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.

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.
posted by deathpanels to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Komodo Dragon
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:11 PM on August 21, 2014

Or water dragons. Which tend to just be referred to as "dragons" around here. (Which made me laugh the first time I saw one and asked an Australian what it was, expecting a lizard name. He just said "it's a dragon", and I was all, "no, really. What's it really called?")
posted by lollusc at 10:50 PM on August 21, 2014

Basilisk lizard?
posted by wjm at 11:18 PM on August 21, 2014

Best answer: Chimera? A mythological creature now used in genetics.
posted by BoscosMom at 1:44 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Orang Utan means "forest person" in Bahasa Malaysia. Is that the kind of thing you mean?
posted by evil_esto at 1:46 AM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: California was a fictional island in a Spanish novel, populated only by beautiful Amazon warriors ("They had beautiful and robust bodies, and were brave and very strong"), before Spanish explorers found Baja California and named it after the fictional one.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 6:28 AM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

There are stories that the native people of Central and South America had gods that were "light skinned" and they thought the conquistadors were those gods. That may be something that was made up just to portray the natives as naive, however.
posted by soelo at 7:37 AM on August 22, 2014

"Indians" for Native Americans? If wealth / the spice trade were a religion.
posted by batter_my_heart at 8:48 AM on August 22, 2014

These are not quite what you're looking for but may be close enough.

There's an idea that the legend of cyclops came from mammoth skulls which makes a lot of sense if you're familiar with human skulls, and not with pachyderm skulls and you come across this.

Similar vein, Protoceratops might have been mistaken for a griffin.

The sea serpent seen by the ship the Dedalus was almost definitely an Oarfish.
posted by Brainy at 9:50 AM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Maybe somewhat related, but Fae/Faery may have lost roots in real events of some sort:

One common theme found among the Celtic nations describes a race of diminutive people who had been driven into hiding by invading humans. When considered as beings that a person might actually encounter, fairies were noted for their mischief and malice. Fairies are generally described as human in appearance and having magical powers.

Folklorists have suggested that their actual origin lies in a conquered race living in hiding, or in religious beliefs that lost currency with the advent of religion. These explanations are not necessarily incompatible, and they may be traceable to multiple sources.
posted by Michele in California at 10:15 AM on August 22, 2014


Maybe Amazons would count?
posted by cgs06 at 11:03 AM on August 22, 2014

Nobody thought that a python was Python, but the name stuck. But I doubt that anyone thought that a bearded dragon was really a Wurm-dragon or a basilisk was a stone-gaze basilisk.
posted by cgs06 at 11:08 AM on August 22, 2014

As European colonists arrived, what we now refer to as New England was covered in vast stretches of forest dominated by eastern white pine, and
“When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be ‘raining brimstone’ on the deck.”
And according to a tree expert I know (to date I haven't been able to track down a citation), some early colonists on the voyage over also thought it was brimstone, and concluded they were being transported straight to the shores of Hell itself.

And this curious circumstance had a truly bizarre echo in a episode which took place in the Southeast Asian theatre of the cold war, in the Yellow Rain affair:
Yellow rain was the subject of a 1981 political incident in which the United States Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Soviet Union of supplying T-2 mycotoxin to the Communist states in Vietnam and Laos for use in counterinsurgency warfare.[1]

Refugees described many different forms of attacks, including a sticky yellow liquid falling from planes or helicopters, which was dubbed "yellow rain". The US government alleged that over ten thousand people had been killed in attacks using these chemical weapons.[2] The Soviet Union denied these claims and an initial United Nations investigation was inconclusive.
But Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson was able to demonstrate in 1983 that the 'yellow rain' consisted of pollen-laced bee feces.
posted by jamjam at 2:27 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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