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What are Mythical Creatures?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the twenty-first century, mythical creatures can be roughly divided into two groups: mythical creatures that everyone agrees are mythical creatures and creatures that some people take to be mythical creatures and others take to be real, but elusive, creatures. In the first case, the evidence is largely from the story-telling tradition, both literary and oral. In the second case, people work from journal entries, articles, photographs, and movies.

The first group of creatures — those about which there is a agreement that they are mythical creatures — include creatures that are literally from myths, like centaurs, fauns, and nymphs, and specific one-of-a-kind mythical creatures like the Hydra and Scylla. The term is also used loosely to refer to imaginary creatures not specifically from myths, like the unicorn, dragons, and griffins.

Of the truly mythical creatures, centaurs are creatures that are half man (from the waist up) and half horse (the rest). The most famous is Chiron, who was taught by Apollo and Artemis, and himself taught such pupils as Aesculapius, Achilles, and Hercules. Fauns, on the other hand, are a mythical creature that is half man and half goat, divided, again, at the waist. The most famous faun is Pan, the inventor of the panpipes, and a god.

Nymphs are divine females of different varieties, each variety being associated with a natural object. Tree nymphs are called dryads; fresh water nymphs, naiads; and ocean nymphs, oceanids. Famous nymphs include Echo, remembered for her unrequited love for Narcissus, who loved only himself; Thetis, mother of Achilles; and Calypso, whom Odysseus met on his journey home to Penelope.

The Hydra was a nine-headed monster that Hercules was asked to kill as the second of his twelve labors. When he cut off one head, two new ones grew in its place, so he had to, in effect, cauterize each cut to defeat the beast. Scylla, on the other hand, was a sea monster with six heads and twelve feet. She lived opposite the whirlpool Charybdis on the Strait of Messina, and snatched sailors who veered away from the whirlpool, devouring them. The expression “between Scylla and Charybdis,” which is the approximate equivalent of “between a rock and a hard place,” is still used today.

Mythical creatures in the second sense include the Abominable Snowman, which reportedly makes its home in the Himalayas. Evidence of footprints convinces some, while others believe that the footprints belong to bears or other animals, or were created by some other cause.

The Loch Ness monster, a pleiosaur-like creature who is affectionately referred to as Nessie. Nessie is one of a number of mysterious lake monsters whose existence has not been confirmed. On 9 June 2007, the second Rock Ness festival was held, with free cameras given out to try to capture a shot of Nessie, apparently without success. So whether the mythical creatures of the lakes exist is still to be determined. . . .

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Apr 26, 2014

@Fa5t3r - Well, it seems like other kinds of creatures, like vampires, come and go in fashion. I know that most people will recognize well known mythical creatures anyway, like the Sphinx or the Hydra.

I like those ones that are really mythological and not based around modern hoaxes, like Nessie and Bigfoot are.

By Fa5t3r — On Apr 25, 2014

@croydon - I remember when I was a kid I was obsessed with unicorns and other mythical creatures like the pegasus that were based around horses. I had quite a large collection of posters and things which I find rather embarrassing now!

Although it seems like unicorns have come back into vogue lately as a kind of ironic icon, with people buying things like canned "unicorn meat" and making jokes about how unicorns can fart rainbows.

I wonder if these kinds of things go in cycles and eventually griffons might come into fashion or something like that.

By croydon — On Apr 25, 2014

The interesting thing about some mythical creatures is that they were once thought to be real and so there are mentions of them in various ancient text books. For example, there are a couple of mentions of the unicorn in the Bible, although they are generally thought to be metaphors referring to the myth, rather than references to an actual animal. Funnily enough, the bible mentions unicorns but doesn't have a single reference to domestic cats, even though they were definitely known by the time it was transcribed.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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