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Imagination is one of the most distinguishing attributes of the human race. Fiction is supposed to have existed ever since language. Some of the oldest fictions were circulated as folklore and the characters in them are as interesting now, as they were then. Much like the stories themselves, the mythical creatures have origins in their local culture and often reflect the assumptions and hypotheses that existed at some point. A lot of the characters in folklore have found equivalent representations in modern popular culture. Several mythical creatures even have large fan bases. Here we look at some of the most popular and interesting mythical creatures.
Image source: Pixabay
Vampires are probably the most well-known mythological creatures across the world. The origin of the legend of vampires is contested, since some version of the legend seems to have existed in different cultures of the world, at different times. From the Slavic legends of people who return after their death, to Demonic entities from Egypt to the Chinese jiangshi, the vampire has different avatars. However, a common thread is that these creatures suck out ‘life juice’ of some sort from the people they attack. Vampires are often associated with the features of vampire bats. They are supposed to be nocturnal, suck blood from their host and stow themselves away in dark places, scared of sunlight.
Researchers attribute the origins of such legends in the mystery that surrounded concepts such as death and body decomposition during the olden days. Vampires were often blamed for incurable diseases and those suspicions were considered confirmed when a dead body seemed to not have undergone decomposition. Today we know that there are perfectly natural reasons why that could be so.
Driving a stake through the corpse’s heart and stuffing its mouth with garlic was believed to keep it from harming other people.
Some interesting preventive measures were also assumed, such as carrying a bag of salt if a vampire was suspected to be at loose. People who felt an impending vampire attack would spill some salt on the ground, which was believed to tempt the vampire to stop and count the grains in the salt.
Centaurs are creatures in Greek mythology which have the upper body of human beings and lower body of horses. Centaurs are supposed to be descendants of Ixion, from his son Centaurus born from the nymph Nephele. Centaurus went off to live in the forests of Thessaly and mated with wild mares, resulting the origin on half-human, half-horse centaurs.
The real-life inspiration for the myth of centaurs is supposed to have been from the assumptions and mysteries around the horse-riding communities that migrated into Thessaly. Horse riding was unfamiliar to Greeks at the point, which probably inspired a lot of stories.
Centaurs are not considered evil or harmful, rather, uncivilized and barbaric. The legend of the Centauromachy, a battle between centaurs and Lapiths who are essentially cousins, is an exemplification of the wild nature of centaurs. Lapith women were carried away into the forests of Thessaly to present before the head of centaurs, which caused a war between the two communities. It is believed to have ended with the total destruction of the centaur race.
However, there are also exceptionally wise centaurs in Greek mythology who were looked up to by men and Gods. Chiron was one such centaur who even tutored Gods and men in subjects such as medicine. He is supposed to have been fostered by Apollo and is often depicted with human fore-legs. Modern literature also often features kind and wise centaurs in works such as Narnia and Harry Potter.
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Pegasus, typically depicted as a pure white horse with wings, has its origins in Greek mythology. Often considered the son of Poseidon, Pegasus is supposed to have sprung from the blood of Medusa, a Gorgon, when she was beheaded by Perseus. Pegasus was later appointed as the Gods’ chariot and is considered to represent all that is pure and divine. In one of the most iconic moments in Greek mythology where Poseidon rescues Andromeda, Pegasus was Poseidon’s vehicle. Though Pegasus was considered wild and untamed for most of its life, Zeus eventually brought it to Mount Olympus. After which, Pegasus came to represent the journey to heaven.
The water spring Hippocrene in Greece is supposed to have originated from the hoof of Pegasus.
Two sphinxes exist in mythology- one in Egypt and one in Greek mythology. A common factor is that both of them have features of multiple animals. The Egyptian sphinx has the upper body of a man and the lower body of a lion. The Greek sphinx has different depictions, with upper body of a falcon, sometimes a furless cat. Sometimes it had the upper body of a man, and the lower body of a lion with the wings of an eagle.
The Egyptian phoenix probably had a different name originally. The origin of the name “sphinx” is not entirely clear. Some argue that the name sphinx was adopted from Arabic, to mean “the terrifying one”. The Egyptians believed the sphinx statue to have been built by Gods. The original resemblance was found naturally on the rock, before the people themselves carved out the rest to complete the image. Standing high, guarding the pyramids, the Sphinx is supposed to bear resemblance to the then King Khafra.
The myth of the sphinx is also found in Greek mythology, in the legend of Oedipus. In Greek, the origin of the name “sphinx” is supposed to have come from the verb which means “to squeeze”. This is believed to refer to the Sphinx’s reputation of strangling people who fail to answer her riddle. The Greek Sphinx guards the city of Thebes and is believed to have been sent from Aethiopia. In the story of Oedipus, he was asked the riddle: “What has one voice but four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?”. Oedipus answered “man”, following which, the Sphinx is supposed to have fallen from its pedestal and died.
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Fairies and fairytales have become staples for children’s literature. Popular fiction mostly portrays fairies as kind, gentle creatures with magical abilities. However, originally fairies did not always have an entirely positive depiction. Largely, a fairy refers to a magical or heavenly creature who often live among human beings. In Christianity, fairies are fallen angels who did not go to hell, yet did not make it to heaven. They are believed to be almost angelic, helpful and kind.
In European folklore, fairies have several manifestations. There are hobgoblins who are hideous, but very helpful, and goblins who cause trouble for everyone. There are frightening banshees who are omens of bad luck, and several versions of invisible magical creatures who are either benevolent or mischevious.
The Irish folklore has a particularly interesting and widely popular depiction of fairies: they cause changelings! It was believed that fairies with their ability to appear, disappear, and change forms at will, often assumed forms of living human beings. They often took the place of children and women. Mysterious diseases and mental illnesses were often seen as cases of changelings.
One of the most popular figures in children’s fiction, the Tooth fairy has its origins in Europe. Losing baby teeth had several attributed meanings in different European cultures. Nordic traditions required that the first baby tooth be buried away to ward off bad luck in the next life. Vikings considered baby teeth lucky and carried it with them to battles.
The modern tooth fairy is believed to reward children with money in exchange for their baby teeth.
6. Mermaids and Sirens
Mermaids and Sirens have similar forms- half human, half fish.
Mermaids are usually considered kind, benevolent creatures. Some of the earliest depictions show them as guardians of human beings, such as the Syrian goddess Atargatis. Some argue that the earliest depiction of a similar creature is that of a merman. The merman was in fact the God of the sea in Babylonian traditions. Much like the Syrian goddess, the merman watched over the humans of the city and often gave advice and knowledge. The attractive form of mermaids was possibly inspired from the Greek renditions of Nereids, members of the Nymph species who were half-human, half-fish.
Sirens were believed to be frightening creatures who lured seamen into the waters and to their deaths. Seamen were warned against paying attention to the song of the Sirens since their song tempted the seamen into going into the water and getting preyed on by the sirens. In Odyssey, Odysseus had his fellow men block their ears with wax in order to be deaf to the Sirens’ song. He himself was tied to the mast. It is said that when a man successfully evades a Siren, the Siren commits suicide. In another account in Greek mythology, the Sirens were appointed to guard Persephone, failing which, they were punished with bird forms and banished from the sea. Consequently, several depictions feature Sirens with bird legs, beaks and feathers.