Published: February 4, 2006
A Field Guide to Fantasy Creatures
Banshee - A woman, dressed in white, who makes appearances to sing or recite poetry the night before a loved one is to die. Until very recently (when new legislation was introduced to protect consumers) life insurance companies frequently cancelled policies upon reports of banshee sightings. Great care must be taken to distinguish between banshee singing and banshee yodeling, as the latter merely indicates that you will, at some point tonight, accidentally ram your shin into the coffee table.
Basilisk - The origin of the phrase "If looks could kill." The basilisk is a small lizard-like creature hatched from the egg of a serpent. It secretes a venom so toxic that not even Keith Richards can survive it, and even its gaze is instantly deadly. Consequently many modern, peace-loving basilisks are forced to wear blindfolds in order to have any interactions with normal society; even so they have difficulty securing Prom dates, and are frequently picked last when deciding sports teams.
Centaur - Centaurs tend to be sensitive about their equine heritage, so avoid any phrase that references it, including (but not limited to) the following: "horsing around," "looking a gift horse in the mouth," "Trojan horse," "horse of a different color," and most especially "beating a dead horse." Under no circumstances should you offer a carrot or a sugar cube to a centaur. That said, they do have a tendency to run into burning buildings, so try to be careful, mmkay?
Chimera - Created on a dare by a drunken Zeus, the chimera has the head of a lion, the body of a goat, the tail of a snake, the social skills of a three-year-old, the aesthetic appeal of a dying toad, the ego of Donald Trump, and the e-mail address of practically everyone in Crete. It is universally disliked, except on Halloween, at which time its candy intake accounts for one-third of Hershey's total profit margin.
Chupacabra - Literally, "goat-sucker." Chupacabras are members of an obscure vampire clan whose intense hatred for goat milk led them to take drastic action. Once greatly feared, recent interbreeding with chihuahuas has diluted the bloodlines of this proud people. Today they are generally dispatched with swift kicks from irate goat-farmers and small children.
Cyclops - Approximately three thousand years ago, a ship captain hired a new first officer who was in the habit of responding to all commands with "Aye aye, sir!" The captain, annoyed by this unnecessary verbiage, commented that he "could do with only one aye." The officer tragically misunderstood, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Dragon - Dragons come in two flavors: Eastern and Western. Eastern dragons are associated with "yang" and water, and they have long, serpentine bodies; though they lack wings, they make up for it with mustaches so long they are sometimes wielded as whips. Western dragons, by contrast, prefer to breathe fire and sit on piles of gold, and will eat pretty much anything except tofu. It should be noted that the phrase "Enter the Dragon" is intended to be metaphorical, and that all attempts at a literal interpretation have met with fiery, fiery death.
Dryad - Tree-hugging nymph hippie. Dryads are traditionally associated with all natural plant life, especially certain varieties of "grass." And no, the water nymphs are not called wetads - you think you're funny but you're not.
Dwarf - Dwarves are a race of short miners (not to be confused with minors, who are short for entirely different reasons). In dwarven society, beard length is a symbol of status; the Dwarf Lord's beard, for example, is so massive that scientists recently discovered three entirely new species of marmoset living inside of it, having specially evolved to survive the hairy interior. The beard has since been designated a National Wildlife Reserve, and the Dwarf Lord is prohibited from shaving by federal law.
Elf - There are two types of elves. The first is the traditional, or "short" elf, who stands approximately one meter tall and generally works in the toymaking or cookie-baking industries. "Short" elves tend to be jolly and typically have the decency to speak English. Since the 1960s, awareness has grown regarding a new, "tall" elf; these modern elves are taller than humans, wiser, older, fairer, snootier, more graceful, better at singing, and generally just superior in every area (with the possible exception of break-dancing, at which humans still manage to excel). If you ever want to experience a swift, clean stabbing, ask an elf where the pointed ears came from.
Fairy - The only known creature with the ability to be perky on Monday mornings. Alternate spellings include "fairie," "faery," "faerie," "farie," and "faeierryiie," among others. Animosity between factions supporting various spellings recently culminated in what became known as the "Great Fairy War" - or, depending on who you ask, "Great Fairie War," or "Great Faery War," or...
Genie - A type of spirit who typically inhabits a lamp, though genies have been known to inhabit structures as diverse as soda bottles, test tubes, goldfish bowls, tennis shoes, balloons, and hard drives. Genies historically grant their discoverers three (3) wishes, although they have grown so adept at discovering loopholes that they are practically useless in actual fact. For example, one man wished to be rich beyond his wildest dreams and found his expectations so drastically lowered that the very thought of money caused him physical pain; another, demanding true love, found himself on the receiving end of a blistering tennis serve.
Ghost - The best-known species of undead, and the only one specifically licensed to engage in haunting-related activities. While ghosts are generally perceived as frightening, in actual fact their abilities extend little beyond wailing, moaning, and changing the settings on the thermostat. If you see a ghost, it is probably more frightened of you than you are of it, especially if your name is Dan Akroyd or Bill Murray.
