Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre

Khalid Elhassan - January 5, 2023

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Tomatoes came to be associated with witches at a time when witch hunts were common. The Milwaukee Independent

For a Long Time, Tomatoes Were Best Left Alone

When examined in the context of its time, the fear of tomatoes isn’t that weird. Tomato plants not only look like deadly nightshade, a suspected ingredient of witches’ magic goop. They are also just about identical to the untrained eye. Similarly, some tomato varieties, such as yellow cherry tomatoes, look remarkably similar to hallucinogenic mandrake fruits, another ingredient of the witches’ goop. So at a time when Europe was engulfed by hysteria about all that had to do with witches, a plant that looked like an “evil” ingredient was problematic.

In the 1540s, many thought that tomatoes could turn them into werewolves. Even those who were not superstitions had reason to avoid tomatoes. If they possessed the plant or its fruit, their superstitious neighbors might accuse them of witchcraft. Unsurprisingly, many decided to leave tomatoes alone. Indeed, the only place where it was safe to have them was Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition had temporarily declared that the belief in witchcraft was heretical. The Spanish and Italians eventually incorporated tomatoes into their diets wholesale. However, the English and French remained in the “tomatoes are demonic” weird camp for a ridiculously long time.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Disney’s Hercules. Disney Plus

Disney Got the Story of Hercules Horribly Wrong

In the 1997 Disney animated movie, Hercules, the hero is the beloved son of the chief Olympian god, Zeus, and the goddess, Hera. In the musical fantasy comedy, Zeus’ evil brother Hades, god of the dead and lord of the underworld, hatches a plot to overthrow Zeus and become the chief god of Mount Olympus. However, the fell plan depends on Hercules’ noninterference, so Hades sends his minions to kidnap and exterminate him while he is still an infant. Baby Hercules is kidnapped, but he survives the murder attempt, and the rest of the movie revolves around his growing up to eventually thwart Hades.

Per ancient Greek folklore, however, Hercules – or Heracles as the ancient Greeks called him – was not Zeus’ and Hera’s beloved son. Hera, as a matter of fact, hated Hercules with a passion. Zeus cheated on her constantly, and Hercules was Zeus’ son with a mortal woman named Alcmene. As seen below, rather than dote upon baby Hercules, Zeus’ wife went out of her way to mess him up whenever she could. And since she was a goddess, with divine powers, she often messed him up good.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
An ancient statue of baby Hercules strangling snakes sent him by Hera. Flickr

The OG Hera’s Hatred for Hercules

The Hera of ancient Greek folklore was not like the Hera of Disney’s Hercules. Rather than a kind mother, the OG Hera could not stand Hercules. She tried to kill before he was even born. When Hera found out that Zeus had impregnated Alcmene, she forced Ilithya, the goddess of childbirth, to keep Hercules trapped in his mother’s womb. That plan was eventually foiled when a servant surprised Ilithya, and got her to lose her concentration long enough for Hercules to get born. Hera did not give up, however. A few months later, when Hercules was still a baby, she sent giant snakes to slay him. However, the supernaturally strong Hercules grabbed one in each hand and strangled them to death.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Bassano del Grappa’s depiction of Hercules slaying his wife and children. Research Gate

Hera was relentless in her attempts to harm Hercules. At some point, she inflicted upon him a divine fit of madness. In the grip of insanity, Hercules grabbed a bow and killed his wife and children. When he regained his sanity and realized what he had done, Hercules fled to the Oracle of Delphi, to find out what he could do to wash away his sin. Unfortunately, Hera controlled the Oracle. She got it to saddle Hercules with a series of seemingly impossible tasks as a condition for cleansing him – what became the Twelve Labors of Hercules. In short, if Disney’s Hercules had adhered to original source material, Hera would not be the doting mother, but the villain of the story.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Lot and his family flee Sodom, by Camille Corot. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Legend of Sodom and Gomorrah: Fact or Fiction?

Sodom and Gomorrah have long entered folklore as cautionary examples of divine punishment. In the Book of Genesis, God informs Abraham that Sodom and the nearby city of Gomorrah are to be destroyed for their wickedness. Abraham pleads for the lives of righteous inhabitants, especially his nephew Lot and his family. The Lord agrees to spare the cities if fifty good people could be found in them – a figure that Abraham bargains down to ten. Two angels disguised as men are sent to Lot in Sodom, only for a depraved mob to demand that he hand over his guests so they could slake their lusts upon them.

