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7 Mythical Creatures That Were Inspired by Real Animals

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Roc

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

Mermaids

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.”

 

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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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