One of the beautiful things about genre fiction is how authors are able to bring mythical creatures to life on the page — whether that’s a demonic being in a horror novel or a winged sidekick in a fantasy series. And while many of the creatures you see in the pages of your favorite books are original creations, they’re very often inspired by (or an amalgam of various) creatures from myth.
In this post, we’re running through a list of mythical creatures and giving you a couple of literary examples to help you begin your hunt for these wonderful, fantastical beings.
First up, let's look at the creatures who look human (but most definitely are not).
The bogeyman can take many forms, but their purpose remains constant: to scare the living daylights out of children and coerce them into good behavior. A bogeyman might be an actual human (in one of the tales of Struwwelpeter, a tailor cuts off a boy's thumbs because he sucks them too much), but in most cases, it’s a supernatural force of some type.
Where to find one: Pennywise from Stephen King’s It is our generation’s bogeyman of choice. He’s been teaching children to distrust clowns and to run straight home from school since 1986.
Though their portrayals will vary across culture — from brooding sexy ones in Twilight and Anne Rice novels to terrifying monstrous Count Orlok in Nosferatu — there are a few things that remain the same: vampires feed on the living to remain immortal, they avoid sunlight, and their hearts are vulnerable to sharp objects — you know, just like you and me. Often a metaphor for the dangers of sexual desire, vampires have remained firmly in the cultural consciousness for over a hundred and fifty years.
Where to find one: For an oldie but a goodie, why not start with Bram Stoker’s Dracula? For something more contemporary, give Justin Cronin’s The Passage a go. Or for something that’s less likely to keep you up at night, why not try Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy for YA readers.
Jewish folklore has more than its fair share of creatures that will send chills down your spine. Perhaps none more than the dybbuk, the dislocated soul of someone deceased who has taken over a host body to complete unfinished business. Though one was featured in the opening scene of The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, Dybbuks have recently re-entered popular imagination as the unlikely antagonist of rapper Post Malone.
Where to find one: Richard Zimler’s The Warsaw Anagrams is a murder mystery of sorts, narrated by a dybbuk who recounts and recalls the horrors that took place within the Warsaw Ghetto in the early 40s.
A female spirit whose haunting howls herald a coming death. Banshees are a part of Irish mythology best known for their ubiquity in modern metaphor (“screams like a banshee”) and their tendency to support Siouxsie Sioux in concert.
Where to find one: Patricia Lysaght’s non-fiction The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger is an in-depth look at the roots behind this under-appreciated myth.
Perhaps the best known of the evil spirits in Indonesia and Malaysia, Pontianak is said to be the souls of women who died whilst pregnant. Noted for their pale skin, long, lank hair and white dress (think the girl from The Ring), they’ve been known to lure and kill unsuspecting men. Be warned, if you smell their signature scent of frangipani, run away!
Where to find one: Sharlene Teo’s Singapore-set Ponti revolves around three women connected by a cult 70s film featuring the Pontianak legend.
While its name derives from Haitian folklore, the zombies we’re most accustomed to originate from the mid-20th century. In particular, we’re talking about the creatures in I am Legend by Richard Matheson and the classic films of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead). Divorced from all semblance of their former selves and highly infectious, these shambling corpses have only one desire: to consume human flesh.
Now that we've ticked off some humanoid mythical creatures, let's head into the menagerie for some inspired by the animal kingdom.
Cut off one head, and two more will take its place. This was the challenge that faced Heracles when he was commanded to slay the Hydra of Lerna, a many-headed beast, during the second of his labors.
Where to find one: In The Sea of Monsters, Rick Riordan’s second Percy Jackson book, our heroes battle a hydra whose life-force is connected to a mysterious donut shop. The donuts, apparently, were really good.
Part lion, part goat, part snake. It seems entirely plausible that the chimera owes its existence to someone viewing three adjacent animals from far away — but who knows? The term chimera is now used to describe anything puzzlingly composed of more than one pre-existing thing.
Where to find one: In J.K. Rowling’s Quidditch Through the Ages, it is revealed that Dai Llewellyn, a famous Welsh Quidditch player, was devoured by a Chimera while on holiday in Mykonos.
Yeti, Sasquatch, and Bigfoot 🦍👣
Apologies to Bigfeet aficionados, but we’re grouping these giant ape-men together. Known for their ability to remain out of focus in photographs, they remain a point of fascination for real-world true believers. As recently as February 2019, retired baseball player Jose Canseco was selling tour packages to join him on Bigfoot hunts.
Where to find one: Harry Turtledove published a series of short stories about Bill Williamson, the first bigfoot state governor. The most recent entry (which you can read for free) focuses on Bill’s daughter, a teenage bigfoot who heads to college.
Despite (to our knowledge) having never existed, the dragon features in the mythology of numerous civilisations around the world — and is often used as a symbol of royal power. Perhaps the single most common creature found in fantasy fiction, they continue to capture readers’ imaginations with their various depictions on page and screen.
