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, and is widely considered the "mother of all monsters", since many of the more famous monsters in Greek myth were said to be her offspring. Homer calls the site of her cave "Arima, couch of Typhoeus",[2] Typhoeus being another name for Typhon.


Hesiod described Echidna as follows:

And in a hollow cave she[3] bore another monster, irresistible, in no wise like either to mortal men or to the undying gods, even the goddess fierce Echidna who is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake,[4] great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth. And there she has a cave deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men. There, then, did the gods appoint her a glorious house to dwell in: and she keeps guard in Arima beneath the earth, grim Echidna, a nymph who dies not nor grows old all her days.[5]

Aristophanes gives Echidna a hundred heads (presumably snake heads), matching the hundred snake heads Hesiod says her mate Typhon had.[6]

Although for Hesiod, Echidna was an immortal and ageless nymph, according to Apollodorus, Echidna used to "carry off passers-by", until she was finally killed where she slept by Argus Panoptes, the hundred-eyed giant who served Hera.[7]


Echidna's family tree, which varies by author, contains many monstrous creatures.[8] The oldest genealogy relating to Echidna is found in Hesiod's Theogony (c. 8th – 7th century BC), which is however unclear at several points.


Echidna's parentage, as given in Hesiod's Theogony, is uncertain. Hesiod's "she" who "bore ... the goddess fierce Echidna", mentioned above, 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 to the naiad Callirhoe, making Chrysaor Echidna's father.[9] Pherecydes of Leros (5th Century BC) has Echidna as the daughter of Phorkys, without naming a mother.[10]

Other authors give Echidna different parents. According to Epimenides (as attributed by Pausanias),[11] 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.[12] In the Orphic tradition, Echidna was the daughter of Phanes.[13]


According to Hesiod's Theogony the offspring of Echidna, by Typhon, were first 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.[14] 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,[15] though possibly the Hydra or even Ceto was meant as the mother of the Chimera instead.[16] 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.[17] In any case, the 6th century BC lyric poet Lasus of Hermione, has Echidna and Typhon as the parents of the Sphinx,[18] while the 5th century BC playwright Euripides, has Echidna as her mother, without mentioning a father.[19] To this list of offspring of Echidna and Typhon, the mythographers Acusilaus (6th century BC) and Pherecydes of Leros add the Caucasian Eagle, that every day ate the liver of Prometheus,[20] while Pherecydes also adds Ladon, the dragon that guarded the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides (according to Hesiod, the offspring of Ceto and Phorcys).[21]

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).[22] Hyginus in his list of offspring of Echidna (all by Typhon), retains from the above: Cerberus, the Chimera, the Sphinx, the Hydra and Ladon, while adding three new offspring: "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 and Scylla.[23]

Echidna was also suppossed to be the mother by Heracles, of Scythes, an eponymous king of the Scythians, along with his brothers Agathyrsus and Gelonus (see below).

Progenitor of the Scythians[edit]

According to Herodotus,[24] Greeks living in Pontus, a region on the southern coast of the Black Sea, told a story of an encounter between Heracles and Echidna. 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 Echidna in her cave. Echidna had the horses but promised to return them if Heracles would have sex with her. Heracles agreed and Echidna had three sons by him: Agathyrsus, Gelonus and Scythes. Echidna asked Heracles what she should do with his sons. 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 fullfilled the requirements and became the founder and eponym of the Scythians.

In Art[edit]

No certain ancient depictions of Echidna survive.[25] 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.[26] 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. ^ Homer, Iliad 2.783
  3. ^ Probably Ceto, possibly Callirrhoe, see below.
  4. ^ Spenser's Errour in The Faerie Queene resembles Echidna in this hybrid nature, as John M. Steadman notes, in "Sin, Echidna and the Viper's Brood", The Modern Language Review 56.1 (January 1961:62-66) p. 62.
  5. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 295-305.
  6. ^ Aristophanes, Frogs 473–474; Hesiod, Theogony 825; Ogden, p. 81.
  7. ^ Apollodorus, Library 2.1.2. Gantz, pp. 201–202 finds "no trace" of such a tale in Archaic literature.
  8. ^ For a discussion of Echidna's varying genealogy see Ogden, pp. 148–150.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Fowler 2001, p. 278 fr. 7; Hošek, p. 678.
  11. ^ Pausanias, 8.18.2.
  12. ^ Apollodorus, Library 2.1.2.
  13. ^ Orphic Fragment 58 Kern = Athenagoras, Apology 20 (p. 397); van den Broek, p. 137 n. 20; Fowler 2013, p. 9.
  14. ^ 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, 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.
  15. ^ Hesiod, Theogony, 319
  16. ^ The referent of the "she" in line 319 is uncertain, see Gantz, p. 22; Clay, p. 159 n. 34.
  17. ^ The referent of the pronoun "she" in line 326 of the Theogony is uncertain, see Clay, p.159, note 34.
  18. ^ Lasus of Hermione, fragment 706A (Campbell, pp. 310–311).
  19. ^ Euripides, The Phoenician Women 1019–1025; Ogden, p. 149 n. 3.
  20. ^ Acusilaus, fragment 6 (Freeman, p. 15); Pherecydes of Leros, fr. 7 Fowler (Fowler 2001, p. 278 fr. 7); Fowler 2013, p. 28; Gantz, p. 22; Ogden, pp. 149–150.
  21. ^ Pherecydes of Leros, fr. 16b Fowler (Fowler 2001, p. 286 fr. 16b); Hesiod, Theogony 333–336; Fowler 2013, p. 28; Ogden, p. 149 n. 3; Hošek, p. 678.
  22. ^ 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).
  23. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae Preface, 151.
  24. ^ Herodotus, 4.8–10; Ogden, p. 81 with n. 71; Grimal, "Echidna", p. 143, "Scythes" pp. 414–415.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Gardner, p. 78; Pausanias, 3.18.10.


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