by April Holloway Ancient Origins
Myths and legends have generally come to be viewed as work of fiction, superstition, or fantasy. However, many have theorized that myths were, in fact, a way for people to explain real—and perhaps perplexing—events using the knowledge and beliefs of their time. In support of this theory, a number of events described in mythology, which were once considered mere fairy tales, have now been proven through archaeology to have existed, or at least to have some basis in reality. Here we examine ten such myths, which may have some truth to them after all.
Mermaids have occupied our imagination for thousands of years, originating in ancient Assyria with the legend of goddess Atargatis, whose worship spread to Greece and Rome. In history, mermaids have been connected with hazardous events in European, African and Asian culture, including floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. Homer called them sirens in the Odyssey, who lured sailors to their deaths. They have been depicted in Etrurian sculptures, in Greek epics, and in bas-reliefs in Roman tombs. In 1493, Christopher Columbus even reported seeing mermaids on his voyage to the Caribbean. But could our concept of a mermaid actually have originated from a real medical disorder?
Sirenomelia, named after the mythical Greek sirens, and also known as ‘mermaid syndrome’, is a rare and fatal congenital malformation characterized by fusion of the lower limbs. The condition results in what looks like a single limb, resembling a fish tail, leading some to questioned whether ancient cases of the condition may have influenced legends of the past. It is known, for example, that ancient descriptions of sea monsters derived from sightings of real-life species such as whales, giant squid, and walruses, which were rarely seen and little understood at the time.
Whether or not the congenital condition may have influenced stories of women with fish-like tails will never really be known. Nevertheless, the likeness between the two has had one positive effect – it has helped children suffering from Sirenomelia to feel proud of their resemblance to the beautiful and mythical beings described in our ancient past and which has persisted through popular media to the modern-day.
Research published this year in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage suggests that an ancient Aboriginal love story written in the sky reveals the Aboriginals’ knowledge of variability in the star Betelgeuse, the ninth brightest star in the night sky and second brightest in the constellation of Orion. Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis, is a variable star whose magnitude varies between 0.2 and 1.2. This means that the star subtly brightens and fades over a period of about 400 days. The variation in Betelgeuse’s brightness was believed to have been observed with a telescope in 1836 by Sir John Herschel, when he published his observations in Outlines of Astronomy. However, the recent study suggests the Australian Aboriginals knew of its variability long before this time, and that it was recorded in their ‘Dreamtime’ stories.
One story, now referred to as “The Orion Story” involves the stars making up the constellations of Orion and Taurus. According to the legend, the story tells how the constellation Orion (called ‘Nyeeruna’), which is often portrayed as a male hunter, chases after the Pleiades star cluster, usually portrayed as a group of seven sisters (‘Yugarila’). Standing between Nyeeruna (Orion) and Yugarilya (Pleiades cluster), is their eldest sister Kambugudha, represented by the Hyades star cluster. Kambugudha taunts Nyeeruna by standing before him. The club in Nyeeruna’s right hand, which is the star Betelgeuse, fills with ‘fire magic’ ready to throw at Kambugudha. However, she defensively lifts her foot, which is the star Aldebaran and also full of fire magic, causing Nyeeruna great humiliation and putting out his fire. A detailed analysis of the complete story led researchers from the University of New South Wales to suggest that the reference to the ‘fire magic’ of Betelgeuse is an observation of the star in its bright phase, while reference to ‘putting out his fire’ is an observation of the fading of Betelgeuse.
In ancient Japanese folklore, the Kappa is a water demon that inhabits rivers and lakes and devours disobedient little children. While some believe the legend originated from sightings of the Japanese Giant Salamander, a species still alive today, others maintain that the myth, or at least part of it, is real and that an unusual set of mummified remains, showing a webbed hand and a foot, is proof that the Kappa exists. Now people have the opportunity to see for themselves as the unusual body parts went on display for the first time this year at the Miyakonojo Shimazu Residence on the island of Kyuushuu in Japan. The remains, which include a foot and an arm with hand attached, are said to have been given to the Miyakonijo Shimazu family after a Kappa was supposedly shot on a riverbank in 1818.
Archaeologists discovered the skeleton of a massive dog that would have stood 7 feet tall on its hind legs, in the ruins of Leiston Abbey in Suffolk, England. The remains are near where an ancient legend spoke of a hellhound called Black Shuck, said to have flaming red eyes and a rugged black coat, who terrorized villagers. The name Shuck derives from the Old English word scucca meaning ‘demon’. He is one of many ghostly black dogs recorded across the British Isles. Its alleged appearance during a storm on 4th August, 1577 at the Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh, is a particularly famous account of the beast, in which legend says that thunder caused the doors of the church to burst open and the snarling dog crashed in and ran through the congregation, killing a man and a boy, before it fled when the steeple collapsed.
Brendon Wilkins, projects director of archaeological group Dig Ventures, said: “Most of these legends about dogs may have some roots in reality.” The remains of the massive dog, which is estimated to have weighed 200 pounds, were found just a few miles from the two churches where Black Shuck killed the worshippers. It appears to have been buried in a shallow grave at precisely the same time as Shuck is said to have been on the loose, primarily around Suffolk and the East Anglia region.
Over seven decades ago, an ancient skeleton was found in a well in Sverresborg, a medieval fortification located in Bergen, Norway. But World War II put an end to the excavations and the body was reburied and largely forgotten. Now, 70 years later, archaeologists rediscovered the remains and dated them to the 12th century AD, a period when the Sverris Saga was written, which tells the tale of a dead man thrown in a well in Sverresborg. Could it be that the recovered remains belong to that very man?
The Sverris Saga provides a detailed account of the Norwegian king Sverre Sigurdsson, along with a large cast of characters, elaborate scenes, and dialogue. King Sverre led the Birkebeiners (“birch legs”), a party of rebels that were so poor they made their shoes of birch bark, in a fight for the throne of Norway against the church-supported Baglers. The saga tells of a battle in Sverresborg (“Sverre’s Castle”) in Trondheim in 1197, where the Baglers won. The Sverre Saga says that after the battle: “the Baglers took all the goods that were in the castle, then they burned down every house that was there. They threw a dead man in the well, since they carried stone, and filled it.”
The Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research wrote: “We are more than reasonably sure that the skeleton in the well can be attributed to the dramatic tales in the saga when Sverre castle was destroyed.”
A government investigation carried out by the Fljotsdalsherao municipal council in Iceland has ruled that a legendary sea serpent named Lagarfljotsormurinn, which is rumoured to inhabit Lake Lagarfljot, actually exists. The commission ruled that a 2012 video of what is claimed to be Iceland’s most famous lake monster is authentic. The Lagarfljótsormur, or ‘Lagarfljót worm’ is an Icelandic lake cryptid which is purported to live in a freshwater, glacial-fed lake in Egilsstaðir. The earliest recorded sightings of the Lagarfljótsormur date back to the Icelandic Annals of 1345, and have continued into the 21st century. However, sightings increased exponentially after a home video shot in 2012 went viral. The home video shows what looks like a long, serpentine form swimming in the glacial lake in eastern Iceland.
If the video is authentic, and actually depicts a living creature, it may not be as monstrous as the legends say. Many species of fish have been found which resemble ‘sea monsters’ described in mythological tales, for example, the frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus), and the giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne). It might just be that a similar species may inhabit Lake Lagarfljot, leading to the development of legendary tales over the centuries.
Captain John Bennett and his crew were stunned when they dragged onto their fishing boat a creature with tentacles like fire hoses and eyes like dinner plates, while fishing in Antarctica’s remote Ross Sea. It was an enormous 350 kg (770 pound) squid which they had hauled up from one mile below the surface. Could this have been the creature that inspired tales of the legendary Kraken, rumoured to devour men and crush ships? The colossal squid, which measures the length of a minibus, was caught 8 months ago and was kept frozen until September, when scientists finally thawed it out in a bid to unlock the mysteries of this rarely seen monster of the deep.
