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Mythology biology – or how to build an imaginary bestiary

Pendragon writes…

Mix up a few facts, and you end up with a fantasy. Mix up a few animal parts – as Melody frequently does – and you end up with fantasy figurines. Of course, Melody is not the first to mix and match heads and wings and beaks and claws. The practice is ancient yet still commonplace today.

As an amateur naturalist with a Life Sciences degree, I fancy myself quite knowledgeable about all the real creatures of the world. As a boy, I ran around the plains of Montana, scaring up prairie fowl that I identified with my well-worn Golden Book Field Guide. When Princeton University Press released the Mammals of North America in 2002, I turned every page carefully to ensure that I knew all creatures great and small.

But when I walked into Meloday Pena’s studio, I felt like I needed a crash course: Mythology Biology 101. On the shelves in front of me were mammals with bird parts, reptiles with mammal shapes, a lama hatching from an egg and combinations that would have sent Carlos Linnaeus back to the classification drawing board. Unfortunately, there is no field guide for this mythological bestiary.

Basic beasties
Now I am not a complete bonehead. I know that a unicorn is a horse with a single horn, and Pegasus is a horse with wings. (As the son of a navigator, I can pick out the Great Square of Pegasus in the summer night sky.) I have read enough literature to know that a satyr had the head and torso of a man on the hindquarters of a goat. Centaurs – half horse, half man – made some nice cameo appearances in The Chronicles of Narnia. (I always thought I’d rather be a centaur than a satyr and get to keep all four legs.)

I knew the Minotaur was a bull’s head on a man’s body – a pairing that always seemed top-heavy to me. (I’ll bet that I could out-maneuver a Minotaur in a labyrinth.) But there are some fantasy creations that I couldn’t describle, like the Chimera. The Greek writer Homer first described this creature as “lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle….” In some depictions, the tail ends with the head of a snake.

Norse mythology is not nearly as fanciful as Greek or Roman, but they did have the kraken – described as a giant sea monster with features of a crab (or octopus) and a whale. There is rampant speculation that Norse sailors were describing the giant squid.

Kirin
At Christmas, Melody sketched a beautiful image of three single-horned creatures with great flowing manes like a lion and scales like a fish.

“Wow!” I exclaimed. “That is beautiful…what are they?”

“Oh those? Those are kirin,” Melody replied. “It’s a Chinese Unicorn.” Then she held forth on all the many variations of kirin – including her own. I was amazed that there could be so much history to a creature that I had never even heard of. It made me feel that perhaps the dodo was not yet extinct.

Melody’s menagerie
As naturalist to the fantasy world, Melody knows all the traditional conventions for fantasy creatures, but feels unconstrained by them. When inspiration strikes, she will cobble together totally new variations. Winged wolves were a natural, though Melody doesn’t claim to have originated the idea. For some of her dragons, she borrows the shape and stance of a ferret. Tweaking the traditional gryphon, Melody put a dove’s wings on a cat but kept the kitty’s adorable face. Her trademarked “Flap Cats” are a big seller.

Melody rendered a very lifelike guinea pig – accurate down to its wide-eyed, worrisome expression. But then she thought it would look cuter with a parrot’s beak. Everyone loved the resulting critter and asked what the round-hipped hybrid was called.

“Poads,” she decided. “I’ll call them poads.” She trademarked that name too and set about designing poad decore. The face on a clock in her studio features a circle of poads in place of numbers. It serves as a reminder than any time is a good time to invent something totally new.

Any other surprises?
Now, dear Reader, you have an opportunity to facilitate my continuing education. Have I missed any mythological creatures? What else should I know? And can anyone provide a Field Guide to Dragons?

Pendragon
Corvallis, Oregon
USA

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