One might assume that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the cynical and extremely logical Sherlock Holmes, must have been one of those hard to fool skeptical types. In reality, however, the author was not at all like his famous character. Late in life, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism and ancient folk mythology. In his eagerness to credit any tidbit that would support his beliefs, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a ridiculous hoax perpetrated by two little girls. It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley.
There, nine-year-old Elsie Wright and her sixteen-year-old old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream. Their parents scoffed. To prove it, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”. When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera. That should have been the end of it, but as seen below, it was not.
Faith in Mythology Made a Fool Out of Sherlock Holmes’s Author
Two years after Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffith photographed “fairies” in Cottingley, things took off. The pictures went viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a conference of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist type group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them declared that they were crude cardboard cutouts. However, the existence of Fairies and similar mythology dovetailed with some religious tenets of the Theosophical Society. So the society’s members – who included prominent British figures – began to spread the photos and vouched for their authenticity.
In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the photos’ existence. He was initially skeptical, and went so far as to ask Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before he had received a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle concluded that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’ author had begun to vouch for the photos’ authenticity. He eventually became a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life. It was the start of an awkward journey.
Sherlock Holmes Was Highly Skeptical – if Only His Author Had Been the Same
In December, 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a cringeworthy article, in which he urged the public to accept that the mythology of fairies was based in fact, and that fairies actually exist. The article opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the respected author. None of that dissuaded Doyle. He followed the first article with a second in 1921, in which he described even more fairy sightings. A year later, in 1922, he capped it off and published his most cringeworthy book, The Coming of the Fairies. As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical.
In 1983, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith published an article, in which they confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had kicked off the prank to get back at adults who teased them for “playing with fairies”. The joke snowballed, however, and got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, they could not think of a graceful way to back out. So they just rolled with it and kept the hoax going, before they finally came clean, six decades later.
Ancient Roman Mythology Was Fascinated With Flying Phalluses
Ancient Rome had a rich religious pantheon and mythology that included hundreds of gods. One of the lesser-known ones today – although he was quite popular with contemporary Ancient Romans – was Fascinus, the winged phallus god. The god of masculine regenerative power, Fascinus’ symbol was a phallus. He was literally all phallus, taken to a ridiculous degree of phallus-hood. His body was an erect phallus and testicles, which sported an erect phallus, and he had a phallus for a tail, and phalluses for legs. He also had wings, so he could fly around and spurt his blessings upon fortunate mortals.
Fascinus was believed to be lucky, so worshippers carried him around in the form of amulets or pendants that hung from their necks. It was just like how pious Christians wear crosses around their necks today. Except that instead of a cross, Ancient Romans wore an erect phallus around their necks. It was a different culture. Fascinus, a hard phallus that sported multiple hard phalluses, was constantly on the prowl. He had a particular preference for sleeping women. Many Roman art motifs and tales revolve around maidens who fell asleep, often in bucolic settings, who wake up to discover that Fascinus had flown between their legs to bless them.
Roman Mythology Swore by These Athletes’ Bodily Fluids
The people of Ancient Rome had what can best 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. Not only were gladiators decidedly low brow brutes whose presence offended polite society, they were also potentially quite dangerous low brow brutes. A prime example was the gladiator revolt led by Spartacus in the 70s BC, which terrified Rome and Italy for years.
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. Their well-proportioned muscles and bronzed bodies glistened in the arena before spectators. Understandably, that combination of lethality and high physical fitness made gladiators the objects of sexual fantasies for many Roman women – and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. It also gave rise, as seen below, to some ridiculous beliefs about the healing properties of gladiators’ bodily fluids.
Ancient Romans Were Simultaneously Attracted to and Repelled by Gladiators
Many ancient Romans – at least those who were in a position to do so – gratified their sexual fantasies with gladiators. If the gladiator sexual fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers often 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. Ridiculous as it might seem today, wealthy Romans paid 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 a bath, was used to scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. The scrapings were then collected in vials, which were offered for sale outside the gladiatorial games. The buyers often applied the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their mugs, as a type of facial cream. Others mixed the vials’ contents with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of high status ladies. Roman women also sought gladiator blood.
The Supposed Healing Benefits of Gladiator Bodily Fluids
Many Roman women used the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accoutrements, or mixed it with their cosmetics. Roman mythology ascribed medicinal benefits to gladiators’ bodily fluids. Gladiators were seen as especially 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.
Gladiator blood was also believed to have beneficial medicinal properties, particularly for the treatment of 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!”
The Age of Exploration’s Mythology of South American Giants
The Age of Exploration and Discovery was marked by many strange beliefs about the supposed wonders and marvels that lay hidden in the newly discovered and unexplored (by Europeans) lands. One of the stranger beliefs that grew into mythology 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 having a good time, as he sang and danced 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. 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 the big Patagonian’s tribe and befriended them. The expedition stopped for a few weeks to rest, and to replenish its supplies. The explorers took 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, as Patagonia receded in the distance.
Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. Nonetheless, 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, as the mythology of South American giants cemented itself in European imaginations, sailors described Patagonians who stood ten feet tall. Others came in contact with ones whose height was measured at twelve feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, and measured fifteen feet in height. Reports of the South American giants circulated for over 250 years.
Real Life Patagonians Were and Are Big, but Not Giants
The tall tales of South American giants were first challenged by Sir Francis Drake. The British seaman and pirate encountered Patagonians in 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. As late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of nine-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 six feet and a half. That was tall, especially so for that era, but the natives in question were not giants. In reality, the Patagonians in question, the Tehuelche tribe, were taller than average, but that average was in the six foot range.
