The tapestry of human history, myths and legends has been woven into the fabric of cultures across the globe. Among these captivating tales lie a menagerie of mythical creatures that exist, from the majestic unicorn to the fearsome dragon and the elusive mermaid. These fantastical creatures have captured our imaginations for centuries, inspiring countless stories, artworks and even shaping our perceptions of the world around us. But what if the creatures that have sparked our wonder and curiosity were not solely the products of inventive minds but rather embellished representations of living organisms that once roamed the Earth?
Delving into the annals of both natural history and folklore, a fascinating narrative emerges—one that reveals how many of these mythical entities find their origins rooted in the fascinating, and often overlooked, world of real creatures.
The Kappa (Salamander)
The Kappa or ‘river child’ is considered to be one of many suijin described by the Shintō belief system. Belief in the existence of the Kappa is widespread and there are more than eighty other regional names associated with this creature. Stories of the Kappa are still used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes. Kappa are said to take pleasure in luring people into the water. It is widely believed that the Kappa legends are based on the Hanzaki (Japanese giant salamander) that is known to use its powerful jaws to drag small prey into and then under the water. These creatures can grow to one and a half metres and, while rearing up underwater, would be roughly the same size as a child.
The Kraken (Giant Squid)
This legendary sea monster is a mythical creature that exists. It is said to dwell off the coasts of Norway and Greenland and grow to gigantic sizes. It appears in folklore around the world and was recently featured in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film franchise. The size and depiction of this creature is a pretty fair representation of the mythological Kraken. It has been suggested that the legend originated from sightings of giant squid that can grow up to 12–15 meters (40–50 feet) in length.
The Giant Sea Serpent (Oar Fish)
For hundreds of years sightings of sea serpents have been reported to various authorities and this still continues today. Over 1,200 sea serpent sightings have been officially documented. In general, these beasts are described as snake-like with long low dorsal fins and of a huge size – usually exceeding seven metres. Some creatures have been described as being 25 metres in length with a body width of over a metre. Many scientist believe that these legends were based not on a serpent but on the Oarfish. Oarfish are large, greatly elongated, pelagic lampriform fish belonging to the small family Regalecidae. The truth is that they do look like serpents and one of the longest that was captured did indeed measure 11 metres in length.
The Mermaid (Dugong)
The conviction that there are Mermaids and Mermen living in the seas is one of the oldest beliefs to appear in human history and can be found just about anywhere in the world. Dating back to around 1000bc, the first stories appeared in ancient Assyria and tell how the goddess Atargatis transmuted herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover. The most famous of all the mermaid stories is probably ‘The Little Mermaid’ written by by Hans Christian Anderson and published in 1837. More recently the story was adapted by Disney Studious and is one of the most popular animated films of all time. Researchers believe that the myths and legends behind these stories can be traced to the Dugong (Sea Cow) that could – in certain conditions – quite easily be mistaken for a human with a fish like tail. Also, Sailors would find the skeletons of Dugong which, because of the flipper-hand bone formation looked remarkable human.
The Unicorn (Narwhal / Rhino)
Of all the mythical creatures that people believed once existed, the Unicorn must is one of the most popular and mystical. The unicorn has appeared on the ancient seals of the Indus Valley Civilization and has been featured in the natural history writings of the Ancient Greeks. Unicorns are generally believed to be white, horse-like animals with a sing spiral horn that have magical abilities. The fact that the Greeks believed that the unicorn really existed suggests that they were regularly receiving independent accounts of the animals. Researchers now believe that these were description of White Rhinos from Africa. At the same time sailors and explorers were regularly finding the spiral horns of the Narwhal and it probably didn’t take early artists long to combine the two and create the unicorn. Rhinos and Narwhals are the only two living creatures to feature a centralised horn.
The Dragon (Fossils / Komodo)
Myths and legends about dragons date back thousands of years and, in their various forms, can be found from the farthest reaches of China to the Highlands of Scotland. There is something wonderful about a giant flying beast that is often magical and able to breathe fire. How is it that these legends of such creatures appeared in so many places around the world? Researchers believe that the answer lies in the accidental discovery of dinosaur fossils. What would ancient peoples have thought if they discovered the skull of a T-Rex? Here was absolute proof of a creature many times larger than any living beast. Gigantic teeth blackened with age or could that be fire? Of course Dragons must exist! It also helped that stories of giant lizards – Komodo Dragons and Iguanas – were actually true.
The Okapi (Giraffe Horse )
This is another mythical creature that does exist. For centuries travellers in North Africa had heard stories of an animal that was half zebra and half giraffe. Over time these tales spread across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece and beyond. Explorers search for the creature but encountered nothing but failure. Finally, just as the creature was about to be awarded the status of myth it was actually discovered by Sir Harry Johnston, who first acquired an okapi specimen for science from the Ituri Forest. Although the okapi has striped markings suggestive of zebras, it is most closely related to the giraffe. The okapi and the giraffe are the only living members of the family Giraffidae.
Cyclops (Elephant Skulls)
Greek and Roman mythology explains that the Cyclops were an ancient race of giants each of which had a single eye in the middle of his forehead. Along with their sing eye, these creatures had protruding teeth and were said to be vicious and partial to human flesh. The legend of the cyclops is believed to have originated when ancient Greeks discovered the skulls and bones of Deinotherium giganteum (really huge terrible beast) which was a relative of modern elephants. Skulls of Deinotherium giganteum have an extremely large nasal opening in the centre of the skull that could easily be mistaken for an eye socket and could well be the evidence used for tales of the terrifying one-eyed Cyclops.
Bigfoot / Yeti (Upright Bear)
Best described as half-man and half-ape, legends of these large hominids are common in almost every part of the World. In the cold mountains Tibet they’re known as the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) while in the tropical jungles and ravines of Southern Africa they’re known as Raka. The Japanese call them Hibagon while Americans know them as either Bigfoot or Sasquatch. Researchers are divided regarding these creatures. Some believe that they are based upon actual cryptids and like the Okapi will one day be proven to actually exist. Other researchers believe that the legends are based on bears that have taken to walking upright – in particular, a rare hybrid of the polar bear. DNA tests on alleged Yeti hair samples recently revealed a new species of unknown bear could well exist and may have given rise to the Tibetan version of the legend.
The Griffin (Protoceratops)
The Griffin is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and rear legs of a lion together with the head and wings of an eagle. Its forelegs are also those of an eagle. It purportedly laid eggs in ground nests and defended deposits of gold located in wilderness areas. In 1993, Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, proposed that the griffin legend came into being after the discovery of the fossilized remains of Protoceratops were found in gold mines in the Tian Shan and Altai Mountains of Scythia in present-day south-eastern Kazakhstan. The hypothesis remains strongly contested but has also received a great deal of mainstream acceptance.