Image of the Chimera from Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia : cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit ; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642), part 1, p. 336.
The mythology of the ancient world abounds with mythical creatures that have intricate and interweaving origin myths. The poem Theogony by the 8th-century B.C. Greek poet Hesiod describes the origins and genealogy of Greek gods and goddesses. It tells, for example, that the primordial sea god and goddess, Phorcys and Ceto, bore a host of monstrous offspring that included the three Gorgons (Stheno, Euryale and Medusa) and the half-nymph, half-serpent Echidna. The hero Perseus beheaded the snake-haired Medusa, and the winged horse Pegasus and giant Chrysaor, who were both fathered by the god of the seas and of horses Poseidon, sprung from the bloody stump of her neck. Echidna, who had the upper body of a woman and the tail of a serpent, had a number of monstrous children by the giant Typhon including Orthrus, Cerberus, the Lernaean Hydra and the Chimera. The Chimera was a fire-breathing monster with the head of a lion at its front, a goat’s head rising from its back, and a serpent’s head at the tip of its tail. She and Orthrus sired the Nemean Lion and the Sphinx, which was a winged creature with the body of a lion and the head and upper body of a woman. The Chimera lay waste to the countryside of Lycia in Anatolia and was slain by the hero Bellerophon mounted on Pegasus. The above image of the Chimera is taken from Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Monstrorum historia : cum paralipomenis historiæ omnium animalium. Bartholomæus Ambrosinus … labore, et studio volumen composuit ; Marcus Antonius Bernia in lucem edidit (Bologna, 1642).
Hercules fighting Cerberus from Leonardo Agostini, Gemmae et sculpturae antiquae depictae ab Leonardo Augustino Senensi; Addita earum enarratione, in Latinum versa ab Jacobo Gronouio cujus accedit præfatio (Franeker, 1699), plate 5.
Heracles, more commonly known by his Latinised name Hercules, was tutored by the half-man, half-horse centaur Chiron when he was a child. As an adult, Heracles was commanded by the Oracle of Delphi to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns, and perform any task that was asked of him, to atone for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness. The first of twelve labours that King Eurystheus requested of Heracles was to slay the Nemean Lion, which had impenetrable golden fur. Heracles strangled him to death with his immense strength and wore the lion’s pelt as a prize. Heracles second labour was the killing of the Lernaean Hydra, a multi-headed serpent, which he slew with the help of his nephew Iolaus. Heracles dipped his arrow heads in the venomous blood of the Lernaen Hydra to aid him in his later labours, but he accidentally killed Chiron with one such poisonous arrow. The capture of the red cattle of Geryon on the island of Erytheia was Heracles’ tenth labour and he slew the two-headed, serpent-tailed dog Orthrus who was guarding them along with the cattle-herder Eurytion and the three-bodied giant Geryon in the process. The three-headed dog Cerberus, sometimes represented also with the tail of a serpent, which guarded the gates of the Underworld to prevent the dead from leaving, was captured by Heracles and presented to Eurystheus as his twelfth and final labour. The above image of an intaglio carved in an agate gemstone is from Leonardo Agostini’s Gemmae et sculpturae antiquae depictae ab Leonardo Augustino Senensi ; Addita earum enarratione, in Latinum versa ab Jacobo Gronouio cujus accedit præfatio (Franeker [Netherlands], 1699) and depicts Heracles fighting Cerberus. Heracles was driven to immolate himself upon wearing a shirt soaked in the tainted blood of the centaur Nessus whom he had been killed with an arrow dipped in the venomous blood of the Lernaen Hydra.
Image of a harpy from Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis de avibus (Amsterdam, 1657), Tab. 62 (opposite p. 150).
The above image of a harpy is taken from Joannes Jonstonus’ Historiae naturalis de avibus (Amsterdam, 1657). The Harpies were creatures with women’s heads and the bodies, wings and talons of birds. They were sent by the god Zeus to torment King Phineus of Salmydessus in Thrace by stealing or befouling his food before he had a change to eat it, as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods with his gift of foresight. Sirens had the heads and bodies of women with or without wings and the legs of birds. Their bewitching song lured sailors to their deaths by drawing them to shipwreck on dangerous rocks and reefs. The Lamiae had the tails of serpents instead of legs and assumed the forms of beautiful women to lure unsuspecting young men before feeding on their fresh and blood. The composite image below of harpies, sirens and lamiae is taken from Imagines deorum, qui ab antiquis colebantur, unâ cum earum declaratione & historia in qua simulacra, ritus, caeremoniae magnaque ex parte veterum religio explicatur …, hinc inde à D.D. Paulo Hachenberg … illustratum & LXXXVIII. figuris aenaeis adornatum by Vincenzo Cartari, which was published in Frankfurt in 1687. The depiction of the sirens is conflated with that of mermaids and shows them submerged in water with their tails protruding the surface.
Image of sirens (on the left), lamiae (on the right), with harpies in both plates from Vincenzo Cartari, Imagines deorum, qui ab antiquis colebantur, unâ cum earum declaratione & historia in qua simulacra, ritus, caeremoniae magnaque ex parte veterum religio explicatur …, hinc inde à D.D. Paulo Hachenberg … illustratum & LXXXVIII. figuris aenaeis adornatum (Frankfurt, 1687), plates 35 and 44.
This image of a griffin below, depicted with the head, wings and forelegs of an eagle and the body and hind legs of a lion, is taken from Joannes Jonstonus’ Historiae naturalis de avibus (Amsterdam, 1657).
Image of a griffin from Joannes Jonstonus, Historiae naturalis de avibus (Amsterdam, 1657), Tab. 62 (opposite p. 150).
Text: Mr. Antoine Mac Gaoithín, Library Assistant at the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.