According to myth there was a Trojan king called Laomedon who angered Apollo and Poseidon by not paying them for helping build the walls of Troy. For those of you familiar with Greek myth this was never going to end well, failing to pay mortal builders might see problems, if they are deities prepare for it on a grand scale.
Apollo sent a plague and Poseidon sent something else, a sea monster. An oracle said that the only counter for this godly wrath was for the king to send his daughter, Hesione (a sister of Priam) to the monster to be devoured. Being the conscientious type the king duly obliged. Families eh?
Hesione was saved from the monster by Heracles and the scene features above; Heracles on the left with his famous bow, the white-skinned princess in the middle and the monster on the right.
Corinthian black-figure krater dating to between 560 and 540 B.C
It’s to the monster that we turn – it doesn’t look very ‘monsteriffic’. Compare it to an alternative depiction of the scene a couple of decades later.
Obviously there is no template for depictions in Greek art, even the accepted ‘norms’ for men and gods are really only rough guides, but the point remains that the first depiction was really something unusual from the standard depiction of a monster. For example: where is the body? Artists relished utilising monsters to present their technical skills, particularly Heracles who had a number of wonderful subjects the artist could display his abilities through. In the first figure it seems that all Heracles fights is a skull of some sort and that’s the interesting part.
For many scholars the monster is a dinosaur skull, Adrienne Mayor one of its strongest backers goes further and, in her book The First Fossil Hunters, even identifies the animal it might have been, an extinct giraffe called Samotherium.
A samotherium skull - very similar to the skull in the first vase
It’s somewhat naïve to think that the modern period was the only time in which fossils were discovered. The ancient Greeks and other civilisations must have encountered them. Upon finding them these large pieces would have nourished or given rise to certain myths. Polyphemus and his cyclopean brothers were more than likely born from the discovery of the skulls of a type of dwarf elephant as Abel concluded back in 1914. Looking at the skull it’s easy to see where the idea of the single eye came from.
a dwarf elephant skull
Finally, it’s not just single monsters that could owe their origin to fossils. A thigh bone of a woolly mammoth was discovered by residents of Nichoria (a Mycenean settlement eventually swallowed up by Pylos). It was found in a site littered with large fossils some 35 miles away and kept in the Nichorian Acropolis as a thing of wonder. Bones like this (especially found amongst others of similar size) would have easily been construed as some sort of battlefield remnants. Given the scrapings between Titans and Gods perhaps this was seen as proof of one such battle? Mayor thinks so and I’m inclined to agree.