One of my favorite things about the fantasy genre is learning about the many mythical and magical characters that exist between the pages of a book. Some of these fantastical beings are entirely original creations from the author, some stem from folklore, and others are inspired through a long line of fantasy fiction that came before them.
But even if you’re an avid fan of fantasy, it’s not always easy to distinguish between sorcerers and seers and witches and warlocks. But worry not, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of fiction’s most fantastical, magical, and mystical creatures, as well as their definitions and where you’re most likely to find them.
Abikus are mythical creatures originating from the West African Yoruba and Dahomey tribes. They are known to be evil spirits that live in the trees, putting curses on children and causing them to die before the age of twelve. The children who perish are also referred to as Abikus themselves.
Abikus in fiction:
In The Famished Road by Ben Okri, the narrator, Azaru, is an abiku child.
The Oxford dictionary defines an alchemist as “a person who transforms or creates something through a seemingly magical process.” But that doesn’t mean that all magicians are alchemists. Rather than holding a magic wand and chanting a few verses, alchemists practice science and experimentation to achieve magical results.
During medieval times, alchemy was practiced in the real world as a chemical science and speculative philosophy that transformed base metals into gold. Alchemists are also known to have explored the medicinal properties of elements in the hunt for a cure for disease and a way to prolong human life.
In fiction, alchemists have been mythologized and often appear as wise and mysterious characters capable of performing the seemingly impossible through a mixture of science, mythology, and magic.
Alchemists in fiction:
The most famous example is probably from Paolo Cohelo’s bestselling book, The Alchemist, as well as Harry Potter’s famed alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, the inventor of the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Similar to a centaur, yet much more terrifying, Aqrabuamelu are part men, part scorpion creatures from ancient Mesopotamia. They first appeared in ancient mythology in the Babylonian creation myth, Enûma Eliš (Enuma Elish). Said to have been brought to life by the ocean goddess Tiamat, she dreamed them up as a way to destroy her nemesis Apsu and wage war against the younger gods of the realm.
Aqrabuamelu were also tasked with guarding the gates of the sun god Shamash in the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Aqrabuamelu in fiction:
Aside from their roots in ancient mythology, these part scorpion, part man hybrids have appeared in various fantasy fiction series, including the famous series ‘The Mummy.’
You know that popular phrase, ‘screaming like a banshee?’ Well, it all stems from Irish folklore, where these supernatural female spirits appear as someone is about to die. They show up howling or wailing as a kind of grim confirmation that you really are at death’s door.
These spooky beings also show up in Slavic folklore, where they are known as božalość.
Banshees in fiction:
Rachel Vincent’s ‘Soul Screamers,’ a series of 7 books, features banshees periodically throughout the saga. For a non-fiction deep dive into the myths and legends surrounding banshees, check out The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght.
Originating in legends from across Europe, a basilisk is a reptile type creature, known as a serpent king, who can kill their enemy with a single glance. They are also sometimes depicted as serpent-like creatures with a rooster’s head, referred to as a ‘cockatrice.’
In some legends, these disturbing entities also have the ability to turn silver into gold. Traditionally, the basilisk’s weakness is the odor of a common weasel.
One famous example from folklore is the legend of the Warsaw Basilisk, where the creature was outwitted and killed by a local doctor, who disguised himself in a costume made of feathers and mirrors.
Basilisks in fiction:
One of the more recognizable creatures on this list, a centaur’s top half is human, and the bottom half is the full body of a horse. They possess two huge hearts, three times the size of a human heart, with one in the upper body and one in the lower. These hearts beat simultaneously in a powerful rhythm.
Centaurs stem from ancient Greek mythology, where they were typically barbarian in nature, causing death, destruction, and chaos. Mythological heroes such as Heracles and Theseus are famed for defeating centaurs in battle.
Centaurs in fiction:
Like many mythical and magical beings on this list, centaurs appear throughout JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, living as near-human creatures in the Forbidden Forest. They are more gentle and docile than they are commonly depicted.
Another famous example is in C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, where a tribe of centaurs joins Aslan in his battle to defeat the evil White Witch.
This most famous mythical creature appears in folklore from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. There are various depictions and descriptions of dragons depending on their origins, but their unifying features are their fire breathing abilities and their scaley, serpent-like bodies.
In Europe, dragons are often used as a symbol of regal power, but they can also symbolize evil in Christian traditions. The famous legend of Saint George tells of his defeat over an evil dragon that demanded human sacrifices, and as such, he remains a prominent figure and patron saint of many regions across Europe to this day.
On the other hand, in Eastern Asia, dragons often symbolize wisdom, strength, and sometimes even supernatural powers. Across much of China, a dragon is seen as a representation of good luck to those worthy of receiving it, and it is thought that a dragon has the power to ward off floods, tsunamis, and typhoons.
Dragons in fiction:
The dragon is one of the most commonly seen magical creatures in fiction, so the list is endless. A great classic example is the dragon Smaug, who features in JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit. The archer Bard kills Smaug after Bilbo Baggins discovers a weak spot amongst his supposedly impenetrable scales.
