44 Mythical Creatures That Early Zoologists Once Believed Were Real

Published June 25, 2020
Published June 25, 2020

Even into the 19th century, naturalists included illustrations of mythical creatures alongside real ones in scientific texts.

Pink Octopus Drawing
Painting Of An Ichthyocentaur
Drawing Of Mythical Whales
Sketch Of A Sea Dragon
44 Mythical Creatures That Early Zoologists Once Believed Were Real
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Before there were more precise methods for cataloging and understanding the world, naturalists had no way of proving whether or not mythical creatures truly existed. Instead, they relied on their own observations and the accounts of others, like travelers, merchants, or explorers, who often exaggerated or misremembered their encounters.

As such, scientific journals from as late as the mid-19th century were often filled with drawings of mythical creatures that scientists thought could be real. These appeared beside misinterpretations of real-life animals as they were relayed to the illustrators from second-hand accounts.

Indeed, early naturalists wrote about wolves and panthers, but these appeared on the pages opposite otherworldly creatures like sea serpents and dragons, making for some fantastical textbooks.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library's Expansive Online Collection

Cyclopes

Biodiversity Heritage LibraryA Cyclops that appears in John Ashton's 19th-century book, Curious Creatures in Zoology.

The rich biodiversity of our planet has long been documented by humankind, but it was only recently that centuries of natural studies were made free and easily accessible to the public through a single online portal called the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

BHL is the world's largest open-access digital library for the historical documentation of life in our natural world.

Since its launch in 2006, BHL has served over 10 million people in over 240 countries around the world. With such a vast collection to display and maintain, the BHL is operated as a global consortium.

BHL is the product of an international collaboration between academics, experts, researchers, scientists, and the general public, and covers hundreds of thousands of volumes on natural history from the 15th to the 21st century. There are roughly more than 58 million pages featured on the site.

The database includes early depictions of flora and fauna as they were first recorded by European researchers. As this was pre-photography, these species were only able to be captured through intricate, hand-drawn illustrations.

Among the scientific texts available on BHL are such marvels as 1910's Cephalopod Atlas, which depicts the marine animals encountered by an 1898 German submarine expedition led by biologist Carl Chun aboard the SS Valdivia.

Chun's crew ventured 3,000 feet into the sea. It was a feat of its time that resulted in the discovery of a plethora of deep-sea wildlife. But before this expedition, it was widely believed that no life existed at all that deep in the ocean. Instead, researchers were left to their imaginations.

Historical Drawings Of Mythical Creatures And 'Real Monsters'

A Drawing Of A Tiger

Wikimedia CommonsA depiction of a tiger from the Aberdeen Bestiary, a 12th-century text on animals.

Some of the animals cataloged in these early scientific manuscripts were actually just drawings of mythical creatures that scientists believed to be real.

This was the result of a combination of religious beliefs and the vast swathes of Earth that had yet to be explored. Additionally, some naturalists mistook the accounts of deformed animals or humans to create human-animal hybrids or demonic-looking creatures.

For example, the 16th-century surgeon Ambroise Par authored Des Monstres et Prodiges which depicted malformed humans and animal-human hybrids.

Then there is 1890's Curious Creatures in Zoology written by zoologist John Ashton. This is also a compilation of mythological creatures like mermaids, cyclopses, and hybrid half-human creatures alongside real ones. Much of this book can be accessed through the BHL and is featured among the drawings of mythical creatures above.

In some instances, animals we now view to be common knowledge such as tigers and hyenas were inaccurately drawn simply because they were difficult for witnesses to describe; antelopes were drawn like scaly dragons while elephants were drawn missing their voluminous ears.

Additionally, because of the limitations of travel, historians and scientists primarily relied on the accounts of explorers to catalog the world's beasts. Cartographers commonly drew ferocious sea monsters on their maps based on the anecdotes of exhausted sailors who claimed to have encountered them.

Drawing Of A Mythical Sea Creature

Biodiversity Heritage LibraryNaturalists commonly believed that all land creatures had oceanic counterparts, like the fish-pig hybrid seen here.

"To our eyes, almost all of the sea monsters on all of these maps seem quite whimsical, but in fact, a lot of them were taken from what the cartographers viewed as scientific, authoritative books," said author and historian Chet Van Duzer. "So most of the sea monsters reflect an effort on the part of the cartographer to be accurate in the depiction of what lived in the sea."

Maps and journals that depicted serpents and sea dragons were commonplace. Even whales, known as gentle giants with smooth features, were considered terrifying beasts with faces adorned with horns and fangs. Often, fear drove these illustrations until new observations helped naturalists to better understand these animals.

"Whales, the largest creatures in the ocean, are no longer monsters but rather natural marine storehouses of commodities to be harvested," Van Duzer explained. Once whales were discovered to have a capital purpose in human life — as a source of oil — attitudes about them changed around the 17th century.

And as the printing press advanced and sciences improved, these imaginative illustrations began to subside. And of course, with the advent of photography, naturalists became better able to relay their discoveries to the world.


After looking at these fantastical illustrations of mythical creatures that naturalists once thought to be real, check out the stunning deep-sea photography of Alexander Semenov. Then, peruse the medeival "Compendium of Demonology," your illustrated guide to hell.

Natasha Ishak
Natasha Ishak is a staff writer at All That's Interesting.