Throughout history, people from all cultures and all backgrounds brought legendary creatures to life through stories, art and even songs. Many of these legendary creatures continue to terrify, thrill and inspire people around the world. But have you ever wondered how these stories have come about?
In this article, we will explore the origins of mythical creatures from all corners of the globe.
Familiar among all Harry Potter fans, the earliest account of the basilisk comes from ‘Natural History’, authored by Pliny the Elder in around 79 A.D. Pliny the Elder first describes the catoblepas, who, like the basilisk, can kill a victim who may be unfortunate enough to lock eyes with them. He then goes on to describe the basilisk as having a white splotch on its head, strongly resembling a diadem. This is likely what inspire the basilisk’s title as the ‘king’ of the serpents, or the ‘little king’.
Pliny the Elder continues describing the basilisk, saying that when it hisses, all other serpents crawl away in fear. Furthermore, Pliny mentions how the basilisk does not move like other serpents but instead ‘by a succession of folds – it moves along upright and erect upon the middle.’
The basilisk is said to be so deadly, that it kills all shrubs and grass that it comes into contact with. In fact, it is said that the basilisk’s venom is so strong that if a man on horseback riding along is able to stab the creature, the venom is capable of travelling up the spear and killing both the man and the horse on which he is riding on. So it’s safe to say that basilisks are not to be messed with. The only ways to defeat the beast is either getting it to stare at its own reflection using a mirror – which can be challenging, to say the least. As for weaknesses, the basilisk has only two – the crow of a rooster and the smell of weasel. Coming into contact with any of the two is fatal to the basilisk.
The English word basilisk stems from the Greek word basiliskos, which translates into ‘Little King’. Many people heavily speculate that the legend of the basilisk is based on cobras. Cobras can maintain an upright position which the basilisk is known for. A cobra about to pounce, with an inflated neck hood, is quite a terrifying sight. The Egyptian cobra has powerful venom and can incapacitate its victims from a distance, by spitting its venom.
Finally, the basilisk’s natural predator, the mongoose, often kill cobras – not quite weasels but close enough. Combine all these factors with humans’ love for the extraordinary and sensationalized and it is easy to imagine how the legend of the basilisk came into being.
2. The Kraken
The legendary Kraken is supposed to be a giant, massive sea-creature, living off the freezing coasts of Scandinavia. It has been mainly depicted as a squid/octopus mutant, sometimes with spikes on its tentacles. The first recorded reference to the Kraken was in 13th century Scandinavian literature. An old Icelandic saga by the name of Örvar-Oddr.
The saga consists of the protagonist travelling through the Greenland sea on his way to Helluland, and that is where he encounters two frightful sea-monsters – the Hafgufa (the Kraken) and the Lyngbakr. In Örvar-Oddr, the Kraken was described as ‘the hugest monster and the sea. It is in the nature of this creature to swallow men and ships, and even whales and everything else within reach’.
In the mid 18th century, in a documentation authored by Erik Pontoppidan called ‘The First Attempt at a Natural History in Norway’, the Kraken’s legend was extended. Pontoppidan claimed that the Kraken was so large that it was often mistaken for an island. He also made clear that despite how menacing the Kraken was, the biggest danger lied in the whirlpool it created with its movements.
The word Kraken in English stems from the Norwegian Krake, which means unhealthy or crooked animal. In German, Krake means octopus and is used to refer to the legendary Kraken. Many have speculated that the stories have originated from the Giant Squid, as several similarities can immediately be pointed out. The Giant Squid, as the name suggests, grows to 40-50 feet in length, and (obviously) has tentacles. Another interesting origin that the legend of the Kraken might be attributed to is undersea volcanic activity, which is quite prevalent in the Icelandic bay area. This undersea volcanic activity causes strong, sudden currents, alongside heaps of bubbles.
A Kappa is a supernatural demon being who resides in the water. Its roots come from Japan – in fact, the word Kappa is a combination of the Japanese words kawa (river) and warra, which was derived from warawa (child). The name ‘river-child’ is a pretty apt description of the Kappa’s reported appearance. It is around the shape and size a human child, but with blue, yellow and green scales on its skin. They have the ability to swim like fish, with webbed hands and feet. Their features differ from place to place, but the common features among all kappas are beaks, a shell and a flat, hairless area on the top of their heads that carries a plate filled with water.
Despite their perhaps meek appearance, Kappas are unwanted guests. Their behavior ranges from sly and mischievous to downright dangerous. The tame ones only splash water at passersby or look up into women’s kimonos. The intense and dangerous ones can go as far as raping women, drowning children and even eating their flesh.
Kappas are especially known for their wanting to drown people. They lure people into their ponds and lakes, and wrestle them into the water. So much so, there are still signs warning against going near lakes and ponds all around Japan.
There are a few ways to escape, if ever confronted by a Kappa. The first of which is bowing to them. Kappas, despite everything, are very polite, according to Japanese folklore, and will always return a bow. This causes the water in the plate on the top of their heads to spill, rendering the Kappa incapable of movement until the plate is refilled. In fact, it is said that if a human refills the plate with water, the Kappa will serve that human for eternity. The Kappa’s other glaring weakness is its arms. If you pull a Kappa’s arms hard, they will detach.
The Kappa’s origin is thought to be based on the Japanese giant salamander, which is known to live near water and grab its prey using its powerful jaws. Other theories that the legend of the Kappa could be based on is the now-extinct Japanese river otter, which was roughly the size of a human child when standing upright. It is possible that the otter could be mistaken for a humanoid from a distance.
The legend of the Yeti/Bigfoot/Sasquatch is incredibly wide-spread all around the world. According to Nepalese folklore, the Yeti is an ape-like being living in the mountains. It is depicted as taller than the average human and walks on two legs. It sometimes leaves tracks in the snow, prompting dozens of people to go on a wild Yeti chase and are ultimately left empty-handed. Or dead.
The first accounts of the Yeti originated from ancient Himalayan folktales. These folktales portrayed the Yeti as a figure of danger, likely to deter people—especially children—from going near wild animals.
Since then, thousands of people have claimed to have seen an actual Yeti every year. Unfortunately, details of their sightings remain sketchy, and there is no conclusive evidence that such a creature exists. In 2013, genetic scientists at Oxford put out a call to anyone who claimed to have seen a Yeti, and asked if they could be given any DNA found at the scene of the sighting. The two geneticists received 57 samples in total. Most of the DNA samples actually belonged to quite common animals, such as horses and bears. Interestingly however, two of the samples belonged to an extinct species of polar bear.
It was likely the sighting of a polar bear that prompted the legend of the Yeti. Just imagine this – a large polar bear, standing on its hind legs, with blood of a recent kill coating the fur around its mouth, roaring into the distance. It could make for a really chilling sight!
Fact or Fiction
Legends and stories almost always have an element of truth, no matter how bizarre the story may be. There’s always a basis for reality in even the wildest of tales. More likely than not, these stories of mythical creatures are just a product of an overactive human imagination with an eagerness for the sensational and overdramatic. But hey, people thought the gorilla was the product of an overactive imagination until the 1900s. And pandas were thought to be a myth until 1869.
So hey, who knows? It might turn out that these creatures might be in fact, roaming this Earth with us.