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 stories are filled with strange monsters. How did the Greeks think up these beasts? Why did they believe they were real?

Historians say ancient Greek storytellers didn't completely make up their monsters. They based them on something real. They based them on fossils.

Fossils are the remains of long-dead animals. Over time, animal bones petrify, or turn hard like stone. Once they petrify, they become fossils.

Fossils can be millions of years old. None are newer than 10,000 years. They are the remains of kinds of animals that no longer exist.

The ancient Greeks collected fossilized bones. They recorded where and how fossils were found. They even showed them in public places. They put fossils in temples and museums. All Greeks had a chance to see them.

Compared Fossils From Different Animals

The ancient Greeks didn't really understand how fossils formed. Still, they studied them the same way we do today. They compared fossils from different animals. They tried to piece together complete skeletons. And they tried to figure out what each kind of animal looked like when it was alive.

Some ancient Greeks knew the stories about monsters weren't really true. They realized they were a way to explain strange things people saw in the world. A wise man named Palaephatus understood this. He pointed to a story about Cadmus.

Cadmus was a famous Greek hero. The storytellers said the goddess Athena told Cadmus to plant dragon's teeth in a field. Cadmus did what he was told. Soon, the teeth grew into mighty soldiers.

Palaephatus believed something lay behind this story. He thought it came out of a misunderstanding of something real. The story was a way of explaining fossilized mammoth teeth, Palaephatus said.

Mammoths were giant, hairy elephants. They lived more than 10,000 years ago. Farmers often found their huge teeth in Greek fields.

Now, look through some pictures of made-up monsters. As you read about them, try to think what they might be based on.

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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