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Porphyrion

Porphyrion, together with his brother Alcyoneus, was one of the leaders of the Giants, monstrous offspring of the earth goddess Gaia. He tried to overthrow the gods during a great war known as the Gigantomachy, but was struck down by Zeus and Heracles.

By Avi Kapach5 min read • Last updated on May. 26th, 2022
  • Yes. Porphyrion was one of the Giants, strong and vicious children of Gaia who fought (and were defeated by) the Olympian gods.

  • In the standard tradition, Porphyrion was killed by Zeus and Heracles while trying to rape Hera during the Gigantomachy. But there were also other versions of Porphyrion’s death, including one in which he was struck down by Apollo.

Porphyrion was the most powerful of the Giants—violent children of the earth goddess Gaia who challenged the Olympian gods in a war known as the “Gigantomachy.” Porphyrion, along with his brother Alcyoneus, led the Giant army into battle against the Olympians in the Thracian town of Pallene (or Phlegrae). But the Giants were ultimately defeated, and Porphyrion himself was killed by either Zeus, Heracles, or Apollo (depending on the version).

#Etymology

The name “Porphyrion” (Greek Πορφυρίων, translit. Porphyríōn; also spelled Πορφυρίον/Porphyríon or Φροφυρίον/Phorphyríon) is connected to the Greek word πορφύρεος (porphýreos), meaning “purple.” This most likely reflects Porphyrion’s role as the king of the Giants: because purple dye was extremely expensive to manufacture in antiquity, purple came to be regarded as an inherently kingly color.1

#Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Porphyrion

    Πορφυρίων (translit. Porphyríōn)

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [pawr-FEER-ee-uhn]

    /pɔrˈfɪər i ən/

#Attributes

#General

Porphyrion was one of the Giants (or “Gigantes”), strong and violent children of Gaia best known for waging a war against the Olympians. In early art and literature, the Giants were usually imagined as heavily armored warriors who looked more or less like ordinary humans. But it soon became more common to represent them as monstrous creatures—human from the waist up but with serpents for feet.

Porphyrion was one of the strongest of the Giants. He was usually called their leader as well—a role he was sometimes said to share with his brother Alcyoneus.2 According to most sources, Porphyrion was born in Pallene or Phlegrae, a city in Thrace, where he lived with the other Giants.3 

#Iconography

Like his Giant brethren, Porphyrion’s image in ancient art varied over time. In early art, he typically had the appearance of an ordinary human, but after the fourth century BCE it became more common to represent him as a grotesque creature, with serpents in place of feet. 

Porphyrion often appeared in artistic depictions of the Gigantomachy, an extremely popular subject in ancient art. He was always shown as the opponent of Zeus.4

#Family

As one of the Giants, Porphyrion was a son of Gaia, the primordial goddess of the earth. In the standard account, he and the other Giants were born after the blood of the sky god Uranus fell to the earth and inseminated Gaia.5 But according to another source, Gaia had the Giants with Tartarus, the divine embodiment of the deepest part of the Underworld.6

The siblings of Porphyrion and the Giants included the Erinyes (or “Furies”) and the Meliae, obscure ash-tree nymphs who were also born from the blood of Uranus. Porphyrion also had a number of half-siblings through Gaia, including the Cyclopes, the Hecatoncheires, and the Titans.

#Family Tree

#Mythology

#The Gigantomachy

Porphyrion’s only mythological role was the one he played in the Gigantomachy (the war between the Giants and the gods). Spurred on by their mother Gaia, who hated the Olympians, the Giants attempted to defeat the gods and become rulers of the cosmos in their stead. 

Upon learning that only a mortal could defeat the Giants, the gods enlisted the assistance of Heracles, the strongest mortal hero of all. When both sides had assembled their forces, a battle took place at Pallene or Phlegrae in Thrace (though some sources claimed the conflict occurred elsewhere).

The fall of the giants by Guido Reni, circa 1590-1642

The Fall of the Giants by Guido Reni (between 1590 and 1642).

Statens Museum for Kunst (National Gallery) / Public Domain

The Giants were, of course, defeated by the Olympians and their mortal ally Heracles. In the standard tradition, Porphyrion himself battled Zeus in a showdown between the king of the Giants and the king of the gods. Zeus was finally able to distract Porphyrion by inspiring in him an overwhelming desire to sleep with Hera, the queen of the gods. When Porphyrion tried to violate Hera, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt, and Heracles finished the job by shooting him with one of his arrows.7 

In another tradition, however, Porphyrion was slain by the god Apollo.8

#Pop Culture

Porphyrion sometimes appears together with the other Giants in modern adaptations of Greek mythology. For instance, he is the leader of the Giants (called “Gigantes”) and one of the main villains in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus book series.

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

The following is a select list of some of the principal Greek and Roman literary sources that deal with the myth of Porphyrion. For further references, see the notes above.

Greek

  • Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE): The origins of the Giants are described in the Theogony (173ff), though Porphyrion is not mentioned by name.

  • Pindar (ca. 518–ca. 438 BCE): Porphyrion is mentioned as the leader of the Giants in Pythian Ode 8, where he is said to have been defeated by Apollo.

  • Aristophanes (ca. 450–ca. 385 BCE): In the comedy Birds, Porphyrion is allusively mentioned as an enemy of Zeus (553, 1249ff).

  • Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE): Book 4 of the Library of History (71.2ff) contains a rationalized account of the Giants and their war against the gods, but does not mention Porphyrion by name.

  • Apollodorus (first century BCE/first few centuries CE): The Library, a mythological handbook incorrectly attributed to Apollodorus of Athens, gives an important summary of the myths involving Porphyrion, the Giants, and the Gigantomachy (1.6.1–2).

  • Nonnus(fifth century CE): Porphyrion is one of the Giants sent to fight against Dionysus in Book 48 of the Dionysiaca; Gaia promises him the goddess Hebe as a bride if he triumphs (6ff).

Roman

  • Horace (65–8 BCE): Porphyrion is named as one of the Giants who fought against the gods in Horace’s Odes (3.4.49ff).

  • Hyginus (first century CE or later): There is a (somewhat fragmentary) list of Giants in the Fabulae, a mythological handbook of uncertain authorship, but Porphyrion is strangely not included.

  • Claudian (ca. 370–after 404 CE): In the Gigantomachy, a brief poetic account of the war between the Giants and the gods, Porphyrion tries to hurl Delos (the sacred island of Apollo) at the heavens, but he is ultimately slain (114ff).

#Secondary Sources

Gantz, Timothy. “The Battle of the Gods and Gigantes.” In Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 445–54. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Hard, Robin. “The War between the Gods and the Giants.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 81–84. New York: Routledge, 2020.

Smith, William. “Porphyrion (1).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 26, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D42%3Aentry%3Dporphyrion-bio-1.

Theoi Project. “Porphyrion.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Gigante/GigantePorphyrion.html.

Thurmann, Stephanie. “Porphyrion.” In Brill’s New Pauly (Antiquity Volumes), edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1005420.

Vian, Francis. La guerre des géants: le mythe avant l'époque hellénistique. Paris: Klincksieck, 1952.

Vian, Francis. “Porphyrion.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 7, 443–44. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.