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The Monstrous Typhon in Greek Mythology

Updated on September 2, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The popular perception of Greek mythology sees a religion based on Zeus and the other Olympian gods; as such these gods are seen as dominant and powerful.

Zeus himself though was a usurper; dethroning his own father, Kronos, and the other Titans. The Titanomachy, a ten year war, would eventually see Zeus cement his position on Mount Olympus, but even after that his position was occasionally under threat.

The 100 Gigantes would threaten the rule of Zeus at one point, but the most dangerous threat came from Typhon, the deadliest of all ancient monsters.

The Birth of Typhon

Typhon, also known as Typhoeus, was the monstrous offspring of two primordial deities, Gaia, the earth, and Tartarus, the area deep within the bowels of the planet.

As Gaia was his mother, Typhon was a half-brother to many primordial deities, including Ouranus, Pontus, the Cyclopes, the Hecatonchires, and of course the Titans. The Titans would eventually become the rulers of the cosmos, during a period known as the Golden Age, but the siblings would shun Typhon.

Typhoeus

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) PD-life-70
Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677) PD-life-70 | Source

The Appearance of Typhon

Typhon would be shunned primarily because of his appearance. Typhon was the greatest of all monsters; described as being larger than anything that had previously existed, as his head was said to touch the stars.

The gigantic nature of Typhon though, as not the reason why he was shunned. The lower part of Typhon’s body, below the thighs, comprised of two gigantic coiled vipers. The hands of Typhon did not consist of fingers either, as each hand was made up of a hundred dragon or serpent heads, each spitting fire or venom.

Heracles and the Hydra

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100
Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) PD-art-100 | Source

Typhon and Echidna

Typhon it seems didn’t mind being shunned, and Typhon, rather than undertaking monstrous acts, appeared to be content to live in his cave in Arima, for he had found a mate in the form of Echidna.

The location of the Arima cave was a mystery even to writers in antiquity, with possible locations named in Cilicia, Syria and Lydia. Wherever the cave was though, it must have been very large, and in it, Typhon and Echidna started to produce children.

Hesiod, in the Theogony, would name four children; the Chimera, the fire breathing hybrid; the Lernaean Hydra, the multi-headed, marsh dwelling, serpent; Cerberus, the triple-headed guard dog of the underworld; and Orthrus, a two-headed guard dog.

Other accounts, including the Bibliotheca and the Argonautica, would add more names to the list of children of Typhon. These additional offspring were; the Nemean Lion, a lion with impenetrable fur; Ladon, the hundred headed dragon in the Garden of Hera; the Caucasian Eagle, who tormented Prometheus; the Sphinx, who asked riddle on the road to Thebes; and the Colchian Dragon, who guarded the Golden Fleece.

One by one the children of Typhon were killed. The Chimera was killed by Bellerophon; Heracles dispatched the Hydra, Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, Ladon and the Caucasian Eagle; Oedipus answered the Sphinx’s riddle and so she died; and the Colchian Dragon was a victim of Jason.

In some cases the killing hero was an offspring of an Olympian god, and in many cases, the hero was given assistance by a god of Mount Olympus, and so Typhon went to war with them.

Oedipus and the Sphinx

François-Xavier Fabre (1766–1837) PD-art-100
François-Xavier Fabre (1766–1837) PD-art-100 | Source

Typhon Goes to War

Typhon, and Echidna, would leave their cave in Arima, with the pair making their way through ancient Greece, heading towards the home of the gods.

Writers in later antiquity would then link to gods of Mount Olympus and Typhon to Ancient Egypt. These writers would say how the Olympian gods, bar Zeus and Athena, would flee as Typhon advanced.

The gods would transform themselves into various animals; Apollo would become a hawk, Hermes an ibis, Hephaestus an ox, Dionysus a goat, and Artemis a cat. On arrival in Egypt the gods of Mount Olympus were worshipped by the ancient Egyptians; with Apollo being Horus, Hermes being Thoth, Hephaestus being Ptah, Dionysus being Arsaphes, and Artemis was worshipped as Bastet.

In the Astronomica (Pseudo-Hyginus) a story is also retold about the creation of the Pisces constellation. In this tale Aphrodite and Eros her son, have a surprise encounter with Typhon in Syria, near to the River Euphrates. To escape the monster, mother and son, transform themselves into two fish.

Typhon and Zeus

As Typhon advanced, so whole cities were destroyed; Typhon hurling mountains and red hot rocks before him.

Athena was the only goddess of Mount Olympus not to have fled from Greece, but she was no match for Typhon, but she did convince her father, Zeus, of the need for him to face the monster.

An epic fight ensued between Typhon and Zeus, and the battle between monster and god would traverse ancient Greece. Zeus had never had to fight so powerful an enemy, and it was said that the god came close to death on more than one occasion. Eventually an opening for victory came to Zeus, and it came at a time when Typhon was attacking.

The monster lifted up Mount Etna, aiming to throw it in order to crush Zeus; at that time though, Zeus unleashed a succession of lighting bolts. The lightning bolts found their target, and momentarily stunned, Typhon fell into the whole where Mount Etna had once been, with the mountain falling down on top of him, burying the monster.

The hole in which Typhon was now trapped, was so deep, that it reached into Tartarus itself; and it became the prison cell for the monster for eternity. The power of Typhon though was not completely lost, and the occasional release of fire from its eyes, would evidence itself on the surface of the earth as lava.

Separated from her husband, Echidna was allowed to return to Arima by Zeus, where she is said to still reside.

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