In the beginning, according to the ancient Greeks, there was Chaos, the original formless void. For some reason, usually glossed over, Chaos gave birth to, or at least gave rise to Gaia (Earth goddess) and later on down the track, Tartarus (god of the Underworld). Among other bedroom flings, Gaia hopped into bed with Tartarus. This produced Typhon, alternative spellings being Typhaon or Typhoeus, her youngest and largest son, who being the offspring of a goddess and a god was, of course, also a god.
Later on down the track the Olympian gods and goddesses, headed by Zeus, would rule the roost. But to get to the top of the mountain, they had to step rather hard on Gaia’s toes. Gaia and Zeus weren’t normally the best of buddies.
Gaia would of course, out of revenge for toe stepping, have desired some sort of adversary for Zeus, since Zeus, etc. defeated her Titans (the Titanomachy – the ‘War of the Titans’), a band of original gods near and dear to her heart, being among the products of her bedroom fling with her son, Uranus. Gaia was also pissed because her Gigantes or Giants were defeated later on in the Gigantomachy – the ‘War between the Gods and the Giants’. That latter dispute between Zeus, the gods of Olympus, assisted by others like Hercules, pretty much finished off all those motley offspring associated with Gaia and various bed-partners – except for that final mother of all battles featuring her Typhon.
Before we get to that battle, there is an alternate version (hardly ever cited and thus has a minority following) regarding Typhon’s origin, and that is Hera (Mrs. Zeus) have birth to Typhon via parthenogenesis out of her fury at Zeus’s ever ongoing adultery. No doubt Hera wanted Typhon to beat some sense into her wayward hubby. Hera is often considered the Olympian manifestation of Gaia.
Now when you think of the Greek pantheon of deities, you think of anatomical perfection – the ideal male body (like Apollo); the ideal female body (like Aphrodite). Typhon, alas, while a god, was a rather enormous and hideous monster. He had 100 snake-heads for starters attached to his shoulders, all with fiery eyes, and a black or at least dark tongue (I assume 100 of them), and these 100 snake-heads could emit and emulate various voices that overall roared like thunder. He also had another 100 snake-heads instead of fingers. Oh, and a snake’s tail or a whole mass of coiled serpents from the thighs down. Actually his entire lower torso was akin to a viper. And he had wings as well which covered his body. His real head atop breathed out smoke and fire and Typhon was said to be taller than the tallest mountain. Now that’s a monster!
Now Typhon had but one goal and that was to become master of the Universe, or at least the third rock from the Sun. One hero and one hero alone stood in his way – the mighty Zeus, King of the Olympian gods, faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap – oh sorry, different character.
Well, sooner or later High Noon comes around and innocent bystanders had better get off the street. In fact, when Typhon first rode into town, the townsfolk – those Olympian deities – left town in a hurry that’s how terrified they were. In fact they skedaddled off to Egypt as well as shape-shifting themselves into animal forms so as not to be recognized. That’s why the ancient Egyptians worship so many gods with animal heads and often bodies. Apollo became a raven, hawk or crow; Hera a white cow or oxen; Hephaestus morphed into an oxen; Aphrodite turned into a fish; ditto Ares; Artemis shape-shifted into a cat; Dionysus a goat or buck; Hermes an ibis; Leto (a Titan deity) a mouse; even Zeus originally turned around and hightailed it out of Dodge in the form of a ram. That’s quite interesting since Typhon is also identified with the Egyptian deity of Set, or Seth, who murdered his brother Osiris.
Briefly, Seth (or Set) was an evil god of chaos and violence. Seth murdered his brother Osiris in a power struggle, ultimately dismembering him and tossing all the bits and pieces in the Nile. The wife and sister of Osiris, Isis (therefore also a sister of Seth), along with help from Anubis and Nephtys (Seth’s wife and sister), was able to put Humpty-Osiris-Dumpty back together again, minus his private parts which had been eaten by a fish. Osiris and Isis had previously a son, Horus, who finally defeated Seth and became among the top dogs in the Egyptian pantheon. The resurrected Osiris (originally a god of vegetation) descended to the Egyptian underworld, becoming its Lord and Master, so he wasn’t out of a job. Okay, back to the version of the battle between Zeus and Typhon.