Where to find one: You’re really spoiled for choice here. If you were to twist our arm, we’d have to suggest Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which is set in an alternate history where the Napoleonic wars with fleets of intelligent mounted dragons.
“Hi, I’m a unicorn. You may recognize me from such places as Every Child’s Birthday Party and 90% of All Items in a Gift Store.” At some point in the past, unicorns were retconned to fart rainbows, which perfectly encapsulates their anything-goes mythology. In picture books for under-fives, the unicorn remains a popular central figure.
Where to find one: In Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Tristan rescues a unicorn from a deadly fight with a lion.
What’s scarier than a serpent? One that’s been cross-bred with a rooster and can kill with a single stare! Not content with just one power, certain myths also suggest basilisks have the ability to turn silver into gold. The return on investment isn’t as good as what Rumplestiltskin offered, but it’s still not bad. The legend of the Warsaw Basilisk saw the creature defeated by a cunning local doctor who created a suit made of feathers and mirrors. Fun!
Where to find one: In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry has to defeat something called a basilisk, which in this case is just a giant snake. Did Rowling think that a serpent with a chicken head would be too scary or not scary enough?
A universal symbol of resurrection, whether representing a character’s spiritual resurgence or their literal return from the grave. Also featured heavily in royal heraldry, the creature is said to stem from Greek and Roman mythology.
Where to find one: Of course, there’s Fawkes in Harry Potter but if you’re looking for something a little different, check out Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum. This Discworld take on vampire tropes features Hodgesaargh, a falconer who tries to snare a phoenix using a brightly colored bird puppet.
With the body of a lion and the head, wings, and front feet of an eagle, the Griffin seems almost tailor-made for riding — were they not such temperamental creatures. Some versions of the griffin are known for jealously guarding gold (much like their dragon cousins). As a symbol, this majestic being can be seen in heraldry as well as in logos like that of Vauxhall Motors.
Where to find one: In Diana Wynne Jones’s Year of the Griffin, a Wizard professor enrolls a group of students to the Wizards’ University. He is quickly disappointed to learn that none of them are as wealthy as he had hoped, except for Elda — who happens to the daughter of a Dark Lord… and also a giant golden griffin.
Loch Ness Monster 🏴🌊 🦕
The creature known to locals as ‘Nessie’ is another creation of the 20th century and a common subject of spurious photography. Despite, you know, logic, various professional expeditions have taken place using expensive equipment to seek out this urban myth. If you grew up in Scotland, you’ll be more than familiar with the Nessie merchandise that populates every gift shop in the land. That and you probably remember this cartoon.
Where to find one: unless you’ve entered the fevered dreams of an obsessive monster-hunter, you can find them in children’s picture books, such as Nessie The Loch Ness Monster by Richard Brassey.
When is a creature neither an animal nor a person? When they're a human-animal hybrid, of course!
An enduring motif in mythology across Europe, werewolves (or lycanthropes, to give them their SAT name) served a similar function to witches, as men were commonly hunted and executed in the belief that they transformed into ravenous creatures called werewolves. In more recent times, they have become the subject of classic horror films, and even the object of affection in certain corners of paranormal romance.
Satyrs and Fauns 👨🐐
With the bottom half of a goat and the top half of a human, Satyrs and Fauns are somewhat similar. That is, with the exception that Satyrs are a lot more interested in chasing women, while a faun is much more likely to invite you in for a lovely cup of cocoa.
Where to find one: Mr. Tumnus from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is certainly the first name to come to mind. But if you want to spend a few hundred pages being chased by a satyr, check out Brian Keene’s disturbing Dark Hollow.
With the top half of a human and the full body of a horse, Centaurs have long served as antagonists in Greek mythology, falling victim to classical heroes like Heracles and Theseus. These days, Centaurs can mostly be found filling up the darker corners of the user-contributed fan site, DeviantArt. (Warning: do NOT run that search).
Where to find one: One of the characters in Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series is Foaly, a paranoid hacker who also happens to be a centaur.
With the head of a bull and the body of a man, you can’t blame the top-heavy minotaur for being an angry fellow. Trapped at the center of a labyrinth built by cruel King Minos of Crete (who lends his name to the creature), the legendary Minotaur was finally slain by the Athenian Theseus.
Where to find one: In Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil encounter the Minotaur as they enter the seventh circle of hell. He also pops up in Percy Jackson (surprise, surprise!).
These scorpion-men of ancient Mesopotamia are best known for guarding the gates of the sun god in the Epic of Gilgamesh. They’re sort of like a desert Centaur with the added talent of being able to sting you with their tail.
Where to find one: Apart from their appearance in Gilgamesh, the easiest way to get more aqrabuamelu content would be to watch a poorly animated Dwayne Johnson in The Mummy Returns.
Not all Mermaids want to be where the people are, and walk on those — what do you call them? — feet. Presumably invented in the parched, sun-baked minds of ancient sailors, Mermaids are the human/fish hybrids that rule the underwater kingdom. Their mythos has since been informed by Greek sirens, and they are seen as both menaces and potential lovers to those who travel by sea.
