Creatures like the narwhal, okapi, and Komodo dragon are on the short list of mythical creatures proven real. Yet, while scientifically interesting, these examples aren't in the realm of more fanciful and legendary animals like unicorns, Bigfoot, or the more hilarious mythical creatures that cryptozoologists fawn over. Mythical creatures in real life often fail to live up to the expectations formed by old legends, fairy tales, or cartoons.
This is because real mythical creatures, like the proverbial "fish that got away," generally grow larger and more bizarre in the telling. The oarfish, for instance, is a relatively harmless creature, but it's easy to see how it inspired stories of giant sea serpents that capsize ships.
Science has provided plausible reasoning to explain away many of the legendary creatures peppered throughout the world. Several Reddit users and self-described historians have also theorized about the real creatures that were possibly misidentified and became the basis for cryptozoological legend.
Herodotus’s Giant Flying Snakes May Have Been Whales From The Eocene Epoch
From Redditor /u/hetep-di-isfet:
Archaeologist here. There's a really interesting ancient Egyptian story called the "Shipwrecked Sailor," in which a man is washed ashore on a beautiful island and apprehended briefly by an enormous serpent. In the story, the serpent tells him that there used to be hundreds of others like him but a falling star wiped them all out.
I think it's unlikely that the Egyptians had knowledge of dinosaurs, but there's a site called Wadi Hitan that has thousands of ancient whale skeletons from the Eocene. I think it's possible they could have seen these skeletons and mistaken them for giant snakes. Herodotus actually tells similar tales of giant flying snakes in Egypt and, I suppose if you saw these skeletons but no trails, you might think they were capable of flight.
Did It Exist?
Wadi Al-Hitan, or "Whale Valley," does exist, and it's known for the giant whale fossils of the extinct archaeoceti located in its sands. Although the flying snakes have no proof to back them up, the skeletons of the archaeoceti look very much like the remains of huge snakes due to the long spines without any whale-like characteristics attached to them.
It is highly possible that these whale fossils prompted the stories of the giant flying snakes, with the few flipper bones being misidentified as the creatures' "wings."
A Meteorite In Estonia May Have Been The Midgard Serpent
From Redditor /u/Daily_Dose13:
I've heard of a hypothesis that states the Ragnarok myth actually describes an impact event. The "Midgard snake" could be an object entering the atmosphere.
From Redditor /u/denshi:
There was a bronze age meteorite impact in Estonia that became a key element of Finnish mythology. Perhaps the myth percolated over to the Nordics.
Did It Exist?
It can never be proven unquestionably that the Kaali Meteorite Crater Field and the impacts that created it are the basis for the legendary Midgard snake plunging to Earth in an act of Ragnarok, but it is an excellent guess. More than 7,000 years ago, a meteorite plunged toward the Estonian island of Saaremaa, broke up in the atmosphere, and created several large impact sites in the area. The force of the chunks hitting land created a large, nuclear-level event that probably claimed several human lives, some wildlife, and destroyed anything else in their paths.
Groups without an understanding of meteorites or their ability to destroy in such an explosive way likely assigned meaning to the event in line with their exisitng belief systems. Thus the Midgard snake may actually refer to this huge and violent natural event that fits in with the Norse idea of the destruction of their gods and lands.
The Oarfish Might Be Responsible For Ancient Legends Of Enormous Sea Serpents
From Redditor /u/jamesianm:
I regularly get to see pods of humpback whales at the beach where I surf. Most of the time, all you see is their backs as they partially surface from the water. Occasionally, one of them breaches mouth-first, so you see a giant mouth emerge from the water. Other times, you see a giant tail emerge. If you were watching them and had no idea what a whale was, or that you were looking at multiple [whales], I could easily imagine mistaking multiple whale backs as the coils of a colossal snake. I strongly suspect that this is the origin of legends of sea serpents.
From Redditor /u/You_called_moi:
While that could be one origin, take a look at the oarfish. I think that might be the more likely origin, as it can grow to absolutely massive sizes. [Eleven meters is] the largest published length, with unconfirmed sightings of up to 17 [meters]...
Did It Exist?
While humpback whales partially surfacing may play a role in the mythic stories of sea serpents, the idea of the oarfish is more likely the creature responsible. According to National Geographic, oarfish can grow to be up to 30 feet long and live in the depths of the ocean, approaching the surface only when above average ocean currents push them there.
While the oarfish is blue and purple in its natural habitat, all those washed ashore or caught in fishermen nets are deceased or close to it, which gives them a dull silver appearance.
Furthermore, images of the oarfish are almost perfectly replicated in old drawings and descriptions of giant sea serpents, which include the long, spiny protrusions on their heads, fins, and spines.
Mythical Creatures In Dreamtime Stories Could Be References To Extinct Megafauna
From Redditor /u/Taleya:
You want the real gold standard... on this, you want Aboriginal tales from [the] Dreamtime (which in many cases have been proven to be validated records pre-dating the end of the last ice age). They co-existed with megafauna in Australia, and their crypto creatures have literally been linked back to now-extinct fauna.
Did It Exist?
"Dreamtime" refers to stories that explain Aboriginal beliefs about the spiritual and living worlds. These stories have existed for over 65,000 years, meaning some of the animals described in them could be about megafauna - large animals - that are now extinct. One of these animals is referred to as a bunyip, a creature living in swamps and other bodies of water in Australia that has a long neck, round head, and the body of a larger animal like an ox or manatee.
The diprotodon was named by a Professor Owen in 1838, and others wrote about the creature in their own journals while exploring the Australian region. The diprotodon, or giant wombat, lived in marshes, stood up to 6 feet tall, and is thought to have been last seen 65,000 years ago. This makes it one of several extinct megafauna that is likely featured in Dreamtime stories.