What do unicorns, dragons, mermaids, griffins, chupacabras, and giants have in common? 

The obvious answer is that they are all imaginary creatures. The deeper answer, however, is that these creatures are cultural artifacts that tell a story about the evolution of meaning-making myths and, in some cases, the development of our scientific understanding of the world.

Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids, a new exhibit at the Witte Museum, invites visitors to consider the stories behind a host of imaginary beasts from ancient to modern times, from the most familiar to the lesser-known. The exhibit, which was organized by the American Museum of Natural History, opens Saturday and runs through January 12. 

At first glimpse, an exhibit about mythical creatures might seem out of place at a museum that focuses on science, culture, and history, but Thomas L. Adams, curator of paleontology and geology at the Witte, points out that there’s more to these creatures than one might think.

“I think this is a fascinating exhibit because people get to consider how a lot of these mythical creatures were based on real creatures or fossils,” he said.

The skull of a woolly rhinoceros was once kept in the town hall of Klagenfurt, Austria. It was said to be the remains of a dragon slain before the city was founded around A.D. 1250.

The exhibit examines more than 30 mythical creatures through fossils, artwork, narrative and historical resources, and small- and large-scale models, including a 17-foot-long model dragon with a wingspan of over 19 feet and a “life-size” unicorn. 

Adams explained that the exhibit goes well beyond “evidence of how these stories originate” and is equally concerned with “the history and cultural background of these legends.”

The exhibit looks at how these various creatures have evolved with distinct histories and symbolic significance in different cultures.

“There’s not just one story for some of these creatures, but many cultural stories,” Adams said.

Leah Larson is an English professor at Our Lady of the Lake University who specializes in these stories. Her work focuses on mythology, especially Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon, as well as gothic, sci-fi and fantasy literature.

“The same imaginary creature can mean different things in different cultures,” she said. 

“For example, dragons are seen as lucky in Chinese culture. However, in various European cultures and literature, dragons are usually associated with and symbolic of negative aspects of society,” she explained. 

“In medieval Germanic literature, dragons are often found guarding hoards of gold. In some cases, these dragons were originally human, but their greed caused them to change into dragons,” said Larson. “The words for dragon and serpent are interchangeable, so in the early Christian period, dragons were often given the same connection with sin that serpents were.”

While an exhibit about mythical creatures may seem made for children, Larson rejected the notion that this exhibit is mere kid stuff.

“Much of the early literature that had fantastic creatures was not children’s literature at all,” she said. 

“When these creatures do appear in children’s literature, they are often deprived of their more sinister or tragic aspects.”

She said that adults can find a lot of interest in the exhibit. 

“We can look at the science and think about what might have led earlier people to imagine, say, a dragon if they found dinosaur bones. These fantastic creatures have always stirred the imagination. To many there is a desire to prove that they are real. People want to believe that Nessie exists in the depths of Loch Ness, and Scottish tourism is making a lot of money due to this desire.”

Adams said that the exhibit can draw in both children and adults with its “huge visual impact” and the unexpected science behind the myth. For both children and adults the exhibit offers “learning experiences that don’t feel like learning experiences.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.