Writers of fantasy, horror and science fiction are often looking for obstacles for their heroes. And what better obstacle than a nightmarish monster carved from the fears and imagination of the ages? Myths and legends from around the world provide us with a wealth of creatures to use in our stories. What you’ll find here is a brief survey of fantastic creatures from around the world. Not all of these are monsters, but all are strange, wonderous and fabulous creations and their stories are waiting to be continued in the hands of the skilled author.
ALPHABETICAL LISTING OF CREATURES
Banshee: In Irish legend, the banshee is a female spirit that voices her strange wail when a death is imminent. Banshees are usually attached to a specific family and wail when a member of that family is near death. Banshees have streaming hair and red eyes from weeping. Some accounts only give them one nostril. In Scottish legend, the equivalent is the Little Washer of Sorrow. In this case, the female spirit appears at the side of a stream washing the clothes of the soon to be departed.
Bunnyips: Making its home in the waterways of Australia, the bunyips are often described as having a crocodile’s tail with the rest of its body resembling either a bandicoot, an emu or a man. They can have manes or heads covered with weeds, and their feet are turned backwards. One constant in the tales of bunyips is the fact that the bunyip’s cry can be heard as a terrifying booming noise coming from the swamps. Bunyips devour people, preferring women and children.
Chimera: A child of Typhon and Echidna, the Chimera had the head of a lion, a goat’s body and a snake’s tail. Her breath was a deadly blast of fire. The hero Bellerophon killed the Chimera with arrows while flying above it on the back of Pegasus.
Coyote: In the mythology of the Plains, Southwestern, Great Basin and central Californian North American Indian tribes, Coyote is primarily a trickster figure, and for many of these tribes, he is also the creator or culture hero. Coyote stories often involve other animal characters such as Badger or Raven or Wolf, and they are all presented as behaving and talking like human beings; sometimes they are represented as looking like men with animal heads. As the culture hero, Coyote is responsible for giving to humans the knowledge of fire, weapons, arts and crafts, or the sun. Sometimes Coyote is presented as a foolish character, easily duped by others. At times, he is also presented as lewd or mischievious.
Cyclopes: The Cyclopes are giants whohave one eye in the center of their foreheads. The first Cyclopes were said to be children of Gaea, Mother Earth and Uranus, the Heavenly Sky. They helped the Greek god Hephaestus in his forge. Polyphemus, the cannibalistic Cyclops who menaced Odysseus in The Odyssey, herded sheep and was a son of the sea god, Poseidon.
Djinn (a.k.a. Genie, Jinni, Djinni, Djin): In Arabian and Eastern legends, the djinn are spirits capable of great magical feats. They can be either benevolent or malevolent to human beings. Magicians can conjure and control these spirits to do their bidding. Djinns are commonly bound into rings and jewelry, or in the most famous case, Aladdin’s lamp. Related to djinns are peris and efrits. A peri is usually a much more benevolent spirit, often giving directions and help to humans. They opposed evil djinns. Efrits were almost always evil and dangerous spirits.
Dragons: Dragons appear in various mythologies and legends. The Greek monster Echidna was supposed to be half dragon. In Babylonian myth, Tiamat was the great she-dragon that battled the god Marduk. In Norse mythology, Fafnir kept guard over his hoard until killed by Sigurd. The hero Beowulf was eventually killed by a dragon. In English tales, St. George killed a dragon and rescued a young virgin.
The most familiar form of the western dragon is a great flying reptile. It has large batlike wings, a serpentine tail, sharp claws or talons and lots of teeth. These dragons usually breathe fire and some have a penchant for virgins. Often, like Fafnir, they are known to hoard gold and jewels. Dragons are hard to kill but almost always have one vulnerable spot for the hero to find.
Oriental dragons: These differ from their western counterparts. In China, dragons are more benevolent creatures of great power, often counted peers of the gods. They are usually associated with the elements, particularly water. Each river and stream has a dragon or dragon-king associated with it. Their features vary, often being an amalgam of various animals. They often have heads of camels, antlers or deer, eyes of a hare, scales of fish and talons of eagles. Although they are quite often wingless, they sometimes have bat wings. Chief of the Chinese dragons is Lung, who controls wind and rains, monsoons and hails. The Great Chien-Tang is another important Chinese dragon who commands all river dragons.
Japanese dragons are similar to Chinese dragons in appearance and function. There are dragons representing the four elements and a dragon rules each sea.
Fantastic Horses: In many myths, the sun is pulled through the sky by fiery horses. Papillon is the fiery steed of the faery queen Morgana. The Valkyrie rode great flying war horses onto battlefields to choose the heroically slain. Others include Al Borak, the horse that carried Mohammed up to heaven; the man-eating horses that belonged to King Diomedes in Greek mythology; and Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of the Norse god Odin.
