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Myths And Legends

Dragons that lurk in European stories are powerful, wicked, and dangerous. Some nest in caves, guard stockpiles of treasure, and devour sheep or even young girls. The dragon has been reviled in the Christian world as the image of evil. In many stories, a dragon dies by the sword of a brave and honorable hero, ending a furious battle between sin and virtue, darkness and light.

We share the land with countless living animals. Some are familiar; others seem quite bizarre. Creatures from the lands of myth can be both recognizable and strange. Sometimes they appear to have body parts from ordinary animals combined in very unusual ways. Other times they look just like familiar animals—but have extraordinary and magical powers.

Dragons—part of the legends of East Asian cultures for more than 4,000 years—have sweeping powers, including breathing clouds, moving the seasons, and controlling the waters of rivers, lakes, and seas. They are linked with yang—the masculine principle of heat, light, and action—and opposed to yin—the feminine principle of coolness, darkness, and repose.

European naturalists once considered the dragon a close relative of the snake. In a text from 1640, Ulissis Aldrovandi, a professor of natural science at the University of Bologna, discusses their habits. "Winged dragons flying through Africa," he writes, "beat enormous animals such as bulls to death with their tails."

In Chinese art, the dragon is sometimes paired with the phoenix. Together, they are often equated with the harmony of marriage, and the union of the complementary cosmic elements yin and yang. Chinese scholars classified the dragon as one of the 369 animal species with scales. Long before the development of paleontology, people unearthed fossilized bones in Asia and Europe—and believed they had found the remains of dragons from an earlier age.

In traditional Chinese medicine, "dragon bones" are prescribed as a treatment for numerous ailments, from madness to diarrhea and dysentery. Most of the lumps and powders sold in Chinese pharmacies as dragon bone come from fossil remains of extinct mammals, unearthed from China's renowned fossil beds.

With their enormous size, reptilian shape, and threatening teeth and claws, some dragons might easily be taken for cousins of Tyranosaurus rex. Living dinosaurs did not inspire the dragon idea—they died out long before people were around to observe them—but the fossil remains of extinct animals have sometimes been taken for dragon bones, and helped perpetuate old dragon stories. A wooly rhinoceros skull was once kept in the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria. It was said to be the remains of a dragon slain before the city was founded around 1250 B.C.E.

The remains of Protoceratops dinosaurs, which lived from 145.5 to 65.5 million years ago, may have influenced descriptions of griffins. Both Protoceratops and griffins have birdlike beaks, but bodies with four legs—an unusual combination. And Protoceratops fossils have very long shoulder-blades, a feature that may explain why griffins are said to have wings.

Ancient Greeks found enormous bones they thought to have belonged to flesh-and-blood giants who lived and died. Even today large and surprisingly humanlike bones can be found in Greece; modern scientists understand them to be remains of mammoths, mastodons, and wooly rhinoceroses that once lived in the region.

The tales of the European one-horned magical unicorn were first told over 2,000 years ago by Greek travelers. In the Middle Ages, Danish sailors brought narwhal tusks—long, white, and spiraled—to Europe, where buyers considered them to be valuable, magical remains of the elusive unicorns, thought to be able to cure a range of illnesses, from epilepsy to the plague. The Asian unicorn, first mentioned in written stories around 2700 B.C.E., differs in appearance by a scaly coat, one or multiple flesh-covered horns, and a wolflike head.

In Japan, the unicorn is called the kirin and is the symbol and name of a popular beer. The word kirin has also come to mean "giraffe" in modern Japanese, perhaps owing to an earlier confusion: in 1414, Cheng Ho, the returning leader of an expedition to Africa, presented to the Chinese emperor a live "unicorn" that was, in fact, a giraffe. Enormous apes are more than a myth; the Gigantopithecus blacki, now extinct, is a very distant relative of humans that lived in Southeast Asia for almost a million years, until perhaps as recently as 300,000 years ago.

Giant and colossal squids have the largest eyes of any living creature; each eye can be as large as a human head. The mythical kraken—perhaps based on sightings of giant squid tentacles—may be the largest sea monster ever imagined; some stories described it as more than 1.5 miles around with arms as large as ship's masts.

Many documented sightings of what were thought to be sea serpents were later debunked as cases of mistaken identity. For instance, several "sea monster" carcasses turned out to be partially decayed basking sharks (an immense fish that grows to 30 feet in length), a "baby sea serpent" proved to be a deformed blacksnake, and an enormous serpent turned out to be a mass of floating seaweed.

Several pictures of sea serpents on old maps appear to be based on sightings of the oarfish or ribbon fish. A long eel-shaped fish that grows up to 36 feet, the oarfish has a crest of bright red spines on its head and a spiny dorsal fin running down its entire back.

The story of Sedna is one of the most dramatic tales of the Inuit people of the Arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. In a deadly tale of betrayal on the stormy sea, a young woman is tossed overboard by her own father, who cuts off her fingers to keep her from climbing back into the boat. Her fingers become the whales, seals, and walrus on which the Inuit depend for food and materials.

