Ancient Greek myths are filled with terrifying monsters, from child-gobbling bogeymen to enormous serpent-like dragons, ancient Greek heroes encountered them all. One of the most famous of these monsters is the flesh-eating female monster called Echidna.
In Greek mythology, Echidna belonged to a class of monsters called Drakons, which translates to Dragon. Echidna was a female dragon or dracaena. The ancient Greeks imagined dragons that looked slightly different from modern interpretations, with the ancient dragons in Greek myths resembling giant serpents.
Echidna possessed the upper half of a woman and the lower body of a serpent. Echidna was a fearsome monster who is known as the mother of monsters, as she and her mate, Typhon created several monstrous offspring. Echidna’s children are some of the most feared and famous monsters to be found in Greek mythology.
What is Echidna the Goddess of?
Echidna was believed to represent the natural rotting and decay of the Earth. Echidna, therefore, represented stagnant, foul-smelling water, slime, disease, and sickness.
According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, Echidna, whom he referred to as the “goddess fierce Echidna,” was the daughter of the primordial sea goddess Ceto and represented the foul-smelling sea scum.
In Greek mythology, monsters had a similar function to the gods and goddesses. The creation of monsters was often used to explain unfavorable natural phenomena such as whirlpools, decay, earthquakes, etc.
What Were Echidna’s Powers?
In the Theogony, Hesiod makes no mention of Echidna having powers. It is only much later that the Roman poet Ovid gives Echidna the ability to produce a poison that could drive people mad.
What Did Echidna Look Like?
In the Theogony, Hesiod describes Echinda’s appearance in detail. From the waist down, Echidna possesses the body of a huge snake, from the waist up, the monster resembles a beautiful nymph. Echidna’s upper half is described as being irresistible, possessing fair cheeks and glancing eyes.
Echidna’s lower half is described as being a large coiling double serpent tail that is hideous and has speckled skin. Not all ancient sources agree with Hesiod’s description of the mother of monsters, with many describing Echidna as a hideous creature.
The ancient comic playwright Aristophanes gives Echidna one hundred snake heads. Each ancient source does agree that Echidna was a fearsome monster who lived on a diet of raw human flesh.
Echidna in Greek Mythology
In ancient Greek myths, monsters were created to test the great heroes, challenge the Greek gods, or do their bidding. The monsters were placed in the path of heroes such as Hercules or Jason, often to highlight their morality.
One of the earliest references to the mother of monsters is found In Hesiod’s Theogony. The Theogony is thought to have been written in the latter half of the 8th century.
The Theogony was not the only early ancient text to reference the half-serpent, half-human monster, as she appears frequently in ancient Greek poetry. Along with the Theogony, Echidna is mentioned in Homer’s epic tale, the Iliad.
Echidna is sometimes referred to as the eel of Tartarus or the serpent womb. In most cases, though, the female monster is referred to as the mother.
Despite being responsible for the creation of some of the most famous monsters in ancient Greek mythology, the majority of the stories about Echidna deal with more famous characters from Greek mythology.
According to ancient Greek mythology, Echidna was born in a cave in Arima, situated deep within the holy Earth, under a hollow rock. In the Theogony the mother of monsters lived in the same cave, leaving only to prey upon unsuspecting travelers, who were usually mortal men. Aristophanes deviates from this narrative by making Echidna a resident of the Underworld.
According to Hesiod, the cave-dwelling Echidna did not age, nor could she die. The half-serpent, half-mortal female monster was not invincible.
Echidna’s Family Tree
As previously mentioned, Hesiod makes Echidna the offspring of a ‘she’; this has been interpreted to mean the goddess Ceto. Echidna is therefore believed to be the offspring of two sea gods. The sea gods are the original sea monster Ceto who personified the dangers of the sea, and the primordial sea god Phorcys.
Some believe the ‘she’ Hesiod mentions as Echidna’s mother to be the Oceanid (sea nymph) Calliope, which would make Chrysaor Echidna’s father. In Greek mythology, Chrysoar is the brother of the mythical winged horse Pegasus.
Chrysoar was created from the blood of the Gorgon Medusa. If interpreted in this manner Medusa is Echidna’s grandmother.
In later myths, Echidna is the daughter of the goddess of the river Styx. The Styx is the most famous river in the Underworld. Some make the mother of monsters the offspring of the primordial deity Tartarus and Gaia, the Earth. In these tales, Typhon, Echidna’s mate, is her sibling.
Echidna and Typhon
Echidna mated with one of the most feared monsters in all of ancient Greek mythology, Typhon. The giant serpent Typhon features more prominently in mythology than his mate. Typhon was a giant monstrous serpent, who Hesiod claims is the son of the primordial deities, Gaia and Tartarus.
Gaia created Typhon as a weapon to be used against the king of the gods who lived on mount Olympus, Zeus. Typhon features in the Theogony as an opponent to Zeus. Gaia wanted revenge on Zeus because the almighty god of thunder tended to kill or imprison Gaia’s children.
Homer’s account of Echidna’s mate’s parents varies from that of Hesiod’s, as in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, Typhon is the son of Hera alone.
