With the UK premiere of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week and the US premiere fast approaching, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the magical creatures featured in J.K. Rowling’s world, and the real-world history behind the myths and monsters.

Creature: Dragon
Ministry of Magic Classification: XXXXX
Country of origin: Pretty much everywhere.
Etymology: From the Greek word δράκων, drakon, meaning “serpent” or “giant seafish”

The dragon is one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous magical creatures. Myths surrounding these gigantic reptiles can be found in almost every culture on earth. Most of the dragons we see depicted in art and film are based on either the European or Chinese dragon myths, but creatures from other regions, like the Egyptian Apep and the feathered serpents of indigenous Mesoamerica, date back to nearly 1400 BCE. Dragons have been both worshipped and vilified. Many of our most recognizable dragon myths, like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the tale of St. George, depict the dragon as the enemy, overcome and killed by the story’s hero. Rowling’s depiction of dragons is much more sympathetic. She even goes so far as to discuss some species being hunted nearly to extinction for their magical body parts, similar to real-life species like tigers and rhinos who are hunted for their use in certain forms of traditional medicine. Famous dragons in the series include: Hagrid’s short-term “pet,” Norbert/Norberta the Norwegian Ridgeback; the four dragons used in the Triwizard Tournament, which included a Hungarian Horntail, a Swedish Short-Snout, a Common Welsh Green, and a Chinese Fireball (“Oooooh!”); and the pale dragon who guarded the vaults for a time at Gringott’s Bank before being set free by Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

Creature: Unicorn
Ministry of Magic Classification: XXXX
Country of origin: Greece
Etymology: From the Latin unicornus, translated from the Greek word mονόκερως, monoceros, meaning “single horn.”

Another very famous creature, the unicorn, was first mentioned around the Fifth Century BCE by a Greek physician named Ctesias. He described it as a wild donkey with a single horn on its head. The animal we most commonly associate with the name, a majestic white horse with a long twisting horn, comes from Eurpoean art and stories from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance periods. According to those legends, the beast was a symbol of grace and purity, able to be captured only by a virgin, and with a horn possessing healing powers. Some merchants would even pass off the tusk of a narwhal as a unicorn’s horn, selling it for use in magic and medicine. Rowling’s unicorns also have unique properties, with the horn, blood, and tail all possessing powerful magic. Only the unicorn’s tail hairs are used commonly in magical items like wands, since taking the tail hairs does not involve killing the creature. Unicorn bloods properties are mentioned in the first Harry Potter book, when Lord Voldemort uses it to stay alive while he cohabits the body of Professor Quirrell. The centaur Firenze explains to Harry that drinking the blood of a unicorn gives the drinker a cursed life, and that only someone with nothing to lose would resort to killing such an innocent creature.

Art by DeviantArt user tursiart. http://tursiart.deviantart.com/

Creature: Centaur
Ministry of Magic Classification: XXXX
Country of Origin: Greece
Etymology: From the Greek word Κένταυρος, Kéntauros, which referred to a tribe of nomadic Thessalonian horse riders

Chances are you’d heard of centaurs long before the first Harry Potter book introduced them to the story. These half-human, half-horse creatures have existed in myths since as early as the 8th Century BCE. In the original depictions, centaurs were described as wild and untamed, not at all like the wise, noble creatures we meet in the Forbidden Forest. That version of the centaur began around the Middle Ages. In modern stories, centaurs are intelligent creatures who can speak and often have some sort of arcane knowledge. In the versions depicted in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, as well as in Rowling’s stories, centaurs have an affinity for astrology and prophecy. Modern artists have also tried to make sense of the complicated anatomy that would go along with the centaur body, going so far as to even create lifelike centaur skeletons from bones and bone casts of humans and horses. An interesting note from Fantastic Beasts states that centaurs should technically be given Being status, but that the centaurs requested to be classified as Beasts in protest after learning that hags and vampires would be classified as Beings.

Artwork (C) Simon Wyatt

Creature: Nundu
Ministry of Magic Classification: XXXXX
Country of Origin: Africa
Etymology: Unknown

This magical creature has yet to appear in the Harry Potter books, outside of the Fantastic Beasts textbook. However, trailers for the film reveal that this is one of the creatures Newt Scamander brings to New York in his suitcase. The textbook describes the Nundu as a huge leopard from East Africa that moves silently and can inflict disease with its toxic breath. The most likely inspiration for this creature is the Mngwa (Swahili for “Strange One”), described by cryptozoologists as a huge cat-like animal that stalks the forests of Tanzania, attacking natives. The first description in English of this beast is only a little over 100 years old, but an old Swahili fairy tale tells of a cat called “Nunda, Eater of People.” It’s likely that Rowling drew her inspiration from the Mngwa and Nunda tales for her version of this creature. According to Scamander, no fewer than 100 powerful wizards have ever been able to subdue a Nundu, and suggests it may be the most dangerous beast there is.

Art by DeviantArt user julianwilbury: http://julianwilbury.deviantart.com/

Creature: Thunderbird
Ministry of Magic Classification: Unknown
Country of Origin: Indigenous North America (pre-colonization)
Etymology: Translated from several indigenous tribes’ names for the creature, like the Ojibwe word aninikii

 

The Thunderbird is a wholly American legend, which features heavily in the history and culture of several indigenous tribes. Rowling chose it, along with other creatures from indigenous culture, for the names and mascots of the four houses of Ilvermorney, the North American school of magic. In the traditions if indigenous tribes, the bird possesses great power and strength, creating lightning, thunder, and strong wind with its wings. Many legends describe it as an enemy of the Great Horned Serpent, another of the animals chosen for the Ilvermorney Houses. The trailer for the Fantastic Beasts film shows the thunderbird Frank with three sets of wings and two long tail feathers, similar to the Phoenix, which Rowling has said is a distant relative.

We feel we should mention here that Rowling has gotten a hefty amount of criticism for her appropriation of indigenous culture in her depiction of the history of American wizardry, and we want to respect and uplift the indigenous voices who have expressed concern over the way their people and their traditions have been portrayed and treated. If you would like to read more on this, we suggest this article by Loralee Sepsey.

What other beasts are you hoping to see in the film series? Leave us a comment and let us know!