The intrigue and possibility of mythological mythical creatures has always fascinated us. Whether it is ghosts and spirits, the little people, shape-shifting humans with magical powers or peculiar beasts of myth and legend they all still continue to entertain and bemuse us.
But what are 'mythological' creatures? Who decides what is 'mythological' anyway?
The origins of many mythological creatures can be found in old accounts of beasts that supposedly roamed our world. Pliny the Elder aimed to document all the known animals in 'Historia Naturalis' (77AD), which included the Manticore, Murex and Skiapod. In the 16th century Ambrose Pare in 'On Monsters and Marvels' (1582) stated that some mythical creatures such as the Incubus and Succubus were completely untrue but he still held onto beliefs of bizarre races of men that did not exist. Over time as our understating of our world increased it became apparent what creatures were real and which were suspicious. Such suspicious creatures like the Unicorn and Griffin became mythological creatures. Although it is strange to believe that people once believed in such beings, we must remember that even today we make recent discoveries about animals. For example, did you know that octopuses come onto land to traverse small terrain or to lay eggs? We do not know which types of beasts described in history were exaggerations, which were species that are now extinct or which are so rare that have not been seen again.
Faith, Superstition and Science
Mythological creatures are not confined to flesh and bone as many take on invisible or otherworldly forms such as ghosts, spirits and angels. The rise of science and its impressive understanding of the world has caused many beliefs of supernatural creatures to become fantasy as they cannot be scientifically proved. But science cannot prove their non-existence. Science details physical phenomena but not so much the mental phenomena of our world. When we consider this many beings become possible. Buddhist and other eastern philosophies explain the existence of spirits through an understanding of what the mind is and thus what a living being can be. Furthermore the book of biodiversity is not closed, new species are discovered all the time, the ocean has not been fully explored and we cannot know for sure what creatures are extinct and which still remain. This inability to fully prove or disprove creatures based on sightings is what has caused many creatures like ghosts, spirits and Bigfoots to become classed as mythological creatures.
What Mythological Creatures Are Not
Since we still adore the tales of Giants, Dragons and monsters, we have incorporated these into the arts and entertainment. Shakespeare used mythical creatures like Caliban and Oberon to populate his play 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1590) which were based upon mythical creatures. In the 20th century JRR Tolkien revolutionised mythology in his books 'The Hobbit' (1936) and 'The Lord of the Rings' (1955) turning Norse mythical creatures into new fictional versions starting a new genre: fantasy. Since then many mythological creatures have evolved and been elaborated to feature in fantasy books, films and games. The typical Orc, a blob with tusks became the green-tusked warrior now embellished by companies like Games Workshop and Blizzard's 'World of Warcraft'.
Many mythological creatures are beings based on sightings and spiritual connections which neither can be proved. We have not fully completed our encyclopedia of Earth's animals and still have to journey into the spiritual philosophies of the elusive Far East. But either way the old stories and descriptions of fabulous beasts is an increasing resource for popular entertainment in books, films and games.
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Background Illustrations (Left top-bottom, right top-bottom): Medusa by Gonzalo Ordonez, Loch Ness Monster by dyb,
Basilisk by JustMick, Shuck by Serphire, Ts Um A Kas - Illustration of a rock painting (from Dover publications).