Razor-toothed predators, fearsome sea creatures and gargantuan birds of prey. These fiendish beings often started out as spooky myths and tall tales whispered between mariners and travelers, but over time some of them found their way into ancient natural histories and medieval “bestiaries” of bizarre animals. From birds of prey with fearsome strength to rooster-snake hybrids capable of killing with their eyes, find out more about six legendary beasts from history.
Maritime lore is filled with tales of vicious sea serpents and scaly-skinned fish men, but few creatures of the deep have struck fear into sailors’ hearts like the mighty kraken. Tracing its origins back to a giant fish from Norse mythology called the hafgufa, the kraken first entered popular folklore as a titanic octopus or squid spotted by fishermen off the coasts of Norway and Greenland. One 18th century account by Bishop Erik Pontoppidan described it as a squid-like beast so large that when any part of its body stuck out of the water it resembled a floating island. The kraken supposedly used its many tentacles to ensnare ships’ masts and drag them to the icy depths, but it could also create a deadly whirlpool just by submerging itself underwater. Tales of the kraken’s wrath might be embellished, but the creature itself is not entirely fanciful. The legend may have been inspired by sightings of actual giant squid, and some paleontologists have argued that the prehistoric oceans were once home to 100-foot-long cephalopods that fed on whale-sized Ichthyosaurs.
An intimidating blend of two different predators, the griffin was said to possess the body and back legs of a lion as well as the wings, beak and talons of a hawk or eagle. Tales of the flying behemoths most likely originated in the Middle East, but they later became a popular motif in ancient Greek literature. The griffin legend was later picked up in the 14th century in a largely fictional travelogue by Sir John Mandeville, who described the creatures as “more strong than eight lions” and “a hundred eagles.” Griffins were revered for their intelligence and dedication to monogamy—they supposedly mated for life—but they could also be ferocious. The beasts ripped flesh with their razor sharp talons, and they were also known to fly their victims to great heights before dropping them to their deaths. According to researcher Adrienne Mayor, legends of the griffin could be inspired by early encounters with dinosaur fossils. Scythian nomads in central Asia may have stumbled across the bones of the dinosaur protoceratops and mistook them for a bird-like creature, resulting in the myth of a terrifying flying beast.
One of the most forbidding of all mythical creatures, the manticore was a bloodthirsty quadruped that supposedly sported the head of a blue-eyed man, the auburn body of a lion and the stinging tail of a scorpion. The legend of this deadly hybrid first began with Greek authors such as Ctesias, who chronicled it in a book about India. Ctesias and others described the manticore as having three rows of teeth like a shark and a tuneful bellow that sounded like a trumpet. Most terrifying of all, it had an insatiable appetite for human flesh. After using its blistering speed to chase down its prey, the beast was said to slash at them with its claws or sting them with its tail before devouring them bones and all. According to Ctesias, the manticore was even capable of paralyzing or killing its victims from a distance by firing stingers from its tail “as if from a bow.”
Accounts of the fearsome basilisk date back to the first century Roman writer Pliny the Elder, whose famous “Natural History” included entries on fantastical creatures and exotic races of deformed men. Pliny described the basilisk as a snake-like animal with markings on its head that resembled a crown, but by the Middle Ages it had morphed into a fiendish serpent with the head of a rooster and the wings of a dragon or bat. The basilisk was said to possess a deadly bite and venomous breath, but it could also kill a man just by looking at him. Would-be basilisk hunters countered this death stare by carrying mirrors in the hope that the creature would meet its own gaze and drop dead, but they also enlisted the help of weasels, which were believed to be immune to its poison. The basilisk supposedly originated in North Africa, but tales of European encounters with it are found throughout the Middle Ages. One particularly dubious account from 1587 in Poland describes how a man clad in a mirror-covered leather suit hunted and captured a basilisk after it killed two small girls and a nursemaid.
Along with legends of grotesque monsters and sea creatures, ancient and medieval travelers often returned to Europe with tales of so-called “wild men” living in the unmapped regions of Asia and Africa. One of the most unusual groups was the Blemmyae, a race of hairy primitives who lacked heads but had a face situated in their upper body. The tribe first appeared in Herodotus’s “The Histories,” where they were described as a species of “headless men” from North Africa “who have their eyes in their chests.” References to the Blemmyae or creatures like them later cropped up in writings by Pliny the Elder, the reports of Sir Walter Raleigh and even in Shakespeare’s “Othello.” Their exotic appearance served as an object of both fascination and disgust for Europeans, and they became a common motif in folklore and art in the pre-Enlightenment era. Other famous “wild men” included the Sciopodes, who had a single leg with a foot so large it could double as a parasol; the cannibalistic Anthropophagi; and the Cynocephali, a race of creatures with the bodies of men and the heads of dogs.
A popular myth among travelers and merchants, the roc was a giant bird of prey rumored to be so strong that it could snatch an elephant from the ground. Stories of the giant fowls originated in Arabic fairytales and mythology before making their way to the West in accounts by travelers like Marco Polo, who noted that the roc’s preferred hunting method was to drop its victims from deadly heights and then “prey upon the carcass.” The Moroccan wanderer Ibn Batutta later wrote that he once confused a roc for a floating mountain because of its size, and other legends stated that its wingspan—typically described as being about 50 feet—was so huge that it could blot out the sun. Researchers have since suggested that the roc legend may be partially inspired by sightings of so-called “elephant birds,” a species of massive, flightless birds that existed in Madagascar until as recently as the 17th century.