winged it


In Greek mythology, Geryon (Geryones, Geyron), son of Chrysaor and Callirrhoe and grandson of Medusa was a fearsome giant who dwelt on the island Erytheia of the mythic Hesperides in the far west of the Mediterranean. A more literal-minded later generation of Greeks associated the region with Tartessos in southern Iberia. Geryon was often described as a monster with human faces. Geryon had three heads and three bodies with a total of six arms. Some accounts state that he had six legs as well while others state that the three bodies were joined to one pair of legs. Although there are some mid-sixth century Chalcidian vases portraying Geryon as winged, it is not known whether Stesichorus' Geryon had wings: it seems unlikely. Apart from these weird features, his appearance was that of a warrior. He owned a two-headed hound named Orthrus, which was the brother of Cerberus, and a herd of magnificent red cattle that were guarded by Orthrus, and a herder Eurytion, son of Erytheia.

The Tenth Labour of Heracles

In the fullest account in the Bibliotheke of Pseudo-Apollodorus (2.5.10) Heracles was required to travel to Erytheia, in order to obtain the Cattle of Geryon as his tenth labour. On the way there, he crossed the Libyan desert and became so frustrated at the heat that he shot an arrow at Helios, the Sun. Helios "in admiration of his courage" gave Heracles the golden cup he used to sail across the sea from west to east each night. Heracles used it to reach Erytheia, a favorite motif of the vase-painters. Such a magical conveyance undercuts any literal geography for Erytheia, the "red island" of the sunset.

When Heracles reached Erytheia, no sooner had he landed than he was confronted by the two-headed dog, Orthrus. With one huge blow from his olive-wood club, Heracles killed the watchdog. Eurytion the herdsman came to assist Orthrus, but Heracles dealt with him the same way.

On hearing the commotion, Geryon sprang into action, carrying three shields, three spears, and wearing three helmets. He pursued Heracles at the River Anthemus but fell a victim to an arrow that had been dipped in the venomous blood of the Lernaean Hydra, shot so forcefully by Heracles that it pierced Geryon's forehead, "and Geryon bent his neck over to one side, like a poppy that spoils its delicate shapes, shedding its petals all at once With a shrill, despairing groan, Geryon swayed, then fell, nevermore to rise. In some versions, Heracles tore Geryon's bodies into three separate pieces.

Heracles then had to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus. In Roman versions of the narrative, on the Aventine hill in Italy, Cacus stole some of the cattle as Heracles slept, making the cattle walk backwards so that they left no trail, a repetition of the trick of the young Hermes. According to some versions, Heracles drove his remaining cattle past a cave, where Cacus had hidden the stolen animals, and they began calling out to each other. In others, Caca, Cacus' sister, told Heracles where he was. Heracles then killed Cacus, and according to the Romans, founded an altar where the Forum Boarium, the cattle market, was later held.

To annoy Heracles, Hera sent a gadfly to bite the cattle, irritate them and scatter them. The hero was within a year able to retrieve them. Hera then sent a flood which raised the level of a river so much, Heracles could not cross with the cattle. He piled stones into the river to make the water shallower. When he finally reached the court of Eurystheus, the cattle were sacrificed to Hera.

Stesichorus' Geryoneïs

The poet Stesichorus wrote a song of Geryon (Geryoneïs) in the sixth century BC, which was apparently the source of this section in Bibliotheke; it contains the first reference to Tartessus. From the fragmentary papyri found at Oxyrhyncus it is possible (although there is no evidence) that Stesichorus inserted a character, Menoites, who reported the theft of the cattle to Geryon. Geryon then had an interview with his mother Callirrhoe, who begged him not to confront Heracles. They appear to have expressed some doubt as to whether Geryon would prove to be immortal. The gods met in council, where Athena warned Poseidon that she would protect Heracles against Poseidon's grandson Geryon. Denys Page observes that the increase in representation of the Geryon episode in vase-paintings increased from the mid-sixth century and suggestes that Stesichorus' Geryoneïs provided the impetus.

The fragments are sufficient to show that the poem was composed in twenty-six line triads, of strophe, antistrophe and epode, repeated in columns along the original scroll, facts that aided Page in placing many of the fragments, sometimes of no more than a word, in their proper positions.

Catholic associations

Geryon is sometimes identified as a chthonic death-demon, mainly because of the association with the extreme western direction. In Dante's Divine Comedy Geryon has become a winged beast with the tail of a scorpion but the face of an honest man. He dwells at the cliff between the seventh and eighth circles of Hell (the circles of violence and fraud, respectively).

In popular culture

  • "Geryon the Timesteed" is a boss in the Playstation 2 game Devil May Cry 3, based on The Inferno. It is a large warhorse who formerly belonged to a great demon-slayer, but swallowed too much demonic essence and was corrupted. It draws a funeral carriage equipped with spikes and missile launchers. It is likely that the designers confused Beowulf with Geryon, as the boss named "Beowulf the Lightbeast" has many of the characteristics of Dante's depiction of Geryon, while the Beowulf of mythology would be very similar to the previous owner of the Timesteed.
  • Geryon is in the book The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordian where Percy kills him at his ranch by shooting an arrow through all three chests.


Further reading

  • M. M. Davies, “Stesichoros' Geryoneis and its folk-tale origins”. Classical quarterly NS 38, 1988, 277-290.
  • Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. A modern retelling of Stesichoros' fragments.

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