Typhon, like Echidna, was half serpent, half man. He is described as being an enormous serpent whose head touched the solid dome of the Sky. Typhon was described as having eyes made of fire, one hundred snake heads that made every type of animalistic noise imaginable as well as the heads of a hundred dragons sprouting from the ends of his fingers.
Apart from producing some of the most feared and famous Greek monsters, Echidna and Typhon were famous for other reasons. The gods on Mount Olympus were attacked by Typhon and Echidna, perhaps in response to the deaths of so many of their offspring.
The pair were a terrifying and formidable force that challenged the king of the gods, Zeus, for control of the cosmos. After a fierce battle, Typhon was defeated by Zeus’ thunderbolt.
The giant snake was imprisoned beneath Mount Etna by Zeus. The king of mount Olympus allowed Echidna and her children to be free.
The Monstrous Children of Echidna and Typhon
In ancient Greece, Echidna, mother of monsters, created several of the most feared monsters with her mate Typhon. It varies from author to author which deadly monsters were the female dragon’s offspring.
Almost all ancient authors make Echidna the mother of Orthurs, Ladon, Cerebus, and the Lernaean Hydra. Most of Echidna’s children are slain by the great hero Hercules.
Echidna was believed to have several more fierce offspring including the Caucasian Eagle who tormented Prometheus, the Titan god of fire, banished to Tartarus by Zeus. Echidna is thought to be the mother of a gigantic pig, known as the Crommyonian Sow.
Including the gigantic pig and the liver-eating eagle, Echidna and Typhon are believed to be the parents of the Nemean Lion, the Colchian Dragon, and the Chimera.
Orthrus, The Two-Headed Dog
The two-headed dog, Orthrus was the monstrous couple’s first offspring. Orthrus lived on the mythical sunset island of Erytheia, which was believed to exist in the western stream of the world encircling the river Oceanus. Orthrus guarded a herd of cattle owned by the three-headed giant Geryon featured in the myth the Labors of Hercules.
Cerberus, the Hellhound
In Greek mythology, Cerberus is the three headed hound who guards the gates of the Underworld. It is because of this that Cerberus is sometimes referred to as the hound of Hades. Cerberus is described as having three heads, along with several serpent heads protruding from his body, the hound also possesses the tail of a serpent.
The fearsome hellhound, Cerberus is the great hero of Hercules’ final labor.
The Lernaean Hydra
The Lernaean Hydra was a multi-headed serpent believed to live in Lake Lerna in the region of Arigold. Lake Lerna was said to contain a secret entrance to the realm of the dead. The number of heads the Hydra had varies by author. Early depictions give the Hydra six or nine heads, which in later myths would be replaced by two more heads when chopped off.
The multi-headed serpent also possesses a double serpent tail. The Hydra is described as having poisonous breath and blood, the smell of which could kill a mortal man. Like several of her siblings, the Hydra appears in the Greek myth the Labors of Hercules. The Hydra is killed by Hercules’ nephew.
Ladon: The Dragon in the Garden
Ladon was the giant serpentine dragon placed in the Garden of the Hesperides by Zeus’ wife Hera to guard her golden apples. The golden apple tree had been gifted to Hera by the primordial goddess of the Earth, Gaia.
The Hesperides were the nymphs of the evening or golden sunsets. The nymphs were known to help themselves to Hera’s golden apples. The Ladon twisted itself around the golden apple tree but was killed by Hercules during the hero’s eleventh labor.
The Colchian Dragon
The Colchian Dragon is a huge snake-like dragon that guarded the golden fleece in the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts. The golden fleece was kept in the garden of the Olympian god of war, Ares in Colchis.
In the myth, the Colchian Dragon is killed by Jason in his quest to retrieve the golden fleece. The dragon’s teeth are planted in the sacred field of Ares and used to grow a tribe of warriors.
The Nemean Lion
Hesiod does not make the Nemean Lion one of Echidna’s children, instead, the lion is a child of the two-headed dog Orthurs. The golden-furred lion was thought to live in the hills of Nemea terrorizing nearby residents. The lion was incredibly difficult to kill, as its fur was impenetrable to mortal weapons. Killing the lion was the first labor of Hercules.
In Greek mythology, the Chimera is a ferocious fire-breathing female hybrid monster made up of several different animals. Described in the Iliad by Homer as having a goat body with a protruding goat head, a lion head, and a snake tail, the mythical hybrid has the body of a goat. The Chimera terrorized the Lycian countryside.
Is Medusa an Echidna?
No, the snake-haired monster Medusa belongs to a trio of monsters called the Gorgons. The Gorgons were three sisters who had venomous snakes for hair. Two of the sisters were immortal, but Medusa was not. The Gorgons are believed to be the daughters of the sea goddess Ceto and Phorcys. Medus therefore could have been Echidna’s sibling.
Echidna’s genealogy is not as well documented or described as many of the other monsters of ancient Greece, so the ancients may have believed Echidna was related to Medusa in some way. However, Medusa is not in the same class of monster as Echidna who is a female dragon or Dracaena.
What Happened to Echidna From Greek Mythology?
Despite being described as immortal by Hesiod, the flesh-eating monster was not invincible. Echidna is killed in her cave by the hundred-eyed giant, Argus Panoptes.
The queen of the gods, Hera sends the giant to kill Echidna as she slept, because of the danger she posed to travelers.