Feng Huang: The feng huang or “red birds” are the Chinese equivalent of the phoenix. They are rare and beautiful birds that are extraordinary long-lived. With the unicorn, the tortoise and the dragon, the feng huang is one of the four spiritual animals of Chinese lore. Legend says that the Chinese musical scale came from the song of the feng huang. “Feng” designates the male of the species and “huang” the female. The feng huang have bright coloring like peacocks and pheasants, but have curling tails and long claws. The rainbow plumage of the feng huang represents undying love – one of the five basic cardinal virtues – because of the devotion between the feng and the huang. Stories say that the chariot of the immortal Jade Emperor is pulled by feng huang and that they live in the Vermilion Hills, and borderland of sorts between worlds. The feng huang’s appearance in legend are rare and coincide with times of prosperity. The feng huang’s depature brings calamity and it is said that the feng huang will reappear again only when China is at peace.
Goliath: In the Old Testament of the Bible, Goliath was the Philistine warrior who challenged King Saul of Israel and his army to send forth a warrior to engage in man-to-man combat in order to decide the war between the Israelites and the Phillistines. David, a boy who tended sheep for the army, was strong in his faith in God and took up the challenge, defeating the heavy armed Goliath with only his sling and some stones. David then killed Goliath and cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword. David’s success in battle was a testament to his faith in the Hebrew god and to his worthiness to be ruler of the people of Israel.
“Goliath” is often used as a term to refer to an individual or party that is so large and powerful that it seems impossible to defeat, but which may be brought down by a smaller, more clever and more faithful challenger.
Golem: The golem was created by a Jewish rabbi in the city of Prague. The Jews who lived in the ghettos of Prague were being persecuted. The golem was constructed as a means of protection. Made of clay, it was given life when the rabbi wrote the word shem (“name”) on a piece of parchment and put it in its mouth. He also wrote emet (“truth”) on its forehead. The golem was strong and defeated the Jews. However, the city began to fear its own creation, so the rabbi destroyed the golem by changing the word emet to met, which means death.
Gorgons: Sisters to the Graeae, the Gorgons were three in number: the immortals Stheno and Euryale, and the more famous and mortal Medusa. These women were said to have wings and sometimes claws, but their most outstanding feature was that they had snakes for hair. The Gorgons’ looks could turn people into stone. The Greek hero Perseus slew Medusa with a magic sickle after watching her reflection in a shield. Pegasus is said to have sprung from her blood.
The Graeae: Sisters to the Gorgons, the Graeae were three gray women with but one eye and one tooth, which they passed back and forth. According to some accounts, Perseus snatched the eye and tooth and wouldn’t give them back until the Graeae told him the secrets of the Gorgons.
Grendel: The monster of Beowulf is described only as a gruesome creature that hunts the Danish moors. He is “descended from the race of Cain” and bears Cain’s mark. He is humanoid in shape nearly gigantic in stature and incredibly strong and fierce. Only Beowulf’s great strength is Grendel’s undoing when he rips the monster’s arm off. Grendel nearly bleeds to death in the marsh before Beowulf beheds him on his deathbed. Beowulf must also confront and slay Grendel’s mother as she seeks revenge. (John Gardner’s Grendel retells the story from the monster’s perspective, making him an almost sympathetic, tragic character.)
Harpies: Usually portrayed as creatures with the head and breasts of a woman and the body of a large bird, harpies are known for their foul smell that ruins anything they come near. Called the Hounds of Zeus, they were sent by Zeus to punish the prophet Phineas. Whenever Phineas went to eat, the harpies descended, fouling the food. Two of the Argonauts, sons of the North Wind, defeated the harpies.
Hell Hounds: Various myths speak of fearsome canines inhabiting the underworlds. Most famous is probably Cerberus, the three-headed, snake-tailed hound that guards the way to Hades. Cerberus was fierce but could be overcome by brute strength as when Hercules subdued him, or lulled by song as when Orpheus entered the underworld. Garm was the hound of Hel in Norse mythology.
Hippocampus: A hippocampus is half horse and half fish; the name itself means “seahorse.” They have the head and forelegs of a horse, but the legs end in powerful webbed fins and their mane is a fin. Their long, horselike bodies end in a fish-tail. In Greek mythology, the sea chariot of Poseidon is drawn by hippocampi. For mer folk, the hippocampi are steeds prized for their ability to travel swiftly through the seas.
