Half Human, Half Beast: Mythological Figures of Ancient Times

Centaur
Centaur. Clipart.com

For as long as humans have been telling stories, there has been a fascination with the idea of creatures who are half human and half animal. The strength of this archetype can be seen in the persistence of modern tales of werewolves, vampires, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, and a host of other monster/horror characters. Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, and more than a century later the image of the vampire has already installed itself as part of the popular mythology.

 

It's wise to remember that the popular stories told over meals or at amphitheater performances in centuries past are what we think of today as mythology. In 2,000 years, people may regard the legend of the vampire as a bit of interesting mythology to study alongside the tales of the Minotaur roaming the underworld.

A great many man/beast characters that we know made their first appearance in the stories of ancient Greece or Egypt. It is likely some of these stories were already in existence by that time, but we depend on the ancient cultures with written languages we can decipher for the first examples of these characters.

Let's look at some of the mythical half-human, half-animal creatures from stories told in past ages. 

The Centaur

One of the most famous hybrid creatures is the centaur, the horse-man of Greek legend.  An interesting theory about the origin of the centaur is that they were created when people of the Minoan culture, who were unfamiliar with horses, first met tribes of horse-riders, and were so impressed with the skill that they created stories of horse-humans.

 

Whatever the origin, the legend the centaur endured into Roman times, during which there was great scientific debate over whether the creatures indeed existed--much the way the existence of the yeti is argued today.  And the centaur has been present in story-telling ever since, even appearing in the Harry Potter books and films.

 

Echidna

Echidna is a half woman, half snake from Greek mythology, where she was known as the mate of the fearsome snake-man Typhon, and mother of many of the most horrible monsters of all time. Some scholars believe these characters evolved into the stories of dragons in medieval times. 

Harpy

In Greek and Roman stories, the harpy is a bird with the head of a woman. The poet Ovid described them as human vultures.  In legend, they are known as the source of destructive winds. 

Even today, a woman may be known behind her back as a Harpy if others find her annoying, and an alternative verb for "nag" is "harp." 

The Gorgons

Again from Greek mythology, the Gorgons were three sisters who were entirely human in every way—except for hair made from writhing, hissing snakes. So fearsome were they, that anyone gazing on them directly was turned to stone. 

Similar characters appear in the earliest centuries of Greek story-telling, in which gorgon-like creatures also had scales and claws, not just reptilian hair. 

Some people suggest that the irrational horror of snakes that some people exhibit might be related to early horror stories like that of the Gorgons.

The Mandrake

Here is a rare instance in which it's not an animal, but a plant that is one-half of the hybrid.

The mandrake plant is an actual group of plants (genus Mandragora) found in the Mediterranean region, which has the peculiar property of having roots that look like a human face. This, combined with the fact that the plant has hallucinogenic properties, lead to the mandrake's entry into human folklore. In legend, when the plant is dug up, its screams can kill anyone who hears it. 

Harry Potter fans will undoubtedly remember that mandrakes appear in those books and movies. The story clearly has staying power. 

The Mermaid

The first knowledge with have of this creature with the head and upper body of a human woman and the lower body and tail of a fish first comes from ancient Assyria, when the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for accidentally killing her human lover.

 Since then, Mermaids have appeared in stories throughout all ages, and they are not always recognized as fictional. Christopher Columbus swore that he saw real-life mermaids on his voyage to the new world.

The mermaid is a character that continues to resonate, as evidenced by Disney's blockbuster movie of 1989, The Little Mermaid, which itself was an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's 1837 fairy tale. And 2017 saw a live action movie remake of the story, too. 

Minotaur

In Greek stories, and later Roman, the Minotaur is a creature that is part bull, part man. It derives from the bull-god, Minos, a major deity of the Minoan civilization of Crete. His most famous appearance is in the Greek story of Theseus seeking to rescue Ariadne from the labyrinth in the underworld.

But the minotaur as a creature of legend has been durable, appearing in Dante's Inferno, and in modern fantasy fiction. Hell Boy, first appearing in 1993 comics, is a modern version of the Minotaur. One might argue that the Beast character from the tale of Beauty and the Beast is another version of the same myth. 

Satyr

Another fantasy creature from Greek stories is the satyr, a creature who is part goat, part man. Unlike many hybrid creatures of legend, the satyr (or the late Roman manifestation, the faun) are not dangerous, but creatures hedonistically devoted to pleasure. 

Even today, to call someone a satyr is to imply they are impishly obsessed with physical pleasure. 

Siren

In ancient Greek stories, the siren was a creature with the head and upper body of a human woman and the legs and tail of a bird.

She was a dangerous creature for sailors, luring them onto the rocks with their alluring songs. When Odysseus returned from Troy in Homer's famous epic, "The Odyssey," he tied himself to the mast of his ship in order to resist their lures.

The legend persisted for quite a while. Several centuries later, the Roman Historian Pliny the Elder was making the case for regarding Sirens as imaginary, fictional beings rather than actual creatures. They made a reappearance in the writings of 17th century Jesuit priests, who believed them to be real, and even today, a woman thought to be dangerously seductive is sometimes referred to as a siren.

Sphinx

The sphinx is a creature with the head of a human and the body and haunches of a lion and sometimes the wings of an eagle and tail of a snake.  It is most commonly associated with ancient Egypt, due to the famous Sphinx monument that can be visited today at Giza. But the sphinx was also a character in Greek story-telling. Wherever it appears, the Sphinx is a dangerous creature that challenges humans to answer questions, then devours them when they fail to answer correctly. 

The Sphinx figures into the story of Oedipus, where his claim to fame is that he answered the riddle of the Sphinx correctly. In Greek stories, the sphinx has the head of a woman; in Egyptian stories, the Sphinx is a man. 

A similar creature with the head of a man and body of a lion is also present in the mythology of Southeast Asia. 

What Does it Mean?

Psychologists and scholars of comparative mythology have long debated why human culture is so fascinated by hybrid creatures that combine attributes of both humans and animals.

Scholars like the late Joseph Campbell might maintain that these are psychological archetypes, ways of expressing our innate love-hate relationship with the animal side of ourselves from which we evolved. Others would view them less seriously, as merely entertaining myths and stories offering scary fun that requires no analysis. 

 

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Gill, N.S. "Half Human, Half Beast: Mythological Figures of Ancient Times." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2017, thoughtco.com/name-of-half-man-half-beast-120536. Gill, N.S. (2017, July 31). Half Human, Half Beast: Mythological Figures of Ancient Times. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/name-of-half-man-half-beast-120536 Gill, N.S. "Half Human, Half Beast: Mythological Figures of Ancient Times." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/name-of-half-man-half-beast-120536 (accessed December 18, 2017).