Challenging Zeus

The monstrous Typhon

Shortly after he had overthrown the Titans, Zeus was challenged by a monstrous creature: Typhon. The offspring of Gaia and Tartaros, Typhon was a monster with reptilian characteristics and the ability to breathe fire.

Josho Brouwers

At the centre of the ancient Greek pantheon stands Zeus, the god of the sky and lightning. He is, as Homer memorably refers to him, “the son of devious-devising Kronos” (Il. 2.205; transl. Lattimore). Kronos was “devious-devising” because he had managed to overthrow his father, Ouranos (Uranus), using a ruse.

Having lured his father into a false sense of security, Kronos had sprung a trap and literally emasculated Ouranos, who cursed his offspring, the Titans. Kronos and his divine siblings established themselves as rulers of the cosmos.

But in Greek mythology, history has a tendency to repeat itself. Kronos, too, was destined to be overthrown by one of his own progeny. His own son, Zeus, would eventually start a war to overthrow Kronos and the other Titans. During the Titanomachy, the “battle against the Titans”, the Titans were defeated and locked away in the depths of Tartaros, the chasm in the Underworld. Zeus and his Olympians were now the rulers of the world.

A challenger appears

However, Zeus’ reign was, at least in its early stages, repeatedly challenged. Among the most serious threats was a creature known as Typhoeus, Typhaon, or – more commonly – Typhon (there is no clear etymological link with the word “typhoon”). According to the poem Theogony, composed by Hesiod and dated to ca. 700 BC (or a little later), Typhon was the offspring of Gaia (Earth) and Tartaros (ll. 821-823; transl. Lattimore):

Then after Zeus had expelled the Titans from heaven prodigious
Earth gave birth to the last of her children, Typhoeus, enduring
Sexual union with Tartarus through the connivance of gold Aphrodite.

Interestingly, the Homeric Hymn to Apollo makes Typhon the child of Hera (ll. 305-355), a version of the tale supposedly also followed by the Archaic poet Stesichorus. I need to digress here a bit to explain. According to the Hymn, Hera gave birth to Typhon without the need for a father. In this, the story parallels the better-known tale of how Hera gave birth on her own to the fire-god Hephaistos. In both instances, Hera considered the children to be imperfect: Hephaistos has a limp and Typhon is a monster – although the Hymn makes clear that Hera birthed the creature specifically to be an affliction on mankind. (Which is strange when you consider the fact that Typhon was intended to challenge Zeus!)

In both instances, the reason that Hera tried to give birth to something on her own was jealousy. Zeus had been foretold that a child he would father with the goddess Metis (“Wisdom”) would cause his downfall in the same way that he had overthrown Kronos. In order to avoid this fate, he swallowed the goddess after making love to her. Later, he had a severe headache, and the goddess Athena sprang forth from his head fully-formed. (In many versions of the tale, it is – confusingly – Hephaistos who splits open Zeus’ head to allow Athena to pop out.)

The monstrous Typhon

Whatever the circumstances of his birth, Typhon was monstrous to behold. In the Theogony, Hesiod describes him as follows (ll. 824-835; transl. Lattimore):

Strong were his hands in defense and in all his endeavours, his feet were
Indefatigable, those of a robust divinity. From his
Shoulders a hundred serpentine heads like a terrible dragon’s
Sprouted with pitchy, flickering tongues; from the eyes underneath the
Brows in their magical heads a malevolent fire corruscated.
From all these heads as he glared all about him a fire was blazing,
And there were voices inside of these terrible heads which projected
Every sort of unspeakable voice, for at one time they uttered
Speech such as gods understand, and at others the sound of a loudly
Bellowing bull in the pride of unbridled ferocity; then once
More he would roar like a lion of impudent courage, then whimper
Puppylike, wondrous to hear, then hiss till the high hills resounded.

Interestingly, Typhon is usually depicted differently in art – at least in those instances where we can clearly identify him because the artist labelled him. In Archaic and Classical vase-paintings, Typhon is usually depicted with the head and torso of a (bearded) man, and with multiple snakes’ tails instead of legs. Giants as well as other creatures are sometimes depicted in a similar way, so that it is often difficult to ascertain whether the creature in question is Typhon or someone/something else.

Hesiod mentions that Typhon mated with Echidna, a female monster. Their offspring consists of various animals, including the guard dog Kerberos (Cerberus), said by Hesiod to have fifty heads but more commonly depicted with just three, as well as the Hydra of Lerna – later defeated by Hercules as part of his Twelve Labours – and possibly also Chimaira (Chimera), another monstrous creature eventually defeated by the hero Bellerophon.

Descriptions of the battle between Typhon and Zeus are limited. Zeus defeated the creature without too much difficulty in single combat by hurling his lightning bolt at him. The other Olympians are sometimes specifically mentioned to have fled to other parts of the world before the battle. In the Theogony, Zeus casts Typhon back into Tartaros, essentially returning the creature from whence he had come. According to Akousilaos (ca 550-500 BC), of whose work only fragments remain, snakes sprang forth from his blood after it had been spilled (2F14).

Finally, the poet Pindar (ca. 518-438 BC) adds a few more details. In one of his odes, he claims that Typhon is kept prisoner under Mount Etna (Olympian 4.6-7). In another (Pythian 8), he is said to lie underneath both Etna and Cumae, with the latter probably intending to reference another volcano, namely the Vesuvius. Since Typhon is said to be able to breathe fire, his presence underneath the volcanoes is no doubt intended to explain why they smoulder and, on occasion, erupt in a fiery display of lava, ash, and smoke.

Typhon in modern media

As a primordial monster, Typhon has been featured in modern media, most notably games. Typhon is the final boss of the original Titan Quest, an ARPG from 2006 that is still under active development. There are references to the myth of Zeus defeating Typhon in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. And Typhon is at the very centre of the game’s plot in Immortals: Fenyx Rising.

Matthew Lloyd adds that Typhon appears in two episode of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) played by Glen Shadix, where he is depicted as a giant and the husband of Echidna, father of many of the monsters slain by Hercules.

Typhon may have been defeated rather swiftly by Zeus according to the original stories, but he appears to be alive and well in the modern age.