The Real Life History That Gave Rise to Arthurian Mythology
In the early fifth century AD, the once mighty but now seriously troubled Roman Empire found itself under massive pressure from barbarian invaders on multiple fronts. So the Romans withdrew their forces from the far off province of Britain, to use them in an attempt to hang on to territories that they viewed as more vital. It is unclear if the Roman authorities at the time thought that the withdrawal from Britain was permanent. It is possible that they might have considered it to be a temporary pullback, and planned to return once things had settled down.
As it turned out, the legions never returned, and Roman Britain was left on its own for good. The Romano-Britons were beset by invaders, most significantly the Picts who attacked from Scotland, and Saxons who struck from across the North Sea. In what turned out to be a bad idea of epic proportions, the locals, perhaps with the logic that it takes a thief to catch a thief, decided to hire Saxon mercenaries and settle them in Britain, to defend them from other Saxons and similar barbarians. As seen below, it did not turn out well. However, somewhere in the resultant mess was born the legend of perhaps the greatest fictional monarch ever, the mythology of King Arthur. So there was at least that silver lining.
Acceptance of a Dinner Invitation from These Saxons Turned Out to be a Huge Mistake
Once the Saxons settled in Britain and got themselves comfortable, they decided that they not only liked the place, but that they also wanted more than what had been originally offered. So they accused their hosts and employers of a failure to meet their side of the deal, and alleged that they had deceived them and cheated them out of the supplies that they had been promised. The Romano-Britons sent their leaders to try and negotiate with the Saxons and reduce the tensions.
Unfortunately for the locals, the Saxons’ idea of negotiation was to suddenly pull out their daggers in the middle of the sit down, and massacre the native leaders. They spared just one of the Romano-Britons, a leader named Vortigern, and kept him alive as a puppet ruler in exchange for his promise to grant the Saxons more land. The resultant conflict, as the Saxons gobbled up more and more territory from the locals, gave rise to the mythology of the heroic British leader, King Arthur, who valiantly fought against the invaders. His fictional exploits are with us to this day.
Through their puppet ruler Vortigern, the Saxons extorted great tracts of land from the Romano-Britons. Then they demanded more. They eventually launched a massive onslaught that was described by Saint Gildas, a British cleric, who penned De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), circa 510 – 530. From gradual expansion, the Saxon effort – eventually joined in by fellow Germanic tribes the Jutes and Angles – became a war of conquest that sought to seize all of Britain. As the invaders fought to displace the local inhabitants and replace them with Germanic settlers, the hard pressed Britons had the good fortune to find an effective warlord, whom subsequent mythology morphed into the fictional King Arthur.
Arthur does not appear in any contemporary sources. However, there is evidence that a British war leader, perhaps named Arthur or something close, was active at the time. For example, a sixth century engraving found in Cornwall bore the name of an important person named “Artognu”. In 2010, Archaeologists found what might have been Arthur’s real Round Table at the site of his reputed Camelot. The fabled edifice was not in a purpose-built castle, but was housed instead in a preexisting structure: a Roman amphitheater in Chester. The Round Table was not a literal piece of furniture. Instead, it was a vast wood and stone structure that could have allowed up to 1,000 of Arthur’s men to gather. Historians believe that noblemen would have sat in the front rows of a circular meeting place, while lower ranked attendees sat on stone benches further back.
The Real Life Queen Behind the Mythology of Semiramis
Semiramis in Greco-Roman mythology was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal. She 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 legend of Semiramis was based on the life of an actual ninth century BC Assyrian queen named Sammu-ramat.
Sammu-ramat, the wife of King Shamshi Adad V (reigned 824 – 811 BC), took the reins of power after her husband died. She then ruled for five years as queen regent for her underage son Adad Nirari III, until he was old enough to rule in his own right. 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. Eventually, she emerged centuries later as a full-blown mythological figure, the legendary Queen Semiramis.
How the Mythology of this Ancient Greek Super Hero Was Changed to Suit Modern Audiences
1997’s animated Disney movie, Hercules, is about the beloved son of the chief Olympian god Zeus, and his wife the goddess Hera. In the popular musical fantasy comedy, Zeus’ evil brother Hades, the god of the dead and king of the underworld, hatches a plot to overthrow Zeus and become the chief god of Mount Olympus. However, the evil plan depends on Hercules’ noninterference. So Hades sends his minions to kidnap and murder him while he was still a baby. Hercules is kidnapped, but he survives the murder attempt.
The rest of the movie revolves around how the hero grows up, and eventually thwarts Hades. In ancient Greek mythology, however, Hercules – or Heracles as the Greeks called him – was not the beloved son of Zeus and Hera. Hera, who was not Hercules’ mom, actually hated him 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.
The Original of This Story Was Not Suitable for Modern Kids or Audiences
The Hera of Disney’s Hercules doted upon her son the famous Greek hero. By contrast, the original Hera of ancient Greek mythology could not stand Hercules. She tried to murder him before he was even born. In ancient Greek mythology, Hera grew livid when she learned that Zeus had impregnated Alcmene. So the chief Olympian’s wife 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 kill him. However, the supernaturally strong Hercules grabbed one in each hand and strangled them to death.
Throughout the life of Hercules, Hera continued to do all she could to harm him. At some point, she inflicted upon him a divine fit of madness, and in the grip of insanity, a raving 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 ancient Greek mythology, Hera would not be a kind mother full of love, but the villain of the story.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading