A woman whose hair was composed of snakes, and whose glare could turn you to stone. A three headed dog. A man with the head of a bull. A creature with the head of a lion, snake, goat, and the tail of a snake. A woman’s torso on the tail, wings and torso of a bird. These are a few of the monsters that the ancient Greeks have handed down to us. They were a fearsome lot—ever hunted and clashing with the heroes of old. The Greeks had a flair for punishment too: imagine being chained to a rock while an eagle eats your liver, and this happens every day, forever. This legacy has endured and we can find traces of these legends in everything from Frankenstein to the Harry Potter series, so who better than the Greeks to teach us how to create a monster?
Society functions on order. That order may differ between contexts, but we are guided by patterns of behavior that help us define and set expectations within our social experiences. Something as simple as saying good morning or holding the door open for the person behind you or staying to the right on the staircase or wearing a sports jersey at a sporting event helps set the parameters for interaction. We know we should probable return that good morning—if not just as a courtesy but because on another level it helps us identify people who are similar to us. They may be engaged in similar activities, such as getting morning coffee or sitting down to a shared meeting. They are like us. Hearing “good morning” when it’s actually nighttime or in another context where it’s not appropriate can trigger a sense of caution. Behaviors can exist outside of their assigned category without causing alarm—for example, you could wear your favorite team’s jersey on any day of the week—but in certain situations it can trigger the sense that something is wrong or reinforce what is right. If someone were to be seen running up the left side of the stairwell against the flow of traffic it could mean that they’re in a rush or they have an emergency. (Or that they’re a jerk.) It’s not that it can’t be done, but it signifies something is wrong.
Grecian monsters tend to break from the norms of society. They highlight deviations in the social code as well as traits that are marginalized. To this end Homer’s Odyssey can act as a monster-making manual. Odysseus’ recounting of his travels to his Phaeacian hosts is riddled with meetings and events that horrify not so much through the actors, who are sometimes barely described, but by their behaviors.
Odysseus holds the obligations of host and home in high regard, which is reflective of social understanding of how you should treat visitors. Inviting them to your table is one component—Game of Throne’s Red Wedding is a prominent breach of this social contract—but the verbal and hospitality extended to the guests are also significant. In the case of the Phaeacians offering a bath, entertainment, wine and other guests were prominent requirements for a host. His monsters resonate with his audience because they greatly break with and ignore these expectations. For example, when Odysseus meets the Laestrygonians (a race of giants), one of his traveling party is eaten. Yes, eaten. Of course the Phaeacians are horrified: you do not eat your guests. Odysseus relays that the Cyclops are brutish, uncivilized beasts. They lack laws, live in caverns, and have no agricultural leanings (i.e., they have not developed the land). They are the antithesis to the civilized, lawful Odysseus and the Phaeacians. It is the work of Othering but is there anything more frightening to us than the unfamiliar? We might recognize a need for inclusion today, but there are multiple current examples that highlight the other as a present-day frightening entity.
Odysseus also meets two characters who blur expectations: Scylla and Charybdis. The latter is a whirlpool; she is never fully described and is fully consumed by her ferocity. The Phaeacians—and Odysseus—were seafarers for whom a natural water feature like Charybdis would have been a real threat. Yet it is magnified with a name, gender, and a behavior—she is said to eat the ships. Scylla is allegedly a rocky outcrop where ships could run aground. Of the two she is considerably nuanced. This natural feature is also magnified with a full personality and physical description: she has twelve feet, and six necks and with heads housing three rows of fangs. She also barks. Scylla thus becomes a mash-up of a guard dog. (Why it needs to be a female dog isn’t a question I can answer, but many of the more terrible Grecian monsters were female.) Scylla amplifies the distortion that can happen when two separate characters are melded into one. The traits that are otherwise ordinary—barking, defending a territory against strangers—break with the socially ascribed norm to be become horrifying. Scylla is a terrifying hostess who drives people from her cavernous home instead of welcoming them, and does so by deploying the defense mechanism of a dog’s territoriality.
To make a monster, you have to know your audience: what do they expect can tell you what can be distorted. This is the lesson that the Greeks handed down to us. It is one of the reasons that Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger have become classic archetypes of the genre. They each in turn represent a departure from social acceptance. Myers and Voorhees are a critique on teen sexuality, and both also represent the perversion of a child’s death. In Myer’s case, this is figurative. He deals with the loss of innocence. But for Voorhees, death is very real and very much the result of the failure of the adults around him to protect him. This failure makes a monster. One theory concerning Krueger is that he highlights social unacceptability of paedophilia—he is a monster as a human, so he becomes one in death.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus holds his audience rapt. Monsters are fascinating because they help us see ourselves. They validate our expectations. They reinforce our larger understanding of the world. Monsters reflect a break with social norms because through the ages, one constant in our relationship to the unknown is that not knowing what to expect is probably the scariest thing of all.
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Doty, Ralph (2003). “How Myths Come About: The Case of Echidna.” The Classical Outlook, 80(3): 108-110.
Moignard, E (1998). "How to Make a Monster." Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 71(Supplement): 209-217.
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