Morphing Monsters: The Evolution of Anguipede Giants


I§1 The Giants were a mythological race of mortals with great strength. The prevailing legend of the battle between the gods and the Giants was formulated in the Archaic epics and was expanded upon by many later writers including Psuedo-Apollodorus and Ovid. The battle between the gods and the Giants, the Gigantomachy, was a common motif throughout Greek, Etruscan, Anatolian and Roman art, especially sculptural works, vase paintings, metal objects, and gems. Yet a curious thing happens after the motif’s initial popularity in the Archaic and Classical periods: the humanoid Giants become anguipedes, defined by Daniel Ogden as creatures “that [combine] a humanoid upper half with a serpentine lower half; the lower half can culminate in either a snake tail or head.”[1]

I§2 This change in artistic depiction happened approximately five centuries before it was adapted in literature. L. R. Farnell mentions the change from the human-form Giants of the Archaic epic to the Hellenistic snake-footed Giants, but states, “at what time and through what means the altered representation became dominant is a question which may be passed by.”[2] But it is precisely this question that this article explores. By mapping the change from human form to snake-legged Giant throughout the Mediterranean, it can be seen that this transition occurred in two distinct areas – Etruria and Anatolia – and for myriad reasons,but it is clear that as the myth of the Gigantomachy crossed cultural and linguistic barriers, iconography played a more important role in storytelling and thus adapted to the widening audience pool.

1. Human Giants

1.1 Literary References

1§1 According to the myth of the Gigantomachy, when the gods defeated the Titans, Gaia produced the Giants to avenge them by attacking the gods. When the gods were provoked, Zeus led the gods against the rebellion. Thus, the Giants were defeated and banished by Zeus to remain imprisoned in the earth for eternity. According to the myth, the Giants were believed to be buried under the volcanoes, in the depths of Greece and Italy – Enkeladus became the restless Giant underneath Mt. Aetna in Sicily, Europe’s tallest active volcano.[3] The first literary descriptions of the Giants are vague. These early depictions leave much to the imagination and often just mention the Giants in reference to the actual story the author is trying to tell. According to Hesiod, the Giants were born from Gaia and were “great,” wearing gleaming armor and brandishing long spears:

μεγάλους τε Γίγαντας,

τεύχεσι λαμπομένους, δολίχ᾽ ἔγχεα χερσὶν ἔχοντας

and the great Giants,

with gleaming armor, holding spears in their hands[4]

Hesiod, Theogony 185-6

This terse description is the most Hesiod writes on the subject and it is only a detail in the list of the children born from Ouranos and Gaia. The Giants, along with Erinyes and the Nymphs, were born from the Earth after she was splattered with the blood of Ouranos when his son Kronos castrated him.[5]

1§2 Nevertheless, this is more detailed than Homer’s description. While the Giants are mentioned almost a half dozen times throughout the Homeric works, it is always a supporting reference rather than the focus of the passage. The Giants are referenced as the insolent subjects of Eurymedon; the Greeks were kin to the gods as the Giants are the kin of the Cyclops; and the Laestrygonians marched forth not like men, but rather Giants. These are some of the fullest characterizations of the Giants:


ὅς ποθ᾽ ὑπερθύμοισι Γιγάντεσσιν βασίλευεν.


who once was king over the insolent Giants

ἐπεί σφισιν ἐγγύθεν εἰμέν, ὥς περ Κύκλωπές τε καὶ ἄγρια φῦλα Γιγάντων.

For we are of near kin to

them [the gods], as are the Cyclopes and the wild tribes of the Giants.

οἱ δ᾽ ἀίοντες φοίτων ἴφθιμοι Λαιστρυγόνες ἄλλοθεν ἄλλος, μυρίοι, οὐκ ἄνδρεσσιν ἐοικότες, ἀλλὰ Γίγασιν

and as they heard it the strong Laestrygonians came thronging from all sides, countless, not like men but like the Giants.[6]

Homer, Odyssey vii.59, 206, x.120

Given the indistinct form Archaic authors ascribe to the Giants, it is interesting that they appear in art in rather uniform depictions.

