“I believe in everything until it is disproved.
So I believe in fairies, myths, dragons.
It all exists, even if it’s in your mind.
Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares
aren’t as real as here and now? “
Strange footprints in the snow, a mysteriously decimated herd, a disturbing shadow looming through the mist on the surface of a lake at night… when faced with the inexplicable, the imagination goes wild, the explanation becomes extraordinary and the legend is born.
Unicorns, dragons, feathered snakes, trolls and goblins have been with us since the dawn of time. Endowed with strange and often evil powers, fabulous creatures belong to the mythical, legendary and fantastic realms. Objects of belief, they are often composed of parts of the body of different animals. They populate stories and are part of everyone’s imagination. A part of us, young or old, always hopes that something or someone really exists in the hidden folds and corners of the world.
MYTHICAL AND LEGENDARY CREATURES
Here are some of the most famous fabulous creatures:
Cyclops: monstrous giants with a single eye in the middle of their forehead. In Homer’s Odyssey, the impressive Polyphemus is fooled by Odysseus, “the man of a thousand tricks”.
Cerberus: a three-headed dog that guards the underworld. One of the twelve labours of Hercules is to capture him.
Gorgons: creatures capable of petrifying those who look at them. Using his shield as a mirror, Perseus kills one of them, the snake-haired gorgon Medusa.
Centaurs: present on the sculptures of the Parthenon, but also in the paintings of Pompeii, it is a creature half-man half-horse: the head, arms and torso of a man on a horse’s body. The most famous of the centaurs is Chiron. Immortal and renowned for his great wisdom and knowledge, he was entrusted with the education of many heroes who became his disciples, notably Achilles.
Golems: The Golem is, in Jewish mythology, a being created from mud, unable to speak and obeying the orders of its creator.
A legend tells that it’s been created by a rabbi to help him in his domestic work. The rabbi gives him life by slipping a parchment into the back of his head after making a hole in his skull. Every Friday night he removes the scroll except one Friday when the servant goes to synagogue and forgets to do so. So the Golem goes on a rampage and destroys everything. But the rabbi, having been warned, manages to snatch the scroll from him, and the Golem collapses lifeless at his feet.
The Golem refers us to the ambivalent relationship that man has with his creations and has infused the whole of popular culture, with Frankenstein’s creature, the fear of killer robots, artificial intelligence, etc.
Unicorns: The Unicorn has a horse’s body, a goatee and a long horn on its forehead. Well known thanks to the tapestry of the Lady of the Unicorn, the myth evokes the capture of an inaccessible animal that only a young virgin can charm. From the Middle Ages until the end of the Renaissance, the Unicorn became the most important imaginary animal in the Christian West.
Since the end of the 19th century, the unicorn has been a typical creature in fantasy and fairy tales, such as Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn or Ridley’s Legend. Today its image is more of a great white “magical” horse. Its recent association with universes such as My Little Pony, gives it a more mawkish image.
When God made the universe there were on earth
Thousands of animals unknown today
But the prettiest in this green paradise
The funniest and cutest was the unicorn.
Les Compagnons de la chanson, La Licorne.
Phoenix: Evoked by Hesiod, the Phoenix, a bird of exceptional longevity, dies and is reborn from its ashes. It symbolises the cycle of death and resurrection. The story, involving the fire and the sun, shows the essential relationship between man and the world. Fabulous birds similar to the phoenix are found in Persian mythology under the name of Simorgh. Poetry and storytelling are the privileged forms of the myth.
The Griffin: a fabulous bird imagined with the body of an eagle grafted onto the back of a lion, and the ears of a horse. It appeared 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia. It is associated with Gilgamesh, Apollo in Greece, Seth in Egypt… On a symbolic level, it combines the earthly strength of the lion with the celestial energy of the eagle. It’s the subject of many legends in the Middle Ages and the symbol of the resurrection of Christ. It appears on many coats of arms. Today, it can be found in Harry Potter, where it represents the Gryffindor’s house.
In many wonderful tales there are stories in which the hero, in order to save the young girls who are fed to a dragon every year, goes off to kill it. He succeeds in doing so, cuts off the seven tongues and puts them in his pocket to use as evidence when his brothers, claiming to have killed the dragon themselves, ask for the hand of the king’s daughter.
We can also mention the mermaids, the satyrs, Pegasus, the Sphinx, the Minotaur, the Kraken, the Hydra, but also what we call the « little people » such as the Trolls, the Elves or the Korrigans, and more recently the Yeti and the creature of Loch Ness…
THE HIDDEN WONDER WITHIN US
Traditional tales feature marvellous creatures: fairies, ogres, witches, dragons or animals with the ability to speak. They possess incredible, supernatural powers. They can be associated with evil people in the real world: traditional tales suggest ways to defeat and triumph over them.
According to the American psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, these fabulous creatures represent the hidden part of the hero, a sort of alter ego with which he or she must deal.
Often, in fairy tales, negative figures such as ogres or witches appear when children are left to their own devices (Tom Thumb, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White). Lost in the forest, these children seek shelter. Their intelligence and cunning will overcome these evil characters (who are not, by the way, very intelligent).
Sometimes creatures with extraordinary powers will help the hero in his quest – Read the tales: Forte, Fortissimo e Spaccaferro (Strong, Stronger and Cold Breaker), La volpe con gli stivali (The Fox with Boots).
CREATURES FROM TRADITIONAL TALES
– There are good creatures, which help the hero or heroine : fairies, wizards or animals with a voice and magical powers.
Read the tales: La volpe con gli stivali (The fox with the boots), L’ingegno del topo (The ingenuity of the mouse), Forte, Fortissimo e Spaccaferro (Strong, the strongest and the iron breaker), Tuttiattaccati (All tied up), the ox in the tale Per le strade del mondo (In the streets of the world), or the cat in La fanciulla Stellata (The starry girl).
– Also evil creatures : ogres, demons, witches and dragons, also some angry fairies, all have negative powers.
Read the tales : La principessa nel Pollaio (The princess in the henhouse), Prezzemolina (Rapunzel), Barba d’Argento (Silverbeard), La bambina e l’Orchessa (The little girl and the ogress).
We can also find here animals that speak, that have habits similar to humans
Read the story: Il lupo e la bambina golosa (The wolf and the greedy girl).
– In some cases, magical creatures such as the wonderful bird in Il Giardino delle meraviglie (The Garden of Wonders) with its double negative and positive value, or the magical bird “HU” in the story of La piuma magica (The Magic Feather), play only a marginal role in tales whose plot is centred on several themes: these fabulous creatures are then used only to begin or end the story.
Fantastic beliefs are irrefutable, unfalsifiable and their verification is always imminent but always postponed until tomorrow: new expeditions in search of the Yeti, new soundings in the deep waters of Loch Ness, new experiments in listening to signals from space, etc.
Or, when the verification seems to take hold, the evidence vanishes (Yeti corpse in the Heuvelmans case, piece of flying machine, etc.), unless it turns out to be illusory (the Yeti scalp is a fake made of yak skin; the extraterrestrial signals are in reality produced by pulsars; the aquatic dinosaur washed up on the beach is identified as a sperm whale, etc.)
One thing is certain: if there is no human story without animals, there is no human imagination without fabulous animals!
TO BE DISCOVERED IN THE STORY LIBRARY
– La volpe con gli stivali (The fox with the boots)
– L’ingegno del topo (The ingenuity of the mouse)
– Forte, Fortissimo e Spaccaferro (The strong, the strongest and the iron breaker)
– Tuttiattaccati (All tied up)
– Per le strade del mondo (In the streets of the world)
– La principessa nel Pollaio (The princess in the henhouse)
– Prezzemolina (Rapunzel)
– Il lupo e la bambina golosa (The wolf and the greedy girl)
– La bambina e l’Orchessa (The girl and the ogress)
– Giardino delle meraviglie (The Garden of Wonders)
– La piuma magica (The magic feather).
– Make a fantastic creature from several others and tell its story.
– Cut out animal models into three parts: head, middle body and legs. Combine the parts to make new imaginary animals. Give them a name from the original names. Children present their chimera animals. This activity can be done in small groups.
– Tell stories from mythology in class and have the children do the same.