From: BBC Earth
Published August 23, 2011 12:09 PM

Are Mermaids real? Vampires?

1. Vampires

Tales of vampires which have been the inspiration for horror movies the world over originate from a small flying mammal that weighs less than two ounces. Of the three species of vampire bat the one that has contributed to the misunderstanding and fear of bats more than any other is the infamous common vampire bat. 

Perhaps an unfair reputation considering that they rarely kill their prey, in fact they can feed without their incision even being noticed due to specially adapted blade like incisors. They are found in the deserts and rainforest of the tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America, making their homes in caves, mines and tree hollows. If they are unlucky in their night-time search for sustenance for two consecutive nights they will die. Luckily for nursing mothers other bats will regurgitate blood meals to them.

So how has this inconspicuous creature become the stuff of nightmares? When explorers returned to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century, news of the bloodsucking creatures augmented the ancient myths of human vampires. Myths which had come about to explain blood dribbling from the mouths of semi-decomposed corpses.

These South American night feeders carry and spread the deadly rabies virus and are considered an agricultural pest due to their paralytic affect on cattle herds. While bats may prefer bovine blood they have been known to attack humans. So beware the reality of the vampire myth!

2. Dragons

With a reputation reaching back over 1,000 years, the stories that surround this outsized reptile are recalled by cultures all over the world. For instance, in England, St George's day is celebrated in honour of the man who saved his town - and a princess - by slaying a dragon. As a result of this story, dragons are now considered to be a key part of England's heritage. Portraying one in bold colours across its national flag, Wales makes it clear that dragons are a part of the country's national heritage. It is believed that the ferocious, red dragon that appears on the flag symbolises the strength and courage of the Welsh people.

With such an iconic position within the heritage of two cultures, it is not surprising that the dragon is not as mythical as some may think. At three metres long (9.8ft) and weighing around 70kg (150lb), the Komodo dragon is a living, breathing representative of this family of creatures which many think are only found in fairytales. A member of the monitor group, it is the largest living species of lizard. Although populations are now only found on a few volcanic Indonesian islands, fossil evidence suggests that they evolved in Australia and dispersed westward to Indonesia.

Whether we celebrate its strength or revel in man’s ability to overcome its fearsome spirit, the dragon has burst forth from the story books and is still alive and well in the 21st century.

3. Werewolves

Making their way from folklore into literary fiction and even Hollywood blockbusters, the half man half wolf legend has been a staple part of the collective imagination since the middle ages.

It is thought that the myth of the werewolf was created as a result of mysterious incidents in woods and hills which were blamed on these so-called werewolves. This in conjunction with studies such as Dr Illis from Guys Hospital, London who wrote a paper in 1964 suggesting that some of the attributes of werewolves such as sensitivity to light and periods of psychosis were actually symptoms of porphyria. Explains how the half man, half beast legend could have been easily believable.

So why blame the wolf? Perhaps just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — wolves inhabited the woods and hills where these mysterious events took place. This blame game happened all over the world, with an endemic animal taking the place of the wolf - for instance the people of India had particular problems with 'were tigers,' the African people lived in fear of 'were hyenas' and the less said about the 'werejaguars' of South America the better.

4. Mermaids

Although legends speak of mermaids causing shipwrecks and stealing the hearts of sailors with their siren-like song, these marine temptresses are more real than their mythology suggests.

These creatures were commonly reported in tropical waters. Sailors, who had perhaps been too long at sea, saw an elongated shape, with what appeared to be nipples, and believed that they were seeing extraordinary maidens - who just happened to have the lower end of a rather large fish. Although craving the company of a woman, sailors feared mermaids believing that they enchanted men and took them to the bottom of the sea to live in their underwater kingdoms.

Due to the location of these 'sightings', it seems that these sailors were being seduced by the sight of sea cows, dolphins or manatees. The Florida manatee is the most likely candidate for the basis of this myth due to its prominent nipples, forelimbs and tail. The manatee would also agree with Christopher Columbus’ description of these women: "not as beautiful as they are represented". Yet with a 3,000lb body, who can blame the manatee for having a little fat on their faces?

5. The Phoenix

This symbol of death, rebirth and immortality can be found all over the world, finding its roots within the mythologies of the Ancient Egyptians. Although many different cultures hold different beliefs with regard to this extraordinary winged spirit, a connotation of hope seems to run through them all.

Referred to as a firebird, and commonly depicted with bright red and gold plumage, the Phoenix’s position within folklore is unsurpassed by any other feathered creature. Living for 1,000 years, the Phoenix of Egypt or Bennu bird was said to represent the soul of Ra, the Egyptian Sun God, its name meaning to shine or to rise brilliantly. Every millennium it was said to be consumed by fire and reborn.

Although undeniably majestic, this bird’s origins are not as immortal as their legend would lead us to believe. It is thought that the now immortalised bird takes inspiration from a large heron that archaeologists have found the remains of in Egypt. From here the phoenix has grown to be a legend that passed through the greatest civilisations of history and managed to remain relatively unchanged throughout them all.

So perhaps the phoenix has achieved eternal life after all: by rising from the ashes and casting aside its roots in the corporeal world, this magnificent bird has achieved immortality; it will forever exist within the myths and legends that brought it to life.

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