The fear of the powerful forces of nature was embodied by ancient people in mythological images of giant or vile monsters. Created by a rich imagination of the antiquity, they combined parts of the bodies of known animals, such as, for example, a lion’s head or a tail of a serpent, and human bodies. The body composed of heterogeneous parts was to emphasize the enormity of these disgusting creatures. Many of them were considered inhabitants of the depths of the sea symbolizing the hostile power of water. In ancient mythology, monsters were represented by a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes. Often, they were ugly, and sometimes – magically beautiful. Some of them were half-animal and half-human, and others were depicted as absolutely fantastic creatures. These myths included all the wisdom of the ancient people, all what they thought about the good and the evil, cowardice and heroism. Thus, sometimes, these mythical creatures were not merely evil, but some of them seemed to be good. For example, the Centaurs living high in the mountains covered with dense forest were endowed with animal features and cruelty. However, some of the Centaurs were good to people who helped them although they didn’t want to share their knowledge and secrets with humans. Thus, as it is proved in this paper, by combining the animal and human parts, the Greeks stressed the negative (and sometimes good) sides of human nature.
The first type of monsters important for the above mentioned assumption is the Centaurs. Centaur is rather a harmonious creation of fantastic zoology. In his Metamorphosis, Ovid calls them “cloud-born” and “half-human”. The epithets given by him to Centaurs include “savage” and “furious”. In fact, the discovery of this archetype has required many centuries. The primitive and archaic images represent a naked man to whom a clumsy horse croup is attached. At the west pediment of the temple of Zeus in Olympia, a Centaur already has horse legs, and a human torso is portrayed in the place where a horse neck should be.
The image of the centaur supposedly originated as a fantasy of representatives of the civilized people who were not familiar with horse riding and confronted with horse riders of some nomadic tribes (for example, the Scythians) for the first time. This explains both a ferocious temper of Centaurs and their connection with bulls since the basis of the nomadic economy was herding.
In ancient Greek culture, the image and symbolism of Centaurs has undergone significant changes. Centaur Chiron (and, to a lesser extent, centaur Pholus) were considered as wise protectors of humanity. Chiron was usually depicted with branches of laurel in both hands. In Homer’s Iliad, Chiron is a doctor, a friend and teacher of heroes, the creator of ingenious devices for warfare, and, finally, the most righteous of Centaurs. In general, however, Centaurs remained a symbol of drunkenness and violence. Describing the fourth labour of Hercules, Appolodorus tells about the meeting of Hercules and centaur Pholus, a son of Silenus by a Melian nymph. Hercules decided to open the jar which belonged to the centaurs in common “and not long afterwards, scenting the smell, the centaurs arrived at the cave of Pholus, armed with rocks and firs” (Appolodorus 2.5.4). Maybe because of this myth, Centaurs became to be associated with wine.
The most popular of the legends that feature Centaurs is the legend of the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths who invited them to the wedding. Wine was a new experience for the guests, and at the feast, a drunken Centaur insulted the bride and, overturning tables, started the famous “Centauromachy” that was described by Ovid in Book XII of The Metamorphosis: “For your heart, Eurytus, you most savage of the savage centaurs, was hot with wine, as well as from the sight of that young girl, and you were ruled by drunkenness and lust” (Ovid XII, 343-347).
The history of another Centaur, Nessus was described in the tragedies by Sophocles and in Book IX of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Hercules and his bride Deianeira were going to his house. Centaur Nessus was a ferryman on the river Euenos. Deianeira sat down on his back in order to be transported to the other side, but at the middle of the river, Nessus grabbed her and tried to dishonour her. Hercules saved his bride from Centaur by piercing his chest with a spear. While dying, Nessus advised Deianeira to collect his blood and use it as a love potion if Hercules would ever love another woman. Later, it caused the death of Hercules because this blood appeared to be poison.
The Greeks who loved horses are bred them were familiar with their nature. There is no coincidence in the fact that the nature of the horse was associated with unpredictable manifestations of violence in a generally positive creature. A Greek centaur is a practical man, but his behaviour is strikingly altered under the influence of wine.
While in Greece a Centaur was the embodiment of rather animal qualities incompatible with human nature, unbridled passions and intemperate sexuality, in ancient Rome, it became a peace-loving companion of Dionysus and Eros. The largest contribution to the formation of the Roman version of the image of a Centaur was made, of course, by Ovid in The Metamorphosis. The poet created a lot of detail in the history of the famous marriage of Pirithous and the ensuing battle. The battle involved not only known Centaurs, such as Nessus, but other Centaurs, which were the fruit of Ovid’s imagination. Among them, the most interesting are Cyllarus and Hylonome. Cyllarus is a young blond centaur, and Hylonome is his beloved one, with long hair decorated with roses, violets and white lilies: “Among those hybrid beasts in the deep woods, there was no female lovelier than her” (Ovid XII, 630-631). After Cyllarus had been killed in battle, Hylonome “threw herself onto the spear which had killed her husband, and as she died, embraced him” (Ovid XII, 663-664). This scene demonstrates the positive human features – love and devotion.
Here, it is possible to make an important assumption – in Centaurs who possessed a human head the human traits prevailed, and Minotaur, with a head of a bull, was more an animal than a human being. If we consider this fact, the explanation of the essence of other monsters becomes obvious. The example of this approach is the image of Minotaur.
