Mythic Creatures At The AMNH
When faced with phenomenon they could not explain, early human
imagination went into overdrive creating, misidentifying, and speculating to
But a new exhibit at the American Museum of
Natural History, (AMNH) scientifically traces the origins of the world’s most
famous mythic creatures. Entitled “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns, &
Mermaids”—at the museum until January 6—it deftly combines nature
and myth with paleontology and anthropology and amusing models of mythical
creatures with authentic fossils to explore the origins of the mystifying
“This museum has a long history of studying and presenting great stories about
the natural word and the culture of humanity,” said AMNH president Ellen Futter
at a press preview prior to the opening. She added that this exhibition extends
that tradition even further by looking at the intersection of nature and
culture, those moments when people glimpse something fantastical in nature.
The first section of the exhibit explores the terrifying monsters of the sea,
imaginary beasts that rose from the waves and evolved into sailors’ tales. A
1565 map of Iceland is resplendent with monsters like the hippocampus, which combines
a horse with a scarlet mane and webbed feet and a fish tale. But these mythic
creatures are actually interpretations of real creatures glimpsed but not understood.
A sea serpent might actually have been a large school of fish riding a wave.
Some sea creatures pop up in cultures around the world. “Mermaids, for
instance, were probably born in the minds of lonely sailors,” said Laurel
Kendall, one of the show’s curators.
In the section dealing with creatures of the land visitors can touch a real
narwhal tusk, which, for centuries, Europeans accepted as proof of the
unicorn’s existence. In a video, scholar Adrienne Mayor explains she studied
maps where Greeks claimed giants’ remains, which may have been, bones belonging
The exhibit introduces visitors to little-known imaginary beasts like the
Japanese kappa, a green monkey-faced creature that munched on children and
cucumbers. Kappas lived in ponds but occasionally strolled on land. Bowls of
water on their heads were their source of power. Wayfarers meeting a Kappa late
at night were advised to bow; when the Kappa bowed back, water would spill from
its bowl and powerless, he would run back to his pond.
In addition, the exhibit has several interactive stations. At one of the most
entertaining, visitors can build their own dragon by engaging a touch-tone
Among the many other highlights are a richly embroidered Chinese imperial
dragon robe, a 120-foot-long Chinese parade dragon, and life-size models of
mythical creatures including a 10-foot long unicorn and an enormous kraken with
a wingspan of nearly 20-feet rising from the sea. An excellent teacher’s guide is
available for classroom visits. (For more information: Tel. 212-769-5100 or