Kat Bolstad, a squid scientist from the Auckland University of Technology, said that it’s possible that ancient sightings of the colossal squid gave rise to tales of the Kraken, a giant sea creature in Scandinavian mythology, which was first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga. Kat Bolstad explained that sperm whales often eat colossal squid and are known to play with their food, so sailors may have mistaken that for epic battles.
The mythical Golden Fleece is best known for featuring in the ancient legend of Greek hero Jason and his band of sailors, the Argonauts. Geologists have theorized from investigations that the Golden Fleece may have been more than a simple mythical plot device, and was instead a reality for the people of the Black Sea region. Evidence suggests that the quest for the Golden Fleece may have been based on an actual historical voyage to the ancient Colchis Kingdom. A field investigation study of the mythical ‘golden sands’ of Colchis published in Quaternary International theorizes that the story “took inspiration from an actual voyage sometime between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago”.
In the myth of Jason, the son of Aeson, usurped king of Iolcos, commissions a ship built by Argus, the Argo, and gathers a group of heroes, the Argonauts. They embark on a quest to find the fleece – the skin of a winged ram, a holy ram of Zeus, – so Jason might return his father to the throne of Thessaly, Greece. There are many interpretations of the symbolism and meaning of the Golden Fleece, including it representing royal power, the flayed skin of a Titan, a book on alchemy, the forgiveness of god, a fabric woven from sea silk, and the wealth of Colchis.
Geologist Avtandil Okrostsvaridze of Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and his colleagues, stated that mountain streams of the Svaneti region contain small particles of gold which tumble through the water after eroding from rock formations. Locals traditionally immerse sheepskins in the streams to trap the metal, creating a fleece rich with gold. This technique has endured for thousands of years, suggesting to geologists and historians that the region is the same ancient Colchis Kingdom as referenced in the Golden Fleece myth. The researchers wonder if the story of Jason and the Argonauts may have been based on a real and ancient mission to learn the secrets of the technique of gold extraction, or to retrieve sheepskins glittering with flakes of gold.
The Vikings have been reputed to be remarkable seafarers who would confidently head into unexplored waters. This year a team of researchers from Hungary and Sweden claim to have a clue as to how the Norse warriors managed to fearlessly navigate their way through unknown oceans to invade unsuspecting communities along the North Sea and Atlantic Sea coasts of Europe – it is believed that they combined the power of a sun-compass, with that of a sunstone to navigate their ships after dark.
A well-known ancient Norse myth describing a magical gem which could reveal the position of the sun when hidden behind clouds or even after sunset, was the subject of intrigue for many years, until researchers found a unique crystal in the wreck of an Elizabethan ship sunk off the coast of the Channel Islands. In March, 2013, a team of scientists announced that the crystal made of a calcite substance could have indeed acted as a remarkably precise navigational aid.
In the latest study, researchers examined a fragment of an 11th-century dial found in Uunartoq, Greenland, and attempted to extrapolate its features into something that would allow Viking navigators to detect the position of the sun from the twilight glow on the horizon passing through two calcite sunstones. The results found that when used in combination, the dial and the sunstones could find the position of the sun even after it had passed below the twilight horizon.
Scientists at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia rediscovered a rare and important find in their storage rooms – a complete human skeleton who lived around 6,500 years ago in the Sumerian city-state of Ur. The aptly named ‘Noah’ was originally found within a layer of deep silt, indicating that he lived after an epic flood. The first known recorded story of a great flood comes from Sumer, now southern Iraq, and it is generally believed to be the historic precursor of the Biblical flood story written millennia later.
Sir Leonard Woolley, a British archaeologist who originally found ‘Noah’ in the 1920s, referred to the layer of silt, which was ten-feet thick in some places, as the ‘flood layer’, because, around 40 feet down, it reached a layer of clean, water-lain silt. The individual is known to have survived or lived after the flood as he was buried in its silt deposits. Woolley determined that the original site of Ur had been a small island in a surrounding marsh. Then a great flood spoken covered the land in the Ubaid-era. People continued to live and flourish at Ur, but many scholars believe it was this flood that was written about in the ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets and retold by many cultures around the world. Some also believe it was the Sumerian account that later inspired the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark.