Throughout human history, different cultures have turned to myth to explain their observations of the natural world. Sometimes when encountering strange new animals or buried fossils, this impulse to explain their surroundings could get a little out of hand and the stories could get, well…a little bit exaggerated.
Over the years, paleontologists, historians and anthropologists have worked to uncover the origins of these stories. Today we tackle seven creatures you’ve probably heard about in fairytales, folklore and epic fantasy — and explore the fascinating truth behind the myth.
Photo credit: Rob Boudon
No one is really sure where the unicorn myth comes from, but there are a number of potential sources. It’s possible the stories are based on recollections of now-extinct, one-horned hooved animals like the Elasmotherium, an ancient relative of the rhino. Some also believe that mutant dear, goats or antelope with only a single horn may have been mistaken for a new species. In the middle ages, Narwhal horns were frequently passed off as unicorn horns by merchants, lending a sense of believability to the tales.
Perhaps the most compelling theory of all? Maybe rhinos are just fat unicorns. The earliest account of the “unicorn” was given by Ctesias, a 4th century Greek doctor who never saw the creatures himself. He simply copied down descriptions of creatures mentioned by Indian travelers. Modern experts believe he probably fused descriptions of several different animals in his account, and that the inspiration for the unicorn myth was probably the Indian rhinoceros. This seems pretty plausible when you realize that 13th century traveler Marco Polo at one point misidentified a Javan rhinoceros as a unicorn.
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The griffin is a common figure in Ancient Greek myth and art, said to possess the body of a lion, but the head and wings of an eagle. While it’s possible this creature is the result of early storytellers simply combining existing animals, folklorist Adrienne Mayor has a different theory.
She believes that ancient excavators in the Gobi desert actually uncovered the fossilized bones of the protoceratops — and seeing the beaked face and four-legged body, the legend of the griffin was born. Through trade with the Greeks, this story slowly spread across the ancient world.
Photo credit: Baltazar Vischi
It’s not hard to come to a similar conclusion when you consider dragon myths. When ancient people encountered dinosaur fossils, they came to the natural conclusion: that these were evidence of giant, reptilian monsters. Dragon myths may also have been fueled by descriptions of exotic giant lizards and large snakes. If stories of rhinos could make it to Ancient Greece, why not tales of Komodo dragons, Nile crocodiles, or now-extinct giant lizards?
One anthropologist, Dr. David E. Jones, thinks the explanation is more mundane. He argues that humans and other primates have an instinctive fear of snakes — because even baby chimps who have never been exposed to snakes before are terrified of them. Rather than dragons being based on any particular species or on recovered fossils, he believes they’re entirely the product of humanity’s collective nightmares.
Photo credit: Denis Skley
Dragons and griffins probably aren’t the only mythical creatures inspired by old bones. One theory that’s been floating around for the past century is that cyclopses, the one-eyed giants of Greek Myth, might have been inspired by the buried skulls of extinct dwarf elephants. Upon discovering these strange fossils, myths were born to describe the ancient beings they may have been attached to.
Since elephants’ trunks don’t contain any bones, there appears to be one gaping opening at the front of the skull. To a primitive paleontologist, it could easily be mistaken for a giant eye socket. The size of the skull compared to a human head could have easily sparked the idea these were colossal humanoids.
Photo credit: Etee
It’s hard to know exactly what lurks in the ocean’s depths — after all, we’ve only explored about 5% of it to date. Given that it was impossible to do more than skim the surface of the sea until very recent history, it makes sense that there are so many legends about strange and monstrous creatures lurking in its depths.
So far we’ve found a few creatures that might account for sailors’ tales. The giant oarfish, which can grow up to record lengths of 56 feet, is a good candidate for a real-life sea serpent. The Kraken of legend has an obvious source of inspiration as well: the giant squid, which can grow 50 feet, and can occasionally be seen at the ocean’s surface. There’s evidence the ancient Greeks may have encountered the giant squid as early as 400 BC.
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Described by Arab traders, sailors and even Marco Polo, the roc was a bird so large it could lift elephants into the sky. Polo claimed it had a wingspan of 16 yards and feathers 8 yards long — with eggs over 50 yards in circumference. The roc was said to live in Madagascar — interestingly enough, the home of the now-extinct aepyornis, the largest bird to have ever lived.
The real roc doesn’t quite live up to the hype. For one thing, the aepyornis was far too large and heavy to actually fly — around 10 feet tall and weighing half a ton. Their eggs weren’t quite as big as claimed either, with a circumference of a meter and a volume of about 2 gallons. This species only became extinct 500-700 years ago, so it’s entirely possible these sailors did actually see the bird and simply embellished a bit later.
Photo credit: Frank Kovalchek
These half-woman, half-fish creatures have appeared in fables as far back as 1,000 BC. Tales of mermaids literally span the globe: they’ve made appearances in Greece, Britain, Denmark, Cambodia, Thailand, Africa and the Caribbean islands. The dreaded pirate Blackbeard avoided waters he thought to be home to mermaids, and even Christopher Columbus reported seeing the creatures off the coast of Hispanola.
The recent Animal Planet mockumentaries aside, what’s the real story here? Most experts believe that these ancient sailors weren’t delusional — they were actually seeing aquatic mammals they mistook for mermaids. Manatees, seals, sea lions and dugongs have all been pinpointed as potential sources of “inspiration” for this myth…which probably accounts for Columbus’ disappointed report that mermaids are “not half as beautiful as they are painted.”
Photo credit: Bridget Coila