Five Fantastic Beasts of North America

J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is going to become a movie trilogy. The movies, billed as an “extension” of the wizarding world rather than a true prequel to Harry Potter, will no doubt feature Newt Scamander, renowned magizoologist, in his quest to describe and catalogue the many magical creatures that live just beyond the reach of Muggle science.

I enjoyed the Fantastic Beasts book quite a bit, and it will be interesting to see what sort of narrative Rowling manages to weave around it. At the same time, I must confess I was a bit disappointed with Rowling’s treatment of the fantastic beasts of the New World. It seemed several really obvious creatures from Native American mythology as well as later folklore were passed over in favor of made-up beasties which, though clever, didn’t quite resonate with me the way the dragons, unicorns, hippogriffs, and other European creatures did.

Here, then, are five fantastic beasts I wish Newt Scamander had encountered in his travels through North America.

1. The Horned Serpent

horned_serpentHorned serpents are powerful magical beings in many Native American mythologies. I’m thinking particularly, however, about the uktena of Cherokee folklore. These malevolent and deadly monsters inhabit deep underwater pools as well as the high mountains.

An uktena is as large around as a tree trunk. Its scales glitter like sparks of fire. It has horns on its head, naturally, and a bright, diamond-like crest on its forehead. This crest is greatly prized, as one who can retrieve it is supposedly imbued with the power to become a great wonder-worker. This is a dangerous quest, however, because the uktena’s dazzling appearance draws people toward the creature when they should be running away.

2. The Water Panther

water_pantherThe mishipeshu or mishibijiw is a figure found in the folklores of Algonquian-speaking peoples throughout North America. It is called by various groups the water panther, underwater panther, or great lynx.

This fantastic beast is essentially a cross between a large cat (a cougar or wildcat) and a dragon. It is covered in scales, with dagger-like spikes on its back and tail. The Iroquois have their own version of this creature that actually breathes fire!

The water panther is a powerful underworld being, master of all water creatures, including snakes. In the Great Lakes region, it is said to guard great treasures of copper.

3. The Thunderbird

thunderbirdAccording to many Northwestern tribes, thunderbirds are formidable creatures large enough to carry a killer whale in its talons as an eagle carries a fish. It is essentially a huge predatory bird of supernatural origins, perhaps related to the eagle or the vulture. The thunderbird is responsible for the sound of thunder and, in some cases, lightning as well.

Native American groups have different traditions regarding these creatures. In some tribes, they are considered extremely sacred forces of nature. In others, they are considered powerful but otherwise ordinary members of the animal kingdom.

4. The Jackalope

jackalopeThe first three fantastic beasts come from mythology. This one doesn’t have quite such a lengthy pedigree, although I think it would be a perfect fit in any revised edition of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The jackalope is a rabbit- or hare-like creature from the American West, but is distinctive in that it possesses antlers like antelope. Although reportedly a shy creature, it is also said to be quite aggressive when threatened.

Jackalopes are also known for their uncanny ability to mimic the sounds of the human voice. They are especially vocal before thunderstorms, and it is theorized that this is because they only mate when lightning flashes.

Some reports suggest the jackalope is near extinction.

5. The Jersey Devil

jersey_devilThe origins of the Jersey Devil lie in colonial times, although sightings of the creature continue to this day. It is a creature of the Pine Barrens region of New Jersey, but it has also been sighted in adjacent parts of New York and Pennsylvania. Although descriptions vary, certain features seem to be most prevalent: bat-like wings, hooves, tail, bipedal posture, glowing eyes, and an elongated head like a horse’s (or perhaps a dog’s). It is an omnivorous creature that has been sighted scavenging in trash cans as well as preying on smaller farm animals such as goats.

The Jersey Devil makes a number of discrete vocalizations, including a piercing scream and a dog-like bark.

Based on the legends concerning the origins of this creature, I suspect Newt Scamander would theorize that this is not an ordinary beast but rather the product of some sort of Dark magic.

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