You’ve all heard of them, but HOW did legendary creatures become something so well known? How did mermaids, Cyclops, unicorns and other fascinating, but mythical creatures come into being?
For many creatures, they all stemmed from some aspect of nature that to the culture at that time, was rare, or even completely unknown. During the time when sailors, conquistadors, and nomads were out discovering new land, there was much about the foreign waters and territory that they had never seen before. They created fantastical stories about these objects, many times animals, in order to explain them.
For instance, when dinosaur, whale, and Nile crocodile bones were first discovered, people never saw the live animal, therefore the bones looked large, as if they belonged to some great, scaly monster. Some dinosaur’s remains may have had vestiges of wings, giving the rise to flying reptiles, or dragons.
The mermaid is another well-known mythical creature. During the time in which Christopher Columbus was sailing the seas, stories of mermaids and sirens, women with the tail of a fish that often seemed beautiful until they lured sailors to their doom, started circulating. This could be because these sailors were seeing Dugongs for the first time. These are marine mammals that breathe air to survive. These creatures like to stick to where the water is warmer and has a large aquatic plant life population for food – meaning that they stick to where the water gets shallower. Sailors may have seen these bizarre sea mammals, and after being lonely for so long out in the ocean, from afar, may have thought that they were women. When the Dugong dove back down, the sailors would see a tail. Christopher Columbus was not deceived and wrote in his journal, “Up close, the sea maidens were not as pretty as they are depicted for somehow in the face they look like men.”
If sailors were close enough to see these amazing creatures, they would be in shallower water and may have run their boat into shoals and reefs, therefore causing damage to the boat and potentially causing the boat to sink. This gave the rise to the thought that seeing a mermaid was a rare treat, but was a bad omen.
A Cyclops is another mythical creature with animal origins – the elephant. When looking at a live elephant, it is easy to see that it has two eyes and one nose, yet when looking at an elephant skull, it looks as if there is an eye socket in the middle of the forehead. This is actually the nasal cavity where the trunk connects, yet many in Greece who only saw the skull, created the story of the creature whose two normal eyes were all closed up and had one giant eye in the middle.
Unicorn legends span across continents. Some European sailors would bring home shiny, beautiful horns, claiming that they belonged to horses with a horn on its forehead, when in fact it was the tusk of a narwhal. In India, people would find remains of rhinoceros and see that there was a horn on its face, yet had four large legs. They were able to associate a horse with this, and unicorns gained worldwide popularity.
While science has helped us to see into the past to determine the origins of these legendary creatures, there is still so much that we don’t know about nature. Scientists are discovering new things every day, such as how large a Giant Squid (or Kraken) can actually get in the deep ocean, how poisons used by witchdoctors practicing voodoo in Haitian folklore created zombies, how the mummy’s curse (corpse decomposing bacteria that can be transmitted through the air when researchers opened tombs) is spread, and more!
To learn more about these fantastical animals and their origins, or new scientific discoveries, check out these great links!