Centuries ago, when European adventurers set out to explore the world, their sailors told of seeing mermaids in the waves. When the boats arrived in ports around the world, the image of the mysterious half-woman, half-fish creature spread, often taking on new meanings as it mixed with local beliefs.

In the ocean near Haiti in 1493, Christopher Columbus—probably glimpsing a manatee—reported seeing three mermaids but said they were "not as pretty as they are depicted, for somehow in the face they look like men." People have been making facsimiles of mermaids for at least 400 years by sewing the head and torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish. The most spectacular mermaid hoax was pulled off by the famous showman P. T. Barnum. In 1842, Barnum tricked thousands of people into paying to see a mermaid supposedly caught near the Fiji Islands. The name "Feejee mermaid" is now used for all such manufactured mermaids.

Seven hundred years ago, Arab traders told of a bird so huge it could lift an elephant into the sky. Sailors said it lived on an island off the southern coast of Africa. Coincidentally, a giant bird called the Aepyornis once lived on the island of Madagascar. Now extinct, the bird—which is the largest ever to live, at over ten feet tall—laid the largest eggs in the world, at over two gallons. According to Hindu and Buddhist stories, the giant, birdlike Garuda fights its eternal enemy, the snakelike Nagas. The Garuda is now the national symbol of Thailand and Indonesia.

When the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 464-425 B.C.E.) visited Egypt, he learned of the sacred bennu bird of Egyptian myth. He called it the phoenix, and wrote that it came to the Egyptian Temple of the Sun once every 500 years. Later writers wrote that every five centuries the phoenix burned in a fire lit by the Sun and then rose to begin life again. Inspired by this tale, many poets and artists have adopted the phoenix as a symbol of renewal and rebirth.

Legend tells us that the manticore was an animal having the head of a man-often with horns-the body of a lion, and the tail of a dragon or scorpion. Although its actual existence seems unlikely, this mysterious monster can be found in a zoology book from 1658! The book describes it as follows: It lives in India, grows to the size of a horse, and feeds exclusively on human flesh.

The manticore is a kind of anthropophagus - a people-eating creature. The book's author did not seem to doubt the manticore's existence. He claims that his account is based on reports from sailors, world travelers, and scientists. Our biology books no longer include the manticore. Too bad. It certainly sounds more interesting than the usual dull reports on the common leech (Fasciola hepatica) from the class of annelid worms (Hirudinea).

Ogres are those really horrible, people-eating figures in fairy tales. After a hard day's work uprooting trees, they stomp into their caves and bawl: "Fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!" They lick their chops and drool all over their double chins.

Creatures like the unicorn and griffin spring from the human imagination to populate myths and legends. And sometimes people can interact with mythic animals when they come to life as part of a play or performance. The hulking, shaggy Barong of Bali, for instance, appears in ritual dramas, lumbering through the crowds, engaging audience members directly and inviting them to take an active part in the myth-making. As villagers participate in Barong's fight against the forces of chaos in the performance, they are assured that calm has been restored and that all is right in the world.

King of the spirits, leader of the forces of good, Barong Ket is like an oversized village guardian for many residents of the island of Bali, Indonesia. When the witch Rangda creates chaos, the lionlike Barong Ket comes to the rescue, fighting off the villains with a ferocious display that brings back a balance between good and evil. But Barong Ket is also mischievous, often teasing and joking with village residents. Most villages in Bali have a Barong costume similar to this one, and young men take theirs on the road to visit other Barong as part of a seasonal celebration. These trips also bring neighboring communities together and allow the young men to meet women outside their village.

Barong Ket

Different regions in Bali have different Barong costumes, each resembling a different animal. Barong Ket resembles a lion, Barong Bangkal a wild boar, Barong Machan a tiger, Barong Lembu a cow and Barong Asu a dog.
  • Barong Ket is the best known kind of Barong because it is from the Gianyar region where the tourist hub of Ubud is located.
  • One dancer is responsible for moving the head and clacking the teeth.
  • A second dancer wiggles Barong's golden tail.
  • Barong costumes may have been inspired by the elaborate costumes of the Chinese Lion and Unicorn Dances.

The best-known Barong performances involve his battles with the demon queen Rangda. These dramas came to the wide attention of Western audiences in the 1930s thanks to noted American Museum of Natural History anthropologist Margaret Mead and her colleague Gregory Bateson. Today, Barong and Rangda battle performances are especially common in parts of Bali, Indonesia, that are frequented by tourists. In the battles, which are at once theater and ritual, neither side ever wins. Instead, the forces of order and chaos remain in balance, reassuring the audience that all is right in the world.

Rangda is the half-goddess, half-witch demon queen of Bali who often battles Barong. Terrifying to behold, she is usually shown as a mostly nude old woman with long, unkempt hair, pendulous breasts, claws, fangs and a long, protruding tongue. The Balinese people believe that by including Rangda in ritual dramas, they hold the dangers of chaos in check.

American Museum of Natural History. Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids is organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with The Field Museum, Chicago; Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau-Ottawa; Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney; and Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta.


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