11 Terrifying Mythological Creatures That Expose Humanity’s Worst Fears

Published July 9, 2021
Updated October 18, 2021

Nian

Nian

Andrea Wang/YouTubeThe Nian attacks.

There was no greater horror in the villages of ancient China than that day once a year when the Nian would come down from its mountain looking for food.

Nothing could stop it. The Nian was immortal; no weapons would hurt it and no amount of time would make it go away. All the people of ancient China could do was board up their windows, lock their doors, hide under their beds, and pray it left them alive.

The townspeople would have to watch from their hiding spaces as the monster moved through their lives. It had a flat face shaped something like a lion’s with two huge horns on its head and a set of razor-sharp teeth that jut out of its mouth. It was huge; bigger than an elephant or any other creature that walks the earth.

If they were lucky it would break through their stores of grain and eat every ounce of food they’d saved. But if they were not lucky then the Nian would spot one of them and pounce. It would gore them with its horns and tear through their bodies with its sharp teeth and devour them piece by piece. Anyone could be its victim – but above all, the Nian savored the flesh of children.

Mythological Animals

Bobo Boom/FlickrA man in a Nian costume during a Spring Festival party.

For centuries the Nian terrorized the rural lands on the outskirts of China until an old man braved it and scared it off. Then he revealed that he was a god in disguise and showed the people how to keep their towns safe:

“You can’t kill the demon Nian, but you can keep him at bay. The beast is easily scared. He does not like the color red. He fears loud noises and strange creatures. So tonight, spread red across the village. Hang red signs on every door. Make loud noises with drums, music, and fireworks. And give your children face masks and lanterns to protect them.”

To this day, the people of China light off fireworks, bang drums, and cover their cities in red every Spring Festival. According to the legend, it’s this celebration alone that keeps mythological creatures from ravaging their homes. But if the people ever lose sight of their traditions and stop their celebration, then the Nian will return.

Chimera

Chimera

Jacopo LigozziA chimera, as the mythological creatures were described in Homer’s Iliad. Circa 1590-1610.

From the right angle a chimera might look – if only for a second – like nothing more than a lion. But then it would turn and you would see it for all that it really was with a goat’s head that jutted out from the middle of its body like a bulbous, toxic growth.

The tail, too, would whip out. It was green and shimmered under the light, and you would see that it is covered in scales. At the tip would be two sharp yellow eyes above a slithering tongue that hissed. Venom would drip out of its mouth.

This was the chimera: a mad convulsion of beasts fused into a single body. Each beast protruded out of its own end and writhed for life.

Chimera Greek Plate

Wikimedia CommonsAn ancient Greek dish, made in 350-340 B.C., showing a chimera.

This mythological creature was more than just a terrifying sight. It was immensely powerful. From the goat head in the center of its body, it could breathe out a blaze of fire hot enough to incinerate a man to ashes.

According to the Greek myths, the Chimera was the twisted offspring of a monstrous snake named Typhon and his half-human bride. The real source of the story, though, might actually have been from the Hittites. Before the Greeks started telling stories of their chimera, the Hittites were already telling stories about a chimera-like beast that had a woman’s head in the place of the goat and wore a pair of eagle’s wings.

The Greeks eventually displaced Hittite culture and the story of the Chimera morphed into the exponentially more monstrous creature we hear of today. It was the sort of horrible beast that heroes would try to prove themselves against in battle — and usually would fail.

The most famous story of the chimera is the tale of Bellerophon, who rode into battle against it on the back of the winged horse Pegasus. Bellerophon managed to drive a lance down the beast’s throat right before it could burn him with a fireball. The fire in its belly was so hot that it melted the metal of his lance, filling the creature’s throat with molten metal and choking it to death.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.