There are some quite contentious claims out there about the origins of D&D’s creature catalogue. Was D&D inspired primarily by Tolkien and European folklore, for example, or was it more international? How many monsters did Gary Gygax invent, and how many are based on real-life mythologies?
I decided to do some research. For the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I have restricted myself to the monsters listed in the 5th edition Monster Manual. I ignored the generic NPCs in Appendix B and the real-life fauna of Appendix A (including dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures like the sabre-toothed tiger). I also chose to ignore:
- giant versions of real-life fauna (unless they have a specific literary origin somewhere);
- swarms (unless they refer to creatures without stats elsewhere, like rotgrubs);
- animated versions of real-life things (like flying swords and awakened shrubs);
- ‘demicreatures’ like half-ogres and half-dragons;
- juvenile or mature versions of the same creature (eg, the young remorhaz);
- and, in general, subtypes of the same creature (eg, abominable yetis, grick alphas, different types of zombie, and so on).
Doing so gave me a list of 215 creatures to research.
A couple of disclaimers. Number one: this is a blog post, not scholarship. I may have made some mistakes here. In fact, I almost certainly have. By all means let me know in the comments! Number two: it is impossible to be completely scientific with such an exercise. Some monsters have very specific origins, like the couatl and the yeti. For others, pinning down an exact source is liking trying to decide who invented hummus. For example, many of the monsters that came to D&D via Tolkien were themselves based on other mythologies. [Update: I would also add a third disclaimer: this post is not exhaustive! I would go mad trying to write about every single one of the 215 creatures, so please accept my apologies for not doing so.]
I referred to a number of sources in making this but was particularly indebted to u/phdemented on Reddit. Do check out their posts for more detail!
Without further ado . . .
There might not be many French creatures in the Monster Manual, but at least the French can claim to have given D&D its most fearsome foe. The tarrasque (one ‘r’ in the original) is a Provençal legend about a fearsome dragon-like hybrid. The D&D tarrasque, however, is actually much closer to a Godzilla-esque kaiju. The word ogre is also French, and has other cognates in D&D like ‘Orcus’ and ‘orc’.
Update: there is some debate as to where gargoyles (‘gargouilles’) belong here. I include them further down, since the architectural feature pre-dates the mythological creature, but it’s a fair claim!
Lemures (devil fodder in D&D) were restless, malignant spirits in Roman mythology. Manes (demon fodder) were also di inferi or ‘those who dwell below’, but according to St Augustine, where Lemures were generally bad souls, it was uncertain whether Manes ‘deserve well or ill’.
German/Central Europe (3)
Given the cultural influence of the Brothers Grimm, I was surprised how few D&D creatures could truly be traced back to German origins. I could only pin down three: the kobold (which is related to the colour cobalt), the imp, and the mephit (which was essentially just another form of imp, originally). Doppelgangers are not dissimilar to the changelings of Nordic and Germanic stories, but similar changelings appear in other cultures.
Unique origins (3)
The couatl is the only creature I could find with a Mesoamerican origin. The clay golem originated in Jewish folklore. Zombies come from the traditions of Haiti, which may in turn have roots in west or central Africa.
Although mummified corpses have been found on every continent, the D&D mummy is clearly based on those of ancient Egypt. The jackalwere and the the androsphinx are also Egyptian in origin. (Curiously, the sphinx also existed in ancient Greece, but there it was usually a woman, not a man.) Update: while griffons appear in ancient Greek texts, their origins lie in Egypt and Iran.
East Asian (5)
The dragon turtle (Lóngguī) is a legendary Chinese creature that combines two of the four celestial animals of Chinese mythology. The gold dragon was also based on Chinese dragons. Kenku and oni, meanwhile, have their origins in Japanese mythology.
One curiosity here is the arcanaloth. @DeerServas on Twitter suggested that this may have come from The Book of Imaginary Beings where it is listed as ‘the Chinese Fox’. This may in turn have come from the Japanese stories of kitsune. [Update: another possible origin is the French stories of Reynard the Fox. We might not be able to find a true source for this one!]
Arabic, Islamic, and Persian (6)
The djinni, efreeti, ghoul, manticore, marid, and roc all come from one or more of these sources. (The term ‘efreeti’ is actually a mistake, as Keith Ammann helpfully points out, and we should probably call them ‘efreets’.) Curiously, the last of the four genie, the dao or earth genie, is an invention for D&D. Presumably the original game designers wanted one genie for each of the four elements. Update: the griffon probably belongs here or in the Egypt category, too.
