Myth and Folklore
reatures of the earth
We share the land with countless living animals. Some are familiar; others seem quite bizarre. Creatures from the lands of myth can be both recognizable and strange. Sometimes they appear to have body parts from ordinary animals combined in very unusual ways. Other times they look just like familiar animals–but have extraordinary and magical powers.
Do mythic creatures have bones?
Imagine walking along a bluff in ancient Greece and finding a leg bone several times the size of your own. What would you think? What if you saw a massive, human-like skull, with only a single hole where the eyes should be? Or a skeleton with four legs and a sharp, curved beak? What sort of creatures could these be?
Today, scientists recognize such bones as the remains of long-extinct mammoths, dinosaurs, and other animals. But to many ancient Greeks, these unfamiliar bones were proof of the existence of the giants, cyclopes, and griffins described in the popular stories and travel accounts of the time.
© Mick Ellison/AMNH
Millions of years before humans arrived in the Gobi, the desert was home to strange animals that seemed to combine body parts of eagles and lions. But these animals weren’t griffins; they were dinosaurs.
“We stopped at a low saddle between the hills. Before I could remove the keys from the ignition, Mark sang out excitedly…. Several feet away, near the very apex of the saddle, was a stunning skull and partial skeleton of a Protoceratops, a big fellow whose beak and crooked fingers pointed west to our small outcrop, like a griffin pointing the way to a guarded treasure…. We continued to pounce on precious specimens with remarkable consistency…. Mark would sing out, ‘Skull!’ and, almost on cue I would find one too. The surface of the gentle slopes and shallow gullies was splattered with white patches of fossils, as if someone had emptied a paint can in a random fashion over the ground.”
–American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Michael Novacek describing the discovery of Protoceratops fossils on a 1993 expedition to the Gobi Desert with fellow paleontologist Mark Norell.
Guarding Gobi Gold
More than two thousand years ago, hardy gold miners sought their fortunes in the vast Gobi Desert of central Asia. These miners were Scythians–members of a horse-riding people who controlled much of central Asia and the northern Middle East between about 800 BC to AD 200. Relying on travelers’ tales, Greek authors reported that in the scorching heat of the Gobi, the miners battled not only the blazing sun, but also the mighty griffin: a fierce half-eagle, half-lion hybrid that guarded fantastic treasures of gold.
In many parts of the world, dinosaur fossils are incredibly rare and hard to find–but not in certain parts of the Gobi Desert. For thousands of years, Protoceratops fossils, like the one pictured here, could regularly be seen eroding out of hillsides. In recent years many have been collected, making them somewhat less common.
AMNH Special Collections
The Gobi Desert
The Gobi Desert
According to legends, griffins made their nests near gold mines in the Gobi Desert.
Millions of years before humans arrived in the Gobi, some parts of the desert were home to strange animals that seemed to combine body parts of eagles and lions. But these animals weren’t griffins–they were dinosaurs. Certain areas in the Gobi are littered with dinosaur bones, including those of the four-legged, beaked Protoceratops. Ancient gold miners working in the desert may have seen these fossils–and perhaps based their descriptions of griffins on them.
© AMNH / D. Finnin
At A Glance: Protoceratops
In 2000, classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor argued that the many similarities between Protoceratops dinosaur fossils and griffins indicate that the fossils may have influenced descriptions of the mythic creature.
- Protoceratops lived from 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago.
- A beak, just like a griffin.
- Four legs, just like a griffin.
- The thin, bony frill of Protoceratops fossils often breaks off, leaving behind small stumps, which may have been interpreted as griffin ears.
- The elongated shoulder blades of Protoceratops may explain why griffins are commonly said to have wings.
Borrowed Body Parts
Many different dinosaur fossils found in the Gobi may have contributed to various griffin descriptions. Among these are the enormous claws of Therizinosaurus and Deinocheirus which are similar to the griffin claws seen in some depictions.
