Typhon (Sēt)

Category: Gods > ?

1 Introduction

Typhon is a complicated figure. The earliest texts that mention him, such as Hesiod’s Theogony (8th/7th century BCE), are clearly influenced by West Asian, specifically Anatolian narrative traditions. We have one instance of this tradition, although certainly not the version that directly influenced the Greek poets, in the much older Hittite story of a battle between the god Tarḫunz and the great serpent Illuyanka. This explains at least the outlines of the Greek myth, in which Typhon – a son of the Earth with a hundred serpentine heads growing from his shoulders – arises as a challenger of the kingship of Zeus (corresponding to Tarḫunz), but is ultimately defeated.

But the myth of Typhon was not simply grafted wholesale into Greek mythology. Rather, ancient Greek mythic poetry is constitutionally dependent on West Asian influence, with such indispensable elements as the council of gods or the succession of rulers (in Hesiod, from Ouranos to Kronos to Zeus) being shared with older Anatolian, Phoenician and Babylonian literature. As such, the figure of Typhon has to be viewed in its Anatolian and Greek context simultaneously.

One element that is Greek (if not necessarily non-Anatolian on that account), is the name, Tȳphôn (Τυφῶν) – in poetry, Typhaôn (Τυφαῶν) or Typhōëus (Τυφωεύς). It is related to the common noun tȳphṓs (τυφώς), ‘whirlwind’, and sometimes Tȳphṓs is indeed used as another variant of the name, just as on the flipside tȳphôn can refer to whirlwinds (or a certain kind of comet). The connection to winds is still honored in the spelling of the modern English ‘typhoon’, although that word has a different origin etymologically.

Then, there is the Egyptian element: from the earliest time we can ascertain (by the 5th century BCE at the latest), Greek-speakers referred to the Egyptian god Sēt as Typhon (much more rarely is he called Σῆθ Sêth in Greek texts). It is tempting to separate this usage from the Greco-Anatolian Typhon, since the Hesiodic myth and description does not correspond very closely to the Egyptian iconography and mythical traditions. But this is not always feasible. For instance, take this telling of his myth, from Antoninus Liberalis’ Collection of Metamorphoses 28, where the Greek myth is meant to explain the Egyptian iconography of the gods:

“Typhon was a son of Earth, a daemon extraordinary on account of his strength, and deviant in his appearance; for he grew many heads, hands and wings, and from his thighs (down), there were (only) the coils of serpents, and he emitted all kinds of sounds, and nothing surpassed him in strength.

“He desired to possess the rule of Zeus, and when he attacked him, none of the gods could withstand him, but they all fled in fear to Egypt, only Athena and Zeus remaining. Typhon pursued them on foot, but they in their foresight had changed into animals in their appearance as they fled: Apollon became a falcon, Hermes an ibis, Ares a scaly fish, Artemis a cat, Dionysus became like a goat, Heracles a fawn, Hephaestus a bull, Leto a shrew-mouse, and each of the other gods changed their apperance as it chanced. Then Zeus hit Typhon with a thunderbolt; and Typhon, as he was burning, hid himself and distinguished his fire in the sea.

“Zeus did not let him go, but he threw Etna, the greatest mountain, onto Typhon; and he placed Hephaestus on the mountaintop as guardian over him; and he setting his anvils on his throat, works his red-hot irons there” (Hephaestus being the smith among the gods, cf. Iliad 15.310).

Here, Apollon is the Egyptian Horus (Coptic Hōr); Hermes Thoth (Coptic Thōouth); Artemis is Bubastis (Coptic Oubaste); and Hephaestus presumably Phtha (Coptic Ptah). The shrew-mouse was sacred to the Horus of Letopolis, but I cannot tell whether there is evidence of Leto, i.e., Boutō (Coptic Ouōt, conventionally called “Wadjet”) being directly associated with this animal. The significance of Ares and Dionysus is less certain, so I would rather not give equations at all; finally, that of Heracles is entirely obscure.

2 What is Typhon?

On theoi.com, Typhon is called “a monstrous storm-giant”. But this is an anachronistic use of terminology more at home in modern fantasy fiction. Typhon is indeed monstrous, and because he is a son of the Earth, he can be called a Giant (gr. gígas, ‘Earth-born’), as in one set of Homeric scholia: “Typhon is one of the Giants, being the son of Earth and Tartarus, and an enemy of the gods, as Hesiod says” (D-Scholia on Iliad 2.782).

But in a narrower sense, whereby the Giants (gr. gígantes) are a specific group of Earth’s children, Typhon is not one of them, but born to avenge them (or, in another version, the Titans): “They say that Earth, angered by the killing of the Giants, set Zeus against Hera. She went to Kronos, and he gave her two eggs, smeared with his own semen, and told her to deposit them under earth, so that a daemon who could remove Zeus from power would arise from them. She, still holding on to her wrath, placed them below (Mount) Arimon in Cilicia. But when Typhon has risen up, Hera changes her mind and reveals everything to Zeus. After striking him with a thunderbolt, he named him(?) Mount Etna” (b-Scholia on Iliad 2.782). According to this – somewhat eccentric – telling, then, Typhon should be called a daemon rather than a Giant, while other sources call him a god.

