Are Mythical Beasts Based on Actual Creatures?


For thousands of years, humans have told stories about fantastical beasts that roamed the land in a time long ago. They told stories about flying dragons and one-eyed giants that would eat whole men in a single bite. It was mythical, it was magical, it was…real?

There has been a lot of evidence that many mythical creatures were based on the fossils of extinct beasts. One of the most widely accepted theories is that ancient Greeks based the myth of the Cyclops on the fossilized skulls of a breed of dwarf-sized elephant. The large oraphice in the center of the skull, where the trunk would attach, could be seen as a single eye socket.

Another theory from the same region is that of the mythical Griffin. A winged beast with head and talons of an eagle, the body and legs of a lion, and sometimes with a serpent for a tail. However, it is believed that what they were describing was the fossils of a Protoceretops. Griffins were thought to have lived in the Gobi desert. Ancient Scythians who mined the Gobi, told stories Griffins who guarded the vast quantities of gold and created huge nests in which to lay their eggs. In more recent times, it has been discovered that the Godi desert is a littered with hundreds of fossils of Protoceretops and nests of fossilized eggs.

Another myth from the ancient Greeks is the story of Hercules rescuing Hesione from the Monster of Troy. The myth says that the King Laomedon of Troy owed Posideon payment for building the giant defensive walls. The king refused to pay and Posideon sent a sea monster to terrorize the city. Most depictions show Hercules fighting a sea serpent, but there is one depiction from the 6th-century B.C.E. that shows what appears to be a fossilized dinosaur skull.



This Greek Krater depicts Hercules rescuing the Trojan princess. However, the image of the sea monster looks eerily like a sun-bleached skull protruding from the side of a cliff. Could the Monster of Troy have been nothing more than a fossil? Or is this something the vessel’s artist had seen in their lifetime?

Almost every culture around the world tells stories about the giants who lived in the past. There is evidence that some Greek and Roman temples held the “bones of giants“. They would be revered as proof of ancient heroes, much in the same way Saints’ bones are viewed today.

The final ancient creature I want to discuss is the Krakken. The mythical beast of the deep that was talked about by sailors from around the world. It was said to be of immense size, with tentacles that could drag even the mightiest ships to the bottom of the sea. The carcasses of large squid have been washing up on shores around the world for centuries, but it wasn’t until 2012 that the world caught their first glimpse of a live Giant Squid off the coast of Japan. The second sighting of a young Giant Squid was videotaped off the Gulf of Mexico in 2019. Though just a juvenile, its tentacles were measured at about 6″ each.

As we think about the mythic beasts and creatures of the ancient world, we need to remember that there is a chance that those beasts were actual creatures at one time. They may not have been what the ancients believed, but they were real.


Mammoth skull image provided by IJReid, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Greek vessel Picture taken by Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Image was cropped to this specific scene from a larger view of the entire vessel.


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