Stories and tales have always played an important part in the development and progress of different cultures and civilisations throughout history. Passing between generations, myths often held the answer to questions that people simply didn’t know the answers to or they acted as advisory tales and fables. Many of these stories involved some sort of bizarre creature, monster or spirit which served as a physical embodiment of the ideas and reasoning behind the myth. Of course, some other mythological creatures were created for the sole purpose of serving as a frightening, cautionary ‘bogeyman’. Almost every culture from around the world has created their own mythological creatures at some point during their history and many of them evolve over time and take on different meanings. Sadly we live in an age where we can say with absolute certainty that these zoological oddities never existed and are mostly likely the results of imaginative minds which weren’t ‘enlightened’ with the wonders of modern science. Nevertheless, the legends of many mythological creatures have stood the test of time and play an important role in the way we look back at the history of other cultures.
Half-human and half-horse, Centaurs are one of the most instantly recognisable Greek mythological figures. Tales of their origins differ, but it is said that they were created either by Ixion (king of the Lapiths – an ancient tribe of horsemen and horse tamers), his son Centaurus or Ion. It is also said that they may have been created by the spilled seed of Zeus after he lusted over Aphrodite. The myth of Centaurs has endured over the years and they still appear in modern fiction and artwork as a romanticised race of noble woodland creatures. However, the Centaurs of ancient Greece were a vicious, warrior-like race which was constantly warring with the Lapiths. This feud began when the Centaur Eurytion attempted to rape Hippodamia (the daughter of Aphrodite) at her wedding to Pirithous, another of Ixion’s sons.
The indigenous people of North America enjoyed a rich history of myths and religious rituals in the pre-colonial days of the country. Native American mythology is rooted in nature and the changing of the seasons and it is deeply respectful, even reverential, of all the elements of the living world. Hunting, farming and foraging was always difficult during these trying times and even the tribes who lived off the bountiful Great Plains came under the threat of starvation. As such, many tribes prayed to animal spirits and other deities who they believed provided them with meat and good harvest. The greatly influenced their myths and legends as is evident with the Wendigo. These half-beasts were men who had been transformed into man-eating creatures because they had resorted to cannibalism. Typically sighted in the winter (when food was scarce) and in stories concerned with starvation and hunger, it is thought that the story of the Wendigo emerged to reinforce the strict taboo of cannibalism amongst many Native American tribes.
The Dullahan is an Irish mythological creature whose appearance and behaviour is similar to that of Death himself. Thought to have served as the inspiration for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the Dullahan is a headless rider who can sense when a person is close to death. The Dullahan can travel vast distances at great speeds to reach his targets (he can even travel through locked doors and pass through other seemingly insurmountable objects) and when he stops his horse to utter a name that person will instantly drop dead. The Dullahan dresses in black and looks more like a medieval knight than the grim reaper. Always carrying his grinning, disembodied head (the skin of which is said to be similar to the texture and appearance of mouldy cheese), the Dullahan wields a whip made from a human spine and anyone who catches sight of the creature is instantly struck blind in one eye. In some tales the Dullahan drives a black funeral coach made from bones and covered in dried human skin which is driven by six black horses. Although it is said that gold can drive a Dullahan away, is not known how long this will keep death’s herald at bay.
Although its name has come to be associated with any creature which is made up of the body parts of several different animals, the original Chimera of Greek myth was a fire-breathing monster which was part lion, part goat and part serpent. The offspring of Typhon (a giant creature with hands in the form of serpents, huge wings and serpent legs – even the Gods were said to be afraid of him) and Echidna (a serpent woman who was named the “Goddess of all Monsters” because of the offspring she created), the Chimera was a terrifying and freakish abomination which was feared by even the most legendary of Greek heroes.
Another mythological creation from ancient Greece, the Gorgons were three sisters with truly monstrous appearances. The Gorgons had brass hands, the hindquarters of a horse, boar tusks and snakes for hair. The creatures (Medusa, Euryale and Stheno) guarded the town of Cisthene and only Medusa was mortal. Any person who met the eyes of one of the Gorgons was instantly turned into stone but the Greek hero Perseus used this to his advantage when he fought Medusa. Wielding a mirrored shield which reflected her gaze, Perseus was able to advance on the Gorgon and get close enough to cut her head off. Despite their grotesque appearance and fearful manner, images of the Gorgons can often be found on Greek buildings, armour and gravestones as the creatures were thought to offer protection. The blood of a Gorgon also contained healing powers which could bring the dead back to life.
photo: Usuario:Barcex / wikicommons
Revered by the ancient Egyptians as a Sun God, the Sphinx is another hybrid mythological creature. The most popular image of the creature is the Great Sphinx statue in Giza which is made up of a lion’s body with the head of a human. However, other kinds of Sphinx existed throughout Egyptian culture. The Criosphinx has a ram’s head while the Hieracosphinx has the head of a hawk, although they both still have the body of a lion. Also, the colour of the Sphinx signifies it’s true nature. A white Sphinx is associated with goodness and purity while a black Sphinx symbolizes darkness and evil. Images of Sphinxes were often found carved into the tombs of pharaohs so they could show their close relationship with the Sun God Sekhmet. As the Greeks had cultural contact with the Egyptians (and, of course, Alexander the Great later conquered Egyptian civilisation), the Sphinx also made an appearance in Greek mythology. The Sphinx plays an important part in the tale of Oedipus but its appearance was changed to have the head of a woman (the Egyptian Sphinx with a man’s head is referred to as an Androsphinx), the wings of an eagle and the tail of a serpent. The Greek Sphinx guarded the Greek city of Thebes and only allowed entrance to travellers who could successfully answer a riddle.