Hippogriff (a.k.a. Hippogriffin): The hippogriff was the offspring of a gryphon – a half eagle/half lion – and a mare, and was considered by medieval writers to be a natural, nonmagical beast. It had the body of a horse and the forelegs, claws, wings and beak of a gryphon, which were basically identical to those of an eagle. The hippogriff is often associated with the sun, the gryphons and horses of Apollo’s chariot, and the Pegasus. The hippogriff’s story is told in Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, most episodes of which are derived from Greek and other legends. The hippogriff was originally tamed by a magician named Atlantes who lived in a castle in the Pyrenees where Rogero, the magician’s foster son, was kept prisoner. Eventually Rogero escaped and took the hippogriff as his mount. In one adventure, it was ridden by Rogero as he tried to save a damsel from sacrifice to a sea beast, an episode that greatly resembled one of Perseus’s adventures.
The hippogriff eventually passed into the hands of one of Charlemagne’s knights, whothen learned from Saint John how to defeat the pagan Africans. In the end, the hippogriff was set free into the mountains and never seen again.
Hoop Snake: A creature of American folklore, the hoop snake puts the end of its own tail in its mouth and rolls across the ground. The hoop snake can move so rapidly that it cannot be outrun, and the only way to escape it is to jump through the hoop it makes, which so confuses the hoop snake that it just rolls on and cannot turn back.
The hoop snake may be related to the uroboros, a symbol of eternity and cosmic unity in Greek and Egyptian art. The uroboros depicted a snake with the end of its tail in its mouth, drawn in the shape of a circle. The Midgard Serpent, which in Norse mythology encircles the world by holding its tail in its mouth, is a type of uroboros.
Hyrdra: The Hyrdra was a child of Echidna and Typhon. Dwelling in the swamps of Lerna, this deadly poisonous, nine-headed creature had one head that was immortal. Whenever any head was struck off, two more took its place. Hercules killed the monster by using a torch to sear the necks so that no new heads would spring up. He buried the immortal head under a rock.
Incubi and Succubi: These spirits or demons visit people in the night for sexual intercourse. Incubi are male spirits that visit women during their dreams. Incubi can impregnate mortal women; one child from such a union was Merlin. Succubi are hideous females that trick sleeping males into intercourse. The succubi seem to be related to Lilith, the first wife of Adam. Expelled from Eden, Lilith became the mother of demons. She is also said to visit men in the night, looking for semen so that she can bring forth more of her brood.
Jabberwock: “The Jabberwock with eyes of flame” is a creation of Lewis Carroll and appears in the poem “Jabberwocky” in the book Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. It also has “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch” and “burble[s]” when it walks. It apparently lives near the “jubjub bird” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” (also Carroll’s inventions). The young hero of the poem dispatches the Jabberwock with a “vorpal blade” that goes “snicker-snack.”
Jersey Devil: Stories of the Jersey Devil come from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a surprisingly isolated and sparsely populated region. No one is quite sure when stories of the Jersey Devil originated; some believe they began only 150 years ago, while some say they precede colonial times.
The most popular version of the Jersey Devil’s origin says that in about 1735, a woman named Leeds, who was the mother of eleven children, discovered she was to have a twelfth child and cried out in frustration that she was sick of children and that this one could be the Devil – and, as it turns out, it was. Another story says that the Jersey Devil was born in 1850 as the result of a Gypsy’s curse on a young girl. In both stories, the monster escaped into the woods shortly after its birth and still lives there.
The Jersey Devil is said to have a head like a horse or ram; large, batlike wings; and a long, serpentine body. Occasionally, there are outbreaks of stories about the Jersey Devil, the largest during the week of January 16-23, 1909. Eyewitness accounts are documented in newspapers of the time, most of them reporting eerie sounds coming from the direction of the Delaware river and a strange glowing creature flying through the sky. The hoof-prints of a strange animal were reported in odd locations, such as on the roofs of houses or near chicken coops.
Kappa: In Japanese legends, the Kappa is a type of water demon that likes to drown its human victims. The Kappa has a skinny body with a large, bowl-like head filled with water. It also has a tortoise shell on its back and smells of rotten fish. Besides downing its victims, it eats them as well. However, it is not an intelligent demon and can be fooled quite easily. A person confronted by the Kappa needs only to bow politely from the waist. The Kappa will return the bow, spilling the dangerous water from the top of its head, and will be powerless to drown its victims until it has reclaimed the water. By that time, the person can escape.
The Kappa is also appeased by the gift of a cucumber. The cucumber has tohave a person’s name and age cut into it. If the person throws this cucumber into the water, the Kappa will remember the gift and the person will be safe from its clutches.
Kelpie (a.k.a. Water Horse): This Scottish water spirit, can be either mischievous or deadly. It has several forms, including that of a hairy man and a beautiful horse. As a horse, it lures men to ride it. Then the rider finds himself unable to get off and the kelpie returns to its watery home. Depending on the nature of the kelpie, the man either merely gets dunked or he is drowned. In some cases, he may be eaten. River kelpies usually only dunked their victims. The Each-Uisge, found in lochs, was the more dangerous and lethal. (In Ireland, the aughisky are water horses of saltwater streams and lochs. They are also man-eaters.) In horse form, a kelpie can be identified by its backward hoofprints. Kelpies can be controlled with the use of a bridle, but it is not a good idea to use one for long since it also has the power to inflict curses.
