Mythological creatures have been a source of creative inspiration for many centuries. Their representation and appearance have evolved with time. While many people will instantly recognise these figures, less is known of their cultural significance and general personality as developed through the mediums in which they are depicted.
The most pioneering champion of this imaginative world is J.R.R Tolkien. He envisaged and created universes incorporating magic, alternate histories, languages, worlds and even maps. Elves, goblins and trolls feature heavily in his fictional works. He has, arguably, inspired the fantasy genre up until the present day.
Fairies are mythological beings found in the legends of many cultures and can be divided into more succinct categories. There are “dryads” (spirits that dwell in trees), “gnomes” (that form the elements of the earth guarding its treasures) and “pixies” – mischievous fairies who enjoy playing practical jokes. The word fairy comes from the old French “faerie”, meaning “enchantment”. As fictional beings they have been present since the time of the medieval romances, although the manner in which they are viewed now is different from the earlier descriptions. A common understanding today is that a fairy describes any supernatural being. Ongoing telling of the “tooth fairy” to children and assumptions that these are mythical creatures with magical powers give rise to the notion that fairies live here and also in other universes. Generally presented as female, human in appearance and of a small stature, their original image more closely resembled that of wizards and trolls. Unlike angels they can be of a mischievous nature. More contemporary demonstrations have shown both “water” and “mushroom” fairies – the latter of which have wings and hover over garden flowers. Further, there exists a belief for some people that throwing money into a fountain can lead to good luck. This practice, it would appear, derived from the opinion that water is a powerful spirit – fueled source of life.
The intriguing creative history of mermaids supposedly began with the stories that sailors would enact from their travels to distant ports. Unlike Disney’s little mermaid, they were regarded initially as dangerous creatures, but as adaptations show we can only hold on to one label for a certain amount of time. Mermaids were viewed in a similar vein to temptresses and sirens believed to lure in sailors. Ancient legends have them depicted as half fish/half girl, who would climb on to the captain’s ship, captivate with a song and then pull the crew under water, sink the whole ship or have it crash into rocks. The sailors would be too engrossed by the singing to notice the sinking of the ship. They were often the cause of sailors being “lost at sea”. There have been a variety of representations of these mythological aquatic creatures, with the human head and tail of a fish. Another interpretation of their role in the legends is that they unintentionally led the sailors – who simply could not resist the song they sung. Undeniably there is something captivating about spending all day swimming under water but there is a question that crosses the minds of those who are intrigued by the legends and myths. It is can we really be told of all the species that exist in the depths of the great oceans?
Perhaps the most “benevolent” of the mythological creatures, the word wizard comes from the English word “wise”. Due to their working independently, often in isolation or in a solitary capacity, they are seen as less mischievous and without the backing of a group. Most people picture a wizard as an old, white bearded man – an image crystallized by Lord of the Rings. Subversively, Harry Potter has familiarized the image. Associated with wizards is the ancient practice of alchemy: transforming substances into something else and creating potions. Of late they have become synonymous with magicians, but in old times, they were simply considered wise people who could do magic. The words “advise” stem from the route word “wizard”. As such these creatures generally have a good nature. It is merely the added dimension of magic, and their ability to cast spells that adds a potential capacity for danger – since magic is by nature something risky and destructive. But then they would not be super natural without it!
You would not expect a creature so gigantic and reptile-like to have had such an enduring appeal. But, these mythical beasts/monsters/animals (however one chooses to label them) are especially popular. This mythological character has cultural significance. In China, they are considered benevolent and auspicious. Physically their bodies are covered with scales, they breathe fire or ice and have magical powers. Red, slanted eyes are a common feature. It is a truth that they have been inspired by the physicality of crocodiles and dinosaurs. Considered to be both dangerous and helpful, interpretations sometimes contrast the dragon’s majestic and powerful presence with the desire to protect both treasures and also human beings. The Hobbit and Harry Potter are examples of works which have utilized the dragon. Symbolic of power and grandeur, the dragon’s status is protected in many Eastern cultures as a figure of bravery and intelligence. This is in opposition to the West’s general monster – like presentation. Whether or not they are shown to be a villain or a protector, there is incontestably a magical air about them that has sustained their allure for centuries.
Elves were originally seen as a group of divine beings equipped with supernatural powers. Over time, they became equated with the fairies of the romance genre. Often they are seen loitering around in forests or any other sign post of nature such as hills, springs and rocks. They are normally miniature in size and sometimes have pointed ears, but this is not always the case. As with all those in possession of magical powers, they use it to either help or hinder human beings. Elves are said to be quiet and reclusive, possessing knowledge and wisdom. “Elf like” normally denotes someone who is a fluid being, walking in harmony with their surroundings and never showing extremity of emotion. A distinction has been made between “light elves” and “dark elves”. Light elves are shown to be brighter the sun physically and are often spotted dancing under the mist of morning. Dark elves live underground, removed from sunlight.