Whether you are reading or writing a fantasy novel, it can be helpful to have basic knowledge of mythical creatures.
Although fantasy editors tend to frown upon using tropes and clichés, these can still provide a good source of inspiration for your writing.
Thankfully, you have the whole world’s mythology to choose from when you get bored with the more common mythical creatures.
Celtic Mythical Creatures
Celtic culture boasts many legends and folklore featuring mysterious, scary creatures. Many of them have become well-known through their portrayal in literature.
The word Banshee means “woman of the fairies,” and this creature from Celtic myth is known for making a mournful scream, a wailing that is said to foretell a family member’s death.
One of the earliest occurrences of the banshee in literature is in Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh, which translates to Triumphs of Torlough, written by Sean MacCraith.
Norman literature also features the banshee. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling references the banshee when the boggart tries to scare Harry’s classmate Seamus Finnegan.
Dearg Due (the Irish Vampire)
The Irish version of this blood-sucking creature is a female demon known for seducing men and draining their blood.
The legend has it that this creature used to be an Irish woman who fell in love with a poor man, whom her father refused to let her marry.
After being forced into a marriage, she was abused by her husband and committed suicide—after which she rose from the dead to take revenge on her husband and father.
This Irish mythical creature is a headless horseman that is known as a foreteller of death. Rising a headless black horse, the Dullahan carries his own head under one arm, and legend has it that whenever he stops riding, a person dies.
In literature, this headless horseman appears in Washington Irving’s short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
This sea monster takes on several shapes, but usually comes as a horse. This monster can look like a lost pony, with its mane dripping with water, and tricks women and children to ride on it.
It then takes its unlucky rider to the water to drown and eat its victim.
This Irish classification of a fairy is known for its dedication to mischief The folklore also includes tales of leprechauns being captured by humans, who ask the leprechaun for 3 wishes in exchange for their freedom.
The Echtra Fergus mac Léti, or Adventure of Fergus son of Léti, is a medieval tale that includes Fergus mac Léti capturing leprechauns who give him three wishes. Irish poet William Allingham also wrote a poem entitled “The Leprechaun or Fairy Shoemaker” back in the 18th century.
A kind of water nymph in Celtic mythology, the undine is said not to possess a soul until it marries a human male and gives birth to a human child.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses mentions these water spirits.
Greek Mythical Creatures
Greek mythology is full of interesting creatures, the most common of which include:
Chimera (also spelled Chimaera)
In Greek mythology, this was a monstrous creature formed as a hybrid between a lion, a goat, and a snake. In modern language, the term chimera is used to describe a strange combination of several things.
J.K. Rowling used a chimera as the cause of death of one of her famous Quidditch players in her book, Quidditch Through the Ages.
The cyclops refers to cannibalistic creatures, the most famous of which is Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey. In this epic poem, Odysseus experiences a brush with death at the hand of Polyphemus.
Another Greek poet named Hesiod, who was a contemporary of Homer, also included the cyclopes (plural of cyclops) in the form of the three sons of Gaea and Uranus, who forged the thunderbolts of Zeus.
This multi-headed beast in Greek mythology offers an interesting challenge: cut off its head, but two more will pop up in its place! The Greek character Heracles faced this particular challenge in one of his adventures.
In modern literature, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson features a hydra, which, mysteriously, had its life-force connected to a donut shop.
This Greek mythological creature has a bull’s head and tail and a human body. The original character began with Minotaur as a proper noun, but it has since evolved to include beings with these physical features.
A minotaur appears in Dante’s Inferno. Jorge Luis Borges also wrote a short story entitled “The House of Asterion” which tells the tale from the perspective of a minotaur.
The more modern mythological series Percy Jackson and the Olympians features a minotaur in The Lightning Thief.
This ancient Greek mythological character is a magical bird said to live for 500 years before dying and rising again from the ashes of its former body.
Writers like Shakespeare, Ovid, Herodotus, and Lucan have used the phoenix in their stories.
Satyr (Fauns in Italian mythology)
These human-like creatures, also known as silenos, are said to be woodland spirits with the legs of a goat. In Greek mythology, they were known to be drunk partygoers associated with the god Dionysius.
C.S. Lewis popularized the faun in Lucy’s friendship with Tumnus, the faun she first meets in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Although Tumnus was in the service of the White Witch to watch for any humans, he chooses to help Lucy escape and paid for it with his imprisonment in stone.
Although sirens are sometimes portrayed as mermaids, they have a distinct personality: they are known to lure sailors to their death by their hypnotic voices.
Homer’s Odyssey feature these strange seductresses. His hero Odysseus bravely had his sailors tie him to the mast before they started crossing the sirens’ territory in order to keep him from succumbing to their power.