Nor is his relation to the winds quite so straightforward as the word “storm-giant” would suggest. In Hesiod, the story of Typhon’s battle with Zeus (Theogony 820–868) and the description of the harmful winds which come from him (ibid. 869–880) follow each other without any connection beyond the name. In the account of the battle, winds do not seem to play any role.

[I still have to check whether other tellings such as Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Library or Nonnus’ Dionysiaca integrate Typhonian winds into the narrative of the battle.]

The ancient scholia on the Theogony, on the other hand, do take the connection to winds quite seriously, but in effect treat Typhon as nothing more than a symbol of them. They also suggest that Theogony 307 may not call him ‘lawless’ (ánomos), as today’s standard text has it, but ‘a wind’ (ánemos), “because the winds (pnoai) are called tȳphônes, as Hesiod himself says: ‘From Typhon is the moist force of blowing winds’ [Theogony 869]” (Scholia on Theogony 307).

The Scholia also say explicitly that “Typhon is a disturbed wind (tarakhôdes pneûma) which always damages plants” (ibid. 304); “Typhon is a very violent and harmful wind (ánemos), the so-called hurricane (eknephías)” (ibid. 304); “some believe that Typhoneus is the exhalation of disturbed winds from the Earth, because týphesthai (‘to smoke’) means to be burned” (ibid. 821). In other words, there is a certain degree of tension between understanding Typhon as (the cause of) violent winds, and understanding him as a son of Earth (be he Giant, daemon, Titan, god or indeed Titanic god) who did battle against Zeus and was subsequently imprisoned in Tartarus.

So much for the basic interpretation of Typhon’s role in Greek epic poetry.

The most detailed discussion of Typhon’s nature in Greek is to be found in the Platonic philosopher Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris. As the title suggests, this deals mostly with Egyptian traditions, specifically with the mainstream Egyptian view of Sēt as an evil and destructive figure, responsible for the death and dismemberment of his brother Osiris. Accordingly, Plutarch comes to the conclusion that, ultimately, Typhon is the source of evil itself, the Evil Soul that Plato adumbrates in the Laws (286e and elsewhere). Specific phenomena within the cosmos can also be ascribed to him in a secondary sense.

One opinion that Plutarch strongly rejects is the interpretation of Typhon as the Sun (On Isis and Osiris 372a), but this idea can be found in various Ancient Mediterranean writings, including the Greco-Egyptian ritual instruction texts that have been collected under the modern title of Greek Magical Papyri. Here, the idea of Typhon and Typhonian things as harmful crops up repeatedly, but in some rites, the god is worshipped or petitioned, which may not reflect a positive, but at least a more ambiguous view of him.

But I will leave it to the readers to acquaint themselves with On Isis and Osiris, the Greek Magical Papyri, or Synesius’ Egyptian Tale (a remoulding of the story of Osiris and Typhon into a political allegory), as well as with Egyptian-language sources. In this section, my interest is primarily in the Neoplatonists, who interpreted Typhon’s nature with a view to both Greek and Egyptian tradition.

The emperor Julian (4th century CE) only refers to Typhon off-hand as something told of by “poetic monstrousness”, indicating both his prodigious character and the impossibility of the story as told by Hesiod. The passage is telling despite its brevity, for it says that the hated usurper Magnentius was “not like Typhon”, “nor like the greatest of Giants”, but like Vice or Evil (kakía) itself (Julian, Oration 2.7). Although Julian does not acknowledge Typhon as a real being, he comes close to Plutarch’s equation of him with evil.

Porphyry (3rd century CE) regarded the myth of Osiris and Typhon, like that of Dionysus and the Titans, as referring to a conflict between souls in their descent (represented by Osiris/Dionysus) and a genus of daemons that is “wicked and harmful to souls” (reported and critiqued in Proclus, On the Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 77).

In his commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus, Hermias (5th century CE) picks up on a passage where Socrates says that he does not know “whether I am some beast more multivarious than Typhon” (Plato, Phaedrus 320a) by commenting: “‘Than Typhon’, because this god rules over (epárkhei) what is erratic and disordered. His allotment is like this: always well-ordered on the whole (en toîs hólois), except where it shows itself in accordance with certain parts of itself;¹ and in these cases, they used to speak of Typhonian winds (pneúmata) or hurricanes (skēptoí), or Typhonian thunderbolts² (keraunoí). […] But ‘multivarious’ should not be understood as referring to the god himself, but to what he rules over (prostatei), since it is moved erratically, disorderedly and multivariously by its own nature. The myths used to attribute the affects of the beings subject to providence (pronooúmena) to the beings that exercise providence (pronooûnta)” (Hermias, On the Phaedrus, p. 31).

