Monstrous Love: Phorcys and Ceto

Some of the most monstrous creatures of the Greek pantheon were born out of the love between two primordial sea deities, Phorcys and Ceto.

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Phorcys and Ceto were the son and daughter of Gaia (the personification of the Earth) and her own fatherless son, Pontus (who was an early personification of the sea). Confused yet? Yes, there were only 4 people in three generations of this family tree, so suffice it to say by the time Phorcys and Ceto started inbreeding there is no surprise that Ceto was birthing misshapen horrors.

p & c
A VERY simplified family tree

Phorcys was a pre-Olympian ocean god, whom Homer called “the lord of the barren brine”. He was a inhabitant of the ocean and was thus depicted as one; in the mosaic below you can see his merman shaped form with a fishy tail, and an upper body covered in a hard red spiky shell reminiscent of the many crustacean species lurking at the bottom of the seas.

Late Roman mosaic from the Trajan Baths of Acholla, showing 3 aquatic deities: Phorcys (middle) and Ceto (right), and Triton or Thaumas (left, but maybe a more obscure sea-god). Bardo National Museum, Tunis.

Phorcys and his sister wife bore many children, all of them monsters, earning Ceto the title of “mother of sea-monsters”, and putting all the large aquatic species under her domain. So, what monsters did this unholy marriage breed?

First came the Phorcides (also known as the Graeae); these three sisters were born old women at birth and were named Enyo (Alarm), Pephredo (Horror), and Deino (Dread). These elderly sisters had a single eye and a single tooth which they shared between them, detaching and passing them back and forth as needed.

Perseus and the Graeae by Edward Burne-Jones

Then came the terrible Gorgon sisters, another trio of monsters. With wild serpentine hair and a face that could turn a man to stone, these sisters were feared throughout the Mediterranean world. The most notable sister was the legendary Medusa.

Medusa, by Caravaggio

Next came Echidna, half woman – half snake. Echidna birthed her own share of monsters including  the Chimera, Cerberus, the Hydra, and the Sphinx with her consort Typhon, the giant winged storm god who had a hundred serpent-heads for fingers, and two serpentine legs.

Hesiod described Echidna as follows:  “the divine and haughty Echidna, and half of her is a Nymphe with a fair face and eyes glancing, but the other half is a monstrous serpent, terrible, enormous and squirming and voracious, there in earth’s secret places. For there she has her cave on the underside of a hollow rock, far from the immortal gods, and far from all mortals”.

Echidna. Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio 1555, Parco Dei Mostri (Monster Park), Lazio, Italy.

Another of their children was Ladon, the fearsome Dragon who was tasked with guarding the golden apples of the Hesperides. Ladon was eventually defeated by Heracles as he completed his 11th labor in a series of nearly impossible tasks.

Heracles and Ladon, Roman relief plate, late era.

The monstrous Scylla is also sometimes considered one of Phorcys’ and Ceto’s children. While her parentage differs between accounts, and given that she started as a normal nymph who was later cursed by Circe with her dog-headed loins, I too would question if this was a later addition once she assumed her monstrous form.

Scylla as a maiden with a kētos tail and dog heads sprouting from her body. Detail from a red-figure bell-crater in the Louvre

Regardless, Phorcys and Ceto brought into the world a swathe of monsters, their legacy continuing as Echidna assumed the mantle of “Mother of Monsters” and birthed her own horrors into the world.

So, the next time you get near the water, beware:

The progeny of Phorcys and Ceto lurk in the deep,

Banished, but not forgotten

And they remain, always


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