Examples of mythological creatures used to describe real thing
August 21, 2014 9:49 PM Subscribe
I have a specific question about a particular type of "mythology made reality" transformation via language and cultural contact. I'm looking for other instances of this sort of thing, but I'm not sure what to call this or where to search.
posted by deathpanels to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I recently learned that when Chinese explorers encountered the giraffe in Africa, they called it a kirin, believing giraffes to be the mythological creature itself. Weirdly, giraffes kind of match the description of kirin – antlers, long neck, "scales" on the skin. And today the word for giraffe in east Asian languages is still "kirin," almost as if the mythological creature became real by coincidence of being similar to a real but undiscovered animal.
I find this myth-made-reality transformation via language really fascinating. Are there other examples of a similar correspondence between a mythological thing and an actual thing? I would assume this mostly takes place when explorers from Culture A encounter Culture B and try to use their mythological or religious systems to understand Culture B's practices, but maybe there's more going on here.