Misshapen by Misconception

There are several things that cause monsters. The first is the

glory of God. The second, his wrath. 

–– Ambroise Paré, On Monsters and Marvels

Even though it was not unknown to ancient Greeks and Romans that a disabled child is often born from parents with a similar disability,[1] their understanding of heredity and genetics was still obviously very primitive. It was generally believed that the birth of a strong and healthy infant was dependent upon the goodwill of the gods, and therefore the birth of a disabled one testified to the gods’ hostility. One of the easiest ways to explain such an occurrence was to point an accusatory finger – at the child, the parents, or the gods, or all at once. According to our modern popular culture myths about antiquity, the child in question was usually exposed by its parents. However, although exposure evidently was practised by some and is discussed in a number of texts in both Greek and Latin, our modern myths about the killing of disabled babies and the horrible treatment of congenitally disabled adults are certainly exaggerated. Most non-Classicists addressing this topic turn to the myth of Oedipus, conflating his lameness and his exposure and concluding that ‘deformed’ children were routinely killed. Even published works about the treatment of new-borns with visible physical variations offer surprisingly little in-depth analysis of the surviving historical evidence and primarily address mythological material.[2] So far, however, a very detailed account of the practice of exposure in Ancient Greece has been made by Martha L. Rose, and by Cynthia Patterson, who shows that the decision about rearing or not rearing a disabled baby was not based solely on physical appearance. Robert Garland also discusses exposure in both Greece and Rome, concluding that not all ‘deformed’ infants would be killed.[3]


These accounts offer a socio-historical perspective on the matter. But the focus of this chapter is the basis of the modern myths about the treatment of the congenitally disabled in antiquity – that is, ancient myth and literature. In Greek mythology one encounters a variety of characters whose appearance at birth differs significantly from the average. The connection between ‘monstrosity’ and morality mentioned earlier is especially evident in the origin myths of half-human, half-animal ‘monsters’, whose looks are often ascribed to the ‘sinfulness’ of their conception and birth.




In the mythological imagination, a human-animal hybrid was often the product of a union between a mortal man or woman and an animal. The most famous of such myths is the story of Pasiphae, the wife of the Cretan king Minos, who desired a bull. Desperate to achieve a union with the subject of her passion, the queen sought help from the famous Athenian craftsman Daedalus, who constructed for her a life-like cow inside which she would hide and be taken out to pasture where the bull was grazing. Pasiphae’s conquest was successful, and she gave birth to the Minotaur, commonly represented as having a human body and the head of a bull,[4] who was hidden away in the depths of the labyrinth “like disturbing anatomical peculiarities in the real world”, as Garland puts it,[5] until his death at the hands of Theseus. 


This story is widely known and has influenced a great number of artists and thinkers. The common interpretation of the myth is allegoric, like in Picasso’s series of drawings, in which the man-bull (or should one say bull-man?) is the artist’s alter-ego that incarnates wild masculinity.[6] But it was hardly the original purpose of the story to create a means of artistic self-expression. It is, of course, practically impossible to judge what the myth ‘originally’ meant, since the myth is not entirely Greek but Minoan in its origin. The religion of ancient Crete is significantly less documented than that of Greece, and Minoan mythology has mainly been passed down to us via its Greek and Roman interpretations, which were in disagreement already in antiquity. For instance, the mythical bull, Minotaur’s father, is associated with Poseidon by some authors[7] and with Zeus by others,[8] reflecting what is likely to be the original realm of the Minoan bull-deity (the sea) and his importance in the pantheon (equal to Zeus) respectively. This chapter is not going to analyse the way the Cretan original was recycled in the Greek imagination. Instead, it focuses on how the myth as we know it fits into the moral frame of Greek polytheism and how it is associated with disability.

‘Lacking the elaborate mechanisms of, say,

the Christian Church for enforcing their will,

both Greek and Roman polytheism were more

modestly equipped to elicit submission and

subservience from either the devout or the


Indeed, instead of producing a set of concrete rules and establishing firm criteria of sinfulness, the Greek and Roman religions developed mythological stories that, among other functions, served as stern warnings against amoral behaviour. As will be shown further in this chapter, there is an evident pattern to the origin myths of human-animal hybrids. First, the birth of such ‘monsters’ is influenced indirectly by the sins of their parents or even grandparents who have angered the gods in a way that is not related to marriage and conception. Second, the birth of a half-animal child is often represented as the consequence of adultery or perversion.


Both of these influences are clearly present in and form the core of the Minotaur myth. First, the gods are hostile to both his ‘parents’. Minos, competing for the throne with his brothers, had asked Poseidon for a sign to confirm his right to rule. The sea god sent him a snow-white bull that Minos would later have to sacrifice, thus ‘returning’ it to the god, but the king decided it was too fine to be killed and substituted it with another, provoking the god’s wrath.[10] As for Pasiphae, there is a tendency among the descendants of Helios, her father, to fall for ‘wrong’ males and commit acts of horrible sin because of them,[11] which in modern scholarship has sometimes been explained as Aphrodite’s revenge on the daughters of the god who betrayed her affair with Ares to her husband, Hephaestus.[12] Whether it was the wrath of Poseidon or Aphrodite, or both, it lead to Pasiphae’s perverse adultery with the white bull, which on its own was considered enough to produce a monster.