Kelpies can also take on the shape of handsome men to lure women into their domain. In this form, the kelpie can be identified by shells and seaweed in its hair.
Kraken: The kraken is a sea monster so huge, according to legend, that it can be mistaken for an island. This enormous size accounts perhaps for the ambiguous description of it. Sometimes confused with the giant octopus, the kraken is said to be tentacle, but little else can be said authoritatively. Sailors can easily be swept from ships, and the ships themselves crushed by the monster. In calm seas, sailors look for the bubbling and boiling waters that indicate the kraken is surfacing. Some legends have it that there are two kraken, created when the world was made and existing for as long as the world exists.
Lamia: The first lamia was one of the many conquests of Zeus. Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife, cursed Lamia and gave her a monstrous form: a woman’shead, a snake’s body, cloven hooves and a lion’s tale. Hera also killed Lamia’s children. Lamia then went about killing children in revenge. She eventually had other children known as lamiae. In some accounts, these daughters had monstrous forms similar to their mother’s. In other accounts, they were beautiful young women. The accounts agree though the Lamia’s children sucked the blood from their victims and are thus similar to vampires. Lamia is related to Lilith in that both are cursed women responsible for a demon brood.
Leprechauns: Probably the most famous of Irish fairies, leprechauns are little people that are usually shoemakers. They can be identified by their hats, breeches and big-buckled shoes. Leprechauns are also wealthy and known to hide pots of gold and other treasure, though they part with the secret of their stash only if tricked. Exceptionally clever and tricky, very few mortals ever get the best of a leprechaun.
Leviathan: In the generic sense, “leviathan” refers to any huge sea-animal, but in the Old Testament it is used in several places to refer to a specific monster or monsters. In Job, the creature is depicted as a fierce monster with nearly impenetrable scales and terrible teeth. In Isaiah, the Leviathan is called the “coiling serpent” and the “gliding serpent.” Psalm 74 refers to a “monster in the waters.” But in Psalm 104, however, the leviathan is described as “frolicking” in the sea apparently a different sort of creature. Some scholars have speculated the crocodile may be the basis of the Leviathan of Job and Psalm 74, and that Psalm 104 may be referring to a whale. In most uses however, the Bible creates an image of a fierce mysterious creature that is an adversary of God.
Lorelei: A water spirit of German legends, the Lorelei is known for both her beautiful appearance and her beautiful song. In fact, like the Greek sirens, the Lorelei’s song is nearly irresistible and lures men to their doom. The creature takes its name from the large rock of the same name in the Rhine River, upon which it sits and sings.
Manticore: A creature associated with India, a manticore has the head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail like a scorpion’s (although some accounts describe the tail as a spiked ball). It has three rows of teeth and can shoot the spikes from its tail like arrows. A manticore is a savage beast with a voracious appetite and often preys on people.
The Minotaur: Unlike centaurs, the Minotaur was a unique monster, half man and half bull. He was the son of Queen Pasiphae of Crete and a bull. The sea god Poseidon gave the bull to King Minos to use as a sacrifice, but Minos liked the bull and preferred to keep it for himself. Angered by this, Posiedon made Pasiphae fall in love with the bull. She had Daedalus, the master invent, build her a wooden cow with which she could court the bull. When the Minotaur was born, Minos had Daedalus build the labyrinth to hold him. Minos also had the city-state of Athens pay a tribute of seven maids and seven youths to him, to be sent to the Minotaur. Eventually, the Athenian prince and hero, Theseus, came to Crete. With the help of Ariadne, Mino’s daughter, he killed the Minotaur while it slept.
The Minotaur has been depicted in several ways. The most common is a human with a bull’s head. The second is closer to a centaur, with a human torso and horned head atop a bull’s body.
Monstrous Wolves: Gigantic or monstrous wolves appear in a variety of folktales and myths. In Norse mythology, Fenris or Fenrir Wolf was the son of the god Loki and a giantress. His siblings were Hel and the Midgard Serpent. Besides being a gigantic form, Fenris was incredibly strong. The gods feared him and tried to chain him but he broke all their chains. Finally, the gods had the dwarves forge a magic chain called Gleipnir that was exceptionally thin but exceptionally strong. Fenris would only agree to be bound by it if one of the gods placed his hand in the monster’s mouth. The war god Tyr did. The chain would not break and Tyr lost his hand. At Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, Fenris finally breaks his chain and kills Odin. Fenris is then killed by Odin’s son, Vidar.
Also in Norse mythology, giant wolves chase the sun and the moon across the heavens. They occasionally catch them, causing eclipses. Odin also kept two wolves called Geri the Ravenous and Freki the Greedy.
Naga: The naga originated in Indian myth, but can be found in legends throughout southeast Asia. It is a sensitive and semi-human creature in the form of a snake; both more powerful and wealthy than humankind, nagas dwell in lands under the earth or beneath the rivers and seas. But nagas are inferior to humankind because they have no soul and therefore can achieve no enlightenment. Nagas have seven heads, hooded like cobras, and resemble the Hydra. Like the Hydra, nagas are associated with water, particularly rainfall and all the good and bad connected with drought and floods.
In early legends, nagas withhold water from the earth and must be slain to end droughts. In others, villains seeking to destroy or imprison nagas must be defeated in order to prevent drought. In Buddhist legend, Buddha’s superior spiritual and moral power persuades the nagas to relinquish the rains during the proper season and in the proper quantity. In another Buddhist legend, the bodhisattva (the “Buddha-to-be”) chooses to be reincarnated as a naga and discovers how terrible it is to live without a soul. This and other stories show a close relationship between Buddha and the nagas, and he is often depicted seated on and protected by a nagas.
Nemean Lion: The Neman Lion was gigantic and ferocious. His hide was so tough that swords and arrows bounced off of him. Hercules eventually killed the beast by strangling it. Hercules then wore the lion’s pelt as protection.
Nymphs: Nymphs are spirits or personifications of natural objects such as trees, rivers, streams and mountains. They are represented as beautiful maidens. In Greek mythology, dryads and hamadryads are spirits of trees. Dryads live in forests and hamadryads have connections to specific trees. Their lives were as long as the trees in which they lived. Oreads are the nymphs of the mountains. Naiads are water nymphs, inhabiting streams and rivers. The Nereids, fifty in number, were sea nymphs and the daughters of the sea god Nereus.
The Phoenix: The phoenix is closely associated with legends of the sun and appears often as a symbol of immorality, rebirth and power. According to legend, the Phoenix lived in an eastern paradise of eternal springtime where there was no hunger and no night. The phoenix was larger and more graceful than the eagle; its head, breast and back were scarlet, its eyes were sea-blue, its feet purple and its iridescent wings were many colors. The phoenix did not eat grass or prey on other animals; it consumed the very air.
The phoenix lived there for exactly a thousand years; at the end of its lifetime, it left paradise and flew west until it reached Arabia. There it gathered perfumes and spices, which it took to the coasts of Phoenicia where it built a nest in the tallest of palm trees. It then began to sing its death song, a song so beautiful that even the sun god was said to stop in his tracks. Then the sun went on, and the phoenix’ nest caught fire from the sparks of the sun, burning the bird and its nest to ashes from which the new phoenix rose.
The new bird then took the ashes of the old nest to Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, in Egypt and placed them on the altar of the sun temple. As the phoenix flew east, it was joined by allt he other birds of the world – even predator and prey – which flew in peace as they accompanied the phoenix to the border of paradise.
Different legends give different life spans for the phoenix: some say 350 or 500 years, some 7,006, others 1,460 and still others but a day. The phoenix has been a powerful symbol in many cultures; it was used by Christians to represent Christ and the Resurrection; the Romans used it in the fourth century to represent the promise of the rebirth of the Roman Empire; and the phoenix was used in a symbol for Joan of Arc after her death. The phoenix appears in Chinese legend as the feng huang, a beautiful and musical bird more like a peacock than an eagle and appears in Japanese legend as Ho-ho, which is often used to symbolize the royal family.
Puca (a.k.a. Pooka, Puck, Pwca): Puca are English woodland faeries with diminutive human forms, known for mischeviousness and trickster-like qualities. Though the puca are often depicted as satyr-like, they are not known for lasciviousness. In Britain, puca became known as puck and eventually Robin Goodfellow came to be known by that name. He was a shape-shifter and preferred the company of animals, though he liked humans who appreciated and acknowledged his existence and persecuted those who scored their lovers.
In Wales, puca are called pwca and are considered to be ill-tempered and ugly, often quarrelling among themselves. In German and Scandinavian countries, the puca are goat-bodied creates called kornblockes. They are said to help grow grain and corn, but will steal or spoil it if given a reason.
Satyrs and Fawns: Half goat and half man, satyrs bound throught he woodlands of mythical Greece, usually in pursuit of nymphs. Mostly human in appearance, satyrs have goat legs and hooves and small horns on their heads. The Greek god Pan also had the same physical characteristics. Some accounts say that fauns are the Roman version of satyrs, while other versions say that fauns are half deer and half man, and have much gentler natures than satyrs. They are named after the Roman god Faunus who later became identified with Pan.
Ruhk (a.k.a. Roc): The ruhk, giant birds known in the Middle and Far East, come from Arabic legend and are described in the Arabian Nights stories as being so large that they blot out the sun when they fly. One of their eggs is as large as 148 chicken eggs and they feed elephants to their young. When they fly, the beating of their wings creates wind storms and lightning. In some Arabic legends, the ruhk never land earth except on Mount Qaf, which the Arabs considered to be the axis mundi. In other legends, the ruhk live on certain islands in the Indian Ocean, but they often fly to India, Arabia and Africa to find food.
In the Arabian Nights stories, Sinbad has more than one adventure involving ruhk. In one story, Sinbad,marooned on an island, discovers a ruhk egg. He waits until the ruhk lands, then ties himself to the ruhk’s enormous, tree-trunk-sized leg, thereby escapingthe island when the ruhk goes in search of food. In another adventure, Sinbad andhis sailors discover a young ruhk hatchling and kill and feast onit. When the parents of the bird return, the sailors flee to the sea and the two ruhk drop boulders on the ships, sinking them.
The ruhk appear to be similar to another giant bird of Arabic lore: the anka. Allah is said to have created the anka to kill and eat most of the wild animals of Palestine so that the Israelites could move into the country. Allah forgot to remove the bird, however, and it went on ravaging the countryside, making a large part of that country barren and uninhabitable.
Sasquatch: “Sasquatch” is an Indian word made popular in the 1930s by the stories of J.W. Burns, a British Columbian writer. Burns used the name for one of his characters, a giant Indian who lived in the wilderness. The character was quite popular and the name was used by a hotel and an annual festival in Harrison, B.C. The local celebration drew the attention of others who reported having seen a large, furry, humanoid creature, which soon was given the name Sasquatch. Most accounts of the Sasquatch are of a single creature, glimpsed only for a few seconds as it moved through the woods. When a bulldozer operator named Jerry Crew found a large, human-shaped footprint in Northern California and made a plaster cast of it, the creature who made it was dubbed Bigfoot, and the names Sasquatch and Bigfoot have become synonymous. By almost all accounts, the creature is described as larger than a man, covered with dark fur and very shy of human contact. One man reported being captured by a band of Sasquatch, and a group of miners near St. Helens claimed that their camp was attacked by “giant apes” throwing rocks after one of the miners shot an “ape” earlier in the day. Such stories of violent aggressive behavior by a Sasquatch are very rare.
Scylla and Charybdis: There are two main versions of the story of Scylla in Greek mythology and for each, the details vary widely. In one account, Scylla is a young woman whom the fisherman-turned-sea-god Glaucus spies and falls in love with. Glaucus seeks the help of Circe, asking for a love potion to turn Scylla’s heart. As he tells his story, Circe falls in love with Glaucus, but he remains devoted to Scylla. In her anger, Circe prepares a poison for Scylla and pours it in the bay where she bathes. The potion turns her into a horrible creature that is rooted to the rocks on shore. In some accounts of this version, Scylla is a water sprite and she is the daughter of Phorcys and Crataeis, Typhon and Echidna, or Poseidon, and Glaucus is only a fisherman.
In the other main version of Scylla’s story, she is seduced by her father Poseidon. When Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife finds out, she goes to Circe for help in punishing Scylla, which Circe does with the potion that turns her into a monster. Some descriptions have Scylla-the-monster with both the heads of serpents and fierce dogs; in others, she has twelve legs and dog heads on long serpentlike necks. All accounts consistently describe Scylla as turned into a hateful monster seeking to destroy anything that comes within her reach.
Today, Scylla is the name of a great rock that juts out of the sea between the tip of Italy and Sicily.
Charybdis is more mysterious in origin: in some accounts, she is a monster that lives under a rock on the Sicilian side of the strait. She traps sailors by creating a gigantic whirlpool, which sucks their ships under water. In other accounts, she is the whirlpool itself.
Sea Lion: The sea lion belongs to a class of part-lions like the Chimera and manticore, but is also associated with water- and merfolk. The sea lion has the front part of a lion – the forelimbs and claws, the maned head – and the hind parts of a large silvery fish. The sea lions live in packs along rocky seacoasts where they hunt for schools of fish or shipwrecked sailors. Their powerful jaws and claws make them very dangerous when angered, and their powerful tails and webbed forelimbs make them very fast in the water. Their bellowing roars can be heard even underwater. It was said that sailors could hear the packs of sea lions bellowing in hunger as the ships approached rocks and dangerous coastal areas.
Selkies and Roanes: Selkies are English sea fairies while roanes are Scottish. Normaly, selkies and roanes have seal forms. Both can, however, shed their skins to reveal human bodies. They particularly like to become human to dance the night away. Humans can capture selkies, particularly female selkies, to be their wives if they can steal the selkie’s or roane’s skin away from her. The captured fairy may make a good wife but will always long for the sea and will return if she ever finds her skin. Selkies are also reported to be more hot-tempered than roanes and can cause storms if angered.
