From lumbering giants and fearsome trolls to impish satyrs and magical elves, mythical creatures have captured imaginations since the dawn of time. Cultures worldwide have passed down tales through the generations and created untold volumes of lore.
Even today, legendary beasts and beings continue to captivate us as stories of old receive contemporary updates in books, movies and on television. In the case of Amazon Prime Video’s fantasy noir series Carnival Row, for example, viewers are introduced to a world in which fabled beings like faeries and fauns live as “immigrants” amongst humans in a war-torn land. In the show, these creatures are feared – and humans restrict their freedoms because of it.
The mythical creatures found in folklore do a lot of different jobs, says Simon Young, a British historian of folklore and co-editor/co-author of the book Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies, 500 AD to the Present. “[They] uphold morality, enforce taboos, connect to divinity, warn against dangers and, most importantly, entertain,” Young says. “If I had to sum it up, though, I’d say they teach us modesty. There are things that are bigger than us that we glimpse and things that we cannot even conceive: things that are, in any case, beyond our control. They are the unknown. The darkness under the stairs or off the path in the forest or in our neighbor’s heart.”
Trolls, fairies and centaurs, oh, my!
A primer on three of the most recognizable creatures of legend
Every culture has its own gaggle of monsters and beings residing in traditional tales. Versions of some creatures, such as the prolific fairy, populate stories across multiple cultures and countries. Others, meanwhile, are born to a single region.
“Places get the monsters they deserve. It is that simple,” Young says. “A hunter-gatherer community will have bogies connected to the chase. An agricultural community will have monsters on the edge of the village, near the fields. An industrial community will have horrors in abandoned factories, etc … There is a vast range. What always amazes me is how they change not just from country to country, but from valley to valley.”
Here’s a closer look at three of the most storied creatures found in myth and lore.
If contemporary popular culture is to be believed, trolls are small, happy-go-lucky creatures with colorful hair who break into song and dance sporadically. Trolls’ roots in Scandinavian folklore, however, tell a different story. In traditional mythology, these monstrous, somewhat humanoid beings were not so cheerful, and actually quite hostile. In these stories, they occupied castles, emerging only at night because exposure to sunlight meant either a horrifying death or a life forever suspended in stone. Certain landmarks in Norway are even said to have formed from a troll that got caught out in the sun.
In other tales, these brutish creatures dwelled in the mountains and boasted overstated facial features that mirrored that of a stereotypical Neanderthal. Still, in different regional stories were trolls who made their homes deep in underground caves. These were described as being even uglier, with stubby limbs, fat bellies and slime-covered skin from all the time spent below the Earth’s surface. There’s some disagreement as to whether the trolls of lore were all bad. But they have been described as being perfect thieves, entering homes under a cloak of invisibility to steal food and cause other mischief.
If there’s one in particular that strikes fear in the hearts of children, however, it’s Grýla, the Icelandic troll woman said to terrorize families during the jolliest time of year – Christmas. Stories are told of Grýla descending from her frigid mountain lair every December to snatch up naughty boys and girls and devour them in a stew. Meanwhile, her mischievous sons, the 13 Yule Lads, started out with backstories of torment as well, but now enjoy a more pleasant reputation … at least in comparison.
Today, trolls have pushed well beyond Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, and have become recurring characters in fantasy films, literature, role-playing games and yes, on toy store shelves. But as varied as their origin and evolution may be, the mythos we have created around trolls often touches on the same theme – a fear of those unlike ourselves.
Even before the term “fairy” (alternatively spelled “faerie” or “faery”) entered the lexicon during the Middle Ages in Europe, different versions of the creature already existed in tales being passed down in regions around the world in both literature and oral traditions. Greek mythology had its nymphs. Irish folklore told of the leprechaun, an often grumpy, mischief-prone subtype of fairy. Look to the Samoans and indigenous people of the Americas, and you’ll find folk characters that bear resemblance to what was, or is, considered a fairy. Many times, fairies – also known as the fae, wee folk, good folk or people of peace – were defined as any mystical creature taking a humanoid appearance.