The myth thus reflects two overlapping causes of ‘monstrous’ births. Warning against adultery and ‘the commingling of worlds which properly should remain distinct’[13] is the common purpose of many other myths about the birth of half-human hybrids, some of which notably do not deal with bestiality.


One of such myths considers the birth of centaurs. Generally depicted as creatures having the head, arms and torso of a human attached to the headless and neckless body of a horse, they are represented in Greek myth as wild, savage and uncivilised by their very nature. Their origin is surprisingly similar to that of the Minotaur, involving the rage of the gods, an affair, and possibly bestiality.


Like in the case of the Minotaur, however, it must be noted that the birth-myth emerged later than other stories about them and had a specific agenda that has little to do with the origin of the centaur in the mythological imagination of the Greeks. Some scholars have even suggested that the centaurs’ possession of too many limbs for either a human or a horse is ‘almost un-Greek’,[14] and they are indeed not Greek but Indian in their origin and should be identified with the Indic Gandharvas, wild mountain goblins who can assume animal form.[15] It is more plausible, however, that the convergence of man and horse is due to a miscomprehension or misrepresentation of a mounted horse-rider first encountered by the Greeks, who had not yet learned to ride on horseback;[16] or that the centaurs were originally a wild and uncivilised but indeed human race. The Greeks believed they could turn into animals, and the half-horse images show them mid-transformation.[17] This latter theory is supported by the fact that the earliest texts to mention centaurs, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the Homeric Hymns, do not seem to regard them as having a composite form at all.[18] Therefore the negative narratives of the centaurs’ birth could only have emerged significantly later, along with other similar stories this chapter describes, as warnings against sin and infidelity. Although it is impossible to date these origin myths precisely, their moral message is quite obviously that of the polis-based polytheism.


According to the version preserved by Tzetzes,[19] the centaurs’ father was Ixion, a Thessalian king, who desired Hera. To hinder him from achieving this desire and to have an excuse to punish him, Zeus transformed Nephele, a cloud nymph, into a likeness of Hera. Nephele was then seduced by Ixion and gave birth to either centaurs themselves, or a boy, named Centaurus. In the Centaurus version, he later fathered the centaurs by mating with Thessalian mares. It is clear what these two stories attempt to do. The latter (and later) one makes an attempt to find the most logical explanation of the dual nature of the centaurs by giving them a human and an animal parent, while also serving as a stern warning against bestiality. But the earlier version, although it seems less ‘logical’ today, would make as much sense to an ancient Greek, explaining the ‘monstrous birth’ through the sinful behaviour of the parents. Other tales of the centaurs’ birth follow a very similar pattern.[20] This type of story is repeated in other myths of human-animal hybrids as commentators attempt to create a warning against sin and adultery.



The most bizarre and moralistic story of this kind was told about the birth of Pan, the goat-legged shepherd god.


His parentage has always been unclear – Roscher finds eighteen various combinations of parents.[21] This is because, like in the case of the Minotaur, Pan’s cult emerged in a somewhat un-Greek culture. His principal place of worship was in Arcadia, in the Peloponnesian highlands – a region that was always distinct from the rest of Greece. Herodotus, although he does not go so far as to call them a different race, notes that the Arcadians are the ‘aboriginal’ people of Greece.[22] Their cult of Pan was unfamiliar to other Greeks, who made attempts at integrating him into the pantheon by association with similar deities like Hermes or Dionysus, consequently distorting what was probably the ‘original’ story.


One of the more informed commentators, Nonnus, states that Pan’s mother was one Penelope of Mantineia (a city in ancient Arcadia), who had him with Dionysus,[23] – a very slight distortion of what was probably the original myth of a human woman being impregnated by the harvest god to give birth to the patron of shepherds. This Penelope, however, easily got confused with the most famous Penelope of Greek myth – the wife of Odysseus. From this confusion emerged the ever-so-fitting myth of infidelity resulting in the birth of a monster. Herodotus and Apollodorus both tell the story of Penelope cheating on her husband with Hermes, giving birth to goat-legged Pan, and being subsequently banished to Arcadia, thus becoming ‘Penelope of Mantinea’.[24] Other ancient Greek sources, for obvious reasons accepted later by Christian commentators, record that Penelope had slept with all one hundred and eight suitors and gave birth to the beast-like Pan as a result.[25] Thus this story, too, attributes the birth of a bizarre-looking child to the anger of the gods with the sins of its parents.




