From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Some mythical creatures have their origin in traditional mythology and have been believed to be real creatures, for example the dragon, the unicorn, and griffin. Others were based on real encounters, originating in garbled accounts of travelers' tales, such as the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, which supposedly grew tethered to the earth (and was actually a type of fern), or the Sukotyro, a elephant- and ox-like quadruped from Java, included in George Shaw's Zoology based on just one sighting in 1563.
Conversely, some creatures downplayed as just storytelling, have been rediscovered and found to be real in recent times, such as the Giant Squid (the Kraken). In Africa, Natives of the Congo told European visitors of an animal that looked like a cross between a zebra and a giraffe. While the visitors assumed the stories were just folk tales, in 1901, Sir Harry Johnston brought back pelts that proved the creature, which we now call the okapi, is real.
Often mythical creatures are hybrids, a combination of two or more animals. For example, a centaur is a combination of a man and horse, the minotaur of a man and bull, and the mermaid, half woman and half fish. These were not always intended to be understood as literal juxtapositions of parts from disparate species. Lacking a common morphological vocabulary, classical and medieval scholars and travelers would attempt to describe unusual animals by comparing them point-for-point with familiar: the giraffe, for example, was called camelopard, and thought of as a creature half-camel, and half-leopard. The leopard itself was so named as it was historically believed to be a half-lion (Latin: "leo") and half-panther (Latin: "pardus"). This etymology has been kept until the present day, despite its zoological inaccuracies.
Other legendary creatures are thought to exist even today, but evidence is lacking. Famous examples are chupacabras, Bigfoot, Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, and space aliens. These are called cryptids by cryptozoologists.
Many legendary creatures appear prominently in fantasy fiction. These creatures are often claimed to have supernatural powers or knowledge or to guard some object of great value, which becomes critical to the plot of the story in which it is found. Dragons, for instance, are commonly depicted as perched on a gleaming hoard of gold which becomes the target of adventurers.
- List of legendary creatures
- List of legendary creatures by type
- List of cryptids
- Book of Imaginary Beings