Anthropologists and historians think ancient Greek storytellers may have found inspiration for such fantastic beasts in the world around them—they may have been the “first fossil hunters.” Ancient Greeks collected fossilized bones and other artifacts, took note of where and how the artifacts were found, and even displayed the fossils at public sites such as temples.
Dr. Mott T. Greene, an historian of science, writes that “If [the ancient Greeks] told stories about these fossils that differ from our own, they examined the fossils with the same techniques we employ today: comparative anatomy, skeletal reconstruction, paleogeography and museum display.”
Some ancient Greeks even recognized geomythology for what it was—a way of explaining the natural world. The philosopher Palaephatus, for example, examined a myth surrounding the Greek hero Cadmus. The goddess Athena instructed Cadmus to plant dragon’s teeth in a field to yield a crop of warriors. Palaephatus, writing in the 300s BCE, suggested the tale was a reasonable misunderstanding of the frequent discovery of fossilized mammoth molars in Greek agricultural fields.
Read through this photo gallery for more monsters—and their possible real-life inspirations.
You can use this study guide with Common Core State Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5 to better understand how ancient storytellers used visual information to advance social analyses offered by mythology.
structure of an organism.
person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.
material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.
large, extinct species of European cattle or oxen.
kind or charitable.
mythical creature said to inhabit the lakes and lagoons of Australia.
cows and oxen.
mythical creature with the head and torso of a man, and the body and legs of a horse.
member of a species of mythical giants with a single eye in the middle of their forheads.
very large, extinct reptile chiefly from the Mesozoic Era, 251 million to 65 million years ago.
something seen, documented, or noticed for the first time.
to show or reveal.
mythical creature usually represented as a huge, winged reptile.
to hire or use.
remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.
study of references to geological or other natural events in myths and legends.
mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle, and the body of a lion.
person who acts in an exemplary way and is regarded as a model.
characteristic to or of a specific place.
something that influences the development of an idea.
mythical sea creature usually represented as an enormous squid.
traditional or mythical story.
one of many extinct species of large animals related to elephants, with long, curved tusks. The last mammoths became extinct about 5,000 years ago.
mammal that carries its young in a pouch on the mother's body.
large, flat tooth used for chewing and grinding.
legend or traditional story.
set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event.
study of Earth's ancient geologic environments.
(singular: phenomenon) any observable occurrence or feature.
person who studies knowledge and the way people use it.
available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.
region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
formal or official stamp, emblem, or other mark.
having to do with powers not explained by science or nature.
method of doing something.
building used for worship.
a long, narrow, flexible body part extending from the bodies of some animals.
buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.
very long tooth found in animals like elephants and walruses.
mammal with hooves, usually divided into even-toed ungulates (cattle, camels, deer) and odd-toed ungulates (horses, zebras, rhinoceroses).
mythical creature represented as a horse (usually white) with a single horn on its forehead.
to produce or result in.