Greek Monsters

Greek Monsters

Ancient Greek storytellers may have been inspired by the world around them, including fossils.


9 - 12


Arts and Music, Social Studies, World History, Geology, Geography

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Ancient Greek myths and legends are filled with monsters, giants, and other supernatural creatures. Anthropologists and historians think ancient Greek storytellers may have found inspiration for such fantastic beasts in the world around them — they may have been the "first fossil hunters." Ancient Greeks collected fossilized bones and other artifacts, took note of where and how the artifacts were found, and even displayed the fossils at public sites such as temples.

Dr. Mott T. Greene, a historian of science, writes that "If the ancient Greeks told stories about these fossils that differ from our own, they examined the fossils with the same techniques we employ today: comparative anatomy, skeletal reconstruction, paleogeography, and museum display."

Some ancient Greeks even recognized geomythology for what it was — a way of explaining the natural world. The philosopher Palaephatus, for example, examined a myth surrounding the Greek hero Cadmus. The goddess Athena instructed Cadmus to plant dragon's teeth in a field to yield a crop of warriors. Palaephatus, writing in the 300s BCE, suggested the tale was a reasonable misunderstanding of the frequent discovery of fossilized mammoth molars in Greek agricultural fields.

Read through this photo gallery for more monsters — and their possible real-life inspirations.

Instructional Ideas

You can use this study guide with Common Core State Standards CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7 and CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.5 to better understand how ancient storytellers used visual information to advance social analyses offered by mythology.

Media Credits

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National Geographic Society
Meghan Modafferi, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 22, 2024

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