Echidna (mythology)

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In Greek mythology, Echidna (/ɪˈkɪdnə/; Greek: Ἔχιδνα, "She-Viper")[1] was a monster, half-woman and half-snake, who lived alone in a cave. She was the mate of the most fearsome monster Typhon. She was known primarily for being the mother of monsters,[2] and many of the more famous monsters in Greek myth were said to be her offspring.


Echidna's family tree, varies by author.[3] The oldest genealogy relating to Echidna is found in Hesiod's Theogony (c. 8th – 7th century BC), which is however unclear at several points. According to Hesiod, Echidna was born to a "she" who was probably meant by Hesiod to be the sea goddess Ceto, making Echidna's father (presumably) the sea god Phorcys, although the "she" might possibly refer instead to the naiad Callirhoe, which would make Chrysaor Echidna's father.[4] Pherecydes of Leros (5th Century BC) has Echidna as the daughter of Phorkys, without naming a mother.[5]

Other authors give Echidna other parents. According to Epimenides (as attributed by Pausanias),[6] Echidna was the daughter of the Oceanid Styx (goddess of the river Styx) and one Peiras (otherwise unknown to Pausanias), while according to Apollodorus, Echidna was the daughter of Tartarus and Gaia.[7] In one account, from the Orphic tradition, Echidna was the daughter of Phanes.[8]


Hesiod's Echidna was half beautiful maiden (presumably the upper half) and half fearsome snake. Hesiod described "the goddess fierce Echidna" as a flesh eating "monster, irresistible", who was like neither "mortal men" nor "the undying gods", but was "half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin", who "dies not nor grows old all her days."[9] Hesiod's apparent association of the eating of raw flesh with Echidna's snake half, suggests that Hesiod may have supposed that Echidna's snake half ended in a snake-head.[10] And Aristophanes, who makes Echidna a monster of the underworld, gives her a hundred heads (presumably snake heads), matching the hundred snake heads Hesiod says her mate Typhon had.[11]

In the Orphic account (mentioned above) Echidna is described as having the head of a beautiful woman with long hair, and a serpent's body from the neck down.[12] Nonnus, in his Dionysiaca, describes Echidna as being "hideous", with "horrible poison".[13]


According to Hesiod's Theogony, the "terrible" and "lawless" Typhon, "was joined in love to [Echidna], the maid with glancing eyes" and she bore "fierce offspring".[14] First there was Orthrus, the two-headed dog who guarded the Cattle of Geryon, second Cerberus, the multiheaded dog who guarded the gates of Hades, and third the Lernaean Hydra, the many-headed serpent who, when one of its heads was cut off, grew two more.[15] The Theogony may also have given Echidna as the mother of the Chimera, a fire-breathing beast that was part lion, part goat, and had a snake-headed tail,[16] though possibly the Hydra or even Ceto was meant as the mother of the Chimera instead.[17] Hesiod next mentions the Sphinx and the Nemean lion as having been the offspring of Echidna's son Orthrus, by another ambiguous "she", read variously as the Chimera, Echidna herself, or even Ceto.[18] In any case, the 6th century BC lyric poet Lasus of Hermione, has Echidna and Typhon as the parents of the Sphinx,[19] while the 5th century BC playwright Euripides, has Echidna as her mother, without mentioning a father.[20] To this list of offspring of Echidna and Typhon, the 6th century BC mythographer Acusilaus (along with mentions of Cerberus and "other monsters") adds the Caucasian Eagle, that every day ate the liver of Prometheus,[21] and Pherecydes also names Prometheus' eagle,[22] and adds Ladon, the dragon that guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides (according to Hesiod, the offspring of Ceto and Phorcys).[23]

Later authors mostly retain these offspring of Echidna and Typhon while adding others. Apollodorus, in addition to having as their offspring Orthrus, the Chimera (citing Hesiod as his source), the Sphinx, the Caucasian Eagle, Ladon, and probably the Nemean lion (only Typhon is named), also has the Crommyonian Sow, killed by the hero Theseus (unmentioned by Hesiod).[24] Hyginus[25] in his list of offspring of Echidna (all by Typhon), retains from the above: Cerberus, the Chimera, the Sphinx, the Hydra and Ladon, and adds "Gorgon" (by which Hyginus means the mother of Medusa rather than Hesiod's three Gorgons, daughters of Phorcys and Ceto, of which Medusa was one), the Colchian Dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece[26] and Scylla.[27]

Nonnus makes Echidna the mother of an unnamed, venom spitting, "huge" son, with "snaky" feet, an ally of Cronus in his war with Zeus, who was killed by Ares.[28] The sea serpents which attacked the Trojan priest Laocoön, during the Trojan War, were perhaps supposed to be the progeny of Echdna and Typhon.[29] Echidna was also supposed to be the mother by Heracles, of Scythes, an eponymous king of the Scythians, along with his brothers Agathyrsus and Gelonus (see below).


