A Man-Eating Hog? Meet the Crommyonian Sow
The myths of ancient Greece had their fair share of unusual animals—the Chimera, the man-eating horses of Dionysus, and Pegasus, to name a few. But one that usually oinks its way under the radar is the Crommyonian sow. This giant, pesky pig liked to chow down on human flesh, and it wasn’t until the hero Theseus came along that she was stopped in her hoof-tracks.
Hog Versus Human
The sow, whom Plutarch calls Phaea, was bred by a grumpy old lady in the town of Crommyon. Pseudo-Apollodorus claims that the pig was named after her owner; both were called Phaea. Instead of reining in this hoggish monster, Phaea let her pig waddle free, gobbling up her neighbors and little kids like they were truffles. Diodorus Siculus quips that the hog “beast which excelled in both ferocity and size and was killing many human beings.” Needless to say, this didn’t go over well with the local authorities, but they didn’t approach Pig Phaea, lest they be chomped up, too.
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Theseus and the Crommyonian Sow, with Phaea.
Phaea was a worthy adversary that Plutarch says “gave Theseus a great deal of trouble, despite being a female animal,” “a savage and formidable wild beast, by no means an enemy to be despised.” That’s understandable, given she was thought to be the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. The last-named was a half-human, half-serpent who birthed many of mythology’s great monsters. With her hundred-headed mate Typhon, Echidna produced the likes of Cerberus, three-headed guard dog of Hades; the deadly Scylla, who almost devoured Odysseus on his way home; and the Chimera.
Theseus Slaying Minotaur (1843), bronze sculpture by Antoine-Louis Barye.
Theseus Comes to the Rescue
So along came Theseus, the answer to the Greeks’ prayers. This incident came before he killed the Minotaur or even came to the throne of Athens; instead, the young hunk was on a quest to clear the countryside of thieves, criminals, and other nuisances, just like his hero, Heracles (some scholars think the pig Phaea was considered a counterpart to Heracles’s Erymanthian boar). By now, Theseus had already done away with Sinis, a.k.a. Pitycocamptes, a rogue who asked passersby to help him bend pine trees down to the ground; then, he’d let go while the innocents were still holding on. These poor people would be flung into the air and killed. No wonder Theseus flung him off a tree to his death, a particularly apt punishment.
Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar, by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1634 (Museo del Prado).
Theseus’ logical next step, after taking out a bad guy like that, was to kill another local problem: the evil pig Phaea. He deemed her a worthy opponent and “went out of his way on purpose to meet and engage her, so that he might not seem to perform all his great exploits out of mere necessity,” says Plutarch; basically, he made sure to engage bad guys—and animals—not just those that were directly in his path. Why? Theseus felt that “it was the part of a brave man to chastise villainous and wicked men when attacked by them, but to seek out and overcome the more noble wild beasts.” And he did so, offing the hog, then going on to kill some more bad guys before meeting his real dad (King Aegeus of Athens), going to Crete, and doing much more.
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Theseus fighting against the Crommyonian Sow
There is an alternate version to this story, which Plutarch also mentions. He reports that Phaea wasn’t a pig, but a cruel lady robber who was nicknamed “Sow” because “of the foulness of her life and manners,” but she still died at Theseus’ hand. In Greek, “Phaea” means “dusky,” which would be a reference to the female thief’s dirty appearance. Puns galore!