What do faeries, unicorns, dragons and mermaids have in common? Well, naturally they are all mythical creatures found in many folk and fairy tales. More than this, however, they are all creatures that might be considered liminal, or inhabiting a borderland between the gods and humans, or between good and evil.
Mythology is largely concerned with divine beings, usually called gods and goddesses. There are also demigods, such as Hercules, who had a god (Zeus) for a father and a human mother. Monotheistic religions, of course, later replaced the many gods with one God. Yet, interestingly enough, in places where belief in creatures like faeries was strong, such as Ireland, the new religion did not diminish this belief at all. Faeries were often relegated to a kind of "in between" (i.e. liminal) status, neither entirely good but certainly not evil the way demons are. To be sure, faeries in the Celtic lands were often feared, but more in the way wild animals are.
The attitude was something along the lines of "don't mess with them."
Many other supernatural creatures have a frightful aspect. Ghosts, zombies, demons and vampires, for example, are now popular subjects for horror films. Yet they all have a colorful history of scaring people in many parts of the world. The Little Folk, as the faeries are sometimes called, on the other hand, are much more ambiguous. They can, to be sure, do things that are outright nasty, as when they steal babies or lure people into worlds where they (the humans, that is) emerge many years later in human time. But for the most part, faeries exist independently of the human realm. They are not seen as existing primarily to menace us. Or to benefit us, for that matter.
Dragons are another interesting species of mythic creature with a varied and checkered history. In European tales, the dragon was usually a fearful and malevolent creature. Knights could demonstrate their bravery by slaying one of these monsters. Tolkien continued this portrayal of dragons as evil beings, with his own mythology. Bilbo and his friends have a perilous encounter with a nasty dragon in The Hobbit.
Chinese dragons, on the other hand, were considered in a much more positive light. While still potentially frightening, the dragon in ancient China was a regal symbol of strength and vitality. There is even a sign in the Chinese zodiac for the dragon, and people born in dragon years are highly respected. Today, many people in the West are rediscovering the positive attributes of dragons. Their popularity is perhaps only rivaled by that of their Otherworldly cousins, the fae. Dragons are starting to be seen as a protective symbol.
There are other magical creatures who seem to defy easy classification (as in "good" or "bad"). Mermaids, while probably a kind of faery, probably deserve a category of their own since so many stories have been told of them. Mermaids are fascinating creatures who can, like any faeries, be dangerous, especially to those who fall in love with them! As for unicorns, these are probably the most benevolent of the magical beings discussed here. I can't recall a story of an evil unicorn. Unicorns seem more ephemeral than anything else. They simply appear in and out of stories, with little if any descriptions of their origin.
All of these "liminal" magical creatures never fade from popular awareness. The form they take over the centuries may vary, but they seem to be embedded into our consciousness. Some would say the inhabit an archetypal realm. In any case, they obviously serve a need for mystery and enchantment, even in our own technological and scientific age. Perhaps we especially need them now to balance things out and remind us that everything cannot be explained rationally.
Popular Mythical Creatures
Popular mythical creatures appear repeatedly in literature around the world and in movies, advertisements, video games and modern books in many cultures. See below for some of the more popular mythical creatures.
Animal Symbols: Centaur
Centaurs are symbols meaning virility and eminence on the field of battle. Centaurs are mythical half-man, half-horse creatures. Images of centaurs date back to ancient Assyria and Persia, approximately 2,500 BC. In Greek mythology, Chiron fathered a race of centaurs who were studious and sober. In contrast with this, most centaurs were drunken and vicious towards humans. These contradictory views of centaurs are included even in recent books such as the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. In these books, some centaurs are dangerous towards humans while a select few are wise and kind, with exemplary skill in astrology and predicting future events.
Animal Symbols: Dragon
Dragons are symbols meaning future growth and expansion. The dragon is most useful in connection with fame, reputation and career. When the dragon symbol is applied in feng shui, the most effective placement is in the fame area of a home or in connection with a home office.
An impressive representation of a dragon can be of tremendous positive benefit. Dragons are one of the most complex and universal symbols on earth. Learn more about dragon symbolism. The dragon is also one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Learn more about the dragon in Chinese animal symbolism. Learn more about Chinese astrological symbols.
Animal Symbols: Griffin
The griffin is a symbol meaning one who refuses to be taken captive at all costs. The griffin is a mythical creature with a lion's body and the wings and head of an eagle. The griffin is a symbol of both dominion and destruction. In christian symbolism, Christ is compared to both the lion and the eagle. Thus, the griffin became a symbol of Christ, particularly used by Dante. In medieval scripture, however, the griffin symbolized the devil due to its purported ability to swoop down and carry off animals and humans. Eventually the griffin became a symbol of valor and magnanimity due to the inherent characteristics of the lion and the eagle. The griffin became an emblem of nobility and was depicted in the coat of arms of many noble families in Europe.
Animal Symbols: Hydra
The hydra is a symbol meaning the conquest of a very powerful enemy. The hydra is a many-headed water serpent with the ability to regrow a head (or two) if it is severed. The hydra generally has nine heads and poisonous breath.
Hercules defeated the hydra as the second labor of his Twelve Labors. The hydra was a guardian of an underwater entrance to the Underworld. The hydra was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna, both fearsome monsters in Greek mythology.
