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Mythical Beasts
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The massive winged bulls from the royal palaces of the Assyrian empire in what is today Iraq have captured the imagination of visitors to the Museum since their arrival in the XIX century. These giant magical beasts have the bodies of bulls, the wings of birds and human bearded heads. They were guardian figures, as was the sphinx in Egypt.

Magical and mythical creatures play an important role in the stories, legends, religions and literature of most human cultures, so it is unsurprising that images of these creatures can be found across the Museum. We can look at these images as works of art and often as evidence of great technical skills, but they can also provide windows into a particular culture’s myths and the ways they understood their worlds. This chapter offers a small selection of some of the mythical and magical beasts in the collections of the Museum. Some can be seen in the galleries, but others, such as the print by Cranach, drawing by Burne-Jones or the Maori kite, are made of delicate materials and can only be displayed to the public for short periods.

Mythical Beasts

Aztec turquoise mosaic serpent.

Many of the magical and fabulous creatures from the world’s cultures are combinations of animal and human characteristics. The Assyrian winged bulls are just one example of this common feature. The sphinx, combining a lion’s body with a human head, is another. Other examples combine the bodies of birds with human heads, such as the harpies or sirens of the Harpy Tomb from Turkey and the rare early Maori kite from New Zealand. Others repeat anatomical elements to stress their supernatural power, such as the wooden Kozo and the fabulous Aztec mosaic serpent chest ornament. Despite the similarities of combining, say, a bird body with a human head, or the use of double heads, these different cultures were not necessarily in contact with each other nor do they share a common origin. What they do have in common is the way the human brain works to imagine the fantastic.

Mythical Beasts

Japanese dragon.

Tracing magical and mythical beasts across the Museum allows us to consider how a particular myth or creature has been depicted in various cultures, time periods or by different artists. The dragon is a good example. There are considerable differences between the dragons of East Asia and those of Europe, and not just in their appearance. In European folklore the dragon or great worm is usually seen a malign, destructive and often evil creature, while Chinese dragons and their East Asian counterparts are generally considered auspicious.

This chapter brings together many images of dragons and related creatures from both East and West. In particular, four different depictions of the story of St. George and the Dragon can be compared. Although St. George is the Christian patron saint of England, his story was told in the Golden Legend, a very popular book throughout medieval Europe, and many images of him were created across the Continent, such as the print by Cranach the Elder. Other images shown here include a piligrim badge and a Religious icon.

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