Indian and South Asian (6)
Devas, nagas, and rakshasas appear in both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Mariliths, though an invention of D&D, bear a strong resemblance to Hindu and Buddhist demons, and in a similar vein, weretigers closely resemble rakshasas. Finally, yetis are a cryptid from the Himalayas.
Seriously? Yes! Six of the most iconic D&D monsters – the bulette, carrion crawler, owlbear, purple worm, rust monster, and umber hulk – were invented by Gary Gygax based on a bag of cheap plastic toys.
Several, including bugbears, duergar, and will-o’-wisps. Hobgoblins can be found in English and Scottish stories. Cloud giants were inspired by the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. The basilisk and the cockatrice have a shared origin (and indeed, the terms were almost interchangeable).
Several ‘outsiders’ like the azer, barbed devil, barlgura, bearded devil, planetar, and solar have their origins in occult texts like the Ars Goetia (17th century) and Lewis Spence’s An Encyclopedia of Occultism (1920).
Real world (6)
As I wrote at the outset, I tried to rule out real-world monsters from this research, but a few special cases are worth mentioning. The axe beak (Phorusrhacidae) and the dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) both have prehistoric analogues. The quipper is essentially a piranha. The salamander of legend is rooted in the exaggerated stories about the amphibian of the same name. Gargoyles and scarecrows are both objects in real life.
I was surprised by how few of the monsters in the Monster Manual were drawn directly from Norse mythology. From what I could find, only the drow, ettin, fire giant, frost giant, and kraken are truly Scandinavian in origin. [Update: the wights of Tolkien are inspired by draugr, which also feature in the video game Skyrim.] Despite the name, D&D trolls are really not much like the trolls of Norse mythology at all: along with the paladin class and the D&D aligment system, they are mainly indebted to Poul Anderson’s novel, Three Hearts and Three Lions.
Scottish, Irish, and Celtic folklore (7)
The banshee and the fomorian are Irish in origin (the name ‘Balor’ was in fact the name of a fomorian originally), while behirs and green hags (also called shellycoats) are Scottish. Merrow are Scottish and Irish. Pixies are Celtic and sprites are Cornish.
European folklore (
A fair few here: the goblin, the night hag, the nightmare, the revenant, and the werewolf (which goes back to ancient Greece and Rome). The cambion, too, is a European creation. Shakespeare’s Caliban was a cambion.
Update: although dragons are fairly universal and found it many, many cultures worldwide, D&D’s dragons are clearly modelled after European types (the gold dragon being an exception). Curiously, though, and this is something Tolkien himself points out in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, dragons are actually rare in European literature, and there are only a few that are significant.
For many years, Gary Gygax downplayed how much D&D borrowed from Tolkien’s work. Possibly for legal reasons: the threat of copyright action from the Tolkien estate prompted D&D to stop using terms like ‘balrog’, ‘ent’, and ‘hobbit’. Nevertheless, Tolkien was clearly a huge influence on the early game, and it’s primarily from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit that we get creatures like balors, giant eagles, orcs, treants,
wights, worgs, and wraiths. [Correction: wights are based on draugr from Norse mythology, so I have moved them there.] While I wouldn’t go so far as to put them in this category, the werebear is reminiscent of Beorn from The Hobbit, and red dragons closely resemble Smaug. Goblins and stone giants are also extremely Tolkienesque, despite appearing in other cultures and traditions.
Many of the creatures in the Monster Manual have no single origin and appear around the world in various forms. These include:
dragons, ghosts, hell hounds, hill giants, iron golems, lizardfolk, lycanthropes, merfolk, skeletons, stone golems, unicorns, vampires, and wyverns. They are, in essence, ‘citizens of the world’. Claims can be made for some of them – unicorns may have originated in the Indus Valley Civilization, possibly as a representation of aurochs – but they are not uncontentious, and there are often conflicting claims elsewhere. Vampires, for example, can be found in almost all cultures in some form or another, including Asia, Africa, the Americas, and ancient Mesopotamia.