Other Mythical Creatures
Other cultures also have their own share of mythical creatures. The following list contains creatures common in Eastern folklore.
This serpent-like legendary creature in European mythology is known to kill with a look of its eyes. It is said to have a crest on its head, earning it its title as a serpent-king.
One of the earliest mentions of the basilisk is in Pliny the Elder’s Natural HIstory. Geoffrey Chaucer also mentions a similar creature called a basilicok in his Canterbury Tales. Other famous writers like William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Jonathan Swift make allusions to this mythical creature in their writings.
Finally, in more modern literature, J.K. Rowling features a basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
This supernatural creature’s main aim is to scare children into good behavior. Mothers from generations past could have threatened their children with the bogeyman, making it easily connected with children’s bedrooms and bedtimes.
In modern literature, Stephen King’s It features a bogeyman-like character that teaches children not to trust clowns!
Dragons and Serpents
Dragons and serpents are common figures in world literature, but they do come in different forms. In Eastern folklore, these creatures typically do not have wings, and are known to have great cunning and intelligence. The ancient Near East mythologies describe dragons that look like giant snakes.
In Western legends, though, dragons are typically winged and horned, as well as fire-breathing. These pictures of dragons appear throughout modern literature, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
Fairies, also spelled faery or faerie, originate mostly in European folktales. Many cultures view fairies as elementals or spirits of the dead. Usually small, they generally have human-like features, magical powers, and a penchant for trickery.
Romantic art and Renaissance literature often feature fairies, especially during the Victorian and Edwardian years.
Fairies appear in great works of literature, including William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’ Arthur, and the more modern Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series.
European folklore from the Middle Ages brings us goblins in different forms, qualities, and abilities. The most common traits include greed, mischief, and magical capabilities.
But goblins are not exclusive to European folktales: in South Korea, a creature known as dokkaebi, which is common in children’s nursery rhymes and books, seems uncannily like the goblins. Japanese fairy tales also include a goblin. J.R.R. Tolkien features goblins in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.
These anthropomorphic beings, made of mud or clay, originated in Jewish folklore. Typically, magic brought these golems to life.
In the Talmud, the first man Adam was created first as a golem, a creature made of mud, that was later animated. In the Middle Ages, the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation, was apparently used as a reference on how to create and animate a golem.
Found mainly in Ancient Egyptian and Persian mythology, the griffin is a hybrid creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body and back legs of a lion. The combination of both the king of birds and the king of the beasts gives the griffin a similar kingly stature.
Griffins are mentioned in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus. A griffin also appears in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, dragging a chariot that meets Dante in Earthly Paradise.
This half-woman half-fish is prominent throughout literature in many cultures: their stories sometimes revolve around sea tragedies such as drownings or shipwrecks, and many tales include a love story between a mermaid and a human.
Vampires have taken on many different looks throughout the history of literature, and modern novels such as Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and the Twilight series have shed new light on their character.
Still, the basic premise is that vampires feed on mortal blood in order to remain immortal. One of the earliest portrayals of vampires in literature includes Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This Southeast Asian evil spirit is known in Malaysia and Indonesia, said to be the manifestation of women’s souls who had died in pregnancy.
These female spirits come with a white dress, pale skin, and long, lang hair. The Phillippine version of this creature goes by the name of “White Lady.”
You can find this creature in the Singapore-set novel entitled Ponti, by Sharlene Teo, which features three women connected by a Pontianak legend-themed film from the 70s.
These humanoids, aka “the walking dead,” get their name from Haitian folklore, but the zombies we now know seem to be a mid-20th century development.
They are essentially walking corpses that want to consume human flesh. The TV series “Walking Dead,” among other modern films, gives us a gory picture of modern zombies.
The unicorn is probably one of the most popular mythological creatures, thanks to its commercialization through children’s TV shows and merchandise.
Its earliest appearance seems to be traced to early artworks in Mesopotamia, although ancient myths from China and India also made reference to it.
A common myth surrounding unicorns was that drinking from its horn could protect against poison, epilepsy, and stomach trouble.
Using Mythical Creatures in Writing
Contemporary writers like C.S Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling have drawn on mythology for inspiration for their novels, but each added certain elements to make them unique.
Learn more about mythical creatures to draw inspiration for your fantasy novels, but be sure you don’t get stuck on all the common tropes. Instead, let your imagination soar to come up with unusual twists and keep your readers interested!
Do you have a favorite mythical creature? Tell us about it in the comments below!
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Yen Cabag is the Blog Writer of TCK Publishing. She is also a homeschooling mom, family coach, and speaker for the Charlotte Mason method, an educational philosophy that places great emphasis on classic literature and the masterpieces in art and music. She has also written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. Her passion is to see the next generation of children become lovers of reading and learning in the midst of short attention spans.