Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids

The world is full of stories about brave heroes, magical events and fantastic beings. A new exhibition opening Saturday traces the natural and cultural roots of some of the most enduring creatures of myth.

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids showcases the stories of mythical beings that have been with us for thousands of years and how they were often inspired by real fossils or living animals. Mythic Creatures features dozens of unique cultural objects that illustrate the surprising similarities and differences in the ways people around the world envision and depict mythic creatures, some which continue to inspire us today.

While many mythic creatures are man-eating monsters or evil spirits, others, such as unicorns, are powerful and peaceful. ©AMNH

Organized by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the exhibit offers visitors range of colorful models and realistic cast fossils of prehistoric animals. Visitors can use these to investigate how the creatures depicted could have inspired people — through misidentification, speculation, fear or imagination — to conjure up some legendary creatures.

For example, visitors will discover how narwhal tusks were believed to be magical remnants of unicorn horns, how dinosaur fossils may have been mistaken for the remains of griffins, and how tales of sea monsters may simply have been fishermen’s tales of real creatures such as the giant squid.

“I think our ancestors would have been relieved had they known that the scary and odd-looking creatures they encountered were really just part of our magnificent natural world,” said Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper, PhD. “Every animal and plant has its place in the ecosystems of the planet and each has a role to play, as our Academy scientists continue to demonstrate through their research. By experiencing this exhibit, we hope our visitors will have a renewed appreciation for all living creatures.”

Hundreds of years ago European sailors told of a sea monster called the kraken that could toss ships into the air with its many long arms. ©AMNH

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids will be on view through Sunday, June 9, 2019.

The extended opening weekend, Feb. 16, 17 and 18, features unusual hands-on activities for all ages that draw on the nature of discovery and illustrate the difference between scientific fact and fiction. Visitors will be able to make unicorn poop soap slime, examine Academy specimens, practice penmanship with squid ink, watch live sea monkeys in action, and much more.

Highlights of the exhibit include a:

  • Vibrant sculpture of the African water spirit Mami Wata
  • Replica “Feejee mermaid” of the type made famous by showman P. T. Barnum, created by sewing the head and torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish
  • “Life-size” model of a European unicorn
  • Dramatic model of a kraken, whose tentacles appear to rise out of the floor as if surfacing from the sea

Visitors can build their own dragon in an engaging touchscreen interactive and watch it come alive in a virtual environment. ©AMNH

Interactive stations invite visitors to:

  • Rearrange scale models of mammoth bones to look like a giant human skeleton.
  • Build their own dragon and watch as it comes alive in a virtual environment.
  • Watch video interviews with experts highlighting the significance of mythical creatures and their possible real-life counterparts.
Ancient Greeks sometimes found huge bones like this Sumatran rhinoceros skull, and mistook them for the bones of giants. © AMNH

Mythic Creatures is organized by several main themes.

  • Sea Monsters: When European explorers set out on oceanic voyages of discovery in the 1400s and 1500s, they were sailing into uncharted waters. Sea monsters were a concern for them, and frightening rumors ran rampant. The stories they brought back were a mix of accurate observations, honest mistakes and outright tall tales.
  • Mermaids: One of the most popular mythic creatures across many cultures is the half-human, half-fish mermaid. Mermaids in Europe, Africa and the Americas all carry combs and mirrors and were thought to be beautiful, seductive and dangerous — like the sea itself.
In a dramatic story from the Arctic regions, Sedna is a young woman tossed overboard by her father. Her fingers turn into the whales, seals and walruses on which the Inuit depend for food and materials. ©AMNH/C. Chesek
  • Giants, Griffins and Unicorns: Many mythical creatures appear to have body parts from ordinary animals combined in unusual ways. A few experts believe that the legends of the griffin, a creature combining body parts of both an eagle and a lion, originated in the Gobi Desert around 2,000 years ago when Scythian miners stumbled upon the fossil remains of the four-legged, beaked dinosaur Protoceratops. Other creatures look like familiar animals but have extraordinary and magical powers, such as the European unicorn, a horse with a magical horn thought to counteract poisons. The enormous bones of mammoths, mastodons and woolly rhinoceroses found by ancient Greeks may have inspired tales of giants.
  • Dragons: In Asian tales, dragons ascend from the seas, lakes and rivers, up to the sky, bringing rain needed for cultivation. In stories from Europe, dragons can slaughter people with their putrid breath, or spit fire and set cities ablaze. The earliest dragon legends date back thousands of years, and the creature still haunts our imagination today.

To purchase tickets at a discount, visit the Academy’s website.


Post by Carolyn Belardo

4 comments

  1. are cameras allowed at the displays? are there souvenirs? approx. how long does the event last, is it at-your-own pace? is the exhibit suitable for young children? thank you

    1. I was allowed to use cameras throughout the museum, including in the mythic creatures exhibit. The only thing that might need verification is the use of flash, I was told at the front desk it was alright but I often hear a no flash policy at most institutions.
      It’s incredibly kid friendly with a few interactive stations such as recreating a giant skeleton, a small reading nook, color the cryptid, create a virtual dragon, and an area with costumes to dress in and pose for photos.
      From their website (ansp.org) it says the exhibit will be up until June 9th 2019.

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