1.2 Artistic Depictions

1§3 The Gigantomachy was the struggle between the cosmic order of the Olympians led by Zeus and the forces of Chaos represented by the Giants. It was the triumph over chaos that initially made the Gigantomachy such a popular motif in architectural sculpture and allowed it to flourish into and throughout the Roman empire. By placing it on temple friezes, pediments, and metopes, cities were illustrating the order within their own societies. While these artistic works originated in Greece, they spread throughout the Mediterranean.

1§4 Archaic representations of the Giants followed the Attic style, depicting them as the impressive warriors that Hesiod describes: they are often wearing armor and a helmet and are equipped with spears and shields (see Figure 1). By the Classical period, the trend eventually replaced the Archaic warrior form and shifted towards the nude, bearded, savage appearances of the Corinthian and Laconian style of the Giant, who was often armed with nothing but a large stone if anything at all.[7] The earliest of these representations was found in Korfu. The Archaic pediment is dated to about 580 BCE and shows Zeus hurling his thunderbolt and a fleeing nude, bearded Giant.[8]

Figure 1. Warrior-clad Giants on at Attic vase. Vian and Moore 1988, “Gigantes 286” 137.
Figure 2. Frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi. Vian and Moore 1988, “Gigantes 2” 109.

1§6 The Gigantomachy becomes a common subject for Attic vase paintings from 560 to 520 BCE. Xenophanes refers to the Gigantomachy as an artistic, as well as a literary, tradition. One of the earliest representations of the Gigantomachy that has survived is from a vase painted by Lydos, an Attic black-figure painter who is known from two signatures – one being the Gigantomachy found on the Acropolis.[10] Despite the scant literary evidence, “the tradition seems so firm, the contents of the myth so well established, that either a written epic or a great picture based in an epic must account for this sudden and constant popularity.”[11]

2. Anguipede Giants

2.1 Artistic Depictions

2§1 The change from humanoid to anguipede Giants was not abrupt and it was not of Greek origin. The first example of anguipede Giants appears in Etruscan art as early as the late sixth century BCE, which is significant because snake-legged Giants do not appear in Greek art until the fourth century.[12]

2§2 As the Greek religion spread so did the artistic representation of myths. Although no extant literature survives that illustrates the transmission of Greek religion to Etruria, the abundance of Greek-made vessels in Etruscan tombs suggests that trade flourished between the two peoples.[13] The earliest account of the Gigantomachy in Etruria appears in the form of a bronze relief from Perugia.[14] In this relief Zeus is aiming his thunderbolt at a fleeing Giant of the humanoid, Corinthian variety.[15] We also find a neck-amphora from Falerii Veteres, near modern day Civita Castellana, decorated on one side with a battle against Heracles.[16] The other early example of an Etruscan anguipede Giant is an onyx scarab gem, which depicts a Giant in battle with Zeus (see Figure 3).[17]

Figure 3 The Etruscan gem showing an anguipede Giant fighting Zeus. Vian and Moore 1988, “Gigantes 51” 115.

2§3 While snake-legged Giants are produced early in Etruria, the human form Gigantomachy became a popular motif in mainland Greece from the sixth century BCE. It is this motif of a human form Giant that traveled to Anatolia during the fourth century BCE during the expeditions of Alexander the Great. One of the first examples of the Gigantomachy comes from the Temple of Athena at Priene in modern day Turkey, which was dedicated by Alexander in 334 BCE.[18] Most of the Giants here are portrayed as nude savages who are fully human and cowering at the feet of the gods, yet one Giant has snake-legs and wings (see Figure 4). After Priene, Giants are almost always depicted as anguipedes throughout Asia Minor.

Figure 4. An anguipede Giant falling before Athena from the Temple of Athena and Priene. Vian and Moore 1988, “Gigantes 26” Plate 1172, 208.