Animal Symbols: Mermaid
The mermaid is a symbol meaning eloquence and temptation. Beautiful mermaids--half woman, half fish--would sit on rocks and comb their long, beautiful hair to attract the attention of sailors. The danger of drowning, however, if one succumbed to the charms of a mermaid was the price that likely would be paid.
Mermaids became a symbol of potent female energy. The medieval church used the mermaid as a symbol of the dangerous allure of fleshly pleasures. The earliest known mermaid was Atargatis, a Semetic moon goddess depicted with a tail.
Animal Symbols: Phoenix
The phoenix is a symbol meaning immortality and self-renewal due to its ability to be born again as an egg after burning completely in the fires of purification. The phoenix also has the ability to regenerate itself when wounded. The Greek author Flavius Philostratus considered the phoenix to be an emanation of sunlight. His views of the phoenix as a bird in size and appearance similar to eagle are believed to be inspired by Guruda, the bird of the Indian God Vishna. Learn more about the phoenix.
Animal Symbols: Sphinx
The sphinx is a symbol meaning vigilance, ever gazing eastward from its most famous position at the base of the pyramids. This mythological part-animal, part-human form appeared first in ancient Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. With a human head and lion's body, the sphinx represented both power and intelligence.
During the Renaissance, the sphinx was regarded in a more negative light. Mysterious, yes, but also ignorant, evil, senseless and monstrous. The sphinx was thought to devour those who could not answer her riddle: "What goes on four feet, on two feet and on three?"
Answer: A human--a child crawls on four limbs, then walks on two feet, then supports itself with a cane in old age.
Animal Symbols: Unicorn
The unicorn is a symbol meaning magic, mystery and beauty. Unicorns have a place in Greek mythology, Chinese traditions, in the art of the Indus Valley and India. The unicorn became a religious symbol in the art of the Middle Ages. The original tale was that a beautiful maiden representing the Virgin Mary managed to trap a unicorn, whereupon the unicorn became tame and lay its head in her lap. Learn more about the unicorn in our article The Symbolism of Unicorns.
The Mythical Figures and Beasts of Ancient Greece
By Richard Monk
Ancient Greece is a uniquely preserved culture we know much about through study and research. Greek mythical figures and beasts played a pivotal role in Greek society and folklore at that time.
While gods and goddesses may have been the most important beings in Greek mythology, there were many other characters that were essential to these tales. Mortals were very important in Greek myths; without them, there would be no one for the gods and goddesses to “play with”. Also integral were Greek mythical figures – these fantasy animals and partially human beings served a vital role in the myths that were told during this time.
One of the most talked about mythical figures of all time has to be Medusa. Depicted as a woman with snakes on her head instead of hair, the story of Medusa begins with a mortal woman. It is said that Medusa was so beautiful as a young girl, her looks enchanted Poseidon, and turned his attention away from Athena. This angered Athena so much that she changed Medusa into a gorgon, a mythical beast with snakes for hair and a face so hideous that it turned anyone who looked at it into stone. This was not enough revenge for Athena, and later she guided Perseus to find Medusa and kill her.
Another of the major Greek mythical beasts was Cerberus, the three-headed dog. This animal was the offspring of Typhoeus (an immortal storm giant) and Echidna, a monster that was half human and half snake. Cerberus had three dog heads, a snake's tail, and snakes protruding from its monstrous back. Cerberus's position was at the entrance to the underworld, where he allowed the dead to enter but not to leave. Only a few living mortals were ever able to get past Cerberus, including Orpheus, who charmed him to sleep with music.
A final look at Greek mythical beasts comes up with Hecatoncheires, literally translated as the “hundred handed”. Three of these existed, named Aegaeon, Cottus, and Gyges. Born to Gaea and Uranus, they hated their father so much that Uranus was forced to imprison the Hecatoncheires back into Gaea's womb. They were later released by Zeus, when he was fighting against the Titans; they were able to hurl a hundred boulders at a time at their opponents.
There were many lesser Greek mythical figures and beasts as well, and there was a definite hierarchy among the different mythical characters. These animals and sometimes human hybrids made up the majority of the story lines that went along with the gods and goddesses.
More Information on Mythical Creatures
For more information on mythical creatures, see these books on Amazon:
The Mythical Creatures Bible: The Definitive Guide to Legendary Beings
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures
Field Guide to Fantastic Creatures
The Mythic Bestiary: The Illustrated Guide to the World's Most Fantastical Creatures
More Information on Fairies
For more information on faires, see these recommended books on Amazon:
Enchantment of the Faerie Realm: Communicate with Nature Spirits & Elementals
In the Land of Fairies
Healing with the Fairies: Messages, Manifestations and Love from the World of the Fairies
More Information on Dragons, Mermaids and Unicorns
For more information on dragons, mermaids and unicorns, see these books:
Dragonology: The Complete Book of Dragons
How to Draw Fairies and Mermaids
The Wonder of Unicorns
More Information on Greek Mythology
For more information on mythical creatures in Greek mythology, see these books:
Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths
Tales of the Greek Heroes
Greek Myths for Young Children
100 Characters from Classical Mythology: Fascinating Stories of the Greek and Roman Deities
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