Gold-Digging Giant Ants, One-Eyed Monsters, and the Bizarre History Herodotus Gifted the Greco-Romans
The Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (circa 484 – circa 425 BC) is often referred to as “The Father of History” because he is credited with writing the first great historical narrative of the ancient world. He traveled widely, or at least claimed to have done so – some glaring errors in describing places he supposedly visited have cast those claims in doubt. Herodotus collected the stories he gathered from his own travels, or from the hearsay of other travelers, into The Histories, a record of ancient politics, geography, and cultures, deemed Western literature’s founding work of history.
However, Herodotus is also known to critics as “The Father of Lies“, because his writings included not only some wrong details but some jaw-dropping whoppers, as well. Not only modern scholars, but even some of Herodotus’ contemporaries, scoffed at his claims. Today, many questions whether Herodotus had ever traveled beyond Greece, and had instead simply penned The Histories by collecting stories from people he encountered at home.
A typical Herodotus whopper was his narrative about the struggle between giant one-eyed Cyclopes and half-eagle, half-lion, griffins, who inhabited northern Europe. According to him, the griffins roosted over and guarded stockpiles of gold, which were frequently raided by the one-eyed giants. Herodotus did not narrate this story as the retelling of a myth, but as something, he believed to be gospel truth.
Another Herodotus tall tale was about giant, gold-digging ants. As he told it, ants the size of foxes lived in the Persian Empire’s eastern provinces, in deserts whose sands abounded with gold dust. As they dug their anthills, mounds, and tunnels, they unearthed the gold dust, and the locals grew wealthy sifting through the giant ants’ excavations. Few if any Greeks had ever been to the faraway lands described by Herodotus, so for centuries, the Greeks, and later the Romans, treated Herodotus’ tales of weirdness in distant lands as literal truths.
A City of Gold Existed in the Depths of the New World’s Jungles
The legend of El Dorado seems to have changed like a message in a game of telephone, gradually getting altered with each retelling, until the final recipient ends up with something completely different. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard a tale about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, before rowing into Lake Guatavita, about 35 miles northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god.
The first Spaniards to hear the tale named such mythical Muisca chiefs El Hombre Dorado, Spanish for “the golden man”. Over the years, and with repeated retellings, El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together. The story was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered a lot of gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South of America. So they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior.
In due course, many Spanish Conquistadores and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version describing a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. The lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city ended up fueling various expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold.
However, seekers who stuck to the original version of the story, about tribal chiefs dropping golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than that partial success, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.
One of the jinxed searches was carried out by the English courtier, Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, Raleigh was too enfeebled by age to endure the rigors of the search, so he set up base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. It ended in utter disaster, and in the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself: upon his return to England, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
The Curative Properties of Gladiators’ Bodily Fluids
Ancient Romans had what can be described as mixed feelings about gladiators. On the one hand, gladiators were despised as slaves, trained under extremely brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from free Romans. On the other hand, gladiators, especially the most successful ones, were admired and celebrated as if they were a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes.
Because of their constant training, gladiators were often impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles glistening in the arena before spectators. Understandably, that made gladiators the objects of sexual fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. If the gladiator sexual fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers stood in the way – it might be gratified at a remove. Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought after commodities in Ancient Rome. Wealthy Roman women, in particular, were willing to pay a hefty price for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators.
A curved metal blade called a strigil, used by Romans to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing, was used to scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. It would then be collected in vials, which were offered for sale outside the gladiatorial games. The buyers would often apply the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their faces, as a type of facial cream. Others might mix it with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of women of status.
Gladiator blood was also sought after by Roman women. Many applied the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accouterments, or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as particularly virile, which led to the somewhat ghoulish and macabre practice of using gladiator blood (and sometimes sweat) as an aphrodisiac. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often, was mixed with wine and ingested that way.
