12 Mythical Creatures That People Once Believed Were Real

A long time ago, before the camera was invented, people didn’t have precise methods for cataloging and understanding the world.

Scientists had no way of proving whether or not mythical creatures truly existed. Instead, they relied on their own observations and the stories from others, like travelers, merchants, or explorers, who often exaggerated or misremembered their encounters.

Scientific journals and encyclopedias from as late as the mid-19th century were often filled with drawings of mythical creatures that scientists thought could be real. These mystery creatures appeared next to real-life animals.  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.

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Sometimes the people could describe for example wolf or elephant in such an exaggerated way, that the result could look like something completely different and mystical.

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 big ears.

Scientists primarily relied on the accounts of explorers

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.

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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.

In those times people did what they could to document the rich biodiversity of our planet but it was only recently when science let us do it precisely.

1. Ichthyocentaur

The Ichthyocentaur is a creature with origins in Greek mythology, legend, and folklore. The first two known Ichthyocentaurs were named Aphros and Bythos and were sons of the Titan god Kronos and the goddess nymph Philyra

The mythological ichtyocentaur was described as a sea creature with an upper-body of a human, the lower front of the horse, and the tail of fish.

2. Whales

Two dragon-like whales attack a ship as sailors try to scare them away with barrels and trumpet music. This scene is depicted in Olaus Magnus’ 1539 Carta Marina, a map of the sea. Unfortunately, this was a common portrayal of whales at the time despite their docile behavior.

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Here is a depiction of the narwhal, which we know is an actual creature. But in this illustration based on early descriptions by 16th-century naturalist Conrad Gessner, the narwhal is depicted as a “one-horned monster with a sharp nose.”







Whales were often depicted as giant monsters with sharp fangs and horns based on the stories of exhausted sailors.





3. Giant cockerel

A so-called Gallus monstrosus, or giant cockerel, with a snake’s tail as imagined in the 16th century. According to the Royal Society, Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi combined detailed descriptions of real snakes with more fanciful accounts of creatures related to him by merchants and travelers.




4. Elephants

These might look like pigs but they are actually supposed to be elephants. Taken from the Rochester Bestiary from the 13th century.





An elephant as drawn by Italian zoologists in the 15th century.

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5. Crocodile

An illustration of a crocodile. It was believed that crocodiles were a yellow color and so their name derives from the Latin word “crocus” or saffron, which is a yellowy spice.





6. Kraken

According to 16th-century Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, this is a fearsome kraken.



7. Antelope

A peculiar-looking antelope from The History of Four-Booted Beasts and Serpents by Edward Topsell. It was published in 1658.




8. Giraffe

An unusual giraffe as drawn by Noè Bianco circa 1568.







9. Mermaids

A few renderings of mermaid creatures. Some of these figures are quite different than the common mermaid depictions we are familiar with today, though the concept of a man-fish hybrid remains throughout.





10. Satyr

A satyr is a half-man and half-horse figure from Greek mythology. In Roman literature, these beasts were represented with goat-like features instead of horse-like ones.




11. Dragon

A dragon-like sea creature as depicted by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi.

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12. Unicorn

Natural historians from ancient Greece were convinced that unicorns were real and lived in India.

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