Once upon a time, people believed in a great number of fanciful and mysterious monsters: dragons, sea serpents, mermaids and so on. Today, we regard them as tall tales but most mythological beasts have some basis in real animals, whether living or extinct. Fiction, it turns, is only as bizarre as the facts that inspire it.
The kraken: a legendary, many-tentacled sea monster that supposedly attacked and sank ships off the coast of Norway and Greenland hundreds of years ago. It was feared by many a sailor and was considered a real, living creature by several scientists, including the father of taxonomy himself, Carl Linnaeus, who even gave it a scientific name.
The animal that probably inspired the kraken – the giant squid – is almost as terrifying as its fictional counterpart. At thirteen metres long, the giant squid is the second-largest invertebrate in the world (beaten only narrowly by the ever-so-slightly larger colossal squid) and it is equipped with eight suckered arms, two grasping tentacles, a monstrously huge parrot-like beak that tears into its prey, and quite possibly the biggest eye in the animal kingdom – 27 cm across.
Like all squid, these giants are active hunters, despite their bulk. Suction cups on the underside of its tentacles allow it to latch onto prey and bring it within reach of its gnashing beak. It is prey for deep-diving sperm whales, but the whales don’t always have it their own way; sometimes, a squid can fight back and many a sperm whale have been spotted with scars made by the giant suction cups of their struggling prey.
In Greek mythology, Jason and his band of Argonauts set out to the kingdom of Colchis to obtain a magical golden fleece, which had once belonged to a winged ram called Chrysomallus. The winged ram was used by Prince Phrixus to cross the sea and was then sacrificed to Zeus (who later made the constellation Aries from it).
It is likely that the golden ram is based on a relatively obscure animal called the golden takin, a type of goat-antelope (yes, that is their scientific classification), which today lives only in the Himalayas. This animal has always been featured heavily in the myths and legends of the people of Bhutan and it is said to have been created from the leftover parts of a goat and cow. During Ancient Greek times, Bhutan would have been a far-off and remote locale, so any takin skin that did reach them would probably have been regarded as a rare and kingly item, just as the Golden Fleece was in the myth.
Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids whilst exploring the Caribbean in 1493 and he described them as ‘not half as beautiful as they are painted’. For hundreds of years, mermaids had been depicted in art and in stories as beautiful, enchanting aquatic women with fish tails. What Christopher Columbus didn’t realise was that he had actually spotted the real life creature that had inspired the mermaid legend: the manatee.
Manatee. Mermaid. There doesn’t seem to be much similarity except that they both live in the sea. One is alluring and ravishing; the other rotund, grey and slow. But it should be noted that the sailors on such long voyages were malnourished, trapped in awful conditions and starved of female contact for months on end. Spotting the manatees from a distance as they surfaced to breathe and cavorted with one another, which they frequently do, was enough to get the half-crazed (and often drunk) sailors excited.
Even today, the manatee (and its cousin, the dugong) bear names alluding to the mermaid origin. They belong to an order of animals called Sirenia, named after the Sirens of Greek mythology, femme fatale mermaids that lured sailors towards them with their enchanting music and voices. The word ‘manatee’ comes, via Spanish, from a Carib word meaning ‘breast’ (which are quite noticeable on the female), whilst ‘dugong’ comes from the Malay duyung, which means ‘lady of the sea’.
The unicorn, if it existed, would be cursing right now. Today, it is the staple of young girl’s fantasies, usually depicted as a delicate, feminine creature in cutesy cartoons and the like. But it wasn’t always like that. In ancient myths, the unicorn was a tough, violent creature, able to cure any poison with its horn or even run through an armoured knight. Only virgin girls were said to be capable of placating them.
The inspiration for the unicorn probably comes from a mixture of living creatures. Its aggressive demeanour may have been a description of the rhinoceros, which, like the unicorn, has one large horn (albeit on its nose rather than its head). Its general horse-like appearance could have come from the oryx, a type of desert antelope with long, thin, curved horns. When viewed from the side, it does indeed look as though the animal only has one horn protruding from its forehead, as seen in the image below.
Pliny the Elder certainly thought it was a real creature (he called it ‘the fiercest animal’) but he wasn’t alone and many other people, including Leonardi di Vinci, believed it existed too. The myth of the animal was propagated by the appearance of so-called unicorn horns – actually walrus tusks and narwhal horns – which could fetch a great deal of money because people believed they held exceptional healing properties. Queen Elizabeth I of England was given one as a gift and it was said to have been worth £10,000 (around £2 million in today’s money), which was the cost of an entire castle back then.
There are many more mythological monsters in the world and in a later post I hope to shed some light on the origins of the griffin, sea serpents and the one-eyed Cyclops.