From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties
And things that go bump in the night
Good Lord, deliver us!
- A Cornish Prayer
Throughout history, people have claimed to have seen strange beings and creatures of every description1. Whilst few of us may believe in the existence of fairies and trolls, some of the myths may be true. Many people do believe that they have a guardian angel looking out for them in times of danger. Vampires may exist and it's quite possible that Yetis do lurk in remote mountain ranges. So what springs to mind when the h2g2 Community is presented with the task of collecting mythical creatures? Well...
Where a desert is and a cliff, is the place they meet. A cold air current called sa hivar blows across the plateau that is at the top of the cliff. A scorching white sun rises over the cliff, and stares down on the desert, uninterrupted by clouds. On rare occasions when sa hivar blows perpendicular to the line of the cliff, it drops down off the edge and plunges towards the shaded desert at the foot. It is cool, cool air, and is much heavier than the hot air baking on the sands of the desert.
The Back-in-Time bird inhabits the world on the roof of the plateau, unexplored by man. The bird flies upside down because it is lighter than air; it isn't flying to escape gravity, like the crow and the falcon, but to fight the buoyancy of the air.
Basilisks and Cockatrices
The basilisk and cockatrice were often confused with each other, as they are both dragon-like creatures. All who behold the eyes of the basilisk fall dead on the spot. Because it destroys all shrubs, both by direct contact and by breathing upon them, and also burns up grass and fractures stones, it is generally found in barren deserts. The cockatrice is very similar, although only the cockerel can withstand its withering glare.
Basilisks were created when an animal hatched from an egg laid by a cock in a dung heap and incubated by a toad. Such a feat was obviously of profound value in sorcery and, in 1474, in a celebrated trial in Basle, a cockerel was executed on the capital charge of having laid an egg which might have hatched into a basilisk. The cockerel was legally represented and denied any wrong-doing. However, it was unsuccessful in its defence and it, together with its egg, was burned to death with full legal solemnity.
An obvious way to counteract the basilisk's fatal stare was to hold up a mirror, whereupon the creature would slay itself. Apparently, this technique was put to good use in Warsaw in 1857 when a condemned prisoner named John Faurer volunteered to deal with a basilisk by approaching it wearing a leather suit festooned with mirrors. This operation was witnessed by over 2000 onlookers.
The Beast of Bodmin Moor
This is not a 'mythical' creature, but plainly a large cat, such as a puma. There are several of these to be found in the British Isles, once owned by wealthy families and kept on estates. They were released into the wild after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) made owning these animals illegal. Unfortunately, because they are extremely rare, their sightings and attacks have gained 'folklore' status. In recent years, however, people are starting to accept that these creatures are not supernatural and are a real, if rare, problem.
An ape-like inhabitant of the North American forests, also known as the Sasquatch. Similar creatures inhabit the folklores of other regions, including the Yowie of Australia and the Yeti (qv).
The Chupacabra or 'goat-sucker' is the premier mythical beastie in Puerto Rico, Mexico, south Texas, and the southwest American desert. Sort of a combination of monkey and bat, it preys on goats - hence the name - as well as other domesticated animals: rabbits, cattle, poultry, sheep, horses, cats and dogs. The typical signs of an attack are said to be three large puncture-wounds on the neck or head and a complete draining of the victim's blood. There's even a song about it, set to the tune of 'La Cucaracha'.
The Hydra was a seven-headed monster of Greek mythology. Unfortunately for would-be monster-slayers, the beast had a remarkable ability; if one of its heads was chopped off, two grew back in its place. As if that wasn't bad enough, the hydra had poisonous blood and breath. It was eventually defeated by Heracles2, who made sure he cauterised the stump with a flaming torch each time he chopped off a head, preventing them from growing back.
In 1734, an actual specimen of a hydra was on display in Hamburg, Germany. It was in the possession of a firm of merchants (Messrs Dreyern and Hambel) who had acquired it presumably as an investment. At the time, a young Swedish naturalist, on a visit to the city, was invited to inspect this rare and valuable specimen. He was suitably impressed at the craftsmanship of those who could create so convincing a fake. Dreyern and Hambel threatened him with legal action, whereupon the gentleman, rather hurriedly, left the city. This gentleman was none other than the great taxonomist, Carolus Linnaeus.
The myth of the kappa originated in Japan. Images of kappa, which are related to the 'kami' spirits of the Shinto religion, were first drawn during the Edo period3. The kappa lurked in bodies of water and looked like hairless monkeys, except that they had a crown on their head that contained a strength-giving fluid. When one was encountered by a kappa, one was supposed to bow. The kappa then would bow and the fluid would leak from his crown and he would become weak. Kappa were mostly evil, but they were trustworthy. If a person was able to make a kappa promise to help them, the kappa would not break his promise. Also, the kappa loved cucumbers, even more than human children, and this was one way to keep the kappa from killing a person. The danger of kappas is that they were extraordinarily strong and would drag people under water, where it would feast on their blood, or their liver, by pulling it out of their anus, or so folklore says.
