Blog Post #34: Monsters and Myths with Adrienne Mayor

In October, Peopling the Past brings you interviews and reflections from scholars whose work investigates monsters and demons in the ancient world, examining their meaning and symbolism and their deeper connections to human experiences past and present.

What brought you to write about ancient myth and monsters?

I am drawn to ancient legends about bizarre creatures because I suspect that some details in the descriptions could contain kernels of scientific reality, especially if the myth or legend refers to physical evidence in nature. Looking at literary accounts and related artworks about monsters and other mythic unknown animals, with the understanding that genuine natural observation and knowledge can be embedded in mythic language and imagery, sometimes it’s possible to tease out threads that have a basis in scientific or historical fact.

Terracotta figure of a griffin-like figure.
Figure 1: Terracotta figure that once adorned a wooden sarcophagus from Taranto, Italy, ca. 325 BCE, photo by Dosseman (inv. 15.439, Allard Pierson Museum) (CC-BY-SA 4.0)
What is your favourite monster to read or write about?

Defining “monster” as a hybrid or composite creature, it is intriguing to ponder whether the fabulous gold-guarding Griffins, an animal with four legs like a mammal but a beak like an eagle – as described by Herodotus, Aeschylus, Pliny, and Aelian and as depicted in Greek art of the same time frame – were influenced by ancient observations or hearsay about beaked dinosaur fossils encountered on the way to prospect for gold in Central Asia. Also intriguing to me is the way people in antiquity attempted to explain enormous fossilized bones and teeth that came to light all around the Mediterranean lands. The frightening scale of the remarkable remains led to stories of giants and monsters.

Currently, I’m investigating another weird creature described by Herodotus: the flying snakes of the Arabian desert. My speculations on the winged serpents’ true identity will be revealed in my forthcoming book, “Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws”, coming out in Spring 2022.

For some spine-chilling reading about monsters for this Halloween season, I highly recommend “Monsters and Monarchs: Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History” by Debbie Felton.**

What kinds of ideas, fears, or relationships to animals/nature do you think are behind the creation of monsters in ancient myth?

People in antiquity were fascinated by puzzling physical evidence in their natural landscape, such as petrified bones of gigantic creatures, which seemed to confirm ancient myths about terrible giants and fearsome monsters and ferocious larger-than-life predators. People of ancient times were also concerned with psychological questions of human evil and conceived of mythic ogres who preyed on ordinary folk—and of course, there were real historical monstrous humans in antiquity too, and their awesome powers became legendary tales of fear and warning.

Sculptural frieze of the battle between the gods and the giants. Here, a goddess is striking down a snaked-legged giant.
Figure 2: Sculpture from the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin: Battle Between the Gods and Giants by Wolfgang Sauber (CC-A-SA 3.0)
Why do you think ancient monsters are so fascinating for audiences today?

People today are fascinated by the same things — both real and imaginary—that terrified people of antiquity. Telling tales of fearsome monsters is thrilling and perhaps humans need to face fear to maintain not only physical survival instincts but also psychological resilience.

**For an interview with Debbie Felton on serial killers from our 2020 Halloween series click here.

Further Reading

Felton, D. 2021. Monsters and Monarchs: Serial Killers in Classical Myth and History. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mayor, A. 2018. Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mayor, A. 2014. The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mayor A. 2011. The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Online Resources

An Interview with Adrienne Mayor, Society For Classical Studies Blog

Did Amazons Really Exist? Ted Ed Animation

Late Corinthian Krater in Boston MFA

Black and white headshot of Adrienne Mayor
Adrienne Mayor

Adrienne Mayor is a historian of ancient science and warfare, and a classical folklorist who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions. Mayor’s most recent book is Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (2018). The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014), was awarded the Sarasvati Prize for Women in Mythology 2016. Her biography of Mithradates VI of Pontus, The Poison King, was a finalist for the National Book Award 2009 and won top honors for Biography, Independent Publishers’ Awards 2010. Her research looks at ancient “folk science” precursors, alternatives, and parallels to modern scientific methods. Mayor’s two books on pre-Darwinian fossil traditions in classical antiquity and in Native America opened a new field within the emerging discipline of Geomythology, and her book on the origins of biological weapons uncovered the ancient roots of biochemical warfare. She is a Research Scholar in the Department of Classics at Stanford University and also in Stanford’s History and Philosophy of Science Program. Her next book, Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws, will come out in 2022.

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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