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Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman Mythology: The Leukrokottas

Leukrokottas from Aberdeen BestiaryWelcome to another instalment of Fantastical Creatures of Greco-Roman mythology! If you’ve been following this series for a while, jump down to the subtitle below. If you’re new, here’s the deal—this series is designed to explore some of the lesser-known monsters and creatures from Classical mythology, as many of them have parallels in modern fantasy literature (or are directly derived from them, though modified through the ages to what we know today).

While it’s typical for many of these monsters of ancient day to be passed over in favour of more “mainstream” creatures, it can be inspiring and useful—and just plain interesting—for fantasy writers and readers to gain some insight into where their favourite modern beasts originated.

Today, we’re going to take a look at man’s best friend…that is, if man’s best friend happened to be a terrifying, man-eating monster that lured its prey by imitating voices and that can’t be killed by steel.

Best friend material, indeed.

The Leukrokottas and the Hyena

While we’ll be referring to the above creature as a Leukrokottas, there are many variations on the same name for this beast: Crocutta, Corocutta, Krokuta, Leucrocotta, Kynolykos/Cynolycos. The last one, Kynolykos, means “dog-wolf,” causing 2nd-Century Greek natural historian Aelian to associate it with the hyena:

“It seems that the Hyaina and the Korokottai, as they call it, are viciously clever animals. At any rate the Hyaina prowls about cattle-folds by night and imitates men vomiting…whereupon it seizes [dogs who come to investigate] and devours them.”

Hyena by burpingcatHe goes on to explain that really, all things considered, the Hyena isn’t the problem here. Unlike the dog-eating Hyena, the Leukrokottas hides inside thickets and listens to woodcutters as they talk to each other, learning their names and speech patterns. The monster will then imitate the human voices—sometimes telling ridiculous stories (evidently the Leukrokottas has quite the imagination)—and call people by name:

“And the man who has been called approaches…but when it has drawn him away from his fellow-workers and has got him alone, it seizes and kills him and then makes a meal of him after luring him on with its call.”

That’s a bit of a problem.

The Lion-Stag-Dog-Thing

As you can see, if you’re a woodcutter, you need to be extra careful out there…but even so, how can you recognize this monster if you see it?

Leucrocotta by Ri-zuAccording to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History from the 1st-Century A. D., the Leukrokottas lives in Ethiopia and is about the size of a donkey, with the haunches of a stag, the breast/neck/tail of a lion, a badger’s head, cloven hooves, a mouth so enormous that it opens up all the way back to its ears, and bone ridges instead of teeth. In fact, he describes that the monster’s mouth is an unbroken ridge of bone in each jaw that forms a “continuous tooth without any gum” that is “shut up in a sort of case.” (And if you can make sense of that, you’ll be safer than the rest of us!)

Greek historian Ctesias, from the 4th-Century B.C., claimed that the beast’s physical and mental strength alone was something to fear: “It is brave as a lion, as swift as a horse, and as strong as a bull. It cannot be overcome by any weapon of steel.”

Combine those attributes with the mental capacity to imitate voices and lure prey through deception, and you’ve got one dangerous monster (to woodcutters, at least)!

But Is It Real?

Leucrotta by Wayne EnglandAll right, so ancient accounts of this creature aren’t what one might call “reliable,” but that shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone who’s been reading this series. The difference in this monster, however, is that it’s not exactly “mythological” in the way you might expect.

There are no origin stories, no tales that explain how Zeus copulated with this female or that to create such a beast, no examples in the writings of the playwrights or poets. That’s because the men who described this particular beast actually believed it existed, and based their accounts of the monster on “eyewitness” testimony—and according to Pius’s Augustan History, one of these beasts was introduced into the Roman arena by the emperor, probably in 148 AD at his Decennalia (anniversary games).

These later accounts by Roman historians, however, suggest that these sightings of the Leukrokottas were simply people seeing a hyena for the first time…despite Pliny’s separation of the two in his accounts. But, that can be chalked up to his methods of compiling information rather than a purposeful misleading.

The Monster Throughout History

crocotta from Aberdeen BestiaryIn later Medieval bestiaries, the Leukrokottas was included as a mythical and mystical creature, and ascribed various real and imaginary abilities and qualities. Somehow along the way, the monster was given a new attribute that actually doesn’t appear in any ancient sources: the idea that the beast’s eyes were striped gemstones that could be plucked and placed under one’s tongue to gain the ability to see the future.

That said, despite not being a part of the ancient origins of the monster, it’s a handily convenient ability.

Truth and Fiction

While it’s pretty easy to dismiss the Leukrokottas as just another hyena story, one of the things that makes this monster so intriguing is its close parallel to a real animal—with just a tweak here and there, based on observations from people who were seeing a hyena for the very first time and who had no basis of comparison.

Leucrota by TheMorlockWe don’t have many opportunities to experience that sort of thing in this modern day, but it’s worth considering—how would you react seeing something like a hyena for the first time, if you’d never seen anything like it before? How might your characters react, as a writer? And as a reader, well, if you were reading the description of a hyena without having seen or heard one, what would you picture? All told, it’s not too far-fetched to see how one person’s account could be twisted into a tale of a man-eating dog-stag-lion beast!

Title image by Ri-zu.



  1. Avatar Davieboy says:

    Thanks for another fab instalment in this series!

  2. […] M. Boughan at Fantasy Faction has the lowdown on the leukrokottas (or crocutta, corocutta, krokuta, etc.), an obscure creature from Classical mythology. I seem to […]

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