Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and the Greek Myths: the prosaic truth behind real monsters and mythical monsters

Garrett Ryan, “Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and the Greek Myths” (Toldinstone, 21 August 2021)

Part of a collaboration with NORTH 02, a YouTube channel dedicated to palaeontology and human evolution, this video in the Toldinstone series explores possible inspirations for some of the monsters known in Greek mythology: fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts from the Cenozoic Era that came after the Cretaceous Age ended some 65 million years ago. In particular, historian and narrator Dr Ryan looks at the griffins – creatures with lions’ bodies but the heads, wings and tails of other animals – and a possible connection with fossils of Protoceratops dinosaurs from Central Asia. He also examines the possibility that the skulls of dwarf mammoths and elephants on some of the Mediterranean islands inspired the monsters known as Cyclopes. Dr Ryan then turns his attention to mammoth fossils and the likelihood that they inspired the giants who fought Zeus, his siblings and their allies in the titanic battles that were the Gigantomachy.

After mentioning these creatures and the possible links to dinosaurs, mammoths and their relatives, Dr Ryan cautions against assuming a causal relationship between dinosaurs and griffins, or between mammoths and the giants and Cyclopes. Dr Ryan points out that the griffins existed in Greek myth long before the Greeks became aware of the worlds beyond the territories of their Scythian neighbours in Central Asia and the area now known as Mongolia where the Protoceratops fossils were found. The possible connection between dwarf proboscidean skulls and Cyclopes might seem to be on firmer ground: the Greeks did not know of elephants or their relatives until late in their history as an independent people; and, on seeing the fossil skulls of prehistoric elephant relatives, would have been awestruck and obsessed with finding an explanation for the presence of a giant cavity between the eye sockets. Again though, until definite evidence can be uncovered, we should not be rash and assume that dwarf mammoth and elephant skulls were the direct inspiration for the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes existed in Greek mythology for a very long time and discoveries of dwarf mammoth and elephant skulls came some time after the myths of Cyclopes became widespread. In other words, it is a case of making evidence, real or not, fit the narrative, rather than following the evidence to see where it goes. In addition Greek mythology happens to teem with monsters stitched together with various human and animal body parts: the Minotaur, Cerberus and the Medusa are just some of the hideous creatures infesting the myths. Also in describing Greek technological and engineering achievements of some 2,500 years ago, we should not forget that the ancients did not have the scientific method and their worldview may not have been as rational or as enlightened as we assume it to be.

The video is lavishly illustrated with photographs and film stills that echo the myths Dr Ryan refers to. While viewers may be disappointed that dinosaurs and mammoths were not directly or indirectly responsible for the creatures of Greek myth, they can at least take comfort in the fact that the Greeks had vivid imaginations and endowed their myths, legends and stories with flawed heroes and the most monstrous demonic beings.

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