Monsters and mythical creatures have always captured the human imagination. They are humanity’s answer to things we can’t explain, and proof that storytelling is our oldest art form. Before we had access to a great wealth of information about the world, there were a lot of things we had no name for. Palaeontology, the study of fossils, is a relatively new science and for a long time, so if someone dug up a bone and didn’t know what it belonged to, their imagination would run wild.
We have many of our popular monsters due to one thing being mistaken for another. Pre-history, it was rare to know what a human skeleton looked like, let alone the skeleton of an animal you had never seen before.
You’ve surely heard of most of these mythical creatures, but you might not know how they came to be.
Common depictions of unicorns come from medieval Europe, but they’ve been around for a long time. These horned horses became a symbol of Christianity, representing purity and dedication. They’re the epitome of virtuousness and are said to be so rare that if one approaches you, it’s considered a blessing. In the Middle Ages, unicorn horns were highly sought after and they were believed to have healing properties. These horns were sometimes crushed up into a powder as medicine.
But where were these horns coming from?
Rhinos were the most likely inspiration for these magical creatures. Through word-of-mouth stories and illustrations based on vague descriptions, it’s easy to see how a quadrupedal beast with a horn on its head could become a unicorn. So that explains the creature, but not the physical horns that were found.
These horns actually came from narwhals, large whales with an eight-foot-long canine tooth protruding from their head. The spiral shape and ivory colour are strikingly similar to unicorn illustrations.
Cyclopes – yes, I’m a pedant, so I’m using the early plural – were a race of one-eyed giants in Greek mythology. The original cyclopes were the sons of Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky), and forged powerful weapons for the gods. Later, in Homer’s Odyssey, the cyclops Polyphemus is a brutal shepherd who eats several of Odysseus’s men.
Giants exist in some form in nearly every culture. The concept of “human but big” plays on primal fears. So where does the single-eyed mythical creature factor into the equation? Some believe that the ancient Greeks found the skull of an extinct species of elephant, and mistook it for a cyclops’ skull. This would be an easy enough mistake to make; these skulls had a large single hole for the elephant’s trunk.
Human-like creatures with aquatic tails are a cornerstone of many mythologies, including Greek, Roman, and African. Due to their huge cultural significance worldwide, there’s no single definition of a mermaid. Sometimes they’re benevolent fey creatures who save people from drowning; other times, they’re vicious beings who purposely drown sailors for their own enjoyment. Traditionally they’re depicted as human from the waist up, and fish from the waist down. But modern interpretations make them more fish-like all over, giving them scaly green skin or serrated teeth like a shark’s. I love both versions, but I’m really fond of monstrous mermaids. You can get really creative with how they look!
So these mythical creatures have existed since ancient times, but there have been reported sightings of them well into the modern age. How is this explained?
Manatees. These aquatic mammals feed on sea grass and kelp. They’re famously mild-mannered and unafraid of humans. Many sailors during America’s colonisation, including Christopher Colombus, claimed to see mermaids on their travels. From a distance, and possibly with heat-induced madness, it would be easy enough to mistake a manatee for a mermaid.
Popularised through Ancient Greek mythology, these mythical creatures were brilliant red-and-yellow birds whose eggs could only hatch by being consumed by flame. The Greek version of these birds resembled peacocks in illustrations, but the phoenix was actually borrowed from a different Ancient Egyptian creature; the bennu. Bennus were associated with Ra, the Sun God, which is where they get their bright colours. But these illustrations don’t look like peacocks; their tails are less ornamental, and they’re a dark pink colour. Was the bennu purely imaginary, or did it have roots elsewhere?
Many believe the bennu was inspired by flamingos. They match the colour description, and they live in tropical areas. As I mentioned in my flamingo post, they make their nests in incredibly hostile environments, including salty water capable of stripping your skin. Seeing these majestic birds rising out of the salt pans during a heatwave would have certainly been inspiring.