An Exhibition of Mythic Proportions

A friend visited from Boston this past weekend, so we took a jaunt into The City on Saturday. Our prime destination was the American Museum of Natural History where Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids is now playing as a special exhibition.
The imaginary bestiary was entertaining and informative. The basis of myth was explored nicely, and provided testament to the power of human imagination when confronted with natural phenomenon. A seventeen-foot winged green dragon greeted us at the entry, and a plethora of dragon, unicorn and mermaid flavored tchotckes awaited the unsuspecting as they exited. The exhibition was divided into Creatures of the Deep, Creatures of the Earth, Creatures of the Sky, and Dragons – Creatures of Power.

Manatees fueled mermaid mythologies, and the tales from sailors spread into other cultures, sort of like a meme. The African Mami Wata has her origins in the tales of European sailors. Others, like the sirens and Irish mermaids wre likely tricks of the eye coupled with fear or stress. One of the weirdest items in the Creatures of the Deep section was the Feejee mermaid. P.T Barnum created this hoax by art of taxidermy: the head and torso of a monkey were sewn onto the tail of a fish. Yummy!
John Smith, the British explorer of Pocohantas fame, claimed to have seen a mermaid. It was probably a manatee. He said it was “by no means unattractive.” Mr. Smith obviously had been away from female company for a very, very long time.
The origins of the griffin are thought to derive from the bones of Protoceratops. Similarly, fossils may have given rise to the legend of the Cyclops (dwarf elephant skulls in the Mediterranean region), Greek titans/giants (again, fossil mammal bones) and European dragons (woolly rhino skull as a “dragon’s head”).
Not surprisingly, much of the imagery surrounding mythic creatures is awash with religious belief and other cultural influences. The European dragon was viewed as a source of evil and corruption, and often played into the whole Satan as serpent mythology. Typically, a virtuous warrior slew the dragon who invariably loved to snack on virgins. Plenty of Christian imagery there. In contrast, the Chinese dragon symbolized power, and affected the seasons and movements of water. The Asian dragon embodied the yang, the masculine principle of heat, light, and action. Again, discovery of the large bones of prehistoric animals fueled the myths of both European and Asian dragons.
A couple of my favorite mythic critters were the Japanese kappa and the mishepishu, the water panther of the Great Lakes. The kappa invites its victims to play “pull my finger” then yanks them into the water and devours them. The kappa loves cucumbers and can be distracted by them, foregoing human flesh for the cukes. Cucumber sushi rolls, kappa maki, are named for this water monster. The mishepishu may have been born out of fear of the big storms that hit Lake Superior, that is, the mishepishu is a water spirit that must be appeased. Don Jordan offers an interesting interpretation of the mishepishu image as graffiti: Rock Art, Scent Mark. The Creation Wiki (sorry, I will not deign to provide a link to this abomination) uses the painting of Mishepishu on Agawa Rock as “evidence” that dinosaurs and humans co-existed.
Overall, it was a cool way to illustrate the rational underpinnings of myth, and to underscore the ability of human culture to spread and distort tales of tricky observations.
See also the
The Surprising Realities of Mythic Creatures on LiveScience.