Creatures of Water
Giant and colossal squids have the largest eyes of any living creature; each eye can be as large as a human head.
The mythical kraken--perhaps based on sightings of giant squid tentacles--may be the largest sea monster ever imagined; some stories described it as more than 1.5 miles around with arms as large as a ship's masts.
Many documented sightings of what were thought to be sea serpents were later debunked as cases of mistaken identity. For instance, several "sea monster" carcasses turned out to be partially decayed basking sharks (an immense fish that grows to 30 feet in length), a "baby sea serpent" proved to be a deformed blacksnake, and an enormous serpent turned out to be a mass of floating seaweed.
Several pictures of sea serpents on old maps appear to be based on sightings of the oarfish or ribbon fish. A long eel-shaped fish that grows up to 36 feet, the oarfish has a crest of bright red spines on its head and a spiny dorsal fin running down its entire back.
The story of Sedna is one of the most dramatic tales of the Inuit people of the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. In a deadly tale of betrayal on the stormy sea, a young woman is tossed overboard by her own father, who cuts off her fingers to keep her from climbing back into the boat. Her fingers become the whales, seals, and walruses on which the Inuit depend for food and materials.
Centuries ago, when European adventurers set out to explore the world, their sailors told of seeing mermaids in the waves. When the boats arrived in ports around the world, the image of the mysterious half-woman, half-fish creature spread, often taking on new meanings as it mixed with local beliefs.
In the ocean near Haiti in 1493, Christopher Columbus--probably glimpsing a manatee--reported seeing three mermaids but said they were "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men."
People have been making facsimiles of mermaids for at least 400 years by sewing the head and torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish. The most spectacular mermaid hoax was pulled off by the famous showman P. T. Barnum. In 1842, Barnum tricked thousands of people into paying to see a mermaid supposedly caught near the Fiji Islands. The name "Feejee mermaid" is now used for all such manufactured mermaids.
Creatures of Land
The remains of Protoceratops dinosaurs, which lived from 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago, may have influenced descriptions of griffins. Both Protoceratops and griffins have birdlike beaks, but bodies with four legs--an unusual combination. And Protoceratops fossils have very long shoulder-blades, a feature that may explain why griffins are said to have wings.
Ancient Greeks found enormous bones they thought to have belonged to flesh-and-blood giants who lived and died. Even today large and surprisingly humanlike bones can be found in Greece; modern scientists understand them to be remains of mammoths, mastodons, and woolly rhinoceroses that once lived in the region.
The tales of the European one-horned magical unicorn were first told over 2,000 years ago by Greek travelers. In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought narwhal tusks--long, white, and spiraled--to Europe, where buyers considered them to be valuable, magical remains of the elusive unicorns, thought to be able to cure a range of illnesses, from epilepsy to the plague. The Asian unicorn, first mentioned in written stories around 2700 B.C.E., differs in appearance by a scaly coat, one or multiple flesh-covered horns, and a wolflike head.
In Japan, the unicorn is called the kirin and is the symbol and name of a popular beer. The word kirin has also come to mean "giraffe" in modern Japanese, perhaps owing to an earlier confusion: In 1414, Cheng Ho, the returning leader of an expedition to Africa, presented to the Chinese emperor a live "unicorn" that was, in fact, a giraffe.
Enormous apes are more than a myth; the Gigantopithecus blacki, now extinct, is a very distant relative of humans that lived in Southeast Asia for almost a million years, until perhaps as recently as 300,000 years ago.
Creatures of Air
Seven hundred years ago, Arab traders told of a bird so huge it could lift an elephant into the sky. Sailors said it lived on an island off the southern coast of Africa. Coincidentally, a giant bird called the Aepyornis once lived on the island of Madagascar. Now extinct, the bird--which is the largest ever to live, at over ten feet tall--laid the largest eggs in the world, at over two gallons.
According to Hindu and Buddhist stories, the giant, birdlike Garuda fights its eternal enemy, the snakelike Naga. The Garuda is now the national symbol of Thailand and Indonesia.
When the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 464-425 B.C.E.) visited Egypt, he learned of the sacred benu bird of Egyptian myth. He called it the phoenix, and wrote that it came to the Egyptian Temple of the Sun once every 500 years. Later writers wrote that every five centuries the phoenix burned in a fire lit by the Sun and then rose to begin life again. Inspired by this tale, many poets and artists have adopted the phoenix as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.
Dragons that lurk in European stories are powerful, wicked, and dangerous. Some nest in caves, guard stockpiles of treasure, and devour sheep or even young girls. The dragon has been reviled in the Christian world as the image of evil. In many stories, a dragon dies by the sword of a brave and honorable hero, ending a furious battle between sin and virtue, darkness and light.
Dragons--part of the legends of East Asian cultures for more than 4,000 years--have sweeping powers, including breathing clouds, moving the seasons, and controlling the waters of rivers, lakes, and seas. They are linked with yang--the masculine principle of heat, light, and action--and opposed to yin--the feminine principle of coolness, darkness, and repose.
European naturalists once considered the dragon a close relative of the snake. In a text from 1640, Ulissis Aldrovandi, a professor of natural science at the University of Bologna, discusses their habits. "Winged dragons flying through Africa," he writes, "beat enormous animals such as bulls to death with their tails."
In Chinese art, the dragon is sometimes paired with the phoenix. Together, they are often equated with the harmony of marriage, and the union of the complementary cosmic elements yin and yang.
Chinese scholars classified the dragon as one of the 369 animal species with scales. Long before the development of paleontology, people unearthed fossilized bones in Asia and Europe--and believed they had found the remains of dragons from an earlier age.
In traditional Chinese medicine, "dragon bones" are prescribed as a treatment for numerous ailments, from madness to diarrhea and dysentery. Most of the lumps and powders sold in Chinese pharmacies as dragon bone come from fossil remains of extinct mammals, unearthed from China's renowned fossil beds.
With their enormous size, reptilian shape, and threatening teeth and claws, some dragons might easily be taken for cousins of Tyrannosaurus rex. Living dinosaurs did not inspire the dragon idea--they died out long before people were around to observe them--but the fossil remains of extinct animals have sometimes been taken for dragon bones, and helped perpetuate old dragon stories.
A woolly rhinoceros skull was once kept in the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria. It was said to be the remains of a dragon slain before the city was founded around 1250 B.C.E.