Mother of Monsters: Echidna in Greek Mythology

Updated on April 6, 2018
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 stories of Ancient Greece are generally considered to be the stories of gods and of mortal heroes. Many stories involve fights between gods, or between heroes, but a third element was often added to such stories: the antagonists of gods and heroes were often deadly monsters.

The presence of a monster in Greek mythology provided an obstacle for a hero to overcome, and therefore the hero appeared more heroic. It was necessary to explain where these monsters came from, and in most cases their existence was put down to the fact that they were the offspring of a female monster called Echidna.

This Article Will Answer 7 Questions About Echidna

  1. How Did Echidna Come Into Existence?
  2. What Did Echidna Look Like?
  3. How Did Echidna Find a Mate?
  4. Who Were the Children of Echidna?
  5. Who Were the Children of Echidna in the Wider World?
  6. Why Did Echidna Become so Full of Rage?
  7. How Did Echidna Meet Her End?

How Did Echidna Come Into Existence?

Hesiod’s Theogony would state that Echidna was the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto. Phorcys was the primordial sea god, and the personification of the dangers of the deep, whilst Ceto was the original sea monster, and goddess of other sea monsters, sharks and whales.

Other sources including Apollodorus would suggest though, that Echidna was the daughter of the two Protogenoi deities, Tartarus (Underworld) and Gaia (Earth).

Echidna drawn as a nymph.
Echidna drawn as a nymph. | Source

What Did Echidna Look Like?

Regardless of parentage, Echidna is normally described as being a mixture of beautiful nymph and deadly serpent. The upper part of her body was feminine, whilst the bottom part comprised either of a single or double serpent tail. As well as her monstrous looks, Echidna was also said to have other monstrous characteristics, most notably the fact that she ate raw flesh.

How Did Echidna Find a Mate?

Echidna of course was not the only monster, and she quickly found herself a mate, Typhoeus (Typhon), who was himself a son of Gaia and Tartarus.

In many ways Typhoeus was a male version of Echidna, but the male monster had his own traits. Whilst half male, and half serpent, Typhoeus was gigantic, with his head stated to be touching the sky. Also Typhoeus had fire for eyes, and on each hand were the heads of a hundred dragons.

Echidna and Typhoeus would make a home for themselves in a cave beneath the surface of the earth, in the region of Arima. The exact location of the cave, and indeed Arima, is not one that can be pinpointed today, as Arima can not be matched to any modern day location.

Typhoeus
Typhoeus | Source

Who Were the Children of Echidna?

With the pair of monsters settled down, Echidna began to live up to her epitaph of “mother of all monsters”, and a string of monstrous offspring were born.

Hesiod would name four offspring:

  • Orthrus, the two headed dog that was guard to the cattle of Geryon
  • Cerberus, the three headed guard dog of the realm of Hades
  • The Lernaean Hydra, the multi-headed serpent who lived in the Lernaean swamps and guarded an entrance to the underworld
  • The Chimera, the fire breathing monster that was part goat, part lion and part serpent

Apollodorus would name a further four children of Echidna:

  • Ladon, the dragon who guarded the golden apples in the Garden of Hera
  • The Caucasian Eagle, the eagle who would descend each day to eat the liver of Prometheus
  • The Sphinx, the female part lion monster of Thebes who would ask a riddle of passers-by
  • The Crommyonian Sow, the gigantic pig who ravaged the countryside between Megara and Corinth

Later Nonnus would add one more:

  • Echidnades, a gigantic serpent footed son, who would aide the Gigantes in the Gigantomachy

Famously the Nemean Lion, the ferocious monster of Nemea with imperious skin, is also often thought of as a son of Echidna.

The Lernaean Hydra
The Lernaean Hydra | Source

Who Were the Children of Echidna in the Wider World?

The various offspring would depart from Arima and make their home in other parts of the ancient world. Ancient Greece though proved to be a dangerous place even for these monsters, and most would die at the hands of various Greek heroes.

  • Orthrus – killed by Heracles
  • Cerberus – abducted by Heracles, although later released
  • The Lernaean Hydra – killed by Heracles
  • The Chimera – killed by Bellerophon
  • Ladon – killed by Atlas or Heracles
  • The Caucasian Eagle – killed by Heracles
  • The Sphinx – ultimately killed by Oedipus
  • The Crommyonian Sow – killed by Theseus
  • Echidnades – killed by Ares
  • Nemean Lion – killed by Heracles

Typhoeus and Zeus do Battle
Typhoeus and Zeus do Battle | Source

Why Did Echidna Become so Full of Rage?

The killing of her offspring caused great angst to Echidna, and Typhoeus and Echidna would go to war with the gods of Mount Olympus; Zeus ultimately blamed as it was his offspring who were doing the killing.

So Echidna and Typhoeus left Arima and travelled towards Mount Olympus. At the sight of the two monsters the deities of Mount Olympus, bar Zeus and Athena, fled; one myth tells of how the gods travelled to Egypt and became worshipped there in their Egyptian form.

Zeus would eventually fight with Typhoeus, and whilst the monster could throw mountains, Zeus could unleash his lightning bolts. It was an even fight, but eventually Typhoeus was defeated when hit by one of the bolts. Subsequently Typhoeus was imprisoned for eternity, either within Tartarus or beneath Mount Etna.

Zeus though, treated Echidna with a great deal of mercy, and the “mother of monsters” was allowed to return to her cave in Arima.

How Did Echidna Meet Her End?

Some sources would claim that Echidna still lives in the cave, and will reside there forever, but a story is also told of her demise.

The hundred eyed giant Argus Panoptes was dispatched by Hera to the cave of Arima, and there the giant killed Echidna whilst she slept. In this version of the Echidna myth, the monster was said to be a danger to travellers who passed along the roads near to her cave.

Despite this small mythological story, the presence of Echidna is more useful as a means to explain the existence of so many of the monsters who were a cornerstone of other tales.

Questions & Answers

  • In Greek mythology, what was Echidna's role or purpose?

    Echidna's primary role in Greek mythology was as the "mother of monsters", for she, along with her partner Typhon, was a parent of many of the most famous monsters, including the Lernaean Hydra and the Chimera.

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