According to Hesiod, Echidna was born in a cave. And apparently she lived alone (in that same cave, or perhaps another), as Hesiod describes it, "beneath the secret parts of the holy earth ... deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men", a place appointed by the gods, where she "keeps guard in Arima".[30] (Though Hesiod here may possibly be referring to Echidna's mother Ceto's home cave instead).[31] It was from this cave, apparently, as Apollodorus tells us, that Echidna used to "carry off passers-by".[32]

Hesiod does not say where Arima might be, but perhaps it is connected with the place where, according to Homer, Zeus fought Typhon, which Homer describes as "the country of the Arimi [Ἀρίμοις], where men say is the couch [bed] of Typhoeus",[33] Typhoeus being another name for Typhon. The late sixth century early fifth century BC poet Pindar has Typhon born in the "famous Cilician cave"[34] (an apparent allusion to the Corycian cave),[35] and has Zeus slaying Typhon "among the Arimoi",[36] and the fourth century BC historian Callisthenes located the Arimoi and the Arima mountains in Cilicia, near the Calycadnus river, the Corycian cave and the Sarpedon promomtory.[37]

Quintus Smyrnaeus locates her cave "close on the borders of Eternal Night".[38]


Although for Hesiod, Echidna was immortal and ageless,[39] according to Apollodorus, Echidna continued to prey on the unfortunate "passers-by", until she was finally killed, while she slept, by Argus Panoptes, the hundred-eyed giant who served Hera.[40]

The Scythian echidna[edit]

From the fifth century BC historian Herodotus, we learn of a creature who, though Herodotus does not name as Echidna, is called an echidna ("she-viper") and resembles the Hesiodic Echidna in several respects. She was half woman half snake, lived in a cave, and was known as a mother figure, in this case, as the progentitor of the Scythians (rather than of monsters).[41]

According to Herodotus, Greeks living in Pontus, a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, told a story of an encounter between Heracles and this snaky creature. Heracles was driving the cattle of Geryones through what would later become Scythia, when one morning he awoke and discovered that his horses had disappeared. While searching for them, he "found in a cave a creature of double form that was half maiden and half serpent; above the buttocks she was a woman, below them a snake." She had the horses and promised to return them if Heracles would have sex with her. Heracles agreed and she had three sons by him: Agathyrsus, Gelonus and Scythes. She asked Heracles what she should do with his sons: "shall I keep them here (since I am queen of this country), or shall I send them away to you?" And Heracles gave her a bow and belt, and told her, that when the boys were grown, whichever would draw the bow and wear the belt, keep him and banish the others. The youngest son Scythes fulfilled the requirements and became the founder and eponym of the Scythians.

The Viper in the Acts of Philip[edit]

A possibly related creature to the Hesiodic Echidna is the "Viper" (Echidna) cast into an abyss in the apocryphal Acts of Philip.[42] Called a "she-dragon" (drakaina) and "the mother of seprents",[43] this Echidna ruled over many other monstrous dragons and snakes, and lived in a gated temple,[44] where she was worshipped by the people of that land. She, along with her temple and priests, was swallowed up by a hole in the ground that opened beneath her, as the result of Philip's curse.[45]

In Art[edit]

No certain ancient depictions of Echidna survive.[46] According to Pausanias, Echidna was depicted, along with Typhon, on the sixth century BC Doric-Ionic temple complex at Amyclae, known as the throne of Apollo, designed by Bathycles of Magnesia.[47] Pausanias identifies two standing figures on the left as Echidna and Typhon, with Tritons standing on the right, with no other details concerning these figures given.

See also[edit]

  • Echidna, a monotreme mammal of Australia and New Guinea named after the mythological monster.
  • Nāgas, a race of water-dwelling beings of Hindu mythology who are also half-serpent.
  • Nüwa, a goddess in ancient Chinese mythology best known for creating mankind and repairing the wall of heaven, often depicted as having the body of a snake, or the lower part of her body being that of a snake.


