Sunday, September 9, 2007
Last weekend, my brother and his eldest daughter were in town. So the four of us- brother, niece, my boyfriend and me- went to the American Natural History Museum to see the special exhibit on mythical creatures. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more predisposed audience for this show than us.
The good parts of the show were very good. They had what’s thought to be the actual fake mermaid (the Feejee Mermaid) that P.T. Barnum had assembled from a fish tail and a monkey, and displayed to great acclaim in lower Manhattan over a hundred years ago. I’d read about it, but never dreamed I’d actually see it. There were also great displays about gryphons, and a fascinating explanation of how gryphons came to be. When dinosaurs’ fossils were found in the Gobi desert, the people of that time didn’t know from Protoceratops. They thought the fossils looked like an animal that was part-lion and part eagle, which is how the gryphon came to be. For reasons I’m not sure of, the Romans associated gryphons with Nemesis. A similar fossil explanation is given for the Cyclops. Someone found the skull of a pygmy elephant, which had a large hole in the center of it, where the trunk would have been. In looking at the skull, they assumed the big hole was for a giant, single eye.
There were also displays of unicorns, and narwhals. I had seen narwhals at the museum in Valdez, Alaska (along with some really big taxidermied polar bears), but at the Natural History Museum, I got to touch a narwhal horn. The Japanese kappa, which lives in water and is said to try to pull children under to their death, may be tamed by feeding him a cucumber. I never knew vegetables could be so handy.
What was disappointing to me were the dragons. For some reason, in my Readers Theatre class in prep school we spent a lot of time on Kenneth Grahame’s "The Reluctant Dragon". I have also had an idea, for years, about writing a cabaret based on the lives of the saints, one of whom will be St. George. In my research, I found one St. George legend (Syrian, I think) where the dragon was not killing people by breathing fire on them like a barbecue, but his breath was so foul that it killed any human to come near it.
This Mythic Creatures show has been running since May, the ads for it are all over the subways (using the image of a dragon), there’s been at least one extensive article on it in the Times. But other than a handful of examples, the majority of the dragons were Asian, not European. I had come to be scared (well, a little scared) by the dragons, and left unscathed. Still, each of enjoyed some aspect of it. So after we paid our respects to the dinosaurs, we went off to lunch.