2§4 Possibly the most well-known and well-preserved anguipede Gigantomachy is the Great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon. Built in the first half of the second century BCE,[19] the Pergamon Gigantomachy epitomizes anguipede Giants with their twisting, scaled legs; the heads of the snakes clearly visible as the Giants cower beneath the gods. Many of the Giants are also winged in a similar manner to the one anguipede Giant from Priene. By the end of the second century BCE Gigantomachies with anguipede Giants seem to be the standard and “henceforth the usual type is the snake-footed Giant.”[20]

2§5 On the altar frieze, the Giants are both humanoid and anguipede (see Figures 5 and 6). This is an interesting occurrence considering the new stylistic representation of anguipede Giants, which calls into question the artists or patrons behind the Pergamon Altar.[21] Diether Thimme suggests that there must have been at least forty artists working on the piece, two of whom have been associated with the schools at Athens and Rhodes based on inscriptions. Are the mixing of human-form and anguipede Giants a result of multiple schools working on the monuments, or was that the intended vision of the one master? After the Great Frieze on the Altar at Pergamon was built around 190 BCE, later depictions of anguipede Giants on friezes were built at the Hecateion at Lagina and the Temple to Zeus Solymeus at Termessos[22] and in Aphrodisias in Turkey from the second century BCE, and in Leptis Magna in Libya from the second century CE.[23]

Figure 5. From left to right: Human Giants, Phoebe, Asteria. Thimme 1946, Plate XVII. 
Figure 6. From left to right: Klytios (Giant), Hekate, Otos, Aigaion (Giant), Artemis. Thimme 1946, Plate XVII.

2.2 Literary References

2§6 Despite the number of architectural decorations depicting Gigantomachies, the first characterization of the Giants as snake-legged in literature is not produced until the first century CE in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, nearly three centuries after the Great Frieze of the Altar at Pergamon was constructed. Ovid refers to the Giants as anguipedum:

qua centum quisque parabat

inicere anguipedum captivo bracchia caelo

when the snake-footed Giants laid each his hundred hands on captive heaven.[24]

Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.183-4

Pseudo-Apollodorus[25] is the next mythographer to ascribe snake-legs to the Giants in his Bibliotheca and gives the most detail of their physical stature as well as their anguipedal form:

Γῆ δὲ περὶ Τιτάνων ἀγανακτοῦσα γεννᾷ Γίγαντας ἐξ Οὐρανοῦ, μεγέθει μὲν σωμάτων ἀνυπερβλήτους, δυνάμει δὲ ἀκαταγωνίστους, οἳ φοβεροὶ μὲν ταῖς ὄψεσι κατεφαίνοντο, καθειμένοι βαθεῖαν κόμην ἐκ κεφαλῆς καὶ γενείων, εἶχον δὲ τὰς βάσεις φολίδας δρακόντων.

But Earth, vexed on account of the Titans, brought forth the Giants, whom she had by Sky. These were matchless in the bulk of their bodies and invincible in their might; terrible of aspect did they appear, with long locks drooping from their head and chin, and with the scales of dragons for feet.[26]

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.6.1

These literary depictions of the Giants as anguipedes clearly demonstrate that the artistic forms present in Persia in the Hellenistic world had become mostly accepted by the Roman period.

2§7 However, around the same time Pseudo-Apollodorus was writing the Bibliotheca, the historian Pausanias was writing a contrary story in his Description of Greece. In his eighth book, Arcadia, he specifically says:

δράκοντας δὲ ἀντὶ ποδῶν τοῖς γίγασιν εἶναι, ὡς ἔστιν εὐήθης

That the Giants had serpents for feet is an absurd tale.[27]

Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece 8.29.3

2§8 This contradiction in literature makes sense once the archaeological evidence is examined. While anguipede Giants began to appear on Attic vases by the beginning of the fourth century BCE, in mainland Greece, artistic representations of Giants continued to have human appearance into the Roman period.[28] Thus, while Ovid was influenced by the Italian anguipede traditions, Pausanias was being influenced by the persistent human form Giant prevalent on the mainland of Greece. The frieze on the scenae of the theatre at Corinth, built in the mid-second century CE depicts both anguipede and human Giants, all naked and all cowering against the gods, and even this frieze is dominated by human Giants.[29]

