Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Fantastic beasts have been imagined and recorded in objects, architecture and art in most human societies. But not all are nightmare creations. Some, like the snake-dragon of ancient Mesopotamia and the Chinese dragon, are metaphors for gods or kings. However, these same fabulous animals mean different things in different cultures. The dragon, for example, was consistently identified with evil in the Bible.
Imaginary beasts often have the attributes of several animals - combining their best (or worst) features to create a terrifying monster or 'super' animal. In Greek mythology the sphinx was a beast with a woman's head and the body of a lion. However, in Egypt the name is used to refer to a composite creature with the body of a lion and the head of another creature, usually a human, but sometimes a hawk or ram.
The sphinx in Egypt represents royal power, combining the physical strength of the lion with the worldly might of a king. It’s a creature with terrifying power. The Great Sphinx by the pyramids of Giza is the most famous, but this form of statue was used throughout the following millennia.
A 1250 BC limestone statue of a hawk-headed sphinx in the British Museum collection originally stood, alongside a similar one, near the temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. It is possible that they were intended to represent the king's powerful ability to defeat his enemies in the south of Egypt. Egyptian artists and craftsmen were adept at combining animals to create fantastic forms, including snake-headed men, winged lions with falcon heads and fantastic demons with up to four heads.
Monsters at sea
Encounters with real monsters like the whale and the giant squid have spawned terrifying sea-monsters in the imagination of sailors. Composite creatures such as the makara from India and the Greek ketos and skylla are represented in artefacts from these cultures.
A terracotta plaque from the island of Mílos in the Aegean Sea, dating to around 465-435 BC, shows Skylla, a sea-monster in Greek mythology. Skylla's lair was a cave in a tall cliff face. Sailors were forced to sail close to the cliff to avoid being sucked into the terrible whirlpool of Charybdis nearby. As they did so, Skylla's six heads would lean out and snatch six victims from the decks of the ship.
In Homer's Odyssey, Skylla is described as an evil monster with twelve feet; she has the bark of a new-born puppy, but each of her six heads has three rows of teeth, 'thick and close, and full of black death'.
Skylla is shown in the plaque with the head and torso of a woman and the tail of a sea-monster, her pleated skirt neatly hiding the junction between the two. The snapping dogs' heads at her waist evoke both her many, man-devouring heads and Homer's description of her voice.
Representations of dragons appear in a number of different cultures, but wherever they appear, they are always powerful creatures. In China and Asia dragons are associated with rain: in Hindu mythology Vritra causes the monsoon floods. In Britain the red dragon of Wales was supposed to have defeated the white dragon symbolising Saxon aggressors and Biblical dragons are invariably evil.
As composite beasts dragons combine the attributes of different animals. These attributes may vary from culture to culture and from time to time but common features are wings, scaley skin ('dragon' comes from drakon, the Greek word for a large serpent), four clawed feet, horns and deadly breath. Furthermore dragons have supernatural powers and, when they represent the forces of evil, require correspondingly heroic adversaries like Siegfried, who slew the dragon Fafnir in Norse mythology.
Misrepresentations of real animals
Some apparently fantastic creatures are, however, real animals that have been misrepresented. Word of mouth was often the only way of passing on eye-witness accounts of animals from distant lands and the artist, given the task of depicting such creatures, had to use his or her own imagination to complete the picture.
Albrecht Dürer prepared his famous drawing and woodcut The Rhinosceros from reports of the arrival in Lisbon, Portugal of an Indian rhinoceros on 20 May 1515. No rhinoceros had been seen in Europe for over 1000 years, so Dürer had to work solely from these reports.
He has covered the creature's legs with scales and the body with hard, patterned plates. Perhaps these features interpret lost sketches, or even the text, which states, '[The rhinoceros] has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales'.
This fanciful creation was so convincing that for the next 300 years European illustrators borrowed from his woodcut, even after they had seen living rhinoceroses without plates and scales.
More information about objects featured here (from top)