Truth or Legend?

Our special exhibit, Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids tells the fascinating story about how real animals, such as narwhals and giant squid, and fossils of all kinds, including dinosaurs, were misunderstood and reimagined into incredible creatures including dragons, unicorns and giants.

Using the exhibit as inspiration, the Academy’s collection managers shared images of specimens from our world-renowned research collection and explained the myths and legends behind them.

If anyone knows that there are millions of fish in the sea, it’s Mariangeles Arce-H., PhD. Arce-H. is the collection manager for ichthyology, the study of fish.

She picked out one very special fish that caught the eye of President Theodore Roosevelt years ago in South America — the piranha. According to legend, Amazon locals gathered up hundreds of these carnivorous fish and stored them in a tank with no food.

Photo of Piranha courtesy of Maria Arce Hernandez
Piranha specimen from the Academy collection. Photo by Maria Arce Hernandez/ANS

Right before Roosevelt came to see the river where the piranha lives, the locals released these ravenous fish back into the river. In order to impress the president with their local wildlife, the locals threw an entire cow into the river which the starved piranhas devoured in seconds.

Roosevelt thought these creatures were the most dangerous and carnivorous fish that ever lived and wrote about this experience in his journal. Because of this, people came to believe that piranhas are ferocious beasts with massive teeth that will rip animals or humans apart in seconds. In reality, there has never been a report of a school of piranhas devouring humans or large animals, ever. Some piranhas are even vegetarians.

The piranha isn’t the only animal with a legendary history. Ornithology Collection Manager, Nate Rice, PhD, chose a tale that takes us back to the age-old question: Where do babies come from?

The legend of the white stork and its depictions of carrying babies in blankets and delivering them to eager parents has made its way through TV shows, movies and children’s stories. There are many different reasons the stork is associated with babies.

A black and white image of a stork hold a baby in a  blanket.
Myths and legends often portray storks as the carrier of newborn babies.
Preserved stork specimen from the Academy's collection
Stork specimen in the Academy’s collection. Photo by Nate Rice/ANS

Some of the legends stem from Greek mythology, others from Egypt. And there are also connections with pagan beliefs. In ancient Greece, they used to portray a stork holding a baby in its beak after the Greek goddess Hera turned Queen Gerana into a stork, and Queen Gerana retrieved her baby from Hera in her beak and flew to safety.

Storks are not actually the deliverers of children, but the tale and legend have inspired many over the centuries to portray them this way.

People in different parts of the world often weave different stories and myths to tell.

Popular in Celtic mythology is a class of Echinocorys, or sea urchins. Invertebrate Paleontology Collection Manager Katy Estes-Smargiassi has all different types of echinoids in the collection.

The Echinocorys had been known for many different things throughout time. The original myth called these creatures “fairy loaves.” The sea urchin fossils were placed on graves and considered spiritual food which helped spirits in the otherworld and ensured them immortality.

Photo courtesy of Katy Estes-Smargiassi, a close-up look at an Echinoid fossil.
Spatangoida indet (“heart urchin”) specimen from the Academy’s collection. Photo by Katy Estes-Smargiassi/ANS

Years later the name changed to “Shepard’s Crown.” People began placing them on their window ledges to protect them from evil or convey good luck.

Myths and legends are not always about animals; they can also be traced back to plant life.  Jordan Teisher, botany collection manager, says there are countless examples of myths surrounding plants.

One example is the pomegranate, which dates back to the Greek myth of Persephone, who ate the seeds and unfortunately got stuck in the underworld.  Another example is mistletoe and how it correlates with Norse mythology.

A specimen of mistletoe from the Academy’s Botany Collection.

As written in Norse mythology, the trickster Loki, fashioned an arrow out of a mistletoe leaf and used it to kill a god named Baldur.  Supposedly, in a happier version of the story, Baldur was brought back to life by his mother, who proclaimed that mistletoe would become a symbol of love and whomever waked beneath it would share a kiss. 

These myths and legends are just a few created through time by people across the globe. You can learn about more in the exhibit Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, on view through June 9.


By Mackenzie Fitchett

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