Works of fiction beside Tolkien (14)
A long list! Horned devils come from Dante (the lazy Malebranche of the Divine Comedy); elementals, in their D&D form, seem to be inspired by the work of Michael Moorcock; flesh golems are clearly modelled on the Monster in Frankenstein; grimlocks are essentially the morlocks of The Time Machine.
And there are more: the demilich and the wererat resemble creatures in Fritz Leiber’s work; perytons seems to come from Jorge Luis Borges;
the name gnoll may have come from Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder: How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art upon the Gnoles Update: Gary Gygax himself attested that the gnoll was a mash-up of a gnome and a troll (!); and the grell seems to be based on the medusae of Jack Williamson’s Three from the Legion (1980) [Update: user on Reddit pointed out that grells appear to pre-date this source. Thank you, kinarism!]. Thri-kreen may have been modelled on the four-armed green martians in John Carter of Mars (1917), while liches can be found in the work of several 20th-century writers, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Howard, and Ambrose Bierce. Finally, displacer beasts, despite being considered the intellectual property of Wizards of the Coast, have an uncanny resemblance to the Coeurls of A E van Vogt.
Greek myth (
Here was perhaps my most interesting find. Once you exclude real-life fauna and creatures invented by the game itself, Greek mythology is the single biggest origin of 5e monsters.
The list is huge: centaurs, chimeras, cyclopes, dryads, empyreans (essentially titans), erinyes (the Furies),
griffons, gynosphinxes, harpies, hydras, lamias, medusas, minotaurs, pegasi, and satyrs are all clearly taken from Greek myth. I would also add two more: the storm giant (which closely resemble Zeus) and the wereboar (which reminds us of Circe and the swine in the Odyssey). The hell hound and the iron golem, too, while not exact copies of any creatures in Greek mythology, do nonetheless bear a resemblance to Cerberus and Talos respectively.
One creature I excluded from this category, though, was the gorgon. Despite the name, they are not based on Greek myth! They have some similarities to the bulls of Colchis or Khalkotauroi, but their true origins seem to be Edward Topsell’s 1607 bestiary The Historie of Foure-Footed Beasts. In Greek mythology, the gorgons are the three snake-haired sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa.
Update (1 Feb): another creature I excluded from this list was the skeleton. ‘But Jason and the Argonauts!’ I hear you cry. Turns out, the Spartoi of Greek myth are simply warriors, and never described as skeletons. You can blame Harryhausen and his wonderful special effects for that one.
D&D (at least 20)
Another huge list: so many of the monsters of D&D seem to be an invention of the game itself. Many of the demons – for example, the glabrezu, hezrou, nalfeshnee, and quasit – came from the imagination of Gary Gygax: so, too, did blink dogs, various oozes, troglodytes, and the xorn. Other D&D creations include ankhegs, githyanki (a name which came from George R R Martin), mind flayers, modrons, twig blights, and the iconic beholder, although these did not necessarily come from Gygax. Flumphs and quaggoths were player created. These creatures may have never existed if it were not for D&D.
The winner: unknown! (at least 50)
And then there’s the rest! About a quarter of the monsters I looked at had unclear origins, and we might never know who created them. Like the list above, they may very well be a product of the game itself. Examples include dracoliches, driders,
ettercaps, flumphs, gricks, mimics, myconids, otyughs, quaggoths, ropers, shambling mounds, and vrocks. Some may have real-life origins (the original ochre jelly art resembled a giant amoeba), and others may be nods to particular cultural references (ultroloths recall the stereotypical grey alien), but others are just a bit of a mystery.
Although none of the monsters in D&D are taken from Lovecraft directly, several are ‘Lovecraftian’ in form. These include aboleths, chuuls, ghasts, ghouls, gibbering mouthers, kuo-toa, mind flayers, and slaadi. Likewise, a number of creatures from the Monster Manual can be seen in similar forms in 20th-century pulp fiction. These include aarakocra (Flash Gordon), black puddings (The Blob), and the gelatinous cube.
I learned a lot from doing this. I was suprised by the extent to which it borrowed from Greek myth, for example, and how few creatures, comparatively, were Norse in origin. My research does seem to bear out the suggestion that D&D’s origins are heavily weighed towards Europe, however: the number of monsters from Asia, Africa, and the Americas is really quite small, with none that I could think of from Australia and Oceania. What struck me most of all, though, was the sheer plurality and inventiveness of the game’s sources, emphasizing, once again, that there is a place for all storytellers in the world of D&D.
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