Mythological Humanoid Creatures

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In every mythological system, there are creatures with humanlike appearances. In this lesson we'll look at these creatures and see what they meant to various world cultures.

Humanoid Creatures in Mythology

One of the most fun things about studying world mythologies is looking at the various mythological creatures believed by various people to inhabit the world. Some of these are flat out cool, others are spooky, but all tell us something about the culture that described them. This is especially true of humanoid creatures, those with a roughly humanlike form but which are definitely not human. Anthropologists have debated the meaning of humanoid creatures for a long time. In some cultures, they seem to represent various aspects of human nature, from savagery to pure goodness. Sometimes, they may have been inspired by actual humans, in many cases shamans with wild appearances living in the wilderness. Sometimes they may have been products of human imagination, longing to see someone and envisioning human forms on non-human objects or creatures. Whatever the case, world mythologies are full of these near-human beings that have long played a major role in human beliefs, superstitions, and imagination.

Humanlike Creatures

While there are dozens and dozens of humanoid mythological creatures, let's at least attempt to organize them a bit. We'll start with those that basically look human, but with some notable differences. A great example may be the cyclops, a kind of giant in Greek mythology that only had one eye in the middle of its forehead. While many of us are familiar with the monster of Oedipus' journeys, originally the cyclopes were craftspeople, their one eye possibly representing the eye patches worn by blacksmiths to protect themselves from embers. Some have also proposed that the legend of cyclopes arose from fossil remains of mammoths. Mammoth skulls are huge, with one giant hole in the middle, which is where the trunk originates. For an ancient people who had never seen elephants, the skull could have inspired the myth of one-eyed giants.

Cyclopes played a large role in Greek mythology
Cyclops

On the opposite side of giants, many humanoid magical creatures are smaller than actual people, and around the world take on a mixed role of trickster and benevolent protector. In Ireland you may hear of leprechauns, in Finland the haltija, in Italy the Monaciello, or in traditional Hawaiian culture the menehune. I'm from the mountains of Colorado, so my personal favorite is the tommyknocker. According to Cornish miners who adopted their customs to the mines of the United States, the tommyknockers were mischievous little people who lived deep within the mines. They may steal tools or blow out candles, but would also warn miners of cave-ins or other dangers by tapping, or knocking, on the cave walls. To thank them, the miners would leave food in the mines at night. These stories are found around the world, where small humanoid creatures were both to blame for lost objects and protectors of those who respected their right to exist in that place.

Part Humans

Dwarves, gnomes, giants, cyclopes, tommyknockers and such creatures basically looked human, but with slight changes. Other humanoid creatures had more drastic alterations. A common feature of many myths are creatures that have a mixture of human and animal personality traits, and are often considered dangerous. A great example is the mermaid. The upper body of a mermaid was that of a human female, and the bottom half a fish or sometimes dolphin. Mermaids appear throughout Mediterranean legends, dating all the way back to Mesopotamia, as dangerous figures who would lure sailors to the sea and drown them.

Another example of a part-human creature is the naga of Indian mythology. Like the mermaid, it is often depicted as having the upper body of a human, but the lower body of a snake. Unlike the mermaid, however, this is not always consistent. Naga appear throughout the myths of ancient India in various degrees of human/snake mixture. The more human, or more benevolent, they act, the more human they look. As they become more animalistic and malicious, the serpent traits become more defined. It's always important to remember that in many ancient myths, defining the exact traits of these creatures was not that important. They were beings of magic and spiritual power; the physical traits were often secondary.

The naga had snakelike traits, both physically and in terms of personality
Naga

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