Back at the start of September, I did a post about the animal origins of various mythological monsters such as the krakken, unicorn and mermaid (which you can view here if you didn’t see it, or just want to refresh your memory). But whereas we have looked at some of the more well-studied legendary creatures, it’s now time to delve into more obscure territory…
‘It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its quills were twelve paces long and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces.’ So wrote the famous Italian explorer Marco Polo during his time in Madagascar in the thirteenth century. He was supposedly describing the roc, a gigantic bird of prey now know to be nothing more than a myth, and which Sinbad battled in the Arabian Nights.
The real roc was probably a now-extinct inhabitant of Madagascar, the elephant bird. At three metres high and weighing up to half a tonne, it is probably the biggest bird that has ever lived. But, size aside, Marco Polo’s account of the roc starts to deviate considerably from its source. Firstly – and perhaps most obviously – the elephant bird was far too heavy to fly so it certainly couldn’t have lifted elephants into the air and, even if it could, it wouldn’t have had the opportunity to because elephants don’t live (and, to the best of our knowledge, never have lived) on Madagascar.
It’s probable that Marco Polo, when writing his account on the roc, was quoting from local legend and adding in a dash of his own imagination and creativity at the same time. Nevertheless, when the great bird was later looked at in more detail, it was named after Polo’s assertion that it could drop elephants from the sky.
In the previous Mythological Monsters article, I wrote about the kraken, a giant many-tentacled sea monster that sank and attacked ships hundreds of years ago. But it wasn’t the only oceanic monster out there terrorising the early mariners – there were also giant sea serpents around as well. One of the most notable of all these sea serpents was Jormungandr from Norse mythology, which was so long it encircled the entire world.
And the origin of these great serpents? Well, people have cited the long, slender, primitive frilled shark or even relict populations of prehistoric marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and mosasaurs as being the genesis of these legendary monsters, but the most likely explanation is this thing…
It’s the giant oarfish, also called the king of herrings, and it’s the longest bony fish in the world, sometimes reaching 10 metres long or even more. When a 5 metre long oarfish washed up on a beach in Bermuda in 1860, it was indeed initially thought to be a stranded sea serpent. Because it is so rarely seen, the oarfish’s behaviour and habits are almost entirely unknown and it wasn’t even filmed in its natural environment until 2010. The stories of it attacking early sailors, however, is completely fabricated; it doesn’t even have any teeth!
Anyone who has a passing interest in Greek mythology (or even just fantasy games/books) will know about the griffin. Depicted regularly in murals and as statues, the griffin was said to possess the body of a lion, and the head, wings and talons of an eagle. Since the lion was commonly regarded as the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of the birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature, known for guarding treasure and priceless possessions.
But it isn’t just the Ancient Greeks who told stories of the griffin; it also appeared in Egypt, Persia and Central Asia. Indeed, the latter is where the myth might even have originated from, for beneath the sand of the great shifting deserts in this part of the world are the skeletons of lion-sized beasts with beaks for mouths.
Today, we don’t call these creatures griffins, we called them Protoceratops, a herbivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period, a smaller cousin of the more famous Triceratops. A great many fossils of these extinct dinosaurs have been found in the Gobi Desert in Central Asia, and its bird-like beak was probably used to eat the rough cycads and other prehistoric plants that lived 80 million years ago.
The griffin probably wasn’t the only mythological creature to have been inspired by old bones. It is likely that stories of dragons and even demons came about because ancient civilisations found the fossils of huge prehistoric creatures and created tales to go with them. The fossils of ammonite shells, for example, were believed to be the curved horns of the devil himself, whilst bullet-shaped fossils known as belemnites were once thought to have been made by thunderbolts hurled at the earth by the gods.
Even the origin of the legendary Cyclops is now thought to be based on fossilised remains. The Cyclopes were one-eyed giants in Greek mythology, the most famous of which was Polyphemus, who lived on an island, herded sheep and ate sailors whenever he could. When Odysseus landed on the island with his men following the Trojan War, he waited until Polyphemus was asleep before plunging a flaming stake into his single eye, blinding him.
The basis for the Cyclopes might have come from the skulls of dwarf elephants, many of which inhabited Mediterranean islands until as recently as 11,000 years ago. Since elephant trunks don’t contain any bones, there appears to be a single gaping opening at the front of the skull and, to an ancient person uncovering such remains, it could easily have been mistaken for a giant eye socket. The size of the skull compared to a human head could quite easily have sparked the idea that these belonged to colossal humanoids.
In the third and final Mythological Monsters article, I’ll be looking at cryptids – the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Chupacabra and so on – to uncover their origins and to see if there is any truth behind the legends.