“Mythic Creatures” – American Natural History Museum, New York, N.Y.

Unicorn model © D. Finnin/AMNH

Unicorn model © D. Finnin/AMNH

On an otherwise normal summer afternoon, I found myself face-to-face with a feejee mermaid. Though the diminutive fish-like creature was restrained both by death and a glass box, its barred fangs and extended claws were frightful. What man imagined this beast? His name may be lost to the annals of history, but it is possible that this particular feejee mermaid was a product of P.T. Barnum, the circus man who delighted in shocking audiences with the unimaginable. In 1842, Barnum fooled thousands of curious New Yorkers into paying to see this “mermaid,” which had been assembled with the head and torso of a small monkey and the scaly tale of a fish. The beast was a taxidermist’s hoax sprung from the eternal human desire to see in the flesh what we imagine in our minds.

On this day, the feejee mermaid was not alone. It shared the room with at least a dozen mythical creatures holding court, including a unicorn, yawkyawk, griffin, kraken, kappa, tengu, dragon, garuda, and gigantopitheus. The grade-school children who pointed at each magical animal were guests of the American Natural History Museum, which is hosting the “Mythic Creatures” show until January 6, 2008. It will then travel to Chicago, Canada, Australia, and Atlanta.

The exhibit is an inspired homage to what curator Richard Ellis calls “the natural history of the human imagination.” Though some of the creatures are rendered life-sized in plaster, the exhibit largely relies on a fascinating collection of artwork, artifacts, texts and bones to help the modern museum-goer understand the cultural, geographic and religious origins of the world’s many mythic creatures.

The journey begins with underwater wonders. The 500-year-old “Book of Sea Life” documents the tall tales and observations of fishermen and sailors who once plied the ocean’s perilous waters. A map of Iceland from 1585 is a topographic zoo featuring crustacean, mammalian, and marine wildlife. Its drawings of sea monsters could have influenced Maurice Sendak’s illustrations in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Icelanders look curious, suspicious and downright threatened as they encounter fantastic animals of the deep. In one scene, a larger-than-life lobster has made off with a young man in one of his jumbo claws. Reminding us of the imagination’s ability to transform even the dullest characters, text beneath drawings of the sea monk and sea bishop points out that the mysterious fish seem to have body parts that mimic the robes and bishop hats of Catholic clergymen.

Nearby, the Inuit goddess of sea creatures, Sedna, is portrayed in a carving of green stone. Her fearful expression and pose hint at Sedna’s suffering at the hands of a bird that has tricked her into marriage, and then at the hands of her father, who saves himself in the stormy Alaskan waters by cutting off his daughter’s fingers as she clings for life to their boat. Her lost appendages are transformed into whales and seals and her sacrifice becomes a gift to the Inuit. Sedna’s tragic story marks a transition from nature observed to pondering the moral and mythic dimensions of stories told about mystical creatures.

With its uncharted depths and unparalleled darkness, the ocean has served many artists, from Herman Melville to Steven Spielberg with a useful metaphor for human insignificance. The monsters that rise out of the sea, and the friendly spirits that try to protect us from their wrath, are an intricate part of our self-awareness. The decline of that rich American storytelling tradition outside of the movie theater begs the question: What monsters do we claim as ours? A few evenings spent being battered by Lou Dobbs’ and Bill O’Reilly’s sermons on illegal aliens and Al-Qaeda provides some insight. Other possibilities could include the imperial Dick Cheneys, the drug-crazed home invaders, the abortion doctors, the evangelists—even free-thinking robots. Not nearly as magical as their predecessors, these figures have seemingly supplanted mythical creatures as the expressions of our political, cultural, and moral fears.

Pegasus

The next room in the exhibit pulls us from the depths and places us on terra firma to witness the creatures most familiar to pop culture enthusiasts: the unicorn, griffin, Cyclops, and giant. Here, the enormous bones of the extinct protoceratops and mastadon provide a surprisingly simple explanation for the invention of the griffin and giant. An elephant skull bearing a single, deep indentation in the brow might be easy to mistake for that of a felled Cyclops. A small collection of weathered tusks and horns, often thought to have magical properties, provided evidence of powerful creatures to Europeans who had never seen a rhinoceros. Most convincingly, a long, slender, white tusk belonging to the narwhal whale was often brought back by Danish sailors in the Middle Ages as proof that the unicorn indeed frolicked beyond the constraints of their lives and legends.

Finally, there are the birds. Across cultures birds have often symbolized new beginnings and blessings. Beyond the fabled phoenix, the exhibit highlights both Asian dragons and the garuda, a bird-human hybrid of Southeast Asia that lives to avenge his mother’s forced servitude by a serpent-like being. A dragon head traditionally used in Chinese parades hangs against the wall, its saucer-shaped eyes and sharp teeth belying its association with good fortune. Contrasted with the European dragon, whose connection to Eden’s infamous serpent has rendered it largely evil, the Asian incarnation is an embodiment of good. The garuda, represented by an intricate wood carving from the early 1900s, remains the national symbol of Thailand, and has also found its place in the consumer-driven world as the mascot for the national airline of Indonesia and the namesake for characters in games like Pokemon.

Lingering on what it means for these creatures to be appropriated into merchandise, I entered the gift shop. I was hoping to emerge from the exhibit’s darkened quarters to see clusters of children with crayons in hand trying to sketch the squid-like tentacles of a kraken. Instead, visitors are funneled into a brightly lit retail menagerie where bushels of identical plastic dragons and mermaid keychains are available to purchase. As I glanced at DVDs of “Splash,” “Pirates of the Carribean” and “Sinbad,” this rank display of consumerism felt like the true death of imagination.

The exhibit itself was more inclined to blame science for the decline of the fantastic in our everyday lives. Adults tried to explain to their young charges how the human mind could have so easily been deceived by mysterious shapes in the sea, at the edge of the forest, in the distance in the desert. “This was when people didn’t have science,” a woman said to a young girl looking intently at drawings of sea creatures. It was a popular refrain.

I was lamenting the loss of the mythic tradition and what seems to be an overwhelming demand for evidence over belief in some Western cultures when Richard Ellis gently pointed out my glaring omission. “More than half of the population believes that Jesus Christ died and ascended into heaven,” he said. “The idea of a unicorn is child’s play compared to what people actually believe in. We function to a great extent on the basis of mythology and we don’t want to think of it that way. We are seriously affected by mythology of one kind or another.”

We discussed pop culture expressions of the mythic, which in the last 10 years have included the heavily creature-populated worlds of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the film adaptations of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and ” The Lord of the Rings,” and last, but not least, ” Harry Potter.” Ellis was reluctant to speculate on why these TV shows, movies and books had seen so much success in recent years. “Marching off to work everyday with your tie on is hard to do,” he said. “People feel trapped in their own mundane existence here. These provide an alternative universe.”

Protoceratops. © Mick Ellison/AMNH

Protoceratops. © Mick Ellison/AMNH

The night before my museum visit, I watched “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a heartbreaking story about a little girl in Franco’s Spain who believes in fairytales as her fate spins treacherously out of control. The movie artfully addresses the question of whether or not belief in impossible stories and creatures is an exercise in unleashing the human imagination or a desire to leave both the mundane and tragic behind. It comes to an ambiguous conclusion, suggesting that both possibilities can exist without canceling out the value of the imaginative. Returning also to the idea of claiming our modern monsters, as director Guillermo Del Toro does in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it becomes clear that we have allowed the mythical to slip into stereotype and political abstraction. Ellis was right: Our lives are based on mythology, but with the sobering influence of science and the cheapening effectsof consumerism and cynicism, it’s easier not to see it that way.

As the daughter of a storyteller who believed that trips to the American River or Big Basin wilderness required the invention of tales about magically enabled squirrels and spiritually enlivened deer, I yearn for the return—or perhaps re-introduction—of imagination—to our daily lives. While Harry Potter and other mass-market exercises in myth making are wonderful antidotes to our sometimes-dreary realities, they are only enough to sustain us for hours or weeks at a time. I’d like it if the imagination we consume as entertainment would seep into our lives more completely—especially into our words and hands. When we turn to imagination to extinguish the pedestrian and painful, expand our limited confines, and subvert the order of the world, let’s aim not only for stages, canvases and paper, but billboards, town circles, parks, the Internet, newspapers, and perhaps a few more museums.

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