Now the battle royal lasts a long time – it’s not a five minute quickie shootout. And of course it’s a mighty battle, one worthy of the gods. Think earthquakes and all manner of catastrophes. In fact think of all the natural disaster films produced and roll them all into one epic disaster scenario and you get the idea. It’s a barroom brawl that’s a hundred of orders of magnitude greater than any filmed in Hollywood.
Now it has to be stated at the outset that unlike Hollywood one-on-one shootouts in the street, the Greek gods are immortal. They can be hurt, trapped, etc. but not killed. So this isn’t a battle to the death, rather a fight where one wins by incapacitating or imprisoning the other.
Now there are two versions of how the battle of Zeus vs. Typhon came out in favor of Zeus (since obviously Typhon isn’t currently the master of the third rock from the Sun). It all starts out with Typhon throwing not only temper tantrums but entire mountains around, including many in the general direction of Zeus, destroying entire cities, property and no doubt at the cost of lots of lives. However, I imagine it’s hard to pitch mountains for strikes what with snake-heads for fingers!
Version one, to cut to the interesting bit, has Typhon eventually coming head-to-head with Zeus and tearing out Zeus’s sinews from his limbs leaving Zeus quite helpless, and just to ensure that helpless state continued, he hid Zeus’s sinews and had them guarded by a dragon called Delphyne. Fortunately, the Olympic god Hermes (assisted in some versions by Pan) is crafty and able to nick them back and perform some quick-smart surgery on Zeus and reattach the missing sinews – practicing medicine without a license but no complaints from Zeus on that account. Before you can say ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ Zeus has recovered and is back in the fight. No mucking about now as Zeus wins by flinging thunderbolt after thunderbolt after thunderbolt at Typhon (no close infighting this), and before Typhon can recover from the onslaught, Zeus picks up an entire island off the coast of Italy and drops it on top of Typhon, trapping him forever. Oh, the island in question is known as Sicily, and since Typhon still lives beneath, and still vents his fury and breaths out his hot, poisonous fiery breath, well it should come as no surprise that he lays trapped beneath Mount Etna.
Zeus also had some assistance from the trio of the Fates, the three goddesses of destiny, who tricked Typhon into partaking of some magical fruit that would slightly weaken his mighty strength. The trick was that the Fates told the exact opposite to Typhon, who thought the eatables, would further increase his powers. You just can’t trust women to tell the truth!
As an aside, Typhon wasn’t the only monster subdued and buried under Mount Etna however in order to account for that volcano. Athena did the same to Enceladus, one of the Gigantes, as a result of the Gigantomachia (the battle between the Olympian gods and the giants). The Gigantes were offspring of Gaia, fertilized by the blood/semen of her son and lover Uranus who was ultimately castrated by Cronus (a son of Gaia and Uranus back when he had his private parts intact).
While on the mythology of Mount Etna, it would be remiss not to mention explanation three. The bad-tempered god of fire, Hephaestus (Vulcan to the Romans), along with his blacksmith colleagues, the original trio of Cyclopes, are said to have an underground forge – you guessed it, underneath Mount Etna! Now back to Zeus and Typhon.
Version two of the battle is straight forward in that eventually Zeus just picks up and casts down Typhon into Tartarus (the place named after his daddy), which is that dark corner of Hades reserved for really bad mommas and poppas and monsters. There’s no escape from Tartarus, but Typhon the prisoner still vents his fury and huffs and puffs and puffs and huffs.
Now that huffing and puffing is what credits Typhon as the source of all the irregular but deadly winds that rage over the seven seas, tossing and sinking ships, downing sailors, etc. That’s where we get our word ‘typhoon’ – named after Typhon.
Now before Typhon bit the dust, he fathered several interesting characters via the serpent Echidna, the real ‘Mother of all Monsters’. Echidna was Typhon’s sister, a half-woman, half-serpent, nearly as big and bad as her brother was.
