Centuries ago, mythological creatures like unicorns and mermaids were thought to be as real as horses or dolphins. Now that they're more widely accepted as fiction, we can speculate about what inspired faith in the existence of these fantastic animals and beings.
The key word here is speculate. After all, maybe there were vampires hundreds of years ago; we can't know for sure. There probably weren't, though, so scientists, historians, and archaeologists have also looked at the more likely reasons for what inspired belief in these creatures. Below are seven entities whose fantastical reputations have a rational explanation.
For centuries, mermaid sightings were regarded with the same credulity as sightings of any other exotic animal. None other than Christopher Columbus himself even claimed to have seen them; one of his crew recounted how their admiral spotted three mermaids, though they were “not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.”
Many people now attribute these mermaid sightings of the past to manatees. Both manatees and their Pacific cousin, the dugong, have neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their head in a human-like manner, and can sometimes be seen frolicking in the shallows.
For anyone who’s ever seen an actual manatee, it’s hard to believe these creatures could be confused with the distinctly half-human form of a mermaid. From a distance, however, and in the eyes of a lonely sailor, well… people see what they want to.
Fossils really did a number on the ancient Greeks. Really, they had no way to know what they were looking at. Imagine seeing the above skull in ancient Greece and not worrying about one-eyed giants for the rest of your life.
With the nasal cavities often damaged to appear as a single, centralized hole, the skulls of mammoths and mastodons have all the characteristics of the mythological cyclops. In fact, the island of Sicily, where Homer's Odysseus met the famed cyclops Polyphemus, was a hotbed for the fossilized remains of giant, prehistoric elephants.
In Haitian voodoo folklore and written accounts dating back the early twentieth century, witch doctors were said to bring the dead back to life as mindless puppets to do their bidding, usually as free laborers in sugar cane fields.
That’s exactly what Clairvius Narcisse said happened to him. This Haitian man was pronounced dead in 1962 with a burial attended to by his family, but resurfaced 18 years later, claiming to have been zombified and used as a slave. His story attracted media and scientific attention, including from Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis, who suggested another explanation.
In his 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Davis put forth that voodoo victims were poisoned by a neurotoxin that temporarily simulated death by slowing the heart and stiffening the muscles. From there, the witch doctors kept their victims drugged and docile with amnestic drugs.
However, Davis’s clinical analysis received criticism for lacking any real presence of toxins ... and the fascination surrounding zombies persists.
Mummies, obviously, are real; but the monstrous, reanimated mummies seen often in Western fiction are not. The “Curse of the Mummy” was a myth originated by nineteenth century archeologists, and not the ancient Egyptians themselves. The idea behind it–that whomever disturbs the tomb of the mummy receives a fatal curse–is just superstition, but it was inspired and amplified by real-life events.
The most well-known event behind the myth of the mummy's curse was the excavation of King Tut, following which several members of the search party died under abnormal circumstances. However, historians point out that the idea of a mummy’s curse had existed for decades prior to that excavation, the result of the tombs’ written warnings against grave robbers and the Victorians’ infatuation with spiritualism.
What most likely occurred in Tut’s tomb, and in other similar scenarios, was that the search parties were exposed to bacteria, fungus, bat droppings, and the poisonous toxins from the mummification process. Turns out enclosed, millennia-old death chambers aren’t the most hygienic environments.
Every wonder why sea serpents on old maps are drawn as a series of arcs appearing out of the water? How many times have you seen a land snake move like that?
Belief in sea serpents may have been inspired by people seeing schools of dolphins, seals, sea lions, porpoises, waterfowl, etc ... Given the right combination of poor visibility and an active imagination, a string of dolphins jumping out of the water could easily be mistaken for a single, larger-than-life creature.
Long story short, imagine living in B.C.E. times and trying to explain a rhinoceros to someone from halfway around the world who speaks a different language than you.
One of our earliest accounts of unicorns comes from Ctesias, a Greek physician appointed to the royal court of Persia (Iran) in the fifth century, B.C.E. With its central location, Persia brought together both sides of Eurasia, which meant Greeks fraternized with traveling Indians, including sharing stories about their wildlife.
Ctesias wrote about what he called the “Indian ass,” a four-legged beast with a long, single horn that had healing properties. Scholars believe Ctesias’s description was a misinformed amalgamation of several animals foreign to him, especially the Indian rhinoceros.
This myth was also probably accelerated by the fossils of the Elasmotherium, the prehistoric “Siberian rhinoceros.”
Finally, we have a mythological creature that for centuries on end has provided humanity with inspiration for terrifying legends and romantic YA novels.
The vampire is an especially interesting monster because it’s an example of how multiple real-life events can inspire one creature with seemingly incongruous and contrasting traits. For instance, how strange is it that the vampire—an immortal demigod—was believed to be undone by garden-variety garlic?
Vampires may have been inspired in part by premature burials in the past, when unfortunate people were mistakenly taken for dead. Upon exhuming these bodies following reports of the undead, people occasionally found markings such as nail scratches on the inside of the coffin—if the person didn’t actually make it out alive and scare villagers outright. Add to that the popularity of grave robbers, and you have sufficient grounds for the belief that sometimes the dead don’t stay dead.
Then there’s the natural decomposition process. In the early stages of decomposition, the gums recede first, as does the skin around the fingernails. These can give an otherwise human-looking corpse the appearance of having fangs and claws.
Throw in some good ol’ fashioned human superstition, and you have a story scary enough for generations of parents to terrify their kids.
Feature photo of mermaid via Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash.