From dragons to unicorns: finding fantastic beasts in ancient history

Dragons, griffins, unicorns and giants – ancient people invented and shared stories of many bizarre mythological creatures.

But where did our ancient ancestors find the inspiration for these stories? Did they invent their fabulous beasts after stumbling across long-lost bones and fossils hidden deep within the earth? Writer Crispin Andrews investigates…

Sarcophagus with relief depicting the Calydonian boar hunt

Imagine two children, sent by their parents to catch fish in the Aegean Sea. It’s the sixth century BC. The younger child finds an opening to a huge, high-roofed cave on the shoreline, covered by an old rock fall. When she screams, her sister comes running, to find her sibling cowering in a corner.

On the other side of the cave, there’s a pile of bones, many of them enormous. One in particular, stands out. A skull, almost as big as the smaller girl. It has a tusk on either cheek-bone and in its centre is a huge gaping hole where, the children presume, a single great eye must once have been. The pair had heard the elders talk of such creatures. In their exuberance, the children had stumbled across the lair one of the most dreaded of all monsters: the Cyclops. According to Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops was a one-eyed, carnivorous giant that lived in caves. 

What the pair had actually found was most likely an old mammoth skeleton, but at this time, people in that part of world would have known nothing of the prehistoric animals that once roamed the planet. In fact, before the campaigns of Alexander the Great (356–323 BC), Greeks had probably never even seen an elephant.

“Someone might find a mammoth skull without its trunk and have absolutely no idea what they were looking at,” says Adrienne Mayor, from Stanford University, author of The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. “Mammoth fossils were common in coastal caves around the Aegean.”


Vase-painting of the story of the Cyclops from Homer's 'Odyssey', found in an Etruscan tomb. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)
 

“If you found a mammoth leg bone as big as yourself, but horses were the largest animal you’d seen, it wouldn’t be too hard to imagine that the bone had come from a giant human,” Mayor says. She believes that the creatures such as Cyclops described in stories, which we now call myths, were simply the ancients’ way of explaining the bones and fossils they came across.

So could the infamous sea monster Scylla, said to have terrorised the Italian side of the Strait of Messina during antiquity, have been imagined after people in those parts found whale bones or plesiosaur skeletons? Was Catoblepas, described by Roman scholar Pliny the Elder as a buffalo with a boar’s head, actually a fossilised Enteledont? These huge, carnivorous hogs lived throughout Eurasia for 20 million years; the biggest stood seven feet tall. Although the mythical stories of antiquity may have been published by great writers and scholars, they usually originated in the tales that ordinary people told each other.

 

Tusks and ‘Griffin eggs’ 

This ‘myths from fossils’ theory could explain a lot. Perhaps legendary beasts with horse-like heads and fish-like tails were actually based on skeletons of prehistoric whales. Did people find the frozen, shrunken bodies of giant one-horned rhinos and imagine unicorns? Had the first person who talked of the giant Calydonian boar sent by the goddess Artemis to ravage the countryside simply found a mammoth tusk? “Boars were the only tusked animal the ancient Greeks knew of,” Mayor says. 

Pliny writes of the Leucrocotta, which he describes as about the size of an ass, with a stag's haunches, a lion's neck, tail and breast, badger's head, cloven hoof, mouth opening right back to the ears, and ridges of bone in place of rows of teeth. This strange beast was said to originate in India. We now know that from the early Palaeocene to the late Eocene, a group of very odd-looking predators lived throughout Asia. Mesonychids had wolf-like bodies, but on their feet were not claws, but tiny hooves. The larger ones had huge, flat, elongated heads and long mouths full of blunt molars. Another large-hoofed predator, Andrewsarchus, also lived in these parts around the same time. It had similar characteristics, but was even bigger.

Mayor also thinks that fossil finds could explain another of mythology’s most celebrated creatures. Griffin legends are found throughout Eurasia, and were brought to Greece in the seventh century BC by travellers who traded with Scythian nomads in the Altai Mountains in central Asia, Mayor explains. These nomads would have also traded with people further east, in the areas that in modern times have given up skeletons of a dinosaur we call Protoceratops. 


Exhibit designers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science install a model of a Protoceratops as part of a exhibition featuring fossils which may have influenced the description of many mythic creatures. (Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
 

Protoceratops was a sheep-sized relative of Triceratops. When skeletons turned up in those parts during antiquity, as they undoubtedly did, locals may well have imagined a fantastic hybrid of more familiar creatures: hooked beak like an eagle, stocky body like a lion and a long snake-like tail. “Griffins were thought to hoard gold and Protoceratops are often discovered next to a nest of eggs, fossilised in the golden sand,” says Mayor.

