Every culture has invented at least one mythical creature to capture our imaginations, inspire spellbinding stories - and keep kids from being too naughty! Some are scary, others are charming, but all are fascinating.
Some mythical creatures are based on greek and roman mythology, as well as Japanese mythology. Some supernatural beings are based on European folklore. But almost every culture has its own mythological beings. For ages now, we keep asking ourselves: Are those just fairy tales? Literally?
No one can deny the similarities between some of these legendary creatures. Do you see them?
Here are 30 of the most captivating fabled beings from across the globe and throughout the ages.
Table of contents
30 Mythical Creatures from A to Z
What is an Aqrabuamelu Mesopotamia?
- or what’s now Iraq and Kuwait - was the home of a terrifying man with the body of a scorpion - the Aqrabuamelu. This star of Babylonian mythology was invented to do battle against gods, but also served as a guard, and gave travelers a heads-up about any dangers they might encounter on their journey.
What is a Banshee?
This female spirit appeared to families to wail warnings of the imminent death of a loved one. Originated in Irish folklore, a banshee could take the form of a very tiny old woman or might appear as a female family member who tragically died young.
What is a Basilisk?
If looks could kill, a basilisk might be to blame. Serpentine creatures starring in the legends of Europe, one could find these “kings of serpents” - who, like Gorgons, could kill with their gazes - in literary works ranging from Chaucer to da Vinci to the Bible. A would-be victim could kill a basilisk by making it see its own reflection, giving it a whiff of a weasel’s scent, or dousing it with griffins’ tears.
What is a Bigfoot?
No, this is not some dude wearing size 16 Air Jordans! Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch, is a mythological being that some are convinced is “the missing link” between apes and humans. Large (from 6 to 9 feet in stature) and hairy, this fearsome furry beast is thought to dwell in the US’s Pacific Northwest and in Canada’s British Columbia. it is so popular in those areas that there are actual hunts taking place in search of those alleged monstrous creatures.
What is a Bogeyman?
If you’ve ever been a naughty kid, you probably know all about the Bogeyman (aka Boogeyman). There are many versions of this creature (badly behaved kids are pretty much a universal thing, after all), but generally, it sports horns, claws, talons, or hooves. All the better to torture brats with! This mythical creature is believed to have originated in Scottish folklore as a corrupted priest.
What is a Centaur?
When it comes to dreaming up mythical beings, the ancient Greeks win hands (or should that be hooves, horns, and claws?) down. The half-horse, half-human centaur was just one of their many creations. Most centaurs were wild, but Chiron (Cheiron) was wise and even counseled other legendary creatures of Greek Mythology.
What is a Chimera?
Another famous mythical creature from Greek mythology was the funky-looking, fire-breathing, lion-goat-snake combo called the Chimera. This nightmarish being was a relative of monsters, including Cerberus. The lowercase chimera has become a catch-all name for creatures made up of parts from several different animals.
What is a Cyclop?
Although it’s not the most well-known mythical creature, you probably still recognize the one-eyed giant from - you guessed it! - Greek mythology. Lawless loners, cyclopes tended sheep or goats and didn’t participate in or engage with government, society, or the community. During all that chill time, cyclopes were busy little eyeballs: Zeus’s thunderbolts, Hades’ invisibility helmet, Poseidon’s trident, and Artemis’s silver bow were all Cyclopian creations.
What is a Dragon?
We all know about dragons - except for exactly where they originated. These enormous, snake-like, winged monsters are so ever-present in the world’s mythological lore that a few cultures believe that they, like dinosaurs, were once a real species, but died out. A dragon’s role could have been anything from guarding or protecting its master or town with the ability to breathe fire, to providing wisdom and riddles to solve.
It is interesting to see a legendary creature develop so similarly in European folklore as well as Chinese mythology.
What is a Dybbuk?
If they weren’t such malevolent menaces, you could almost feel sorry for dybbuks. According to Jewish folklore, they are just the dislocated souls of dead people who weren’t ready to go when they died, so they clung to life by possessing the living. The name comes from the Hebrew word for “adhere” or “cling.” So, if a dybbuk has taken up residence in you, how do you get rid of it? It’s really up to the spirit, who - the story goes - will only leave after attaining some kind of goal it has set. Classic behavior of evil spirits, right?
What is a Faerie (or Fairy)?