1: I.e., where individual elements break the harmony of the whole.
2: In the myth, the thunderbolt does not come from Typhon,
but is hurled by Zeus to destroy him.

Proclus (also 5th century CE) reads Iliad 2.781–783, where Zeus strikes Typhon with the thunderbolt, as a symbol of “the Titanic war against Zeus and what are called katatartarṓseis* by the Orphics” (On the Republic, vol. 1, p. 93), that is to say, not wars among the gods, who are all intrinsically good and therefore not in conflict; but rather, a certain contrariety between the lowest daemonic beings belonging to the Olympian and Titanic orders, respectively. For the sake of providence, both orders, the superior and the inferior, must extend to the lower limits of the cosmos, i.e., to Tartarus, even though this involves opposition between lower beings (On the Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 188).

*Meaning something like ‘imprisonments below, in the Tartarus’,
or for Proclus, ‘extensions downward into Tartarus’.

Proclus further integrates the Egyptian association of donkeys with Typhon (which is in evidence in the Greek Magical Papyri) into his commentary on Hesiod’s Works and Days 791ff. Here, he argues that the mule belongs to the Moon, because the horse is a Heliac (‘solar’) animal because it “runs swiftly (eudromon)”, while the donkey is chthonic (i.e., belongs to the Earth) “insofar as it is dear to Typhon” – a son of Earth according to Hesiod(!)* – “and sexual (synousiastikón)”. So, as the Moon is inbetween Earth and Sun, the offspring of horse and donkey (the mule) belongs to her.

*That Proclus was also thinking of Geb (‘Earth’, gr. Kēb or Kronos),
the father of Sēt, is possible, but if this were his primary reasoning,
he would hardly presuppose knowledge of this (to Greek readers)
obscure genealogy.

In his Philosophical History, which comes down to us in fragments, Damascius (6th century CE) refers to the story that Osiris, who “some say is the same as Dionysus, others another”, and who “was torn apart by the daemon Typhon” (Suda s.v. Ὄσιρις). With a Platonic phrase taken from the Phaedrus (see above), he calls the hated Pamprepius “a more multivarious beast even than Typhon”, in contrast to a man whose way of life was Kronian and Diian (i.e., Kronos- and Zeus-like; Suda s.v. Σαραπίων).

Damascius combines both of these ideas in a passage about the ascent and descent of the soul preserved by Photius: “That would be a mingling with the divine (theokrasía), or rather a perfect union (hénōsis), a return of our souls upwards, turning back toward the divine and gathering themselves together from great division – and why should I not call it even a rending? –, since, having flowed down here and taken up earthly boddies, they have been torn apart from themselves, and scattered every which way by sufferings that are truly Typhonian or, differently put, Titanic,* and which are not only in accordance with Typhon, but, I believe, even more multivarious than him” (Photius, Bibliotheca 181).

*Not Titaniká but gēgená, ‘earth-born’, which can refer
to Titans or other children of the Earth.

In the terms used by Damascius to describe how Osiris was torn apart, or how the soul underwent a rending (sparagmós), he is once again coordinating the myth of Osiris (torn apart by Typhon) with that of Dionysus (torn apart by Titans) in an overarching framework that associates the Titanic gods with the lower, divided earthly realm where we live, in opposition to the unity and harmony of the Olympian gods. This makes sense of both the Greek and Egyptian traditions, although it does not simply conflate them.

But in the three passages above, Damascius was only referring to Typhon in a vague way. There are also two instances where he is more specific in his theology, rooted in the Greek poetic tradition, one from each of his two lectures on Plato’s Phaedo of which we have notes surviving.

In the first version, we read: “Who are the descendants of Tartarus and Earth? Firstly, Typhon, the cause (aítios) of the violent motion of winds and waters and the other elements below the Earth; secondly, Echidna, the avenging and punitive cause for rational as well as irrational souls, which is why she is a young woman above, but snake-like below; and thirdly, Python, the guardian of the all divinatory revelation (mantikḗ anádosis).” This much, to judge from the general structure of the text, is taken over from Proclus’ lost commentary; Damascius corrects him: “But it is better to say (that Python) is the cause of disorder and blocking up regarding these things (=divination); and for this reason, Apollon kills him as his opponent” (Damascius, On the Phaedo A 539).

