Half Human, Half Beast: Mythological Figures of Ancient Times

Centaur
Centaur. Clipart.com

Creatures who are half-man, half-beast are found in the legends of nearly every culture on our planet. A great many of those in western culture made their first appearance in stories and plays from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. They probably are older still: myths about sphinxes and centaurs and minotaurs told at the dinner table or in the amphitheaters were undoubtedly passed down over generations. 

The strength of this archetype can be seen in the persistence of modern tales of werewolves, vampires, Dr. Jekyll 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. 

Oddly enough, though, the closest we have for a general word containing the meaning of half-human, half-beast hybrid is "therianthrope," which generally refers to a shapeshifter, someone who is entirely human for part of the time and entirely animal for the other part. Other words that are used in English and other languages are specific to the blends and often refer to the legendary creatures of the myths. Here are some of the mythical half-human, half-animal creatures from stories told in past ages. 

Photo © Paolo Tosi - Artothek; used with permission
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1444/45-1510). Pallas and the Centaur, ca. early 1480s. Tempera on canvas. 207 x 148 cm (81 1/2 x 58 1/4 in.). Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence / Photo © Paolo Tosi - Artothek

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 time there was a 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. The first reference of Echidna is in the Greek mythology of Hesiod,' Theogony, written probably around the turn of the 7th–8th century BCE. Some scholars believe that stories of dragons in medieval Europe are in part based on Echidna. 

Harpy

In Greek and Roman stories, the harpy was described as a bird with the head of a woman. The earliest existing reference comes from Hesiod, and 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." 

Medusa.jpg
Circa 500 BCE, An archaic metope from one of the Temples of Selinus. Perseus, the son of Zeus and Danae from Greek mythology is beheading the Gorgon Medusa. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Gorgons

Another therianthrope from Greek mythology is the Gorgons, three sisters (Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa) who were entirely human in every way—except that their hair was made up of writhing, hissing snakes. So fearsome were these creatures 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.

Mandrake

The Mandrake is a rare instance in which a hybrid creature is a blend of a plant and human. 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. 

Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen
Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen. Linda Garrison

Mermaid

The first legend of the Mermaid, a creature with the head and upper body of a human woman and the lower body and tail of a fish comes from a legend from ancient Assyria, in which 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, but then, he'd been at sea for quite a while.

There's an Irish and Scottish version of a mermaid, half-seal, half-woman, known as a selkie. The Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson used the mermaid legend to tell of a hopeless romance between a mermaid and a human man. His 1837 tale has also inspired several movies, including director Ron Howard's 1984 Splash, and Disney's blockbuster 1989, The Little Mermaid

Minotaur

In Greek stories, and later Roman, the Minotaur is a creature that is part bull, part man. Its name 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 who fought the Minotaur in the heart of the labyrinth to rescue Ariadne.

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. 

A satyr chats with a Maenead, one of Dionysus's other followers. Tarporley Painter/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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), is not dangerous—except perhaps to human women, as a creature hedonistically and raucously 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 an especially dangerous creature for sailors, singing from rocky shores which hid dangerous reefs and luring the sailors onto them. 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 has 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, and an entrancing idea as a "siren song".

The Sphinx - Site of the First Archaeological Excavation
The Sphinx - Site of the First Archaeological Excavation. Yen Chung / Moment / Getty Images

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 prominently in the tragedy of Oedipus, who answered the riddle of the Sphinx correctly and suffered mightily because of it. 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 of folklore and mythology such as Joseph Campbell 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.