This chilling entity from Jewish folklore is actually the soul or spirit of a deceased person who occupies a new body in order to complete their unfinished business. They are often depicted as malevolent forces who committed terrible sins during their time on earth.
The only way to rid oneself of dybbuk is to either let it carry out its final wishes or seek help from an exorcist.
Dybbuks in fiction:
The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler is narrated by a dybbuk who tells of the terrible events and atrocities in Warsaw during the second world war.
The Dyke and the Dybbuk, a satire fantasy novel by Ellen Galford, also features a dybbuk who possesses the body of a modern-day lesbian living in London.
Before the contemporary tales of druids in fiction, they really did walk the earth as high priests in the Celtic traditions of Ireland, Great Britain, and France. They were polytheistic, believing in many gods, and frequently practiced ritual human sacrifice. Thanks to their barbaric nature, they helped ward off many of the Roman invaders during this period before they were eventually overthrown.
Despite being real historical people, druids have since been mythologized in literature and popular culture. The fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons repurposed druids as powerful beings whose magical spells are harnessed towards nature and the animal kingdom.
Druids in fiction:
The Druids series by Morgan Llywelyn weaves history, myth, magic, and legend together to retell ancient Celtic folklore.
These mythical female beings use both magic and sensuality to lure men to their untimely demise. Enchantresses are often portrayed as witches or other magical feminine creatures who use their charms to tempt men away from their noble paths.
Enchantresses in fiction:
DC comics character June Moone, who first appeared in issue 187, Strange Adventures, is depicted as a supervillain enchantress who can manipulate magical energy and walk through walls.
Another prominent magical being in fiction, fairies appear in various folklore from around the world, but their most famous origins are in Irish and British mythology.
These little winged creatures are often depicted as cute, mischievous creatures that live along the forest floor, but in some stories, they have a more sinister nature too.
Fairies in fiction:
Brian Miller’s novel ‘The Good Fairies of New York’ tells the tale of two Scottish fairies who find themselves in the middle of New York City.
Griffins, also sometimes spelled ‘gryphons,’ possess a lion’s body with the head, wings, and feet of an eagle. They are often found fiercely guarding treasure. In medieval times, a griffin’s feathers and claws were said to hold magical powers.
These temperamental creatures represent concepts of strength, courage, and ferocity and are often used in military symbolism and royal motifs.
Griffins in fiction:
The White Gryphon, part of the Mage Wars fantasy series by Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon, features several griffins and griffin-like characters.
Goblins possess similar powers to fairies, and they tend to use their magical powers for mischief. However, they are not quite as endearing as their winged counterparts; instead, they are usually short-tempered, mean, rude, and greedy, and they don’t fare as well in the looks department either.
Goblins are most prominent in European folklore and are usually very small creatures, however, they can also be human-sized.
Goblins in fiction:
There are endless books written that features goblins, both as the main cast and as lesser-known characters. The Goblin Wars series by fantasy author Kersten Hamilton follows an ongoing battle against goblin kind.
Stemming from ancient Roman and Greek mythology, a hydra is a powerful sea monster with many heads. But it’s not easy to defeat; if you cut off one of the hydra’s heads, two more will grow back in its place, making this one of the most formidable oceanic monsters in myth and legend.
Hercules himself was commanded to slay the Hydra of Lerna, which almost led to his demise. His tactic was to cauterize the wound with fire as soon as he chopped off each head so that nothing could grow back to replace it. Once he’s removed the monster’s last remaining ‘immortal head,’ he buried it deep in the ground, under a huge rock, so that it could never be resurrected.
Hydra in fiction:
Rick Riordan’s The Sea of Monsters, the second book in the beloved Percy Jackson series, features a hydra who garners her powers from an unlikely source; a mysterious donut store.
The root of this word can be traced back to the Magi, or the Three Wise Men, from the Christian tradition. From ‘magi,’ the word ‘magician’ was spawned, as well its synonym, ‘mage.’
A mage, just like a magician, is a practitioner of magic. Usually fully human in form, a mage studies and harnesses supernatural powers through their knowledge and wisdom of the occult.
Mage is just one word used to describe a person with magical attributes. It can also be used interchangeably with ‘wizard,’ ‘warlock,’ and ‘sorcerer.’
Mages in fiction:
Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is an exploration of how wizards, or mages, learn their art.
With the body of a human, and the head and tail of a bull, the legendary Minotaur is said to have been the offspring of the Cretan Queen Pasiphae and a magical bull. The story goes that the Minataue was trapped at the center of a labyrinth, constructed by the mighty yet ruthless King Minos of Crete, before finally being slain by Athenian Theseus.
Minotaurs in fiction:
Minotaurs also show up fairly frequently outside of Greek mythology, including in Dante’s Inferno in the seventh circle of hell.
