5 most bizarre Greek myths about animals
There are numerous myths, legends, and folk stories surrounding the history of Ancient Greece. Greek mythology is renowned for its bizarre creatures, powerful Gods, and epic battles—though some of these tales are stranger than others. While most of us are familiar with the stories of the “classic” monsters — the Hydra, the Minotaur, the snake-haired Medusa — there are plenty of other bizarre beasts populating these Greek stories.
The Nemean Lion
One of the mythological creatures on this list, the Nemean Lion was a gigantic beast, armed with razor-sharp claws and adorned in golden fur said to be impervious to mortal weapons.
This seeming-immortality was put to the test when Greek hero Heracles was ordered to slay the Nemean Lion as the first of his 12 famous Labors. As the story goes, Heracles attempted to shoot the lion with arrows before realizing that its fur was impenetrable. When this didn’t work, Heracles took a different approach. Different versions of the tale offer two possible outcomes:
- Heracles shot an arrow into the lion’s unprotected mouth, killing it instantly.
- Heracles used rocks to trap the lion in its den and proceeded to grapple with it by hand, eventually using his godlike strength to strangle the beast to death.
The Stymphalian Birds
Denizens of the ancient Greek city of Stymphalia, these monstrous birds were pets of Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the hunt. According to the story, the Stymphalian Birds had beaks made of bronze that were strong enough to pierce the iron plate of Greek armor. Their feathers were supposedly made of metal, used as projectile weapons that could be launched at victims, and their dung was toxic to mortals.
Again, Heracles was set to the task of eradicating these creatures as the sixth of his 12 Labors. However, Heracles didn’t do it alone. With the help of Greek Gods Athena and Hephaestus, and using the poisonous blood of the already-slain Hydra, Heracles was able to rustle the birds from their nest and shoot them down with his toxic arrows. And though many of the birds escaped the purge (later to encounter Jason and the Argonauts), Heracles was able to accomplish his task.
We’ve all heard of Pegasus: The majestic winged stallion that Poseidon created from the magical blood of the slain Medusa.
In texts, Pegasus was a valuable ally to Poseidon’s son, Bellerophon, in his epic battle against the Chimaera, and later, the Amazons. Bellerophon shortly thereafter met his end (he fell off Pegasus while trying to ascend to Mt. Olympus), and Pegasus would join the pantheon of the immortals in service to Zeus, who charged the stallion with carrying his thunderbolts into battle. Eventually, Pegasus would be immortalized as the constellation that shares his name.
Pegasus is one of the most popular icons for in Greek Mythology, with frequent depiction on coins, in sculpture, pottery, and other artistic works. More than many other Greek creatures, Pegasus has become ingrained in Western culture, so much so that the word “Pegasus” now refers to both the mythological figure and the entire species of winged horses that we often see in fantasy stories.
The Mares of Diomedes
Marking another of Heracles’ legendary Labors, (most of which involved mythic animals in some way), his eighth task was to recapture the lost Mares of King Diomedes.
The only problem? The horses were consumed by madness, trained to eat human flesh instead of regular feed and even thought to breathe fire. Though the story differs amongst versions, it’s generally accepted that Heracles was able to calm the horses enough to be tamed and kill the mad king Diomedes of Thrace, leaving Heracles free to rescue the horses and complete his task.
Carcinus played an important role in Heracles’ battle against the Hydra. Not in favor of Heracles, of course — Carcinus is yet another mythical creature sent by the Gods to kill Heracles. And while the Hydra is certainly the headliner in that battle, the crab Carcinus fought bravely against the Greek hero, despite the fact that Carcinus had no impenetrable fur, fire breath, or toxic dung. So says the text:
“Then a giant crab (karkinos) came along to help the Hydra, and bit Herakles on the foot. For this he killed the crab."
Yes, brave Carcinus did not last long. However, the Goddess Hera (who hated Heracles, incidentally) was moved by the crab’s bravery, and immortalized him as the constellation Cancer (pictured above).
Bizarre Greek Animals
Yes, Greek mythology is full of strange tales and bizarre creatures. But that’s what makes the stories so much fun. The fantastical elements, epic poetry, and otherworldly monsters have captured the imaginations of cultures across the world. And given that these are just a few examples of the strange and bizarre Greek creatures that exist, it’s not hard to see why.