Mythic Creatures

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Based on the popular American Museum of Natural History traveling exhibition Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, curated by Dr. Mark A. Norell, this stunning volume explores an array of mythological creatures—and the real animals that inspired them. Glowing photos showcase rare objects from around the world, models of mythical beasts, and fossils of actual extinct animals such as the six-foot-tall primate called Gigantopithecus and Aepyornis, a bird that stood over nine feet tall. Also included are maps, drawings, and ephemera from the Middle Ages to modern times, all capturing the origins of legendary animals that continue to thrill, terrify, and enchant us.

Text of Mythic Creatures

  • WATERCreatures of the Deep

    Water beckons us. It is soothing and seductive, but its also

    capable of unleashing deadly force. The mythic creatures that

    inhabit the depths give form to waters essential mysteries.

    They arouse feelings of curiosity, hope . . . and bottomless

    fear. Like water itself, these creatures can be beautiful and

    enticing. But will they share their life-giving bounty? Or

    lure us to destruction?

    MAP OF ICELAND Several sea monsters cavort in the waters

    off Iceland in this 1585 map titled Islandia, drawn by noted

    sixteenth-century Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius

    after a map given to him by a Danish historian, Andreas

    Velleius (Vedel). Shown in the lower left are vaccae marinae,

    the Latin name for sea cows, animals with a horses head

    and a fishs tail. In Greek they are known as hippocampus.

    PART 1

  • SEA MONSTERS

    ZEE MONSTER (Opposite)

    Sea monsters attack a ship

    in this engraving by Dutch

    printmaker Adriaen Collaert,

    c. 159498.

    WHY DO PEOPLE SEE SEA MONSTERS? The open ocean can be a terrifying

    place. Miles from shore on storm-tossed seas, with nothing but water in all

    directionsincluding straight downa sailor or fisherman cannot help but wonder

    what lurks in the depths. When the oceans were still unexplored, these fears often

    took the form of imaginary monsters.

    Many sea monsters include features of living animals. A large tentacle becomes

    part of a monstrous sea serpent or many-armed krakenthe eye sees a fragment,

    the mind fills in the rest. A blend of tall tales, mistaken identity, and resonant

    cultural symbols, stories of sea monsters often reveal more about the minds of the

    imaginers than they do about the natural world.

    Chapter 1

    Below the thunders of the upper deepFar, far beneath in the abysmal sea

    His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleepThe Kraken sleepeth . . .

    There hath he lain for ages and will lie . . . Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;Then once by man and angels to be seen,

    In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson, British poet (180992)

  • 6 MYTHIC CREATURES

    Many-Armed MonsterKrakenThe mythical kraken may be the largest sea monster ever imagined. Some stories

    describe it as more than 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) around with arms as thick and

    long as ship masts. Perhaps based on sightings of giant squid tentacles, this multi-

    armed monster rarely attacked humans, preferring to stay in deep water where it

    feasted on fish. The chief dangers came from being too close when it surfacedor

    too close when it sank, as a boat could be sucked down in the whirlpool created

    when it submerged.

    A MODEL OF THE

    MYTHIC KRAKEN (Left)

    Hundreds of years ago,

    European sailors told of

    a sea monster called the

    kraken that could toss

    ships into the air with its

    many long arms. Today,

    we know sea monsters

    arent realbut a living sea

    animal, the giant squid,

    has ten arms and can grow

    longer than a school bus.

    LE POULE COLOSSAL

    (Opposite) A drawing by

    French naturalist Pierre

    Dnys de Montfort, 1801,

    of a giant octopus-like

    creature attacking a ship off

    the coast of Angola.

    The largest eyes of any living creature: each eye can be as large as a human head

    Sharp, parrotlike beaks provided the first hard proof of their existence. In 1853, a giant squid washed ashore in Denmark and was cut up for bait, but its beak was saved, leading to recognition of the genus Architeuthis in 1857.

    A deep-ocean creature rarely seen near the surface; most sightings are of dying squids or corpses that wash up on shore.

    Their suckers can leave scars on whales.

    Kraken Facts

  • 6 MYTHIC CREATURES

    Many-Armed MonsterKrakenThe mythical kraken may be the largest sea monster ever imagined. Some stories

    describe it as more than 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) around with arms as thick and

    long as ship masts. Perhaps based on sightings of giant squid tentacles, this multi-

    armed monster rarely attacked humans, preferring to stay in deep water where it

    feasted on fish. The chief dangers came from being too close when it surfacedor

    too close when it sank, as a boat could be sucked down in the whirlpool created

    when it submerged.

