Aoife Hardesty takes a look at some of the creatures that may have inspired myths and legends from all over the world.
IN the real world, fantastical creatures live only in stories: but could versions of these creatures exist outside of our imaginations?
The hydra features in Greek mythology as a multi-headed sea serpent. According to legend the hydra can regrow lost heads, proving rather tricky to vanquish. Whilst multi-headed snakes might seem like they only belong in myths, polycephaly (having multiple heads) has been known to occur naturally in snakes. In October 2016, a wild two-headed snake was found in Croatia. Usually two-headed, most documented cases are in captivity. In the wild, survival is difficult for a creature with two heads; two heads are difficult to coordinate, and sometimes one head will try eating the other.
Snakes with more than two heads have yet to be discovered, but enter Narcisse snake dens in Manitoba, Canada and you would be forgiven for thinking you’re seeing a multi-headed giant snake monster. Thousands of snakes gather every spring to mate. They form mating balls where a hundred males try and get close to a single female so they can slide up against her. These mating balls can create the illusion of a multi-headed monster snake.
Tales of flying, fire-breathing dragons are found in Asia, Scandinavia and Great Britain. The bodies of dragons differ between Eastern and Western legends, being more snake like and lizard like respectively.
The genus of Draco bear quite a resemblance to western dragons. There are 42 species within this lizard genus, growing to a length of 20cm and they all resemble flying dragons. They are tree-dwellers, and can glide from tree to tree by extending a membranous flap connected to their forearms. The membranous wings allow for flight and have earned these lizards the nickname “flying dragons”.
Other than flight, perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of dragons is their ability to breathe fire. As an evolutionary development, that would be a useful way of killing enemies, scaring away predators and keeping warm, but with the added drawback of possibly setting oneself on fire. So it’s not a great surprise that there are no reptiles alive today that can breathe fire.
However, there are a great number of lizard and snake species with venomous bites. The beaded lizard has modified salivary glands which produce a venom that can kill red blood cells, and in extreme cases prove fatal to humans. Upon biting, and making a wound, the act of chewing releases venom into the wound.
Unicorns feature in the Bible as a symbol for a creature of great strength and grace that cannot be tamed by man. Depictions of unicorns differ, some are tall white horses, others are more goat-like with cloven hooves and a goat’s beard, but they all describe the long single horn atop the creature’s head.
The Indian rhinoceros, is a real-life unicorn with a single horn grown on top of its nose. This rhino lacks the majesticity and grace of a mythical unicorn. The underwater dweller, the narwhal, is known as the unicorn of the sea. Males grow a long canine tooth which protrudes out via the upper lip and becomes a tusk, a beautiful spiral horn.
Stories of Will o’ the Wisps can be found in South America, mainland Europe, Ireland, and Scotland. Found hovering over bogs they appear as flickering lights floating through the air. Depicted as tricksters, their lights act as a beacon to night time travellers, luring them through bogs into dangerous patches, and eventually to their deaths.
The illusion of floating lights over bogs is thought to be caused by oxidation of gases released from the bogs. The gases rise into the air above, where they encounter oxygen and a fleeting fire occurs.
But fireflies are quite similar to Will o’ the Wisps. Within their stomachs, enzymes oxidise a pigment that releases a glow. Flying through the night skies, fireflies can give the appearance of flickering lights.
The ocean has also produced its fair share of myths and legends. Selkies are a lesser known in mermaid lore. In the sea, selkies are seals but on land, selkies remove their fur coats and become beautiful humans. Children with webbed fingers and toes (a condition known as syndactyly) were said to be descendants of a selkie-human union.
Seals could be mistaken for real-life mermaids. It has been said that the bobbing heads of seals in the water resemble humans, and they have uncannily human-like watchful eyes.
Creatures of myths and legends may not exist in the world around us, but those creatures that do can be every bit as strange and exciting.