monsters and imaginary beasts

monsters and imaginary beasts. The mythologies and legends of ancient and modern cultures teem with an enormous variety of monsters and imaginary beasts. A great number of these are composites of different existing animals or of human beings and animals. Among the animal composites are the Indian winged elephants, horses, and lions; the Greek three-headed dog Cerberus; the Western European griffin, with an eagle's head and wings and a goat's body; the dragon, with a winged reptilian body and fiery breath; and the Chimera, with a lion's head, goat's body, and dragon's tail. Examples of human-animal composites abound in Greek mythology: the Triton, with a man's head and torso and a sea-serpent's tail; the Siren, with a woman's head and a bird's body or a woman's head and torso and a fish's tail; the satyr, with a man's head and torso, a ram's horns, legs, and hooves, and a horse's ears and tail; the sphinx, with a woman's head and bust and a lion's body; and the centaur, with a man's head and torso and a horse's body. Most such creatures represent evil or at least mischievous forces. The restless souls of the living dead are embodied, in ubiquitous legends, by vampires. Equally grisly and widespread is the werewolf legend (see lycanthropy), in which a man is transformed by night into a wolf that devours human beings. A few imaginary creatures are benign, e.g., the gentle unicorn, a medieval European symbol of chastity and the power of love; in Mesopotamia, winged bulls with a human's head were protective spirits. The indigenous peoples of North America, particularly the Eskimo, have created a vast panorama of monsters, ogres, bodiless heads, cannibal mothers, and semihuman beasts. The Zuñi and Pueblo peoples respect many beasts that are considered curers of illness, guardians, and intercessors. Most of these spirits are associated with actual animals. In the folklore of the United States a host of fantastic, impossible “fearsome critters” are the subject of tall tales. These include the prock, also called the sidehill dodger, the gwinter, the wampus, and a host of other names, an animal that has shorter legs on one side so that it can maintain its balance as it grazes on steep mountainsides, and the augerino, an underground creature of dry regions in Colorado that lets the water out of irrigation ditches. Legendary monsters and beasts, which appear to be a feature common to all cultures, are the subject of considerable scholarly study.

See S. Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (1929); R. Barber and A. Riches, A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts (1972); B. Evslin, Monsters of Mythology (25 vol., 1987–90).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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