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Unicorns, and 5 other mythical animals that really exist

2009.03.17 — Culture | Language | by Roland Grant


The unicorn in heraldry [source]

This is part 1 of my "weird animal names" series. Part 2 is "Panthers, and 5 other real animals that don't exist."

Being a Medieval zoologist was tough, and documenting exotic animals from far-off lands was particularly difficult given the limited availability of freezers and photographs at the time. Most such information came north from the Mediterranean, generally from Rome and often ultimately from Greece and Egypt.

Good tales grow taller as they travel, and tales of great African animals grew and morphed as they went to northern Europe. And Europeans had no problem making up animals altogether, usually from parts of other animals. But some of those mythical animals were real, albeit in ways that Medieval readers would not have recognized.


The unicorn (from Latin, meaning "one-horn") was reported in the early Middle Ages of Europe as a shy creature with a body like a horse and a single horn growing from its forehead. That's a pretty good description of the rhinoceros, given that they were being reported only by poorly educated travelers who had ventured into the wilds of the African plains and returned to tell about it. The unicorn may also have been confused with certain African antelopes with straight horns that, seen from a certain angle or as the result of a fight, appear to have only one horn.

The unicorn's horn was reputed to have magical powers, as does rhino horn in some parts of the world even today. The long, straight, curlicue horn we think of as being a unicorn horn was actually the tusk of the narwhal—a type of small whale—caught by fishermen who then passed off the horn as the mystical unicorn appendage. But other horns, including the black horns of the antelope, were often passed off as unicorn horns.

I don't know about you, but the narwhal is a pretty damn cool animal for real, as are the swordfish (and blue marlin) and the sawfish.

Sea monster

The sea monster of old was depicted as a ravenous mouth of teeth with ragged fins. The great white shark is the ravenous mouth that continues to terrorize the dreams of weak-minded people to this day. Together with the tiger shark and a few other aggressive species, they probably represent the early imaginings of sea monsters.

Octopuses and squids are also pretty terrifying, even if they didn't actually kill people. It was easy to imagine them growing to huge size and plucking men off the deck of ships, even tho that never really happened.

Sometimes, sea monsters were depicted as having long, slender bodies that rode out of the water as humps. This may have been inspired by very large eels or even creatures like whales that show a hump when they rise to the surface. Today's imaginings of sea monsters are clearly influenced by dinosaur discoveries, such as the plesiosaur.


There were three animals with similar names reputed to live in Africa in the Middle Ages: the pard, leopard, and camel-leopard. The "pard" was a swift big cat and probably the one we now call the "cheetah." The "leopard" was the bigger and more aggressive one that was similar to the pard but also similar to the lion and said to be the offspring of the two—hence the "leo" addition to the name. This is obviously the name we still use today.

Camel-leopard (camelo-pard)

The camel was a somewhat mythical creature in Medieval Europe, but better known than most because it was domesticated and used for riding and hauling. The "camel-leopard" (pronounced "CAM-el leh-PARD") or sometimes "camelo-pard" was described as a camel-like creature with a very long neck and spots like a leopard, the result of an unholy mating of a camel and a pard or leopard. No points for identifying this as the common giraffe.

Mermaid (and merman)

It's fairly well known that stories of mermaids probably arose from sailors who saw seals, sea lions, manatees, or dugongs lounging on shore. Sailors being universally both lonely and perverse, they naturally invented stories of seeing women with fish tails combing their hair on beaches.

Christopher Columbus wrote in his journal that he saw three mermaids, and they were not as beautiful as one would suppose, and in fact looked rather like men. He probably saw manatees, but was a hard man to deter from an idea; he died still thinking he had found India.


Later legends of dragons depict them as gigantic, with long legs, and sometimes even breathing fire. But early depictions portray them as huge lizards, standing low to the ground. People of northern Europe had no experience with the aggressive crocodile, but legends of dragons came out of the south with great authority.

Altho African crocodiles are happy to gather in groups and dragons are depicted as solitary, it seems likely that crocodiles were seen by most people singularly, carted thru streets for show or being transported to the coliseum in Rome for the blood sports.

The depiction of dragons probably changed as northern Europeans became familiar with crocodiles and felt the need to distinguish between them (rather than, as would have been accurate, merge them).

Modern depictions of dragons often depict them with wings, either vestigial or actually working, but this probably stems from a misinterpretation of Medieval artistic convention. Adding small wings to things, like horses and the feet of messengers (like the messenger god Hermes) was a way of indicating speed, not flight. But once you add wings to something, somebody somewhere is going to interpret that as the ability to fly, even if its tiny wings on a huge, hulking lizard.


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