Lot’s pleas are met with deaf ears by the horny mob. So the angels blind the crowd, tell their host to immediately flee the city with his family, and not look back. As God rains down fiery destruction upon Sodom, Lot’s family flees and is spared the heavenly wrath. Except for Lot’s wife, who looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt. All in all, a great story packed with action and drama – but does it have any factual basis? As seen below, there just might be. Not the bits about angels and wives getting turned into pillars of salt, but the part about fiery destruction rained down upon a city from the heavens.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Tell el-Hammam. Leen Rittmeyer

The Ancient Catastrophe That Inspired the Legend of Sodom and Gomorrah”

The inhabitants of a Bronze Age city a few miles northeast of the Dead Sea went about their daily business one fateful day, circa 1650 BC, blissfully ignorant of the doom headed their way. Unbeknownst to the residents of what is now known as Tell el-Hammam, an unseen icy space rock was headed their way at a speed of 38,000 miles per hour. As it ripped through the atmosphere, the small asteroid left a fiery trail in its wake, before it burst about two and a half miles above the ancient city. The explosion was roughly 1000 times more powerful than the nuclear blast that destroyed Hiroshima. Those unfortunates whose eyes had been focused on the plunging space rock when it blew up were instantly blinded. In a minor mercy, they did not have long to contemplate their loss of sight.

Tell el-Hammam was instantly transformed into an inferno. Wood and clothes burst into flames. Pottery, bricks, swords, spears, and metal began to melt as air temperatures spiked about 3600 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the shockwave arrived. Winds whose speed exceeded 740 mph tore through the city and destroyed all in their path. They sheared the top of the ruler’s four-story palace, and blew the wreckage into the next valley over. Everybody in Tel el-Hammam, around 8000 people, and every animal, perished, mangled, ripped apart, their bones broken, and their bodies incinerated. The shockwave continued on, and a minute later, slammed into biblical Jericho about fourteen miles away, and brought down its walls. As seen below, scholars believe that this ancient catastrophe gave rise to the folklore that eventually morphed into the biblical narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Superimposition of the 1908 Tunguska air burst over Tell el-Hammam. Science News

Uncovering the Tragic Tale of an Ancient Asteroid Impact

Archaeologists excavated Tell el-Hammam for a decade and a half. Their findings were examined by dozens of scientists in the US, Canada, and the Czech Republic. One thing that jumped out was a five-foot-thick layer from around 1650 BC, comprised of charcoal and ash, intermingled with melted metal, melted pottery, and melted bricks. There was also shocked quartz, generated at pressures of 725,000 psi or more, and diamonids, wood and plant particles turned tough as diamonds under great heat and pressure. It was evidence of an intense firestorm, but not one caused by ancient warfare, an earthquake, or volcano: they don’t generate enough heat to melt metal, pottery, or bricks. The only known culprits that could inflict such damage are nuclear blasts, and asteroid airbursts. Nuclear weapons were unknown 3650 years ago, so that narrowed it down.

It is believed that the explosion vaporized and deposited so much Dead Sea salt water in the area, that it became impossible to grow crops. For centuries after the disaster, Tell el-Hammam and its environs were abandoned. It took about 600 years before rainfall washed out enough salt to render the soil sufficiently productive for habitation to resume. Accounts of the ancient city’s obliteration became part of the local folklore and were handed down over the generations. A version of such folk accounts probably made it into the Old Testament as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Similarities about cities near the Dead Sea destroyed by fire and rocks from the sky make it likely that the biblical narrative can be traced to the air burst that wrecked Tell el-Hammam.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
2017’s Wonder Woman. IMDb

Wonder Woman and the Amazons: Fact vs. Folklore

Wonder Woman, the 2017 box office hit, depicted the Amazons are female warriors created by the Olympian gods to protect mortals. Per the movie, the god of war, Ares, grew jealous of humans, and set in motion a plan to destroy mankind. When the other gods tried to thwart him, Ares killed them all, except for Zeus, whom he mortally wounded. With the last ounce of his power, Zeus wounded the god of war, who was forced to retreat. Ares did not abandon his plans to destroy humanity, however.

Thousands of years later, Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons tells her daughter Diana that Zeus gave mankind a final gift before he died. He handed the Amazons the god-killer, a weapon to use against Ares when he returned. Diana eventually leaves the Amazons’ secluded island paradise, and gets involved in WWI, convinced that the global conflict is part of Ares’ plot to destroy mankind. It is a great movie. Far as fidelity to the original folklore, however, its depiction of the Amazons and their relationship with Ares significantly contradicts the ancient Greek version of the story.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
An Amazon depicted on an ancient Greek vase, circa 500 BC. State Collection of Antiquities, Berlin

Ares and the Amazons: A Family Affair in Greek Mythology

In ancient Greek folklore, the Amazons were a mythical nation of warrior women whose origins predated the Trojan War. They were supposed to have lived at the outer edge of the ancient Greek world, east and north of the Black Sea. A female-only society, they only welcomed men on occasion to mate. Of the resultant babies, only the females were kept: male babies were killed. The Amazons were known for their horsemanship, courage, and pride. Homer described them as “the equal of men“, and they fought many famous Greek heroes, whose numbers include Hercules, Bellerophon, and Theseus.

Enmity between the Amazons and Ares is a key theme of 2017’s Wonder Woman. In ancient Greek folklore, howerver, the Amazons were not Ares’ foes: they were his daughters and descendants. In the original narrative, the queen and founding mother of the Amazon nation was Otrera, a consort of Ares. She bore him two daughters, one of whom was Hippolyta, mother of Princess Diana, or Wonder Woman. Thus, Wonder Woman would be Ares’ granddaughter if the movie had stayed true to the original Greek narrative.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Operation Wandering Soul sought to terrify the Vietnamese communist forces with eerie recordings. Pinterest

Vietnamese Folklore Was Exploited to Fight the Viet Cong

In Vietnamese folklore, dead people who are not properly buried are doomed to wander the earth as tormented souls, unless and until their corpses receive the appropriate last rites. Those troubled ghosts can supposedly communicate with the living on the anniversary of their demise. So American forces in Vietnam used such superstitions against the Viet Cong. A plan known Operation Wandering Soul sought to “frighten and demoralize the enemy … and compel many to desert their positions“. To accomplish that, US forces used high decibel speakers on helicopters and backpacks to blast recordings of wailing “ghosts” in areas plagued with insurgents.

The tapes had messages in eerie-sounding Vietnamese, purportedly from dead Viet Cong or North Vietnamese soldiers. They warned their comrades in hair-raising voices: “My friends, I have come back to let you know that I am dead … I am dead! It is hell! I am in hell! Don’t end up like me. Go home, friends, before it is too late!” Other creepy recordings included a bewildered “ghost” asking: “Who is that? Who is calling me? My daughter? My wife?” That was followed by another damned soul responding: “Your father is back home with you, my daughter“. Eeriest of all might have been the ethereal voice of a child wailing “Daddy, daddy, come home with me. Daddy! Daddy!

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
The roars of a Bengal tiger supplemented the terror of Operation Wandering Soul. Pexel

Operation Wandering Soul: Using Superstitions (And Tigers) to Terrorize Vietnam

The recordings of Operation Wandering Soul creeped out and terrified at least some Viet Cong. Most VC or NVA troops simply got ticked off at the recordings and shot at the speakers, so the operation was not universally effective on all listeners. However, the recordings did have an impact on at least some enemy personnel. In February 1970, for example, a patrol swept an area after the eerie broadcasts, and caught a trio of “trembling VC insurgents“. On the other hand, the recordings could backfire at times, demoralizing not only the Viet Cong, but also “terrifying friendly South Vietnamese troops and civilians alike“.

The feedback from Operation Wandering Soul was good. That led its implementers, the US Army’s 6th Psy-Op Battalion, to expand on their repertoire whenever possible, and tailor the recordings to local conditions. One such opportunity presented itself when a South Vietnamese allied army unit spread a rumor that a ravenous tiger was on the loose, and attacking North Vietnamese and VC troops in the vicinity. So the 6th Psy-Op taped a tiger’s growls at the Bangkok Zoo, then amplified and blasted the recordings near an enemy-controlled mountain. It reportedly frightened 150 VC and NVA into fleeing their positions.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
HBO dragons. HBO

The Origins of Dragon Folklore

Dragons are big in pop culture nowadays, thanks in no small part to Game of Thrones and its spinoffs. Dragons and giant serpents appear in the folklore of many cultures around the world. Albanians have wyverns and pythons; the French have the Grand’Goule; the ancient Greeks had the Hydra; the Hebrew Bible has the Leviathan; Hindus have the Vritra; Norse mythology has the beast from Beowulf; and the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians had Apophis and mushussu, respectively. Some common threads link the mythology of dragon-like creatures in such varied cultures.