Shark Man: Similar to a werewolf, the Hawaiian shark man is capable of changing back and forth between man and shark. As a shark, he possesses all the attributes of the animal and usually preys upon members of his village. The most famous shark man was Nanaue. The son of a mortal woman and a shark god, Nanaue had a shark’s mouth on his back. When he entered water, he changed into a shark, but he was vulnerable if he could not get to water. When he was found out, he fled to another village and was eventually trapped by fisherman, cut into small bits and burned.
Sirens: In some accounts, sirens are said to have the bodies of birds and the heads of women. Other sources say no description can be found since no one survives them. The chief characteristic of the sirens is their song, which no man can resist. Ancient sailors who heard the sirens were lured to their doom. The Greek hero Odysseus had his men stop up their ears, then had the crew tie him to the mast. Even so, their song nearly drove Odysseus mad. In another tale, Orpheus used his superior vocal skills to get the Argonauts past the rocks where the sirens lived.
Sphinx: Creatures known as sphinxes appear in a variety of cultures, particularly Egypt, Greece and Babylon. Sphinxes are generally known to have the bodies of lions, the wings of eagles, and the face and chest of humans. The monument of the Sphinx at Giza is supposed to represent Horus, the sun god. The Greek sphinx was a child of Typhon and Echidna and plagued the city of Thebes. She asked everyone her riddle, and those that could not answer, she devoured. Her riddle was, “What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” Finally, Oedipus answered the riddle with the answer of “man.” A man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright as an adult and uses a cane in old age. The sphinx supposedly killed herself in fury at having been thwarted.
The Stymphalian Birds: These birds lived along the shores of Lake Stymphalus in ancient Greece. They were about the size of cranes and had beaks and talons of bronze. Some accounts say they could shoot their bronze feathers like arrows. As one of his labors, Hercules had to rid the lake of the birds. With the help of the goddess Athena, he drove them into the air and shot them with arrows.
Tengu: The tengu of the Japanese Shinto religion are strange half-man, half-bird creatures. In some accounts, they have the body of men and faces of birds, and carry large fans of feathers. In others, they look like men with wings, bird-claws for feet and beaklike noses. They are mischievous creatures and are often credited, or blamed, for teaching humans how to use weapons of war. Sometimes, a tengu will possess a human, causing the victim to show great skill in battle. When the tengu spirit is driven out, the victim has no memory of what happened.
As creatures of the Shinto religion, tengu were fierce enemies of the Buddhists in the Middle Ages. They often tried to tempt, fool or carry off Buddhist priests and set fire to Buddhist temples. The Buddhists forbade the worship of the tengu and even had a mythical place called the “tengu road,” an area of the spirit world reserved for hypocritical priests who had forsaken their vows.
Thunderbird: Like many fabulous birds, the Thunderbird of North America was considered to be the source of high winds or storms. A sacred bird to Native American Indians, the Thunderbird represents a force against evil, a creature with highly acute sense that can never be surprised by evil. The Thunderbird can never be summoned or invoked in a battle against evil; it comes of its own will or not at all. Its attack is always signaled by the thunder of its great wings.
As a spiritual force, the Thunderbird is often referred to as a singular creature, but in legend and story, it is sometimes spoken of as more than one creature, suggesting it is a species of bird. Descriptions of the Thunderbird vary as well. Pacific Indians describe a bird so immense that it has a lake on its back, which is the source of rain. Mountain Indians conceive of the Thunderbird as a small red bird that shoots lighting from its wing tips and makes thunder with the beating of its wings.
Trickster: The trickster figure appears in many mythologies around the world: in Greece as Hermes; as Coyote in the American Southwest; as Eshu-Elegba and Ananse in Africa; as Susa-no-o in Japan; and as Loki in Norse mythology. In many cultures, he is the culture hero, responsible for bringing the arts to his people. Stories about Trickster, particularly in Native American Indian and African lore, depict a character getting by on his wits against more powerful enemies.
Typhon and Echidna: Typhon was the last child of Gaea, Mother Earth. She bore him to fight against Zeus and the Olympian gods. He was gigantic with over a hundred flaming heads. Some accounts say these heads were serpents’ heads that appeared beneath his waist. Other accounts say that he was human to the thighs. In any case, he was incredibly strong but ultimately defeated by Zeus and trapped under Mount Aethna. His mate was Echidna (a.k.a. Echidne). Echidna was a beautiful woman from the waist up. Below the waist she was dragon or serpent. She was also the mother of monsters, including the Hyrdra, Cerebrus, Chimera and others.
Another half human, half dragon appears in Greek mythology as well but was not considered a monster. His name was Cecrops and was considered a king and hero and possibly the founder of the royal house of Athens.
