Geryon – The Triple Headed Giant

Geryon was the grandson of the gorgon Medusa. His father, Chrysaor, was born from blood as Perseus separated Medusa’s head from her body, and the children she conceived by her rapist Poseidon sprung free from the gaping wound in her neck.

And when Perseus cut off her head,
there sprang forth great Chrysaor and the horse Pegasus
who is so called because he was born near the springs (pegae) of Ocean; and that other, because he held a golden blade (aor) in his hands.

Hesiod- Theogony, 281-285

Chrysaor’s consort was, Callirrhoe, daughter of Oceanus, the primal titan god of the fresh waters that circles the earth, and Tethys- the titan who represented the font from which the fresh waters which nourish the earth flow. From their union sprang the Oceanaids, of which Callirrhoe was one, three thousand daughters who looked after all the sources of fresh water on earth – from the rain laden clouds in the heavens all the way down to the subterranean springs that bubble up from below the earth.

But Chrysaor was joined in love to Callirrhoe,
the daughter of glorious Ocean, and begot three-headed Geryones.

Hesiod – Theogony, 288-289

Geryon was born a mortal man – but unlike any other. Described as a giant, Geryon was unique in his form, a triplicate man joined at a single waist with three heads and torso’s stemming above and six legs growing out below. Geryon was renowned for his fierceness and he was considered who was considered the strongest mortals alive, especially given the fact his six armed form could hold three shields and three swords in battle.

This island was inhabited by Geryon, son of Chrysaor by Callirrhoe, daughter of Ocean. He had the body of three men grown together and joined in one at the waist, but parted in three from the flanks and thighs.

Apollodorus, Library, 2.5.10
Amphora showing the Contest of Heracles and Geryon via British Museum (Museum number 1836,0224.103)

The most popular legend containing Geryon is found within the myth of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. In this epic cycle Hercules tenth assigned “impossible” task was to steal the red cattle of Geryon, the fiercest man alive. The location of the cattle of Geryon also presented a challenge as they were found on the remote island of Erytheia. This island was located at the very most western edge of the ocean, a land named for its red tinge believed to be caused by its proximity to the rays of the setting sun each evening as it sunk below the world. The mythic island of Erytheia was also the location of the sacred apple grove of Hera – The garden of the Hesperides.

Geryons distinctive cattle had red coats, stained by the sunset each evening. These precious beast were not only owned by the fearsome Geryon, but were also closely guarded by Eurytion, the son of Ares, and his canine companion Orthros, a double headed dog, and brother to the triple headed hound Cerebus who guarded the gates of the underworld. The two guardians were no match for Hercules who quickly dispatched them both and herded the cattle towards his boat. Another cattle herd, Menoites, who tended the cattle of Hades upon the same island saw the confrontation and warned Geryon of the theft. As Geryon confronted Hercules, the hero fired arrows tipped with the poisonous venom of the Hydra, which hit Geryon in one of his heads, and ended his mortal life. His poor cattle not faring much better as they were driven across the lands by Hercules, and eventually to the court of Eurystheus where they were sacrificed to Hera.

While for the Greeks the story of Geryon ended there, he resurfaced again in the 14th Century in Dante’s inferno as one of the many occupants of Purgatory. Here Geryon was turned into a monstrous mythical creature, now more manticore than man:

The face was as the face of a just man,
Its semblance outwardly was so benign,
And of a serpent all the trunk beside.

Two paws it had, hairy unto the armpits;
The back, and breast, and both the sides it had
Depicted o’er with nooses and with shields.

With colours more, groundwork or broidery
Never in cloth did Tartars make nor Turks,
Nor were such tissues by Arachne laid.

Virgil- Inferno XVII

This interpretation may have conflated the figure of Geryon with the hound Orthros who was sometimes depicted with a serpent tail as below. Either way- Geryon can now be found as the mascot for the realm of Fraudsters, his benign and welcoming face hiding the stinging tail he trails behind.

Orthros detail from a red-figure kylix by Euphronios, 550–500 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen
Dante and Virgil ride on the back of Geryon.Illustration by Gustave Doré from Dante’s Inferno


Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. English Translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Craigie edition. Boston ; New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

Hesiod. Hesiod the Homeric Hymns and Homerica. English Translation by Hugh G Evelyn-White. Harvard University Press 19141977.

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