Mythical creatures have been imagined since Palaeolithic times. Their wildly varying attributes are an impressive testimony to man's imagination, while their birth stories vary wildly too. Some were born out of fear, a belief in the divine, to be used as cautionary tales or pure bragging rights about mankind's brilliance. Others were normal creatures grotesquely distorted, or the result of a rumour mill gone into overdrive.
Mythical creatures in films and books and paintings are to be expected, yet many of these creatures have their roots in reality. Here's a brief line up of the mythical creatures with the best background stories and their real-life inspirations.
The next stage of development is the unicorn's iconic horn. It is largely thanks to Danish sailors in the Middle Ages who brought the straight, spiralled tusk of the narwhal to European markets. Through naivety or savvy salesmanship, buyers considered them the magical remains of the unicorn.
Around 1300, adventurer Marco Polo spoke of a place where “There are wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have hair like a wild boar's and always carry it stooped towards the ground.” It is thought Marco was bestowing the title of unicorn upon the Sumatran rhino, further fuelling the mythical flames.
Respected natural historians in the 1500s had the Kraken in their books, while sailors reported sightings well into the 20th century. Actually, they weren't that far off the mark. Scientists now think that the sailors could have spotted the giant squid, which can span 40-50ft, and has been rumoured to attack ships. But with the first known photograph taken in 2004, this Greta Garbo of the sea is difficult to spot. The octopus, the German translation of Kraken, can be found more easily. Diving or sailing holidays, depending on how brave you are, are likely to result in an encounter.
Mermaid tales have been circulating for thousands of years, featuring in Babylonian, Syrian and Polynesian history. Later, literary big-hitters like Homer, Ovid, Horaz and Aeneus wrote frequently of mermaids, and certainly set Chris Columbus up nicely.
In 1493, he wrote: ‘I saw three mermaids which rose well out of the sea. They were not as beautiful as they are painted.’ It is thought that he saw a manatee, whose supposed human-like features also confused other sailors, aided by their love of a tipple.
It sounds unlikely. But James Powell, a not-insane biologist with the St Petersburg Trust, says that sometimes, “when they come up out of the water, the light has been such that they did look like the head of a person.”
Seeing for yourself may prove difficult as there are only around 2500 in the wild, but people on sailing holidays in the manatee's natural habitat of the Caribbean have been known to encounter them. Failing that, they are widely kept in zoos across Europe. Squint, stand back, pretend you're intoxicated and you just may mistake them for humans too.
The Hydra is a many-headed mendacious serpent guardian of the underworld which was, in Greek mythology, killed by man-machine Hercules.
If there were a Mythmaking 101 class, the Hydra would be on the syllabus. Firstly, it’s a giant snake. Scientists have suggested that mankind has an inbuilt aversion to snakes, because they were good at sneaking up silently on our ancestors in the hunter-gatherer days. Secondly, the many heads (at least nine) rack up the fear factor. Thirdly, in a common convention of Greek myths, man is always depicted as overpowering the ancient, dreadful scary monster.
While the nine-headed mythical Hydra is something of a stretch, polycephaly does exist and has done for millions of years. It is a genetic mutation most commonly found in turtles and snakes, lending credence to the hydra myth.
As these creatures don't survive long in the wild, undertaking safari holidays specifically to find one would likely end in disappointment.
Next time you swing by Los Angeles check out the Venice Beach Freak Show, which boasts the largest collection of two-headed creatures in the world.