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Monsters And Imaginary Beasts

The mythologies and legends of ancient and modern cultures teem with an enormous variety of monsters and imaginary beasts. A great number of these are composites of different existing animals and of human beings and animals. Among the animal composites are the Babylonian winged bulls and leopards; the Hindu winged elephants; the Greek three-headed dog Cerberus ; the Western European griffin , with a lion's body and eagle's wings; the dragon , with a winged reptilian body and fiery breath; and the Chimera, with a goat's body, lion's head, and lizard's tail. Examples of human-animal composites abound in Greek mythology; the Triton , with a man's head and torso and a sea-serpent's tail; the Siren , with a woman's head and a bird's body or a woman's head and torso and a fish's tail; the satyr , with a man's head and torso, a ram's horns, legs, and hooves, and a horse's ears and tail; the sphinx , with the body of a lion and a woman's head and bust; and the centaur , with a man's head and torso and a horse's body. Most such creatures represent evil or at least mischievous forces. The restless souls of the living dead are embodied, in ubiquitous legends, by vampires . Equally grisly and widespread is the werewolf legend (see lycanthropy ), in which a man is transformed by night into a wolf that devours human beings. A few imaginary creatures are benign, e.g., the gentle unicorn , a medieval European symbol of chastity and the power of love. The Native North Americans, particularly the Eskimo, who have no epic hero, have created a vast panorama of monsters, ogres, bodiless heads, cannibal mothers, and semihuman beasts. The Zuñi and Pueblo peoples respect many beasts that are considered curers of illness, guardians, and intercessors. Most of these spirits are associated with actual animals. In the folklore of the United States a host of fantastic, impossible “fearsome critters” have been developed. There are the prock, also called the sidehill dodger or the gwinter, an animal with shorter legs on one side that enable it to keep its balance while feeding on steep mountains; the augerino, an underground creature in Colorado that lets the water out of irrigation ditches; and the glitch of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., that is responsible for general chaos. Legendary monsters and beasts, which appear to be a feature common to all cultures, are the subject of considerable scholarly study.

Bibliography: See S. Thompson, Tales of the North American Indians (1929); R. Barber and A. Riches, A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts (1972); B. Evslin, Monsters of Mythology (25 vol., 1987-90).

Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, Copyright (c) 2004.

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