorcydes:

  • Ladon: This hundred-headed serpent was also known as the Dragon of Hesperides or the Hesperian Dragon. This fearsome creature guarded the golden apples of Hesperides, which Hercules had to recover as one of his twelve labors.
  • The Graeae: Also known as the Grey Ones, these three sisters were old women who shared a single eye and a single tooth amongst themselves. The sisters' names were Deino, Enyo, and Pemphredo, and they were said to be sea witches who personified the white sea foam of the waves.
  • The Gorgons: Perhaps the most famous of Phorcys and Ceto's children, these three sisters had snakes for hair and could turn a person to stone just by looking at them. Two of the sisters, Euryale and Stheno, were immortal. The one mortal sister, however, is the most famous. Her name was Medusa, and she was killed by the Greek hero Perseus.

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