Web Theoi
TANAGRAN TRITON
 
Greek Name Transliteration Latin Spelling Translation
Τριτων
Τριτωνες
Tritôn
Tritônes
Triton
Tritones
Of the Third ?
(tritos)
Monstrous Triton, Der Naturen Bloeme manuscript c. 1350, National Library of the Netherlands
Monstrous Triton , Der Naturen Bloeme manuscript
c. 1350, National Library of the Netherlands

THE TANAGRAN TRITON was a fabulous sea-monster with the upper body of a man and the tail of fish. It had red eyes, sea-green hair, scaly skin, and vicious sharp teeth. A specimen was allegedly pickled and put on display in the Greek town of Tanagra.

The creature should not be confused with the sea-god Tritones.


Pausanias, Description of Greece 9. 20. 4 (trans. Jones) (Greek travelogue C2nd A.D.) :
"[At Tanagra in Boiotia:] But a greater marvel still is the Triton. The grander of the two versions of the Triton legend relates that the women of Tanagra before the orgies of Dionysos went down to the sea to be purified, were attacked by the Triton as they were swimming, and prayed that Dionysos would come to their aid. The god, it is said, heard their cry and overcame the Triton in the fight. The other version is less grand but more credible. It says the Triton would waylay and lift all the cattle that were driven to the sea. He used even to attack small vessels, until the people of Tanagra set out for him a bowl of wine. They say that, attracted by the smell, he came at once, drank the wine, flung himself on the shore and slept, and that a man of Tanagra struck him on the neck with and axe and chopped off his head. For this reason the image has no head. And because they caught him drunk, it is supposed that it was Dionysos who killed him.
I saw another Triton among the curiosities at Rome, less in size that the one at Tanagra. The Tritones have the following appearance. On their heads they grow hair like that of marsh frogs not only in colour, but also in the impossibility of separating one hair from another. The rest of their body is rough with fine scales just as is the shark. Under their ears they have gills and a man’s nose; but the mouth is broader and the teeth are those of a beast. Their eyes seem to me blue, and they have hands, fingers and nails like the shells of the murex. Under the breast and belly is a tail like a dophin’s instead of feet."

Aelian, On Animals 13. 21 (trans. Scholfield) (Greek natural history C2nd A.D.) :
"Concerning Tritones, while fishermen assert that they have no clear account or positive proof of their existence, yet there is a report very widely of certain monsters in the sea, of human shape from the head down to the waist. And Demostratos in his Treatise on Fishing says that at Tanagra he has seen a Triton in pickle. It was, he says, in most respects as portrayed in statues and pictures, but its head had been so marred by time and was so far from distinct that it was not easy to make it out or recognise it. ‘And when I touched it there fell from it rough scales quite hard and resistant. And a member of the Council, one of those chosen by lot to regulate the affairs of Greece and entrusted with the government fro a single year, intending to test and prove the nature of what he saw, removed a small piece of the skin and burnt it in the fire; whereupon a noisome smell from the burning object thrown into the flames assailed the nostrils of the bystanders. But’ he says, ‘we were unable to guess whether the creature was born on land or in the sea. The experiment however cost him dear, for shortly afterwards he lost his life while crossing a small, narrow strait in a short, six-oared ferry-boat. And the inhabitants of Tanagra maintained,’ so he says, ‘that this befell him because he profaned the Triton, and they declared that when he was taken lifeless from the sea he disgorged a fluid which smelt like the hide of the Triton at the time when the man cast it into the fire and burnt it.’
As to the quarter from which the Triton strayed and how he came to be cast ashore here, the inhabitants of Tanagra and Demostratos must explain. In view of these facts I blow to the god, and a witness of such authority claims our belief; and Apollon Didymois (of Didyma) [oracle of Apollon Brankhos in Miletos] must be sufficient to guarantee to every man of sound mind and strong intelligence. At any rate he says that the Triton is a creature of the sea, and his words are: ‘A child of Poseidon, portent of the waters, a clear-voiced Triton, encountered as he swam the rush of a hollow vessel.’
If then the omniscient god says that Tritones do exist, we should entertain no doubts on the subject."


Sources:

  • Pausanias, Guide to Greece - Greek Geography C2nd A.D.
  • Aelian, On Animals - Greek Natural History C2nd - C3rd A.D.