Cetus (mythology)

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Ancient Corinthian vase depicting Perseus, Andromeda and Ketos (Names are spelled in the archaic Corinthian variant of the Greek alphabet).

In Ancient Greek ketos (κῆτος, plural kete/ketea, κήτη/κήτεα[1]), Latinized as cetus (pl. ceti or cete = cetea[2]), is any huge sea monster.[3] According to the mythology, Perseus slew a cetus to save Andromeda from being sacrificed to it. The term cetacean (for whale) derives from cetus. In Greek art, ceti were depicted as serpentine fish. The name of the mythological figure Ceto is derived from kētos. The name of the constellation Cetus also derives from this word.


A cetus was variously described as a sea monster or sea serpent. Other versions describe cetea as sea monsters with the head of a wild boar[4][5] or greyhounds and the body of whales or dolphins with divided, fan-like tails. Cetea were said to be colossal beasts the size of a ship, their skulls alone measuring 40 feet (12 meters) in length, their spines being a cubit in thickness, and their skeletons taller at the shoulder than any elephant.[5]

There are notable physical and mythological similarities between a cetus and a drakōn (the dragons in Greek mythology), and, to a lesser extent, other monsters of Greek myth, such as Scylla, Charybdis, and Medusa and her Gorgon sisters.[6][5][7]

Greek mythology[edit]

Ritual stone palette a Nereid (Sea Nymph) and a Cherub riding a Sea Monster (Ketos). Gandhara.

Cetea are often depicted fighting Perseus or as the mount of a Nereid.[8]

Queen Cassiopeia boasted that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than the Nērēides (in most later works called by the Roman form, the Nereids), which invoked the wrath of Poseidon who sent the sea monster Kētŏs (in a far greater number of European works renamed as the Latinised Cetus) to attack Æthiopia. Upon consulting a wise oracle, King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia were told to sacrifice Andromeda to the Cetus. They had Andromeda chained to a rock near the ocean so that the cetus could devour her. After finding Andromeda chained to the rock and learning of her plight, Perseus managed to slay the Cetus when the creature emerged from the ocean to devour her. According to one version, Perseus slew Cetus with the harpe lent to him by Hermes. According to another version, he used Medusa's head to turn the sea monster to stone.

In a different story, Heracles slew a Cetus to save Hesione.[9]

A Cetus had also been portrayed to support Ino and Melicertes when they threw themselves into the sea[10] instead of a dolphin to carry Palaemon.

Etruscan mythology[edit]

In Etruscan mythology, the Cetea were regarded as psychopomps, being depicted frequently on sarcophagi and urns, along with dolphins and hippocamps.[11]

Furthermore, the Etruscan deity Nethuns is sometimes shown wearing a headdress depicting a Cetus.[12]

Bible and Jewish mythology[edit]

The tannin sea monsters[edit]

The monster tannin in the Hebrew Bible has been translated as Greek kētos in the Septuagint, and cetus in the Latin Vulgate.

Tanninim (תַּנִּינִים) (-im denotes Hebraic plural) appear in the Hebrew Book of Genesis,[13] Exodus,[14] Deuteronomy,[15] Psalms,[17] Job,[18] Ezekiel,[19] Isaiah,[20] and Jeremiah.[21] They are explicitly listed among the creatures created by God on the fifth day of the Genesis creation narrative,[13] translated in the King James Version as "great whales".[22] The Septuagint renders the original Hebrew of Genesis 1:21 (hattanninim haggedolim) as κήτη τὰ μεγάλα (kētē ta megala) in Greek, and this was in turn translated as cete grandia in the Vulgate. The tannin is listed in the apocalypse of Isaiah as among the sea beasts to be slain by Yahweh "on that day",[23] translated in the King James Version as "the dragon".[24][n 1]

Conflation with Leviathan and Rahab[edit]

In Jewish mythology, Tannin is sometimes conflated with the related sea monsters Leviathan and Rahab.[16] Along with Rahab, "Tannin" was a name applied to ancient Egypt after the Exodus to Canaan.[27] Joseph Eddy Fontenrose noted that "cetus" was a counterpart of Tiamat-based Medusa, and was modelled after Yam and Mot and Leviathan.[5]

Jonah's "great fish"[edit]

In Jonah 2:1 (1:17 in English translation), the Hebrew text reads dag gadol (דג גדול), which literally means "great fish". The Septuagint translates this phrase into Greek as mega kētos (μέγα κῆτος). This was at the start of more widespread depiction of real whales in Greece and kētos would cover proven whales, sharks and the old meaning of curious sea monsters. Jerome later translated this phrase as piscis grandis in his Latin Vulgate. However, he translated the Greek word kētos as cetus in Gospel of Matthew 12:40. The English opts for the former: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."[28]

In other cultures[edit]

Art historian John Boardman conjectured that images of the kētos in Central Asia influenced depictions of the Chinese Dragon and Indian makara. They suggest that after contact with Silk Road images of a kētos, the Chinese dragon appeared more reptilian and shifted head-shape;[29] the Pig dragon with the head of a boar[30] compared to the reptilian head of modern dragons that of a camel.

Ships and sailing[edit]

Cetus or megakētēs (μεγακήτης) is commonly used as a ship's name[31] or figurehead denoting a ship unafraid of the sea or a ruthless pirate ship to be feared. Cetea were widely viewed as misfortune or bad omen by sailors widely influenced by the Mediterranean traditions such as the bringer of a great storm or general harbinger. Lore and tales associated it with lost cargo and being swept off course, even pirates being allied with such creatures so as to become taboo aboard vessels.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ This passage in Isaiah directly parallels another from the earlier Baal Cycle. The Hebrew passage describing the tannin takes the place of a Ugaritic one describing "the encircler"[25] or "the mighty one with seven heads" (šlyṭ d.šbʿt rašm).[26] In both the Ugaritic and Hebrew texts, it is debatable whether three figures are being described or whether the others are epithets of Lotan or Leviathan.


  1. ^ Sheldon-Williams, I. P., ed. (1981), Johannis Scotti Erivgenae Periphyseon (De Divisione Naturae) Liber Tertius, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae Volume XI, L. Bieler., p. 305
  2. ^ Sheldon-Williams, I. P., ed. (1847), The Theory and Practice of Latin Grammar, L. Bieler., R. Groombridge & Sons, p. 22
  3. ^ "κῆτος" in Liddell, Henry and Robert Scott. 19406. A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised by H.S. Jones and R. McKenzie.. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  4. ^ John K. Papadopoulos, Deborah Ruscillo, 2002, A Ketos in Early Athens: An Archaeology of Whales and Sea Monsters in the Greek World, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 106, No. 2 (Apr., 2002), Archaeological Institute of America
  5. ^ a b c d Joseph Eddy Fontenrose, 1974, Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins, pp.289-294, Biblo and Tannen Publishers
  6. ^ Daniel Ogden, 2013, Drakon: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds,Drakon: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, Fights with Kētē, Sea-Serpents, pp.116-147, Oxford University Press
  7. ^ Sharon Khalifa-Gueta, 2018, The Evolution of the Western Dragon (PDF), pp.265-290, Athens Journal of Mediterranean Studies, Volume 4, Issue 4, Center for European and Mediterranean Affairs, Athens Institute for Education and Research
  8. ^ Boardman, John (2015). The Greeks in Asia. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0500252130.
  9. ^ Perseus: Apollodorus 2.4.3. Heracles: Homer Iliad 21.441, Apollodorus 2.5.9.
  10. ^ Leveson Venables-Vernon-Harcourt, 1838, The doctrine of the Deluge; vindicating the scriptural account from the doubts cast upon it, Vol.1, p.385
  11. ^ Nancy Thomson de Grummond, 2006, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend, The Journey to the Afterlife, p.212, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
  12. ^ One of the Etruscan dodecapolis, in northern Etruria.
  13. ^ a b Gen. 1:21.
  14. ^ Exod. 7:9–10:12.
  15. ^ Deut. 32:33.
  16. ^ a b Heider, George C. (1999), "Tannîn", Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, pp. 835–836
  17. ^ Ps. 74:13, 91:13, 148:7, and possibly 44:20.[16]
  18. ^ Job 7:12.
  19. ^ Ezek. 29:3 & 32:2.
  20. ^ Isa. 27:1 & 51:9.
  21. ^ Jer. 51:34.
  22. ^ Gen. 1:21 (KJV).
  23. ^ Isa. 27:1.
  24. ^ Isa. 27:1 (KJV).
  25. ^ Barker, William D. (2014), "Litan in Ugarit", Isaiah's Kingship Polemic: An Exegetical Study in Isaiah 24–27, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 152, ISBN 978-3-16-153347-1
  26. ^ Uehlinger, C. (1999), "Leviathan", Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed., Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p. 512
  27. ^ Heider (1999) "Tannîn", p. 836
  28. ^ Matthew 12:40 (NIV)
  29. ^ Boardman, John (2015). The Greeks in Asia. Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0500252130.
  30. ^ National Gallery of Art, "Jade coiled dragon, Hongshan Culture (c. 4700–2920 B.C.)" Archived 2007-03-13 at the Wayback Machine, Washington, D.C., Retrieved on 09-10-2021.
  31. ^ The Kosmos Society, 2019, The Idealized Ship | Part 2: Huge, hollow and swallowing, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University
  32. ^ National Museum of Korea, 2007, Black Tortoise and Serpent, the Guardian Deity of the North

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