Take a look inside - that's where the wild things really are

The origins of the monsters

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WE HAVE spoken about cryptozoology before, you and I. The word was coined by a Dr Bernard Heuvelmans in the 1950's to describe his own rather peculiar interests. Dr Heuvelmans combined the Greek word, "kryptos" or hidden, with "zoology" to give us the study of unknown or fantastic beasts.

Naturally, cryptozoology has come to have its moderate and its extreme wings. The moderates content themselves with identifying previously obscure species of nematodes in unpleasant caverns in the Carpathians. The extremists are better known to us from popular television programmes, where they talk about unicorns, yetis, beasts of Bodmin, the Loch Ness monster, extant dragons, Bigfoots and a hundred other fabulous animals.

This is a dumb column, written by a dumbed-down author for jaded Saturday palates; so let us forget about the bloody nematodes. If it's nematodes you're after, try the New Scientist. No, we will concentrate instead on the exotic, racy end of the market, where the wild things are. For, tomorrow, the National History Museum opens an exhibition dealing with things like the Cyclops and the Abominable Snowman. And it seeks to answer the question, why do tales of such extraordinary manifestations persist so obstinately?

The first explanation, preferred by nutters and television producers with prime time slots to fill, is that the rumours carry on because they're true. There really is a beast of Bodmin, and here's the photo of it on a dry-stone wall; there really are yetis in the Himalayas - a guy called Messner saw one recently and it was almost 200cm tall, orange-furred, nocturnal, ate yaks and communicated with fellow yetis by whistling ("Oh Danny Boy"?); the forests of Oregon really are home to the Sasquatch, and here's a picture of a female one that looks just like a guy in a gorilla suit, but isn't. Folk like this read reports from Moscow on the latest proceedings of The International Conference on the Relict Hominoid. Such credulity is not for the sophisticated, who know that the famous fairies photos were faked. So some prefer the theory that many of these animals are inherited memories, inhabiting our sub-conscious minds. Once we and they did walk the earth the together, just as our Cro-Magnon ancestors shared forests and caves with Neanderthals. Giant apes and tree sloths, long extinct, may have left an impression on Ug and Glug that has been branded into the genes of a thousand generations.

I do not myself believe it. It is a matter of fact, and not conjecture, that - in the Ice Age - man hunted the mammoth. Hell, we practically factory farmed the furry things. So how come we do not find ourselves sidling up to the smooth elephants at the zoo and whispering "Wotcha baldy!" in their hairless ears? I am prepared to believe that we are programmed to move our hips in intercourse, but not that we are equally programmed to believe in unicorns.

So, lets look at option three, which is also for the more scientifically minded. That these wonderful animals are rationalisations of other things - misunderstandings, if you like. Take the Cyclops, the one-eyed giants encountered by Odysseus on his somewhat hectic voyage home from the Trojan war. Now, there are islands en route between Ilium and Ithaca where palaeontologists have discovered fossils of extinct pygmy elephants. These have one big hole in the skull where the trunk went. So, as Dr Angela Milner, a a dinosaur expert put it, "The ancient Greeks would never have seen elephants, so it was a natural association to assume that the skull belonged to a giant one-eyed man." Likewise dragons could be explained by travellers who heard reports of giant lizards in the far east, or who saw some of the old dinosaur fossils in China.

You see how easily all this can be explained? It's like the Bible with its floods and Red Sea partings, or the drowning of the lost island of Atlantis. Ancient earthquakes in the Middle East, a volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini that destroyed the Minoan civilisation of Crete - it's not that the stories aren't true, exactly; quite the contrary; something did indeed happen to start the tales off. Or, as Dr Milner went on to say about past cryptozoological phenomena, scientists have "found scientific explanations for most of the monsters that exist in legend, and in many cases there is a logical explanation."

But, if you will permit me, I would like to canvass support for my own explanation - the fourth theory, if you like. It is quite a simple postulation compared with the hidden memory and rationalised event theories. And it is this. We made the whole lot up. Everything. All of it. Storytellers who knew how the dark frightens us, how the large awes us, how sharp teeth threaten us, how the uncivilised cannot be reconciled by our peaceful words and gestures, these storytellers constructed tales out of their own heads which deployed these elements and combined them. From the slipperiness of snakes, the slyness of wolves, the strength of giants, we fashioned Cerberus, the Hydra, the Cyclops, the yeti and the dragon. It all comes from within, constructed by that genuinely fabulous, epiphenomenal, exceptional, infinitely complex and wonderful thing - our imagination.

To adapt a phrase, you certainly could (and you do) make it up.

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