Ancient Greek myths and legends are filled with monsters, giants, and other supernatural creatures. 
    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.
    Instructional Ideas
    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.
    1. Centaurs, creatures with the upper torso of a man and the lower torso of a horse, are popular figures in ancient Greek myths and legends. What phenomena of the natural world do you think might have influenced ancient Greek storytellers in creating the myth of the centaur?

      Some historians and folklorists think the myth of the centaur may have simply reflected western Greece’s earliest encounters with explorers or warriors on horseback. (Horse culture developed in Central Asia.) To those unfamiliar with horseback riding, mounted riders may have appeared as half-man, half-horse. 

    2. Unicorns, horses with a single horn on their foreheads, were also popular figures in ancient Greek literature. Nearly all accounts of unicorns place them in what are now India, Pakistan, and the Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian Seas. What phenomena of the natural world do you think might have influenced ancient Greek storytellers in creating the myth of the unicorn?

      There are several species, both extant and extinct, that may have influenced the creation of the unicorn myth.

      • Elasmotherium was a species of rhinoceros that roamed the Caucasus and Central Asia until the end of the last ice age. Elasmotherium had a huge, single horn on its head and had longer legs than other rhinos, allowing it to gallop. Ancient Greeks would not have interacted with Elasmotherium, but they may have encountered its fossilized remains. 

      • Unicorns seem to appear on seals from the Indus Valley Civilization, a culture that developed long before ancient Greece. Historians and folklorists think that these depictions were not unicorns at all, but naturalistic depictions of two-horned bulls or aurochs (a now-extinct species of cattle) shown in profile. Ancient Greek travelers may have encountered representations of these creatures when visiting the Indus River, in what is now India and Pakistan. 

      • Narwhals, single-tusked whales, are not indigenous to the Mediterranean Sea. However, the ancient Greek trade network may have brought storytellers into contact with the tusks of these Arctic animals. The long, spiraled horn of the narwhal was valued by the ancient Greeks for its alleged healing properties, such as neutralizing poison or reducing fever.

      • Finally, many species of horse-like ungulates are indigenous the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and Africa. Ancient Greeks would have been familiar with goats, deer, and antelope. Ancient Greek writers and historians often mention oryxes, for instance, alongside unicorns. Two-horned oryxes are antelopes native to the Arabian Peninsula, and are sometimes called “Arabian unicorns” for their resemblance to a unicorn in profile.

    3. Can you think of any other cultures that may have used influences from the natural world in developing mythological creatures?

      All mythologies are influenced by the natural world! Investigate the folklore and physical geography of different cultures to see how the landscape and ecosystems may have influenced a culture’s mythology. Here are three examples to get you started.

      • China: Dragons are legendary creatures in Chinese mythology, associated with strength, power, and good luck. The dragons of ancient Chinese myths may have been influenced by the abundance of dinosaur fossils in the Gobi Desert in what is now western China and Mongolia. 
      • Scandinavia: The kraken, usually imagined as an enormous squid or octopus, is a legendary sea monster haunting western Scandinavian mythology. The deep North Atlantic Ocean is home to real-life giant squid, and ancient Scandinavian storytellers were likely inspired by rotting tentacles that washed up on Greenlandic, Icelandic, or Norwegian shores. 
      • Australia: Bunyips are part of the mythology of Aboriginal Australians. Bunyips, often imagined with large tusks, can either be benevolent grazing beasts or frighteningly aggressive threats. Aboriginal storytellers may have been inspired by fossils of Diprotodon, the largest marsupial to have ever lived. Diprotodon, which resembled a giant wombat, was notable for its huge, protruding front teeth.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    abundance Noun

    large amount.

    anatomy Noun

    structure of an organism.

    anthropologist Noun

    person who studies cultures and characteristics of communities and civilizations.

    artifact Noun

    material remains of a culture, such as tools, clothing, or food.

    aurochs Noun

    large, extinct species of European cattle or oxen.

    benevolent Adjective

    kind or charitable. 

    bunyip Noun

    mythical creature said to inhabit the lakes and lagoons of Australia.

    cattle Noun

    cows and oxen.

    centaur Noun

    mythical creature with the head and torso of a man, and the body and legs of a horse.

    crop Noun

    agricultural produce.

    Encyclopedic Entry: crop
    cyclops Noun

    member of a species of mythical giants with a single eye in the middle of their forheads.

    dinosaur Noun

    very large, extinct reptile chiefly from the Mesozoic Era, 251 million to 65 million years ago.

    discovery Noun

    something seen, documented, or noticed for the first time.

    display Verb

    to show or reveal.

    dragon Noun

    mythical creature usually represented as a huge, winged reptile.

    employ Verb

    to hire or use.

    fossil Noun

    remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

    Encyclopedic Entry: fossil
    frequent Adjective


    geomythology Noun

    study of references to geological or other natural events in myths and legends.

    griffin Noun

    mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle, and the body of a lion.

    hero Noun

    person who acts in an exemplary way and is regarded as a model.

    indigenous Adjective

    characteristic to or of a specific place.

    Encyclopedic Entry: indigenous
    inspiration Noun

    something that influences the development of an idea.

    kraken Noun

    mythical sea creature usually represented as an enormous squid.

    legend Noun

    traditional or mythical story.

    mammoth Noun

    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.

    marsupial Noun

    mammal that carries its young in a pouch on the mother's body.

    molar Noun

    large, flat tooth used for chewing and grinding.

    myth Noun

    legend or traditional story.

    mythology Noun

    set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event.

    paleogeography Noun

    study of Earth's ancient geologic environments.

    phenomena Plural Noun

    (singular: phenomenon) any observable occurrence or feature.

    philosopher Noun

    person who studies knowledge and the way people use it.

    public Adjective

    available to an entire community, not limited to paying members.

    Scandinavia Noun

    region and name for some countries in Northern Europe: Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.

    seal Noun

    formal or official stamp, emblem, or other mark.

    supernatural Adjective

    having to do with powers not explained by science or nature.

    technique Noun

    method of doing something.

    temple Noun

    building used for worship.

    tentacle Noun

    a long, narrow, flexible body part extending from the bodies of some animals.

    trade Noun

    buying, selling, or exchanging of goods and services.

    tusk Noun

    very long tooth found in animals like elephants and walruses.

    ungulate Noun

    mammal with hooves, usually divided into even-toed ungulates (cattle, camels, deer) and odd-toed ungulates (horses, zebras, rhinoceroses).

    unicorn Noun

    mythical creature represented as a horse (usually white) with a single horn on its forehead.

    yield Verb

    to produce or result in.