Classical Mythology: The Fairy Tale World: Giants, Ogres, and Monsters

The Fairy Tale World: Giants, Ogres, and Monsters

Unfortunately, not all of the immortals and primordial creatures were as benevolent as the gods and goddesses of Olympus (though they, too, had their moods) nor as benign as the nymphs and other nature spirits. The world of classical mythology also featured forces of destruction, chaos, and barbarism that opposed the order and civilization represented by the Olympians. Giants and monsters tore up landscapes, devoured humans, and bedeviled the immortals. If not properly called evil, these bugaboos nonetheless wreaked havoc on the world and threatened the peaceful reign of the gods.

Big Trouble on Olympus: The War with the Giants

In defeating the Titans after 10 years of war, the Olympians vanquished a formidable opponent. But even with the Titans locked away in darkest Tartarus, the Olympians still faced another challenger to their power to rule the universe: the mighty race of Giants.

The Giants, you'll recall, were bred from the blood shed from Uranus's manhood (or godhood) when Cronus castrated his father. This blood spattered on the womb of Gaia, who then gave forth the Furies (Erinyes), the meliae (ash nymphs), and the Giants (see Tales of the Titanic).

The Giants, whom some storytellers described as having legs that ended in the tails of snakes or the scales of dragons, settled near Phlegra in Thrace. Although the spawn of gods, they didn't enjoy the power of the Olympians. So, egged on by their Mother Earth, the Giants rose up against the Olympians.

That Gaia would turn on the Olympians—including her beloved grandson Zeus, whom she had nurtured as an infant—should not come as too much of a surprise. Twice before Gaia had aroused the spirit of rebellion against the ruling powers: urging Cronus to castrate her husband Uranus, and then supporting Zeus in overthrowing her son Cronus. After helping to oust her husband and son, why not attempt to overthrow her grandson as well?

What a Life!

To ensure their victory—or some say, to give the Giants immortality—Gaia attempted to find a magic herb. But Zeus, who knew of her plans, enlisted the help of Eos, Helius, and Selene to thwart them. Zeus forbade the dawn to rise nor the sun or moon to shine, leaving the world in utter darkness until he himself had found the magic herb.

The Giants started the war by hurling boulders and flaming oak trees at the sky.

Led by Zeus, the Olympians fought valiantly against the superior strength of the massive Giants. But the gods learned from an oracle that they could not win this war without the aid of a mortal. So Zeus sent Athena to enlist his son by the mortal Alcmene: Heracles (see The Labors of Heracles).

Heracles immediately helped turn the tide in favor of the Olympians. He first attacked the Giant Alcyoneus, who could not be killed on his own soil. Heracles shot an arrow that should have delivered a fatal wound, but the Giant staggered back to his feet. So heeding Athena's advice, Heracles carried him across the border into a neighboring land, where Alcyoneus soon died.

The Giant Porphyrion then attacked both Heracles and Hera. But Zeus distracted Porphyrion from battle, using his wife as a decoy and inflaming the Giant with lust for her. Porphyrion tore off Hera's robe and attempted to ravish her, but before he could violate her a shaft from Heracles' bow and a bolt from Zeus's hand struck him simultaneously, killing him.

After these two champions—the strongest of the Giants—fell, the Olympians seemed certain to prevail. Nearly all the Olympians contributed to the victory:


The thyrsus was a wand entwined with live grape leaves or ivy (symbols of fertility) with a pine cone at one end. Dionysian revelers often carried them during their ecstatic rites.

  • Apollo shot Ephialtes in the left eye just as an arrow from Heracles' bow pierced the Giant's right eye.
  • Hephaestus hurled red-hot metal at Mimas, killing the Giant (though some say Ares defeated Mimas in battle).
  • Athena, the goddess of war, killed two Giants. She threw the island of Sicily on top of Enceladus, who had been trying to retreat. And after slaying Pallas, Athena tore the Giant's skin off and used it as a shield.
  • Hecate destroyed Clytius with her torches.
  • Poseidon chased Polybotes across the Aegean Sea to the island of Cos, where he threw part of the island on top of him.
  • Hermes “borrowed” the cap of darkness from Hades and, rendered invisible, stole up on the Giant Hippolytus and killed him.
  • Artemis the archer shot Gration.
  • Dionysus killed Eurytus by beating him with his thyrsus.
  • Even the Fates took part, using bronze clubs to beat the Giant brothers Agrius and Thoas to death.

Zeus destroyed all the rest with his thunderbolts, with Heracles supplying the death blows that killed all of the Giants as they lay dying. In this way, the Olympians prevailed and maintained their rule over the universe.

The Mother of All Monsters!

Perhaps to avenge the defeat of the Giants, Gaia soon lay down with Tartarus, begetting the most frightening monster of all Greek mythology: Typhon (sometimes called Typhoeus). The youngest yet largest of all her sons, Typhon shot flames from the eyes of one hundred serpentine heads that spoke in the voices of both men and animals. His legs were tireless and his arms were mighty.

Typhon wanted to overthrow the gods. If not for Zeus, he might have done just that, for even the gods fled from the sight of this horrifying creature. Following the advice of Pan, the Olympians transformed themselves into various animals and fled to Egypt. Hermes, for instance, turned himself into an ibis (a long-legged wading bird), while Aphrodite assumed the form of a fish. This left Zeus alone to oppose the monstrous Typhon—and some storytellers claim that even the mightiest of the gods took the form of a ram and hid himself away for some time.

Zeus and Typhon engaged in fierce combat. Their series of battles produced quakes so violent that they frightened Hades, Cronus, and the other Titans now deep below the earth. The keen-eyed Zeus began by hurling a thunderbolt that echoed throughout heaven and hell, causing the earth, sea, and sky all to tremble. The thunderbolts of Zeus weakened the monster, burning each of his hundred heads. Seizing the advantage, Zeus descended to Earth to engage Typhon in hand-to-hand combat.

But Typhon did not fall easily. The monster seized Zeus's sickle from his hand and cut out the sinews from both of the god's hands and feet. Unable to walk or to fight, Zeus was helpless. Typhon carried the Olympian to Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor and held him captive in a cave. The monster hid the sinews under a bearskin and ordered the dragon Delphyne to guard them. But the crafty pair of Hermes and Pan managed to steal the sinews back.

After Hermes and Pan restored Zeus to health, the god returned to Olympus. There Zeus outfitted himself with more thunderbolts and, harnessing winged horses to draw his chariot, set out in pursuit of Typhon. The monster threw mountains at his pursuer, but Zeus used his thunderbolts to deflect them right back at Typhon.

After several more bloody battles, Typhon fled across the sea to Sicily. There Zeus threw Mount Etna on top of the monster, trapping him under its weight. To this day, the volcanic mountain still spits out flames from Typhon's breath (or perhaps his eyes). Or maybe the eruptions are lingering blasts from Zeus's thunderbolts. Some say that Zeus instead cast the vanquished monster down to Tartarus, where he became the source of all the deadly winds that rage over the seas, tossing ships and claiming sailors' lives.

Having defeated both the Giants and Typhon, the Olympians could now rest on their laurels. The mightiest and the most monstrous had failed to wrest power away from them, and never again would they face such formidable challengers for the throne of heaven. The reign of the Olympians was secure for all time.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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