Typhon: The Ultimate Enemy of the Gods
If you’ve never heard of Typhon, you’ve probably heard of a word associated with his name. The storm monster is one of the roots of the word “typhoon.”
Like those great storms, he was violent, destructive, and threatening. He came without warning and could destroy everything in his wake.
But the Greeks didn’t just associate him with wind and rain. Typhon was also a being of fire who could lay waste to entire regions with his flames and heat.
With all of these powers, it is no surprise that Typhon was the most fearsome and threatening creature the gods of Olympus ever faced off against.
Typhon was able to drive the gods from their mountaintop stronghold, overpower Zeus, and come very close to destroying the earth.
The fight against Typhon wasn’t a decade-long war like the Titanomachy. In a matter of days he was able to bring Olympus and the world to their knees.
In the end, his greatest weakness came from an unexpected place. A human hero and a trickster god of shepherds were able to give Zeus back his power.
Even after defeat, though, Typhon continued to pose a threat to both the gods and the humans of the Greek world.
So where did Typhon come from and why did he attack Zeus? And what happened to him after he fought for control of Olympus?
Keep reading to learn the answers to every question you have about the greatest monster in Greek mythology!
When Zeus and the Olympians overthrew the Titans, they probably thought they had defeated the worst enemies they would face. Unfortunately for them, their troubles were just beginning.
During the war against the Titans, they had received aid from Gaia. The great mother goddess of the earth had a long history of supporting rebellions.
First, she had convinced her son Chronus to take power from his father, Uranus. Then she had turned on Chronus when Zeus came to challenge him and lent support to her grandchildren.
The reason Gaia was so supportive of these insurrections was, oddly enough, because of her protective, maternal nature.
As the mother of all things, the Titans were not her only offspring. Many of Gaia’s children were much more monstrous than the first generation of gods who ruled them.
Uranus had imprisoned six of her most terrible children, the three Cyclopes and the three Hechatonchieres, far from her sight. The action had so angered her that she had spurred the Titans to rebel.
She gave Chronus the weapon he would use against his father and helped set the trap that would enable the younger god to win. With one of her children on the throne, she thought she could secure freedom for the others.
When Chronus became king, though, he did not free his siblings. He became as obsessed with maintaining his power as his father before him had been.
Gaia’s anger shifted to the new ruler who continued to keep her children imprisoned. She wouldn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to once again support the overthrow of a king.
When Zeus waged war against Chronus and the other Titans, Gaia advised him to free the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchieres to help with the war effort. He took her advice and gained six very powerful allies.
In fact, it was the Cyclopes who gave Zeus his thunderbolts.
The great weapons they forged and their physical strength helped to win the war and give power to the new gods of Olympus.
Zeus, however, sought to punish his enemies. He drove the Titans far into Tartarus and imprisoned them there behind massive gates, with the Hecatonchieres as their guards.
Gaia again had a reason to be furious with the god who ruled as king. Six of her children had been freed, but at the cost of many more being imprisoned in their place.
Again the Olympians found themselves embroiled in a war. The Gigantomachy was the first great test of Zeus’s kingship.
The Olympians emerged victorious once more, killing the majority of the giants while the rest fled into hiding. In addition to the children who were still imprisoned, Gaia now had to mourn the additional children she had lost.
She had one more child she could send against the gods, though.
Typhon had been born from her love of Tartarus, and like most children of the underworld he was a monster that could strike fear into the hearts of even the greatest gods.
Typhon was sometimes confused with the Gigantes or called their leader, but in truth he was a much more powerful and frightening creature than any of the giants.
He was larger than even the greatest of the Gigantes, standing so tall that his head scraped against the clouds. The great wings on his back could stir up winds that destroyed anything in their path.
In place of legs he had two coiled serpents’ tails. Snakes also grew from his one hundred hands in place of fingers and rose from around his shoulders.
The great Typhon had one hundred heads. Only one was that of a man; the others were every type of beast and monster imaginable.
Those hundred heads were constantly hungry, and each only ate whatever animal it resembled.
Fire spewed forth from his many mouths. He had the ability to heat rocks until they glowed red hot so he could throw them at his enemies, each of his one hundred hands tossing fiery missiles in a different direction.
His heads screamed at each other, the discordant cries of a hundred animals echoing out over the entire earth.
Of all Gaia’s children, Typhon was the one who inspired the most fear, and who would prove the most difficult to beat.
The earliest records of the battle between Zeus and Typhus describe an easy victory by the god-king.
On his throne atop Mount Olympus, Zeus had no idea that another great battle was headed his way.
Luckily for the gods, their king realized at the last moment that Typhus was approaching.
Zeus picked up his aegis and thunderbolts and lept down from Olympus, meeting the monster head-on.
