Magickal Creatures from Mythology
Humans have always been fascinated by legendary creatures: the majestic unicorn, terrifying giants, mischievous leprechauns, dangerous mermaids, and more. To help stoke the fires of your imagination, we’ve put together a list of some of the most interesting creatures from mythology, including some of our favorites.
Dating back as far as 1380, the legend of the banshee is unsettling, to say the least. She could appear in three forms: a maiden, a matron, and an old crone depending on who she wanted to lure to their demise. Always dressed in grey, and with eternally red eyes from crying, the banshee was a harbinger of death.
In fact, “banshee” means “woman of the fairy mound” in Old Irish, and the mounds referenced in the name are tumuli, old Irish ceremonial burial mounds. The banshee’s shrieks were the first warning that she was near, and military records from centuries ago show that the shriek was enough to make whole groups of soldiers drop their weapons and run in the opposite direction in fear.
We all know Harry Potter killed the basilisk in “The Chamber of Secrets,” but the basilisk first appeared in writings of the first-century Roman writer, Pliny the Elder. His “Natural History” chronicled exotic races and fantastic beasts, including the basilisk. At this early stage, the basilisk was quite snake-like, with markings on its head in the shape of a crown.
By the Middle Ages, the legend had grown so that the basilisk had become a snake with the head of a rooster, and with wings that resemble a dragon’s. Its fatal bite, poisonous breath, and the ability to kill a person on sight – by looking at them – made the basilisk a creature to fear.
The blemmyae were headless men, whose eyes were located in their torsos. The stories of this primitive mythical race likely trace back to the travels of medieval Europeans to Asia and Africa. Similar stories can be attributed to Pliny the Elder, Shakespeare – who mentions them in “Othello” – and Sir Walter Raleigh, a poet, courtier, and explorer from the 16th century. During the era before the Enlightenment, blemmyae appeared in art and folklore as a creature that simultaneously fascinated and disgusted Europeans.
The legend of the gargoyle comes from the French town of Rouen. There, a dragon terrorized the people, flooding the town with water and eating ships whole. That was, until 600 BCE, when Romanus, a priest, vanquished the beast in exchange for the entire town’s conversion to Christianity. The priest killed the dragon, but when he went to burn the monster, the head wouldn’t burn. So, it was placed at the top of the town’s church, warding the building from evil – and other dragons.
The oldest evidence of a gargoyle-like creature is a 13,000-year-old stone crocodile, found in Turkey. The idea that these stone creatures came to life at night is a far younger interpretation of the legend, but one we really like.
With the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle, the griffin is a formidable creature. Most depictions of the griffin show it as an animal with a lion’s hind legs, with front talons and a beak. Tales of the griffin began in the Middle East – likely through oral stories – and appear in ancient Greek literature as well.
In the 14th century, Sir John Mandeville wrote a mostly fictitious travel diary in which he described these creatures as “more strong than eight lions” and “a hundred eagles.” Ferocious and intelligent, griffins were said to mate for life, making them a symbol of monogamy.
“Release the Kraken!” Zeus orders in “Clash of the Titans,” but the Kraken is more than just Hollywood myth. The Kraken originates in Norse mythology, where it was called the hafgufa. The Kraken would drag whole ships into the icy depths and caused huge whirlpools when it dove underwater.
Although there are 18th-century accounts of fishermen off the coast of Greenland and Norway encountering massive squids, the Kraken is likely just a creature from our collective imagination…or at least we hope!
Bearded old men, carrying a shillelagh stick, and dressed in green can only mean one thing: leprechauns! They’re a type of fairy and believed to be descendants of Tuatha Dé Dannan, or the People of the Goddess Dana, supernatural beings who populated Ireland in ancient times. Some believed that leprechauns were unwanted fairy children, who were born with deformities and cast out of their fairy family.
Tricksters by nature, their hijinks tend to be lighthearted and playful, if annoying, in nature. These little men are hard workers, though, and believed to serve the other fairies as cobblers.
The manticore was outright terrifying. It walked on all fours, had the head of a blue-eyed man, the body of a lion, and a scorpion’s tail. Greek authors wrote of the manticore and claimed it had three rows of shark-like teeth.
The ultimate predator, the manticore had an insatiable craving for human flesh and could run its prey down at an alarming speed. Some writers claimed it could shoot paralyzing stingers from its tail to incapacitate its prey before enjoying a snack.
“On the previous day, when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti], he said he quite distinctly saw three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits,” Christopher Columbus wrote in his diary on January 9, 1493. Those “mermaids” were likely manatees, and while we can’t blame the beautiful manatee for all mermaid myths, it’s widely believed among historians that’s where the legend originates.
Legends of mermaids – and mermen – began in European folklore. Mermaids lived much longer than humans but were soulless and mortal creatures. Many stories tell of marriages between mermaids and human men. In these stories, the man would steal something of the mermaid’s possessions. While he had it hidden, she would live with him, but once she found the object, she left. Mermaids were also reputed to lure men to their death. If sailors saw one on their travels, the appearance was an omen of a shipwreck.
The phoenix has been a symbol of resilience, rebirth, and transformation for centuries. According to Greek mythology, the phoenix could live for over 1,400 years before it would go up in flames, die, and then be reborn from its own ashes.
In ancient Egypt, the phoenix was closely tied to the sun. It was as large as an eagle and had a beautiful call. Only one phoenix would live at a time, according to Egyptian folklore, and they lived at least 500 years. A symbol of immortality in ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire used it on its coins, as a symbol of the eternal city.
A giant bird who could snatch an elephant and carry it off: sounds horrific, right? The roc was just one of the types of giant birds that appeared in Arabic folklore. Stories carried to Europe by early travelers described the bird’s method for killing its prey. It would drop its catch from a great height to kill it and then feast on its carcass. Gives more meaning to the question, “What if an elephant fell out of the sky?” doesn’t it?
Tales of unicorns date back to the 4th century BCE, when Ctesias, a Greek doctor, traveled around modern-day Iran in the service of the Persian king. He documented the stories he heard on his journeys, including reports from Indian travelers about wild horses that had an 18-inch horn growing from their foreheads.
Over centuries, the legend of the unicorn grew. It became the symbol of purity, and in medieval art, it represented Christ. Its horn was said to be restorative if it were ground down to a powder and taken as an elixir. It also became a symbol of the Scottish crown and is featured prominently in the coat of arms for the British royal family to this day.