Though many of us were first introduced to mythology through Disney movies, the real myths have longer and more complex traditions than what was depicted on screen. From mermaids to dragons, and ancient times to present day, these 10 mythological creatures have long captured our imagination – but did you know these bizarre facts about them?
Thanks to Hans Christian Anderson and, of course, Disney, mermaids these days are regarded as pretty and kind-hearted creatures. But this wasn’t always the case: Throughout thousands of years of mythology they often spelled bad luck, and were said to lure sailors to their deaths. The mermaid story began as far back as 2,000 years ago with the Syrian legend of Atargatis. Worshipped as a goddess, she was said to have partially transformed into a fish after diving into a lake.
Sparkly little creatures that grant wishes and wave magic wands? Maybe in their most recent incarnations, but the word “fairy” generally used to connote mischievous sprites more than twinkling Tinkerbelles. Hailing from northern Europe, fairies actually encompass a huge range of myths – from angelic spirits to foreboding demons – as representatives of the natural world or supernatural creatures.
Popular among medieval tapestry artists, unicorns have long been associated with purity and healing powers. Surprisingly enough – for a creature so revered – the unicorn has been confused for other animals more than a few times. Northern Europeans were known to harvest narwhal horns (which, technically, are elongated teeth), while Marco Polo once stumbled upon one on his journeys. In reality, it was a rhinoceros, and he left feeling disappointed at its ugliness.
The phoenix and its regenerative abilities have captured popular imagination for millennia. Versions of the myth come from numerous traditions, from ancient Persian and Greco-Roman to Egyptian and Chinese. Interestingly, only one phoenix is said to exist on Earth at any given time; after its 500-year lifespan it builds a nest of fragrant wood that eventually serves as its pyre.
Dragons are another one of those mythical creatures known the world over. Given their popularity in both eastern and western fables, dragons are incredibly diverse. Some are described as small and benign, while others as huge, fire-breathing beasts. There are also different sub-species — the wyverns, for instance, are dragons with only two feet. Though they can be slayed, it’s said that dragons can never be drowned.
The reputation of elves has gotten a boost over the last few years – ever since Orlando Bloom’s pointy-eared Legolas strutted onto the silver screen. But the mythical creatures predate “Lord of the Rings” by a few centuries. Similar to fairies, elves come particularly from Germanic mythology. Considered semi-divine, they appeared in ancient Norse poems, and were divided into “light elves” (associated with fertility) and “dark elves” (also known as dwarves).
When we hear ogre, we think lumbering, violent giant, and that’s not far from the truth. The ogre is actually the most recent of all the mythical creatures on this list. Having first appeared in a 12th century work by French poet Chrétien de Troyes, ogres are also frequently described as being cannibalistic. Shudder.
We all know that Pegasus is a beautiful, winged horse. But did you know that this popular figure from Greek mythology was born when Perseus sliced off the head of the snake-haired Medusa? It’s an uncommon origin story to say the least.
One fact about the sphinx that may surprise you is that there are actually two different sphinx traditions. The Grecian sphinx has the head of a woman and is known for being malicious. The creature asked a riddle and devoured any who got it wrong. Tragic hero Oedipus was the first to defeat her. However, the Egyptian sphinx, though similarly hybrid, differs in that it has the head of a man and is generally protective and benevolent.
A hybrid lion-eagle creature, the griffin was revered in mythology as the king of all creatures, and is found in European, Islamic, and Far Eastern traditions. One of the more unusual aspects of the species is that its claws were believed to cure the blind and have other medicinal powers.
Featured image: John William Waterhouse/Flickr user Playing Future
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