As my faithful readers know, one of the areas that most interests me is the intersection of fact and fantasy, which is why I am intrigued by the hypothesis that many of the monsters of world mythologies can trace their origins back to the discovery of fossil remains that ancient people misunderstood as the bones of gigantic humans, dragons, and sundry other creatures. The best-known advocate of this theory is Adrienne Mayor, the folklorist, whose books The First Fossil Hunters (2001) and Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005) present this idea in great detail.
I don't agree with Mayor on every detail presented in her books, and I think she has in some places over-interpreted the evidence. For example, John Boardman, while agreeing in broad outline, made a compelling case in The Archaeology of Nostalgia (2002) that Mayor over-interpreted a skull on a vase as a fossil giraffe, mistaking a rock tossed at the skull for an anatomical feature. However, in general she made a clear and compelling case that fossils provided the skeleton (forgive the pun) on which the monsters of myth grew from generic conceptions to their specific details preserved in art and the later stages of Greco-Roman mythology. I'm not sure I agree that fossils were a prerequisite for myth; myth has always been with us. I think the fossils helped give shape to generalized, preexisting stories by providing physical proof of their reality for believers.
Mayor interprets the skull at right as a fossil giraffe, but the presence of a pile of black and white stones at Hesione's feet (center) proves some of the black spots on the skull are meant to be tossed rocks, not openings in the skull. It is thus at best a generalized skull, not a specific record of a particular fossil.
In The First Fossil Hunters Mayor mentions some of the other scholars who had worked to develop the theory that fossils inspired myth, especially Georges Cuvier and Othenio Abel. Unfortunately, the trail sort of stops there since Abel's discussion of the fossil origins of the Cyclops myth is in German and has never been translated. Cuvier's discussion of how elephant bones inspired the myth of giant humans is in French and according to Mayor had never been translated.
Well, do I have a treat for you. I've added to my site's Library both of these famous pieces. I found a rare 1806 translation of Cuvier from The Philosophical Magazine, and I have myself translated Abel from the German. Then, to round things out, I've also posted a fun little chapter from William D. Matthew about the close relationship between zoology and mythology in the pre-modern world.
[Click here for a correction of mistakes in this post.]
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.