Mythical creatures and real animals

Manatees and their relativesFrom LiveScience:

The Surprising Realities of Mythical Creatures

By Ker Than, LiveScience Staff Writer

posted: 23 May 2007 09:58 pm ET

NEW YORK-While sailing the ocean near Haiti, Christopher Columbus in 1493 reported seeing three mermaids from a distance. The Genoese explorer was not impressed.

Up close, the sea maidens were “not as pretty as they are depicted,” he wrote in his journal, “for somehow in the face they look like men.”

Many scientists now think that what Columbus probably saw was a manatee, an aquatic mammal that resembles a flippered hippo.

In a new exhibition opening at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) here this weekend, viewers can digitally superimpose the picture of a mermaid atop that of a manatee and see how Columbus and countless other sailors might have been fooled.

Entitled Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, the exhibition traces the possible origins of some of the world’s most famous “imaginary” beasts and also their lesser-known counterparts.

Nature and myth

“This museum has a long history of studying and presenting great stories about the natural world and the culture of humanity,” said AMNH president Ellen Futter at a press preview of the exhibition earlier this week.

“In this exhibition, we extend that tradition further, by looking at the intersection of nature and culture, those moments when people glimpse something fantastical in nature.”

The exhibition deftly combines nature and myth, paleontology and anthropology, and delightfully campy models of mythical creatures with real fossils.

Upon first entering the exhibition, visitors are greeted by a 17-foot-long, green, European dragon; of the sort that legend says Saint George slew.

Its sinuous and colorful Chinese counterpart hangs from the ceiling in one of the last rooms of the exhibition.

In the mythical water-creatures section, large tentacles and the head of a giant squid-inspired kraken rise from the floor, its body mostly hidden. …

Visitors can touch a real narwhal [see also here] tusk, which for centuries many Europeans accepted as proof of the unicorn’s existence.

Or glimpse the beaked skull of a protoceratop[s] dinosaur, one of the fossil animals that practically litter the Gobi Desert even today, and which traders long ago might have mistaken for the remains of a griffin-a mythical creature with the head and forelimbs of an eagle and the body of a lion.

The exhibition makes a convincing argument for why the same creatures pop up in the stories of cultures separated by great spans of time and distance.

Mermaids, for example, were probably born in the minds of lonely European sailors, and as their boats touched shore around the world, the image of the half-woman, half-fish creature spread, often becoming intermixed with local beliefs.

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