This Friday, Warner Bros. Pictures releases Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film set in the Harry Potter universe created by J.K. Rowling. The title comes from an in-universe bestiary featuring all sorts of magical creatures from dragons to hippogriffs to unicorns. Many such beasts are present in various mythologies and have served as inspirations for countless works of art over the centuries.
Since it’s the most magically powerful number, here are seven fantastic beasts that have been personified in music!
Originally a dwarf and son to a great king in Norse mythology, Fafnir became consumed with greed and transformed into a dragon so that he might better guard his amassed treasure. In the third opera of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Siegfried, the titular hero must defeat the great dragon to acquire the magical ring around which the four operas are based.
Also known as the Skogsrå, this creature of the forest takes on a female form that seduces men and lures them into her domain, to forever be lost. A poem by Viktor Rydberg tells such a story for the doomed hero Björn, which inspired Jean Sibelius’ tone poem The Wood Nymph, following the structure of the poem closely.
Similar to the previous entry, sirens are seductive, feminine creatures of the sea that are quite dangerous to sailors that become entranced by their song. Odysseus famously asked to be tied to his ship’s mast while his crew plugged their ears as they pass the Sirens, so that only he may be able to hear their beautiful song without going overboard. Numerous pieces have been inspired by Sirens (some of which are included in this list), but perhaps the most famous is the final movement of Claude Debussy’s Nocturnes.
Different from the phoenix in Greek and Roman mythologies, the Slavic Firebird is often the subject of a great quest. In Igor Stravinsky’s famous ballet, the Firebird helps the protagonist Prince Ivan end the dark spell of King Kastchei the Immortal.
The most famous of the Gorgons, Medusa is best recognized by the bed of snakes in place of her hair, as well as the deadly gaze that turns those who make eye contact with her into stone. In Stacy Garrop’s Mythology Symphony, the first movement tells one of many tales of Medusa’s origin as a beautiful woman who angered the goddess Athena and was cursed into her now hideous form.
Deep within the twisted paths of the Labyrinth in Crete stalks the fearsome Minotaur, a large man with the head of a bull. In the Greek myths, it was famously slain by the hero Theseus. In Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Minotaur, the titular creature is given something of a sympathetic treatment, depicting the traditional story from Greek mythology with an in-depth look at the Minotaur’s psyche.
A majestic hybrid of eagle and lion, the griffin has become a prominent figure in various cultures, being displayed through murals, sculptures, and even coats of arms. This is just one of many creatures represented in Mason Bates’ Anthology of Fantastic Zoology, inspired by a fictional bestiary by Jorge Luis Borges (much like the one by Newt Scamander in the Harry Potter universe…)
For more music about unusual creatures, check out this article featuring some of the more sinister entities in folklore and mythology!