How to Identify Fabulous and Mythical Beasts

Fabulous beasts are found on many types of object. They are not common in the early-medieval world, but develop in the medieval period when they are also found in bestiaries (books with descriptions and pictures of real and mythical beasts). They also occur in Greek and Roman myths, and are much used in heraldry.

Here is a list of the most common fabulous and mythical beasts that you are likely to come across, together with some hybrids and grotesques. At the top are the well-defined types. The taxonomy of these is not exact – people have disagreed since medieval times about the precise definitions – but as long as we use the same terms, we’ll be able to retrieve all the examples that the PAS has recorded.

At the bottom is a list of some names for the more poorly-defined or unusual animals, and also a list of some real animals that you may find on medieval objects.

It is essential to describe the animal as well as naming it. So if your object has a dragon on it, go on to say that it has four legs and two wings (or that only two of the four legs can be seen, etc). Otherwise you will find that what you felt was a harpy has been interpreted by someone else as a seraph.

Dragon

A dragon is normally defined as a reptile-like creature with four legs and two wings. For two-legged dragons, see Wyvern (below). For something with four legs and two wings that is not reptile-like (especially if it has long ears) see Griffin (below).

Roman dragons

The Latin word draco (from the Greek drakon) meant any great serpent, and so the term ‘dragon’ is used loosely by Romanists; neither legs nor wings are necessary to identify a monster as a dragon. Dragonesque brooches are supposed to have terminals in the shape of a stylised dragon’s head.

Roman dragons (HAMP-AF8352 and DUR-1CF3D2)
Roman dragons on a coin with ‘elephant trampling dragon’ motif (HAMP-AF8352) and a dragonesque brooch (DUR-1CF3D2)

Early-medieval dragons

Although dragons existed in Anglo-Saxon and Viking-age mythology (notably in Beowulf, where the words used include draca and wyrm), they do not appear to be recognisably depicted as such in early-medieval art. Fabulous beasts do not appear to have been classified in as rigorous a way as they were later in the medieval period, and on the PAS database we simply describe the animal we can see.

Medieval dragons

The dragon is the commonest mythical creature in the medieval world. It is normally shown as a reptile-like creature with four legs and two wings. The tail is often curled right over into a loop

Dragons often appear in medieval stories as the foe of St George or St Michael. These two saints can usually be told apart because St Michael has wings and a halo (he is an angel) but St George does not. St George is often shown riding a horse.

Another common story involving a dragon is that of Margaret of Antioch. This unpleasant tale has many variants, but essentially Margaret escaped after having been swallowed by a dragon. She is generally shown with a cross.

The dragons shown with saints often do not have the standard features (four legs, two wings, reptile-like), but you can identify them as dragons because they are with their saints.

St Michael and St Margaret (SOM-66F03F and NMS-725FA8)
St Michael and St Margaret with their dragons (SOM-66F03F and NMS-725FA8)

Wyvern

A wyvern looks like a dragon (i.e. reptilian), but it has only two legs. With two legs and two wings, they can look rather like birds, but their long tails, often curled into a circle like dragons’ tails, can give them away. They also should have reptilian heads, with jaws instead of a beak. Many animals currently recorded as ‘dragon’ on the PAS database are in fact wyverns.

Wyverns (WILT-D09287, SWYOR-5C94D1, SF10663)
Medieval wyverns on buckle plates (WILT-D09287, SWYOR-5C94D1, SF10663)

Griffin

A hybrid of a lion and eagle. It normally has the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. It can also have long ears, and the ears are how you recognise a griffin from its head only.

Griffin has two alternative spellings that you may see elsewhere, ‘griffon’ and ‘gryphon’. We only use ‘griffin’ on the PAS database, to allow easy searches.

Roman griffins

The commonest place to find a Roman griffin is on a razor handle. Note the long ears projecting from the top of the head, which distinguish the griffin’s head from a bird’s head.

Roman razors (PUBLIC-889594 and NLM-D150A3)
Griffin heads on Roman razors (PUBLIC-889594 and NLM-D150A3)

Occasionally griffins can be found elsewhere….

