Do you ever wonder where our ancestors got the idea for certain cryptids? What was the inspiration for the unicorn or the Greek cyclops? And what did that Victorian man do to the poor platypus?
Read on to find out!
First, the unicorn. Before it became the ubiquitous glitter-covered icon that it is today, unicorns enjoyed a long and strange history in folklore. Unicorns have appeared in Mesopotamia, India, and China. However, they reached the West via Ancient Greece and Rome.
Historians believe that the description by Ctesias in 400 BCE was actually of an Indian rhinoceros, distorted by second-hand tales passed around the world.
Unicorns became associated with Christianity in the Middle Ages, where they symbolized purity and healing. Wealthy people of the era drank from vessels made of “unicorn horn” to protect themselves against poison and disease. The horn is likely to have been rhino or narwhal, but don’t tell them that.
The most famous pre-Lisa Frank depiction of these majestic cryptids is found in The Hunt of the Unicorn, a collection of magnificent French tapestries from the 15th century. It depicts the hunting of a wild white unicorn who can only be tamed by using an innocent virgin woman as bait.
While it’s likely that ancient reports of unicorns were mixed up accounts of real animals, like rhinos or antelopes, there is fossil evidence of a real-life creature that fits the bill. The Siberian unicorn roamed Russia as recently as 29,000 years ago. The shaggy-haired, snub-nosed beast stood about six and a half feet tall and weighed four tons. Not exactly a vision of sparkles and rainbows, but it’s the closest thing we have to a real unicorn.
Tragically, it’s much easier to track to the origins of the Greek Cyclops. In myth, these humanoid creatures towered over mortal men, their single eye and brutish strength making them monstrous. Hesiod described the Cylcopes as the children of the Titans who later labored in the forges of Haephestus. By the time Homer’s Odyssey rolled around, the cyclopes were a race of brutish shepherds that Odysseus tricked and eventually defeated.
The legend of these cryptids lived on throughout Greek and Roman mythology. But where did they come from? The answer is simple: elephants.
Specifically, elephant skulls. See, elephant trunks have no bones, only cartilage. And with the tusks either broken or removed, the massive skulls look a lot like an oversized human with one giant eye. Dwarf elephants once populated Italy and Greece, and it’s certain that the ancient civilizations there would have stumbled upon the mysterious skulls.
Even if you’ve seen a live platypus in person, they don’t quite seem real. The bizarre animal–technically, an echinoderm, or egg-laying mammal–is found in Australia.
In addition to the duck bill and webbed feet, it also has poison spurs. You’d be forgiven if you assumed that the creature was actually a hoax.
That’s exactly what British zoologist George Shaw thought when the first stuffed specimen was brought back to England. He tried to rip off the beak, assuming that the animal was a wolpertinger, a monster made by a skilled taxidermist using parts from multiple species.
When the beak wouldn’t come off, he seized a pair of scissors and tried to take the stuffed and mounted platypus apart to prove it was a fake. Eventually, his colleagues were able to stop him. You can still see that platypus on display at the British Museum.