I have long enjoyed reading ethnographies, especially the sections describing mythology, religion and magical practices. One somewhat related topic that I have recently become interested in is what, for lack of a better name, I would call fantastic ethnobiology. By this I mean cultural information regarding plants, animals, and intelligent beings that do not exist in the real world, but which are not considered religious. Familiar examples of this would include vampires, werewolves, fairies, and unicorns. Less well known are North American creatures like the Shoshonean water baby, or from the Miwok, the dangerous metubu lizard. Of course, our own modern world has plenty of examples as well – bigfoot and the chupacabra being particularly well known.
As the video about the water baby makes clear, it is not always obvious whether a particular subject falls into the category of religion or ethnobiology. Some creatures, such as the Devil in medieval English folklore, seem to fall into both categories.
Unlike standard urban legends, which most often are told in the third person (commonly they happened to “a friend of a friend”), stories of encounters with fantastic creatures are frequently given as first person accounts, at least in our society. Unfortunately I don’t know if this approach is common in other cultures as well. Many ethnographers seem to have ignored the subject, or mention only a few tantalizing bits in passing.
One of the most intriguing aspects of fantastic ethnobiology is the fact that although there is an enormous diversity of creatures described, there are also some that show up again and again in a wide variety of cultures. One of the most common is the mischievous dwarf; tiny people, usually between 1′ and 3′ in height, who can appear and disappear at will and who like to play tricks. Tall, hairy, humanoids (i.e. bigfoot) are another common creature, as are giant flying reptiles.
I admit I have no idea why certain creatures pop up in culture after culture. It may be related to the fact that certain myths are also found over and over again in many different cultures. Perhaps both of these phenomena reveal something interesting about the workings of the human brain. In any case, it’s a fascinating subject.