Orthrus was a dog with two heads that guarded the precious cattle of the giant Geryon withthree bodies. The beast lived with his master on the island of Erytheia, on the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The tenth labor of Heracles was to take by force the cattle from Geryon and carry them to king Eurystheus.
|Typhon and Echidna
|Island of Erytheia
|Caucasian Eagle, Cerberus, Chimera, Colchian Dragon, Crommyonian Sow, and Lernaean Hydra
|Nemean Lion, The Indomitable Beast, Sphinx, Monster That Plagued The Road to the City of Thebes
|Orthros, Orthrus, Orthus
Origins of Orthrus
No doubt a dangerous and fearsome beast himself, Orthrus was one of the seven monstrous children of Typhon, a monstrous serpentine giant and Echidna. His siblings were the Caucasian Eagle, Cerberus, Chimera, the Colchian Dragon, the Crommyonian Sow, and the Lernaean Hydra. As the two-headed Orthrus was similar in appearance to his brother Cerberus – the three-headed guardian of Hades, the god of the underworld – so he was in purpose, protecting Geryon’s cattle. At some point in his life, Orthrus mated with Chimera and fathered the Nemean Lion and the Sphinx.
Orthrus (Ὄρθρος) in ancient Greek means the time right before dawn, the twilight. It is not sure why Geryon’s watchdog was named after this, but the impression created from the dark hour before the first light of day surely adds to the beast’s frightening reputation.
Just like his brother Cerberus, Orthrus was a ferocious and deadly watchdog that kept safe the cattle of his master Geryon. He was a strong beast, capable of protecting the herd of bulls and cows on his own. Despite the fact he is not as well known as Cerberus, he was a worthy guardian.
The myth of Orthrus
Named after one of the Hesperides Nymphs, Guardians of Nature, the island of Erytheia (the red island) was located on the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a beautiful and fertile place, always fruitful and blessed with sunlight. But, the horrible three-bodied and three-headed giant Geryon, who lived there was not at all pleasing. Indeed he was a cruel monster and all he cared for were his red cattle. To ensure their safety and that no one would steal them from him, Geryon had his two-headed dog and a herdsman named Eurytion to watch them over.
The first and most important guardian of Geryon’s cattle was a wild creature called Orthrus. He was a large dog with two heads and acute senses. Orthrus was strong, overprotective and vigilant. He was supported by the herdsman Eurytion, and listened to him from time to time, even though his real master was Geryon.
Not long after Heracles had set his foot on the island of Erytheia, Orthrus caught his scent. The beast rushed swiftly against the intruder, but in doing so met his demise. The demigod hero, who was no ordinary man, killed Orthrus with his club before taking out Eurytion as well. Geryon was alerted to Heracles’ presence on his island, but he soon fell by the hero’s poison arrows. Heracles then took the cattle and brought them to king Eurystheus thus completing his tenth labor.
On various amphorae, Orthus appears as a two-headed dog either dying or lying dead from one or two of Heracles’ arrows. Although the myth states that he was slain with one hit from Heracles’ club, the vase painters preferred to depict the watchdog with arrows protruding from his dead body. Very rarely Orthrus is shown with a serpent’s tail in the same fashion with Cerberus.
Roles and Responsibilities
He had to guard and protect the most valued cattle of his master. That was Orthrus’ one and only responsibility.
In the old texts
Hesiod in Theogony and Pindar in his Isthmian Odes refer to Orthrus.
‘τὸν μὲν ἄρ᾽ ἐξενάριξε βίη Ἡρακληείη
βουσὶ πάρ᾽ εἰλιπόδεσσι περιρρύτῳ εἰν Ἐρυθείῃ
ἤματι τῷ, ὅτε περ βοῦς ἤλασεν εὐρυμετώπους
Τίρυνθ᾽ εἰς ἱερήν, διαβὰς πόρον Ὠκεανοῖο,
Ὄρθόν τε κτείνας καὶ βουκόλον Εὐρυτίωνα
σταθμῷ ἐν ἠερόεντι πέρην κλυτοῦ Ὠκεανοῖο.’
‘him (Geryon) slew the mighty Heracles
by his ungainly cattle in sea-girt Erytheia
on that day when he drove the wide-browed cattle
to holy Tiryns, and had crossed the ford of Ocean
and killed Orthrus and the herdsman Eurytion
in the dim stead out beyond glorious Ocean.’
(Hesiod’s Theogony 289-294)
Apollodorus mentions Orthrus in his work Bibliotheca.
‘He owned red cattle (Geryon), of which Eurytion
was the herdsman, and Orthrus, the two-headed hound,
begotten by Typhon on Echidna, was the watchdog.’
(Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca 2.5.33)
Orthrus does not appear in any Roman works.
Orthrus was the loyal and vicious two-headed dog that guarded Geryon’s red cattle. He was the son of Typhon and Echidna, and he was a monster just like his siblings. He was killed by Heracles who came to steal the cattle he so devoutly watched over.
Orthrus had two children from Chimera, his consort and also his sister. His offspring were two of the well-known monsters of Greek Mythology; the Nemean Lion and the Sphinx.
Featured Image Credit: Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons