Top Ten Mythical Creatures and Their Origins

Explore the Beasts from the Land, the Sea, The Air, And the Mountains That Tell Their Legends…


Pragnya Keerthivasan, Journalist/Editor

We are all familiar with our everyday fantasy books. Have a fast-flying friend within? A touch of magic here and there? Well, definitely things you could only dream of. Mythical creatures have been around in stories for centuries, and even though you may be familiar with most, if not all of them, you could be surprised to learn there is way more about their story than you think. Time to stop skimming the surface and dive deep into their rich stories. Venture into the edge-of-the-seat plot twists of their history as we explore the top ten breathtaking (if not bloodcurdling) creatures of mythology.

Number 10- The Kappa. Probably not the most common creature you’ve ever heard, but it’s one of the most intriguing creatures you could ever hear. Originated from Japanese folklore, this turtle-like creature is definitely something you should be careful about. Depicted to be the size of a 10-year-old child, the kappa has a yellowish-green color, resembling monkeys, but with fish scales or tortoise shells instead of skin. On the top of their head, they have hollow indentations filled with water; if the water is spilled, they are said to lose their supernatural powers, like their super strength. The water on their head has an infinite amount of knowledge in there, making them clever and wise. They love cucumbers, and if you throw one into the waters they submerge in, they will come to you, and you can either take your chances to friend them or try slaying them (by forcing them to bow so you can extract the water from their heads).

Number 9- The Hippocampus. They are the horses of the sea with the head and fore-parts of a horse and the serpentine-tail of a fish. In mosaic art, they often had green scales and fish-fin manes and appendages. First described in Greek mythology, the hippocampus means “crooked horse,” and the people back then thought that the majestic creature was the adult version of the real-life seahorse. It also stated that Poseidon, god of the sea, would ride a chariot drawn by 2-4 of these fish-horses. The hippocampus and other similar kinds of it were thought to have lived in the Indian Ocean, but that was obviously not the case for this fantasy creature of the deep blue sea.

Number 8- The Centaur. Their story goes back to Ancient Greek history. Centaurs may best be explained as the creation of a folktale in which wild inhabitants of the mountains of Arcadia and Thessaly, savage spirits of the forests, were combined in half-human, half-animal form. In early art, they were portrayed as human beings in front, with the body and hind legs of a horse attached to the back; later, they were men only as far as the waist. They fought using rough branches of trees as weapons. In later Greek times, they were depicted drawing a chariot for the God of Wine (Dionysus) or trotting with the God of Love (Eros) on its back. Their character was wild, lawless, free, and inhospitable, though the centaur Chiron was not fond of this manner.

Number 7- The Kraken. Another creature of the deep, but on the dark side. Infamous for sinking sailor ships from Norway, through Iceland, all the way to Greenland. You should definitely stay away from this immense squid. They are known for wrapping their brawny arms around ships and pulling them down to the ocean, never to be seen until the next victim comes. If that somewhat fails, then they have the last resort of circling the ship, creating a whirlpool that will one hundred percent bring the ship and crew down for the creature’s supper. The history of the Kraken goes back to an account written in 1180 by King Sverre of Norway. As with many legends, the Kraken started with something real, based on sightings of a real animal, the giant squid. For the ancient sailors, the sea was risky, hiding a horde of monsters in its dark depths. Any encounter with an unknown animal could gain a mythological edge from sailors’ stories.

Number 6- The Griffin. Griffin (also spelled griffon or gryphon), is a composite mythological creature with a lion’s body (winged or wingless) and a bird’s head, usually that of an eagle. The griffin was a favorite decorative motif in the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean lands. Probably originating in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BCE, the griffin had spread throughout western Asia and into Greece by the 14th century BCE. The Asiatic griffin had a crested head, whereas the Minoan and Greek griffin usually had a mane of spiral curls. It was shown either recumbent or seated on its haunches. The griffin was often paired with the sphinx; its function may have been protective.

Number 5- Werewolf. This Halloween-themed savage of the dark woods, the werewolf, was described in many ways. Werewolves are, according to some legends, people who morph into vicious, powerful wolves under the light of the full moon. Others are vicious hybrids of a man and a wolf. Either way, these mutants who used to be innocent folks were merciless, bloodthirsty beasts who cannot control their urge for killing people and animals. It is unclear when the legendary beast came up, but there are many legends about it, and all were cruel. Greek legends state that Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus, angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. As punishment, the enraged Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves. Werewolves were also present in Nordic folklore. The Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of a father and son who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The father-son duo donned the pelts, transformed into wolves, and went on a killing rampage in the forest. Their rampage ended when the father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers, turning the father back to a human. Many so-called werewolves from centuries ago were serial killers in France. In 1521, Frenchmen Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun swore allegiance to the devil and claimed to have an ointment that turned them into wolves. After confessing to brutally murdering several children, they were both burned to death at stake. This event made the superstition that burning was to be one of the few ways to kill a werewolf.

Number 4- The Fairy. They are the mythical being of folklore and romance and usually have magical powers, dwelling on Earth in close relationships with humans. They can be depicted as a dwarf creature with green clothes, living underground in stone heaps, or as an ageless, beautiful woman with a wispy white dress, her wings golden and weighing like air itself. A fairy can also be a protective being, mischievous and tiny, associated with a house holding hearth. The term fairy goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe., Sanskrit Gandharva, Greek nymph, Arabic Jinni, Folk characters of the Samoans, Arctic people, and other Americans. Fairies were originally described as dangerous and powerful creatures who can be nice and logical to humans, but also capable of destruction and peril. They were usually conceived for being beautiful and kind, and if they die, their life would be longer than the average human.. These kind creatures literally had no souls, and when they eventually die, they perished to dust.

Number 3- The Phoenix. The phoenix bird symbolizes immortality, resurrection, and life after death, and in ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, they associate it with the sun god. Only one phoenix exists at a time, and so when the bird felt its death was near – every 500 to 1,461 years – it would build a nest of aromatic wood and set it on fire. Then it would rise from the ashes gloriously, and life is renewed. Both the Greeks and Egyptians associated the Phoenix with the sun. One myth says the dawn song of the Phoenix was so beautiful, the sun god Apollo would stop his chariot – and the sun – to listen. Ancient sources differ on the bird’s size and color. Some say it was the size of an eagle; others, bigger than an ostrich – with bright red and gold or maybe even purple feathers. All agree it had a golden aura. And in every version, it was exotic, literally one of a kind.

Number 2- The Unicorn. You probably know the worldwide renowned unicorn. It’s a legendary creature described as a white horse with purple hair and a single horn that’s black and gold. Or it may differ. But that’s usually the image for the horse-like wonder. Most, if not all, had magic. Unicorn means “One Horned”. One of the earliest known accounts of a one-horned beast comes in the 4th-century BC from Ctesias, a Greek physician and historian who traveled in Persia. He wrote of a fast and formidable creature, about the size of a donkey, with a long, multicolored horn. It is thought to have lived in India, where unicorn-like images have been found on ancient seals. This is also where the Roman historian Pliny the Elder located an animal with “the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse… has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits.” That’s about three feet long. This creature, fake or real, had illuminated the minds of little children with its magical aroma.

Number 1- The Dragon. A dragon is usually represented as a huge, bat-winged, fire-breathing, scaly lizard or snake with a barbed tail and horns on its head. It’s not clear when or where stories of dragons first emerged, but the huge, flying serpents were described at least as early as the age of the ancient Greeks and Sumerians. For much of history, dragons are thought of as being like any other mythical animal: sometimes useful and protective, other times harmful and dangerous. But when Christianity spread across the world, dragons took on a decidedly sinister interpretation and came to represent Satan. In medieval times, most people who heard anything about dragons knew them from the Bible, and most Christians at the time likely believed in the literal existence of dragons. After all, Leviathan – the massive monster described in the Book of Job, chapter 41 – sounds like a dragon. The belief in dragons was based not just on legend but also on hard evidence, or at least that’s what people thought long ago. For millennia, no one knew what to make of the giant bones that were occasionally unearthed around the globe, and dragons seemed a logical choice for people who did not know about dinosaurs. The Chinese version of dragons described them as the stature of loyalty and bravery, but the European version of dragons is described as terrible lizards that needed to be slaughtered for the safety of the kingdom. But personally, what I like about this creature the most is that it makes an outstanding muse for a drawing. The posture, the scales, the keen eyes ready to kill. Those features left us breathless.

So there we go top ten mythical creatures that will lift you off your feet. From the monster turtle to the fire-breathing dragon we all know and love (if not fear), these creatures have more to tell than the meager legends we hear in stories. So next time you sit back and read your favorite fantasy book (and possibly see a creature that you know), keep in mind that there are more to these beautiful beasts than the books and movies tell and that there’s always another perspective to a story, even if it might be fake.