 

‘Dragon bones’

Dragon myths are found all over the world, and so too are prehistoric bones. “The I Ching, one of China’s oldest and most revered texts, says it’s good luck to find dragon bones,” says Mayor. Ten years ago, news reports from Henan Province suggested that superstitious villagers had been digging up dinosaur bones and had been making them into dragon medicine for decades.

Cryptozoologist Richard Freeman believes that eastern dragon legends actually originated from early human encounters with living animals. Freeman, the author of several books on dragons, recounts a story about one ancient emperor from the east, who, obsessed with staying young, sent explorers far and wide in search of hidden secrets. “Some found their way to Australia, where a huge monitor lizard, twice the size of today’s Komodo dragon, was a top predator,” he says. Freeman also believes that Chinese ‘flood dragon’ myths may came from encounters with giant crocodiles.


A Komodo dragon prowls the shore of Komodo island, Indonesia, in 2010. (Photo by ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
 

“Psychological hybrids”

Rather than a case of mistaking genuine fossils for ‘real’ creatures, former University of Central Florida anthropologist David E Jones believes that mythological creatures are actually psychological hybrids based on our inherited, instinctive fear of the most dangerous animals around. 

“Over millions of years of evolution, species will evolve an instinctive fear of their predators,” says Jones in his book, An Instinct for Dragons. “These fearful images may be merged in artistic or cultural expression to create the dragon image and, perhaps, other kinds of hybrid monster.”

“Dragons have features that are combinations of snakes, large cats and birds of prey,” Jones writes. Many dragons are portrayed as having bird-like necks and upper bodies, just like the gigantic flightless birds that roamed the earth for millions of years. In Australia, a 40,000-year-old cave painting likely shows a huge, flightless bird Genyornis. Fossils of the heavily-built birds have been found in association with human artefacts and according to the Australian Museum, Genyornis may have co-existed with humans for at least 15,000 years. In New Zealand, Moas (albeit vegetarians) were around until 1400 AD and elsewhere, three-metre-tall elephant birds lived on Madagascar until the 17th century.


Genyornis newtoni. (Creator: Anne Musser © Australian Museum)

 

Some of these large birds could prove a real threat. During the late Pleistocene, early North American children were almost certainly on the menu for Teratornis, a vulture with a 3.8m wing span. Another vulture, Aiolornis – which had a wingspan of 5m – might have encountered early humans. During those times, giant eagles and hawks hunted in the Mediterranean and parts of the West Indies. Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle ever to have lived and the top predator of the time in its ecosystem, died out in New Zealand with the Moa.

Similarly, in medieval Europe when a wolf-dog hybrid – or maybe even a hyena or lion – escaped from a local menagerie and attacked villagers in the dark, locals blamed the deaths on demons and werewolves. Though as time passed, humans turned away from myths and towards religion, and then science, to explain the world around them.

 

Modern myths

Though constantly improving technology helps today’s palaeontologists to reconstruct prehistoric skeletons, modern experts are coloured by their own knowledge and experiences, just as the ancients were. They see similarities in therapod dinosaur and bird physiology, and think that dinosaurs looked and moved like birds. They make assumptions about short-faced bear and dire wolf behaviour, based on what is known about these animals’ modern-day successors. 

This knowledge is always evolving. It was once said that Sauropods were semi-aquatic. Now, it is widely believed that these giant dinosaurs spent their time on land, eating from trees, much as elephants do today. Today, some experts say that the Tyrannosaurus rex had feathers.


US president Thomas Jefferson fancied himself a bit of a fossil expert. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

 

There are cases of experts getting it wrong. US founding father Thomas Jefferson fancied himself as a bit of a fossil expert, but when some miners dug up what turned out to be a giant sloth skeleton, Jefferson took one look at the claws and decided it must belong to a big cat. Renowned Victorian dinosaur expert Richard Owen designed the Iguanodon sculptures in Crystal Palace to look like huge, scaly rhinos with a nose horn, which is now believed to be the dinosaur’s distinctive thumb claw.

Though the ancient people knew less about animal anatomy and would use magic to explain things that we know today are physically impossible, as Adrienne Mayor says: “Like the ancients, we do the best we can with what we know”.

Crispin Andrews is a freelance writer and journalist.

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