The ancient Greeks are widely credited for their achievements in math, philosophy and art–but not for finding fossils. Yet we know the Greeks found the preserved bones of unfamiliar animals and tried to interpret them. An image on a ceramic mixing bowl, dating to around 550 BC, depicts a battle between the hero Hercules and the legendary Monster of Troy, shown only as a white, toothy skull emerging from a black cliff face. Adrienne Mayor suggests the monster is actually based on a fossil skull of the ancient giraffe relative Samotherium found eroding out of a hillside.
AMNH Special Collections
Death of a Dinosaur
On an expedition in the Gobi Desert in the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews of the American Museum of Natural History found a Protoceratops specimen poking out of a hillside.
“Now the place where the griffins live and the gold is found is a grim and terrible desert. Waiting for a moonless night, the treasure-seekers come with shovels and sacks and dig. If they manage to elude the griffins, the men reap a double reward, for they escape with their lives and bring home a cargo of gold–rich profit for the dangers they face.”
–Greek author Aelian, c. AD 200
American Museum of Natural History Library
Griffin illustration from Lykosthenes, rare book collection, c. 1557
At A Glance: Griffin
Griffins are said to live in nests in the mountains.
- Head, torso and talons of an eagle–or sometimes other beaked birds, like peacocks.
- Body of a lion–sometimes with a serpent’s tail.
- Tawny coat of a lion, or spotted fur, or colorful feathers.
- Most griffin descriptions include wings, but not all.
- Four legs.
The Wide World of Griffins
Griffin-like creatures appear in the stories of many cultures in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. But griffins do not always mean the same thing in every place. In some cases, the griffin became a symbol of greed. In others, it was majestic and noble, like eagles and lions.
© Mary Evans Picture Library
Alice with the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon. Illustration by John Tenniel in ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,’ 1932 editionAncient Art, Modern Media
zzling griffin illustrations date back at least as far as 3300 BC. Some images were enormously popular in the artwork of many cultures and especially on European coats-of-arms in the Middle Ages. Today, children see griffins in popular movies and in books like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Artists in the ancient world often associated griffins with Nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution.
Drinking cups, or rhytons, were often molded in the shape of an animal’s head.
© J. Leonard/Custom Carving
Griffin Carousel Figure
Powerful mythic creatures are often used as logos for schools, companies, or even sports teams. Woodcarver Joe Leonard made this griffin statue while working on a similar one for a Pennsylvania high school whose mascot is a griffin.
The Symbolism and Meaning of Dragons
By Kathleen Karlsen, MA
Introduction to Dragon Meaning
More than any other image, the dragon is associated with the Orient. A symbol of the emperor himself, the dragon was master of all of the elements of nature. The sinuous dragon can take many forms and can be victorious in any circumstance. The dragon is often used in corporate logos and can be either male or female.
Dragon Symbolism in Feng Shui
A pregnant dragon is particularly auspicious as a symbol of future growth and expansion. The dragon is most useful in connection with fame, reputation and career. When the dragon symbol is applied in feng shui, the most effective placement is in the fame area of a home or in connection with a home office. An impressive representation of a dragon can be of tremendous positive benefit.
For more information about feng shui, try the following recommended Amazon books:
Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui
Feng Shui Your Life
The Western Guide to Feng Shui: Room by Room
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Feng Shui
Dragon Meaning in European Mythology
In addition to Chinese dragons, there are nearly limitless tales of dragons in European mythology. Interestingly, the word dragon derives from two separate Greek words. One word means “huge serpent or snake” and the other means “see clearly”. Dragons in European traditions have wings, allowing them to soar freely above, resulting in a perspective that encompasses a huge panorama below. In this context, dragons can be thought to symbolize the ability to see the “big picture” as well as the ability to see far off danger or future circumstances. (Photo courtesy of Kit from Pittsburgh, USA, Wikimedia Commons)
Dragon Symbolism and Nature
In many cultures dragons are viewed as representing the primal forces in nature and the universe. They can alternately breathe fire, poison or ice. These abilities demonstrate that they are both creators and destroyers. Fire gives life (and sometimes death); ice and poison mete out death. Early muskets were named â€œdragonsâ€ due to their fire-spitting ability. Likewise, muskets can serve either to procure food and preserve life or to dole out death in battle. (Photo courtesy of TharkunColl, Wikimedia)
Dragon Meaning in the Orient
Dragons in the Orient are associated with wisdom and longevity. They usually possess some form of magic or supernatural power. Chinese dragons tend to be benevolent; European dragons are often malevolent.
Asian dragons are usually associated with water in some way. Japanese dragons, in particular, are often depicted as huge water serpents. In early Jewish religious texts, dragons are seen as sea-monsters. In contrast with this, the early Vedic dragons were representations of lack of water or drought.
Origin of the Dragon Symbol
Dragons have captured the imagination of man for millennia. Some theorists believe that dragon myths originated from primitive peoples finding large skeletons of dinosaurs and postulating how they appeared during life. Others believe that forms of dragons still exist on earth today. The Loch Ness Monster is the primary modern example of a potential “water dragon”.
Some anthropologists believe that fire-spitting creatures are a real possibility. Animals with chambers for gases such as methane and a way to rub stones together in a large gizzard could conceivably breathe fire. Bombardier beetles, for example, spit vaporized acid out of their abdomens.
Dragons are one of the most complex and universal symbols on earth. Their popularity in contemporary literature and films seems to assure their ongoing place in literature and in the imagination of mankind.
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More Information on Mythical Creatures
For more information on mythical creatures, see these recommended books on Amazon:
The Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures
Field Guide to Fantastic Creatures
The Mythic Bestiary: The Illustrated Guide to the World’s Most Fantastical Creatures
More Information on Dragons
For more information on dragons see these recommended Amazon books:
Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons
Kathleen Karlsen, MA is a symbolism expert, professional artist and marketing consultant specializing in products and services related to natural health and personal growth. Find out more at Living Arts Media, Kathleen Karlsen Art, and Kathleen Karlsen.
There were four types of dragon in ancient Greek mythology : the serpent Dracones, the marine Cetea, the fire-breathing Chimaera and the she-monster Dracaenae.
A COMPLETE LIST OF DRAGONS FROM ANCIENT GREEK MYTHOLOGY
The four types of dragon-like creatures known to the Greeks were the Dracones, Cetea, Chimaera and Dracaenae. The first of these occur in both myth and legend–“legend” meaning the ancients believed such creatures inhabited the far corners of the earth in historical times.
I. DRACONES MYTHICAL
The first type of Greek dragon was the Dracon whose name was derived from the Greek words “drakein” and “derkomai” meaning “to see clearly” or “gaze sharply.” It was essentially just a giant serpent which was sometimes equipped with rows of sharp teeth, deadly poison or multiple heads. In myth the beast usually guarded a sacred spring, grove or golden treasure. Our own word “dragon” derives from the creature’s name.
COLCHIAN DRACON (Drakon Kholkikos) An unsleeping dragon which guarded the Golden Fleece in the sacred grove of Ares at Colchis. The creature was bewitched by Medea so that the hero Jason could steal its treasure.
CYCHREIDES (Kykhreides) A dragon which terrorized the island of Salamis. It driven out by the hero Cychreus and fled to Eleusis where it became an attendant of the goddess Demeter.
DEMETER’S DRACONES A pair of winged dragons which drew the chariot of goddess Demeter. She gave them to the hero Triptolemos to carry him across the world spreading knowledge of agriculture.
GIGANTOMACHIAN DRACON (Drakon Gigantomakhios) A dragon which was cast at the goddess Athena during the Giant War. She caught it up and threw it into the sky where it formed the constellation Draco.
HESPERIAN DRACON (Drakon Hesperios) A hundred-headed dragon which guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides. It was slain by Heracles when he came to fetch the treasure as one of his Twelve Labors.
HYDRA A nine headed water-dragon which guarded the springs of Lerna. It possessed the power of regeneration, producing two new heads for each that was decapitated. The creature was eventually destroyed by Heracles who cauterized its neck stumps with a flaming torch.
ISMENIAN DRACON (Drakon Ismenios) A dragon which guarded the sacred spring of Ares near Thebes. It was slain by the hero Cadmus who sowed its teeth in the earth to reap a crop of earth-born warriors.
MAEONIAN DRACON (1) (Drakon Maionios) A dragon which ravaged the kingdom of Lydia. It was slain by Heracles when he was in the service of Queen Omphale.
MAEONIAN DRACON (2) (Drakon Maionios) A monstrous dragon which terrorized the kingdom of Lydia. It was slain by the giant Damasen.
MEDEA’S DRACONES Two flying dragons born from the blood of the vanquished Titans. They were yoked to draw the chariot of the witch Medea.
NEMEAN DRACON (Drakon Nemeios) A giant dragon or serpent which guarded the sacred groves of Zeus at Nemea. It was destroyed by the warriors of the Seven Against Thebes after devouring the infant Opheltes, son of a local king.
OPHIOGENEAN DRACON (Drakon Ophiogeneikos) A dragon which guarded the sacred grove of the goddess Artemis in Mysia. It mated with the maiden Halia, producing a son named Ophiogeneis, ancestor of the Ophiogenes tribe.
PITANIAN DRACON (Drakon Pitanios) A dragon of Pitane in Aeolia (Asia Minor) which was turned to stone by the gods.
PYTHON A monstrous dragon which was set by Gaea to guard the oracle of Delphi. It was destroyed by the god Apollo when he seized the shrine.
RHODIAN DRACONES (Drakones Rhodioi) Giant serpents and dragons which ravaged the island of Rhodes. They were destroyed by the hero Phorbas.
THESPIAN DRACON (Drakon Thespiakos) A dragon which plagued the Boeotian town of Thespaie. It was slain by the hero Menestratus, who threw himself into the creatures maw wrapped in spiked armour.
TROJAN DRACONES (Drakones Troiades) A pair of dragons sent by the god Poseidon to destroy Laocoon of Troy and his sons when he attempted to warn his people of the threat posed by the Wooden Horse.
The Little People are said to be the dispossessed early tribes of the British Isles.They faded away into inhabited places, growing smaller and smaller with time as they were forgotten and passed into legend. The Tuatha de Danann, People of the Goddess Dana, ruled Ireland before the Milasian invasion. They were driven underground where they became the Daoine Sidhe fairies.
The word Fairy is derived from the ancient “faunoe o fatuoe” which, in the pagan mythology, indicated the faun’s (deer) companions, creatures endowed with power of foretelling the future and ruling the human events. The word Fairy also comes from “fatigue”, which in Middle Ages was synonymous with “wild woman”, that is woman of woods, waters and, in general, of the natural world. Fairies are super natural creatures endowed with magic power, thanks to which they can change their appearance and make it change to the others. They frequent caves, rocks, hills, woods and sources; they are ready to help innocents and victims of persecution; they make up for a wrong, they avenge an offense, but they also can be malicious and vengeful. According to tradition, they are present at men’s birth in order to give them special gifts and influence their existence in a benevolent or malevolent way.
In the past, when flax was grown in abundance, the fiddlers of the Glenarm and Glencloy glens would be key entertainers at the flax harvest celebrations. Those with exceptional skills and knowledge of rare and beautiful tunes were said to have learned these from the fairies, known to be fine musicians. Ask about belief in fairies, and you may receive a cautious or shy response. Fairies are feared, and it is safer to refer to them less directly, using terms such as ‘little folk’.
It is said that they usually appear as either a female fairy or a beautiful woman. The Watershee lures weary travellers into bogs and
fairy (sometimes seen as faery, faerie, or even fae; collectively wee folk) is a spirit or supernatural being that is found in the legends, folklore, and mythology of many different cultures. There are many definitions of what constitutes a fairy. Definitions sometimes describe them as any magical creature like a goblin or gnome, and at other times are described as a specific type of creature with short wings.
