During his sixteenth century expedition to circumnavigate the world, explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s ships dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at South America’s southern end. There, Magellan and his men saw a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. The explorer ordered a sailor to approach the big native, and sing and dance in turn to demonstrate friendliness. The strategy worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book about the voyage: “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“.
The explorers made contact with the rest of his tribe. In subsequent weeks, they hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan was ready to depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians sobered up, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who completed the trip and returned to Spain brought back with them tales of a legendary land inhabited by giants. With the passage of time, the tall people encountered by Magellan’s ships grew taller in the telling.
Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood ten feet tall. As if in a race of one upsmanship, others reported that they had contacted twelve-foot-high Patagonians. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, at fifteen feet in height. Reports of the legendary South American giants gripped European imaginations for over 250 years. The first challenge to the tall tales came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, 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“.
He continued: “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.” Yet, as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British ship had encountered a tribe of nine-foot-tall natives. However, when the ship’s account was finally published, the natives were recorded as being six and a half feet tall – tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But they stood in the six foot range.
The Real Life Queen Behind the Legendary Semiramis
Semiramis in Greek mythology was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal, who was fed by doves after her divine mother abandoned her as an infant in order to drown herself. Semiramis grew into a formidable woman who married a general, advised him into great victories, then switched husbands and married the king. As queen and queen regnant, she personally led troops into battle and conquered much of Asia, as well as Ethiopia and Libya. Domestically, Semiramis restored the decrepit ancient Babylon to its former glory, built the city’s famous Hanging Gardens, and protected it with impregnable defensive walls. All of that is fictional, but the legendary Semiramis’ was based on the life of an actual ninth century BC Assyrian queen named Sammu-ramat.
The wife of King Shamshi Adad V (reigned 824 – 811 BC), Sammu-ramat took the reins of power after her husband died. She then governed for five years as queen regent for her underage son Adad Nirari III, until he was old enough to rule. Steles from that period record that Sammu-ramat negotiated alliances on behalf of her son, and that she was a generous patroness of religious temples. She seems to have ruled well enough to become a revered figure in Assyria. Between that, and the fact that rule by a woman was such an extraordinary event in Assyrian history, the story of Sammu-ramat grew over the years, until she emerged centuries later as a full-blown mythological figure, the legendary fictional Queen Semiramis.
Prometheus was a Titan – the race of divine beings who dominated the world before the arrival of the Olympian gods. Prometheus’ name, which means “foresight”, emphasizes his intellect, for he was known as a clever trickster. In Ancient Greek mythology, created humans from clay, and then advocated for and championed mankind in the halls of heavens. That fondness for humans helped mankind, but it got the Titan in serious trouble with the gods, who visited horrific vengeance upon him as a result.
The Titans were the legendary twelve children of the primordial parents Uranus (“Sky”) and his mother Gaia (“Earth”), and had preceded the Olympians as gods. When the Olympians led by Zeus rose up to challenge for mastery of the world, Prometheus was one of the Titans’ leaders. However, when his fellow Titans refused to heed his advice and resort to trickery, Prometheus switched sides and joined the Olympians. That ensured the gods’ victory, and doomed the Titans to defeat. The Olympians’ gratitude was short lived: they turned on Prometheus when he got on their wrong side.
Prometheus helped the Olympian gods secure victory against the Titans, but he eroded his store of goodwill with them when he took the side of humanity against that of the new deities. He ticked off Zeus and got on his wrong side when he tricked him to accept the bones and fat of sacrificial animals instead of their meat. That set a precedent that allowed humans to sacrifice animals to the gods by burning their bones and fat, but keep the meat for themselves.
A peeved Zeus took fire away from mankind and wiped its secret from human minds, so they would have to eat meat raw and shiver from the cold in the dark of night. To make his pettiness stick, the chief god prohibited anybody from letting humanity in on the secret of fire. Prometheus however defied Zeus. He stole fire from Mount Olympus, and smuggled it down to earth to share with mankind and help them survive life’s struggles. That was the final straw for the chief Olympian.
Zeus was incensed when he looked down from the heavens and saw the dark of night dispelled by the flicker of fires. To vent his anger at mankind, he sent Pandora down to earth with a box full of calamities. When the lid of Pandora’s box was eventually removed, all the evils that plague humanity were unleashed upon the world. From then on, mankind was afflicted with diseases, plagues, war, death, and the need for backbreaking labor to eke sustenance out of the earth. Only hope was left inside the box, to keep life bearable despite all its miseries.
As to Prometheus, Zeus devised a horrific punishment for him. He had the Titan taken to the Caucasus Mountains, where he was chained to a rock. There, Zeus’ vengeance took the form of a giant eagle that flew in every day to rip open Prometheus’ guts and feast upon his liver. The liver re-grew each night, and the eagle returned each day to repeat the process. That way, the legendary Prometheus was subjected to an eternity of torment by day, and nights full of dread of what the morrow would bring.
As seen in an earlier entry, Heinrich Schliemann proved the existence of Troy – an archaeological find of epic proportions that cemented his place in history. He then proceeded to capture archaeological lightning in a bottle once more. This time it was in mainland Greece, where he found what came to be known as the Mask of Agamemnon – the High King of Mycenae who led the Greeks against Troy. It happened in 1876, when Schliemann conducted excavations in the royal cemetery near the Lion Gate, the entrance to the citadel of Mycenae in southern Greece. In one of the graves, he found a funeral mask covered in gold, which he attributed to the legendary king from the Iliad.
As Schliemann put it in a telegram that announced the discovery: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon“. However, as with his finds in Troy, Schliemann got the broad outlines right, but jumped the gun when it came to the details. Later research proved that the mask did, indeed, belong to a Mycenaean king. However, it was a king who had died circa 1580 to 1550 BC – two and a half to three centuries before the events of the legendary Trojan War. The name stuck, however, and the artifact is still commonly referred to as the Mask of Agamemnon.
One of England’s greatest legendary heroes is the medieval outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. A bandit who fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil King John, and helped the rightful monarch Richard the Lionheart regain his throne. Surprisingly, for a figure who stole from the rich, Robin Hood first gained widespread popularity as a result of plays originally staged for Elizabethan England’s upper classes. First, however, the playwrights had to gentrify Robin Hood from a commoner bandit, and transform him into a nobleman to whom the well-heeled could better relate. Such gentrification can be traced to the playwright Anthony Mundy, who reinvented the outlaw as an aristocrat, Earl Robert of Huntington, who was wrongfully disinherited by his uncle.
So he fled to Sherwood Forrest where he became an outlaw, met and fell in love with Lady Marion, and kicked off the legend. In real life, of course, nobody performed all the noble deeds of derring-do ascribed to Robin Hood. However, there were plenty of outlaws, nearly all commoners, who thumbed their noses at upper class oppressors, and thus became popular with the lower classes. In the medieval era, “Robinhood” or “Rabunhod” or “Robehod” were common nicknames for criminals, that appear in numerous twelfth century court records. However, those Robin Hoods were the kinds of criminals who acted out of any highbrow motives. Instead, they stole for the mundane reasons that led most people into crime back then, and that still put people on the paths of criminality today.
To identify the original Robin Hood is no easy task. In England, Robin was and remains a diminutive of the name Robert, and Robert was a very common first name in back then. Likewise, Hood was a common surname in medieval England. As a result, to identify just which criminals named Robin Hood or some variation thereof might have inspired the legend of Robin Hood, is a particularly difficult task for historians. As a result, numerous candidates have been proposed over the years.
The earliest mention is a Robert Hod of York, who became an outlaw after his goods, worth 32 shillings, were confiscated to settle a debt owed to a local church. Other candidates include the brothers Robert and John Deyville, who fought on the losing side in the Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267). With their cause defeated, the Deyvilles holed up in the woods as outlaws, until the records show that John, at least, was pardoned. However, the likeliest candidate for the legendary Robin Hood seems to be Roger Godberd, another figure who ended up on the losing side of the Second Barons’ War and became an outlaw. What is known of Godberd’s activities led some historians to label him as “the prototype Robin Hood”.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading