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10 Logical Explanations For Beings Of Folklore

by David Tormsen
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Many believe that we share our universe with other intelligent species, and they’re probably right, but some believe that the extraterrestrials are right here among us. This is nothing new. Humans have always believed that we share our world with other intelligent beings, often mysterious ones with magical powers. Where did these ideas come from? The explanations are both diverse and surprising.

10 Selkies And Finfolk

Celtic and Scandinavian folklore speaks of selkies, or seal maidens (and occasionally seal grooms). These creatures could transform from a seal to a human and could be captured as a potential spouse by stealing their empty seal skin and forcing them to maintain their human form. Some researchers believe that the legends of the selkie have origins in folk memory. Early Celtic settlers in Scotland and the Shetlands encountered Finnish and Lapp women and perhaps married them. The Finns and Lapps wore sealskin clothing and used kayaks, details which over time may have turned into stories of transforming seal women.

Meanwhile, in the Orkney Islands, there was a widespread belief in a group known as the finfolk, a shape-shifting race of nomadic sorcerers. These unparalleled boatmen were amphibious and had a nasty tendency to abduct human mortals to be their husbands or wives. There was a rash of these sightings during a period called the Little Ice Age, when sea temperature dropped by up to 5 degrees Celsius (9 °F), and Arctic sea ice extended as far south as Iceland. Some writers believe that sightings of finfolk could have actually been sightings of Inuit in kayaks, who had followed the ice floes east and south.

9 Elves

We have talked before about the pervasive belief in elves in Iceland, which often affects road planning considerations. Some argue that the belief is of relatively recent origin. According to Arni Bjornsson, who worked in the ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, few people seriously believed in elves in the past. The notion became popular due to hippie culture in the 1970s, as well as an incident in 1971 when a “a clumsy but merry bulldozer driver” caused damage while moving rocks outside of Reykjavik and blamed the situation on pesky elves. No one believed him, but it created headlines and launched a craze for elves.

Elf-mania took on a wider scope during a 1986 summit in Reykjavik between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, during which reporters had limited access to the leaders and were forced to find other ways to occupy their time, leading many to question Bjornsson about the Icelandic belief in elves. This increased profile only served to further the belief in elves among many Icelanders, though they might have thought the idea was ludicrous only 20 years earlier.

Interestingly, while elves exist in many European traditions, Alaric Hall at the University of Leeds argued that they had more significance for the first Icelandic colonists, as Iceland was uninhabited and had no native population to subdue:

So they are actually indigenous people. But they don’t want to be. Like everyone else in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, they really wanted to be invaders. So, what elves did is they provide . . . this kind of earlier indigenous population that can allow you to feel like a conqueror.

In later centuries, these tales became more elaborate as struggling Icelanders spoke of the lush feasts and wonderful mansions of the elves. Today, the myth has neatly tied in with romantic environmentalist ideology and a cultural reaction against modernity.

8 The Minotaur

The scientific origins of the Minotaur – Matt Kaplan

Many ancient myths have their origins in human interpretation of geological formations and processes that they did not understand. The violent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii, and the resulting increased fertility due to lava flows, led to the goddess Pele, a force of destruction and creation. The odd appearance of Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower, caused as a result of erosion on a laccolith rock formation, were interpreted by tribes living in the area as the claw marks caused by a giant bear trying to reach a group of people hiding on the top.

The legend of the Minotaur is similar. There is not much that can be said about the creature having a human body and a bull’s head, except that the bull was an extremely common symbol in the ancient Minoan culture of Crete. Earlier versions of the myth didn’t even give details about the appearance of the creature at all; they only emphasized that it was trapped beneath the Earth in a great labyrinth and that its roar caused the Earth itself to shake.

The island of Crete lies on a subduction zone, where the Nubian block, which is connected to the continental shelf of Africa, slides beneath the Aegean block and causes an extremely high number of earthquakes, more so than even other subduction zones. This is the reason for the supposed “cruel bellowing” ascribed to the Minotaur; it was an attempt to explain the sudden tectonic disturbances that the Minoans suffered. The half-man, half-bull nature of the Minotaur was likely a later Greek interpretation, based on old stories of the bull-loving but collapsed Minoan culture, as well as possibly from fragments of pottery showing men and bulls grappling in combat.

7 Ghosts

Robot arms recreate feeling of alien presence

We’ve already explored various possible explanations for ghostly phenomena, but new research indicates yet another potential answer. Swiss scientists have determined ghosts may be an illusion of the brain caused when we lose track of our body’s location due to illness, fatigue, or stress. Conflicting sensory-motor signals could cause the perception of a presence in the area even under normal conditions.

The experiment worked by using a robotic arm that volunteers controlled with their index finger. The signals were relayed to another robotic arm that was positioned to touch their backs. When this happened simultaneously, it created the illusion the volunteers were touching their own backs. But when the finger movement and back touching was out of sync by a mere 500 milliseconds, something weird happened. The volunteers reported feelings of being watched or touched by unseen presences, slowly drifting backward toward a hand, or feeling that invisible people were present. Two were so disturbed that they asked for the experiment to stop.

According to Dr. Giulio Rognini, “Under normal conditions, [the brain] is able to assemble a unified self-perception of the self from these representations. But when the system malfunctions because of disease—or, in this case, a robot—this can sometimes create a second representation of one’s own body, which is no longer perceived as ‘me’ but as someone else, a ‘presence.’ ” Such confusion in self-awareness, movement, and one’s sense of position in space can occur due to medical conditions affecting the brain or from extreme physical or emotional situations such as grief. The feelings of unseen presences may help to explain belief in ghosts and other spirits, demons, and angels.

6 Changelings

Autistic Kid
The modern mythology surrounding the link between the MMR vaccine and the appearance of autism has a precedent in the way that prescientific cultures perceived the condition. In Scandinavian, Celtic, and Germanic traditions, there are stories of children stolen by fairies or other supernatural forces, which leave behind changeling children as a substitute. They are described as constantly screaming, refusing to talk, making strange sounds and movements, talking to invisible creatures, having difficulty showing emotion, and being resistant to affection, with little emotional connection with their mothers. Many of these symptoms are seen in autism, which features an inability to form social relationships, disordered verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors.

Autistic children usually appear as normal infants at first, before symptoms of the condition manifest when they are older. This is likely the source of the idea of a normal human child being stolen and replaced by an alien substitute. In 2005, researchers published an article in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, inspired when the head researcher heard the mother of an autistic child tell a current affairs program, “The girl I gave birth to has been stolen.”

Today, the feeling of a change in a child previously perceived as normal is blamed on Big Pharma putting poison into vaccines. Centuries ago, the same impulse laid the blame on fairies or the Devil. One disturbing fact is that stories of changelings suggest that they were often killed or abandoned. One Grimm fairy tale involves a mother taking a changeling baby into a field and whipping it until the Devil appears and swaps it for her original child. Trials for the murder and torture of alleged changelings occurred into the 19th century, and belief in the phenomenon persisted into the modern era in Ireland, Bavaria, and Eastern Europe.

5 Cyclops

Greek legends of one-eyed giants may have been spurred from early findings of prehistoric fossils. In 2003, the bones of Deinotherium giganteum, a massive distant relative of elephants that stood 5 meters (15 ft) high and had 1.4-meter (4.5 ft) tusks, were found on the island of Crete. Skulls of Deinotherium giganteum were huge and featured a large nasal opening for the trunk in the center of the skull. Modern paleontologists know that such an opening suggests a large trunk on the animal. However, it would have been extremely easy for the ancient Greeks to assume it was an eye socket and to believe such skulls belonged to a fierce race of one-eyed giants. As the giant mammals lived in forests all over southern and eastern Europe during the Miocene and Pliocene eras, their skulls could have easily been found by the Greeks in many different places.

That is one explanation for the Cyclops myth, but interestingly, there is a very rare genetic condition known as holoprosencephaly that can cause babies to be born with only one eye. This condition results in the embryonic forebrain failing to divide into the two lobes making up the cerebral hemispheres, resulting in a child with a single-lobed brain and major skull and facial defects.

Few women carry such children to term today, although there was a terrible situation in a New York State hospital in 1960, when a child suffering from holoprosencephaly was born and left to starve. A doctor referred to the child as a “monster” and “it” and even practiced a finger amputation procedure on the child. If such inhumanity is possible in modern times, it is not hard to imagine that in ancient times, such children could be seen as monsters as well.

4 Satyrs

In Greek and Roman times, it was believed that the sexually adventurous half-man half-goat creatures known as satyrs were more than just a legend and that they still lived in hidden parts of the Mediterranean. Supposed satyr mummies were placed on display by showmen to wow tourists in places like Rome and Antioch. At the time, Greek theater made extensive use of realistic satyr masks made of skin, which modern reproductions have shown to be quite striking. It is likely that the satyr corpses showcased in the Greek and Roman world were made by hucksters combining human mummies with satyr masks, hooves, and tails.

Quarriers working with Triassic limestone on the islands of Paros and Chios are said to have unearthed fossils that they interpreted to resemble the gods Pan and Silenus, who look like satyrs, featuring large heads with semi-human features, goat ears, hooves, and horns. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing exactly what fossils the quarriers came across, but it was quite common for the ancients to ascribe mythical origins to fossils they found.

There is a more interesting fossil possibility: Author Adrienne Mayor has suggested that a satyr corpse displayed in Antioch and reported by Saint Jerome may have been a miner who had been trapped in a salt mine collapse and mummified. She is backed up by the 2007 uncovering of so-called “salt men” from 540 BC in a salt mine in northern Iran. The process of salt mummification causes the preservation of hair, flesh, bone, and internal organs. The salt men found in the mine bore a striking resemblance to ancient depictions of satyrs, with similar hair and beards, snub noses, and protruding jaws.

3 Menehune


Photo credit: Laudowicz

Hawaiian legend speaks of a mysterious group of little people living hidden in valleys or forests who are capable of great craftsmanship and engineering. They were said to vary from a few inches to 0.6 meters (2 ft) in height, and they worked at night while people were sleeping.

They’re believed to be simply creatures of folklore, but some believe that they have real-world origins. Some claim the first Tahitian settlers of Kauai encountered people who had arrived before them, settlers from Marquesas. Manahune was a term used by the Tahitians for themselves until they were defeated at the hands of warriors from Raiatea, after which it became a term of derision meaning “commoner.” Supposedly, the Tahitian arrivals to Hawaii termed the inhabitants menehune, a derogatory term indicating that they were at the bottom of the social ladder.

According to some folklorists, it wasn’t until the arrival of Europeans that the term began to take on a mythical hue. Explorers curious about works of construction like fish ponds and ditch aqueducts were told that they were built by menehune. These stories may have been conflated with European notions of pixies and brownies, eventually becoming a mythical race of furtive night builders.

2 Incubi And Succubi


Photo credit: Andrew Dunn

Medieval lore held that demonic entities could take female or male forms to sexually violate sleeping Christians in order to torment them or to impregnate women with a “demon seed.” Such ideas were also common to Jewish mysticism, where they were linked with Lilith. In Muslim cultures, they were blamed on randy jinn. In China, the phenomenon is known as ghost oppression, and the Japanese call it kanashibari and believe that it can be caused by spirits, sorcerers, or ghosts.

The most common explanation for this phenomenon suggests that it is caused when some mental faculties become conscious while the rest of the brain is in a state of REM sleep. The physiology of REM sleep often causes erections in men and lubrication in women. When combined with feeling awake but being unable to move, as well as dreamlike thought, hallucinations, and sensory awareness, this can cause feelings of fear and eroticism. These can easily become notions of evil and sexual supernatural beings.

A variation of this explanation purports that the phenomenon occurs when there is a temporary malfunction in breathing and heartbeat while a person is in a state of non-REM sleep. The slow breathing and heat rate triggers an alarm response in the brain, reacting as if the sleeper was close to death. The panic response causes heart rate and breathing to speed up, and if the sleeper then enters REM sleep, they will be confronted with incubus or succubus imagery. This phenomenon has been linked to crib death in infants and may be linked with the activation of the diving reflex, vital for water birds and seals who need to reflexively hold their breath when diving.

1 Doppelgangers

German folklore speaks of the doppelganger (literally meaning “double goer”), a double of a living person whose appearance often suggests that the original person’s death is imminently approaching. Such doubles are found in other world traditions as well, such as the Norse vardyger, the Finnish efirstcomeri, and the ancient Egyptian ka, a spirit double with the same thoughts and feelings as the original.

In neuroscience, the phenomenon of seeing one’s double is referred to as heautoscopy, meaning “seeing of one’s self,” which is distinguished from autoscopy, or “seeing oneself,” which is more associated with out-of-body experiences. In heautoscopy, you perceive an illusory body, and your center of awareness can shift between your physical body and the illusory one. Such hallucinations typically also involve strong emotions, shared bodily sensation, and a combination of empathy for the illusory body with a feeling of depersonalization in the physical body.

Brain scans of patients suffering from heautoscopic hallucinations usually show damage to the left posterior insula and adjacent cortical areas. The insular cortex combines visual, auditory, sensory, motor, proprioceptive, and vestibular signals with signals from the viscera, giving rise to self-consciousness and the perception of the bodily self. As the perception of self is so important to the human condition, it is perhaps not surprising that the doppelganger effect is so closely tied with the possibility of imminent death.

There may also be feelings of lightness, flying, rotation, or vertigo associated with a heautoscopic experience, which may explain why in some folklore, doppelgangers appear as wraiths and are said to appear before the eyes of the dying, performing evil actions that the person performed in life.

David Tormsen is lucky not to have been left to die of exposure as an infant and is going to continue to avoid salt mines. Email him at [email protected].

fact checked by Jamie Frater