The earth shook and seas boiled. The sky lit up with flashes of lightning and the flames of Typhus’s breath.
Despite his wondrous strength, Typhus was no match for Zeus.
The king of the gods struck him with a thunderbolt, causing the great monster to flee as fire consumed him. As he ran, a swathe of the earth was burned to ashes.
Finally, Typhon fell. The fires caused by Zeus’s lightning burns so hot that they melted the stones of the earth around him. Zeus cast the monster into Tartarus, finally securing his throne for good.
A later Roman story, however, tells a much more complicated version of the legend.
According to Nonnus, Zeus had hidden his thunderbolts in a cave. The smoke they produced allowed Typhon to track him, catching the unsuspecting god far away from help on Olympus.
Typhon stole Zeus’s greatest weapons and began his assault on Olympus. Against the great monster and the power of Zeus’s thunderbolts, the gods were forced to flee.
Zeus tried to fight back against Typhus, but without his weapons was overcome. Typhus stole the sinews from Zeus’s legs, rendering the king virtually helpless.
The Olympians had fled their palaces, but the rustic gods and mortals remained. Cadmus, considered the first of the great heroes of ancient Greece, and the woodland god Pan stepped forward with a daring plan to rescue their king and save the universe.
Cadmus disguised himself as a shepherd and played Pan’s flute. Hearing the music, Typhus entrusted the thunderbolts to Gaia while he set out in search of it.
Typhon loved music, so he challenged the shepherd to a contest, the prize being the choice of a goddess as a wife. Cadmus would play the reed pipes, while Typhus fashioned a great bellowing horn from the clouds.
Cadmus responded that his pipes were a poor instrument, and for a real contest he should play the lyre. Sadly, he had no sinews with which to string one.
Typhon had so fully fallen under the spell of Pan’s magical pipes that he immediately fetched the sinews of Zeus so he could hear more.
While the monster was distracted, Zeus was able to crawl to where he had left the thunderbolts and steal them back.
When Cadmus stopped playing Pan’s magical flute, Typhon realized he had been tricked. He ran to where he had hidden the thunderbolts and flew into a rage when he found them gone.
He rampaged around the earth, burning trees and killing most of the animals. Seas and rivers were boiled away and fertile land reduced to dust and sand.
His rampage lasted throughout the night, while Zeus waited and restored his legs. Nike (Victory) visited the god and told him he must stand tall to defend his throne and his people.
When dawn came, Zeus shouted a battle cry that could be heard around the world.
Typhon threw boulders at the king until they formed mountains, but Zeus’s thunderbolts broke them. The monster threw so many trees that entire forests were uprooted, but Zeus deflected them all.
He tried to shoot water at Zeus to neutralize the power of the thunderbolts but was unsuccessful.
As the battle raged, Zeus was able to use shards of frozen air to slice the one hundred hands of Typhon off one by one. More were burned off by lightning, as were many of his heads.
The four winds joined the fight, pelting Tyhon with missiles of frozen hailstones.
Slowly, Zeus wore the great giant down until he fell, burned and frozen.
Zeus mocked the monster and buried him under the hills of Sicily.
With the defeat of Typhon, Zeus secured his throne on Olympus for good. The gods returned and never again faced such a major threat to their rule.
Gaia was done sending her children to assault Olympus. She had lost too many children in her attempts and settled into protecting those that remained instead of risking further death.
Some said that Typhon was thrown into Tartarus. In the deepest pit of the underworld he tortured the wicked.
It was even said that Typhon, who could not win the rule of the universe, became the ruler of the pits of Hades instead.
In Tartarus, he was still able to influence the world of the living. Great storms and strong winds that came out of the gates of the underworld were a legacy of the monster’s power.
Homer and Hesiod claimed that the monster had been buried beneath the legendary land of the Arimoi.
The Arimoi were a mythical race whose lands lay beyond the great expanse of Oceanus. Their lands, probably the location of the gates of Tartarus, were shrouded in mists and darkness.
One of the most popular theories about where Typhon ended up, however, said that he was entombed under Mount Etna.
As Mediterranean Europe’s most active and largest volcano, Mount Etna has been associated with fire and earthquakes since the region was first inhabited. For that reason the mountain, and the island of Sicily where it lies, was a place associated with monsters.
While the volcanic soil made Sicily a fertile and prosperous island, the Greeks were well aware of the potential for its destruction at any time.
He [Typhon] was burnt to ashes and his strength blasted from him by the lightning bolt. And now, a helpless and a sprawling bulk, he lies hard by the narrows of the sea, pressed down beneath the roots of Aitna (Etna); while on the topmost summit Hephaistos (Hephaestus) sits and hammers the molten ore. There, one day, shall burst forth rivers of fire, with savage jaws devouring the level fields of Sikelia (Sicily), land of fair fruit–such boiling rage shall Typhon, although charred by the blazing lightning of Zeus, send spouting forth with hot jets of appalling, fire-breathing surge.
-Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 363 ff (trans. Weir Smyth)
Typhon’s powers were very in keeping with volcanic eruption.
He blew fire from many places at once with such force and intensity that he could melt rocks. The burning boulders he sent flying from his one hundred hands would also be a familiar sight to anyone who had witnessed an eruption.
The story of his battle with Zeus and the large-scale destruction it caused could be a reference to a particularly violent volcanic event from the past. Major eruptions can burn huge swathes of the landscape in a matter of hours and kill everything in their wake, just as Typhus had burned the earth and destroyed animals as he fled from Zeus.
Even the storms that the gods raised can be associated with vulcanism. Clouds of ash and hot, swirling winds can cause as much death and destruction around a volcano as fire.
Although he had long since been defeated and buried, Typhon was still strong enough to cause death and suffering in the world.
Although he had been defeated and imprisoned, Typhus still became the father of many children.
His consort was Echidna, a terrible serpentine woman who lived in a cave at the ends of the earth.
Like their parents, the children of Typhon and Echidna were fierce monsters who created havoc and destruction wherever they went.
This list of Typhon’s children grew over time. As new myths were written and old ones changed, more and more of the legendary enemies of the gods and heroes were considered to be children of Typhon.
- Cerberus – The enormous multi-headed dog became the guardian of the gates of the underworld and featured in many myths. Like his father, he had the ability to breathe fire from each of his heads.
- Orthrus – Another dog with several heads, he watched over the cattle that belonged to the giant Geryon. He was killed by Heracles when the hero was sent to steal one of the cattle.
- The Lernaean Hydra – The many-headed snake was another creature killed by Heracles in his famous twelve labors. Unlike its father and siblings, it had the ability to regenerate its heads when they were removed.
- The Chimera – This fire-breathing beast was part lion and part goat with the tail, and often additional heads, of a snake. It was defeated by Bellerophon with help from Pegasus.
- Ladon – According to some sources, the great dragon who guarded the apples of the Hesperides was one of Typhon’s children.
- The Caucasian Eagle – The giant bird, known for its torture of Prometheus, was considered Typhon’s child in some later writings.
- The Sphynx – This hybrid animal, famous for its riddle, was popular in the mythologies of many cultures. The Greek version of the sphynx was generally seen as the most deadly and dangerous, but its riddle was solved by Oedipus.
- The Namean Lion – Another monster killed by Heracles, its strong hide became one of the hero’s defining symbols.
- The Crommyonian Sow – Slaying this monstrous pig was one of the early adventures of Theseus.
- The Gorgon – A writer in the 1st century BC claimed that Typhon fathered the first Gorgon, before Medusa and her sisters existed. Its head was on Zeus’s aegis.
- The Colchian Dragon – The same writer listed the guardian of the famous Golden Fleece as another child of Typhon and Echidna.
- The Harpies – While they were typically said to be the offspring of Electra, at least one source named their father as Typhon.
- Laocoon’s Serpents – The unnamed water snakes that attacked Laocoon and his sons at the end of the Trojan War were also said to be children of Typhon.
Typhon may have been defeated fairly quickly, but through his children he would continue to torment both gods and men for many ages.
His children carried many of his attributes. Some had many heads, some breathed fire, many were serpentine.
But whatever their forms, one thing they all had in common was their ferocity. Fighting the children of Typhon would test many of the greatest heroes, particularly sons of Zeus, long after their father ceased to be a threat to the gods.
Many of the Greek writers claimed that Zeus and Typhon met in battle outside of Greece, in the region today referred to as the Near East.
The destruction caused by their battle explained the dry landscape and harsh terrain of the area. Places like Syria were familiar to the well-traveled Greeks and these foreign lands were thought to be the home of many of their legendary monsters.
The link between Typhon and the Near East extends beyond the landscape, though. Evidence from the mythologies of Mesopotamia and the surrounding cultures leads historians to believe that the story of Typhon, like many of the Greek myths, has its roots there.
Four of the greatest cultures to rise out of Mesopotamia – Sumer, Babylon, Akkad, and the Hittites – had legends that closely paralleled that of Typhon and his battle with Zeus.
The Sumerians believed that the earth, Ki, grew the serpent monster Asag to challenge the rule of Ninurta. The monster and Ninurta, who was also a storm god, set fire to the landscape before the god-king finally won.
The Akkadians also worshiped Ninurta, but the monster he fought in their story was called Anzu. Anzu was a winged monster who could call up terrible wind storms.
In Babylon, the king of the gods was Marduk. He used his power over storms to fight the chimera-like monster Tiamat.
The Hittites also had a storm-king god who fought a terrible serpent. Like the account of Nonnus, Illyuanka steals body parts from the god to weaken him.
In Greek mythology, Typhon is the end of a great succession myth. Uranus was unseated by Chronus, who in turn fell to Zeus, and Zeus had to repel several threats to his own rule.
In Greece, this cycle only ended when Zeus swallowed Metis, preventing her from ever bearing the son that would someday overthrow him in turn. This cycle of conquest is thought to have its beginnings in the Near East as well.
These similarities point to a common origin for all these myths, which probably passed on through the oral traditions of many regions before being written down by later cultures.
By the time the Greek civilization reached its height, the earlier cultures of Mesopotamia had mostly faded away. One Near Easter power remained, however, that was already an ancient one before Homer and Hesiod ever told their tales.
The Greeks closely identified Typhon with the Egyptian diety Set.
The Egyptians believed that at the founding of their land they had been ruled by a succession of god-kings. Set, the violent god of storms and wind, was the second to last of these divine rulers.
He was challenged and eventually defeated by Horus, which ended the great succession myth of the Egyptians. All their pharaohs claimed divine lineage from Horus.
Set, however, was far from the only Roman god associated with the legend of Typhus.
Later writers, particularly those in the Roman Empire, claimed that the majority of the Olympians had fled to safety when they were surprised by Typhus’s attack on their mountain. Specifically, they fled to Egypt.
The Greeks and Romans didn’t believe that the gods of Egypt were a wholly separate pantheon. They imagined connections between them and the Olympians and often saw the Egyptian deities as different aspects of the ones they were familiar with.
These connections were furthered, in their minds, by the similarities between many of the stories and characters the mythologies shared.
This earliest form of comparative religion helped to create understandings between the cultures, particularly when Egypt and its gods came under the control of Imperial Rome. The Greeks were used to their gods having many epithets and local traditions, so they interpreted much of Egyptian religion as another version of this.
Rome had done something similar. As it conquered Italy, the early Republic incorporated the many gods of the peninsula. All of these they associated with the Greek culture they sought to emulate, leading to the Roman gods often being almost inseparable from their Hellenistic counterparts.
The story of the gods fleeing to Egypt, then, made these connections more valid in the eyes of the Greeks and Romans. When they had gone there they had established their cults and temples which were modified to fit the place they found themselves in.
So Typhon became associated with Set and Zeus was associated with Amun, the ruler of the gods.
Horus, the sun god, was seen as the Egyptian version of Apollo.
These associations were more than just the vivid imaginations of Greek thinkers at work.
Many of the gods and goddesses of both pantheons were based on archetypes that existed throughout Indo-European religions. Similar connections could be made to the gods of the Celts or the Germanic people because of how strongly these archetypes were passed down.
The archetype of a violent, monstrous being fighting the god of the sky for supremacy was one that was common throughout the cultures the Greeks came into contact with.
There may also be a type of family lineage at play.
Historians agree that many of the Greek gods and myths originated from the cultures of the Near East. These cultures, in turn, both had an influence on and were influenced by the early Egyptians.
Amidst all the borrowing and reinterpreting of the stories and characters, it was easy for the Greeks to draw parallels between their gods and those of the Mediterranean’s other great power. The story of Typhon and the Olympians’ flight to Egypt gave them a way to make those connections more valid.
The Greeks, like so many cultures of the ancient world, used their religion to explain the things they saw and felt around them. Their gods were responsible for everything from the rising and setting of the sun to emotions and virtues.
Their monsters, too, helped to explain things they saw in the world around them. The mysteries of the universe were explained through fantastical stories.
Most of the monsters in mythology were associated with very specific phenomena. The Chimera burned the ground in a region of Anatolia, Medusa’s blood gave rise to poisonous snakes, and Scylla was the great whirlpool that threatened unwary ships.
Typhon, however, was more than just a single threat.
His burial explained the volcanic dangers of Mount Etna in many stories, or of other active volcanoes in others.
His fiery battle with Zeus explained the sun-dried lands of the Near East or North Africa and the melted igneous rocks of other regions.
From the gates of the underworld he could send terrible storms and fierce winds.
Even his monstrous appearance made it clear that he posed many threats. He had every feature that was feared in other gods, from snake-like appendages to a multitude of beastly heads.
Typhon wasn’t representative of just one hazard in the world or one scar on its landscape. In fact, he was the father of many of the other monsters that continued to do damage long after he was defeated.
In Typhon, the gods and mankind had their greatest monstrous enemy. He wasn’t just a giant who they fought once, he was a force of destruction who bred many of the dangers of the world.