Although we might often think of them as silly or imaginary, there is no denying that we are still very much fascinated by mythological creatures.
From winged horses and snakes with multiple heads to fire breathing, oversized lizards, every culture around the world has its own legendary beasts that inspire awe and fear.
Yes, folklore tells us that many, if not all of these creatures are often figments of our imaginations – inspired by real-life creatures no less but far too grand and magical to actually exist.
Yet, there are still reports of sightings of such awesome creatures like the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland or Bigfoot in North America. We are simply obsessed with mythical creatures, and it doesn’t help that the stories surrounding them make these beasts even more appealing.
Today, we are going to look at some of the most famous animal myths and legends in history and explore the creatures that inspired these stories.
Suspend your belief and dig in!
The Most Important Animal Myths around the World
Pegasus The Winged Horse
Pegasus was a famous immortal horse in Greek mythology.
The story is that he is the son of the Gorgon Medusa and the god Poseidon. When Perseus decapitated Medusa, Pegasus and his brother Chrysaor sprung forth. The winged horse was known for his speed, notorious independence and free-roaming nature. It is, therefore, logical that he wasn’t easily tamed.
But tamed he was by a Greek hero and slayer of monsters known as Bellerophon.
As a mortal, Bellerophon never stood a chance of capturing and taming Pegasus, but he had some help from the goddess Athena who gave him an enchanted golden bridle.
Once tamed, Pegasus helped Bellerophon overcome the Amazons and even slay the monster Chimera. The story and adventures of Pegasus make for some of the best horse myths in history. Who wouldn’t want a winged horse?
Also found in Greek mythology, the Chimera was a monster like no other.
She (yes, Chimera was female) looked like a lion but had the head of a goat sticking out of her back and the tip of her tail was the head of a snake. Strangely enough, it was the head of the goat that made Chimera so fearsome for it breathed fire.
The Chimera was said to be a rampaging beast that tormented villagers by eating their cattle and killing anyone who stood in her way.
Thought to be invincible thanks to her lion strength, goat’s cunning and snake’s venom, King Lobates commanded Bellerophon, the well-known hero and slayer of monsters, to do what he could to kill her.
Because the Chimera could not fly, she had no defences to the arrows that Bellerophon shot at her from above thanks to the help he got from his winged sidekick, Pegasus.
But was eventually a lead-tipped sword that finished the job. Bellerophon stuck it into the goat’s head part of Chimera. As she was trying to breathe fire, the molten metal choked Chimera to death.
The Legendary Phoenix
One of the best bird myths in all of history has to be the legend of the Phoenix.
The strange thing is that this myth is found in several different cultures from Greek mythology to Egyptian and even Arabic folklore. Throughout these cultures, the Phoenix is a grand symbol of rebirth, renewal and resurrection.
The legend goes that the Phoenix was a grand bird. Majestic and magical in every single way, the Phoenix was radiant and looked a lot like a mix between an eagle and a peacock. It was brilliantly colored and had feathers that were a mix of red, purple and some yellow. It was closely associated with fire or the rising sun.
What makes the Phoenix special is that it could live for hundreds of years and had a habit of building its own funeral pyre and igniting it with a single flap of its wings.
The fire would then burn the bird to death only for it to rise from the ashes afresh and live for a few more hundred years and go through the entire process again. With blue eyes that burned like sapphire, the Phoenix was a symbol of elegance and glorious rebirth.
The Centaurs, legendary creatures that had the upper body of a man and the lower body of a horse, were an integral part of Greek mythology. The story of how Centaurs came to be is just as intriguing as the creatures themselves.
It is said that Ixion was deeply infatuated with Hera, Zeus’ wife. There was a time he was invited to Mount Olympus by Zeus, and he took that opportunity to try and rape Hera. Hera told Zeus who, despite his anger, needed proof of such allegations. So he molded some clouds into a nymph.
The nymph (Nephele) greatly resembled Hera and Zeus laid her down next to Ixion who promptly forced himself upon her thinking it was Hera.
Zeus punished Ixion by binding him to a fiery wheel which would perpetually whirl through the air (or underworld by some accounts).
Nephele, on the other hand, became pregnant as a result of her assault. Her babies were half men, half horses. That is how the Centaurs came to be.
It is said that the wisest Centaur, however, was Chiron who was actually the son of the Titan Cronos who had sex with the nymph Philyra. Chiron is said to have taught a number of Greek heroes including Achilles and Hercules.
Although he was immortal, he sacrificed his immortality to help out the god Prometheus who famously stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. The Gods sentenced him to a lifetime of being disgorged by a fearsome bird, healing overnight and going through the torment all over again.
Fire Breathing Dragons
Almost every culture on the face of the earth has some version of dragons in their folklore. Considered highly dangerous creatures, dragons are described slightly differently in every culture.
In Western cultures, they are fire breathing, winged creatures that resemble lizards and have four legs.
In Eastern cultures, they are fire breathing serpents with four legs and a high level of intelligence. One thing is constant though – dragons breathe fire and are notoriously hard to kill.
The story of Medusa is rather cruel and unfair. She was once a fiercely beautiful woman who pledged herself to be a priestess in the temple of the Greek goddess Athena.
Because of her beauty, the Greek God of the sea, Poseidon, desired her.
Unfortunately, to be a priestess in the temple of Athena, you had to be a virgin. So Medusa rebuffed all of Poseidon’s advances. In a fit of rage, he chased her down and raped her on the floor of Athena’s temple.
When Athena discovered this, instead of taking issue with her uncle, Poseidon, she decided to punish Medusa. Athena turned Medusa into a hideous woman with snakes for hair.
To make matters worse, Athena made it so that a single glare from Medusa would turn any man into stone.
Medusa fled to Africa where little snakes kept falling from her hair. According to the Greeks, this is why Africa has many different poisonous snakes. Medusa is eventually decapitated by Perseus, a demi-god and son of Zeus.
Out of her neck came Pegasus the winged horse and his brother Chrysaor, a gifted warrior. The two are belied to be the result of the union between Medusa and Poseidon.
The Guard Dog Cerberus
If you’ve ever wondered why the dead don’t ever come back easily (in all these myths), then you might want to pay attention to the myth of the Cerberus.
Found in Greek mythology, the Cerberus is a three-headed dog with insanely deadly gifts and features.
The Cerberus is the dog that guards the entrance to the Underworld. Only the dead are allowed to enter, but none is allowed to live, and if they try, they would have to contend with the Cerberus.
The Guardian of the Underworld is depicted as a fearsome creature, and apart from its three heads, it has a tail that is a serpent, a mane made out of little venomous snakes and the razor-sharp claws of a lion.
It is believed to have deadly breath, razor-sharp teeth and claws as well as venomous saliva. The three heads are believed to represent the past, the present and the future.
There are very many other mythical creatures that can be found in various cultures across the globe, from gorgeous Mermaids that lure lusty sailors to their deaths to the Kraken, a sea creature so big it can look like an island.
The beauty of it all is that most of these creatures appear in different cultures simultaneously, which makes one wonder whether they truly are mythical at all?