Griffin from the Crosby Garrett helmet (LANCUM-E48D73)
Griffin from the Crosby Garrett helmet (LANCUM-E48D73)

Medieval griffins

It can be hard to distinguish griffins from dragons, as both have four legs and wings. The griffin has a lion’s body and eagle’s head, and the dragon has a reptile’s head and body, but the details need to be clearly shown to be certain which one you are looking at. Long legs and long ears probably indicate a griffin. If in doubt, use both words.

Some medieval griffins (YORYM-066D9E, SWYOR-2BF7A1 and YORYM-2D1EE6)
Some medieval griffins (YORYM-066D9E, SWYOR-2BF7A1 and YORYM-2D1EE6)

Lion

You may not think that a lion belongs in the category of fantastic and mythical beasts, but this was not necessarily clear in medieval England. Lions in medieval art, unsurprisingly, do not look very realistic, but they do have certain identifying features: the tail ends in a tuft, and the neck is decorated to represent a mane. Contrast these with the more naturalistic lions produced in the Roman world.

Roman lions: mount (SF-434D85) and key handle (SF-6038E8). Lion on an 11th-century stirrup-strap mount (SOM-AB8488). Lion on a medieval buckle plate (NMS-EA1F40).
Roman lions: mount (SF-434D85) and key handle (SF-6038E8). Medieval lions: 11th-century stirrup-strap mount (SOM-AB8488) and buckle plate (NMS-EA1F40).

Heraldic lions are a little different in that they do not always have a mane. You can often identify them by their distinctive posture (e.g. rampant, passant guardant, sejant, etc). See How to Describe Objects with Heraldic Decoration for more details.

You may find a heraldic lion passant guardant referred to as a ‘leopard’, but this usage is now outdated and should not be followed.

Heraldic lion badges IOW-C796F1 and HAMP-A18340
Heraldic lion badges. Left: lion rampant with mane and tufted tail (IOW-C796F1). Right: lion passant guardant with minimal mane and tufts in the centre and at the end of the tail (HAMP-A18340)

Sphinx

Technically a sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a human, and sometimes wings. Although the Egyptian sphinx has taken over our imagination, most sphinxes do not have its characteristic pose. The sphinx is not used much in medieval art, so most of our examples will be Roman (especially on coins) or modern.

Sphinxes (BH-5A9878, SWYOR-174FC1, NLM-EB59B7)
Sphinx on an Iron Age coin (BH-5A9878). Possible sphinx on a Roman amulet, with lion’s paw, woman’s head and body, and wings (SWYOR-174FC1). Egyptian sphinx on a modern regimental badge (NLM-EB59B7).

Harpy

A harpy is a bird (normally an eagle) with a human neck and head. They are almost always female. The plural is harpies.

Centaur

A centaur is a human-animal hybrid with the upper body of a man and the lower body (with all four legs) of a horse.

Mermaid

A mermaid is a human/animal hybrid with the upper body of a woman and the lower body and tail of a fish. The male equivalent (not often found) is a merman.

Centaur on a buckle plate (NMS-B8B005) and mermaid on a seal matrix (SWYOR-48F8B2)
Centaur on a buckle plate (NMS-B8B005 – albeit with lion’s body rather than horse’s body) and mermaid on a seal matrix (SWYOR-48F8B2)

Other hybrids

There are many other forms of human-animal hybrids, not all of which have names. Using the word ‘hybrid’ will help in searching. The term ‘gryllus’ is often used for a monster with a human face and an animal’s body. It can be a useful word, but remember that a gryllus comes in many forms and must be clearly described.

Other mythical beasts: yale, centicore, manticore, basilisk and others

There is no agreed definition for these and many other fabulous and fantastic beasts. You can use the words, but do be careful to explain what you mean by them and to describe the animal or hybrid precisely.

Real beasts commonly found in medieval art

Other animals you might find on medieval objects include hares and hounds, monkeys or apes, and squirrels.