Water-dwelling beasts are common throughout most ancient mythologies and civilisations as the unfathomable depths of the oceans are an appropriate dwelling for impossibly-sized monsters. Also, most of the oceans were relatively unexplored so people were much more likely to readily accept creatures which were said to live in these vast expanses of water. Water-based mythological creatures were most feared by fisherman and travellers, and some were said to be the protectors of ancient civilisations which existed deep under the ocean. The Hydra was one of the most terrifying Greek mythological creatures. Another offspring of Typhon and Echidna (the parents of the Chimera), the Hydra was a huge water monster with many heads (accounts differ between 7 and 100 heads). The Hydra could grow back two more heads for any which were cut off and it possessed poisonous breath and great strength. Even the Hydra’s blood was said to be poisonous. The Hydra lived in the swamp of Lerna where it was eventually killed by Hercules during his second Labour. Hercules realised that only one of the Hydra’s heads was immortal but he couldn’t simply decapitate all of its heads because more would grow back. Hercules used fire to scorch the neck stumps after he decapitated each head to stop more from growing back and when he reached the final immortal head he crushed it under a great rock. Disappointed that the Hydra had failed to kill Hercules, the God Hera placed the creature in the sky as a constellation of stars.
Celtic mythology was prevalent throughout the Iron Age and Medieval Europe, but there was very little homogeneity between the different areas of Celtic people. As a result, many elements of Celtic mythology and religion change considerably between different locations and over time. One mythological creature of this period is the Banshee, a malevolent spirit which foretold doom or death. Tales differ, but the Banshee typically took on the appearance of an ugly, old hag and they were only seen by a person who was about to die. However, some Banshees are said to take on the form of a beautiful, alluring woman or even the guise of an animal like a crow or hare. Because most of the people who see a Banshee are those who are about to die, many encounters with the creatures concern the noise of their shrill, piercing scream. Interestingly, some Celtic families and clans believed that they had a Banshee attached to their household. When a member of these families passed away, other relatives were said to have heard the wailing of a Banshee before they received news of their loved one’s death. Other stories say that the wailing of multiple Banshees means that someone of great importance has died or is about to die. Interestingly, the Banshee has stood the test of time and there have even been recent alleged sightings of the creature.
The Leviathan is the daddy of all mythological sea creatures. This biblical creation was so powerful and terrifying that God was forced to kill the first female Leviathan to stop the pair from multiplying and taking over the world. The Leviathan is an enormous sea serpent (one source says it is 300 miles in length) which dwells in the great depths of the ocean. Described at length in the Book of Job and the Book of Isaiah in the Tanakh (the Old Testament), the Leviathan also appears in other forms of Jewish literature. Job says that the Leviathan cannot be harmed or killed by any sword or arrow and its breath is able to boil the waters of an ocean like a cauldron. Its eyes illuminate like white lights and fire streams from its mouth and “nothing on earth is his equal”. During the Middle Ages, Christians associated the creature with Satan and spoke of the Leviathan as a threat to all of God’s creation. It is said that the Leviathan eats one whale a day and the huge whale which swallowed Jonah narrowly escaped being killed by a Leviathan. The Leviathan later appeared in Anglo-Saxon artwork which portrayed the creature as a visual representation of the Hellmouth; the place where all of mankind would be swallowed up during the final days of judgement. Satanists also use the Leviathan in a similar motif and believe the creature to be the gatekeeper of Hell. In the Satanic Bible, the Leviathan is one of the Four Crown Princes of Hell (along with Satan, Lucifer and Belial) and the creature represents the element of water which represents life and creation.
Japanese folklore is responsible for some of the most disturbing and creative mythological creatures. Japan has its fair share of demons and spirits, but it also has bizarre creatures like the Akakteko, which takes the form of a dismembered hand dangling from a tree, and the Azukiarai, a mischievous frog-like spirit which makes noises that sounds like azuki beans being washed. However, by far the creepiest is the Penanggalan. An undead being which is said to have been cursed by black magic or a demonic curse, the Penanggalan takes the form of a beautiful woman during the day but turns into something much more sinister at night. When the sun sets, the woman’s head detaches from her body and she floats around looking for victims. The Penanggalan’s internal organs dangle down from her head (which are said to twinkle like fireflies) and she uses her intestines to hold down victims so she can drink their blood with her long, piercing tongue. The Penanggalan can pass through walls and anyone who is touched by her viscera suffers from sores which never heal. Similar to Western vampire legends, the Penanggalan can be killed if it cannot reach its body by sunrise or if the creature is destroyed by cremation.