Humbaba is the earliest monster in literature that I know about. He was a giant that guarded one of the trees of the god Ea in the ancient epic Gilgamesh, the earliest story on earth, recorded in cuneiform. He was supernaturally fearsome and quite huge, not the kind of entity a mere mortal should oppose. And, of course, there are some monsters in Holy Scripture: those giants that were apparently the offspring of angels and mortals. Later we find Goliath and his huge ilk.
The Cyclops is one of Greek culture’s most impressive monsters. That one-eyed son of the sea-god is mighty strong but also terribly stupid. He allows himself to be duped by the very clever Odysseus in more ways than one. After the Greek epic hero blinds the Cyclops’ one good eye, the creature asks his tormentor’s name. Odysseus replies, “Nobody, Nobody is my name.” Thus, after Odysseus and his men escape and the Cyclops’ equally monstrous brothers ask him who blinded him, he stupidly replies, “Nobody did it. Nobody blinded me.”
There are many monsters in Anglo-Saxon culture, including Grendel, his hag of a mother and a big old dragon who guards treasure. Grendel is said to be a descendant of Cain, who is cursed to be perpetually homeless. In fact, that is one reason the ferocious and hideous creature continues to invade Heorot Hall in Denmark. He can’t stand the fact the Hrothgar and his men enjoy a home while he himself must live out in the swamp with his darkly dangerous mother. Thus evil-minded jealousy is his murderous motivation. And jealousy can be seen as a characteristic of all monsters, both figurative and literal.
As you will recall, Shakespeare later created a different kind of monster in Denmark. No, I don’t mean the ghost, I mean Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius who killed his own brother out of jealousy. He wanted Queen Gertrude for his own. He wanted his brother’s crown for his own. He wanted to rule in Denmark. One cruel act got him all three of his goals—he poured deadly poison into his brother’s ear while he slept. This monster got away with it for a little while because Hamlet was so slow to act. But in the end, his monstrous plot was foiled by a poisoned foil, thereby sending this monster to sulfuric flames forever. The earliest version of this story goes back to the 11th Century. Saxo Grammaticus wrote the History of Denmark and the counterpart of Shakespeare’s Hamlet responded violently to his uncle’s jealousy.
So, why am I so hung up on monsters today? It is because I see one primary motivation behind monster-hood: cowardly jealousy. Most of the time when we find cowardly acts, the companion is jealously. “If you’ve got it and I want it, I’m going to destroy it.” I had a childhood acquaintance that tore up a little boat of mine because he wanted it and I said no. I have been tired of jealous jerks a long time.