Weird and wonderful creatures have been central to folklore and mythology for millennia, with everyone from the ancient Chinese and Greeks to the medieval Britons including fantastical and hybrid creatures in their stories. But where have these beings come from? Let’s take a look at the origins of some of the most recognised creatures from magical theatre, stories and films.
The dragon is a uniquely majestic mythical beast, having appeared in a variety of forms across a variety of cultures over the centuries. Dragons date back as far as the Hongsham culture in ancient China - up to 6,700 years ago. Representations of these serpentine creatures have been found carved on jade amulets, and in Chinese culture dragons are associated with water, often guarding or controlling seas and rivers. Dragons are linked with serpents in many cultures, with the Greek word ‘drakón’ meaning ‘viper’.
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, Mayan and Aztec cultures depicted dragons as feathered serpents. Some have suggested that the popularity of dragons is due to ancient civilisations finding dinosaur skeletons, although records of the finding of dragon corpses are actually related to the discovery of mammal skeletons.
Unicorns appear in all sorts of cultural myths too, from Mesopotamian art to Indian and Chinese stories. The earliest full description of a single-horned animal (the Latin word for which is ‘unicornis’) comes from a historian called Ctesias in 400 BCE. He describes an Indian wild ass the size of a horse with a white body and a cubit-long horn. It’s now thought that his description was actually of an Indian rhinoceros.
With its red and gold plumage and melodious call, the phoenix has captivated humans since Egyptian times. Its origins are thought to lie in Egyptian tradition with a now-extinct heron called the Benu, which was associated with the sun god Re and appears in the Book of the Dead. In Egypt the phoenix was said to live for at least 500 years and when it grew tired, would fly to Heliopolis, the ‘City of the Sun’ where it built a nest from cinnamon sticks and resin. The nest and the phoenix would be ignited by the sun, with the old phoenix dying in the flames and a new one emerging from the ashes.
The griffin’s origins are a little harder to pin down, but it seems that there was a tradition of hybrid creatures across Persia, Egypt, Greece and Assyria several thousand years ago. Stories of such beings date back to the 4th millennium BCE, with creatures like the griffin, the sphinx, and the Assyrian lamassu all sporting the body of a lion with variations on the head. These beings were often thought to be protective, with the griffin said to guard precious treasure.
You can learn more about some of these fantastic creatures by booking tickets to Dragons and Mythical Beasts Live, a magical show that introduces you to some of the most amazing mythical beings. A magical play for the whole family, it’s aimed at kids aged three and up and is touring the UK now.