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
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.


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