Monday, January 28, 2013

History Mystery: The Extraordinary Creatures of Myth and Legend

The Sphinx and the Minotaur, Centaurs and Gorgons, dragons and unicorns- ancient mythology and medieval fables are teeming with strange creatures. Who created the often terrifying and repellent beings that haunt our dreams, and why? Where does the Sphinx come from? How did the Sirens and centaurs come into being, and how was the Hydra created? How are the Gorgons and the Minotaur related? And why did our distant ancestors invent such bizarre creatures?

The origins of many of these mythological creatures lie with the wealth of stories told by the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians. We owe their survival largely to the Greeks, who included these fabulous tales in the mythological structure of their world and passed them on to Western civilization. The creatures that feature in these stories all have one thing in common: each is a hybrid, or a creature born out of the union of two different beings. What is unthinkable in nature is made possible through the divine origin of their creators.

Greek mythology is full of such hybrids, who were conceived by the various deities or by their descendants. Thus the old sea god Phorcys and his sister, the sea monster Ceto, produced Echidna, a creature half nymph and half serpent. Echidna herself gave birth to other monsters: the three headed dog Cerberus, who guarded the gats of the underworld; the Hydra, a nine headed water snake with the body of a hound, who lived in the swamps of Lerna; the Chimaera, a fire spitting monster, part lion, part goat and part snake; and the Sphinx, who, unlike the celebrated stone Sphinx of Egypt, was a female creature with the face of a woman, the body of a lion and bird’s wing. Certainly no less horrible were Echidna’s three sisters, the Gorgons the most famous of who was Medusa. The Gorgons had golden wings and hands of bronze; each had a long red tongue handing from her mouth and their canine teeth resembled those of a wild boar. Instead of hair, a repulsive nest of living snakes writhed around their heads and anyone who gazed upon their grotesque faces was instantly turned to stone.

The ancient Greeks regarded the Sirens maidens with the bodies of birds, who are enticing singing lured seamen to their doom, as the three daughters of the river god Achelous and one of the three Muses. The centaurs, which combine the upper body of a man with a horses’ torso and legs, were fathered by Apollo’s son, Centauros, with the obliging co operation of a herd of mares. According to myth, human beings have played an important role in the procreation of hybrid creatures. Thus, the famous and feared Minotaur, a human with the head of a bull, was born out of the union of Pasiphae, the wife of the Cretan King Minos, and a white bull sent by the sea god, Poseidon.