The Origins of 13 Mythical Creatures

Jon Mayer
Ballerinas are not considered a mythical creature
Ballerinas are not considered a mythical creature / Jeff J Mitchell/GettyImages

For quite some time, people believed unicorns weren’t myths, but real-life animals. Pliny described an animal he called monoceros —or “single horn”—which he wrote had “the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead.” 

As we discuss in our latest episode of The List Show, Pliny was hardly the only person to believe unicorns were real. The explorer Marco Polo actually claimed to have seen them in the flesh. He declared them “very ugly brutes to look at” that could be found “wallowing in mud and slime.”

The belief that unicorns were real persisted until the 18th century. But as travelers made their way to increasingly far-off lands and found no actual unicorns, that started to change. Today, scientists believe that the early descriptions of unicorns were real animals that explorers had no reference for at home, including oryxes and rhinos. The so-called “unicorn horns” that some merchants peddled likely came from creatures like the narwhal.

Unicorns aren’t the only fake animal whose backstory can tell us something very real about the world. Our latest video gets into these illuminating stories, from merpeople (or is that manatees?) to pontianak.

Check out the full video on YouTube to learn more, and subscribe to Mental Floss for new videos every week.