Among the many delights born in France are faeries (aka fairies, fey, or fae). They first starred in medieval romance stories and (as you know) can be found in countless contexts today. Chances are, you envision small, winged, magical creatures when you think of them, but in actuality, fairies have more often been depicted without the wings Victorian artists gave them. They tended to fly in their human form by means of magic, or with a little help from a feathered friend.
What is a Faun?
Not to be outdone by the Greeks, the Romans invented fauns, their own new and improved creature that rocked the legs and tail of a goat and the upper body of a man. Fauns were inspired by the Greek Satyrs (like the famous Pan), complete with horns and pointed ears. Fauns intervened for travelers who needed help. One of the few nice creatures of roman mythology!
What is a Gnome?
In the lore of Old Europe, gnomes stood guard over treasures buried underground. These days, they tend to stand idly by as statues while rabbits and deer nibble the contents of carefully cultivated gardens, blissfully unaware of the havoc they’re creating. If you’re not familiar, gnomes usually look like cheerful, hunched-over little old men.
What is a Goblin?
First the stars of Germanic and British folk tales, goblins’ appearances, skill sets, and reasons for existence vary widely. When and where these creatures were created is unclear, but they’re all well-known for being greedy trickers with bad intentions.
What is a Golem?
Another famous Jewish folkloric creature is the golem. This one has an unusual twist, though, in that a golem isn’t an undead human or an animal hybrid, but is usually depicted as being sculpted from an inanimate substance such as clay or mud. Golems existed solely to fulfill a mission, such as to defend against antisemitic attacks. As the legend goes, golems would do whatever their creator told them to, right down to the letter. This might be where the saying, “Be careful what you wish for” came from. A creator had to be pretty careful what they asked of their golem.
What is a Gorgon?
Another “If looks could kill” mythical creature is the Gorgon. Led by Medusa, Gorgons originated in ancient Greek Mythology and could turn their hapless victims to stone with a single withering glance. As beautiful as they were terrifying, Gorgons were best known for rocking live snakes in lieu of silky tresses. The bottom line of a Gorgon myth? Beauty isn’t always as lovely as it seems.
What is a Griffin?
A hybrid of the kings of jungle and sky - the lion and the eagle - griffins were mighty, majestic stars of ancient Egyptian and Persian mythology. While they were usually depicted with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion and the head, wings, and talons of an eagle, some griffins were also graced with lions’ front paws. Pretty amazing, huh? Griffins’ purpose was to stand guard over vast treasure and riches.
What is a Hydra?
The Hydra, another badass creation from the ever-active imaginations of the ancient Greeks, was represented as an enormous, many-headed monster in the shape of a snake. If that weren’t scary enough, the Hydra could spew acid from its heads at will. If you were thinking no prob, just cut off its heads…wrong! Whacking off one Hydra head would just bring double the fun, with two more horrible heads growing in its place. Eventually, mighty Hercules got the upper hand on the Hydra and killed it, but not before it thoroughly terrified the people living in the marshes of Lerna.
What is a Leprechaun?
Even if you’ve never eaten the “magically delicious” cereal that these little guys rep, you can probably easily recognize leprechauns. Born in medieval Irish folklore, these tiny loners with magical powers were known for their mischievousness and their penchant for pulling funny pranks on others. As the folktales about them go, the way a leprechaun looked and even the outfits they rocked could change depending on where they were from. If you were to capture one there is a good chance of it granting you a wish in turn for his release.
What is the Loch Ness Monster?
The Loch Ness Monster, aka “Nessie,” was originally the brainchild of the Picts, the inhabitants of ancient Scotland. Being surrounded by more than 30,000 lakes inspired the Scots to invent myriad mythical water creatures, but Nessie is definitely the most well-known of these. She’s depicted as similar to the water dino, plesiosaurus. Although photographic “evidence” of her exists, and there are “eyewitness” accounts aplenty, Nessie’s existence is widely dismissed as a myth. However, that doesn’t stop a significant number of people from believing that this giant girl is still lurking - wherever the heck she wants to be! - in Loch Ness today.
What is a Mermaid?
Of all the mythological creatures ever to captivate people’s imaginations, mermaids are perhaps the most fanciful, charming, and beloved. The ancient Babylonians, Syrians, Polynesians, and (of course!) Greeks all told of encounters with these half-human, half-fish creatures. Most cultures looked upon merpeople as beautiful and romantic (for example, the Irish spun tales of mermaids transforming into humans and marrying). However, occasionally, the stories felt a bit more sinister, with mermaids predicting and bringing about catastrophes.
