Some of the most frequent books I read when I was a kid were books on mythology, Greek in particular: the exploits of Odysseus, Theseus and the Minotaur, cyclops, naiads and unicorns (though the latter is not a solely Greek legendary creature). In particular interest to me were evidently the animals and nature-related spirits like Pan and dryads, though I did love me some good heroic characters like Herakles as well. Another thing that appealed to me, though I wasn’t able to say why back then, is that the Greek pantheon is filled with flawed gods. Perfection is boring. It’s why the Christian God is boring, even the origin story written down in the Bible is rather dull. Where’s the giant tortoise, or the Titan holding up the sky, the primeval cow licking away at an ice block to create the first god? None of these stories make any sense, but neither does an all-knowing being just creating everything in six days, so why not make it an actually entertaining one? It definitely could use some more dragons, the only one I know about is the one linked to Saint George, though it does have the Leviathan and Behemoth. I’ve recently learned about how Azrael, the Angel of Death, was described in some texts: “He has four faces and four thousand wings, and his whole body consists of eyes and tongues whose number corresponds to the number of people inhabiting the Earth. He will be the last to die, recording and erasing, constantly in a large book the names of men at birth and death, respectively.” Like another commenter said, that’s straight up Lovecraftesque. But there is no reference in the Bible to an Azrael. Instead, Death is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and he only really appears at the end. Most angels in the Bible are once again depicted as beautiful, powerful and so perfect a man goes blind if he would even glance at their almighty glory. In other words, rather boring. There are many representation of deaths present in many mythologies like the grim reapers, Hel, Hades and Julian Richings in Supernatural and usually, I do like them. In short, I don’t think the Christian mythology is a particularly good one. Can you think of a lot of (good) movies or even games about Christian mythology? What about the Greek? Thought so.
In later years, the Greek tales got company of Norse and Celtic mythology though good books on those are a bit harder to find. Even Snorri’s Prose Edda, the number one source on many of the Nordic mythology was actually bit of a bummer. They have a penchant for naming every single little thing, even the rock blocking the entrance to a certain cave, which is something Tolkien was wont to do as well (obviously because he was greatly inspired by that exact mythology). The problem with the Prose Edda was that it was mostly meant for Icelandic poets to learn about alliterations and other techniques of skaldic poetry. The stories themselves are just fine, Odin giving up an eye for wisdom, Loki and Thor’s adventures in the castle of Útgarðar, the death of Baldr and obviously Ragnarök itself. I just think there are better books out there than what Snorri has written, probably. Something a bit more recent than the 13th century. Celtic mythology has its fair share of problems as well, the biggest drawback being that every single name is absolutely unpronounceable. Tuatha Dé Danann for example, really interesting folk, but a bit of a tongue twister. Later on, they became known as the Aos Sí, which you might think you’re pronouncing correctly but probably aren’t. The Leprechaun is one of them, so is the Banshee, which is the Anglicisation of bean sí, because the British were fed up with not being able to pronounce it either.
There are also bestiaries out there filled with mythical animals from all over the world, talking about the Ethiopian catoblepas, Libian lamias, the Chinese Fenghuang, Arabian cinnamon birds, Indian nagas and my personal favourite, the native American thunderbird. There’s a particular book by Joseph Niggs I got ages ago as a present and which still has a prominent place on my bookshelf though I haven’t opened it in ages. Another is obviously “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” by J.K. Row Newt Scamander. Some of the creatures in there are borrowed from already existing mythologies, though there are more than enough original creations to be found in the book as well. Because of this, I was really looking forward to the movie. That excitement got a bit tempered when they announced it would be three and later on even five movies and I had no clue how they were going to talk about fantastic beasts for five movies long and keep it interesting. The answer is that they just won’t. I’m not saying the first movie was bad, because it wasn’t at all, it was just not what I was expecting. Many of the creatures shown didn’t even get named, nothing said about what makes them so special. Even the thunderbird only got his name said rather late into the movie, while he was already shown somewhere half an hour in. I get that you can’t give all the creatures a turn in the spotlight and I’m not saying they should’ve, I was just expecting that a movie called “Fantastic Beasts and Where the Find Them” was going to be about the actual beasts. That it didn’t was a bit disappointing to the biologist and cryptid lover in me, though Newt is one of my new favourite heroes now. And the Harry Potter fan in me is definitely excited about the next few films, even if they will feature even less magical beasts.
Now for a words on the origin of mythical creatures and cryptids (animals of which there is no proof of actual existence). There is one kind of creature that exists in almost all cultures, all across the world, stories about giant lizards with thick scales, breathing fire and huge wings. The two best known are of course the European and Chinese versions, and not all dragons have actual wings like the wyrms. There’s also a distinction between ‘true’ dragons and wyverns, the latter have only two (hind)legs, his front limbs being the actual wings. So Smaug in Peter Jackson’s movies? Actually a wyvern. That’ll be my nitpicking for today.
So why do dragons pop up everywhere? Humans gave all the characteristics of things they feared to dragons, like big claws and teeth of predators and the wings of birds of prey. There are several theories and speculations about the exact sources of inspiration, going from Nile crocodiles and Komodo dragons to spitting cobras who could be the origin of the fire-breathing parts in dragons, in addition to the general dislike of humans towards snakes and big, toothy reptiles. Another theory puts it on whale skeletons and fossils. Is there anything that looks more like a dragon than a dinosaur? And where can you find dinosaur fossils? Pretty much everywhere.
This is not the only example of a mythical beast being based on a true animal of course. Unicorns could have been inspired by rhinoceroses or even just regular deer who missed one part of their antlers. It’s a common story that the cyclops is linked the elephant. When you look at the skull of an elephant, you might understand why:
Fossils of elephants have been found on Mediterranean islands, including Cyprus, Crete, Malta and Sicily, though much smaller in size than the current African elephant (this is a characteristic of life on islands, species usually small grow much larger, while usually big ones get smaller). Aside from these dwarf elephants, there’s also the practice of Greek blacksmiths to wear an eyepatch to shield at least one eye from flying sparks during the work. Cyclopes are known to be excellent smiths, even working for Hephaistos himself, so maybe it has nothing to do with an animal at all in this case. Side note: the cyclops in the Odyssey, Polyphemus, is an odd one out, having no association shown with smithing.
Another persistent cryptid is that of a big ape. The yeti, Sasquatch, Bigfoot, … While all of these are only legends, it’s another example where there is a core of truth to be found. There has been a giant ape running around on our world, thousands of years ago. But its discovery warrants a story of its own, so you’ll have to wait until next week to hear it.
As long as we humans have any sort of imagination, we’ll make anything a bit vague into something fascinating. Find a fox with scabies? Nah, man, that’s a chupacabra! Hear a blooping sound in the ocean? Fucking giant-ass monster farting! Incredibly vague picture of a thing in Loch Ness? Let’s call it Nessie! Even when pranksters have come out and told people that a particular sighting was a hoax, the story surrounding it will already be leading its own life in the world, never really disappearing. But it adds something to that big book of ours, doesn’t it? So let that imagination flow. Pour all your deepest fears into one creature and tell me what it looks like. Mine is this huge scorpion who’s telling me I don’t have enough experience for an entry-level job.
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