The kappa may be explained by several myths. One is that some poor Japanese families would kill their newborn children, because they couldn't feed them. The kappa story was used to keep people away from the baby-filled waters. Another is that the story was invented to explain the enlarged anus found on many drown victims.
The Kelpie is a beast of Scottish folklore that lives in lakes and rivers, pretending to be a horse. When anyone tries to mount the horse, it dives into the water and drowns its victim.
In the mythologies of ancient Norway and Greece there is a monster called 'Krake' or 'Kraken'. It's simply a really big squid, which do exist, but live specimens have not been found. What has been found are dead ones stranded on beaches, and traces of their suction cups on sperm whales! Perhaps odder things are lurking in the deep...
The Manticore myth is of Persian origin and tells of a creature with the face of a man, body of a lion and tail of a scorpion, from which it may shoot venomous spines. It is sometimes depicted as having wings. It is said that they still live in the forests of Indonesia, where they have traditionally been blamed whenever a villager mysteriously disappears. A scratch from its claws or a bite from its jaws, which have three rows of razor-sharp teeth, will kill instantly and it then eats its human prey whole.
A creature of Greek legend, with the body of a powerful man and the head of a bull. Minos, the future king of Crete, had asked the god Poseidon for a sign that he, rather than his brother, would get the throne. Poseidon agreed to send a white bull, on condition that it be sacrificed back to the gods. Minos, however, decided to keep the unmatched beautiful white bull, sacrificing another in its place. In revenge, Poseidon enchanted Minos's wife, Pasiphaë, so that she fell in love with the bull and... well, you can guess the rest. The Minotaur was imprisoned in the Labyrinth - designed by the inventor Daedalus - where it proceeded to eat seven young men and women, delivered from Athens on a regular basis, until the creature was slain by Theseus.
The problem, of course, is that words change over the years. Originally 'labyrinth' had nothing to do with a maze, but was perhaps derived from the Greek word labrys - the double-headed axe that was the symbol of royal power. Bulls were kept at Knossos in standard (though quite large) rooms and there were 'games' involving young men and women with the bulls, in which the young people didn't always survive. Add a couple of hundred years and a couple of skilled storytellers and you get Minotaurs and mazes and balls of string...
The Mothman was a grey, winged, man-shaped being with glowing red eyes that was seen on several occasions4 between 1960 and 1966 in the Point Pleasant area of West Virginia, USA. Shrieking loudly, the creature was said to be able to fly at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. The last sightings occurred in December 1966, after which the Mothman seemed to disappear.
One Researcher recalls:
I grew up on Route 2, between Ravenswood and Point Pleasant. It is of note - and always ignored, overlooked or suppressed - that this little area is a hotbed of odd, occult activity. There is a lot to do with mass sacrifices of large animals around bonfires by old (60 to 80-year-old) men in hooded, black robes, whose attire and ritual manner do not conform to any religion I know of. The Mothman was neither the first nor the last of the phenomena of that sort reported in the area, only the most famous. There is a large metal-processing facility in the area with extensive electrical power transforming equipment. In the 1950s and 60s, before people understood plasma physics, the plasma vortices that would infrequently - though spectacularly - appear above the transformers would cause a rash of UFO sightings several times each year.
This part of West Virginia (the Ohio Valley) isn't the 'stereotypical' West Virginia, being within shouting distance of Ohio (or Pennsylvania for the northern reaches). Its culture, accent et al are decidedly Midwestern, with some Mid-Atlantic influences in the areas near Pittsburgh, being isolated from the rest of the state by the mountains.
The legend of the Mothman was revived in 2002 in the form of the film The Mothman Prophecies, starring Richard Gere.
The Salamander, which physically resembled the modern amphibian of the same name, was a small dragon or lizard that resisted fire and could even extinguish flames.
Snow lions are mythical inhabitants of the mountains of Tibet. They are bigger than the lions found in warmer places and have big, shaggy manes and bushy tails, like yaks. They're white, naturally, so they can blend in with the wintery landscape of the Land of Snows. They are valiant, as you might expect, and they are certainly not lazy opportunists like normal lions. They represent boundless energy and a fearlessness based on purity of spirit, perfect wisdom and compassion, which is better and longer lasting, as everyone knows, than the sort based simply on being powerful. Tibetan legend has it that Snow Lions protected the Buddha. They normally took the form of two dogs next to him, but when danger appeared they grew long manes and turned into lions to protect the Buddha and keep him safe from harm. They are the proud symbol of Tibet and two of them can be seen on the Tibetan flag.
