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Web Hunt: Behind Mythic Creatures

By Joy Brewster | May 2006
Laurel Kendall is an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History (Photo Credit: © AMNH / Craig Chesek)
Laurel Kendall is an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History (Photo Credit: © AMNH / Craig Chesek)

Dragons. Unicorns. Mermaids. For thousands of years, these creatures have been the subjects of myths and legends across the globe. They're also a few of the stars in a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. Why would a natural history museum feature an exhibition about fantastic, make-believe characters? Even though mythic creatures aren't "real," they tell us a lot about the cultures that created them. Some also have very real connections to the natural world, since many creatures were inspired by real animals or fossils. Explore just a few mythic creatures from cultures around the world.

1. For more than a thousand years, European sailors traveling the world claimed to spot mermaids during their voyages. Draw a picture of a mermaid below. What real ocean animal might sailors have seen? 

2. In the West, the ancient Greeks were the first to tell stories about the unicorn. These legends spread throughout Europe, where unicorns appeared in art and writing. Explain why Mary Queen of Scots carried a horn she said was from a unicorn. What kind of horn might Queen Mary have really carried? What other kinds of horns might ancient sailors have found and sold as unicorn horns?

3. Ancient tales of dragons have been told all over the world. But people in different parts of the world have different ideas about the dragon. First, read about the Chinese Dragon. What does the dragon symbolize in Chinese traditions? Next, read about the Red Dragon of Wales, a sculpture made especially for Queen Elizabeth II. What does the dragon symbolize in Britain?

4. One of the most famous sculptures in the world is the Great Sphinx in ancient Egypt. Describe what this sphinx looks like. What does this mythic creature represent?

5. Hinduism and Buddhism share some of the same mythic creatures. One example is Garuda, the Bird of Life. Describe Garuda's face and body. Who might have worn the pendant shown in the image?

6. Check out What's This? to see a mystery photo from the American Museum of Natural History. Long ago, sailors who found the long, spiral tusks of this animal believed they were unicorn horns. Can you guess what it is?

BONUS: More Myths From Around the World

Read about a few more mythic creatures in Myths From Around the World.

a) Read an ancient myth of India. What animal shape did the monster Mahisha take? Describe the goddess who defeated him.

b) Describe Hydra, a creature in the ancient Greek myth about Heracles.

Now create your own myth with the Myths Brainstorming Machine. You can choose a god or goddess, a monster, and a natural setting for your myth. Once you make your picture, click on the idea outline to see the name and description of each creature. Then write your own myth to support the picture.