One offspring was the Nemean Lion, whose skin was impervious to weapons and invulnerable to the arrows of Hercules (son of Zeus and a mortal woman, therefore a demigod) who was given the ‘Mission: Impossible’ task to rid the world of it. It was eventually slain by Hercules as his first of twelve labors – Hercules choked it to death. Hercules thereafter wore the lion’s skin, one way of recognizing him in images, say on pottery. Now some versions have the lion’s parentage as a union between the Chimera (see below) and Orthrus (see below) however, which makes slightly more sense since the Chimera was part lion.
The Lernaean Hydra or Hydra of Lerna (a multi-headed monster) was slain by Hercules, with a bit of help from his nephew Iolaus (also one of the Argonauts), after discovering that the key to victory was to cauterize the wound after a head was lopped off, otherwise that one head lopped off, if the stump were untreated, would grow back into two more heads. Dispatching the Hydra was Hercules’s second labor.
Orthrus was a two-headed dog, sibling to Cerberus (see below), watchdog of Geryon (a three-bodied giant) and Geryon’s red cattle out on Erytheia (Red Island or Red Land) somewhere beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Hercules tenth labor was to become a cattle rustler and so he had to overcome Orthrus and Geryon. Is there any doubt as to the outcome?
Ladon the serpent-like dragon guarded the golden apples of Hesperides. Hercules, yet again, overcomes a monstrous guardian since in his eleventh labor he had to nick off with those golden apples and Ladon was in the way.
Another of Typhon’s offspring was the eagle that eternally pecked out and fed on Prometheus’s liver, a punishment meted out by Zeus since Prometheus disobeyed King Zeus and gave humanity the gift of fire. Fortunately for Prometheus, Hercules shot down the eagle as an aside while performing his eleventh labor and rescued Prometheus from being chained to a rock.
Cerberus was the brother of Orthus (above), who went one doggy-head better for a trio of heads. Cerberus was the watchdog guarding the entrance of Hades in order to make sure that while you could enter, it was a one-way turnstile – you don’t exit again and Cerberus was the key. Of course that didn’t stop some of our mythological heroes, albeit few in number. Hercules, as his final and twelfth labor, had to kidnap Cerberus. Once having proved he could do it, he returned the pooch to his proper place and home.
Then there was the Chimera, a monstrous fire-breathing tri-hybrid with the head and body of a lion, but also attached was a goat’s head but centered in the middle of the back and a snake for a tail. The Chimera was eventually shot and killed by Bellerophon, out of harms way while riding atop of the flying winged horse Pegasus.
The Sphinx (no doubt the Greek version with feminine head, wings and bust) is infamous for her riddle, which if answered incorrectly by passersby who wanted entrance to the Greek city of Thebes, guarded by the Sphinx, provided the Sphinx with her next meal. Fortunately, Oedipus answered the riddle correctly, and the Sphinx fell on her own sword – jumped off a cliff actually. Splat! Some versions omit Typhone as daddy, substituting Orthrus (see above).
Phaia (‘Grey One’) was the ferocious wild sow wreaking havoc around the village of Crommyon. The Crommyonian Sow (as it tends to be called) was ultimately slain by Theseus.
Typhon and Echidna obviously enjoyed many a roll in the hay! Pity all good things have to come to an end, and so it came to pass. Echidna apparently was dispatched by Hera’s servant, the all-seeing, multi-eyed primordial giant Argus, which I find strange since Echidna, as a goddess, should have been immortal too. In any event, Argus was in turn dispatched by Hermes, on orders from Zeus, as Argus was guarding Io, one of Zeus’s many extramarital lovers. For faithful service, the eyes of Argus were incorporated into Hera’s symbol – the peacock.
Now much of the confusion, uncertainty, variations, even contradictions to the tales of Greek mythology can be attributed to the unfortunate fact that relatively little of ancient Greek literature has survived, and what has are often just fragments or snippets. Sometimes the versions we have are retellings of retellings, many times removed from the no longer existing original. Fortunately, much of the mythology has been captured and can be reconstructed via the multi-thousands of pottery images on vases, amphora, plates, etc., as well as statues, paintings, mosaics and murals that have survived.
Finally, Hollywood should really film this Zeus vs. Typhon epic. The special effects would be amazing!