You would think I would be satisfied with having a pet anteater and two baby bear cubs (not at the same time, mind you) but I wasn’t. The only thing missing from my life was a small Pegasus or a unicorn. Perhaps a firebird from the Russian fairy tales. Unfortunately, as good as my mother was at collecting rare and unusual pets, she was never able to rustle up one of those. Instead, I had to settle for experiencing them in books.
It is not surprising that we are drawn to animals. There is something Otherworldly about our relationship with them and something faintly magical whenever we manage to gain one’s trust. Just think how extraordinary it would be to gain the trust of a mythical creature! Not to mention that animals often possess many of the powers we dream of experiencing for ourselves: the ability to fly, agility, overwhelming strength, enhanced vision, almost preternatural hearing. Mythical beasts even more so.
Although, it’s important to keep in mind that mythical beasts can be as majestic as the griffin or as frivolous as barnacle geese.
When talking about mythical beasts, it seems to me there are three distinct categories: True beasts, like unicorns, griffins and rocs; singly occurring creatures, such as the minotaur, Fenrir, Pegasus, and the Hydra; and lastly, those that are part human/part beast such as fauns, satyrs, centaurs, merfolk, and the like. Even then, some defy categorization. One could make a case for the Minotaur being in each of those categories. And the manticore has only the face of a man, with the body and nature of a tiger. He seems as if he would fit best in the true beast category since, by all accounts, he possesses little humanity. (Yes, these are the sorts of questions fantasy writers get to spend their day pondering; just how many unicorns can prance on the head of a pin. Or something.)
There are two primary sources for all these mythical animals. The first source is the earliest works on natural history and zoology, such as medieval bestiaries and the even earlier Physiologus which was a composition of earlier Greek works by Aristotle, Pliny the Elder and Herodotus. These texts were, for all intents and purposes, the definitive zoological textbooks of their time. Often pieced together from older works, they included the naturalist observations and teachings first recorded in ancient times.
The second source for these magical creatures is myths and folktales. Greek myths probably contain some the most well-known mythological creatures: winged horses, satyrs, chimera, hydra, minotaur. But other cultures and legends have plenty of them as well.
Some mythical creatures appear in many different cultures and myths: the unicorn not only appears in Western European tales, but in Chinese and Japanese accounts as well, where it is known as the Qilin or Kirn. The same with the phoenix. Tales of the self-regenerating bird appear in the middle east and in Asia as the phoenix, the benu bird of ancient Egypt, the firebird of Russian legends, and the Fenghuang of China.
Dragons are another. They appear in many, many cultures. It is fascinating also, to see how differently they are perceived by western and eastern cultures. In western tales, they are wily and evil and fairly bent on the destruction of man, or at least consuming him as a tasty snack. In eastern cultures however, dragons are demi-gods, creatures of the heavens who bestow good luck and fortune.
I am especially intrigued by those legendary beasts that have appeared in some form throughout a wide number of cultures. Possibly because part of me wants to believe that, as my grandmother used to say, where there is smoke, there’s fire. If so very many cultures had stories and legends about re-generating birds or single-horned horse-like creatures, surely that increases the odds—just a teeny bit—that they might really have existed. No? Okay fine.
Here are some of my favorite websites I use when researching mythical beasts.
From Greek Mythology:
Medieval Bestiaries on the web: (And how cool is it that we can see these ancient writings with just the click of a mouse!)
And then of course, Wikipedia has some great master lists. Their master list of legendary beasts is now divided alphabetically (I liked it better when it used to be all one, really long page of fascinating names.)
Here is another link to mythical creatures by type, which is interesting just to see how they grouped things.
Other than dragons and unicorns, I am often surprised at just how few of these fascinating creatures show up in books. I know both Kathleen Duey and Bruce Coville have written series on unicorns. And Diana Peterfreund’s Rampant has an intriguing book on a completely re-imagined type of unicorn. Dragons, too, have had a respectable showing in children’s and YA fantasy. And of course, the Percy Jackson books have included a number of the mythical creatures from Greek myths. But other than those and the Harry Potter books, my personal list of books featuring mythical beasts is short. How about you? What books have you read that I might have missed?