There are certainly many strange creatures mentioned in the Bible. Some descriptions are symbolic and are simply meant to represent certain nations, people, or ideas in prophetic visions; these creatures were never intended to be taken literally. Other passages are indeed describing a real beast, although the names provided by translators were sometimes taken from mythology. The King James Version, translated in 1611, contains several mentions of mythological creatures, including the unicorn, the dragon, and the fearsome cockatrice.
Beasts in prophetic visions
The apocalyptic portions of Daniel and Revelation contain famous visions of strange creatures. Both books describe four creatures with the heads, bodies, limbs, and wings of different combinations of animals—heads of lions with wings of eagles, etc. These are not mythological but symbolic descriptions of angelic beings or certain events.
Revelation predicts “locusts” with human faces, women’s hair, lions’ teeth, and scorpions’ tails, topped off with wings. Also, in Revelation 9:13–19, an army of 200 million horsemen ride horses with the heads of lions, breathing fire and sulfur, and sporting tails like serpents with heads. The descriptions of these strange creatures are figurative—in other words, the visions are symbolic of real beings, nations, or judgments in the future.
Today, we associate dragons with storybook fare and medieval folklore. There are many mentions of “dragons” in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 148:7; Isaiah 43:20; Micah 1:8), mostly in the KJV. As we mention in our article on dinosaurs, the obscure Hebrew word tanniyn indicates some kind of very large or hideous creature. This animal is mentioned 18 times in the Old Testament as both a land and sea dweller. Other versions translate it variously as “great sea creature” or (in other contexts) “wolves” or “jackals.” It is most likely a general term for undesirable creatures, possibly a reference to dinosaurs and other now-extinct reptilian creatures.
Revelation chapters 12 and 20 mention a dragon, as well. In this context, the dragon is identified as Satan (Revelation 20:2). Since his appearance as a serpent to Eve, Satan is often characterized in a reptilian manner. The dragon metaphor helps us picture Satan, who is all too real.
Mythological Creatures in the KJV
The King James Version of the English Bible was translated in the early 1600s. While the translation is commendable for its overall accuracy and beauty of style, it has a few weaknesses. One is that, when the translators of the Old Testament came across a Hebrew word of uncertain meaning, they sometimes used an exotic English word to replace it.
In Isaiah 13:21 and 34:14, the KJV and RSV translate the Hebrew sa`iyr as “satyr.” The Hebrew word is translated 55 times in the KJV as “he-goat” or “hairy.” However, the word was also thought to imply demon-worship associated with goats, and so we find the word translated “devil” twice and “satyr” in the aforementioned verses. However, based on the context of each passage in Isaiah, it is almost certain that wild goats are intended by the Hebrew sa`iyr, not the goat-man creature of legend, and certainly not the faun of classical myth.
Hebrew word re'em, signifies a horned animal similar to the aurochs, a now-extinct ancestor of today’s domestic cattle. For some unknown reason, the translators of the KJV chose to substitute “unicorn” for the name of this horned animal each time it occurred: e.g., Deuteronomy 33:17; Psalm 22:21; and Isaiah 34:7. The Bible, in its original languages, never actually mentions unicorns.
The cockatrice is a legendary monster, half-rooster and half-snake, with the ability to turn people to stone at a glance. It may not be so well known as other mythological beings today, but, at the time the KJV translation was made, the cockatrice was a pervasive myth in Britain. The word cockatrice was used to translate the Hebrew tsepha`, which properly means “poisonous serpent or viper,” in four of its five occurrences: Isaiah 11:8; 14:29; 59:5; and Jeremiah 8:17. John Wycliffe used cockatrice in his 1382 Bible translation, and the KJV translators retained the term.
In Job an animal called “behemoth” is described as an example of the many things God has accomplished that Job could not even fathom (Job 40:15–24). Behemoth is almost certainly a real creature, although some Jewish scholars hold it is a symbol of chaos. The beast is most popularly identified as a hippopotamus or elephant, although some of its physical characteristics, particularly the tail “like a cedar,” do not match up with either animal. Most young-earth creationists believe behemoth is a dinosaur similar to the apatosaurus or diplodocus.
The leviathan is described in Job 3:8 and 41:1–34, immediately after the behemoth and for the same purpose. Isaiah 27:1 and Psalm 74:14 and 104:24–30 also mention the leviathan. The name itself means “coiled one,” and its description indicates a monstrous, serpentine sea creature. The leviathan breathes fire, has scales harder than iron, can crush anything in its jaws, and, according to Psalm 74, has multiple heads. It is possible that leviathan was a sea-dwelling dinosaur; the book of Job certainly seems to describe an actual beast, created by God. Elsewhere in Scripture (such as in Psalm 74), the creature is used as a symbol for evil or the enemies of Israel.
Leviathan appears in multiple legends and texts outside of Hebrew culture, including a Ugaritic text, a Hittite legend, and a pictorial representation from Tel Asmar dated around 2350 BC. These pagan myths present a beast similar to that described in the Bible, with the same or nearly the same name, but it is used as a personification of chaos to be subdued at the end of time. Whether these myths were based on a real sea creature, and whether the Israelites were familiar with the myths or the creature itself, is unknown.
One of the strangest and most disturbing beings described in the Bible is the Nephilim. We have an article on the Nephilim explaining them in far more detail, but, in short, the Nephilim were likely the offspring of demons and human women (Genesis 6:1–4 and Jude 6). The Nephilim are also mentioned in Numbers 13:33, but it is likely that by this time in Israel’s history Nephilim was used as a term for any tall, intimidating people, such as those found in Canaan at the time and elsewhere called “giants.”