© Hellenic Museum Argonauts Club

CREATURES OF THE DEEP

The sea has long played an important part in the Greek and Mediterranean world. As a result, many of the myths and stories which have been passed down to us concern the sea. Monsters and heroes, voyages and quests - read on to discover some of the tales of adventure from the ancient Greek world. 

THE ODYSSEY 

Odysseus, hero of the The Odyssey, was first introduced in The Iliad as a cunning military strategist who devised the plan for the Greeks to invade Troy by stealth inside a wooden horse. His tactic worked and it provided the Greeks with the winning move in their long siege of Troy. After the Trojan War, Odysseus made a ten-year journey to reach his home, Ithaca; his adventures were recounted in the epic poem The Odyssey, first written by the Ancient Greek poet Homer. 

On his way home Odysseus and his crew met giant cyclopes, the god of winds, the Laestrygonians, a cannibalistic tribe that ate all of the crew (except those on Odysseus' ship) and the goddesses Circe and Calypso who both helped and hindered the hero.

Some of the most terrifying monsters however were Scylla and Charybdis. The two creatures lived on opposites sides of the narrow straight of Messina (between Sicily and Italy) Scylla was a serpentine like monster with six heads, each of which would snatch a sailor from the deck of the ship and devour him.

Charybdis lived beneath the surface of the water and sucked in huge quantities of water, creating a whirlpool. If Odysseus sailed too close, Charybdis would consume him and his entire crew in a single gulp.

Another peril that sailors faced were the Sirens. The Sirens were three monstrous sea-nymphs who lured sailors to their death with a bewitching song. The power of the sirens song was such that travellers were unable to resist the desire to dive into the sea or to cast their ships onto the rocks in the hopes of reaching the women with such beautiful voices. Both the Argonauts and Odysseus encountered the Sirens. The Argo passed by unharmed with the help of the poet Orpheus who drowned out the siren song with music of his own. Odysseus, who had been warned by the sorceress Circe, stopped the ears of his crew with wax so they couldn't hear the song. As you can see in the vase above, he tied himself to the mast so he could hear it without casting himself into the sea. 

DID YOU KNOW?

Ketea was a term for a sea monster in ancient Greece. They could be anything from a whale to a maiden eating monster. 

 monster to destroy the coast and ravage the land.The queen asked the advice of an oracle who told her she should sacrifice her daughter to the monster, in order to appease the god. The royal couple agreed and had their daughter chained to a rock next to the sea. Just before Ketos attacked her, Perseus appeared and learned of what was about to happen. He freed Andromeda and slew the monster by showing it Medusa's severed head, which turned the monster to stone.

KETOS (CETUS)

Ketea were the monsters of the sea, the two greatest of which were the Ketos (Cetus) slain by Perseus in Ethiopia and the Ketos slain by Hercules at Troy. Perseus's adventure began when Cassiopea, mother of Andromeda, claimed that her daughter was more beautiful than the Neriads (sea nymphs). This unwise statement made Poseidon, the god of the sea, furious. He sent Ketos the sea 

Hercules' run in with the Trojan Ketos came about while he was staying at the famous city of Troy. The King of Troy, Laomedon, had failed to pay Poseidon, God of the Sea, his promised reward for building the walls of the city. In revenge the god set a sea monster upon the city which would only be satisfied by the sacrifice of King Laomedon's daughter, Hesione. Hercules offered to slay the monster and save the maiden and in return asked for  Laomedon’s divine horses (which had been a gift from Zeus). Once Heracles had killed the monster and saved Hesione, King Laomedon refused to give up the horses. Hercules left Troy and then returned with a band of warriors (including the Argonaut Telamon), captured the city and killed Laomedon and all his sons except Priam. Telamon then married the Princess Hesione who gave birth to the famous archer Teucer.

HIPPOCAMPUS

‘From the sea to the land leapt forth a monstrous horse, of vast size, with golden mane tossing round his neck; and quickly from his limbs he shook off abundant spray and started on his course, with feet like the wind…’

The description above is taken from the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes. It occurs at a very dramatic moment in the story, when the Hippocamp, one of the horses of Poseidon, appears as a good omen, showing the Argonauts the way to shore. 

 

As you can tell from the above description of the Hippocamp as a ‘monstrous horse,’ it was quite a frightening creature. Hippocamps were the legendary horses that drew the chariot of Poseidon, god of the sea. They were horses with fish tails - kind of like a seahorse, only enormous and terrifying. However, the Argonauts displayed great heroism by remaining unafraid. Instead they followed the Hippocamp, rather than running away from it- as you might expect from someone who has just seen a huge, scary monster!

MERPEOPLE

Traditional stories and artworks depicting creatures who are half-human and half-fish have existed for thousands of years, and continue to this day (think Starbucks logo). For example, the Babylonian deity, Era, the Fish-god was usually depicted as having a bearded face and a body like a man- but from the waist down he was the shape of a fish. The Greek mythological equivalent to mermaids were the Nereides. They were goddesses of the sea and protectors of sailors and fishermen, coming to the aid of those in distress. Each Nereid represented one element of the sea- from the salty brine, to the sea foam, sand, rocks, waves and currents, as well as the various skills possessed by sailors. The Nereides were depicted in ancient art as beautiful, young maidens, sometimes riding on the backs of dolphins, hippocamps or other sea creatures.