2§9 Despite the resistance of mainland Greece to fully depict Giants as snake-legged, the motif is accepted and utilized in art throughout the Roman empire. It appears on monumental architecture on friezes in Hierapolis and Aphrodisia in Anatolia, and the Temple of Jupiter in modern day Split, Croatia, as well as the Baths of Sens, the Black Gate of Besançon, and Tours, all in France, and modern day Treves in Germany.[30]

2§10 Snake-legged Giants become a common motif on sarcophagi by the first century CE, a medium not previously utilized. Examples include anguipede Giants on sarcophagi in Spoleto, Velletri, Pomezia, and Rome[31]. Roman emperors used the motif. Examples include coins minted by Hadrian, Commodus, and Gordien III; and emperors, such as Marcus Aurelius, even placed individual anguipede Giants on the cuirasses of busts.

3. Transmission

3§1 The study of ancient art and archaeology is hindered by its very definition of being bound in time, and thus it is impossible to ever understand concretely the ways in which culture, art, religion, and ideas were transmitted. Joanne Clarke identifies two key modes of cultural change: through time and through space. According to the many papers in her volume: Archaeological Perspectives on the Transmission and Transformation of Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean, change through time is often resisted, while ideas through space appear to enhance or promote change.[32] This is a compelling argument, considering that the change in the Greek myth of the Gigantomachy within art and literature from human-form Giants to anguipede Giants occurred outside of Greece, while being continuously resisted within.

3§2 Scholars attribute the adaptation of anguipede Giants to the conflation of Typhon with the Giants. Typhon was an anguipede, both born from Tartarus and Gaia. Typhon is also closely associated with the Giants and is sometimes considered the inspiration for the Giants becoming anguipedes.[33] Yet whenever this is mentioned, it is often only in passing or within a footnote and thus is not supported by enough evidence to accept this theory.[34] Ustinova explains the adaptation of snake-legs as a conflation of the Giants with the Titans, and moreover the Titans with Typhon (all of which are children of Gaia). Yet, if the Giants received snake-legs from Typhon through the Titans, would not more images depict the Titans as anguipedes as well? In fact, current scholarly theory conflates the archaeological evidence of a Typhon vase in Etruria with the adaptation of snake-legged Giants, which also appeared first in Etruria.[35] On the other hand, Stephen Steingräber has “suggested that the snaky monsters of the tomb de tifone were modeled after a painted cycle created at the same time as the Pergamon Altar Gigantomachy”[36] meaning that the iconography of the separate monsters was possibly still being cemented around the same time, which would explain their similarities.

3§3 The first instance of snake-legged Giants occurred in Etruria in the sixth century BCE with appearances on gems and pottery. This is an interesting development considering “the great influence which Greek art exercised upon Etruscan art has long been recognized.”[37] John Boardman expands on this by saying of Etruscan art that “its eventual dependence on Greek art is clear and it becomes the one foreign art formed by Greek examples.”[38] And yet, the remainder of Boardman’s analyses of Greek influence on Etruscan art clearly indicates that while Greek ideas and motifs inspired and directed the progression of Etruscan art, the Etruscan craftsmen were innovators who modified their artworks to the tastes of their Italian customers.

3§4 This is presumably what happened in the case of the Gigantomachy. According to Boardman, the Etruscans were already adapting the Greek animal frieze motif into more fantastical creatures by combining odd animal parts and placing them in theatrically distorted poses.[39] While he characterizes it as “a showy blend of Greek, oriental, and barbaric taste,” in the case of the Gigantomachy their invocations made the representation of the Giants more true to the original myth of them being chthonic (born of the Earth) than did the Greek artistic renditions.

