Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History

Khalid Elhassan - October 12, 2022

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Ancient Greek vase depiction of Perseus, Andromeda, and the Monster of Troy. Altes Museum, Berlin

The Origins of Dragon Mythology

Classical folklorist and historian Adrienne Mayor advanced a theory that the mythology of dragons can be traced back to ancient discoveries of dinosaur fossils and those of huge extinct mammals. For example, 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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Depiction of a dragon in modern pop culture. Dragonlance

Another theory goes farther yet in time, and argues that the origins of dragon mythology are baked into us, and can be traced back 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 as they wandered ancient savannas and forests 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 to the point that children today, even in places that have no snakes at all, instinctively fear them. Such primal fears of snakes, argues Jones, gave rise to dragon stories, a theory supported by the fact that the earliest known dragon tales depict them as snake-like.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Qin Shi Huang. Pinterest

When China’s First Emperor Got Hooked on the Mythology of an “Elixir of Life”

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BC) founded China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin. A key figure in the country’s history, he was the first monarch to rule a unified China after he defeated and conquered all rival kingdoms. After his victory he declared himself emperor, and grew megalomaniacal, tyrannical, and weird. When scholars objected that his rule differed from that of historically good monarchs, he ordered hundreds of them buried alive. He also ordered that all books on philosophy, and every other subject except for agriculture, science, and magic, be burned.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
China’s Warring States, and the dates of their capture by Qin Shi Huang. Ancient China

Magic was exempted from the flames because Qin Shi Huang became obsessed with mythological life prolonging treatments that promised eternal life. So he wanted somebody to find or magic up for him an “Elixir of Life” that would allow him to cheat death. He became obsessed with immortality, and numerous charlatans exploited his desperation to live forever. One such was Xu Fu, a self-proclaimed magician who assured the emperor that immortality was within reach. Its elixir, he promised, awaited in the Penglai Mountain, the mythical home of the Eight Immortals.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Xu Fu’s fleet, sailing in search of the Elixir of Life. Wikimedia

China’s First Emperor’s Belief in Immortality Drugs Was So Great that He Buried Alive Those Who Questioned Their Existence

There was no such mountain as Penglai where the Eight Immortals of China’s mythology dwelt. However, Xu Fu convinced Qin Shi Huang that he had actually managed to get in touch with the Eight Immortals, and they agreed to share the secret. However, the Immortals demanded 6000 virgins in return. Qin Shi Huang gave Xu Fu a fleet of ships, and 6000 virgins. The charlatan took the ships and virgins and sailed off, never to return. Legend has it that he sailed to Japan, and started a colony there.

In the meantime, while he waited for Xu Fu to return with the magic potion that would make him immortal, the First Emperor went on a rampage against all who dared question his belief in the mythology of the Elixir of Life. His crackdown on the scholars, which culminated in the live burial of 460 of them, was inspired in large part by their criticism of his quest for immortality. In order to further lessen his odds of death before Xu Fu’s return, the emperor did his best to avoid contact with evil spirits. As seen below, that involved a whole other level of weird.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of books and live burial of scholars. University of California, San Diego

Qin Shi Huang Got Taken in by Charlatans Who Promised Him Immortality

Qin Shi Huang figured that bad spirits could not hurt him if they could not see him. So he ordered his palaces – over 200 of them – honeycombed with underground tunnels. That way he could travel beneath and between them, out of the evil spirits’ sight. Qin Shi Huang also patronized alchemists who claimed that they were close to inventing the Life Elixir, but that their R&D was held back by a lack of funding… hint, hint. They continued to milk him for more and more funding, and strung him along with promises that success was just around the corner.

The emperor responded with generous grants to further their research. However, it was not all a bed of roses for those who took advantage of the emperor’s belief in the mythology of immortality drugs. Qin Shi Huang would grow exasperated from time to time, and order the execution of some of the charlatans. In one of history’s more karmic plot twists, with a full measure of poetic justice, Qin Shi Huang’s manic quest for immortality backfired, big time. It was not only that all his efforts to find the mythological Life Elixir failed, as they were bound to do. It was that those insane attempts to live forever did the opposite, and actually shortened the life of China’s First Emperor.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Qin Shi Huang, as depicted in an eighteenth century album of Chinese emperors. Wikimedia

Faith in Immortality Drugs Backfired Big Time on This Ruler

In his quest for immortality, Qin Shi Huang solicited the advice and assistance of numerous philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. In a previous entry, we saw how one of them, Xu Fu, snookered the emperor out of a fleet and 6000 virgins. Another charlatan gave the emperor mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. The use of such pills every day should tidy the emperor over until the Life Elixir was ready. As he swallowed mercury every day, the emperor gradually poisoned himself, and gradually grew insane. He turned into a recluse who concealed himself, Howard Hughes style, from all but his closest courtiers, and spent much of his time listening to songs about “Pure Beings”.

Many of the First Emperor’s crazier decisions, such as the burial of scholars alive, the burning of books, and the banishment of his son and heir, were probably caused by the mercury pills. Rather than prolong his life, Qin Shi Huang gave himself a nasty dose of mercury poisoning. It drove him insane for starters, and eventually finished him off for good at the relatively young age of forty nine. It happened on one of his tours of the provinces, when he dropped dead inside his spacious imperial carriage – a miniature house on wheels – on September 10th, 210 BC.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
The mythology of El Dorado underwent various changes over the centuries. Wonderopolis

The Ever-Changing Mythology of the City of Gold

The mythology and legend of El Dorado seems to have changed like a message in a game of telephone. It gradually got altered with each repetition, until the final recipient ended up with information completely different than that at the start of the transmission. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard a tale of about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, then rowed 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 Muisca chiefs of mythology 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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Sir Walter Raleigh led a disastrous expedition up the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado. Pinterest

Belief in the City of Gold Got Many Killed

Eventually, many Spanish Conquistadores and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version that described 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 mythology, 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 the city of gold. 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. When he returned to England, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded because he had defied royal orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
The Great Aztec Temple. Discover Magazine

How Faith in Aztec Mythology Led to a Modern Murderous Cult

One of the drawbacks of lies and scams is that it can get difficult to continue the deception once suspicions are aroused. If that happens, one option is for the scammer to simply cut and run. Another is to double down, and defend the original lie and scam with more lies and scams. The latter option could easily snowball, as illustrated by a series of unfortunate events that took place in the 1960s in the small Mexican town of Yerba Buena, Tamaulipas. Brothers Santos and Cayetano Hernandez, two smalltime crooks, arrived there in 1962, and discovered that the locals still believed in Aztec mythology. That was music to their ears.

The brothers convinced the impoverished and mostly illiterate inhabitants that they were prophets of the old native gods, and would lead them to hidden Aztec treasure. By the time it was over, things had gone seriously haywire, and descended into a grisly cult that cut out the hearts from the chests of its still-living victims, and drank their blood. Santos and Cayetano Hernandez took advantage of the gullibility of Yerba Buena’s residents, who bought the crooked brothers’ claims to be prophets of the Aztec gods. The conman siblings established a religious sect whose members met in nearby caves. They also reduced their followers, male and female, to sex slaves whom they abused in drug fueled orgies.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
The goddes Coatlicue. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

A Scam That Morphed Into a Cult

Eventually some of the victims grew impatient at constantly getting screwed – figuratively and literally – by the Hernandez brothers. The siblings, it dawned on many, were taking their sweet time to reveal the hidden Aztec treasures like they had promised. So the conmen decided to up the ante and recruit some help to help keep the scam alive. They found it in Magdalena Solis, a Monterrey prostitute whom they coached to pretend to be a reincarnation of Coatlicue, a goddess from the pantheon of Aztec mythology. With Magdalena came her pimp/ brother, Eleazar Solis. Santos and Cayetano Hernandez brought Magdalena and her brother to Yerba Buena, and introduced her as the reincarnated goddess Coatlicue.

Magdalena embraced her role enthusiastically – perhaps too enthusiastically. She developed a religious delusion, became convinced that she really was Coatlicue, and took over the cult. Whereas the Hernandez brothers had been content to exploit their followers for sex, the new leader Magdalena Solis was into sadomasochism. Before long, things took a turn for the gruesome. When two members tried to leave the cult, Magdalena ordered them murdered. That was bad enough, but then she began to demand human sacrifices, and claimed that she needed the blood to keep her young forever.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Magdalena Solis. Bizarrepedia

The Reincarnation of a Goddess from Aztec Mythology

As the reincarnation of a goddess from Aztec mythology, Magdalena Solis devised a human sacrifice ritual. In it, her followers would brutally beat, burn, cut, and maim a victim. They would then drain his or her blood into a chalice, and drink it down while they used marijuana and peyote. The blood-filled chalice first went to Magdalena. She then passed it on to her “high priests”, the Hernandez brothers, then to her own brother Eleazar, and finally to the rest of the cult members. Things began to unravel in May, 1963, when a fourteen-year-old kid wandering around the area saw a human sacrifice ritual as it was performed in a cave. Shocked at what he had witnessed, he ran over fifteen miles to the nearest police station. The cops were skeptical, but the next day, they sent an investigator over to take a look.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Magdalena Solis after her arrest. Amino Apps

The investigator and the kid headed out to see the caves – and neither was ever seen alive again. The disappearance of a cop sent to investigate the claims of grisly goings-on in Yerba Buena convinced the authorities to take the matter seriously. Police and soldiers flooded the town, and Magdalena Solis and her brother Eleazar were arrested. In the meantime, Cayetano Hernandez was killed by a disgruntled cult member. Santos Hernandez and many other cultists barricaded themselves in caves, and were killed in shootouts with soldiers and police. The authorities eventually uncovered the bodies of eight cult victims, including that of the police investigator and the kid who had first tipped off the cops. Magdalena and her brother were tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifty years behind bars. Many of her surviving followers were sentenced to thirty years.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Herodotus. Lapham’s Quarterly

The “Father of History” Cited a Lot of Mythology as if it Was Fact

Ancient Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnasus (circa 484 – circa 425 BC) is often referred to as “The Father of History”, because he wrote the earliest known great historical narrative of the ancient world. He travelled widely, or at least claimed to have done so – some major errors in his descriptions of places he supposedly visited have cast some 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.

The Histories is considered to be Western literature’s first work of history. However, “The Father of History” is also known to critics as “The Father of Lies”. His writings included not only some wrong details, but also some ridiculous whoppers. Not only modern scholars, but even some of Herodotus’ contemporaries, scoffed at his claims. Today, many question whether Herodotus had ever traveled beyond Greece. Instead, it is quite possible that he had simply penned The Histories from collections of mythology and stories from people he encountered at home.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Ancient Greek depiction of griffins, that Herodotus claimed inhabited northern Europe. Wikimedia

Herodotus Believed Plenty of Unbelievable Stuff

There are plenty of ridiculous whoppers in Herodotus’ Histories, which he passed along as fact. That earned him the nickname “The Father of Lies”. One such was his narrative about a struggle between giant one-eyed Cyclopses and half-eagle, half-lion, griffins, who inhabited northern Europe. Herodotus claimed that 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 mythology, but as an event that 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 from sifting through the giant ants’ excavations. Few if any Greeks had ever been to the faraway lands described by Herodotus. Thus, for centuries, the Greeks, and later the Romans, treated Herodotus’ ridiculous tales of far-fetched weirdness in distant lands as literal truths.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
The Cottingley Fairies. Blitz Lift

The Birth of a Wild Hoax

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. National Geographic

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Coming of the Fairies’. Pinterest

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Comparison of the Cottingley Fairies, and illustrations from a popular children’s book. Wikimedia

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Roman Phallic Amulet. Ancient & Oriental.

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Roman mosaic depicting gladiators. Encyclopedia Britannica

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
An ancient strigil. Flickr

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Ancient Roman mosaic depicting gladiators. Encyclopedia Britannica

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!”

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Patagonian giants. Princeton

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“.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Patagonian giants. Fine Art America

A Tale That Grew Taller in the Retelling

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Members of the Tehuelche tribe, the real people behind the legends of Patagonian giants. Wikimedia

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
A 1903 painting of King Arthur, by Charles Ernest Butler. Wikimedia

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Romano-Briton nobleman Vortigern greets the arrival of Saxon chiefs Horsa and Hengist. Ancient Pages

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
A medieval depiction of King Arthur and the Round Table. Wikimedia

The Birth of Arthurian Mythology

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
‘Semiramis, Queen of Babylon’, by Cesare Saccaggi, 1905. Aqua Regia

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Hercules. Greek Mythology

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Disney’s take on Hercules. Alli Express

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.

Why Everybody is Obsessed with Dragons and Other Intense Legends from History
Ancient Roman statue of an infant Hercules strangling a snake. Capitoline Museum, Rome

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.

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

Ambrose, Tom – The Nature of Despotism: From Caligula to Mugabe, the Making of Tyrants (2008)

Ancient Origins – The Search for El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold

Archaeology Archive, September 23rd, 1998 – King Arthur Was Real?

AV Club – Wikipedia Erected a Page to Explain Ancient Rome’s Fascination With the Phallus

BBC – El Dorado: The Truth Behind the Myth

Best Glam Health and Lifestyle – Gladiator Sweat and Other Surprising Aphrodisiacs of the Ancient World

Bulfinch, Thomas – Bulfinch’s Mythology (1998)

Casual Criminalist – Magdelina Solis: The High Priestess of Blood

Classical Journal, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Oct. 1968) – Father of History or Father of Lies; the Reputation of Herodotus

Clements, Jonathan – The First Emperor of China (2006)

CrimeZZZ Net – Serial Killers Hernandez, Cayetano; Hernandez, Santos; and Solis, Magdalena

Encyclopedia Britannica – Eldorado, Legendary Country

Encyclopedia Britannica – Herodotus

Encyclopedia Britannica – Samu-ramat

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)

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Greek Mythology – Hercules: The Life of the Greek Hero

Hemming, John – The Search for El Dorado (1978)

Heritage Daily – The Origins of Dragon Mythology

Historia Magazine, October 29th, 2020 – Gladiator Sweat and Leech Hair Dye; How to Survive in Ancient Rome

Historic UK – Cottingly Fairies

History Collection – The Real Legend of Hua Mulan

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

Lawrence Today Magazine, Fall, 2004 – European Travel Writings and the Patagonian Giants

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

Mayor, Adrienne – The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times (2000)

Messy Nessy Chic – When the Phallus Was Fashion

Murderpedia – Magdalena Solis

Museum of Hoaxes – Cottingley Fairies

Museum of Hoaxes – Patagonian Giants

National Geographic – El Dorado

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?

Snyder, Christopher A. – Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400-600 (2010)

Telegraph, The, July 11th, 2010 – Historians Locate King Arthur’s Round Table

World History Encyclopedia – Semiramis

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