But one must be careful not to immediately see this pattern, repeated in all the myths discussed, as a reflection of reality. Although the birth of a child whose appearance differs significantly from the average was likely to be seen as a manifestation of the ill-will of the gods, there is little evidence to suggest that the parents of such a child would be stigmatised as sinners or treated as social outcasts.[26] Although they would receive little support (moral or financial) from society, there were no laws in either Greece or Rome to enforce the punishment of parents who chose to raise a disabled child. Moreover, as the Minotaur myth shows, the parents of even the most bizarre-looking child, born from an adulterous union, could choose to keep it – although there were times in certain city states when this was prohibited. Unfortunately, no surviving version of the myth deals with Minos’s reaction to Minotaur’s birth and his motivation to rear him. However, what is evident from the myths is that they combine two explanations of unusual children’s births that serve two very different purposes. The ‘consolation’ myth places the responsibility for such an occasion on the gods, and possibly the sins of one’s ancestors, and the ‘warning’ myth urges one against perversion and adultery. One should therefore be extremely cautious of concluding straightaway from such myths that all congenitally disabled babies were regarded as monsters. As can be seen, the real origins of human-animal hybrids in Greek mythology lie centuries (and often miles) apart from their interpretations, and the interpretations often serve a very clear religious purpose.

As has been shown, the ancient Greek myths that deal with the birth of disabled children and ‘monsters’ clearly serve the purpose of warning against sinful behaviour, and most of them were created as attempts by later commentators to explain the position of a particular creature or deity within the Greek religion. Moreover, as Garland points out, although the Greeks did occasionally draw a connection between the birth of a disabled child and a forthcoming catastrophe, it is only very rarely that such births are recorded by historians or mentioned in literature as significant. ‘This indifference on part of the Greeks to the portentous implications of monstrous births (sic) is one of the most noticeable differences between their religious belief-system and that of the Romans.’[36] Indeed, although there is a number of Greek texts referring to ‘interpreters of terata’, the word ‘teras’ could refer to any strange occurrence – from leaping snakes to unusual weather.[37] The Romans, on the other hand, paid special attention to the omens which ‘occur in the conception and birth of men and cattle’[38] and specially recorded them in historical documents.


[1] Rose (2003) 14

[2] for summaries of secondary literature, see Oldenziel (1987) 87-107 and Boswell (1988) 40-41

[3] Garland (1995) 72

[4] This, however, is not the only representation. The word ‘Minotaur’ does not indicate his hybridity, meaning simply ‘the bull of Minos’, and sources from antiquity describe him simply as ‘part bull and part man’ (e.g. Ovid Ars Amatoria 2.24). Thus other, more centaur-like images of the Minotaur have appeared later in art history, particularly in the Renaissance, but also in modern art, such as Picasso’s Minotaur series mentioned earlier.

[5] Garland (1995) 61

[6] Gadon (2003) 21

[7] Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke 3.1.3, Diodorus Siculus Bibliotheca historica 4.77.2

[8] Statius Thebaid v.431

[9] Garland (1995) 59

[10] Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheke 3.1.3; compare to compare Diodorus Siculus 4.77.2 and John Tzetzes, Chiliades i.479ff

[11] Compare to Medea, who was Pasiphae’s niece and killed her brother and later children out of mad passion for Jason; to Ariadne, Pasiphae’s daughter, who also killed her brother to save Theseus, an enemy; Phaedra, another of her daughters, who fell in love with her stepson.

[12] see pp. 18-20

[13] ibid.: 61.

[14] Fox (1964) 270-71.

[15] Dumézil (1929) 253-59.

[16] Nash (1984)

[17] Lawson 1910: 251-52. Harrison (1908: 303) also supports the theory of human origin but states that the convergence with a horse was necessary to the artist to indicate the centaurs’ shagginess and wildness, and there was no belief in the supernatural involved. This and the horse-rider theory are not entirely exclusive: the wild people believed to be able to turn into horses could very well be the horse-riding invaders from the uncivilised north (which would also explain the mythical centaurs’ ferocity).

[18] Il. I.267-268, Od. 21.295-305, Homeric Hymn to Hermes 222–225. Moreover, just like in Minotaur’s case, the name does not indicate their composite nature either: it is usually derived from κεντέω, to pierce or goad, and ταύρος, bull, therefore to be translated as ‘a killer of bulls’ or ‘a bull-herd’, or even ‘cowboy’.

[19] Chiliades 9

[20] see Nash (1984) 273-274.

[21] Roscher (1909) 1379.

[22] Herodotus 8.73; other myths about Pan also suggest that he was worshipped before the Olympians, as he is fabled to be the god who taught Artemis to hunt and gave the gift of prophecy to Apollo.

[23] Dionysiaca 14.92.

[24] Herodotus 2.145, Apollodorus Bibliotheca 7.38

[25] This reflects the folk-etymology of the name Pan as coming from the term ‘all’.

[26] Garland (1995) 16

The Minotaur

The Centaurs


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© 2019 by Alexandra Zhirnova