Gods, heroes and monsters abound in mythology, but many Greek animals play an important role in many legends as well.
Hundreds of animals are mentioned by Greek writers, and many more were portrayed by artists. Some types of creatures, however, appeared more than others.
Greek animals could have many functions in mythology. They had symbolic significance, served the gods, and sometimes allowed those same gods to take on a new form.
Cattle appear often in Greek mythology, often as legendary creatures. Several famous herds of cattle appear in Greek myths.
The cattle of Geryon were owned by the great giant and guarded by the three-headed dog Orthrus. Stealing them was one of the tasks of Heracles, likely inspired by ancient cattle raids.
Stealing the cattle of Helios came at a price, however. When the crew of Odysseus’s ship stole some of the prized cattle of the sun god they showed that raiding cattle was a serious crime; all but Odysseus himself were killed when their ship was sunk in retaliation.
Individual bulls appear most often in the legends that involve the island of Crete. Home to the earlier Minoan culture, these stories are likely based on a bull god from their pre-Greek religion.
Zeus, for example, took the form of a white bull when he abducted the Phoenician princess Europa. He took her to Crete where she became the mother of its legendary king, Minos.
When Minos took the throne, he received a similar bull as a sign of approval from Poseidon. The Cretan Bull turned into a curse, however, when he failed to sacrifice it back to the god as he had been commanded to do.
The Cretan Bull rampaged across the island, causing untold destruction. To add further insult, Poseidon caused Minos’s wife to fall in love with the beast and seduce it in a wooden cow.
The result of this unnatural affair was the most monstrous bull in Greek mythology, the Minotaur. With the head of a bull and a human body, the hybrid cannibal terrorized the island for years before it was killed by Theseus.
The Minotaur is believed by some to be evidence for why so many bulls feature in the mythology of Crete. In addition to surviving artwork showing bulls in what may be religious rituals, the Minotaur may be an interpretation of masked priests of a bull cult.
Cows are less common than bulls in Greek mythology, but at least one famous woman was transformed into one. Io, one of Zeus’s mistresses, was turned into a cow to hide her from Hera.
The unfortunate woman remained in bovine form for many years, fleeing from both Hera’s torments and Zeus’s pursuit. She eventually relented in Egypt and bore Zeus’s children who became the ancestors of Egyptian and African rulers.
Most historians believe that Io was not related to the other cattle myths of ancient Greece. Instead, her story was likely based on the Egyptian mother goddess Hathor, who was often shown with the head or horns of a cow.
Like many cultures, the Greeks considered serpents to be beings of the Underworld.
Snakes lived below the earth, which meant that they physically traveled between the land of the dead and the surface. They also entered a deep hibernation in the winter that made it seem as though they returned from the dead in the spring.
Venomous snakes were also known throughout the Mediterannean. Their deadly venom inspired many mythical monsters.
The gods and heroes often battled large serpents. One of the most famous was Python, the giant snake that had to be killed by Apollo so he could control Delphi.
Giant snakes were also said to be native to Libya, born according to one source from drops of Medusa’s blood. These snakes were so tough that their skins were used as shields by the Amazon warrior women.
Sometimes these snakes took on more monstrous qualities. The legend of the Hydra, for example, grew into a multi-headed serpent whose heads regrew as quickly as they were cut off.
The association between snakes and death can also be seen in how many monsters in Greek mythology were not entirely serpentine but had some features of a snake.
Sometimes, however, snakes served the gods.
When Hera wished to kill Heracles as an infant, for example, she sent two snakes to attack him and his twin brother in their crib.
The enormous serpents that killed Laocoon and his sons in Troy were sent by Athena. Snakes were, in fact, often associated with Athena and often lined her robes or shield in art.
Creatures in Greek mythology that are often called dragons in English translations were also large snake-like creatures. Many of these guarded important treasures like the apples of the Hesperides and the golden fleece.
Like snakes, dogs were often associated with the Underworld in Greek mythology. Their roles in human life also made them watchful guardians.
The most famous guardian dog of Greek mythology was also a creature of the Underworld. Cerberus was the three-headed dog that belonged to Hades.
The final labor of Heracles was to descend to the realm of the dead and bring Cerberus out of it. Hades agreed, provided that his watchdog was not harmed in the process.
Interestingly, Cerberus does not appear to have been portrayed entirely as a brutal monster. Some myths highlighted his care in watching over the dead and loyalty to his master.
Cerberus also had a brother who was another monstrous dog. Like him, Orthrus had three heads so he could always watch over the cattle of Geryon.
Because they were associated with the Underworld, dogs were another creature that often formed part of the bodies of terrible monsters. Typhon and Scylla were both said to have snapping dog heads around their wastes.
Some dogs in Greek mythology, however, represent the companionship and loyalty thought of by modern readers.