    A MODEL OF THE

    MYTHIC KRAKEN (Left)

    Hundreds of years ago,

    European sailors told of

    a sea monster called the

    kraken that could toss

    ships into the air with its

    many long arms. Today,

    we know sea monsters

    arent realbut a living sea

    animal, the giant squid,

    has ten arms and can grow

    longer than a school bus.

    LE POULE COLOSSAL

    (Opposite) A drawing by

    French naturalist Pierre

    Dnys de Montfort, 1801,

    of a giant octopus-like

    creature attacking a ship off

    the coast of Angola.

    The largest eyes of any living creature: each eye can be as large as a human head

    Sharp, parrotlike beaks provided the first hard proof of their existence. In 1853, a giant squid washed ashore in Denmark and was cut up for bait, but its beak was saved, leading to recognition of the genus Architeuthis in 1857.

    A deep-ocean creature rarely seen near the surface; most sightings are of dying squids or corpses that wash up on shore.

    Their suckers can leave scars on whales.

    Kraken Facts

    SEA MonSTERS 7

  • 8 MYTHIC CREATURES

    Giant Squid Five hundred years ago, sailors in northern Europe told of an amazing creature: a

    monster bigger than a man with numerous long, snakelike arms covered in suckers

    for grabbing prey. Evidence for this so-called devilfish included bits of giant

    tentacles found in whale stomachs and vicious battle scars left on the skin of whales

    by its suckers and claws. Eventually, in the 1850s, scientists recognized the devilfish

    as an authentic animalthe giant squid.

    In 1873, fishermen presented a squid armsupposedly hacked off the animal

    when it attacked the mens boatto the Reverend Moses Harvey, a prominent

    Canadian naturalist. Harvey wrote about the 5.8-meter (19-foot) long arm:

    I was now the possessor of one of the rarest curiosities in the whole animal kingdomthe veritable tentacle of the hitherto mythical devilfish, about whose existence naturalists had been disputing for centuries. I knew that I held in my hand the key of a great mystery, and that a new chapter would now be added to Natural History.

    GIANT SQUID TENTACLE This jar contains a 2-meter (6-

    foot) section of a tentacle from a giant squid (Architeuthis

    kirkii). The complete specimen was caught by fishermen

    near New Zealand in 1997 and shipped frozen in ice to the

    American Museum of Natural History in New York. The

    entire animal measured 7.5 meters (25 feet), which is not

    even big by giant squid standards: some can grow to 20

    meters (about 70 feet).

    The largest eyes of any living creature: each eye can be as large as a human head

    Sharp, parrotlike beaks provided the first hard proof of their existence. In 1853, a giant squid washed ashore in Denmark and was cut up for bait, but its beak was saved, leading to recognition of the genus Architeuthis in 1857.

    A deep-ocean creature rarely seen near the surface; most sightings are of dying squids or corpses that wash up on shore.

    Their suckers can leave scars on whales.

    The largest eyes of any living creature: each eye can be as large as a human head

    Sharp, parrotlike beaks provided the first hard proof of their existence. In 1853, a giant squid washed ashore in Denmark and was cut up for bait, but its beak was saved, leading to recognition of the genus Architeuthis in 1857.

    A deep-ocean creature rarely seen near the surface; most sightings are of dying squids or corpses that wash up on shore.

    Their suckers can leave scars on whales.

    Giant Squid Facts

  • 8 MYTHIC CREATURES

    Giant Squid Five hundred years ago, sailors in northern Europe told of an amazing creature: a

    monster bigger than a man with numerous long, snakelike arms covered in suckers

    for grabbing prey. Evidence for this so-called devilfish included bits of giant

    tentacles found in whale stomachs and vicious battle scars left on the skin of whales

    by its suckers and claws. Eventually, in the 1850s, scientists recognized the devilfish

    as an authentic animalthe giant squid.

    In 1873, fishermen presented a squid armsupposedly hacked off the animal

    when it attacked the mens boatto the Reverend Moses Harvey, a prominent

    Canadian naturalist. Harvey wrote about the 5.8-meter (19-foot) long arm:

    I was now the possessor of one of the rarest curiosities in the whole animal kingdomthe veritable tentacle of the hitherto mythical devilfish, about whose existence naturalists had been disputing for centuries. I knew that I held in my hand the key of a great mystery, and that a new chapter would now be added to Natural History.

    GIANT SQUID TENTACLE This jar contains a 2-meter (6-

    foot) section of a tentacle from a giant squid (Architeuthis

    kirkii). The complete specimen was caught by fishermen

    near New Zealand in 1997 and shipped frozen in ice to the

    American Museum of Natural History in New York. The

    entire animal measured 7.5 meters (25 feet), which is no