Europe is a continent steeped in history, lore and legend. Over the 7,000 years of recorded human civilization in Europe, we've seen countless wars, explosive religious upheaval and the foundation of Western culture and politics. But the dusty tomes of European history aren't just filled with musty old kings and forgotten statesmen - no, there are also plenty of nasty beasties, monsters and mythological creatures to dig your teeth into. Here are 9 of them.
1. The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui - Scotland
The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, often known as the Am Fear Liath Mòr, is the name given to a 10-foot tall humanoid figure which is said to stalk the peak of Ben MacDhui, the second-highest mountain in Scotland.
In reality, the Grey Man is rarely seen, instead his presence is said to felt by hikers as far back as the late 19th century. The first recorded sighting was by the scientist John Norman Collie in 1890. As a man of science, and terrified by what he had experienced, he only recounted his experience in 1925, once he'd heard others had also witnessed the Gray Man. He stated:
"I began to think I heard something else than merely the noise of my own footsteps. For every few steps I took I heard a crunch, and then another crunch as if someone was walking after me but taking steps three or four times the length of my own... [as] the eerie crunch, crunch, sounded behind me, I was seized with terror and took to my heels, staggering blindly among the boulders for four or five miles."
Sightings of similar Gray Men (or Woods Men and Blemmyae, as they're own elsewhere in Europe) have been reported as late as the 1990s. One on occasion, three men caught sight of a massive humanoid figure while driving through a forest near Aberdeen. They claimed it chased them at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour and attempted to enter the car.
Although some have claimed the Am Fear Liath Mòr protects a portal to another dimension, a more reasonable explanation is sightings are caused by a combination of exhaustion induced hallucinations or an optical illusion known as the Brocken specter. This phenomenon occurs in certain atmospheric conditions and results from someone's shadow being projected onto clouds or fog, resulting in large ghostly apparitions.
2. The Ziphius - Iceland
The ziphius is a massive sea monster which was once believed to infest the frigid sea-monster filled waters around Iceland. Early cartographers such as Abraham Ortelius included scores of bizarre watery perils around the North Atlantic island, and the ziphius was one of the most ferocious and feared.
One contemporary of the period, Olaus Magnus, claimed the ziphius could swallow a black seal whole, while it had horrible black eyes, a sharp beak like a sword and a large, upright triangular fin. In term of its behavior, Magnus wrote that the ziphius was known for its cunning, and it would often steal the prey of whaling and fishing vessels. Some descriptions also suggest it had the face of an owl or a cherub.
No one is entirely sure what the ziphius could have actually been, although there are a few suggestions. The word 'ziphius' is a derivative of the greek word, xiphos, which means sword. Therefore, the Ziphius could be a swordfish, although these are more commonly seen in tropical waters and not the frozen north.
Some have stipulated that it could be a killer whale (a.k.a. orca), mostly because of the claim it can eat a seal in one whole bite - which an orca certainly can. The large dorsal fin, 'horrible eyes,' and cunning intelligence could also refer to a killer whale. Their dramatic hunting behavior of leaping out of the water would have also terrified sailors at the time.
3. Cyclops - Greece
One of the better known monsters of ancient Greek lore, the cyclops were described as massive, one eyed brutes who could crush and eat a man with one hand. They were particularly known to roam the islands of Sicily and Crete, and it was on of these two islands that Homer's hero, Odysseus, famously did battle with Polyphemus, a giant cyclops and son of Poseidon.
However, Homer was not the only writer to mention these giants, and they remained a consistent element of Greek mythology until the Dark Ages - when contemporaries believed they built the massive walls of Mycenae. One geographer, Pausanias, wrote in the 2nd century AD:
"There still remain, however, parts of the city wall [of Mycenae], including the gate, upon which stand lions. These, too, are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who made for Proetus the wall at Tiryns... The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree."
The Greeks were so sure that cyclops existed, partly because they thought they had found their remains. They discovered several large skulls which appeared to feature a single massive eye socket.