  1. ^ Variant of ἔχις, also meaning "viper" from Proto-Indo-European *h1hi- (see R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 489).
  2. ^ Ogden 2013a, p. 81.
  3. ^ For a discussion of Echidna's varying genealogy see Ogden 2013a, pp. 148–150.
  4. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 270-300. Though Herbert Jennings Rose says simply that it is "not clear which parents are meant", Athanassakis, p. 44, says that Phorcys and Ceto are the "more likely candidates for parents of this hideous creature who proceeded to give birth to a series of monsters and scourges". The problem arises from the ambiguous referent of the pronoun "she" in line 295 of the Theogony. While some have read this "she" as referring to Callirhoe (e.g. Smith "Echidna"; Morford, p. 162), according to Clay, p. 159, note 32, "the modern scholarly consensus" reads Ceto, see for example Gantz, p. 22; Caldwell, pp. 7, 46 295–303; Grimal, "Echidna" p. 143.
  5. ^ Fowler 2001, p. 278 fr. 7; Hošek, p. 678.
  6. ^ Pausanias, 8.18.2.
  7. ^ Apollodorus, Library 2.1.2.
  8. ^ Orphic Fragment 58 Kern = Athenagoras, Apology 20 (p. 397); van den Broek, p. 137 n. 20; Fowler 2013, p. 9.
  9. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 295-305.
  10. ^ Ogden 2013a, p. 81.
  11. ^ Aristophanes, Frogs 473–474; Hošek. p. 678. Ogden 2013a, p. 81, calls Aristophanes' description "exuberant", which "need not relate to canon", see also Ogden 2013b pp. 65–66. For the hundred-headed Typhon see Hesiod, Theogony 825; see also Aeschylus (?), Prometheus Bound 351; Apollodorus, 1.6.3. Pindar, Pythian 1.15–16; 8.15–16, and Olympian 4.7, all give Typhon a hundred heads, but Pindar, fragment 93 (Race, p. 319 = Strabo, 13.4.6) gives Typhon fifty.
  12. ^ Orphic Fragment 58 Kern = Athenagoras, Apology 20 (p. 397); van den Broek, p. 137 n. 20; Fowler 2013, p. 9.
  13. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 18.273 ff. (II pp. 82–83).
  14. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 306–308. Compare with Lycophron, Alexandra 1351ff. (pp. 606–607), which refers to Echidna as Typhon's spouse (δάμαρ).
  15. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 309–314. Compare with Apollodorus, Library 2.5.10, which has Orthrus as the offspring of Echidna and Typhon; Acusilaus, fragment 6 (Freeman, p. 15), Bacchylides, Ode 5.62; Sophocles, Women of Trachis 1097–1099; and Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.500–501, 7.406–409, Callimachus, fragment 515 Pfeiffer (Trypanis, pp. 258–259) = fragment 40 (161) Mair, pp. 316–317, which have Cerberus as the offspring of Echidna (only Acusilaus mentions Typhon as the father); Hyginus, Fabulae Preface, 151, which have the Hydra as the offspring of Echidna and Typhon; and Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica (or Fall of Troy) 6.249ff. (pp. 272–273), which has Cerberus as the offspring of Echidna and Typhon, and Orthrus as his brother.
  16. ^ Hesiod, Theogony, 319
  17. ^ The referent of the "she" in line 319 is uncertain, see Gantz, p. 22; Clay, p. 159 n. 34.
  18. ^ The referent of the pronoun "she" in line 326 of the Theogony is uncertain, see Clay, p.159, note 34.
  19. ^ Lasus of Hermione, fragment 706A (Campbell, pp. 310–311).
  20. ^ Euripides, The Phoenician Women 1019–1020; Ogden 2013a, p. 149 n. 3.
  21. ^ Acusilaus, fr. 13 Fowler (Fowler 2001, p. 11); Freeman, p. 15 fragment 6; Fowler (2013), p. 28; Gantz, p. 22; Ogden 2013a, pp. 149–150.
  22. ^ Pherecydes of Leros, fr. 7 Fowler (Fowler 2001, p. 278); Fowler 2013, p. 28; Gantz, p. 22; Ogden 2013a, pp. 149–150.
  23. ^ Pherecydes of Leros, fr. 16b Fowler (Fowler 2001, p. 286); Hesiod, Theogony 333–336; Fowler 2013, p. 28; Ogden 2013a, p. 149 n. 3; Hošek, p. 678.
