Greek mythology is known for its amazing monsters. Creatures like the Chimera, the Sirens, and the Minotaur are iconic villains that are still well-known today.
While each of these monsters were unique, however, there were also those that were quite similar to one another. One of the most often-repeated types of monster was the drakaina.
These were feminine figures, from the Greek word for “serpent.” As time went on, however, they came to be seen as less snake-like.
By the end of the classical age, the image of the drakaina was well-known. With the head and torso of a human woman and the coiled tail of a snake, the drakaina appeared often in Greek art and literature.
These female serpents had roles in the stories of some of mythology’s most well-known heroes and gods. They appeared in both local legends and those that were well-known throughout the Mediterannean.
So why were the drakaina so widespread, and how did they develop? Historians believe that the answers to those questions lie both within Greek mythology and outside of it.
There are many snake-like monsters in Greek mythology. In English, they are often referred to as dragons from the Greek word drakaino, or “serpent.”
These dragons are not necessarily like those seen in later European art or in Asia. They are often shown in art as large snakes, without the wings and other attributes that are common in other types of dragons.
Some of these serpents have other notable characteristics, though. Many were called drakaina, female serpents, and had distinctly feminine features.
Many of these drakaina had the faces or torsos of human women. They were often described as beautiful and nymph-like, in contrast to their snake-like tails and monstrous behavior.
Others were more purely monstrous, but were still coded as female. Feminine words were given for them.
According to some myths, the drakaina had existed since the earliest days of the universe.
During the war against the Titans, Zeus freed the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes from Tartarus. According to some ancient mythographers he first had to kill their guard, a dakaina called Campe.
Campe was only mentioned in later works, and some historians believe she may have been a reworking of one of the most famous drakaina in mythology. Echidna, the consort of the monstrous giant Typhon, was the mother of many of Greek mythology’s worst monsters.
Echidna was most often described with the features that would become standard for the drakaina. She had the head and torso of a human woman with the coiling, writhing tail of a great snake.
Many of the monsters said to be the children of Echidna were also drakaina. Over time, more and more creatures were added to the list of Echidna and Typhon’s offspring.
The sea monster Scylla, for example, was sometimes said to be one of Echidna’s daughters. While early descriptions, such as that in the Odyssey, described her with dog-like qualities, later art and writing made her fit the style of a drakaina.
Another famous monster that underwent this type of change was Python. The great snake that Apollo and Artemis fought to gain control of Delphi was originally described as entirely serpentine, but over time it took on the traits of a human female that characterized the drakaina.
Echidna’s mother was also sometimes shown as a drakaina. Ceto, the legendary sea monster, was another beast that was originally more snake-like but took on feminine features over time.
These drakaina were among the most notable monsters in Greek mythology. There were others, though, that are not as well-known.
The Argive Echidna was another drakaina that appeared in later literature. According to writers from the 2nd century AD, she ravaged the lands of Argos and Arcadia until she was slain by the giant Argos Panoptes.
Poine was a drakaina that came directly from the Underworld. She was summoned by Apollo to avenge the death of one of his sons, but was eventually killed by the hero Coroebus.
Eurybarus was another hero who killed a drakaina to protect innocent lives. He defeated a serpent called Sybarus that attacked travelers and herdsmen near Delphi.
Herodotus claimed that one of the drakaina was even a queen.
He said that the first ruler of Scythia was a drakaina. When Heracles traveled through her lands with the cattle of Geryon, she captured the herd.
The Scythian Drakaina demanded that Heracles father a son with her as her ransom for the cattle. The future kings of Scythia were descended from the great hero and the monstrous queen.
So why did Greek mythology have so many monsters of the same type?
Looking at when the stories were written, it seems obvious that many of the drakaina were later additions to Greek mythology. They were directly inspired by the monsters that came before them.
It was common for ancient writers to copy established themes and motifs from earlier works. This gave them a sense of authenticity and a connection to older myths.
In Rome, for example, both the character of Aeneas and his legendary journey were taken from the works of Homer. This gave the Romans who claimed descent from him a direct link to one of the most well-known episodes of Greek history and mythology.
Adding monsters that fit the well-established type of the drakaina had a similar purpose. They made newer stories appear to fit into the older mythology.
Many of these later drakaina were named in the works of Pausanias, a 2nd century traveler who detailed the sites of Greece. These were not late additions from literature, but his account of local beliefs.
In this case, the local monsters were inspired by ancient motifs as well. These creatures localized myths that were known in some form throughout the Greek world.
The earliest drakaina that was depicted as half-woman and half-snake was Echidna. She established the form that would be repeated in many other monsters for hundreds of years.
Serpents were a widespread symbol of the Underworld and evil in Greek mythology, so they were included in the forms of many monsters. Echidna’s partner Typhon, for example, had snake-like features.
Many of the monsters that were later described as drakaina began with more generalized snake characteristics. Because of the popularity of figures like Echidna, Python and Scylla were later portrayed as a similar type of monster.
Many historians believe that Echidna was one of the first Greek drakaina, but the form did not originate with her. The story of the Scythian queen may provide some insight into how the female dragons became so popular.
Echidna was often said to live somewhere near Scythia, which has led to the interpretation that the two monsters were one and the same. Some details of the mythology have also caused some historians to believe that the story may not have been Greek in its earliest form.
They believe that the legend of kings being descended from a snake-like creature has its roots in Scythian mythology, not Greek. The story of Heracles and the Scythian Echidna is likely a Greek reinterpretation of a native Scythian myth.
In Scythia and elsewhere, this snake-woman may not have been a monster. There is evidence that many cultures, including the Scythians, had fertility goddesses with serpentine tails.
The Greek gods were more human in appearance, so the drakaina imagery was not applied to a goddess when it entered their culture. Instead, it was made into Echidna, the mother of monsters associated with a barbarous land.
Some remnants of the drakaina’s divine origins remained in Greek mythology, however. The Scythian queen’s noble sons and Echidna’s many children echo the role that the snake-like fertility goddess may have once played in pre-Greek religion.
In Greek mythology, the drakaina was a type of monster that appeared often. They were feminine serpents, often depicted with the heads and torsos of women and the tails of snakes.
Creatures of this type appeared in many myths. The most famous, Echidna, was thought to be the mother of many of the other famous monsters of legend.
While the form of the drakaina became more standardized over time, many did not begin as half-human. Python, for example, was shown as fully serpentine in earlier eras but gradually took on more features of a human female.
Several of the drakaina were not written about until later periods, some as late as the 2nd century AD. These were likely inspired by the well-known type and were included in new stories to give legitimacy through a familiar type of monster.
Many were also included in the travel writings of Pausanias. These were not necessarily new inventions, but were local versions of more broadly-known creatures.
Among the earliest drakaina in Greek literature were Echidna and a legendary foreign queen, both of which had myths that linked them to the land of Scythia. Historians believe that this may be where the figure of the drakaina originated.
In Scythia, as well as other pre-Greek cultures, female-dragon hybrids were not terrible monsters; they were often revered as fertility goddesses. The horrifying female serpents of Greek mythology may have been rewritten versions of ancient pre-Greek myths.