In reality, they are the remains of an ancient elephant-like species known as the Deinotherium giganteum, and the large 'eye-socket' is actually where the trunk was originally located. However, considering modern elephants aren't native to Greece, it's easy to see how their imaginations got the better of them.
4. Kelpie - Scotland
Another beastie from the Scottish highlands, the Kelpie is believed to live in the rivers and lakes around the region and are sometimes referred to as 'water horses' - although they can take many different forms. Although they might sound cute, in reality the kelpie are known for luring humans onto their backs, only for them to then be carried underwater and devoured. The kelpie is not unique to Scotland, however, as similar monsters are known in the Isle of Man, Wales, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. The Loch Ness monster is sometimes referred to as a Kelpie.
However, kelpie could be captured through the use of a halter stamped with the sign of the cross, and put to use in heavy labor. The Laird of Morphie was said to utilize a kelpie to help build his castle, although upon its release, it apparently smote his family with the following curse: "Sair back and sair banes/ Drivin' the Laird o' Morphies's stanes,/ The Laird o' Morphie'll never thrive/ As lang's the kelpy is alive." As with werewolves, a kelpie could be killed with a silver bullet.
No one is entirely sure about the origins of the myths, but they are widespread. Almost every lake and loch in Scotland has some kind of kelpie legend, and some folklorists believe they could have been used to deter children from venturing into perilous areas of water. Historian Charles Milton Smith has also hypothesized the kelpie legend could originate from water spouts that occur on the surface of Scottish lochs, creating the impression of something lurking beneath.
5. Griffins - Greece
Griffins were incredibly prevalent in Medieval Europe, at least when it comes to heraldic symbols. Many families and knights favored having a griffin on their coat of arms, because they were seen as symbols of power, wisdom and courage. Their penchant for monogamy was also favored by the church.
Like the cyclops, the European version of the half eagle half lion hybrid is said to originate from ancient Greece, where they were believed to be the kings of all creatures. It was also believed they often protected treasure and priceless artifacts. Their claws were said to have medicinal properties, while their feathers could apparently cure blindness. Goblets made from griffon claws and griffin eggs were highly prized in Medieval courts - although in reality they were actually made from antlers and ostrich eggs.
Although adopted by Europe, the griffin may have actually originated in Egypt and further afield. Folklore historian Adrienne Mayor has suggested that this legend may have originated due to gold miners in Mongolia and beyond uncovering the skeletons of dinosaurs called protoceratops. Their beaked appearance, and the fact they appeared to be guarding the precious gold, could have led to the creation of the griffin. It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility.
Like the griffin, the unicorn is also a staple of European heraldry. In fact, it is the national animal of Scotland, while is also appears hanging out with a crown wearing lion in the crest of the British royal family. In Medieval legend, unicorns were graceful, but dangerous wild animals which roamed the woods and attacked hunters. Furthermore, they could only be tamed by virgins.
The horns of the unicorn were highly prized artifacts as it was believed they could cure poisoning and other ailments. As such, unicorn horn, like griffin claws, were also used to make drinking vessels.
One of the first accounts of the unicorn comes from Ctesias, a 4th century Greek doctor who never actually saw one first hand. Instead, he copied down descriptions of the creature given to him by Indian travelers who traded with Greece. One the most detailed descriptions comes from explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century. When visiting Java, he wrote:
"There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick... The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud. 'Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied."
It doesn't take too much to figure out that Polo most likely actually saw a Javan rhinoceros, and not the legendary unicorn. In fact, it seems likely that the vast majority of unicorn sightings were actually rhinos.
The legend of the unicorn was later allowed to persist thanks to the horn of the narwhal - an aquatic mammal which features a large tusk protruding from the head. Vikings were known to gather these horns and later trade them for large amounts of gold on account of their supposed magical healing powers.