But what do you think of when you imagine a fairy? The first image that likely springs to mind is of a diminutive, gossamer-winged sprite – often taking the form of a beautiful woman – who uses her magical pixie dust to perform benevolent deeds for humans. While this wholesome representation of fairies commonly populates children’s storybooks in modern times, they actually have a darker and more sinister folkloric past.
Some traditional stories from England, Ireland and Scotland, for example, depict these soulless, supernatural beings as wicked, temperamental entities that weren’t above murder or kidnapping if you landed on their bad side. They’re not always tiny, either. Depending on the region, fairies can be the size of a human, or even bigger.
As some of the fairy legends of western Europe go, if you come across a fairy ring – distinguished by a circle of mushrooms in a field or forest – do not dare step inside. The ring is said to be created by dancing fairies, and entering it can lead to a number of dire consequences.
For example, some myths warned that you’d die young. Other stories alleged you’d be forced to dance around the ring until you died of exhaustion or went mad. Fairy rings were also believed to be instant portals to the fairy realm, where if you ate or drank anything you’d be trapped for eternity. And although humans and fairies were allowed to marry, they could only do so only under certain conditions. If those conditions were not met, the marriage ended – and sometimes, the life of the human would, too.
Centaurs are a race of creatures from Greek mythology that are part man and part horse, and were said to inhabit the mountains and forests of Thessaly and Arcadia. In the ancient tales, they were notorious for lawless barbarism, with a tendency to overindulge in drink and amorous pursuits – they represented the untamed, unchecked side of mankind. The exception to this was the famed centaur Chiron, tutor to the warrior Achilles, who was wise, civilized and kind. Chiron triumphed in burying his animalistic instincts and thus was able to attain a higher level of enlightenment. His story became a symbol of the possibility of living for the sake of others rather than for one’s own self-interests.
The origin of these mythical beings may be based on the very real tradition in Thessaly of hunting bulls on horseback. In fact, some sources assert that the word “centaur” comes from the meaning “bull-killer”. Thessaly also plays host to what might be the most popular tale involving centaurs: the creatures drink so much wine at the king of Lapithae’s wedding that they attempt to ride off with his bride. A fierce battle ensues with the Lapiths, and the centaurs are handily defeated and driven away.
These battles between centaurs and gods or heroes – known as centauromachy – appear regularly in ancient Greek art, adorning pottery and temples. It’s thought that the centaurs in these works served as a symbol of the struggle between savagery and civilization – in the Parthenon, centaurs appear among enemies of the Greek state, giants and Trojans included. In more modern literature, however, centaurs are often depicted as supporting forces of good. Although they can still be dangerous and mysterious, they also step up as allies.
Centaurs, though perhaps the most recognizable, are not the only part-human hybrid creature of ancient Greek origin. There’s the harpy, a part-woman, part-bird associated with wind, the notoriously hedonistic part-goat satyr and the Minotaur, a ruthless monster with the head of a bull, just to name a few.
Legends in the making
Meet the residents of Carnival Row
In Amazon Prime Video’s new series Carnival Row, viewers are given a fresh take on mythological creatures of old. In this period story, set in a Victorian fantasy world, beings including faeries, fauns and trows become refugees after humans invade their own magical homelands. Now living on Carnival Row, these beings are far from free. Subjected to animalistic cruelty, they struggle to coexist with their human counterparts, who grow increasingly fearful of those who are “different”. But there is light in the darkness in the form of human detective Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom), who vows to safeguard his illicit love – a faerie named Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne) – and those who cannot protect themselves.
While Carnival Row is steeped in fantasy, it also serves as a commentary on the real world, touching on some of today’s most serious issues. This intent – that is, offering up a mirror to society and conveying meaningful lessons – has been woven into storytelling and folklore throughout the ages.
And, as long as these stories continue to captivate audiences, they’ll continue to endure in one form or another, says Young.
“Some stories are in our earliest human records and can also be found in internet legends,” he points out. “Other stories, though, have a sell-by date and wither away … It is not the case that all stories are retooled. Each generation also creates its own narratives.”