Giant - Neither jolly nor green, giants typically pass the time engaging in such sports as Sequoia Archery and Dwarf Juggling. Giants range in size from the huge to the truly colossal; at least one giant in the past may have been justified in believing the world truly revolved around him. As a general rule, giants are stupid and ugly, though of course there are exceptions to every rule. Just not this one.
Gnome - A small creature resembling a bearded man, frequently seen wearing tall pointed caps. Gnomes are totally immobilized by the coming of dawn, turning completely to stone; a similar effect is visible in college students. Gnomes are sometimes incorrectly referred to as trolls, but this is a misgnomer. The sworn enemy of the gnome is the plastic flamingo.
Goblin - What turkeys are doing most of the time.
Golem - A being created out of mud for some specific purpose, such as Getting Salsa From the Refrigerator, or Berating the Neighbor's Cat. When a golem is created, the word TRUTH is inscribed on its forehead. Later, when it has outlived its function, one character is removed, leaving RUTH - at this point the golem becomes a cheerleader and is rendered useless to the rest of society.
Gorgon - What Medusa was. Medusa's hair was made entirely of snakes, which was good for threatening heroes but not all that wonderful for the snakes - or her hairdresser. Medusa also possessed the ability to turn anyone she looked at into stone; glancing at a friend's dog is considered a major faux pas in Gorgon culture. (As a side note, "Gorgon" is also an accurate description of the outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election.)
Griffin - Like the Sphinx, but with an eagle's head instead of a human's. I swear, it's like the ancient Greeks just put on blindfolds and started pointing to animals.
Halfling - A creature resembling a small human (are we seeing a trend here?). It is almost impossible to tell a bearded halfling apart from a dwarf - do not try unless you are willing to risk an international incident. The child of two halflings is called a quarterling; the child of two quarterlings typically does not live very long.
Harpy - A long time ago, something happened with...a guy...and a vulture? Yeah, nobody really wants to know. Harpies aren't much of a threat unless you're dead or exceptionally ugly, or both. Avoid when possible, kill when convenient - it's for their own good.
Hippogriff - Because, I mean, a half-eagle-half-lion mating with a horse isn't weird enough already.
Hydra - A many-headed creature who spits venom. If any of the hydra's heads are cut off, two new heads grow in their place; something similar happens when deleting spam from one's inbox. It is said that Dr. Guillotin had a recurring nightmare involving the hydra. Hercules finally defeated the monster by weaving its many necks into an intricate braid, stringing them with beads, and giving the resulting creation to Hera as a birthday present.
Kraken - The origin of the phrase "armed and dangerous." The kraken's many tentacles and extreme bad temper have given it a legendary reputation among sailors...although, in the kraken's defense, they have extremely poor eyesight - and most of their attacks do happen during mating season.
Leprechaun - A creature resembling a small man, usually wearing green, with an Irish accent. They are difficult to capture; once captured, it is even more difficult to make them reveal the location of their treasure. Frequently the pot of gold will be swapped for pyrite at the last second - this is known as a "lepre-con." Indeed, only two humans in the history of mankind have ever successfully extracted a leprechaun's money from his possession. It is said that an eight-year-old boy held him down while his sister sang "Hearts, stars and horse shoes, clovers and blue moons" over and over until at last the poor creature relented.
Manticore - The head of a human, the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion. Earlier designs called for the head of a scorpion and the tail of a human, but that was just too weird.
Mermaid - Spend two years on a barnacle-infested boat, eating goat jerky, surrounded by eighteen men who are morally opposed to bathing, and you'll start thinking the fish are pretty good-looking, too. (Tips for courting mermaids: avoid giving them a shell-bra as a gift. No matter how uncomfortable you think it looks, I guarantee it's actually worse.)
Minotaur - The product of bizarre genetic experiments by the ancient Greeks, it is still unknown whether the Minotaur was a man with a bull's head or a bull with a man's body. He was placed in a giant hamster maze and eventually slain by Theseus, whose stock portfolio indicates he was really more of a bear himself.
Naiad - A water nymph. The name actually comes from a dyslexic stone carver who was engraving the final inscription on a temple to the goddess Diana. Naiads get along well with each other, but regard mermaids as freaks. Apparently they haven't seen the hippogriff...
Nymph - Actually an acronym for "Nude Young Maiden: Pretty Hot" although, like SCUBA and RADAR, this original meaning is seldom remembered. Nymphs are pursued by satyrs and human males, reviled by feminists, and ignored by the rest of the world. Attempts to put clothing on a nymph result in extreme horror and disgust; ironically, attempts to remove the clothing from a dwarf produce identical reactions in everyone else.
Ogre - Ogres are large, brutish beings with single-digit IQs who club and devour all humans on sight. They are easily distracted by shiny objects - indeed, many adventurers carry sacks of brass jewelry with them expressly for this purpose. If you find yourself pursued by an ogre and lacking brass jewelry, sprinkle a little garlic on yourself. It won't repel the ogre (that only works on vampires) but you might as well be succulent.
Orc - The sound made by a seal when excited.
