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