  24. ^ Apollodorus, Library 2.5.10 (Orthrus), 2.3.1 (Chimera), 3.5.8 (Sphinx), 2.5.11 (Caucasian Eagle), 2.5.11 (Ladon), 2.5.1 (Nemean lion), Epitome 1.1 (Crommyonian Sow).
  25. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae Preface, 151.
  26. ^ Compare with Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica, 2.1208–1215 (pp. 184–185), where the dragon is the offspring of Gaia by Typhon (Hošek, p. 168).
  27. ^ See also Virgil, Ciris 67; Lyne, pp. 130–131.
  28. ^ Nonnus, Dionysiaca 18.273 ff. (II pp. 82–83); Ogden 2013a, p. 150 n. 4; Hošek, p. 678.
  29. ^ Hošek, p. 168; see Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica (or Fall of Troy) 12.449–453 (pp. 518–519), where they are called "fearful monsters of the deadly brood of Typhon".
  30. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 295-305.
  31. ^ West, p. 250 line 301. οι; Gantz, p. 22.
  32. ^ Apollodorus, Library 2.1.2.
  33. ^ Homer, Iliad 2.783
  34. ^ Pindar, Pythian 1.15–17; compare with Pindar, Pythian 8.15–16.
  35. ^ Fontenrose, pp. 72–73. Compare with Aeschylus (?), Prometheus Bound 351, which calls Typhon the "dweller of the Cilician caves". See also Apollodorus, 1.6.3, which has Typhon born in Cilicia, and has Typhon deposit the incapacitated Zeus in Typhon's "Corycian cave". See also Nonnus, Dionysiaca 1.140. (I pp. 12–13), 1.154. (I pp. 14–15), 1.258–260 (I pp. 20–23), 1.321 (I pp. 26–27), 2.35 (I pp. 46–47), 2.631 ff. (I pp. 90–91).
  36. ^ Pindar, fragment 93 (Race, p. 319) = Strabo, 13.4.6.
  37. ^ Callisthenes FGrH 124 F33; Ogden 2013a, p. 76; Ogden 2013b, p. 25. The first century AD geographer Strabo, 13.4.6, identified Arima with various locals, including the island of Ischia (calling it "Pithecussae") in the Gulf of Naples. Lane Fox, pp. 292–298, connects Arima with the Hittite Cilician place names "Erimma" and "Arimmatta". The b scholia to Iliad 2.783, preserving a possible Orphic tradition, has Typhon born "under Arimon in Cilicia", see Kirk, Raven, and Schofield. pp. 59–60 no. 52; Ogden 2013b, pp. 36–38; Gantz, pp. 50–51, Ogden 2013a, p. 76 n. 46. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 1.140. (I pp. 12–13) mentions Typhon's "bloodstained cave of Arima" in Cilicia.
  38. ^ Quintus Smyrnaeus, Posthomerica (or Fall of Troy) 6.260ff. (pp. 272–273).
  39. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 305.
  40. ^ Apollodorus, Library 2.1.2. Gantz, pp. 201–202 finds "no trace" of such a tale in Archaic literature.
  41. ^ Herodotus, 4.8–10; Ogden 2013b, pp. 16–17; Ogden 2013a, p. 81 with n. 71. While the Scythian echidna is sometimes identified with the Hesiodic Echidna (e.g. Grimal, "Echidna", p. 143, "Scythes" pp. 414–415), Ogden 2013b describes the Scythian as "seemingly calqued upon" the Hesiodic (p. 13), and asserts that "there is no particular reason to infer" that the two are "fully identifiable" (p. 17).
  42. ^ For an English translation of the Acts of Philip, see Buvon; for an English translation of selected passages (relating to dragons) see also Ogden 2013b pp. 207–215. For the possible relationship between the "Viper" and the Hesiodic Echidna, see Ogden 2013a, pp. 81–82; Ogden 2013b, p. 16, p. 216; Fontenrose, pp. 95–96.
  43. ^ Acts of Philip, 8.17 (V); Bovon, p. 79; Ogden 2013b, p. 208.
  44. ^ Acts of Philip, Martyrdom 19 (V); Bovon, p. 99; Ogden 2013b, pp. 213–214.
  45. ^ Acts of Philip, Martyrdom 26–27 (V); Bovon, pp. 101–102; Ogden 2013b, pp. 214–215.
  46. ^ Hošek, p. 169. The identification of Echidna fighting Heracles on a restoration of a pediment from the Athenian Acropolis, (see for example Gardner, p. 159) is now rejected.
  47. ^ Gardner, p. 78; Pausanias, 3.18.10.


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