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Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: Ophiotaurus

Ah, monsters. Who doesn’t love a good, unique monster now and then? As great as it is to read about another dragon or giant spider, there’s something special about a hero encountering a strange, unknown creature that adds both tension and wonder to a story.

That said, coming up with a monster that’s “different” can be quite difficult—and even visualizing a writer’s description can be a challenge as a reader—but conveniently, the Greeks and Romans left behind a diverse assortment of creatures and monsters for us to draw on.

Many of these have been “lost” to time—some in favour of the more popular monsters, some more literally—so if you’re just joining us here in the new year, this series is designed to introduce writers and readers to some of the fantastic creatures from Classical mythology that have parallels (or derivatives) in today’s modern fantasy literature.

Unlike many of the other creatures we’ve looked at in the past, today’s monster discussion will be unusually brief. Why? Because there is, quite literally, only one known reference to this monster in Classical literature.

Ophiotaurus (mosaic)

It Doesn’t Moo

Ophiotaurus, literally meaning “serpent-bull,” is one of those Classical creatures whose name provides a basic description of what it is—part bull, and part serpent. The front of the monster is the black bull half, and as we’ve commonly seen in Classical mythology, the back half is the serpent’s tail.

The sole reference we have to the Ophiotaurus is found in Ovid’s Fasti, a Roman poem written sometime between the 1st-century B.C. and A.D.:

“The Kite star Milvus … If you want to know what bestowed heaven on that bird: Saturnus was thrust from his realm by Jove. In anger he stirs the mighty Titanes to arms and seeks the assistance owed by fate. There was a shocking monster born of Mother Terra, a bull, whose back half was a serpent. Roaring Styx imprisoned it, warned by the three Parcae, in a black grove with a triple wall.”

Here, Ovid is explaining how the kite (bird) star Milvus came to his position in the sky. This apparently had something to do with the unfortunate Ophiotaurus, who seems to have done nothing wrong apart from being born.

But It Has Magical Guts

Ophiotaurus by ValchitsaAh, but when you’re born with magical intestines…things are different. People want to meet you. And also kill you.

Ovid’s reference to the creature goes on to describe how the monster’s entrails would grant magical powers to the person who burned them in a fire—but not just any powers. No, the Ophiotaurus’ guts would grant the power to defeat the gods.

Which, all things considered, seems like a crappy power to be born with, since it immediately puts you in the line of fire for just about every single power-hungry hero or other god around:

“Whoever fed the bull’s guts to consuming flames was destined to defeat the eternal gods.”

And, of course, it was only a matter of time before someone made the attempt:

“Briareus slays it with an adamantine axe and prepares to feed the flames its innards. Jupiter commands the birds to grab them; the kite brought them to him and reached the stars on merit.”

In other words, even if you’ve killed a magical-intestine monster and plan to use its innards to defeat the gods…don’t mess with Zeus. Er, Jupiter. Same thing.

Roman Storyteller, Greek Story

Ophiotaurus by MO-ffieAs it turns out, the reference to the monster made by Ovid is likely drawn from part of a lost Greek epic, the Titanomachia (War of the Titans), within which the giant Aigaios (Latin: Aegaeon, called by his son’s name Briareus in Ovid’s reference) was an ally of the Titans and strove to defeat them.

Always a step ahead, Zeus sent an eagle (kite) to retrieve the Ophiotaurus’ entrails before they could be burned…and you probably know what happens next.

To make up for the monster’s, uh, “sacrifice,” it’s thought that the Ophiotaurus was placed in the sky as a constellation—which actually means that later in history, the combined constellations of Taurus and Cetus were likely given a new designation.

The Unlucky Cow-Serpent

As far as we know, the Ophiotaurus did nothing to deserve being slaughtered, aside from being born. However, having the power to overthrow the gods is a rather significant ability, even if it means having to kill the monster to do so—truly, it’s a power that many heroes and villains desire, for different reasons, making this mysterious (and mostly lost to history) monster a viable option in a fantasy tale.

It’s the kind of monster whose mere existence is a test of someone’s true character. After all, if you had the power to defeat the gods…would you?

Title image by Valchitsa.

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  1. […] recent installment of Faith M. Broughan’s series on monsters in Greek mythology focuses on the Ophiotaurus. There is only one extant reference to this creature in all of Greco-Roman literature, but it does […]

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