As we’ve already established, supernatural elements informed much of mankind’s early written works, from the various texts of the world’s religions to cultural folklore and myths to one of humanity’s first pieces of fiction—The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Let’s examine some other early works of horror fiction from the dawn of civilization, starting in 1500 B.C. with the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur—a tale of bestiality, royal intrigue, and man-eating monsters.
The story begins in Athens, where the Panathenaic Games (a precursor to the Olympics) are taking place. Prince Androgeos, the son of Crete’s King Minos and Queen Pasiphae, sails to Athens to participate, and wows the crowd with his skill and prowess. This angers the nephews of King Aegeus of Athens, and they assassinate Androgeos. Seeking justice, a vengeful Minos sails his superior fleet to Athens, and demands that Aegeus turn over the assassins. If he does, Athens will be spared. Unfortunately, since Aegeus has fifty nephews, and doesn’t know which one was behind the murder, he strikes a deal with Minos. Every nine years, the seven most courageous young men and the seven most beautiful young women of Athens will be sent as tribute to Crete, where they will be placed in a maze called the Labyrinth, which is inhabited by a monstrous, flesh-eating half-man, half-bull called the Minotaur. (Which, as it turns out, is the son of Queen Pasiphae, who fell in love with it’s father, a bull, and had her craftsmen build her a wooden cow that she could climb inside of to mate with the beast.) Twenty-seven years later, on the advent of the third tribute, young Theseus volunteers to kill the monster and stop this horror. Aided by Minos’s own daughter, he navigates the Labyrinth with a ball of string, finds the sleeping monster, and slays it.
Homer’s Iliad and its sequel, the Odyssey, are also full of monsters and the supernatural. The two are some of the oldest extant works in Western literature, and were written around the 8th century BC. In them, we have centaurs (just like in The Epic of Gilgamesh), satyrs, Chimaira the she-goat (who has a lion’s body, a snake’s tail, and a goat’s head), Gorgo the Gorgon (whose horrific visage scares away other evil), the devilish duo of Skylla (a man-eating sea monster) and Charybdis (a sentient and evil whirlpool), the evil sorceress Kirke (who turns the characters into pigs), cyclopes (the plural of cyclops), cannibals, and an additional clan of cannibal cyclopes.
Related to the Odyssey is the Oresteia, a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Asechylus in 458 BC. While the three plays do feature a ghost and a curse, they are more concerned with murder and palace intrigue. What makes them of note to horror enthusiasts is the missing fourth play—Proteus. It is based on the satyr from Odyssey, but only a two-line fragment exists.
Another important work of both early horror fiction and Old English literature is Beowulf, written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet. Scholars are unsure when the story was written (most think it was around 700 AD), but the manuscript dates to somewhere between 975 and 1025 AD. Beowulf is a hero of the Geats (a North Germanic tribe), and comes to the aid of the Danish king Hrothgar, saving his kingdom from two monsters. The first creature is Grendel, a giant half-man, half-monster with toxic acid blood and impenetrable skin, who is said to be descended from the Biblical figure Cain. Grendel has been busying himself with eating King Hrothgar’s men. What happens next is reminiscent of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s battle with Gugalanna. Where Gilgamesh tossed one of Gugalanna’s legs at Ishtar, Beowulf rips Grendel’s arm from his socket and displays it for all in the kingdom to see. Much like Ishtar in The Epic of Gilgamesh, this enrages Grendel’s mother, who vows revenge. Beowulf fights her at the bottom of a lake. Later, he also slays a dragon.
If it seems like I’m glossing over the latter two battles, that’s because I am. What’s important to note about Beowulf is not just how The Epic of Gilgamesh inspired it, but how Beowulf would go on to inspire horror and fantasy writers for decades to come. Neil Gaiman, John Gardner, J.R.R. Tolkien and others have written their own tales featuring Grendel. We’ve seen toxic, acidic blood pop up everywhere from the Alien franchise to The X-Files.
Another early work that has inspired the genre for centuries is Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the first part of his epic Divine Comedy poem (which is followed by Purgatorio and concluded in Paradiso). Inferno is a meta-fictional chronicle of Dante’s journey through Hell, accompanied by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. While the Divine Comedy, as a whole, acts as an allegory, representing the soul’s journey to God, the Inferno is filled with symbolism, descriptions, characters, and situations that have informed and influenced horror fiction—particularly portrayals of Hell—to today. Indeed, even before Dante and Virgil enter the gates of Hell (and spy that all-too-familiar slogan “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”), Dante is confronted by not one, but three monstrous beasts. As they journey through the nine circles of Hell, the reader is treated to more monsters, lost souls, screams, the anguished wails of the damned, fallen or rebel angels, blood, pus, loathsome maggots, giant worms, evil insects, and finally, Satan himself, held in eternal bondage.
Just as influential—not just on the horror genre, but the science fiction and fantasy genres, as well—is Syrian author Lucian of Samosata’s second century AD True Stories (also known as True History). A satirical novel making fun of the Greek tales (although Syrian, Lucian spoke and read Greek), it is the earliest known work of fiction to include such elements as travel to outer space, alien lifeforms, and interplanetary warfare. (Note: I specified fiction. The argument can be made that many of the world’s religious texts make reference to such things, depending on your translation.)
Like Dante in the Divine Comedy, Lucian makes himself the main character in True Stories, and recounts his metafictional journey through the Strait of Gibraltar, seeking to explore the lands beyond. Blown off course, Lucian and his crew discover a mysterious island on which they find evidence of both human civilization and a species of giants. After departing the island, a whirlwind lifts their ship into outer space and they crash land on the Moon, where they end up caught in the middle of a war between the King of the Moon and the King of the Sun, who are fighting over colonization of the Morning Star. Centaurs and other monsters are present, as are the first appearance of mushroom men (who would appear in later incarnations in the work of William Hope Hodgson and Edgar Rice Burroughs, not to mention H.P. Lovecraft’s dread Fungi from Yuggoth), and a race of dog-faced men who fly around on winged acorns. When they finally return to Earth, Lucian and his crew end up swallowed by a two-hundred-mile-long sea monster, and encounter a civilization of fish-people and crab-people who live inside. The novel ends with them discovering an unknown continent, and promises more adventures to come.
Sadly, those further adventures were never recounted by Lucian—and yet, they have been, in a sense. The further writings of Lucian of Samosata, and Homer, and Dante Alighieri, and Aeschylus, and the anonymous author of Beowulf have been continued by generations of horror fiction scribes, from Mary Shelley and Lord Dunsany to Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, Clive Barker, and Stephen King.
Horror fiction has a rich ancient history, and when you read today’s modern works, you can hear those restless spirits of old, whispering to you from the pages, haunting us now as they did in the time of Thurg, etching on the walls of his cave.
Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.