The use of gladiator blood was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. It was also believed to have healing properties, particularly in treating epilepsy. As Pliny the Elder described it: “Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink he warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”
Murder Cult Leaders Convinced Their Followers That They Controlled Access to Paradise
Al Qaeda, ISIS, and similar modern terrorist cults had predecessors dating back nearly a millennium: the Medieval Assassins cult. It was founded by Sheik Hassan al Sabah (1034 – 1124), a shadowy Islamic scholar who seized Alamout Castle, high in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea in Persia, in 1090. From there, his followers established a series of remote mountain fortresses in the highlands of Persia and Syria. That string of holdfasts earned Sheik Hassan the nickname “Old Man of the Mountain”, which became a title passed on to his successors. From those strongholds, the Sheik sent suicide squads of killers known as fida’is (“self-sacrificers”) to terrorize the Middle East.
The Sheik adopted a creative strategy to convince recruits that he controlled access to paradise. Potential recruits would be summoned to one of his fortresses, where they would receive religious education, and be housed in bare cells. During the course of their education, the instructors would gradually begin hinting that Sheik Hassan held the keys to heaven.
Once they were judged to have been sufficiently primed, the more promising of the young men would be drugged with hashish, earning the group the Arabic name “Hashashin” – rendered into “Assassins” by various Europeans. When the recruit came to, high on hash and tripping, he found himself in breathtaking orchard gardens, through which gurgling streams meandered between trees ripe with fruit, and rows of vines heavy with grapes. Peacocks wandered around, spreading their gorgeous tails; lambs and tame deer frolicked about; and brightly colored birds flitted through the branches, filling the air with their song. The stunning surroundings were complemented by stunning women to seduce the recruit, cater to his desires, and satisfy his whims.
The recruit would be plied with wine, kept high on hash, and fed delicacies that he probably never knew existed, let alone tasted. All the while, the seductresses would convince the besotted young man that he was in heaven, and that they were the houris promised those who made it to paradise. Then, after days of heavenly delights, the recruit would be drugged senseless once more, and removed from the pleasure gardens.
When he awoke, he would discover himself back in his bare cell and austere surroundings. There, he would be informed that he had been in paradise, sent there by the Sheik, who held the keys to heaven. The recruit would then be told that he could return to heaven and its delights, if he died while killing the Sheik’s enemies. It was extremely effective: for nearly two centuries, the Middle East was terrorized by suicide squads of horny young fanatics, high on hash and desperate to die while killing their cult’s enemies.
In 1869, excitement swept through the religiously devout, as word spread that evidence supporting the Biblical assertion that giants had once roamed the earth, had been unearthed in Upstate New York. It began on October 16th, 1869, when laborers digging a well for William Newell, in Cardiff, NY, struck stone. Further digging revealed a huge foot. With mounting excitement, they continued excavating, and to their amazement, they ended up unearthing the petrified remains of a 10-foot tall man.
Hundreds of archaeologists and scientists, and thousands of the curious, flocked to Newell’s farm, where he charged 50 cents for a look. Newell made no claims about the giant’s authenticity, but invited onlookers to make their own conclusions. Observant people saw it as a crude statue, but to the religious, it was proof of Genesis 6:4, which stated that the world had once been inhabited by giants.
In reality, observant skeptics were right, and the unearthed giant was just a statue. It was a prank on the religiously credulous, that stemmed from a heated debate at a revival meeting regarding the Biblical claim about giants. George Hull, an atheist who had participated in that debate, decided to see just how gullible his religious interlocutors could be.
So he bought a big block of gypsum in Iowa and shipped it to Chicago. There, he swore a stonecutter to secrecy and had him carve the stone into the shape of a man. To give the result an aged look, chemicals were used, and the statue’s surface was pitted and punctured with needles to make it seem more weathered. Hull then shipped it to the farm of his cousin, William Newell, who buried it behind his barn in 1868. A year later, Newell hired workers to dig a well behind the barn, where they came across the statue.
Archaeologists, scientists, and other scholars who saw what came to be known as the “Cardiff Giant“, were nearly unanimous in declaring it a fraud. Their voices were drowned, however, by the thundering of theologians and preachers, who passionately defended the prank’s authenticity. While that debate raged on, crowds of the curious and faithful kept coming in ever greater numbers to see for themselves. Hull, who had spent about $50,000 in 2017 dollars on the prank, sold his share to a syndicate for about half a million in today’s money. The statue was then moved to Syracuse, where it drew ever-larger crowds.
Huckster PT Barnum offered the syndicate the equivalent of a million dollars for the Giant. The owners refused to sell, so Barnum had a plaster copy made, and exhibited it in New York City. He declared it to be the authentic Cardiff Giant, and that the one in Syracuse was a fake. His brazenness worked, giving rise to the phrase, coined for those paying to see Barnum’s copy, that “there’s a sucker born every minute“. Lawsuits about authenticity followed, and in the subsequent litigation, Hull finally confessed to the prank. The court declared both Giants fakes, and ruled that Barnum could not be sued for calling a fake giant a fake.
Space Aliens Were Sending Us Coded Messages by Flattening Our Crops
Starting in the 1970s, a belief began circulating in UFO circles, and from there to wide swathes of the general public, that aliens were trying to communicate with us via coded messages in our crops. It began in 1976, when wheat in a field in Wiltshire, England, was discovered flattened in circular patterns. Before long, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began appearing in other fields throughout Britain.
Once the news spread, the phenomenon attracted self-declared experts, who offered a variety of supernatural and pseudo-scientific explanations for the mystery. Theories ranged from troubled ghosts and spirits to secret weapons testing, to Mother Earth expressing her distress at what humanity was doing to the planet. However, the most widely accepted explanation was that the circles were created by extraterrestrials, who were trying to communicate with us in some cryptic code.
The notion that ETs were behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that only a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. At the time, the Australian circles were attributed by many to UFO landings. Stonehenge is not far from Wiltshire, where the first British crop circle appeared, and the area has plenty of ancient marker stones and burial mounds. New Age types had long claimed that a network of mysterious energy paths, known as “leys”, linked those landmarks throughout Britain.
The region was also a hotbed for UFO enthusiasts – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it was fitting that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear there. Soon, theories combining the crop circles, Stonehenge, ancient Druids, and mystic energy paths, were combined into a complex explanation for the phenomenon. The circles themselves became magnets for New Age mystical tourism.
As it turned out, the crop circles were created by Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, he was drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, when the duo started talking about ETs, UFOs, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. As they got steadily drunker, Bower proposed: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“. As they revealed to journalists in 1991, it had been quite simple. As they demonstrated before TV cameras, creating crop circles took just minutes, using nothing more than rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line.
That was tough news for “cereologists” – crop circle “experts” who had made a living for years by writing and lecturing about the phenomenon. One cereologist was called in by a TV program to pass judgment on the crop circles created by Bowers and Chorley. He declared that the circles were authentic. Then the world got to see his reaction when the bottom fell out of his “expert” market, as it was revealed that it had been a hoax and prank all along. Bower and Chorley had created all crop circles until 1987, when other pranksters discovered how it was done, and joined in on the fun.
The Age of Exploration and Discovery was marked by many strange beliefs about the supposed wonders and marvels hidden in the newly discovered and unexplored (by Europeans) lands. One of the stranger beliefs was that parts of South America were populated by giants. It began with the expedition of explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who set out to circumnavigate the globe in 1519.
En route, the expedition dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region in what is now Argentina. There, the crews reportedly came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. Magellan directed a crewman to sing and dance in turn to demonstrate friendliness, and persuade the giant to come aboard ship. It worked, and a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage wrote: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“.
Magellan’s men made contact with the rest of his tribe and befriended them. The expedition stopped for a few weeks to rest and replenish their supplies, taking on fresh water and what fresh meat they could by joining the tribe in hunts. When they were finally ready to leave, Magellan wanted to take some Patagonians with him to display back in Spain. So he lured some aboard his ship with the offer of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and chained them. When the Patagonians came to, Magellan’s ships were already underway, with Patagonia receding in the distance. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the expedition members who completed the voyage returned to Spain with fantastic tales of a land inhabited by giants.
It was a tall tale that grew taller over the years. Later sailors described seeing Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. Others came in contact with ones whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the South American giants would grip European imaginations for over 250 years.
The tall tales were first challenged by Sir Francis Drake, the British seaman and pirate, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.“
Nonetheless, the belief in Patagonian giants persisted, and as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of 9-foot tall natives. When the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, however, it turned out that the natives had been recorded as standing 6 feet 6 inches tall. That was tall, especially so for that era. But certainly not giants. In reality, the Patagonians in question, the Tehuelche tribe, were taller than average, but that average was in the 6-foot range.
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