A new Cleveland Museum of Natural History exhibit explores the origins of legendary creatures. Cyrus Taylor
Mythological Creatures permeate popular culture, from Disney's The Little Mermaid to tales of monsters mutilating farm animals. Opening March 3, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids delves into the natural and cultural forces that shaped mythological beings, according to Michael Ryan, the museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology. "We draw upon some of the creatures in the original Clash of the Titans," he says, "and show what the historical and natural history basis would be for some of those things."
Zoologist Carl Linnaeus included this giant squidlike sea monster, fabled to have swallowed entire ships, in the first edition of his Systema Naturae. It's possible that this myth was inspired by real giant squids. "These things wash up on shores periodically," Ryan says. "When you stretch out the entire body, some of these things are 20 or 30 feet."
Greek poet Homer describes a giant with a single eye in the middle of its forehead in his epic poem, The Odyssey. Ryan says it's possible that the description of the Cyclops is inspired by elephant skulls. "It's quite true that if you look at an elephant skeleton and you didn't know where the eye socket would be, you'd think that there's this big dent in the middle [where the trunk connects] where one single eye could actually fit."
The bodies of eight sheep, all drained of blood, found in Puerto Rico were popularly attributed to the chupacabra, or the "goat-sucker." Reports of other attacks were soon reported in Mexico and the southwestern United States. Ryan says the spread of this emerging mythos is due to the mingling of cultures. "I think as we've seen more Hispanics moving to the U.S. and making their lives up here, the myth is being imported."
Sailors often mistook manatees, which have highly specialized arms that they use to steer, for the mythical mermaids, especially in deep or murky water. "One thing that the human species does is try to interpret its environment," Ryan says. "When you go back hundreds of years, people didn't have the same tools to understand what was going on around them. So they mixed stories and observation to try to explain what they didn't understand."