Following his adventures with Grendel and his mother, Beowulf returns to Sweden, where he rules the kingdom of the Geats. Within his kingdom resides a winged dragon, guarding a cave in which a vast treasure is hidden. When a runaway slave discovered the cave, he returned to his master bearing a golden chalice. The dragon retaliates against the Geats by flying over their villages, breathing fire upon them, destroying their homes and killing many. The Geats turn to their King, Beowulf, for protection. Though by this point in the narrative Beowulf is old and lacking the strength of his youth, he decides to slay the dragon personally, taking 11 warriors with him on an expedition to the dragon’s cave. When they reached the cave, Beowulf instructs his companions not to intervene in his combat with the dragon.
Beowulf’s armor is inadequate to protect him from the flames of the dragon’s breath. When it is clear to his companions that the King is in mortal danger, a warrior named Wiglaf rushes to his aid. Together they slay the dragon, but Beowulf’s injuries are mortal. After asking to see the treasure, Beowulf dies. He is cremated in a funeral pyre on a cliff overlooking the sea, the treasure destroyed alongside his body. When the flames die out, the Geats build a large cairn over the site, in memory of Beowulf and as a landmark for mariners. The saga of Beowulf in written form was first discovered in England in the 1600s, and it has remained popular ever since. Numerous variations of the myth have evolved over time, and Beowulf appears in other myths and legends in Germanic, Norse, and English tales from over the centuries.
15. Flying chariots appear in myths and legends of many cultures
Variations of flying vehicles and houses appear in the myths of many ancient cultures and religious beliefs. In ancient China, ten suns, the children of the goddess Shiho, occupied the sky. Shiho carried one of her children across the sky each day in her chariot. However, being children and thus prone to mischief, one day all ten crossed the sky together, and their combined heat scorched the earth. Other gods found an archer to kill nine of the errant suns, thus restoring the earth. The ancient Egyptians believed their sun god, Ra, traversed the sky carrying the sun in a ship, crewed by lesser gods. At night his ship brought light to the dead in the underworld. Greek myths included the story of Apollo, riding his chariot across the sky to bring light to the world by day.
Myths of flying chariots appeared in Hindu mythology, including the ancient Vedas. In the Vimanas both flying chariots and palaces appear, manipulated by various gods and goddesses. In Mesoamerican mythology flying chariots appear in the myths of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayans. The North American Iroquois confederation, to whom the wheel remained unknown until contact with the Europeans, had a myth of three brothers chasing the sun, which caused it to flee before them across the sky. The Iroquois also believed their confederation of originally Five, and eventually Six Nations, formed through the actions of a god they called Deganawida, the Great Peacemaker. In some accounts, the Great Peacemaker was an Onondaga, others say he was of Huron descent. Still others claim him to have been born of a virgin, leading to the matrilineal society of the Iroquois.
16. Japanese creation myths included the creation of the gods and the earth
In Japanese mythologies, the first generation of gods emerged from whatever existed in the primordial universe. These three gods created subsequent gods, through seven generations, which led to the creation of the gods Izanagi and Izanami. Izanagi used a richly decorated naginata (a form of a pole weapon) to create the islands which make up the Japanese Archipelago. In the myth, the first island created, Onogoro became the home of Izanagi and Izanami, where they built a palace and were married to each other. The Japanese god of luck and fishermen known as Ebisu was born to the couple on the island. Eventually the gods created other islands, leading modern scholars to speculate over the exact location of Onogoro, much as Judeo-Christian scholars speculate over the location of the Biblical Eden.
Ebisu was born without a fully develop skeletal system, with no arms and legs, a punishment from the gods for the incestual circumstances of his birth. His parents thus discarded him, by abandoning him to the sea in a boat of reeds. His parents sought the counsel of the gods before producing further children. Following their guidance, they produced many others, some of whom are the islands of Japan. Izanami’s last child Kagutsuchi, was fire incarnate, and his flames killed his mother at birth. Enraged, Izanagi killed the child, and from his death several other gods emerged. Eventually, during the ancient period, several million gods and goddesses were created to occupy the Japanese Pantheon of the Gods. Among them was the Emperor Jimmu, a human son of Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. Thus the Japanese believed their emperor to be descended directly from the gods, a belief widely retained in the 21st century.
17. African myths included the creation of several gods
In African mythology, across several peoples and cultures, all things have spirits, including those living and some inert. Spirits can be both helpful and harmful to each other and to living things. Some cultures believed that spirits are controllable by humans, usually through the assistance of priests or shamans trained in the process. The spirits are independent of the gods, though the names of some of the gods can be invoked in attempting to manipulate their behavior. Nearly all African cultures believed in a supreme deity, though with differing names including Olorun, Amma, and Mulungu. Most African societies believed the supreme deity is indifferent to human activities, and leaves divine intercession to the lesser gods.
