Mythological Monsters: Did they ever exist?

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Moira Kelliey:
Top 10 Beasts and Dragons: How Reality Made Myth
by Ker Than

Dragons are awe-inspiring patchwork creatures found in the myths and legends of cultures all around the world. In Europe, they are nightmarish fire-spewing reptiles, large and lizard-like, with the forked tongue of a snake and wings like a bat. In the legends, they are reviled and feared because they liked to imprison maidens, destroy villages and hoard over mountains of gold.

In the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America, a divine feathered serpent known by various names was believed to renew the world after each cycle of destruction.

In China, dragons are amphibious creatures that dwell in oceans, lakes, rivers and even raindrops. They are revered as life-giving symbols of fortune and fertility, capable of unleashing rain in times of drought. They are animal mosaics, possessing the body of a snake, the scales of a fish, the talons of an eagle, the antlers of a stag, and the face of a gilin—another mythical creature that resembles a deer but whose body is wreathed in flames.

Despite their differences, many of the mythical dragons found throughout the world all began as vague serpentine ideas modeled after real creatures, beginning with a snake or some other fearsome reptile. Over time, they acquired more definite and exotic shapes as they absorbed the hopes and superstitions of the local people and borrowed the traits of local animals.

Our short list of creatures and natural phenomenon reveal what may have inspired the look of dragons as well as creatures that are truly dragon-like.

-- Ker Than

Chinese alligators may have been one of the inspirations for the Asian dragon. In Chinese mythology, dragons were closely associated with water: They were the guardians of life-giving rain, but in times of fury were also capable of unleashing punishing floods. Chinese alligators can grow to a length of about 6 feet, and can often be found floating just below the surface of the water, where they stealthily await their prey. The Chinese alligator is one of the most endangered reptiles in the world.

The frilled dragon is a small lizard found in the forest and woodlands of northern Australia. Like its name suggests, an expandable frill surrounds the dragon’s head and neck, which it can open like an umbrella when frightened. If this isn’t enough to scare off an enemy, the frilled dragon will rear up on its hind legs and run away-- but rather than fleeing with its tail tucked between its legs, the dragon can simply leave it behind to distract a predator.

The bearded dragon is also native to woodlands of Australia. It has numerous spiky appendages protruding from the skin around its head, and can inflate a pouch under its chin to make itself look more menacing. The bearded dragon can change shades of color, from light to dark, to reflect certain emotional states or to help regulate its body temperature. Like the frilled dragon, it can also rear up on its hind legs and run away.

Pythons are among the largest snakes in the world, and the reticulated python of India may have been one of the inspirations behind dragon lore in ancient times. Pythons are constrictor snakes, which means they squeeze to death the birds and small mammals that they feed on. While traveling through India, the Roman naturalist, Pliny, claimed to have seen a dragon so large it could strangle an elephant. Pliny was most likely describing the reticulated python, a snake that can grow to a length of more than 30 feet. In Pliny’s tale, the dragon also dies because it is crushed by the defeated elephant.

The flying dragon of Southeast Asia are small lizards that can glide between trees using wing-like folds of skin. They can grow up to 7 inches and they eat mainly ants and other small insects. Their wings are supported by five to seven ribs that extend from their bodies, and they can glide for distances of up to 30 feet. The wings are often brightly colored and patterned with stripes and dots, but they can fold their wings and blend into their surroundings when they want to remain inconspicuous.

The Komodo dragons of Indonesia are the world’s largest living lizards. They can grow to 10 feet long and can run as fast as a dog for short stretches. Komodos hunt live prey and are capable of ambushing creatures much larger than themselves. They have a thickly muscled tail and a strong bite. Even a slight graze can be lethal and cause severe infection because of the septic bacteria that live in their saliva. Komodo dragons would have been a great candidate for the inspiration behind the mythical dragons in Europe -- except that Europeans didn’t discover them until 1910.

Although stockier and shorter than the Komodo, megalania prisca was a much larger animal. It grew to lengths of up to 30 feet and weighed nearly 1,000 pounds, making it the largest lizard the world has ever seen. Megalania roamed the Australian wilderness during the last Ice Age, and could ambush creatures twice its size and 10 times its own weight, killing them with its curved serrated teeth and large claws. It is very appropriate then that in Latin, its names means “ancient giant butcher."

Of all the creatures that ever lived, pterosaurs probably most closely resemble the dragons of European legend. Reptilian and featherless, pterosaurs flew on wings of hide that were supported by a single long and boney finger. The smallest pterosaur was the size of a sparrow, while Quetzalcoatlus -- named after the Aztec god -- had a wingspan of more than 40 feet, making it the largest flying creature ever. Quetzalcoatlus is shown here.

The sea dragon is a close relative of the sea horse. It can be found on the cool rocky reefs of southern and western Australia. While technically a fish, the sea dragon does not swim so much as sway as it imitates the movement of the seaweed and seagrass among which it makes its home. The sea dragon possesses leaflike fins and appendages that are nearly transparent, and a tube-like mouth that it uses to suction in the larval fishes and small shrimp-like crustaceans that it feeds on.

Dragons were often depicted as winged serpents with long tails, and they were often viewed as harbingers of doom or fortune. The name of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl literally means “feathered serpent.” To people living in ancient times, a comet streaking through the skies with an icy tail millions of miles long would have closely resembled such a creature. This image is of comet Hyakutake. If comets were the inspiration for some dragons, it could help explain why dragons are ubiquitous in the myths and legends of so many different cultures in all corners of the world.

