monsters and imaginary beasts

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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 or of human beings and animals. Among the animal composites are the Indian winged elephants, horses, and lions; the Greek three-headed dog CerberusCerberus
, in Greek mythology, many-headed dog with a mane and a tail of snakes; offspring of Typhon and Echidna. He guarded the entrance of Hades. One of the 12 labors of Hercules was to capture him.
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; the Western European griffingriffin,
in ancient and medieval legend, creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Its name also appears as griffon and gryphon. The griffin originated in ancient Middle Eastern legend and is often found in Persian sculpture and the decorative arts.
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, with an eagle's head and wings and a goat's body; the dragondragon,
mythical beast usually represented as a huge, winged, fire-breathing reptile. For centuries the dragon has been prominent in the folklore of many peoples; thus, its physical characteristics vary greatly and include combinations of numerous animals.
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, with a winged reptilian body and fiery breath; and the Chimera, with a lion's head, goat's body, and dragon's tail. Examples of human-animal composites abound in Greek mythology: the TritonTriton,
in Greek mythology, son of Poseidon. He was a creature of the sea, the upper half of his body being human, the lower fishlike. Later legends speak of many Tritons, sometimes described as riding over the sea on horses. Tritons characteristically blew trumpets of conch shells.
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, with a man's head and torso and a sea-serpent's tail; the SirenSiren
, in Greek mythology, one of three sea nymphs, usually represented with the head of a woman and the body of a bird. Daughters of Phorcus or of Achelous, the Sirens inhabited an island surrounded by dangerous rocks.
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, with a woman's head and a bird's body or a woman's head and torso and a fish's tail; the satyrsatyr
, in Greek mythology, part bestial, part human creature of the forests and mountains. Satyrs were usually represented as being very hairy and having the tails and ears of a horse and often the horns and legs of a goat.
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, with a man's head and torso, a ram's horns, legs, and hooves, and a horse's ears and tail; the sphinxsphinx
, mythical beast of ancient Egypt, frequently symbolizing the pharaoh as an incarnation of the sun god Ra. The sphinx was represented in sculpture usually in a recumbent position with the head of a man and the body of a lion, although some were constructed with rams'
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, with a woman's head and bust and a lion's body; and the centaurcentaur
, in Greek mythology, creature, half man and half horse. The centaurs were fathered by Ixion or by Centaurus, who was Ixion's son. Followers of Dionysus, they were uncouth and savage, but some, such as Chiron, became friends and teachers of men.
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, 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 vampiresvampire,
in folklore, animated corpse that sucks the blood of humans. Belief in vampires has existed from the earliest times and has given rise to an amalgam of legends and superstitions.
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. Equally grisly and widespread is the werewolf legend (see lycanthropylycanthropy
, in folklore, assumption by a human of the appearance and characteristics of an animal. Ancient belief in lycanthropy was widespread, and it still exists in parts of the world.
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), 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 unicornunicorn
, fabulous equine beast with a long horn jutting from the middle of its forehead. Once thought to be native to India, the unicorn was reportedly seen throughout the world. It was often considered as a composite creature, having the features of various animals.
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, a medieval European symbol of chastity and the power of love; in Mesopotamia, winged bulls with a human's head were protective spirits. The indigenous peoples of North America, particularly the Eskimo, 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" are the subject of tall talestall tale,
extravagantly and humorously exaggerated story of the backwoods exploits of an American frontiersman. Originating in the 1820s, the genre remained popular well into the 20th cent.
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. These include the prock, also called the sidehill dodger, the gwinter, the wampus, and a host of other names, an animal that has shorter legs on one side so that it can maintain its balance as it grazes on steep mountainsides, and the augerino, an underground creature of dry regions in Colorado that lets the water out of irrigation ditches. Legendary monsters and beasts, which appear to be a feature common to all cultures, are the subject of considerable scholarly study.


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).

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