Basilisk

While the early legends of the basilisk were best noted in Roman times by Pliny the Elder under the term “regulus”, its name is derived from the Greek “basilískos”, both of which mean “little king.” It was described as a deadly serpent with venomous breath and the ability to kill with a single glance, identifiable by its often-upright body and crown-like crest on its head. In Medieval Europe, the monster was called the “king of serpents”, and widely feared. It has been suggested that the concept of the basilisk originated from the cobras of Asia or the desert of Egypt, the latter of which were associated with the pharaohs.

Skinfaxi

Skinfaxi means “shining mane” in Old Norse, Skinfaxen is plural. The former is the name that was given to the stallion which drew the chariot of Dagr (Dag – the Norse personification of day) across the sky, and his mane was said to be so bright that it lit up the world. Though not directly stated in the Eddas, it can be assumed that he had the power of flight, an attribute that many of the gods’ mounts did not possess. Skinfaxi is sometimes associated with Árvakr (“early to wake”) and Alsviðr (“very quick”) who were the horses that pulled the chariot of Sól (Sol – the Sun goddess). However, it has been debated whether or not they were believed to co-exist, or if cultural progression replaced the single Skinfaxi with the latter duo so that they might represent sunrise and sunset. The roles of these divine creatures share many similarities with the Vedic Ashvins and the Asvieniai of Baltic lore among others, and ultimately derive from the same Indo-European roots.

Despite the variety of horses in mythology, the white stallion is arguably considered the most important. As well as often being the ones to draw the sun, they were affiliated with fertility, prophecy or heavenly war, and the major gods were usually depicted as riding a white or grey mount. Many cultures venerated them as holy, while others used them in sacrificial ceremonies or as offerings before battle. Examples of the most famous in legends include the winged Pegasus (Greek) who could fly, the eight-legged Sleipnir (Norse) who was described as the greatest of all steeds, and Bach Ma (“white horse”) who is the patron deity of Hanoi, Vietnam.

Unicorn

While unicorns as we know them today come from European beliefs of the Middle Ages, the concept of such magical, single-horned beasts dates back more than 4,000 years to the Indus Valley Civilisation of Southeast Asia. The creature has boasted a wide variety of descriptions over the centuries – taking the form of donkeys, oxen or antelopes for example – but its defining feature has always been an alicorn, the long, pointed or spiralling horn projecting from its forehead. The Ancient Greeks make mention of unicorns in their tomes on natural history, but they are never directly attested in the myths. Since the Renaissance, it has generally been thought of as being similar to a white horse or (very occasionally) a goat, whose alicorn was believed to hold healing or medicinal powers.

In European folklore, mainly derived from Biblical or Classical references, unicorns are described as wild and fierce animals that can only be tamed by maidens free from sin. It was with this vulnerability to virgins in particular that hunters were said to trap the beasts, using the women to lure them into a serene state. Unicorns’ presence in religious tales also saw them become a popular symbol of grace and purity, or of chaste love and marriage, promoting their inclusion in countless artworks depicting such themes. Despite being a fabled animal, unicorns still appear on the Royal Arms of both Scotland and the United Kingdom, embodying the historical pride and ferocity of the Scots.

Pegasus

Pegasus is one of the most recognisable creatures not only in Greek mythology, but global mythology as a whole. This divine winged stallion was a lord among horses, described as handsome with hair of purest white. He dwelled in the stables of Mount Olympus – home of the gods – and was charged with carrying Zeus’ thunderbolts among other important roles. Affiliated with water, Pegasus was also said to create beautiful springs wherever his hooves struck the earth, allowing men to drink at these sacred sites.

Pegasus was born when the hero Perseus cut off the head of the Gorgon Medusa, and her blood mixed with sea foam (representing the seed of Poseidon, himself recognised as the god of horses). Some versions of the tale have Pegasus then flying Perseus back to save Andromeda from a sea monster, while others say the stallion ascended straight to Mount Olympus to be welcomed by the gods. In later myths, Pegasus was captured and tamed by the hero Bellerophon, and together they had many adventures, none better attested than their defeat of the fierce Chimera. However, when Bellerophon tried to ride him to Olympus – which was forbidden by mortals – he fell from his mount’s back to his death. Zeus afterwards bestowed upon Pegasus the greatest honour of all: he became a constellation in the night sky. Today, while the name relates to a single horse in the myths, all winged steeds are known as a pegasus.

Qilin

Perhaps not widely known by the Western World, the qilin is one of the most important beings in several Far Eastern cultures. In Japan, it tops the hierarchy of mythological animals, and in China only the dragon and the phoenix enjoy higher positions, while Koreans believe the qilin to be one of the four divine creatures. It is a benevolent beast, and sightings of it are said to herald the imminent birth or death of a renowned and wise leader, or even a powerful sage. The presence of a qilin is considered a good omen, bringing with it luck, prosperity, peace, and even increased fertility. It is calm and quiet by nature, careful never to tread on any form of life – including grass in some legends – but can become fearsome and defensive if a kind man is threatened by wicked one.

Qilin have been depicted in a variety of ways through the ages, but they are generally a chimera-like combination of a dragon and a hooved animal. Earliest accounts from China describe it as a bearded dragon with the body of a horse or ox, later evolving to incorporate the antlers of a deer and scaly skin of a fish, usually with either an ox or a lion’s tail. Many archaic artworks also have the qilin wreathed in fire or with coats that sparkle like jewels, and are most commonly shown as golden in colour, somewhat reflective of how Chinese dragons are displayed. Interestingly, historical documents suggest that when giraffes were first introduced to China in the 15th century, locals identified them with the qilin, which is why its Japanese and Korean equivalents – respectively “kirin” and “girin” – are also the words for “giraffe”.