Outside of children, schizophrenics, and the occasional nutjob who gets their own show on the history channel (lookin’ at you, Finding Bigfoot), we all know that monsters don’t exist.
But why are we so enamored with them? Monster myths and movies are nothing new or unusual- ancient Greek mythology is chock-full of horrific beasts. Where do they stem from? Well, in general, monsters represent fears we hold as a society- some are more overt, some are more existential. And certainly those fears have evolved and changed (and grown) over the years. So, what do creatures like the Minotaur and the Xenomorph from Alien say about us as a society?
Well, in order to answer that, let’s travel back in time to 150BC, in ancient Greece. Believe it or not, some of the first recorded mythological monsters were relatively tame and boring by modern standards.
Mostly, they were simply common animals with slightly abnormal characteristics. Take the Nemean lion, for example.
The Nemean lion was a ferocious beast that was said to have been impervious to weapons. Slaying it was Hercules’ first labor. Let’s break it down: first off, the lion wasn’t really anything special. In most ancient art depicting the lion, it’s shown to be just as big as Hercules (the Disney version scaled him up). And secondly, our hero Herc didn’t do anything special to defeat it, he walled up one entrance to the lion’s den, then walked into the other and just choked him out MMA style.
I’m fully expecting this scene in the new Hercules movie
There wasn’t anything mystical or fantastical about the Nemean lion. He was just ferocious, slightly bigger than normal, and one tough son of a bitch- so this actually could be scientifically possible. Back in the day, lions actually used to inhabit Europe. The now-extinct European Lion would have lived (but been endangered) in Greece around that time. The European Lion traditionally lived in the mountains and actually was significantly larger and furrier than it’s African relative. Why? It’s all got to do with the temperature. As you might have guessed, even southern Europe is significantly colder than Africa, and as such European Lions would have evolved to face these brisker temperatures. This is where their size comes in to play.
A while back, one of my first Trope-ic Thunder columns was on a law of physics called the “Square-Cube” law, this law states that increasing one dimension of an object (say, the length) increases the surface area of that object by the square of the increase and it’s volume by the CUBE of that increase. It’s just basic mathematics, but it has a lot of far-reaching implications when applied to machines or organisms.
Now, in that column I talked about the problems giant versions of animals would have with moving and supporting their own weight (an animal twice as long would have 4 times the muscles moving 8 times the weight), but what I didn’t talk about was heat. For smaller animals, there is a smaller ratio of surface area to volume, thus, more heat can escape from their body. But for large animals, this ratio is much smaller, keeping the animal well insulated. This is why fatter people are warmer, and this is why the larger European lions would have been selected by evolution to survive in the colder temperatures. This is why the Kodiak bear is much larger than its cousin the Grizzly. This would also be why the lions with the thicker coat would survive better and live on to reproduce. Thus, you’d end up with a bigger and fluffier population of lions. This thicker coat of fur would also offer better protection against the rudimentary bronze and wooden weapons used by the ancient Greeks.
Now, “mythical” monsters such as the Nemean lion and the Calydion boar (another “slightly larger and more ferocious” animal) represent very basic, primitive fears- mainly the fear of being fucking killed or eaten by an animal. This wasn’t an outlandish concept back then, it happened all the goddamn time–hell, people are stilled maimed and killed by boars. Eventually, monsters such as these lost their “monster appeal,” most often (such as in Disney’s Hercules) the Nemean lion is shown as a throw rug or as a skin draped over Hercules’ back–it’s not the horrifying and ferocious beast that it used to be. Monsters such as these gave way to the more bizarre and fantastical creatures of myth that still captivate us, creatures such as Cerberus, Hyrda, the sphinx, the Manitcore, and the Chimera.
Multi-headed monsters such as the Lernaean Hydra and Cerberus are actually fairly grounded in reality. Their giant size (which does conflict with the square-cube law) aside, multi-headed organisms exist in nature- albeit they are statistically rare abnormalities that don’t usually live until adulthood. We’ve discovered multi-headed snakes, lizards, sheep, cats, etc. But these creatures usually die very early on in nature because having multiple heads (and by extension, brains) is extremely maladaptive. Some people have a hard enough time being coordinated with only one head, just think of trying to run, stalk, and hunt without total control over your body. And think of all the group projects you’ve done in school–or all the fight’s you have had with your family. You can’t slam the door on your conjoined twin. We’ve actually observed this in nature as well–two-headed snakes sometimes fight with themselves over food (despite the fact that it’s all going to the same stomach).
Mythical animals such as the Sphinx, Pegasus, Gryphon, Chimera, or Manitcore–creatures with mix-and-match animal parts–are much less scientifically grounded. We’ve never seen a horse with a horrifically majestic mutation that gives it wings. But what fears do they represent? Well, in addition to the primal fears of animal maulings shown in the Nemean lion, these also evoke a fear of the unnatural–of the bizarre and grotesque. Outside of the Chimera–which has a lion’s face, a snake’s head as a tail, and a goat’s head just sticking out of the back–these monsters are grotesquely frightening because of those mix-and-match parts that shouldn’t be there.
Seriously, just look at yourself, Chimera.
It’s the same reason why The Island of Dr. Moreau is frightening: shit’s not natural. And believe it or not, that is a biologically pre-disposed fear. So how did they come about? Well, unlike the Nemean lion, it’s doubtful that the myths of such odd creatures came about through a real-life encounter. This is a possibility in such cases as the Hydra and Cerberus, wherein some poor schmuck was attacked at night by a pack of dogs and mistook it for one horrible creature with multiple heads. But the possibility of a lion, a snake, and a goat attacking a person all at once is a little far-fetched (though it would make for an awesome TV show, like an animal A-Team). Well, one prevailing theory surrounding the Gryphon proposed by Folklorist and Science Historian Adrienne Mayor has to do with Dinosaurs. She argues that perhaps fossils of a Protoceratops (same family as the triceratops) might have been mistaken for a quadruped creature with the head/wings of a bird. Allow me to illustrate with a picture:
Looking at those two images, it’s not that much of a stretch of the imagination to think that this might have been something Gryphon-like. So perhaps misunderstood, or jumbled fossils could account for these mix-and-match monsters. After all, it’s not that uncommon with floods and earthquakes for fossils to get intermixed, or perhaps a lion and snake both got caught in a tar pit whilst trying to kill a goat. We may never know.
Join me next week for the second part of this thrilling investigation where I will be moving forward in history and talking about a creature that has occupied the imaginations of countless authors and screenwriters:
And be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
Have a science-related question? Ask it!
If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.