People love stories about dragons, unicorns, and other fantastical creatures. The earliest artworks showing them are thousands of years old. Where did their creators get these strange ideas?
Some creatures seem to be cobbled together from parts of familiar animals. A rhinoceros may have inspired the unicorn, a horse with a horn. Did a manatee-like animal spark the idea of the mermaid—half fish, half woman?
Stranger than Strange
But other imaginary creatures seem to combine familiar animals with things not seen in the woods, the barnyard, or the fishing pond. Dragons are a bit like snakes and lizards, but often with larger, high-browed heads. The one-eyed giant cyclops is built something like a human, but what inspired a single eye above the nose? Myth makers had never seen a beast that had only one eye or that breathed fire.
For many years, experts thought such beasts sprang from pure imagination. But researchers have found that the answer is sometimes fossils of extinct animals.
At least one dragon was inspired by the remains of a mammal. A statue of this dragon stands in Klagenfurt, Austria. Its head was modeled after a skull found nearby in the 1300s. Later, a scientist showed that the skull actually came from an Ice Age rhinoceros. The rest of the dragon had been filled out using scaly skin, reptilian eyes, and other traits that give people the shivers.
Where did dragons’ fire breath come from? One possibility is that early artists tried to show venom-spitting dragons. They made the poison look like flames to suggest that it would burn. People who saw the art thought that the artists were showing real fire!
Cyclops stories come from lands around the Mediterranean Sea. Historians think the myths began with elephant and mammoth fossils found on islands in that region.
In Search of the Griffin
These cases sparked the suspicions of Adrienne Mayor. She is a historian who studies myths, folklore, and science. She thought fossils might have inspired another mythical beast, the griffin.
With the head, wings, and front legs of a bird and the rear body of a lion, the griffin is strange indeed. Thousands of years ago, wandering gold prospectors in the western region of the Gobi Desert claimed the griffin was not a myth. They had never seen one, but they said a living beast guarded the land’s gold.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Ms. Mayor searched through documents for places where gold bits are mixed in the sandy earth. In those same areas, scientists had already discovered many complete skeletons and scattered bones of a four-legged bird-beaked dinosaur: Protoceratops. These fossils were underfoot when the prospectors roamed the region.
Ms. Mayor worked with paleontologists to compare pictures and figures of griffins to Protoceratops and similar dinosaurs from the area. They found many links between the dinosaurs and the griffin. The mystery was solved.