What is a Minotaur?
Once upon a time, the Greek legend goes, the queen of Crete and a magnificent bull who lived in the sea hooked up. Their child, the Minotaur, had the body of a man with the head and tail of a bull. The creature so terrified King Minos, he commissioned the Labyrinth to be built for the sole purpose of imprisoning the Minotaur.
What is an Ogre?
If you’re a Shrek fan, you might think you know ogres. However, this affable green giant isn’t typical for the species (for lack of a better word), although there are similarities. Generally, ogres are dull and dimwitted, even violent, as well as tall, heavy, and mighty, with enviable hair and insatiable appetites (with humans being on their menu, aggh!). Most cultures tell tales of ogres, which first appeared in Etruscan lore in the form of the man-eating Orcus. The word ogre itself is the French word for ... ogre.
What is an Oni?
The Japanese oni were actually just despicable people who, once they landed in Hell, turned into demons. The truly horrible ones didn’t even have to wait - they were transformed while still alive. (We all know an oni or two, right?) Appearance-wise, onis rocked red or blue skin, horns, and tusks, and their mission was to punish evil-doers. Their insatiable appetites included a taste for humans and anything else that wasn’t nailed down. There is no single classic story or look for oni, but they are always villainous and powerful.
What is a Phoenix?
The phoenix’s legend is especially inspiring to humans. Although we might wish we could literally go out in a blaze of glory, and we can’t live for hundreds of years at a time, we CAN reemerge victorious from our own ashes at times (so to speak). Of course, we’re referring to the mythical eagle-like creature known for bursting into flame at the end of its life and being reborn as a younger version of its awesome, red-and-gold-feathered self. This star of ancient Egyptian and Classical lore remains a well-known symbol of immortality, eternity, and resurrection.
What is a Pontianak?
Guys, you might want to sit down for this one! The Pontianak, star of Indonesian and Malay mythology, is the spirit of a woman who tragically died while pregnant. She appears as pale, with long, dark tresses and red eyes. Here’s the twist…this scary-looking female spirit could actually turn herself into an attractive woman for the express purpose of seducing males - and chowing down on their hearts, livers, kidneys, and other organs. The Pontianak is said to show herself at the full moon…so don’t say you weren’t warned, fellas!
What is an Unicorn?
We probably don’t have to tell you about unicorns! But for the few who might not know them, they are horse- or goat-like creatures who rock a single, splendid horn. First appearing in the ancient lore of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait), India, Greece, and China, unicorns’ majesty delights modern masses equally as much, if not more so. Unicorns are revered not only for their enchanting appearance but also for their ability to heal. For example, if you partook from a cup made from a unicorn horn, you would supposedly become impervious to poisons.
What is a Vampire?
This spirit has appeared in many different incarnations throughout the ages. Originally, the vampire was the star of European mythical lore. It also appeared in many other cultures as some version of its (literally) bloodthirsty self. In the modern era, vampires (aka vampyres) are depicted as sexy, sophisticated, or even sweet light-skinned males (we’re looking at you, Rob Pattinson!), but this version of the creature was actually unknown before the 1800s.
What is a Werewolf?
Hailing from Germanic pagan cultures, Europe’s Slavic countries, and (naturally!) classic Greek mythology, tales of werewolves (aka lycanthropes) are diverse and myriad. Generally speaking, these creatures are humans who can turn into wolves, with or without assistance from the full moon. These ancient tales have stood the test of time - werewolves are as popular today as ever.
What is a Zombie?
If you’re a horror flick fan, you’ll be pretty familiar with these human-flesh-craving creatures, who’ve been lurching around Hollywood since its beginning. The legend they’re based upon began on the Caribbean island of Haiti, where “zonbis” (the Haitian Creole word for corpses come back to life) supposedly terrorized the population. According to the lore, this usually happened by magic, but sometimes occurred by other methods. Interestingly, zombie tales have adapted to different cultural fears and contexts over the years - for example, bodies were perhaps reanimated because of viruses or via certain scientific processes.
Did you enjoy this list of 30 mythical creatures and how to define them? Does your culture have its own mythical creatures or is your favorite of a different origin? Whether such creatures are or have been real at some point in history, we don't know - yet. But the fact is that these supernatural beings make for great stories!