The fairy, as in the specific creature, was said to have originated in Italy, where they were known as ‘Fatae’, stemming from the Latin ‘Fata’ (roughly ‘Fate’). They then traveled to France where their name was corrupted to ‘fees’ and then to Britain where they were known as ‘fays’, which the countryfolk eventually changed into ‘faeries’. Other ways to reference the faerie include the Little People, the Green Men, the Good Folk and the Lordly Ones.
They are generally portrayed as humanoid in their appearance and have supernatural abilities such as the ability to fly, cast spells and to influence or foresee the future. Although in modern culture they are often depicted as young, sometimes winged females of small stature. They originally were of a much different image. Either tall, angelic beings or short wizened trolls being some of the commonly mentioned fay. The small, gauzy-winged fairies that are commonly depicted today did not appear until the 1800s.
When Fairys Fart rainbows are made and unicorns are born.
In occult lore the fairy Ariel is an air elemental. Shakespeare mentioned him in The Tempest, saying that with his song, he could bind or loose the winds, enchant men or drive them mad.
Elementals are spirits living in or composed entirely of one of the ancient elements of earth, air, fire, or water. The sixteenth century magician Paracelsus named the spirits of the air sylphs and added that they are kindly disposed towards humankind.Sylphs usually live high in the mountain peaks. Sometimes their voices are heard on the wind or their airy forms are felt in passing, though they are rarely seen. They are described as almost transparent, very small, and winged or alternatively as tall with long feathered wings, large, hawk-like eyes, and angular faces.
The term sylph is derived from the Greek word silphe, which means a ‘butterfly’ or ‘moth’- indeed, fairies are popularly depicted with butterfly wings. The ancient Celts regarded butterflies as symbols of fairies or ancestral spirits [often considered as one and the same], and they appear in Celtic stories as guides to the Otherworld or Fairyland, where the dead also dwelt.
Ariel is an air elemental, and controls all the powers of air. His winds circle the earth. Inhaled air is the sustaining breath of life; exhaled air carries the words, poetry, and song that communicate human ideas and knowledge. But words can wound as well as praise, condemn as well as exalt. The gentle summer breeze can become the destructive hurricane. It is for this reason that the magical symbol of air is a two-edged sword.
LIOSÁLFAR or Ljósálfar or Light Elves
were created from the maggots that fell from the decaying body of the giant Ymir, in Norse myth, along with the Dark Elves or Dockalfar. They dwell in the air, in Alfheim [or Gimle] situated in the third heaven. They are ruled by the god Freyr and are happy and benign. They are “fairer to look upon than the sun”, according to the 13th century CE Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. Their women were the most beautiful ever seen and the Old English word ælfsciene [‘elf shining’] denoted great beauty. While the light of the sun kills the dark elves, there is a connection between the sun and the light elves. They are described as ‘whiter than the sun’. The sun goddess Sol was titled Alfrodull [‘Elf Beam’] or Glory of Elves.In contrast, the Döckálfar were blacker than pitch and lived underground. People made sacrifices to the elves at barrows and mounds. These consisted of offerings of milk and honey, while images of the elves were carved on doorposts for luck. It may be that white ladies are a later form of the Liosálfar. The name yieldsalve and thus possibly the Danish Ellefolk.
Paracelsus named the spirits of the air sylvestres or sylphs from the Greek silphe meaning ‘butterfly’ or ‘moth’. They are described as almost transparent, very small and winged. any children of the marriage will be human. He went on to say that elementals hate dogmatists, sceptics, drunkards, gluttons, and the quarrelsome, while they love natural, child-like, innocent, and sincere people. “…to him who binds or pledges himself to them they give knowledge and riches enough. They know our minds and thoughts also, so that they may be easily influenced to come to us.”
Paracelsus declared that while man is made of three substances, the spiritual, the astral, and visible or terrestrial and exists in all three, elementals live exclusively in only one of the elements. They occupy a position between men and pure spirits, though they have blood and bones, they eat and sleep and mate and produce offspring. They are not immortal but can succumb to disease. They live in dwellings that are made of special materials ‘as different from the substances we know as the web of a spider is different from our linen’. He said that elementals have no souls and are incapable of spiritual development.