This past weekend I went to see the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. My first thought when I was invited to see the exhibit was to wonder what the heck fantasy animals had to do with natural history, but as I'm a big fan of mythology and the Field Museum so I decided to go along to see it. What a delight it was to see the perspective that the curators had brought to the exhibit. Rather than a simple recitation of the historical references to such creatures alone, the curators firmly placed the ideation of such creatures as part of a very human attempt to make sense of the world and our place in it - particularly, to make sense of the colossal bones and fossils that surfaced even in ancient times. Early civilizations had no idea that they were looking at the remains of dinosaurs or mammoths; instead, they imagined these bones as forming the skeletons of extraordinarily well thought out creatures. I'd previously thought of mythical creatures as particularly well-inspired flights of fancy by bored shepherds seeking to entertain one another with fantastic games of celestial connect-the-dots. This exhibit provided me with a new understanding of these ancient peoples, who were not merely seeking to entertain with a gift for gab, but also to explain the physical evidence they found in abundance in their environments.
Many mythic creatures reflect attempts to describe the natural world. Mythic creatures can offer perspective on how scientific discovery changes over time. Before formal scientific methods came about, a fleeting glimpse of an animal or finding of unfamiliar bones was often enough to confirm a being’s existence. Indeed, many mythic creatures are bizarre assemblages of parts of real animals. As methods for scientific observation and interpretation evolved, it became clearer which animals exist in nature—and which are mythical.
A few examples suffice to explain. Ancient Scythian gold miners encountered what are now known to be protoceratops skulls in their search for gold. How to explain the large, beaky structure in the skull presented to them, and the birdlike quality of the dinosaur bones? The curators present a theory that those ancients came up with stories of the Griffin - a winged, lionlike creature that protected the gold in its domain (I'm sure tales of fearsome creatures guarding treasure could have kept out other treasure seekers as well. Similarly, early elephant ancestor's remains were likely interpreted by ancient Greek naturalists as Cyclopes - how else to explain that big gap in the center of the skull? Further, in one part of the exhibit a scientist demonstrates how these early elephant predecessors' bones could be rearranged into bipedal humanity. As mammals, there are certain commonalities of physiognomy. It would have been the rarest insight to conclude that the central skull hole was the sinus cavity for the trunk of the elephant. The Roc - a giant, predatory bird that plays a featured role in the Sinbad stories by dropping house-sized boulders on ships - was the explanation arrived at by people considering the evidence of Aepyornis eggs found on Madagascar. These enormous, 2-gallon capacity eggs surely hatched into some horrific monster.
Aside from the familiar Western fantasy creatures - the aforementioned as well as krakens, mermaids, dragons, unicorns and pegasi - the exhibit covers the myths of other cultures, including Nagas and Tengu. The small display dedicated to a new-found myth - the Chupacabra - pays tribute to the Urban (or Rural) Legend and reframed my skepticism with more sympathy for a newborn folktale.
One criticism I would recommend that the Field consider for future exhibits would be to change the lighting and/or the placement of the texts explaining the exhibit pieces. In many places, there was no way to read the signage without having to compete with one's own shadow for light. Where there were crowds, the line of readers would back up waiting for shadows to clear on the boards so that they could be read.
If you are in Chicago before the exhibit closes September 1, 2008, I'd really recommend a trip to the museum and to the Mythical Creatures exhibit. I can't imagine a better location in which to see this display, except juxtaposed by the massive skeleton of Sue, the massive T-Rex, and the other dinosaurs on display. Take the kids around to the fossils and ask them: if you saw this outside of a museum, how would you explain it??