Somewhere in the world, every eight seconds, a mother is throwing her hands in the air and declaring that her child is a little monster. But for Echidna it was the literal truth.
Echidna was called the mother of all monsters, although her children numbered no more than a dozen or so, and many were exemplary offspring and a pride to any parent. They may still roam the earth in the quiet unseen places, waiting the day when a new Hero will come to challenge them.
There are many arguments about Echidna's exact lineage, but who amongst us can vouch for every union in our own background ? Suffice to say she was the daughter of powerful mythical beings. Sources agree, though, on her appearance...
" half fair-cheeked and bright-eyed nymph and half huge and monstrous snake, a snake that strikes swiftly and feeds on living flesh." (Hesiod, Theogony, 295-303)
As an arresting combination of beautiful woman and deadly serpent, it was to be expected that her children were also unusual. Her first born was Orthus, a hard-working cattle dog on an island beyond the pillars of Hercules. Orthus guarded these unique red cattle for Geryon, the strongest man alive at that time.
Cerberus, her next son and another fearsome dog, guarded the entrance to the Underworld and very sensibly kept the living from entering the world of the dead. This "brazen-voiced hound of Hades" had three heads of wild dogs abd the tail of a serpent.
Another serpent was the nine-headed Hydra, who liked to sun herself on rocks overlooking the sacred wells in the swampy regions of Lerna. She was afflicted with bad breath from sulphurous water -it was said one exhalation could kill a man - and her blood was venomous.
The Chimaera was another marvelous combination, displaying the multi-headed family trait with three of them. Not only did she have the head of a lion, a goat, and a snake, her body was in three distinct parts. The top was leonine, the middle like a goat, and the whole ended in the long lashing tail of a serpent. Breathing fire, the Chimaera terrified all of Lycia, killing cattle and scorching the countryside until slain by the Hero Bellepheron.
Another of Echidna's daughters was the fierce Crommyonian Sow, who played a leading role on the life of the Hero Theseus.
Echidna also produced the Caucasus Eagle (the one that keeps gnawing away at the liver of Prometheus) the Nemean Lion and the riddle-loving Sphinx. Perhaps her favourite child was the shining dragon that guarded the Golden Apples of Hesperos
Echidna may also have borne human children. It has been whispered that the Hero Hercules fell in love with her and engaged in an affair that produced three future kings but it seems doubtful that a mother would stoop to dalliance with the murderer of so many of her children.
Whatever the truth is, it's now lost in time, but Zeus did decree that the children of Echidna would remain on earth for always, to test the mettle of future Heroes. A fitting task for such marvelous monsters and a credit to their long-maligned mother.
Susanna Duffy is a Civil Celebrant and mythologist. She creates ceremonies and Rites of Passage for individual and civic functions using ancient myths in modern settings and produces an ezine of Legends and Lore for the general reader