3§5 As this paper has already shown, the first authors to discuss the Giants, Hesiod and Homer, barely mentioned the physical attributes of the Giants. Yet, one fact that Hesiod seems to be very clear on and one that no later author tries to refute is that the Giants were born from Gaia (Earth), making them chthonic beings. In the ancient world, snakes were often thought of as liminal chthonic symbols given their ability to disappear below ground, the way they shed their skin, and their connections with fertility and the fertility of the earth.[40] Donald J. Mastronarde gives a concise explanation of how snakes are the most basic of chthonic creatures:

Snakes are par excellence children of the earth – the paragons of autocthonism. Serpents grow from blood which falls upon the earth; earth-born creatures are often half-man, half-serpent; serpents guard untouched springs (the waters of the earth) and caves (hollows of the earth) and must be overcome before man or god can take possession of unclaimed land.[41]

Mastronarde, 1975

3§6 Thus when Giants were not associated with snakes or any other earthly symbols, they were anomalous amongst their siblings. The Erinyes and the Meliae were said to have been born from the blood of Ouranos and Gaia along with the Giants. While the Meliae were not associated with snakes, they were the nymphs of ash trees, a very terrestrial element. The Erinyes, on the other hand, are often represented as being accompanied by snakes or with snakes in their hair.[42] Other children of Gaia with strong attachments to earthly symbolism include the Titans, Oceanus and Tethys who rule over the ocean and major rivers, respectively. Echidna was half-nymph, half-serpent,[43] Typhon was the original anguipede, and lastly, the Python, who guarded Delphi for Gaia and was defeated by Apollo[44] all were strongly tied to Gaia through their serpentine iconography. Thus, it was in fact odd that the Archaic Greeks did very little to illustrate the chthonic nature of the Giants, especially given the blank canvas they were given. Boardman even seems to verify this idea by coming to the conclusion that “some Greek stories are better illustrated, or illustrated in more novel ways, in Etruscan art than they are in Greek art.”[45]

3§7 As previously mentioned, the adoption of Greek religion throughout Italy was a slow process that was accomplished not through literature, but through the interaction of Greek trades and craftsmen and the sharing of ideas and stories.[46] Thus, it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Etruscan artists, hearing the myth orally, then wished to adapt the story of the chthonic Giants in a novel way, and began to assign them snake-legs to represent their chthonic nature. A corollary to this is, while literacy began in the eighth century, it was not wide spread. In fact, written texts, which were coming out of Attica mostly, were a rarity. This is especially relevant in Etruria, where the text of the myth was not binding for those retelling the story or craftsmen attempting to translate the narrative into their art.[47]

3§8 This may explain the innovation of snake-legged Giants in Etruria, but it still leaves the process by which the artistic representations of Giants in Anatolia transformed from the mostly humanoid Giants of Priene to the anguipedes of Pergamon unexplained. Andrew Erskine examines the way in which various peoples seem to incorporate Greek myths into their repertoire, while Greeks seem to resist the acceptance of outside ideas. He explains that “the higher degree of Greek cultural influence in the area seems to lead to a greater willingness to adopt the stories told by Greek outsiders. Acceptance of Greek interpretation becomes less a means of interacting with Greeks than a means of joining them.”[48] This becomes especially relevant during the Hellenistic period, when Alexander the Great began to conquer the East and incorporate it into his Greek empire. Therefore, the people of Anatolia, where Alexander set up the first monumental Gigantomachy frieze, were more likely to accept the new mythological tradition. Wengrow also suggests that “within the transformative mode [of motif transmission], status accrues to those groups within society who can establish stable relations with an encroaching outside world.”[49] It would follow then that the adaptation of snake-leg Giants was a melding of indigenous beliefs and external desires.

3§9 Unlike the Etruscans who purposefully innovated motifs and therefore possibly interpreted the Giants as anguipedes, in the Near East the emergence of anguipede Giants is an outcome of the convergences of a number of different peoples and traditions. Ann Kutter astutely observes that “working across verbal language barriers, visual language matters especially to a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic world, like Hellenistic Anatolia.”[50] In this case, the innovation of anguipede Giants was less of an experimental endeavor, but a necessary attribute to demonstrate to visitors less familiar with the Greek myths. Stylizing the Giants in the form of anguipedes might have been a way to signal to those not familiar with the myth of the Gigantomachy that this was a battle between the gods and some chthonic beings. Whether or not one was familiar with the Gigantomachy myth, one would have at least recognized the triumph of order and civility over chaos.