In Aotearoa there are taniwha5 who are shrouded in mystery and, although not ever 'scientifically' accounted for, are regarded as being very powerful - both in myth/legend and law! According to Maori legend, taniwha are water monsters or spirits responsible for guarding certain tribes and upholding laws, particularly when the lawbreakers are from other tribes. They live in deep pools, rivers, dark caves or the sea, especially in places with dangerous currents or deceptive breakers. There are several tales about how particularly large taniwha were responsible for creating certain land masses or bodies of water that exist today. Less romantically, some people now believe that taniwha may be distorted folk memories of the crocodiles of the western Pacific or Asia.
A horse, but with a single horn in the middle of its forehead. The unicorn was witnessed by travellers a few centuries back, although it was a lot fatter than expected, and quite hostile: grey, quadrupedal and with a knack for stampeding and horning into things. 'Rhinos' we call them... People could even return home with genuine unicorn horns, showing them for money and selling them for even more money, as everybody knew of the great powers of the unicorn's horn. Known as alicorn, and like griffin claw or the magic stone from the head of a dragon, unicorn horn assured complete protection against poisons. Thus, in powdered form, alicorn was worth more than ten times its weight in gold. The narwhal6 was, of course, not so happy about that...
The commercial importance of products from unicorns, dragons and other such creatures led to a flourishing export trade. As a result of this, Roger Bacon complained in 1266 that, 'It is certain that wise men of Aethipia have come to Italy, Spain, France, England, and those lands of the Christians in which there are good flying dragons and drive them through the air at high speed...'. Inevitably, the market was flooded by artificial dragon's blood, false alicorn, etc. This led to the development of a battery of assays to authenticate these products. Thus, true dragon's blood was immiscible with eagle's blood, whilst authentic alicorn could be tested by soaking it in water, dipping a finger therein, and inscribing a circle on the table surface. A spider placed within the circle would starve to death rather than cross the line.
There is a constellation called Monoceros 'the Unicorn'.
This large, white, hairy, shambling, ape-like creature - also known as the Abominable Snowman - is believed to inhabit the Himalayan mountains. Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, acres of photographic film have been devoted to trying to capture a Yeti but, alas, definitive proof of its existence is still lacking.
Elsewhere in the Edited Guide
A number of other fantastical creatures already have their own Guide Entries:
The Bogeyman is a nocturnal creature, tales of whom are used to scare naughty children.
Centaurs are the half-man, half-horse creatures of Greek mythology.
Dragons are probably the archetypal mythical creature, whether you're talking about European fire-breathing flying lizards, or the wiser, more benevolent Oriental version.
Gnomes don't just inhabit suburban front gardens, you know.
Gryphons are giant flying creatures with the head, wings and front talons of an eagle, and the body of a lion.
Jenny Greenteeth lives at the bottom of pools and rivers in the British Isles, ready to grab unwary paddlers.
The Loch Ness Monster - 'Nessie' to her friends - is a giant beast that is supposed to inhabit the depths of Loch Ness in Scotland. When people talk about Nessie, they usually have in their mind a picture of some kind of sea-serpent, or else a plesiosaur that somehow 'got lost'. Even laying aside the issue that Loch Ness was frozen over during the Ice Age (no lost dinosaurs, then), it's unlikely that Nessie could be anything like as big as people would like. Fair enough, the loch is deep enough to hide something large. However, you would need a sizeable family of Nessies to provide a viable breeding population, and it's doubtful that the loch could support such a family over the hundreds (if not thousands) of years that they must have been there. Today, it seems rare for a summer to go by without at least one 'scientific' expedition to probe the depths of the loch with sonar or other technology. So far, the results are inconclusive - the area has a tourist industry to maintain after all - but there is some evidence that there is a sizeable living creature living in Loch Ness. The 'boring' explanation is, however, that there are sturgeon in the depths of the loch.
Mermaids7 are beautiful creatures - half-human, half-fish - who live under the sea and enchant sailors with their songs. They are not to be confused with the Sirens of Greek mythology. It is thought that the myth of mermaids may have been inspired by the dugong, or sea cow, which is now an endangered species. Female dugong swim upright and hold their calves to their breast with a fin while nursing, thus stirring the longings of lovelorn sailors on lengthy voyages.
The Phoenix originated in Egyptian mythology, which tells of a large magical bird with red and gold plumage, which would crash and die in a ball of flames, only to be reborn from the ashes.
Vampires, from the earliest myths of blood-sucking monsters, through the works of 19th-Century gothic novelists right up to the modern concepts of Hollywood films and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have always been with us.