Moira Kelliey:


Painting by Sebastiano Ricci, of Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous, king of the Lapithae

In Greek mythology, the centaurs (Greek: Κένταυροι) are a race of creatures composed of part human and part horse. In early Attic vase-paintings, they are depicted as the head and torso of a human joined at the (human's) waist to the horse's withers, where the horse's neck would be.

This half-human and half-animal composition has led many writers to treat them as liminal beings, caught between the two natures, embodied in contrasted myths, and as the embodiment of untamed nature, as in their battle with the Lapiths, or conversely as teachers, like Chiron.

The centaurs descended from Centaurus, who mated with the Magnesian mares. Centaurus was the son of either Ixion and Nephele (the cloud made in the image of Hera) or of Apollo and Stilbe, daughter of the river god Peneus. In the latter version of the story his twin brother was Lapithus, ancestor of the Lapiths, thus making the two warring peoples cousins.

Moira Kelliey:
Theories of origin

The most common theory holds that the idea of centaurs came from the first reaction of a non-riding culture, as in the Minoan Aegean world, to nomads who were mounted on horses. The theory goes that such riders would appear as half-man, half-animal. (Bernal Díaz del Castillo reported that the Aztecs had this misapprehension about Spanish cavalrymen.)[6] Horse taming and horseback culture evolved first in the southern steppe grasslands of Central Asia, perhaps approximately in modern Kazakhstan.

The Lapith tribe of Thessaly, who were the kinsmen of the Centaurs in myth, were described as the inventors of horse-back riding by Greek writers. The Thessalians tribes also claimed their horse breeds were descended from the centaurs.

Of the various Classical Greek authors who mentioned centaurs, Pindar was the first who describes undoubtedly a combined monster. Previous authors (Homer etc) only use words such as Pheres (Beasts) that could also mean ordinary savage men riding ordinary horses. However, contemporaneous representations of hybrid centaurs can be found in archaic Greek art.

The armchair anthropologist and writer Robert Graves speculated that the Centaurs of Greek myth were a dimly-remembered, pre-Hellenic fraternal earth cult who had the horse as a totem. A similar theory was incorporated into Mary Renault's The Bull from the Sea.

The Greek word kentauros could be etymologized as ken - tauros = "piercing bull". Another possible etymology can be "bulls slayer". Some say that the Greeks took the constellation of Centaurus, and also its name "piercing bull", from Mesopotamia, where it symbolized the god Baal who represents rain and fertility, fighting with and piercing with his horns the demon Mot who represents the summer drought. (In Greece, Mot became the constellation of Lupus.) Later in Greece, the constellation of Centaurus was reinterpreted as a man riding a horse, and linked to legends of Greece being invaded by tribes of horsemen from the north. The idea of a combined monster may have arisen as an attempt to fit the pictorial figure to the stars better.

Alexander Hislop in his book The Two Babylons theorized that the word is derived from the Semitic Kohen and Tor via phonetic shift the less prominent consonants being lost over time ,with it developing into Khen Tor or Ken-Tor, and being transliterated phonetically into Ionian as Kentaur.

Moira Kelliey:

In Greek mythology, the Gorgons ("terrible" or, according to some, "loud-roaring") were vicious female monsters with sharp fangs and hair of living, venomous snakes.

Baroque Medusa combined beauty and horror: Medusa, after 1590, by Caravaggio

Moira Kelliey:
Classical tradition

Gorgons are sometimes depicted as having wings of gold, brazen claws, and the tusks of boars. According to the myths, seeing the face of a Gorgon turned the viewer to stone.

Homer speaks of only one Gorgon, whose head is represented in the Iliad as fixed in the center of the aegis of Zeus:

"About her shoulders she flung the tasselled aegis, fraught with terror...and therein is the head of the dread monster, the Gorgon, dread and awful, a portent of Zeus that beareth the aegis."(5.735ff)
Its earthly counterpart is a device on the shield of Agamemnon:

"...and therein was set as a crown the Gorgon, grim of aspect, glaring terribly, and about her were Terror and Rout."(11.35ff)
In the Odyssey, she is a monster of the underworld:

"...and pale fear seized me, lest august Persephone might send forth upon me from out of the house of Hades the head of the Gorgon, that awful monster..."(11.635)
Hesiod (Theogony, Shield of Heracles) increases the number of Gorgons to three—Stheno (the mighty), Euryale (the far-springer) and Medusa (the queen), and makes them the daughters of the sea-god Phorcys and of Keto. Their home is on the farthest side of the western ocean; according to later authorities, in Libya. The Attic tradition, reproduced in Euripides (Ion), regarded the Gorgon as a monster, produced by Gaia to aid her sons the giants against the gods and slain by Athena. Of the three Gorgons, only Medusa is mortal.

According to Ovid (Metamorphoses), Medusa alone had serpents in her hair, and this was due to Athena (Roman Minerva) cursing her. Medusa had copulated with Poseidon (Roman Neptune), who was aroused by the golden color of Medusa's hair, in a temple of Athena. Athena therefore changed the enticing golden locks into serpents. Aeschylus says that the three Gorgons had only one tooth and one eye between them (see also the Graeae), which they had to swap between themselves.

Other sources claim that each of three Gorgon sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, had snakes for hair, and had the power to turn anyone who looked at them to stone. Apollodorus (11.2.6, 2.4.1, 22.4.2) provides a good summary of the Gorgon myth, while Pausanias (5.10.4, 8.47.5, many other places) supplies the details of where and how the Gorgons were represented in Greek art and architecture.


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