In the second version, “that the children of Tartarus and of Earth, the spouse of Ouranos, are Typhon, Echidna and Python, a sort of Chaldaic triad* overseeing all disordered demiurgy (‘creation’). For Typhon is the paternal (patrikón) and essential (ousiôdes) cause of disorder qua disorder, but insofar as it is stretched out beforehand (prohypostrōnnyménē) by him to every demiurge for the sake of order. Echidna is the power (dýnamis) and the female and proceeding (proodikón) cause of disordered nature. Python would be an intellect of the same kind; which is why he is also said to be opposed to the divinatory spirits (pneúmata) and is opposed by Apollon” (Damascius, On the Phaedo B 142).

*A Chaldaic triad consists of a Father,
a Power (a female and proceeding cause),
and an Intellect.

As negative as these descriptions sound, these gods are still wholly good, and their domains are providentially necessary (or so the Neoplatonists hold).

3 Typhonian rituals

[Here it remains for me to gather some information about rituals involving Typhon, principally from the PGM.]

4 Variants of the Greek myth

The most important tellings of the Typhon myth come at the beginning and near the end of the ancient Greek tradition of epic poetry, with the Theogony of Hesiod in the 8th/7th century BCE and the Dionysiaca of Nonnus of Panopolis (today Akhmim, Egypt) in the 5th century CE, well over a millennium apart. But in between, there are many other versions, often not full tellings but merely individual points of difference; some of them will be gathered here.

The basic skeleton of the story runs as follows: to avenge her children, slain in a war against Zeus and his fellow gods, Earth gives birth to a new son of prodigious size, appearance and strength, Typhon, whose place of birth and dwelling are variously located. He threatens to overturn the entire order established by Zeus just by himself. The battle between Zeus and Typhon is described in various ways, but in the end, the son of the Earth is defeated by a thunderbolt, and kept in check by a mountain that is placed over him. (Or, in a variant from the Homeric scholia translated above, he himself apparently becomes the volcanic Mount Etna.)

The ancient scholia (explanatory comments) on the poet Pindar (5th century BCE) are an especially rich source of variants. According to one scholium, “Pindar says that Etna is placed over Typhon, Enceladus says over Enceladus” – a Giant – “(writing) as follows: ‘the three-pointed island (=Sicily) over destructive Enceladus’. But some say that Typhon is in (the island of) Pithecusae, others in Phrygia, others again in Sicily, others in Egypt, as Herodotus says, others again in the mountain in Boeotia” (on Olympian Odes 4.7).

Elsewhere in the Pindar scholia: “There is disagreement over the story (historía) about Typhon. Some have said that he lies below a mountain of Boeotia, and for that reason, there are eruptions of fire there; some, in Phrygia; others, in Lydia. But Artemon, a certain historian, gives a more plausible account. He says absolutely every mountain that has eruptions of fire is set on fire over Typhon. And this is plausible because of the account (historía) of the name; for týphein is ‘to burn’. But Pindar says that Typhon was raised in Cilicia – as Homer also says: ‘In Arimoi, where they say was the abode of Typhoëus’ (Iliad 2.783) –, that he lies under this mountain, and that there are pools and erupting jets of fire there” (on Pythian Odes 1.17).

To delve deeper into this passage of Pindar’s, he writes of “hundred-headed Typhos, the enemy of the gods, who is laid in dread Tartarus; whom the famous Cilician cave once sustained, but now, the sea-fenced banks over Cumae, and Sicily too, press upon his shaggy chest. The heavenly pillar, snow-clad Etna, the year-round nurse of bitter frost, holds him; purest springs of unapproachable fire erupt from its caves. At day, rivers pour forth a burning flow of smoke; in darkness, the rolling crimson flame carries rocks into the deep plain of the sea with a crash; and that reptile of Haphaistos sends up awful streams. It is a wondrous prodigy to behold, a wonder even to hear from those who were there. Such a one is chained within the dark-leafed peaks of Etna, and beneath the plain, and his bed scratches and stings his entire outstretched back” (Pythian Odes 1.16–28).

The scholiasts on this stretch of the poem explain, to select some interesting passages, that “hundred-headed” is meant “not in the numeric sense, but in the sense of many-headed”; that at Cumae, “there happen to be motions of extraordinary waves, gusts of very strong winds, strikes of lightning and flashes of fire, so that the myth is told that Typhon lies under it”; that he calls Mount Etna the heavenly pillar “because of its height, as supporting heaven”; “he calls the fire ‘purest’ (hagnótaton) because it is purifying (hagnostikón), or because of the sulphur arising there, since we use this in purification, as Homer also says: ‘to purify the hall with sulphur’ (Odyssey, 22.482)”.

Pindar calls him “the reptile of Haphaistos” (a dialectal form of Hephaestus’ name) “insofar as the jets of fire are sent up from him or by him” (seeing as “Hephaestus is the lord (despótēs) of fire”, D-Scholia on Iliad 20.74); and finally, “the cause of the piercing is the weight of Etna lying on top of him” (all from the Scholia on Pythian Odes 1.16–28).

[Herodotus is one of the authorities I intend to add here later, gods willing.]