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12 Fantastic Mythical Creatures from Literature

Whether you are planning to write the next great fantasy novel or simply interested in mythical creatures from literature, here are 12 legendary beings—from banshees to gnomes to mermaids—authors have used from the very beginnings of storytelling tradition.

Gnomes throughout literature have been known to be Earth elementals who possessed magical qualities.
Gnomes throughout literature have been known to be Earth elementals who possessed magical qualities. Photo by Craig McLachlan on Unsplash.


The Banshee is a Celtic mythological creature (known as the Bean Sidhe to the Irish and the Ban Sith to the Scots). The name means "woman of the fairies," and she is known by her mournful screaming, wailing, or lamentation to foretell the death of a family member.

She shows up in literature as far back as 1380, in Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumphs of Torlough) by Sean mac Craith. There are also several mentions of these creatures found in old Norman literature. A more modern take on the ancient banshee is when the boggart attempts to scare Seamus Finnegan in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.


The word "Cyclops" is Greek for "round eye," and is found throughout much of Greek literature, including the works of Homer. In his works, in particular, the Cyclopes (plural for Cyclops) were cannibal creatures, and there is one episode in the Odyssey where Odysseus barely escapes death at the hand of the Cyclops Polyphemus.

Hesiod, the Greek poet who wrote between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer, also wrote about the Cyclopes. In particular, he wrote about the three sons of Uranus and Gaea—Arges, Brontes, and Steropes (Bright, Thunderer, Lightener)—who were responsible for forging the thunderbolts of Zeus.

Additionally, playwright Euripides wrote a play entitled Cyclops, detailing Odysseus' encounter with Polyphemus, although his plays were mostly 5th-Century works.


Dragons are spread throughout literature the way jelly is spread onto peanut butter. The two go together perfectly, especially for genres like fantasy. This large, serpentine, fire-breathing legend appears in folklore across many regions of the world and their depiction can vary largely by region. For example, western folklore and legends depict dragons as winged, horned, and able to breathe fire. Eastern folklore, however, depicts the creatures as wingless, with great intelligence and cunning.

These creatures have appeared in ancient Mesopotamian art and literature, along with Indo-European and Near Eastern literature. The earliest attested reports of draconic creatures resemble giant snakes. Draconic creatures are first described in the mythologies of the ancient Near East and appear in ancient Mesopotamian art and literature. There are the mušḫuššu of ancient Mesopotamia; Apep in Egyptian mythology; Python, Ladon, Wyvern, and the Lernaean Hydra in Greek mythology; Jörmungandr, Níðhöggr, and Fafnir in Norse mythology; and of course, the dragon from Beowulf.

In more modern literature, we see dragons in The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.


A fairy (also called fay, fae, fair folk, faery, faerie) is a creature whose origins are mostly in European folklore. Different cultural interpretations have abounded, but most saw fairies as spirits of the dead or as elementals. In general, they had human-like features but were extremely small and possessing magical powers and a tendency to enjoy trickery.

These creatures are often seen throughout Renaissance literature and Romantic art, especially in the United Kingdom during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Some of the more well-known works including fairies—from ancient literature to modern-day novels—include A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, Le Morte D'Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, the Oz series by L. Frank Baum, Cinderella by Charles Perrault, and the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer.


Gnomes were first introduced by Paracelsus in the 16th century but later became a staple of the fantasy genre. These small, human-like creatures (classified as a diminutive spirit) were considered to be Earth elementals, with many authors having them live underground or in caves.

In J. R. R. Tolkien's mythos, he uses gnomes as an initial classification but later changes it to the Noldor, who were part of his elvish races. C. S. Lewis calls his gnomes "earthmen" in The Chronicles of Narnia, and like the original folklore, these creatures live in a series of caverns deep in the ground. Terry Pratchett also included gnomes in his Discworld series as six-inch-tall but strong enough to hurt a human if crossed.


Goblins were first seen in European folklore from the Middle Ages and have had different abilities, qualities, and appearances based on origin of the tales. Some qualities have stood the test of time in more modern literature, however, such as goblins being mischievous and greedy and have special magic powers.

In literature, some form of goblin has been present in many cultures around the globe. For example, in South Korea, goblins, known as dokkaebi, often appear in children's books and nursery rhymes. There is also a Japanese fairy tale called "The Boy Who Drew Cats" containing a Goblin. J. R. R. Tolkien's orcs and goblins in his Middle-Earth mythos were basically the same creature (or stemming from the same race), and fought on the same side in battle.


Golems stem from Jewish folklore and are animated anthropomorphic beings, typically created from clay or mud. In many cases, these golems were brought to life through magic and controlled by it following their animation, and had Hebrew words (like "truth") inscribed on them, typically on the forehead.

In some of the earliest stories such as the Talmud, Adam was created as a golem when he was formed of dust and mud and animated. During the Middle Ages, some parts of the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation) were believed to help one shape and animate a golem.

Other modern references to golems include Terry Pratchett's Discworld series; Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; and Marge Piercy's He, She and It, which has a golem featured prominently as a subplot.


The griffin (or griffon) in legend has the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and talons as its front feet. This mix of the king of the jungle and the king of the air made the griffin an incredibly powerful creature, and it has often been seen throughout legend and literature as protecting priceless treasures.

In literature, griffins have been part of the stories of Flavius Philostratus in The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and Rick Riordan's The Son of Neptune.


A leprechaun is a type of Aos Sí in Irish folklore, which is a classification of fairy. As with other fairies, they devote much of their time to mischief of some sort and can be captured by humans, who can ask three wishes from the creature in exchange for freedom.

Some early folklore including a leprechaun is the medieval tale Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti). In the story, Fergus mac Léti, King of Ulster, captures leprechauns who grant him three wishes in exchange for their freedom. Other examples in literature includes the poem "The Leprechaun or, Fairy Shoemaker," written by 18th century Irish poet William Allingham.


Mermaids have been a part of folklore and literature from many places, and are usually depicted as a creature with the upper body of a woman and the tail of a fish. The tales vary, with some having mermaids associated with shipwrecks or drownings at sea, and others showing mermaids falling in love with a human man.

The most popular mermaid in literature is undoubtedly in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Other notable works include Oscar Wilde's The Fisherman and His Soul and H.G. Wells' The Sea Lady.

The Little Mermaid, a statue in Copenhagen, Denmark celebrating Hans Christian Anderson's beloved tale.
The Little Mermaid, a statue in Copenhagen, Denmark celebrating Hans Christian Anderson's beloved tale. Photo by Jose Manuel Alonso de Caso on Unsplash.


As part of Greek mythology, the Minotaur is a mythical creature with the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man. While there was an original character named the Minotaur, it is now used to describe a class of beings that have become popular in the fantasy genre.

In literature, there is a minotaur in Dante's Inferno. "The House of Asterion," a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, portrays the minotaur's own perspective. There is also a minotaur in the first Percy Jackson & the Olympians book, The Lightning Thief.


This creature from Ancient Greek folklore is a magical bird that lives for 500 years, then regenerates and can be born again. Traditionally, the phoenix rises from the ashes of its former body. Early storytellers like Herodotus, Lucan, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Isidore of Seville have used the story and motif of the phoenix often in their work.

Other literary references to the phoenix include C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, Edward Ormondroyd's David and the Phoenix, and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

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