Phoenixes feature in mythology from various ancient cultures, but most prominently in the stories and legends of ancient Greece. This powerful sun-loving bird lives for centuries before spontaneously combusting in a blaze of glory, replaced by a new phoenix that rises from its ashes.
Phoenixes in fiction:
Nicki Pau Preto’s Crown of Feathers series depicts an empire built upon the backs of Phoenix Riders, who use these magical birds to soar through the skies.
These evil entities from Indonesian and Malaysian folklore are said to be the astral spirits of women who have passed away while they were pregnant. They are typically depicted with long lank hair covering their face, pale skin, and a white dress, and they sometimes possess long, sharp fingernails.
The Pontianak is known to seduce unsuspecting men before slashing open their stomachs and devouring their organs. Her presence is associated first with the scent of the delicate frangipani flower, which is then replaced by the hideous smells of rotting flesh.
Pontianaks in fiction:
Singaporean author Sharlene Teo’s debut novel Ponti follows three women whose lives become intertwined through the myths and legends of the Pontianak thanks to the production of a B-grade horror movie featuring the mythical entity.
Seers are said to have a special power to see into the future and are given access to information hidden from regular folk. Along with predicting the future, seers can often speak directly to the gods and explain the divine significance of events and omens.
Seers in fiction:
In JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, seers have all of the classic powers listed above. But unlike many magical skills practiced at Hogwarts, becoming a seer cannot be taught; it is passed down through a bloodline.
Sorcerers, or sorceresses, are considered similar, if not sometimes the same, as mages and wizards. The only real defining features of a sorcerer are that usually, they are at the top of the magical hierarchy. Rarely does an apprentice mage or wizard bear the title of Sorcerer; they have to study and practice for years before they earn this respected title. Sorcerers are also often said to possess a hereditary gift or natural ability for performing magic.
Examples of sorcerers in fiction:
Falling Kingdoms by fantasy author Morgan Rhodes follows a tale of magical battles, evil rulers, and powerful sorcerers in the three kingdoms of Mytica.
Originating in Scandinavian folklore, as well as myth and legends in the British Isles, trolls are large, monstrous beings that live in caves, under rocks and bridges, or the interiors of mountains. They are often violent and have malintent towards humans, and some, but not all, possess magical powers.
Expose them to bright sunlight, and they will burst into flames or turn to stone, and so they prefer to conduct most of their activity under cover of darkness.
Trolls in fiction:
The most famous story involving trolls is the Norweigian fairy tale, The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Peter Christen Asbjornsen & Jorgen Moe, which was first published in the 1840s.
Another Scandinavian magical being, this is one of many female figures in Norse mythology. Valkyries, meaning “choosers of the slain,” ride along on horseback with horned helmets, deciding who will live and who will die in battle. The dead are then taken by the Valkyries and escorted to Valhalla, the kingdom of the god Odin.
Valkyries in fiction:
Part of the Valkyrie series, Valkyrie Rising by Ingrid Paulson brings a modern-day twist to this ancient Norse tale.
No list of magical, mythical beings would be complete without contemporary fiction’s greatest friend and foe, the vampire.
Most of the modern day depictions of vampires are based around the 18th century Romanian folklore of the ‘strigoi.’ From these stories come the vampires that we all know today, the ones that live forever, feeding off of the blood of living humans. As we all know, they hate garlic, they can’t come inside unless you invite them, and the only way to kill them is to drive a wooden stake through their heart.
Vampires in fiction:
Well, where do I begin? My favorite vampire series, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is the Twilight series of books by Stephenie Meyer.
Like a mage, a wizard, and a sorcerer, a warlock is a human practitioner of magic and witchcraft; however, most warlocks are male. Another distinction that can often be applied to warlocks is their practice of the dark arts. Wizards, sorcerers, and mages can all dabble in both white and black magic, but warlocks tend to err on the more evil side of things.
Warlocks in fiction:
Warlock, a novel by Wilbur Smith, forms part of a longer series of books series in Ancient Egypt.
The more famous counterpart of a warlock, a witch practices witchcraft, magic, and occult arts. Though witches can be both male and female, most depictions of witches in fiction are female.
Witches can be benevolent beings, casting spells for good, or they can be a force for evil, practicing black magic and cursing unsuspecting victims. And sometimes, they can be a little bit of both.
In early Christian Europe, these iconic Haloween figures were universally perceived as evil, practicing the ‘devil’s work.’ This led to a tragic spate of ‘Witch hysteria,’ stretching from the 1400s and lasting well into the 1700s. Witch hunts and witch trials were held across the continent, and the accused were brutally executed, either through hanging or being burned at the stake.
Witches in fiction:
There is no end to the many portrayals of witches in modern fiction, but a fantastic one that springs to mind is Roald Dahl’s classic novel, The Witches.
This might seem like a long list, but it’s by no means exhaustive. There are an endless array of mythical and magical creatures to explore within the fantasy genre. Who and what are your favorites, and which ones did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!