3§10 Additionally, Kutter suggests that “this international surface of the new Makedonian world in Asia made borrowing indigenous design characters easy.”[51] Thus, it is possible that the Gigantomachy in Anatolia was influenced by Near Eastern deities who exhibited chthonic or snake-legged symbolism. Ustinova identifies numerous snake-legged and tendril-limbed gods and goddesses in Ionia, Cyprus, and the Near East, as well as in the Balkans, Northern Europe, Southern Russia, and lastly Greece.[52] Wengrow notes that in the Bronze Age “composite animals typically feature there in scenes of predation where they are incorporated as violent opponents.”[53] While his study is limited to the Bronze Age and earlier, this sentiment can still be applied to the spread of anguipede Giants.

3§11 Non-Greeks used aspects of the literary tradition in order to more fully express the subject matter, a tactic that the Greeks would not have needed to employ for their Greek audience, who would have been familiar with the myth of the Gigantomachy, such that making the Giants anguipedes to emphasize their chthonic nature would have been superfluous. Through a combination of understanding composite animals as representations of violent enemies and snake-legs as indicating chthonic beings, anguipede Giants could have formed as a means of transmitting the myth through societies without a common language.

[1] Ogden 2013:xvii.

[2] Farnell 1882:302.

[3] Hanfmann 2003:616.

[4] Hesiod Theogony 185–186 Evelyn-White.

[5] Hesiod Theogony 176–187 Evelyn-White.

[6] Homer Odyssey vii:59, 206, x:120 Murray.

[7] Hanfmann 1937:475.

[8] Hanfmann 1937:467.

[9] Vian and Moore 1988:197–206.

[10] Moore 1979:79.

[11] Hanfmann 1937:477.

[12] Hanfmann 1937:483.

[13] Hanfmann 1937:482.

[14] Hanfmann 1937:482.

[15] Hanfmann 1937:482.

[16] This piece is currently housed in the Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia. Hanfmann 1937:483, Schwarz 1989:180.

[17] Furtwängler 1900:204, Hanfmann 1937:482.

[18] The Ionic architect, Pythius, who also designed the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, designed innovative coffers carved with the battle between the Gods and the Giants located on the ceiling of the peristyle. Vian and Moore 1988:207, Cook and Spawforth 2003:1209, Richmond et al. 2003:1247.

[19] Vian and Moore 1988:206–207.

[20] Farnell 1882:318.

[21] Thimme 1946.

[22] Vian and Moore 1988:209.

[23] Vian 1951.

[24] Ovid Metamorphoses 1.183–184 Miller.

[25] The work was originally ascribed to Apollodorus of Alexandria, writing in the second century BCE, but was later dated to the second century CE. Hornblower 2003:120.

[26] Apollodorus Bibliotheca 1.6.1 Frazer.

[27] Pausanias Descriptions of Greece 8.29.3 Jones.

[28] Vian and Moore 1988:240–270.

[29] Vian and Moore 1988:240–241.

[30] Vian and Moore 1988:241–245.

[31] Vian and Moore 1988:242–243.

[32] Clarke 2005:80.

[33] Dowden 2003:1522.

[34] See Hanfmann 1937, Schwarz 1989, Ustinova 2005.

[35] Ustinova 2005:76.

[36] Steingräber 2000:241.

[37] Hanfmann 1937:463.

[38] Boardman 1993:225–226.

[39] Boardman 1993:253.

[40] Ustinova 2005:68.

[41] Mastronarde 1975:164.

[42] Rose et al. 2003:535-536.

[43] Apollodorus Bibliotheca 2.1.2 Frazier.

[44] Malkin 2003:1377.

[45] Broadman 1993:255.

[46] Hanfmann 1937:482.

[47] Giuliani 2002:95.

[48] Erskine 2005:128.

[49] Wengrow 2014:106.

[50] Kutter 2005:137.

[51] Kutter 2005:142.

[52] Ustinova 2005:70–75.

[53] Wengrow 2014:95.


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