The theme of a hero and monster – an archetype of the eternal war between light and darkness, good and evil – is at the heart of dragon folklore. The tales depict a reptilian creature, often big, that menaces and imperils people. It might fly and breathe fire, or slither around and spew poison. Eventually, after a nice buildup that heightens the drama and narrative tension, a hero or a god makes an entrance, challenges the beast, slays it, and sets things right. So, what are the origins of their folklore?

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
A fifteenth century depiction of Saint George slaying a dragon. Wikimedia

The Origins of Dragon Folklore: Tracing the Connection to Ancient Fossils

Historian Adrienne Mayor advanced a theory that dragon folklore can be traced back to ancient discoveries of dinosaur fossils and those of huge extinct mammals. Take how the ancient Greeks depicted the Monster of Troy in vases and other artwork. The monster resembles a Samotherium, an extinct giraffe whose fossils are quite common in the Mediterranean. In parts of China were fossils of large extinct creatures are common, they are described as “dragon bones”. Similarly, dragons in the mythology of northern Indian closely resemble the extinct animals that left giant fossils strewn across the foothills of the Himalayas.

Forgotten Folklore & Legends That Are Downright Bizarre
Dragons in modern pop culture. Dragonlance

It is possible that the origins of dragon folklore are baked into us. They are traceable to before we had even evolved into humans. Anthropologist David E. Jones contends that humans have an instinctive fear of snakes, that originated with our ape ancestors millions of years ago. Snakes posed an especially high danger, and the peril was greatest for children. Evolution instilled in us a healthy fear of snakes. Children today, even in places that have no snakes at all, instinctively fear them. Such primal fears of snakes, might have given rise to dragon stories. Indeed, the earliest known dragon tales depict them as snake-like.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atlas Obscura – When Tomatoes Were Blamed For Witchcraft and Werewolves

Bulfinch, Thomas – Bulfinch’s Mythology (1998)

Daily Beast – The Giant Space Rock That Wiped Out Biblical Sodom

Daily Beast – Was Santa Actually a Badass Who Beat Up a Priest?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Cronus

Encyclopedia Britannica – Sodom and Gomorrah

English Heritage – Dragons and Their Origins

Evslin, Bernard – Gods, Demigods and Demons: A Handbook of Greek Mythology (2006)

Fry, Stephen – Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined (2018)

Fry, Stephen – Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece (2019)

Gizmodo – “Blowing Smoke Up Your Ass” Used to be Literal

Greek Mythology – Hercules: The Life of the Greek Hero

Haynes, Sterling MD, British Columbia Medical Journal, December 2012 – Special Feature: Tobacco Smoke Enemas

Heritage Daily – The Origins of Dragon Mythology

History Collection – 10 of the Creepiest Stories From English Folklore

Jones, David E. – An Instinct for Dragons (2000)

Live Science – Dragons: A Brief History of the Mythical, Fire-Breathing Beasts

Live Science – Santa Claus: The Real Man Behind the Myth

Mayor, Adrienne – The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World (2014)

McClintock, Michael – Instruments of Statecraft: US Guerrilla Warfare, Counterinsurgency, and Counterterrorism, 1940-1990 (1992)

Military History Now – Operation Wandering Soul: Ghost Tape Number 10 and the Haunted Jungles of Vietnam

Nilsson, Martin P. – Greek Folk Religion (1972)

NPR – When the Supreme Court Decided Tomatoes Were Vegetables

Orthodox Church in America – Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia

Patrol Craft Fast – The Wandering Soul Psyop Tape of Vietnam

Scientific Reports, 11, Article Number: 18632 (2021) – A Tunguska Sized Airburst Destroyed Tall el-Hammam

Screen Rant – Disney’s Hercules: 10 Things That Would be Different if the Movie Was Mythologically Accurate

Smithsonian Magazine, January 23rd, 2012 – Where Did Dragons Come From?

St. Nicholas Center – Who is St. Nicholas?

US Army Center of Military History, Analysis Branch – The Hukbalahap Insurrection: A Case Study of a Successful Anti-Insurgency Operation

Washington Post, February 24th, 1987 – Edward Lansdale, Prototype For Ugly American, Dies

World History Encyclopedia – Amazon Women