Few stories provide as much raw fantasy material as Homer’s Odyssey. This epic tale alone reinvented the way we saw terror and evil, from dragons to giants to succubi.
But what makes the monsters of The Odyssey so incredible is that they are bizarre and backwards in a unique way. Our later understandings of these villainous beasts are usually spawned by Christian values; monsters are horned, winged, many-headed, or nocturnal based on the part of Hell from which they originate. But with The Odyssey, we’re dealing with monsters who have never seen a cross, whose devil is more of a bitter warden of a nuanced underworld.
Let’s take a look at the monsters of The Odyssey and discuss how they rule, and why.
Sure, Polyphemus, the cyclops, is just a giant with one eye–nothing that crazy. But what makes him especially horrific is that he’s the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. This man-eating brute isn’t evil in the way we understand it, he’s just deformed and savage. His ugliness is somehow a symptom of being the child of the ocean god. Gotta love a mythological tradition where the gods are vicious, rapacious, and protective of the monsters they birth.
In many versions of The Odyssey, the sirens are half-bird or half-fish, but in others their simply beautiful women. So why are they monsters? The answer is, because they exist to kill. The whole MO of a siren is to use its beauty and its melodious song to lure sailors into the water so that they either drown or get dashed against the rocks on which they rest. Circe also describes them as being surrounded by heaps of their victims’ corpses, which is pretty dark no matter what they look like.
As far as witch-goddesses go, Circe is one of the best. She isn’t some cackling hag over a cauldron, she’s a sex enchantress who uses drugs to make predators her slaves and turns men into pigs. When she encounters a man who isn’t victim to her powers, her response is to spend a year sleeping with him. Circe embodies what makes the ancient Greek gods and demigods scary–their humanity. No supernatural being is as frightening as one with all the petty cares and lusts of a human being.
In some ways, Scylla is much like the Hydra, a many-headed predecessor to the traditional dragon. But she also used to be a beautiful nymph, who was transformed into a hideous sea-beast by Circe. She dwells in a specific straight alongside Charybdis, feeding on passing sailors; in this way, she is a simple but powerful enemy.
In most modern versions of the story, Charybdis is portrayed as a giant toothed mouth, much like the Sarlacc from Star Wars. But in The Odyssey, it’s much scarier–you just don’t know. All you see is a whirlpool, a giant hole being opened in the sea that tries to suck down whatever sea-farers cross its path. What does Charybdis look like beneath those waves? No one will ever know.
BONUS: The Goatish Goatherd
Though not a monster, Melanthius the goatish goatherd is truly a horror of The Odyssey. While Odysseus is crossing the world, Melanthius is feeding his best goats to the suitors trying to bed Odysseus’ wife. So what does Odysseus do when he gets home? Strings the dude up, chops off his nose and ears, pulls off his genitals–PULLS, not cuts, they make the pulling very clear–feeds them to dogs, and then chops off his hands and feet. Jason Voorhees is a bitch.