Where to find one: if you’ve read the tragic non-Disney tale of The Little Mermaid then check out The Moon and the Sun about a pair of aristocratic siblings who capture a mermaid and bring her back to the court of Louis XIV.
A fantastical creature or a product of ancient misogyny? You be the judge! According to Ovid’s telling in Metamorphoses, Medusa was a beautiful maiden who was transformed by Athena in a jealous rage. Where once she had a lovely mane of hair and a gorgeous face, there were now only snakes for locks and a visage that turned men instantly to stone. Thankfully, the great hero Perseus was on hand to cut off her head and take it as a trophy. She really was too good for this world.
Where to find one: like many Greek monsters, Medusa makes an appearance in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief.
Now that we've had our fill of fish-women and dog-men, let's crack out our microscopes and meet the smaller members of the mythological world.
Nymphs, Faeries, and Sprites 🧚🏿♂️🧝
Sometimes supernatural, often magical or ethereal, and almost always tiny, these winged spirits appear in a bunch of European pagan traditions. Though some may be malicious, most depictions of faeries paint them as semi-benevolent elemental beings — protectors of nature, be they water nymphs or woodland fairies.
Where to find one: Fairies are quite a common feature in fantasy fiction — especially as protagonists in urban fantasy. But for a bit of a classy recommendation, you can turn to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which features a cast of enduring fairy characters, such as the mischievous Puck and the royal couple Oberon and Titania.
With powers similar to fairies, Goblins are best characterized by their greed, short temper, and penchant for mischief. They also tend to be a whole lot uglier than their tiny cousins — needless to say, you don’t want to get them mixed up.
Where to find one: in The Spiderwick Chronicles, one of the young Grace twins is abducted by goblins. His siblings’ attempt to rescue him constitutes the primary plot of The Seeing Stone.
Where fairies tend to be elemental (in that they’re part of nature), gnomes are their domestic cousins, known for living in walls and underground. In Cologne, the legend of the Heinzelmännchen tells of house gnomes who did the town’s work at night, so that the citizens could just laze about all day. But that changed when a tailor’s wife had the bright idea to scatter peas on the ground to make them slip up and leave town.
Where to find one: in one of his rare departures from Discworld, Terry Pratchett published Truckers, the first entry of his "Bromeliad" trilogy. It’s set amongst a community of “nomes” whose culture and religion is based on the department store they've made their home.
Leprechauns 🍀 🌈🏅
Before they were best known as pitchmen for sugary cereal, Leprechauns were the Irish sprites who, according to legend, would grant three wishes to anyone able to catch him. Like many of the other wee people, they had a talent for mending shoes — though unlike gnomes, they would hide their earnings in a pot at the end of a rainbow.
Where to find one: There isn’t a load of great leprechaun stories for adults (unless you count the hit-and-miss horror films). A great picture book alternative is Gerald McDermott’s Tim O'Toole and the Wee Folk.
And to round off our list, let us not forget about the largest of mythical creatures: the giants!
Huge, monstrous creatures with an appetite for human flesh — that of children, in particular. Ogres have turned up in a variety of fairy tales and myths including those of The Odyssey, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Puss in Boots. The animated film Shrek would have you believe that ogres are secretly gentle beings with layers of emotion, but don’t let your guard down around them!
Where to find one: in Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Selfish Giant”, we learn that the titular character has returned from visiting his friend The Cornish Ogre — who we presume is a saint, based on the fact that he let the Giant stay for seven years.
They’re giants, but with only one eye — which makes them a bit less formidable than their two-eyed cousins. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is trapped in the cave home of Polyphemus the Cyclops. Odysseus tells the giant that his name is ‘Nobody’ and blinds him with a sharpened spike. When Polyphemus calls for help, he screams that he has been “hurt by Nobody,” which confuses the other cyclopses long enough for Odysseus to escape. Silly cyclops.
Where to find one: seeing as the character from X-Men doesn’t quite count, Homer’s Odyssey is still your best bet.
If you ever wondered what that red-faced monster emoji was (see above) then here’s the answer! Giant ogre-like monsters of Japanese mythology, the Oni are man-eaters often depicted carrying heavy iron clubs. During the Japanese spring festival, it’s not unusual to witness a custom in which dried beans are tossed around to ward off Oni.
Where to find one: the manga series Hell Teacher Nūbē is about a mild-mannered teacher who has powers of exorcism thanks to an Oni embedded in his left hand.
In Jewish folklore, the Golem is an automaton made of clay: an early magical robot who is said to protect or terrorize people (depending on who you ask). The most famous variation is the Golem of Prague, which was created to protect the Jewish ghettos from the wrath of the Holy Roman Empire.
Where to find one: an early section of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay involves a plot to smuggle the allegedly dormant Golem out of Prague before the arrival of the Nazis.
This list is by no means exhaustive — what mythical creatures have we missed, and what is your favorite example in literature?
(Header photo by Mathew Schwartz)