Everyone loves a good mythical beast, don’t they? But do you know your harpy from your hippocampus? Stay tuned for some truly legendary facts all about mythical creatures.
With their scaly and winged bodies, horns and sharp teeth – not to mention the ability to breathe fire – the dragon has got to be one of the most iconic mythical creatures of all time. Dragons appear in several Norse sagas. They feature in the story of St George, England’s patron saint and, along with the daffodil and the leek, they’re one of the major symbols of the Welsh nation.
In China, multicoloured dragon dances feature in plenty of spring festivals, heralding the hope of good weather and plentiful harvests. Dragons are also an animal in the Chinese zodiac. The next year of the dragon will occur in 2024.
Perhaps the oldest recorded dragon myth is the story of Mušḫuššu, which comes from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) sometime around 2100 BCE.
The hydra was a many-headed serpentine creature that lived in swamp lands and featured as one of the challenges faced by the Greek hero, Heracles.
But how do you fight a creature that has lethal breath and poisonous blood, who can lose a head and regrow two new ones in its place? Good question! Heracles overcame this problem with the help of his nephew, Iolaus, who scorched the injured Hydra with a firebrand in order to prevent re-growth.
In the 18th century, the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus named creatures like coral, jellyfish and sea anemones as the hydra genus, because they all have breath like the inside of a month-old bin, they appear not to age, and are able to re-generate any severed parts.
You know what a unicorn is, right? You know, that legendary white, horse-like creature with a long spiralling horn projecting from the front of its forehead? The unicorn is the national animal of Scotland and it appears in Celtic myths, as well as the cultures of China and Japan. It also happens to turn up on a lot of coats of arms for no apparent reason whatsoever.
Stories usually depict unicorns as wild woodland creatures, but they’re also magical. When they show up in a story, it is usually to symbolise qualities of grace and purity, or to perform a miraculous purifying/ healing act and save the day.
Did you know that unicorn horn was once sold as medicine? (What? That’s impossible. Unicorns don’t…) Exist? No they don’t. Most unicorn horn medicines were probably made from the horn of a rhinoceros, or the long, protruding tusk of a male narwhal.
Not to be confused with…
Pegasus is the divine winged stallion, born to Poseidon, God of the Sea and the Gorgon Medusa. Pegasus was captured by the Greek hero Bellerophon, who rode him on lots of adventures. Eventually, Pegasus joined Zeus, the head of the Greek gods, on Mount Olympus, where he was given duties including the transport of lightning bolts.
Pegasus features prominently on Greek pottery and much later in paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance. He also has a constellation of stars named after him.
It was the 13th century Venetian traveller Marco Polo who returned to Europe from Asia with tales of the roc; a gargantuan bird of prey with feathers like the leaves of a palm tree, which could stand six metres tall, with a wingspan of 14 metres.
According to Polo, the roc could lift (and devour) prey as large as elephants, and had associations with the island of Madagascar on the east coast of Africa. This legendary creature appears in a number of ancient stories, like the ‘Voyages of Sinbad’, and One Thousand and One Nights.
Not to be confused with…
The phoenix is a resplendent bird, with plumage of gold and scarlet. It has long been considered a symbol of regeneration and renewal, and was a sacred bird to ancient Egyptians, particularly in their city of the Sun, Heliopolis. The phoenix has also played a role in the mythology of the Greeks and the Romans, who used the image of the bird on coins. Stories about the phoenix usually claim that this bird lives in cycles lasting 500 years. According to these tales, as the cycle draws to a close, it builds a nest of aromatic branches and spices. When it sits on the nest, it spontaneously combusts and a young phoenix rises from the ashes to replace the old bird.
The fearsome minotaur had the body of a man, and the head and horns of a bull. He was imprisoned in a labyrinth or maze close to the palace of King Minos at Knossos on the Mediterranean island of Crete, where it fed on human sacrifices. NICE!
The minotaur was eventually killed by the Greek hero Theseus, who was helped in his task by King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne. You can read more about Theseus and the minotaur in the Festivals & Folklore issue of AQUILA, and have a go at making and solving your very own mazes, here.
Not to be confused with….
The manticore makes an appearance in Indian, Persian and Greek folklore. It has the head of a man, the body of a lion and the arched stinging tail of a scorpion. As if that isn’t impressive enough, horns and wings are sometimes included as optional extras.
Despite having none of the obvious evolutionary advantages, the manticore lived underground. Its favourite activity was hiding in long grass and luring unsuspecting passers-by with its charming human voice. As people drew close, it rose from the ground and fired fatal darts from its tail, which could stretch out both vertically and horizontally.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its frightening appearance and fierce intentions, the manticore became a popular choice in medieval heraldry, where it appeared on coats of arms, armour and banners.
A Little Bit Of Everything
According the Greek myth, the chimera was a monstrous, fire-breathing hybrid beast, which was composed of as many different frightening animal parts as the storyteller chose to select. It’s usually depicted with a lion’s body and with a goat’s head projecting from the back. It has a tail, which often ends with a snake’s head, but loads of other scary elements could be added in for good measure.
For this reason, the word ‘chimera’ has entered the English language to mean anything that is composed of disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible or dazzling. It can also mean an unrealistic idea that you have about something, or a hope you have that is unlikely to be fulfilled.
Take the opportunity now to create your own ‘chimera’ by drawing, painting or collaging your own imaginary beast.
Did you enjoy learning all about mythical beasts? Then you’re sure to enjoy AQUILA magazine. Click here to find out more.
Written by John Davis