Mar 30th 2010 By Kristin Romey
The Kraken, the Cyclops and gorgons -- the ancient Greeks were pretty creative when it came to the fearsome creatures that terrorized human beings in their myths.
But these sea monsters, one-eyed giants, and topless snake-ladies that turned people into stone weren't simply cooked up by a bunch of drunk Greeks. ("Yo, check it out -- what if the monster was, like, 30 temples tall and had, like, 15 arms?") Turns out that creatures like the Kraken of "Clash of the Titans
" fame might have been an attempt by the ancients to explain an even older phenomenon: dinosaurs.
The Mediterranean world is littered with the fossils of dinosaurs, mammoths, and Cenozoic sea creatures. When the Greeks came across them, they assumed the enormous fossilized remains belonged to fantastical beings created by the gods.
Some scholars believe, for instance, that the fearsome sea monster that does battle with Perseus could have been influenced by the discovery of remains of the Basilosaurus
, a 60-foot-long spike-toothed whale that lived around 40 million years ago. Which makes the ancient Greeks perhaps the world's first paleontologists
The giant one-eyed Cyclops may be an attempt to explain mastodon skulls, which have an enormous hole right in the center.
As for Medusa? "When ancient people observed the skeletons of many different creatures mysteriously 'turned to stone,' they naturally speculated about the cause," says folklorist Adrienne Mayor. "The Medusa's petrifying gaze could have been a way of explaining the presence of masses of animals transformed into stone."
While the Medusa myth may have been a way for the ancient Greeks to explain fossils, we're hard-pressed to explain why a film that features Harry Hamlin
in a loincloth would ever demand a remake.