Blog Post #35: Researching Monstrosity in Greek Literature with Fiona Mitchell

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.

1. What brought you to write about ancient myth and monsters?

I think I picked up an interest in myths, and the fantastical characters in them, at quite a young age. My family are from Ireland but I grew up in London and so, when I was little, my extended family sent me books and tapes about Irish myths so I wouldn’t miss out on them. Then, when I took Classical Studies at school and university, it was the mythological texts that I found most compelling. I think it has to do with the way the magical and supernatural elements of the narratives make them so vivid. This is particularly true of the monsters in these texts: their strange and excessive bodies stick in my mind much more than the rest of the stories. I was lucky to have supervisors during my MA and PhD who supported my interest in researching monstrosity. I know of other people who were dissuaded from doing so because it wasn’t thought of as a sufficiently serious area for study.

2. What is your favourite monster to read or write about?

That’s a very difficult question. It depends so much on what I’m working on at any particular time. The winged snakes or the gold-digging ants in Herodotus are always fun to look at and they allow us to think about Greek attitudes to particular locations and what expectations we have of ancient texts we consider “history”. Phanes, a god in the Orphic theogonies, is interesting because he has so many hybrid components (male and female elements, alongside multiple animal parts) but he is not presented as an opponent to another god, instead he is a creator god who produces much of our world. I also love teaching a course on Medusa. Her relationship with vision is fascinating: she is depicted in so many pieces of art, but looking at her should petrify you. So she is presented as an object to view, but one that threatens you if you do.

Photograph of a painted terracotta pot. It is a close-up of one side of the pot, where figures painted in black are running. A winged Gorgon with profile legs and arms but frontal face and torso runs after a man with profile face, legs, and head, but frontal torso. Both are wearing tunics and winged sandals. There is decorative black-painted ornaments above and below.
Figure 1: Dinos by the Gorgon Painter showing the Gorgon pursuing Perseus, from Etruria, ca. 580 BCE, currently in the Louvre (Public Domain)

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

A huge question! Hybridity is a very important feature of monstrosity in ancient Greek texts. There are some animal/animal hybrids, and many human/animal ones. So we see a lot of images and texts that are exploring the boundaries between us and animals. Quite a few of these hybrids are female and associated with some sort of threatening sexuality (either their own or that of the gods), such as the Sirens, Scylla, Medusa, etc. These abnormal bodies are used to explore the danger of desire and female bodies. We also frequently see people with strange bodies at the edges of the world (in both mythological and apparently factual texts) such as people with one giant foot, or dog heads. These groups embody an extreme version of the differences we recognize between our own and foreign cultures because their strange bodies are generally tied to some strange cultural practices around food, language, or clothing. So they highlight the identity of the society that produced them: by marking out what is abnormal, they demonstrate what is normal.

Close-up image of a Greek painted pot called a stamnos. The image shows a black background with figures in the colour of reddish-orange clay. There is a bot with a mast and the sails rolled up. Four rowers sit in the boat facing to the right. Another man sits at the helm facing left with his right arm stretched out. There is a man tied to the mast looking up. To the right of the boat is a high cliff jutting out with a bird-woman, with a woman's head and lower body of a bird (a harpy), standing on top. Another harpy is diving off the cliff. To the left is another cliff with a third harpy standing on top of it with wings outstretched. The boat has an eye pained on the stern.
Figure 2: Attic red-figured stamnos, from Vulci, ca. 480-470 BCE, Inv. GR 1843.11-3.31 (Public Domain)

“These abnormal bodies are used to explore the danger of desire and female bodies.”

Fiona Mitchell

4. Why do you think ancient monsters are so fascinating for audiences today?

Part of this has to do with the fact that we always seem to need monsters. We consistently create them because they allow us to think about who we are (and who we aren’t), and they give us somewhere to place our fears. Sometimes we borrow them because their associations are relevant to the story we want to tell. For example, we might use the Sirens because we want to tell a story about the threat of some sort of seduction. At other times we create them from scratch. But part of the reason we keep using Greek and Roman monsters is because of how we value the literary tradition from those cultures above many others. I don’t think as many of us would know about the Cyclopes or the Sirens if the Odyssey didn’t have the cultural status currently attached to it.

A drawing on yellow parchment paper: a bird of prey is standing facing to the left, with a small winged snake in its mouth. Another winged snake is lying on the ground behind the bird, presumably dead. The bird has a long straight beak and strong talons. The picture is unpainted.
Figure 3: Drawing of flying snakes from “Münster’s Sights and Views” (Public Domain)

Further Resources:

Mayor, Adrienne. “Flying Snakes in Ancient Egypt?” Wonders and Marvels.

Mitchell, Fiona. 2021. Monsters in Greek Literature Aberrant Bodies in Ancient Greek Cosmogony, Ethnography, and Biology. London: Routledge.

Wilk, Steven. 2007. Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fiona Mitchell is a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham. She undertook her PhD at the University of Bristol on monsters in Greek texts. Her work focuses on ancient conceptions of the body, creation narratives, and ancient scientific ideas. She recently published a book entitled Monsters in Greek Literature: Aberrant Bodies in Ancient Greek Cosmogony, Ethnography and Biology. You can find her on Twitter: @_FMitchell_. You can find out more about her research and teaching at https://fionamitchell.hcommons.org/.

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