One African mythology, told by the Mende people of the Sierra Leone region, explained how death came humanity. In the tale, humans were originally intended to be immortal, as were the gods. A message describing immortality was dispatched to humanity, carried by a dog. At the same time, evil gods sent a message describing death was sent, carried by a toad. The dog stopped during his journey to eat, allowing the toad to arrive first. A similar tale told in African cultures featured a chameleon carrying the promise of eternal life. Instead, a lizard bearing news of death beat the chameleon in a race to inform humanity. Several African peoples believed in a mythical rope connecting the gods to the Earth, severed by an angered god and thus bringing death to humanity.
18. Polynesian myths included the creation of the yam
Among the peoples of Polynesia, who likely immigrated to the islands from Southeast Asia, numerous mythologies involving creation emerged, along with a pantheon of gods and goddesses. For the Maori people, the gods Papa and Rangi emerged as the creators of all things. In Hawaii, the natives believed in the gods Po and Ao. Po represented the feminine power of creation, including the earth, while Ao represented the masculine force, including the sky. From them descended Ku, who joined with the gods Kane and Lono to create the earth and all living things. Kane formed the first man and woman and at first granted them immortality. Later he disapproved of their behavior, encumbered them with mortality, and departed the earth of his creation, never to return.
The Tahitians believed in the supreme god Ta’aroa. Ta’aroa was born from an egg of indeterminate origin. He created the sky from part of the egg and the earth from the rest. All of the Polynesians believed that two of their most important foods, breadfruit and yams, were gifts of the gods. In Maori legend, the yam was stolen from the gods by the Rongo-maui. After returning to the earth with a yam hidden in his clothing, the god impregnated his wife, Pani. The gods were aware of the theft of the yam, and took revenge by seeing that Pani gave birth to a yam. Thus yams were both stolen from the gods and a gift from the same, making them an important part of the Polynesian diet and mythology.
The Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic regions developed a mythology with notable similarities to those of Siberia. Among the tales told by the Inuit is the legend of Kiviuk, and a boy who disguised himself as a seal. The boy, who lived with his grandmother, suffered abuse at the hands of other boys in their village, who derided him for his poor eyesight. Frequently he returned home with his clothes in tatters from the abuse. His grandmother patiently sewed them again, only to have him return another day with them in rags. Finally, she made him a costume from a sealskin, and trained him to hold his breath with his head in a bucket of water for longer and longer periods.
When he was ready, the grandmother had him enter the water, dressed as a seal, to lure the other boys into pursuit. The boys gave chase, including Kiviuk, who had not participated in the early taunting and abuse. One by one, the chasing boys tired in the water, and having traveled too far from shore to return, were drowned. All but Kiviuk succumbed. Kiviuk continued to fight the icy water, and swim until finally he reached an unknown shore. Some believe he lives there to this day, and that the world well end upon his death. Many other legends and mythical tales feature Kiviuk, sometimes under different names and guises. In some retellings of his legend, Kiviuk’s body is as hard as stone, though his heart still beats. Others relate that when his face has fully turned to stone the world will end. Currently it is about half stone.
Prometheus is remembered as the god who gifted humanity with fire, incurring the wrath of Zeus. But what is often overlooked is the belief among the ancient Greeks that Prometheus was the Titan who created humanity out of clay. He is just one of many of the ancients credited with the creation of humanity, and some tales tell of Zeus destroying all humanity at least five times. Another tale credits Hephaestus with creating the first woman, Pandora, out of clay. When Pandora introduced the ills of the world by opening her box, Prometheus was credited with restoring hope. Throughout the legends which describe Prometheus he is presented as a divine benefactor of humanity, inclined to risk the wrath of the gods to protect human creatures and ease their burdens on Earth.
His theft of fire so enraged Zeus that he was sentenced to be chained to a rock, tortured by an eagle (a symbol of Zeus) which ate his liver. The ancient Greeks believed the liver to be the repository of emotions. Each night the liver regrew, to be torn out again the following day. Heracles, in Roman mythology known as Hercules, eventually freed Prometheus. Similar tales of theft of fire and the revenge of the gods abound in the mythologies of several cultures around the world, including in the Caucasus, India, North and South America, and Egypt. They all include a god or heroic figure opposed to the selfishness of the gods acting for the benefit of humanity, regardless of the price to themselves.
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