From ancient Greece to Egyptian lore, check out the top 10 most amazing creatures of legend.
No creature symbolizes eternal life more than the phoenix, a mythical bird known as much for its beauty as its immortality. The legend of the phoenix appears in a variety of ancient mythologies, including Greek, Egyptian and Indian. It is usually depicted as an eagle or other bird of prey, but may also resemble a heron in its delicate majesty. In most mythologies, the phoenix is associated with the rising of the sun and has a close relationship with the sun-god Ra. Another feature of the phoenix is that only one can exist at a time. When it senses that its life is coming to an end – about once every thousand years – the phoenix builds itself a funeral pyre made of cinnamon or other aromatic material and allows itself to be consumed by the flames. Then, as the old phoenix is reduced to ashes, a new one rises to begin its life on Earth.
Originating in the mythical tales of ancient Greece, the legend of the centaur has long fascinated mankind. Being part man and part horse, the centaur is stuck between two worlds: that of the wild beast and that of the civilized human being. Not only were centaurs part animal, they are also described as rowdy warrior types prone to heavy drinking and other primal excesses, which often brought them into conflict with their more cultured cousin, man. One exception is the great and wise Chiron, a centaur who was also a gifted healer and respected intellectual.
Since ancient times, sailors crossing the world’s oceans have reported seeing mermaids, beautiful fish-maidens with long flowing hair and incredible powers of seduction. These exquisite creatures are described as irresistibly attractive with the torso and head of a young woman and the lower body of a fish. The first mermaid stories date back at least 3,000 years, and reports were still common up until the discovery of the New World by Europeans. Such tales sometimes describe mermaids as helpful, saving sailors who had the misfortune to fall overboard. Others convey a more menacing intention on the part of the fish-ladies, such as their fondness for making ships crash onto rocky shores. Still others describe these fin-tailed beauties as murderous beasts that seduce men with beautiful songs and then kill then mercilessly for the sheer joy of it.
Coming in at No. 7 in our countdown is the biblical monster Leviathan, a giant sea creature with glowing eyes and a nasty habit of crushing ships and devouring ocean-going humans. With its enormous body and scaly skin, Leviathan is usually referred to as a giant monstrous fish, but is also commonly described as a serpent, crocodile or marine mammal. It is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, but it is sometimes unclear whether this creature was created by God or Satan. According to some ancient religious texts, God may have originally created a male and female Leviathan, but destroyed the female in order to protect the world from the possibility of a multitude of angry monsters roaming the seas.
Dragon mythology extends back through the ages at least 4,000 years. They are commonly depicted as large flying reptiles that breathe fire or shoot deadly poison from their nostrils. Tales of these giant beasts date to the dawn of human existence. They’ve also inspired many a young warrior to take up arms, bravely trying to prevent a malevolent dragon from consuming a fair maiden. On the other hand, some cultures actually revere the dragon for being gentle and wise. In China, dragons are a symbol of courage and heroism and are seen as protectors of the community.
This mythical animal is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and the monster Medusa. He is portrayed as a beautiful winged horse, sometimes white, sometimes white with gold wings and sometimes gold all over. There are a couple of versions of the birth of Pegasus in Greek mythology. In one, he sprang from Medusa’s neck when the hero Perseus beheaded her. In another, Pegasus was born of the droplets of blood that spilled from Medusa upon her death. The image of Pegasus has been a favorite of artist for centuries; his likeness has inspired countless paintings and sculpture. There is also a constellation for Pegasus, a gift from Zeus upon his death.
With a name now synonymous with seduction, these mythical creatures were believed to lure sailors with their enchanting voices, causing ships to crash into rocky cliffs. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus ordered his men to plug their ears with beeswax and tie him to the mast of their boat so that he could hear the sirens’ song but wouldn’t be able to steer the boat towards the noise. Some say the fact that someone was able to resist their song was the reason that the sirens perished. Others believe their demise came after losing a sing-off with the Muses. Though commonly thought of as mermaid-like, sirens were more often described as half woman, half bird.
Image: Wiki Commons
Hydra is the multi-headed serpent beast with poisonous blood and breath so bad it could kill a man. There are numerous references to Hydra in Greek literature and poetry, but one individual Hydra is the most well-known for having been slain by the hero Hercules. He was known as the “Hydra of Lerna” because he lived in the marshlands of the Lernaean region of Greece. As the legend goes, it was impossible to win a battle with Hydra because cutting off one of its heads meant that two more would grow back in its place. Then the hero Hercules came along and figured out a strategy for winning a fight with Hydra. After chopping off one of the beasts’ heads, he quickly burned the stump so a new one could not regenerate. He proceeded to unburden the monster of its remaining heads, cauterizing each wound as he cut.
No. 2 in our countdown has the body of a lion and the head of a human, sometimes male, sometimes female. The legend of the sphinx has its origin in ancient Egyptian mythology dating back about 4,000 years. Often associated with guardianship, this creature is frequently placed architecturally at the entrance to a building or a city. The oldest and most famous sphinx is probably the Great Sphinx of Giza, which is situated along the west bank of the Nile River near the city of Cairo in Egypt as a guardian of the ancient tombs. One of the most intellectual of all the mythical creatures, the sphinx is known for its fondness of riddles. According to legend, anyone who was unable to solve the riddle of the sphinx was not only forbidden to pass – they were immediately devoured.
Unicorns are magnificent and noble creatures that have enchanted young and old across the globe and through the ages. They are both a symbol of purity and goodness and the personification of untamed freedom. Many cultures throughout the world have their own version of the unicorn myth, but most depict them as white horses with a long horn extending from the forehead. The horn is usually spiraled, which makes light dance across the body of the animal as the sun shines down upon it.
Unicorns are often associated with rainbows and fair maidens. According to legend, unicorns can only be captured by maidens alone in the forest. Unlike most mythical animals, which seem to be based on humanity’s deepest fears, most unicorn tales convey an animal that is quite gentle and good. Unicorn lore dates back several thousand years, and occasional “sightings” are still being reported today.