Unicorns: The unicorn originally had many different descriptions, but the most common image is that of the white horse with flowing mane and tale and the single spiral horn sprouting from its forehead. Unicorns can be both fierce and gentle. Its horn can pierce anything, though it has to be careful of ramming it into a tree and getting stuck. The unicorn’s horn has magical properties, chief of which was the ability to either detect or nullify poisons. For this reason, the horn was much sought after. Unicorns can easily be trapped by using a virgin as bait. The pure maiden sits in the woods and the unicorn will approach and place his head in her lap. It is then easy prey for hunters. Besides humans, the other natural enemy of the unicorn is the lion.
Wendigo: A North American Indian spirit, the wendigo inhabits the woods of Canada. It is a man-eating ghost that usually preys on hunters. Its tactics include whispering noises and making sounds that drive the hunter or woodsman into reckless error. The victim then runs into the wendigo’s ambush. It seems to also have had the power to possess people. Wendigo possession could be stopped in its early stages by a shaman.
Werewolves: Stories of men turning into beasts are common in most cultures. In Roman myth, Jupiter turns Lycaon into a wolf as punishment for the man’s savagery. In most cases, the werewolf or were creatures gives up his/her human form completely to take on the shape of the animal. These transformations normally occur at night and the person returns to human form with daylight. One way to tell such a shape-changer is to see if wounds inflicted on the animal form appeared on the human the next day. The wolfman image, along with the legends of silver bullets and wolfsbane, are creatures of Hollywood and have little to do with actual folklore.
While European tradition has the werewolf, other cultures have their versions. South America has the were-jaguar while African folktales mention hyena men.
Vampire: Stories of spirits or demons or undead creatures that require the blood of the living for sustenance are part of the mythology of many parts of the world. In The Odyssey, for example, Odysseus descends into the underworld but is unable to speak with the shades of the dead until he feeds them the blood of a sacrificed sheep.
Other stories of vampirism involve corpses, not just spirits or ghosts, that rise out of the grave and seek the blood of the living. A twelfth-century English chronicle by William of Newburgh tells of an evil man who died without confessing, but was given a Christian burial nevertheless. He would rise out the grave every night and walk the town’s streets, his flesh rotting and infecting the air with a plague that killed many. Finally he was exhumed so that the corpse could be burned, but it was found to be bloated and when struck with a spade, the man’s body gushed with the warm blood of the people he had killed with the disease he had spread. The corpse was burned and the plague ended.
In Europe, stories of blood-sucking spirits and animated corpses merged, and “true” printed accounts of vampires began to appear in the sixteenth century. An account from Belgrade in 1732 describes a vampire being dispatched by driving a stake through its heart and burning the body.
In 1610, Elizabeth Bathory, the so-called vampire countess of Hungary, was suspected and convicted of using the blood of murdered peasants in her potions. She was actually convicted of sorcery, but was not described as a vampire until many years later.
Literary vampires became popular in English fiction in the nineteenth century, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1897 set the standard for all that followed. Our contemporary conception of the vampire as elegantly dressed, erotically attractive and intriguingly foreign can be traced to Stoker’s Dracula and its film adaptations.
A number of standard “rules” govern vampires and vampirism. For one, a vampire must spend the night searching for its victims, but at dawn must return to its grave. Anyone bitten by a vampire becomes a vampire upon death. One can tell a vampire by examining the corpse; if the corpse is not decayed or has some color, then it is likely a vampire. Holy water will burn the flesh of a vampire, causing it to shriek in pain.
The legends built up around vampires give them a variety of powers including the ability to merge with shadows; shape-change, particularly into bats or wolves, though sometimes ticks and spiders; and the ability to mesmerize with their eyes. Vampires also have a variety of weaknesses. In some stories, vampires cannot enter a home without being invited in. They shun religious symbols. Garlic, mustard seed and other herbs can keep them away. They can be killed with a stake through the heart, though this may not be a permanent solution. Permanently destroying a vampire requires not only the stake, but beheading the vampire, stuffing the mouth with garlic and burning the body.
Yeti: The word “yeti” is Tibetan, which originally referred to a mountain spirit or demon, but has come to describe a creature known also as the Abominable Snowman, which is something of a misnomer since it seems to be neither abominable nor live only in the snow. Conflicting accounts of sightings of the elusive creature and contradictory and questionable physical evidence make the yeti out to be either a bit smaller than the average-sized man or nearly ten feet tall. What is consistent is that the yeti lives in the Himalayan mountains, is human-shaped and covered with fur, and seems to be an herbivore. In Russia, it is known as the alma, and is more ape-like in appearance with long arms and short legs. In China, legend tells of the Wildman, who is covered with grayish-red fur and looks like plaster models of Peking man.