Pegasus - The Pegasus Mark IV Stealth Horse is the very latest in modern equinodynamics, featuring triple-redundant ailerons and a hydrogen-based turbo engine that propels it to speeds of greater than Mach 3. The original design problem - what was in the second century B.C. known as the "Falling Fertilizer Fiasco" - remains unresolved.
Phoenix - The arch-nemesis of Smokey the Bear.
Pixie - A small, mischievous creature with a penchant for experimental chemistry. The pixies' chief export, known to their customers as "pixie dust," is illegal in most countries.
Roc - A really, really big bird. We're talking, like, huge. On the rare occasions when a roc has been slain, its flesh is cooked and served in a great meal along with many biscuits. This banquet is known as (wait for it...) roc'n'roll.
Salamander - Small lizard capable of withstanding extraordinarily hot flames. Note that this degree of pyrotechnology applies only to the older, "fantasy-grade" salamanders; today's specimens are forced to dress in asbestos just to be taken seriously. Many an unfortunate young salamander has had to sit through long lectures from grandparents about how when they were young, they had to climb through rivers of molten lava to get to school. Up the volcano. Both ways.
Satyr - Creatures with the upper half of a human and the lower half of a goat (no, seriously). Satyrs enjoyed drinking wine and pursuing nymphs (who doesn't?) to such an extent that they eventually set aside a day of the week specifically for these activities. The idea caught on and soon became known as Satyrday.
Siren - Sirens lure men to their side with their great beauty and lyrical voices, but such men, once ensnared, suffer sure destruction. Wise men would do well to ignore them completely. Sirens are alternately known simply as "women" (ducks to avoid various thrown objects).
Sphinx - A creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. Traditionally, the Sphinx asked a riddle to all adventurers crossing its path: "How do you stop a Sphinx from smelling?" The riddle was at last solved by the hero Oedipus, who, after answering with "Cut off its nose!" proceeded to do so, thus ending the curse. The Egyptians, it is said, were not amused.
Sprite - A broad category of creatures including fairies, pixies, gnomes, some spirits, and Leonard Nimoy. Today, sprites tend to be employed either as graphical programmers for video games, or in the marketing departments of certain carbonated beverages. Sprites are generally good-natured, but have been known to pluck out the chest hairs of anyone who refers to them as "wee folk."
Titan - So big they had to invent the word "ginormous" just to describe them. Wait, no, I'm thinking of "titanic." Anyway, titans are bigger than the giants, older than the gods, more powerful than the locomotives, and able to leap Mount Olympus in a single bound. One titan in particular, Atlas, carried the entire world on his shoulders; when Hercules relieved him of his burden, Atlas is said to have changed his name to, Atlast!
Troll - Trolls are pretty much like ogres, except...hmm. Yeah, okay, trolls are exactly like ogres.
Unicorn - A horse with a horn. Fortunately for mother unicorns, the horn does not appear until a few weeks after birth. A unicorn's horn is called an "alicorn," although you really don't know - I could just be making that up. Unicorns can only be captured by luring them with female virgins. (Sorry, there are so many possible jokes on that one that I can't decide.)
Vampire - A vegetarian with a fondness for tomato juice. As so often happens, a few isolated incidents of blood-sucking were blown out of proportion by the media, giving all the rest a bad name. Vampires can be killed by a well-placed wooden stake to the heart; incidentally, so can pretty much everyone else.
Werewolf - A seemingly normal human who transforms into a huge, ferocious wolf by the light of the full moon. If you have a friend you suspect is a werewolf, shoot him with an ordinary, non-silver bullet. If he dies, he wasn't a werewolf; if he doesn't, you soon will.
Witch - A female warlock. And no, I'm not going to tell you what a warlock is.
Wraith - Now you see it, now you don't. Wraiths are the cognoscenti of the undead, disdaining the more pedestrian "Boo!" of ghosts and the downright lower-class "Urrgggggggghhh" of zombies. They are usually seen sporting trendy sable cloaks and Nike AirBoots. Wraiths seldom bathe, perhaps due to their tendency to leave behind a ring in the tub.
Wyrm - Another name for the Western flavor of dragon. In the late Middle Ages, knights began to use "wyrm" as a verb to describe acts thought to be in some way dragonlike: for example, "Lady Guinevere's cottage burned down and she was sooo wyrmed" or "I was playing poker with Sir Galahad last night and he wyrmed me out of forty gold pieces." Not that Sir Galahad would actually do such a thing, of course. Ooh, look at me, I'm Sir Galahad, I'm too holy to talk to anyone...jerk.
Wyvern - Dragon Lite: all the reptilian aggression you love, now with fewer calories. Though they lack many of the "extras" of the traditional Western dragon, such as wings, four legs, and the ability to breathe fire, wyverns are nonetheless just as intelligent as their larger counterparts; in particular, they are known to have a special fondness for fantasy writing.
Zombie - The least attractive of the undead, especially in the absence of coffee. Zombies are often confused with "computer nerds" due to their pale skin, lack of hygiene, lack of exercise, tendency to travel in groups, and obsession with brains; however, it should be noted that any verbal comparison between the two would be considered extremely insulting. Even zombies have their pride.