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7 Mythical Creatures That Were Inspired by Real Animals

7 Mythical Creatures That Were Inspired by Real Animals
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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

Unicorns

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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Photo credit: Bridget Coila

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124 comments

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9:05AM PDT on Sep 6, 2013

"In ancient lore, dragons are but snakes and more." My husband created that little ditty for my snake programs. I used to do displays with snake and dragon items. I thought it would make people less fearful of snakes to compare them to dragons. Sadly, the library in Los Alamos where I started this and did free snake programs for 8 years no longer supported my programs. They went with another environmental organization that bullied their way in and if you didn't go with them, you were out.

10:01AM PDT on Aug 29, 2013

intriguing. I will say that for cyclops it could have simply been inspired by babies born with sever deformities, like the cyclops baby. Cleft pallet so sever that the eyes actually never separate and sometimes there is no nose. A serious condition

6:18AM PDT on Aug 19, 2013

thanks for sharing :)

8:30AM PDT on Aug 17, 2013

Fun and interesting article. I can only imagine the excitement of those old discoverers, when they happened upon something new and unknown. What a thrilling emotion that must have been.

7:25PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

interesting

2:05PM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Pretty interesting! Mermades are also found in Russian fairy-tales as well ))

9:46AM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

very interesting!

8:59AM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

Fun article, thanks!

2:17AM PDT on Aug 8, 2013

very interesting, thank you

1:00AM PDT on Aug 7, 2013

TY.

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Julie M. Rodriguez Julie M. Rodriguez is an arts, green living, and political writer based in San Mateo, CA. Her work... more
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