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Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: The Telkhines

In this, the eighth instalment of the series on lesser known creatures and monsters of Classical myth, I want to take you far, far away from where we were last month. If you were squeamish about giant, killer ants, don’t worry—we’re leaving the desert and heading toward the ocean. And instead of creepy bug legs, our Monster of the Month has…uh…flippers. Fish-flippers.

Nine Telchines by SlightlyMetaphysicalPerhaps we’d better start at the beginning.

When “Dog-Faced” Isn’t an Insult

Once upon a time, the ancient gods Pontus and Gaia had a fling. Or maybe it was Tartarus and Nemesis. Or was it Thalass and Pontus? Or possibly the Furies got a little too excited over the blood of the castrated god, Ouranos. All right, who the heck knows. Genealogy in Greek myth makes little to no sense, but that’s part of the problem when your storytelling culture has its origins in oral recitation. Anyway, some combination of the ancient gods connected in the vertical way, and begat four (or nine) mysterious offspring: Sea daemons, also known as fish children. Indeed, these creatures were a sight to behold, for each was born with flippers for hands, and the head of a dog.

Those Creatures Got Skillz

One might assume that having fish-flippers for hands would impede one’s ability to perform tasks requiring nimble dexterity. Tasks such as welding…or smelting…or anything involving molten metal, really. Apparently, as children of the gods, the Telkhines wouldn’t let something so insignificant as lineage (or physical impossibility) get in the way of their professional success, because it was only a matter of time before these fish children became known as highly skilled metallurgists. Ancient Greek geographer and historian Strabo claimed they actually invented metal-working in the first place, using their craft to form the extremely sharp sickle used by Kronos to castrate his father (who was Ouranos; yes, if you read the first paragraph of this article, that’s the same guy…no one ever said Greek mythology made sense).

…Which They Used For Evil

Merwolf by LuvlyMysteryBecause of their impressive skill, the goddess Rhea gave the Telkhines a baby Poseidon to nurture and care for. As little Poseidon grew older, these metal-working fish people made Poseidon his famous trident. A perfect gift for a growing god! But as the Telkhines became more accomplished in their craft, and introduced more artistic creations to mankind—such as the concept of making statues of the gods—they grew more prideful and paranoid about their craft. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that: “…the Telkhines were also wizards and could summon clouds and rain and hail at their will and likewise could even bring snow; these things, the accounts tell us, they could do even as could the Magi of Persia; and they could also change their natural shapes and were jealous of teaching their arts to others.” According to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, it was only a matter of time before their abilities turned to dark purposes, which the other gods found problematic. At this time, the Telkhines were living on the island of Rhodes, where they stayed because their “evil eyes had blighted everything” (Ovid).

The Telkhinian Blight

In order to protect their “craft”, the Telkhines used their magical abilities to create a poisonous substance from “the water of the Styx mixed with sulphur,” which they poured on animals and plants “in order to destroy them” (Strabo). The other gods, being rather fond of animals and plants, realized that this would never do, and devised a scheme to kill them. The ancient sources disagree on how this was actually accomplished, but evidently any one of these methods will kill a dog-headed fish creature:

– Flood – Zeus’ thunderbolt – Poseidon’s trident – Apollo in wolf-form

Without asking the obvious questions (such as, how could a flood kill fish people?), the important take-away is that the Telkhines were not immortals, despite their magical talents.

So, They’re Dead…But Not Really

Nine Telchines by SlightlyMetaphysical (detail)Like any good creature of myth, the Telkhines were never wiped out completely. Various sources suggest that certain female Telkhines were spared, though of course, no one agrees on exactly which Telkhines they were. There are fourteen known names of the Telkhines from Greek texts (despite there being only nine of them…or four…don’t ask), which provides a nice variety for the writer wishing to somehow include these strange creatures in a novel. And it likely didn’t escape your notice, good reader, that the Telkhines bear more than a passing resemblance—motivationally speaking, that is—to the vast majority of villains in fantasy literature. They’re skilled social outcasts who receive a taste of power, become addicted, and want more and more until their entire morality is so twisted that they find power in their perceived control over life and death. Despite the somewhat inescapable detail of the Telkhines being fish-flippered dog-faces, there’s an element of the familiar here. Monstrous though they may look, it’s in the motivation of these lesser known creatures of Greek myth that the fantasy reader and writer will find the most parallel.

Title image by SlightlyMetaphysical.

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