Artemis was never far from her hunting dogs, which were said to be the best in the world. She was so concerned for them that, according to one source, she requested a retinue of nymphs specifically to care for and watch the remaining animals when she took some of them hunting.
The most famous companion dog in Greek legends, however, was Argos. The faithful dog of Odysseus, he was unwaveringly loyal to his master.
According to the Odyssey, Argos was once renowned for his speed and agility. When Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca, however, he finds the ancient dog lying neglected on a pile of rubbish.
Even though no one else in the kingdom initially recognizes him, Argos knows who Odysseus is. He lifts his head as much as he can manage and wags his tail when he sees him.
Odysseus, however, cannot pet his dog without giving away his identity and endangering his plan to retake Ithaca. He is forced to walk by his beloved pet, although he cries slightly as he does.
The loyal dog died after seeing his master’s return.
Boars were often sent by the gods in Greek mythology, typically as a punishment.
In real life, wild boards were one of the most dangerous Greek animals. Their large tusks, study bodies, and territorial nature made them notoriously destructive and difficult to hunt.
One of the most famous pigs in Greek mythology was the Calydonian Boar, sent by Artemis to punish the people of Calydon for neglecting her sacrifices.
Fittingly for an animal sent by a goddess, a woman was credited with killing the beast. Among the many heroes of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, Atalanta was usually said to have shot the first arrow that struck the creature.
Some said that the Calydonian Boar was the offspring of another famous pig in Greek mythology, the Crommyonian Sow. Killing this destructive animal was one of the first heroic accomplishments of Theseus.
Heracles also fought against an unusually strong boar. Capturing the Erymanthian Boar was the fourth of the hero’s Twelve Labors.
Most people said that the Erymanthian Boar had also been sent by Artemis, who often used Greek animals to destroy the lands and threaten the lives of those who angered her.
Some of the most numerous and famous Greek animals were the horses.
Many legendary creatures were part horse. The hippocampi, for example, were literal seahorses that were often shown with the tails of fish.
They came about, in part, because Poseidon was always closely linked to horses. Horses were symbols of water in many ancient cultures, and the Greeks believed that he had either created or tamed the first horses.
Poseidon was also known to take the form of a horse himself. For this reason, many of his children were legendary horses.
Pegasus, for example, was the famous winged horse. The immortal horse Arion was born after Poseidon transformed himself into a horse to catch his sister, Demeter, who had taken the form of a mare to escape him.
The stables of Olympus were said to be filled with immortal horses, many of which were children of Poseidon.
Eos and Helios both owned impressive teams of horses to pull their chariots in the sky. Ares had horses that breathed fire.
Great heroes were sometimes given legendary horses to help them in war. Hector, Achilles, and the Dioscuri all had teams of horses that were lent from the great Olympian stables.
Sometimes, gods themselves were seen as equine.
The Anemoi, the gods of the winds, were sometimes pictured as galloping horses. Boreas, Eurus, Notos, and Zephyr created wind in this form and were sometimes shown pulling the great chariot of Zeus.
Like Poseidon, this meant that they also sometimes had children who took an equine form. Achilles’s horses, for example, were the sons of Boreas.
The most terrible horses in Greek mythology were the mares of Diomedes that had grown ferocious because of a constant diet of human flesh. Heracles tamed them as his eighth labor and fed their barbaric owner to the herd.
Many Greek animals appear repeatedly in mythology.
Cattle are often featured in stories that involve theft. The cattle of Geryon, Helios, and Apollo likely reflect the prevalence of cattle raids in ancient cultures.
They were also associated with the island of Crete, possibly because a Minoan bull cult had once thrived there. Zeus abducted Europa in the form of a bull, the Cretan Bull ravaged the island, and the Minotaur had a bovine head.
Serpents were often seen as agents of the Underworld in Greece, as they were in many parts of the world. Many monstrous snakes appear in mythology and many hybrid monsters have serpentine features.
Some snakes served the gods, however. While deadly, their connection to the Underworld also made them creatures with great knowledge.
Dogs were also associated with the Underworld, often as guardians. Cerberus and Orthrus were both three-headed dogs who served this function.
Some dogs in Greek legends, however, were more similar to the animals we keep as pets today. Argos, Odysseus’s dog, is seen as an enduring example of the love and loyalty between a man and his dog.
Boars in mythology, like their real-world counterparts, were dangerous and destructive creatures. They were often sent by the gods to punish the people of a region.
Many horses appeared in mythology. They were associated with Poseidon, who sometimes took the form of a horse himself.
Many of the horses of Olympus were offspring of Poseidon, including Pegasus and Arion. These belonged to various gods and heroes and sometimes included the wind gods in equine form.
The many Greek animals of mythology served different purposes. Most, however, could be read as symbols of broader themes in the story and the world of Greek mythology.