The Real Roots of 7 Magical Beasts from Harry Potter

The magical beasties that inhabit Harry Potter's world didn't spring entirely from J. K. Rowling's imagination. Many of them are rooted in centuries-old myths, folklore and even a few real-life freaks. Life's Little Mysteries rounds up the Top 7 mythological beasts from the Harry Potter universe.

7. Sphinx - Featuring the body of a lion and the head of a human, the sphinx was used by ancient Egyptians to represent some of their gods. The animal was a symbol of strength, power and nobility, and so many pharaohs and queens had their likeness carved into the statue's head and had it placed over their tombs and burial temples in order to suggest their relation to the powerful warrior goddess Sekhmet, who is depicted with a lioness head and a female body. Egyptians also believed that sphinxes guarded treasure, and that's just what they do in the Harry Potter universe, standing watch over Gringotts Wizarding Bank.

6. Werewolves - Werewolves run amok in the Harry Potter books, and although the series depicts good and evil werewolves, most that turn up in folktales around the world are primarily evil. One of the first mentions comes from Greek mythology, when King Lycaeon served a platter of raw human meat to the king of the gods, Zeus. Infuriated, Zeus turned Lycaeon into a wolf. During the Middle Ages, tales of werewolves spread rapidly throughout Europe as packs of wild wolves threatened peasants and their livestock. And during the 1500s in Bedburg, Germany,bodies and limbs would turn up in fields, terrifying villagers. This carried on for 25 years until the "werewolf" was caught in 1589. He was Peter Stubbe, who claimed he would become a wolf when he wore a wolf hide. He was dismembered, beheaded, and burned on a pyre Oct. 31, 1590.

5. Griffins - Griffin mythology also originated in Greece. The fearsome creature had the front legs, wings and head of a giant eagle and the body and hind legs of a lion, and served as Zeus' watchdog. The Greeks believed that griffins originated in Asia and India, where they found gold in the high mountaintops and built nests atop the treasure. In medieval times, images of griffins decorated valuable objects that needed to be guarded, such as jewelry boxes and caskets; the creatures play a similar role in Harry Potter's world.

4. Unicorns - In Harry Potter's world, the unicorn is a magical horse whose single horn is used in potions and whose blood can revive someone who is "an inch from death." Ancient Greek and Roman scholars also believed that crushed unicorn horn could cure many illnesses – although the unicorns they imagined were not just stark white, but also red and black. The myth of the unicorn resurfaced in European medieval tales, which stated that drinking from the horn would protect from poison. There's no sign of unicorns in the fossil record, however, and the horns of allegedly caught unicorns actually belong to narwhals, which are Arctic whales that have a unicorn-horn-like tusk, or tooth, protruding from their heads. Narwals (Monodon monoceros) are currently endangered because poachers hunt them for their popular "unicorn horns."

3. Chimera - Another creature from Greek mythology, the chimera was described in "The Iliad" as "a thing of immortal make, not human, lion-fronted and snake behind, a goat in the middle, and snorting out the breath of the terrible flame of bright fire." Greeks believed this nasty beast spawned from an active, destructive volcano in Lycia, Asia Minor. The chimera is depicted as a monster who terrorized the Lycian countryside until she was killed by iron arrows shot by Greek hero Bellerophon. Harry Potter's beast-wrangling friend Hagrid laments how difficult it would be to capture and raise one of the beasts. In the real world, "chimera" is a term commonly used in associated with medical experiments using human-animal cells and DNA.

2. Centaurs - Living in the Forbidden Forest near Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, centaurs have the four-legged body of a horse but the upper body and head of a human. Centaurs are prominent in Grecian art and have also been depicted on ancient sculptured stones found in Scotland. There is a theory that the centaur stems from confused onlookers seeing men riding horses for the first time. For example, because horses were not native to the Near East and remained rare there until after about 1800 B.C., when the Kassite nomads rode by, Near Eastern societies that had never seen such a sight may have thought that they had witnessed a man/horse hybrid.

1. Phoenix - As Albus Dumbledore's magical familiar and defender, Fawkes the phoenix looks very similar to earlier portrayals of the everlasting bird. Legend says that the scarlet-, amber- and gold-feathered phoenix can live for 1,000 years, at which point it bursts into flame and is reborn from the ashes. The phoenix represents the immortality of the soul and is present in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Christian and Native American mythology. The real-life phoenix is, however, significantly less torrid – it's a jellyfish. The hydrozoan jellyfish (Turritopsi nutricula) has cells that cycle endlessly from a mature adult stage back to an immature polyp stage —  in effect regenerating its entire body over and over again.

This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.