In Greek mythology, Minotaur was a monster with a human body and the head of a bull, which lived in the labyrinth on Crete. The history of the Minotaur was described by Apollodorus in his Library. Asterius, the king of Crete married Europe, the daughter of the Phoenician king and fathered her sons including Minos, son of Zeus. Grown up brothers had a conflict about love for the young Miletus, son of Apollo and Aria. The war began, which resulted in the victory of Minos who managed to drive the brothers away and take over the whole Crete. In order to consolidate his victory, Minos tried to win the favour of the gods. He asked Poseidon to send a bull from the sea depths promising to sacrifice him to the gods. Poseidon fulfilled his request, but Minos sacrificed another bull. Angered by this breach of promise, Poseidon gave the bull a fierce temper and inspired Minos’ wife Pasiphae with amorous passion to the bull. Pasiphae asked Daedalus, the Athenian exiled to Crete for murder to find a way to satisfy her passion. Daedalus carved a hollow wooden figure of cow covered by the skin of sacrificial animal and put Pasiphae into the figure. After the intercourse with the bull, Pasiphae gave birth to Asterius who was called the Minotaur.
“He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth” (Appolodorus,3.1.4). This labyrinth was built by Daedalus, and it was so complex that no man who descended there could find the exit: “the Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many, a winding turn shut off the secret outward way” (Appolodorus 3.15.8).
Minos suspected the king of Athens Aegeus of killing one of his sons, and to take revenge, he asked Jupiter to corrupt Athens with plague. Athenians sought advice from the oracle who told them that the epidemic will stop only if every year they send to Crete “seven youths and the same number of damsels without weapons to be fodder for the Minotaur” (Appolodorus 3.15.8).
Prince Theseus decided to save the Athenians from the terrible sacrifice and destroy Minotaur. He exchanged places with one of the young men sent to Crete. The hero was in love with Ariadne, daughter of Minos who decided to help him. She gave Theseus the thread that was supposed to lead him out of the labyrinth. Theseus entered the labyrinth, defeated Minotaur and went out.
Like the other characters combining human and animal features, Minotaur represents the predominance of the animal spirit over the human one. The fact that the animal part of the body is represented by the head (the image of the dominant aspect of the individual usually associated with reason and spirit) emphasizes the basic symbolism. In addition, the Minotaur is the guardian of the labyrinth (which is the universal symbol of the obstacles) embodying fear, terror, danger and obstacles mainly coming from the adherence of men to sensual and material things standing in the way of the hero trying to reach the highest spiritual values. The fact that Minotaur was defeated symbolizes the ability of man to overcome his desires.
A more complex example of animal-human combination is Sphinx. The homeland of Sphinx is Egypt where it was a symbol of wisdom, dignity, strength and power of the royal authority of Pharaoh in whose honour grandiose stone sphinxes guarding the entrances to the pyramids—tombs of royalty—were erected. The most famous of them is the Sphinx of Giza.
Having migrated to the ancient world, Sphinx changed his sex. The Greek Sphinx appeared in the form of half-woman and half-lion under the name “Sfingo” (which means “to squeeze”). In Greek mythology, it was a child of chthonic monsters Typhon and Echidna, an evil demon of destruction. It was a monster with “the face of a woman, the breast and feet and tail of a lion, and the wings of a bird” (Appolodorus 3.5.8). Thus, the classical Sphinx is a fabulous creature consisting of several parts of the human body and four different animals. At different periods of history, Sphinx was associated with different phenomena. This creature appeared both as a defender and as a destroyer. However, above all, Sphinx is a symbol of the mysterious and ineffable. In Greek tradition, Sphinx appears as a symbol of oblivion, the enemy of truth and memory. Also, it has a value of wanton destruction and can be considered the enemy of every person and all humanity in general.
The most famous of this kind was the legendary Sphinx, which settled down near Thebes in Boeotia where it came all the way from Ethiopia by the order of the goddess Hera who was insulted by the Thebans and avenged them by sending a monster. Lying in a careless cat pose at a roadside rock, the Sphinx asked passers-by riddles and charades: those who were able to solve them could proceed, but those who failed were killed and devoured. Finally, it came up with a riddle which no one could answer, and he became a true scourge of the neighbourhood, which is a bit surprising since the riddle was not that difficult: “And having learned a riddle from the Muses, she sat on Mount Phicium, and propounded it to the Thebans. And the riddle was this: -- What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?” (Appolodorus 3.5.8). Oedipus who arrived in Thebes from Corinth easily guessed that the riddle referred to man “for as a babe he is four-footed, going on four limbs, as an adult he is two-footed, and as an old man he gets besides a third support in a staff” (Appolodorus 3.5.8). Having heard the answer of Oedipus, Sphinx threw himself into the abyss angry of his own stupidity and unoriginality. Thus, human mind triumphed over foolishness and mystery.
The essence of Greek mythology is determined by the features of primitive society of the Greeks who saw the world as one big family life of the community and summarized in myths the diversity of human relationships and the natural phenomena. The mythology often describes the heroes who defeat monsters, which once scared the human imagination.
Mythical monsters in ancient Greek mythology are usually a combination of several animals and human parts, which allowed the human imagination to give them extraordinary abilities including freedom from the usual principles of the world. Monsters combining the look of several different animals are a symbol of the initial chaos and terrifying forces of nature, and they represent the forces of evil in the nature of man himself. Fabulous animals are also often depicted guarding treasures or hidden, secret knowledge. The Greeks whose gods possessed purely human qualities considered vile monsters as carriers of certain negative traits of human nature, which, however, can be overcome by men. Ultimately, all the monsters are defeated symbolizing the triumph of humanity over nature. Thus, Centaurs were savage and furious wine-loving creatures who embodied the ancient representations of drunkenness and violence. Minotaur embodied fear, terror, danger and obstacles at the path of human development. Sphinx was the enemy of truth and memory and the symbol of human foolishness. Understanding the reason of why the Greeks portrayed a certain monster in a certain way helps to understand the other interpretations of the traits of human nature.