We have always told stories—stories as warnings, stories as entertainment, stories as explanations for what we could not explain. Within these stories, beasts have often served a vital role: the big bad wolf who represents the dangers of the forest, the vampire who epitomises unnatural temptation, the werewolf who shows the darker side of human nature. The fact that these creatures still feature so prominently in our fiction is a testament to the ubiquitous nature of the feelings they evoke.
Indeed, it’s been a good few years for mythological creatures. They’ve crawled out of the forests, caves, and pools and into the light of day (or at least into the pages of best-selling novels and onto the digital recording devices of TV and film cameras). Still, as an aficionado of European mythology, I am a little disappointed in the repetitive nature of the creatures chosen for starring roles. Some authors, like J. K. Rowling, have spread their wings a little with hippogriffs, but there are vast numbers of other mythological creatures that also speak to our hidden fears and desires.
Are you looking for a fearsome steed for a mighty warrior or a ferocious beast for your heroine to battle? Consider the Yale. Written about by Pliny in his Natural History, the Yale appears to be a muscled-up variant of the antelope, native to Ethiopia.
. . . the size of the river-horse, has the tail of the elephant, and is of a black or tawny colour. It has also the jaws of the wild boar . . .
Sounds scary already, right? Well, those jaws, while fearsome, are not the only weapons the Yale has at its disposal. With two flexible horns, it can slice and dice its opponents with precision, keeping one horn back if need be as a second line of attack should the first one be disabled. Battle-Yale would carve a slew of death through opposing armies.
Put simply, Selkies are seal-people. They swim as seals in the sea, then remove their skins in order to walk on land as human. Selkies are actually making a bit of a splash in fiction at the moment (the movie Ondine, for example) and the tragedy of their nature makes it clear why.
There are three main variants of the classic stories of Selkies. In one, a human steals her seal-skin, and the Selkie is forced to marry the thief. When she finds her seal-skin again, she leaves, returning to the freedom of the waves.
In the second, the Selkie chooses to marry a human for love, discarding her seal-skin. Some tragedy, most often a need to rescue her husband or child from the waves, forces her to don her seal-skin again. She enters the sea, and once this is done she can never return to land.
In the third, the Selkie acts in a similar fashion to the siren, luring humans to the water. Often it is extremely seductive male Selkies who do this luring, bringing their lovers down to their watery homes. In some accounts, male Selkies made somewhat of a habit of it, engaging in nightly visits to unhappily married women or frustrated maidens. Indeed, some women would enact specific rituals in order to let the Selkies know they were up for a bit of splash-and-tumble!
The Púca is a Celtic fairy-beast and an accomplished shapeshifter. One of their favoured forms is that of a black horse with bright golden eyes. In some legends, they are bedecked with chains, which must have been convenient for anyone who had to work with horses. You don’t want to confuse placid old Dobbin for a Púca.
With the help of a bridle made from hairs from the Púca’s own mane, Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, once rode a Púca, a feat never considered before nor equalled since. Alternatively devilish and helpful, they are quixotic beasts, and most troublesome in harvest time. Should a farmer be lax in bringing in his harvest, she will find that the Púca has spoiled them. Their actions towards plants are not limited to human agriculture. From the first of November, the Púca spends his time spitting on wild fruits and berries, spoiling them for human consumption. Why? No one knows—the motivations of the Púca are unclear.
Leucrota are by far my favourite mythological creatures. Again, written about by Pliny as denizens of Ethiopia, you could be forgiven in thinking that the description of a Leucrota is just a bowdlerized version of a hyena. YOU WOULD BE WRONG. Leucrota are far more terrifying. Consider the description:
. . . a wild beast of extraordinary swiftness, the size of the wild ass, with the legs of a stag, the neck, tail, and breast of a lion, the head of a badger, a cloven hoof, the mouth slit up as far as the ears, and one continuous bone instead of teeth . . .
An incredibly fast predator that runs you down, uses its powerful chest and neck to pin you against the ground, and then opens its mouth wide to reveal a razor-sharp tooth-bone, ready to slice you up. That bone extends from ear to ear, so the only hope you have is that the Leucrota might just bite your head right off, giving you a merciful end.
“Ha!” you say. “I’ll simply stay away from Leucrota.” It’s not so easy. One of the other powers of the Leucrota is the ability to mimic human speech. You walk near the woods, momentarily separated from your companion. You call for him, and his voice responds, drawing you deeper into the trees. You follow the voice of your friend, and in moments the Leucrota is upon you.
The mainstays of mythology—the vampires, werewolves, unicorns, and dragons—speak to our primal feelings, but I think these creatures do the same thing. The Yale is a beast, completely inhuman, combining elements of predator and prey. In the hunt there is great danger, but also great reward. The Selkie epitomises a woman who cannot be controlled; she always returns to the sea, and human women abandon their earthly lives for a Selkie lover. The Púca is a nature spirit, whose motivations are always unclear, and who cannot be tamed or relied upon. The Leucrota is not just the danger of the deep, dark woods, he is the call that brings you there.
While I wish these creatures and others like them got a bit more attention, not everyone is overlooking the fertile fields of mythological creatures for fiction. Tumblr user grangerandherbooks has compiled a great list of YA novels featuring some underrated mythological creatures. I’m immensely looking forward to the Monstrous Affections anthology, out from Candlewick in September—I know for a fact it features a half-harpy boy in Sarah Rees Brennan’s "Wings of the Morning", and I am hopeful for further less-championed mythological creatures to make an appearance in the anthology. Ransom Reads has a recent article highlighting some more recommendations. Some personal favourites of my own include the water horses in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races and Sofia Samatar’s Hugo-nominated "Selkie Stories Are for Losers".
Sadly, and I am most unhappy about this, I have yet to find a story that features Leucrota in a starring role.