In Greek mythology, Geryon (// or //; also Geryone; Ancient Greek: Γηρυών, genitive: Γηρυόνος), son of Chrysaor and Callirrhoe and grandson of Medusa, was a fearsome giant who dwelt on the island Erytheia of the mythic Hesperides in the far west of the Mediterranean. A more literal-minded later generation of Greeks associated the region with Tartessos in southern Iberia.
Geryon was often described as a monster with human faces. According to Hesiod Geryon had one body and three heads, whereas the tradition followed by Aeschylus gave him three bodies. A lost description by Stesichoros said that he has six hands and six feet and is winged; there are some mid-sixth-century Chalcidian vases portraying Geryon as winged. Some accounts state that he had six legs as well while others state that the three bodies were joined to one pair of legs. Apart from these bizarre features, his appearance was that of a warrior. He owned a two-headed hound named Orthrus, which was the brother of Cerberus, and a herd of magnificent red cattle that were guarded by Orthrus, and a herder Eurytion, son of Erytheia.
The Tenth Labour of Heracles
In the fullest account in the Bibliotheke of Pseudo-Apollodorus, Heracles was required to travel to Erytheia, in order to obtain the Cattle of Geryon (Γηρυόνου βόες) as his tenth labour. On the way there, he crossed the Libyan desert and became so frustrated at the heat that he shot an arrow at Helios, the Sun. Helios "in admiration of his courage" gave Heracles the golden cup he used to sail across the sea from west to east each night. Heracles used it to reach Erytheia, a favorite motif of the vase-painters. Such a magical conveyance undercuts any literal geography for Erytheia, the "red island" of the sunset.
When Heracles reached Erytheia, no sooner had he landed than he was confronted by the two-headed dog, Orthrus. With one huge blow from his olive-wood club, Heracles killed the watchdog. Eurytion the herdsman came to assist Orthrus, but Heracles dealt with him the same way.
On hearing the commotion, Geryon sprang into action, carrying three shields, three spears, and wearing three helmets. He pursued Heracles at the River Anthemus but fell victim to an arrow that had been dipped in the venomous blood of the Lernaean Hydra, shot so forcefully by Heracles that it pierced Geryon's forehead, "and Geryon bent his neck over to one side, like a poppy that spoils its delicate shapes, shedding its petals all at once".
Heracles then had to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus. In Roman versions of the narrative, on the Aventine Hill in Italy, Cacus stole some of the cattle as Heracles slept, making the cattle walk backwards so that they left no trail, a repetition of the trick of the young Hermes. According to some versions, Heracles drove his remaining cattle past a cave, where Cacus had hidden the stolen animals, and they began calling out to each other. In others, Caca, Cacus' sister, told Heracles where he was. Heracles then killed Cacus, and according to the Romans, founded an altar where the Forum Boarium, the cattle market, was later held.
To annoy Heracles, Hera sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, irritate them and scatter them. The hero was within a year able to retrieve them. Hera then sent a flood which raised the level of a river so much, Heracles could not cross with the cattle. He piled stones into the river to make the water shallower. When he finally reached the court of Eurystheus, the cattle were sacrificed to Hera.
The poet Stesichorus wrote a song of Geryon (Γηρυονηΐς—Geryoneïs) in the sixth century BC, which was apparently the source of this section in Bibliotheke; it contains the first reference to Tartessus. From the fragmentary papyri found at Oxyrhyncus it is possible (although there is no evidence) that Stesichorus inserted a character, Menoites, who reported the theft of the cattle to Geryon. Geryon then had an interview with his mother Callirrhoe, who begged him not to confront Heracles. They appear to have expressed some doubt as to whether Geryon would prove to be immortal. The gods met in council, where Athena warned Poseidon that she would protect Heracles against Poseidon's grandson Geryon. Denys Page observes that the increase in representation of the Geryon episode in vase-paintings increased from the mid-sixth century and suggests that Stesichorus' Geryoneïs provided the impetus.
The fragments are sufficient to show that the poem was composed in twenty-six line triads, of strophe, antistrophe and epode, repeated in columns along the original scroll, facts that aided Page in placing many of the fragments, sometimes of no more than a word, in what he believed to be their proper positions.
The work by Stesichorus and the traditional myth form the basis of Anne Carson's modern poetic novel Autobiography of Red which depicts the winged monster in a homosexual relationship with the hero Herakles.
In the Inferno, the first part of Italian poet Dante's Divine Comedy epic, Geryon has become the Monster of Fraud, a winged beast with the face of an honest man, the paws of a lion, the body of a wyvern, and a poisonous sting at the tip of his tail. He dwells somewhere in the depths below the cliff between the seventh and eighth circles of Hell (the circles of violence and simple fraud, respectively); Geryon rises from the pit at Virgil's call and bears the Poets to the eighth circle. To Dante's horror, the Poets ride on Geryon's back, and he slowly glides around and around the waterfall of the Phlegethon down the great depths to the Circle of Fraud.
Before the entrance to Virgil's version of the underworld in the sixth song of the Aeneid, Geryon is probably also to be found in the description forma tricorporis umbrae, the contour of a shade with three bodies (v. 289), in the company of countless other nightmarish creatures. Some read it as a reference to the three-headed monster Cerberus, though.
- Geryon on dictionary.com
- Also Γηρυόνης (Gēryonēs) and Γηρυονεύς (Gēryoneus).
- The early third-century Life of Apollonius of Tyana notes an ancient tumulus at Gades raised over Geryon as for a Hellenic hero: "They say that they saw trees here such as are not found elsewhere upon the earth; and that these were called the trees of Geryon. There were two of them, and they grew upon the mound raised over Geryon: they were a cross between the pitch tree and the pine, and formed a third species; and blood dripped from their bark, just as gold does from the Heliad poplar" (v.5).
- Hesiod, Theogony "the triple-headed Geryon".
- Aeschylus, Agamemnon: "Or if he had died as often as reports claimed, then truly he might have had three bodies, a second Geryon, and have boasted of having taken on him a triple cloak of earth, one death for each different shape."
- Scholiast on Hesiod's Theogony, referring to Stesichoros' Geryoneis (noted at TheoiProject).
- Erytheia, "sunset goddess" and nymph of the island that has her name, is one of the Hesperides.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheke, 2.5.10.
- Libya was the generic name for North Africa to the Greeks.
- Stesichorus, fragment, translated by Denys Page.
- P.T. Eden, A Commentary on Virgil: Aeneid VII (Brill, 1975), p. 155 online.
- Signes gravés sur les églises de l'Eure et du Calvados by Asger Jorn, Volume II of the Bibliotehéque Alexandrie, published by the Scandinavian Institute of Comparative Vandalism, 1964, p198
- Denys Page 1973:138-154 gives the fragmentary Greek and pieces together a translation by overlaying the fragments with the account in Bibliotheke. Additional details concerning Geryon follow Page's account.
- Virgil's description sounds more like a manticore (a strange beast with a man's head, lion's body, scorpion's tail, and the occasional dragon wings in some depictions).
- M.M. Davies, “Stesichoros' Geryoneis and its folk-tale origins”. Classical quarterly NS 38, 1988, 277–290.
- Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. A modern retelling of Stesichoros' fragments.
- P. Curtis: Steschoros's Geryoneis, Brill, 2011.
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