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 weird creatures. What inspired these mythical beasts? Anthropologists — who study how humans live — and historians think ancient Greek storytellers may have found inspiration in the world around them. They believe the ancient Greeks were the "first fossil hunters." Fossils are the petrified remains of ancient creatures. The ancient Greeks collected fossilized bones and other artifacts. They took note of where and how fossils were found and even displayed them in public places such as temples.

Compared Fossils From Different Animals

The ancient Greeks had a different explanation for fossils than we do, but they examined them the same way we do today. They compared fossils from different animals. They tried to figure out what a complete skeleton, and the animal itself, would have looked like. They displayed what they found in museums.

Some ancient Greeks even understood that myths involving strange monsters were a way of explaining the natural world. The philosopher Palaephatus, for example, examined a myth about the Greek hero Cadmus. According to the myth, the goddess Athena told Cadmus to plant dragon's teeth in a field. The teeth then grew into a crop of warriors. Palaephatus suggested the tale was a reasonable misunderstanding of the frequent discovery of fossilized mammoth teeth in Greek 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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