7. Strigoi - Romania
Whether it's the classic Dracula -"I vant to suck your blood- type or the more trendy, romancing Twilight variant, vampires have now spread around the globe. However, much of these vampire tales owe their origins to the strigoi, a terrifying creature from Romania which set the rules for later vampiric tales.
The strigoi come in two types, strigoi mort, who are the reanimated corpses of the dead, and strigoi viu, a living, intelligent vampire or witch. People who die before marriage or who lived a life of pain and suffering are likely to become strigoi upon their deaths, as are children born with a fetal flap or caul on their heads. Another possible way to become a strigoi is for your corpse to be walked on by a cat before burial, or to be the seventh child of the same sex in a family.
The original legend around strigoi also established much of the elements of modern vampires. They can often change shape, become animals and move quickly and silently, while they are also known to suck blood. Furthermore, they can be defeated with a stake through the heart or beheading, and flee from garlic and sunlight.
Indeed, some Romanians would sometimes drive a stake through the heart of their deceased relatives to prevent them rising again, especially if they had red hair. In 1887, French geographer Élisée Reclus described burials in Romania:
"If the deceased has red hair, he is very concerned that he was back in the form of dog, frog, flea or bedbug, and that it enters into houses at night to suck the blood of beautiful young girls. So it is prudent to nail the coffin heavily, or, better yet, a stake through the chest of the corpse."
Simeon Florea Marian in Înmormântarea la români (1892) outlines another method in which the body is unearthed, beheaded and then re-buried but with the head facing down.
Recently, graves in neighboring Bulgaria were discovered which included bodies with stakes apparently driven through their hearts.
8. Basilisk - Central and Eastern Europe
Although presented as a giant snake in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the basilisk of old was in fact a highly feared giant combination of the snake, rooster and bat, making it comparable to the similar cockatrice.
It was believed the killer serpent chicken was born from an egg laid by a snake or toad, which was in turn incubated by a rooster. The basilisk was known for its incredibly deadly poison, which was so toxic it would kill any birds which happened to merely fly over the basilisk. Pliny the Elder described the basilisk in his 79 AD book, Natural History. He wrote:
"It destroys all shrubs, not only by its contact, but those even that it has breathed upon; it burns up all the grass, too, and breaks the stones, so tremendous is its noxious influence. It was formerly a general belief that if a man on horseback killed one of these animals with a spear, the poison would run up the weapon and kill, not only the rider, but the horse, as well."
Because of its association to poison, basilisks were often blamed for unexplained deaths and plagues. In fact, the basilisk was so feared, that in 1474 in Basel, Switzerland, a rooster which was caught sitting on a snake egg was convicted and then executed. The only thing known to be able to deter a basilisk is the odor of a weasel, which were said to be sent down holes believed to be inhabited by basilisks.
It is likely the basilisk legend developed due to a fear of poisonous snakes in Europe and beyond. In particular, stories of the Egyptian king cobra may have reached Europe, with the strange 'winged snake' later being adapted into the basilisk. It's fear of the weasel could also be linked to the mongoose - a very similar animal to the weasel and a natural predator of snakes, including cobras.
9. The Beast of Bodmin Moor - England
Not all the legendary monsters of Europe have their roots in ancient or Medieval history, some actually arrived on the scene extremely recently.
Take, for example, the so-called Beast of Bodmin Moor, a large phantom wild cat which is believed to stalk the moors of Cornwall, England. Evidence for the beast includes various photographs of large black cats as well the mutilated remains of livestock. Interestingly, few actually believe there is anything supernatural going on here, instead the main hypothesis suggests the beast is an escaped exotic pet and is likely a panther or leopard.
Various studies have been conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to see if there was any evidence of the Beast of Bodmin. Ultimately they concluded a "big cat" was not present, and it was unlikely one could survive with the climate and prey in Cornwall.
Despite this, there have been over 2,000 reported sighting of the beast, and similar creatures, all over the UK.
Do you believe there are still legendary beasts out there?