The image of a she-wolf suckling human infants, twin boys, remains a symbol of the City of Rome in the 21st century. The boys are Romulus and Remus, in one telling of the tale sons of the god Mars. In another they are the sons of a deposed king, Numitor. The latter’s brother, who stole his throne, banished the twins to a site near the Tiber river bank. There, another god, Tiberinus, intervened. The twins were hidden in a cave, known as the Lupercal, where they received nourishment from a she-wolf. As they grew older they shepherded flocks, an unusual occupation for someone so closely associated with wolves. Eventually they emerged as community leaders, and after fighting in a failed war to restore Numitor to his throne they established their own community, near the seven hills on the Tiber.
The brothers failed to agree on which hill to establish their city, and the falling out led to fighting between them. They decided to allow the gods to decide which should prevail, and subsequently rule as king. After Romulus won, he either killed Remus or had one of his followers do so. He then ruled as the first King of Rome. Whether the twins were based on actual historical figures, embellished with folklore over time, or were entirely fictional remains in debate. In 1988, an archaeologist discovered a wall on the Palatine Hill (one of the fabled Seven Hills of Rome) which he claimed to be indicative of the Lupercal. Romulus, Remus, and the she-wolf appeared in ancient Roman art, tapestries, and on coins. Their story and images continued to inspire artists, poets, and mythologists throughout history ever since.
The myth of the Trojan Horse, in which Greek troops hid in order to deceive and eventually conquer the Trojans, may well be based in fact, at least partially. Siege engines, movable structures used to batter down walls or gates, were used in warfare at the time. Built largely of wood, they were often covered with hides, including horsehides, to protect them from flaming arrows or other projectiles. Homer did not mention the Trojan Horse in his first work describing the war, the Iliad. Virgil’s Aeneid first mentioned the device and its use; it is described as a wooden horse. Homer included the tale in his subsequent work, the Odyssey. Though the ancient poems romanticize the story, scholars’ debate whether the tale of deception using some form of siege engine could include substantial historical facts.
One possibility is that a ship served as the “horse”, decorated on its prow with a wooden horse’s head, and containing hidden troops. Ships so decorated were common during the period of the Trojan War, as reflected in contemporaneous literature and art. Homer’s Odyssey even refers to ships as “seahorses” in one verse. A ship certainly would provide a more convenient means of transporting more than three dozen hidden warriors than a giant wooden horse on massive wheels. Whether a wooden horse, a ship, or a complete fabrication, the story of the Trojan Horse remains one of the most referenced in history. The term refers to evil intent concealed within an otherwise harmless appearance. Today, anti-malware software prides itself on the ability to detect and destroy Trojan horses.
4. The Divine Wind which destroyed Mongol invasions of Japan
In the late 13th century, two separate invasions of Japan by massive Mongol fleets and armies found themselves thwarted. Japanese defenses did not defeat them. In both cases, typhoons arose which destroyed the Mongol’s fleets, with heavy loss of life. The first, in 1274, killed an estimated 13,000 Mongol troops and sailors, more than a third of the force. The second, in 1281, saw more than 70,000 Mongols killed or captured by the Japanese Samurai. Japan celebrated its deliverance as being divinely ordained, by the god Rajin in early accounts. Later mythology attributed the divine intervention to other gods, including Ryujin, the Japanese god of the sea. They called the intervention kamikaze.
Throughout its history, Japanese children were taught the divine nature of the storms which saved their country. Japanese culture revered the kamikaze through art work, poetry, and song, linking the intervention of the gods to the willingness of the Samurai to fight against seemingly impossible odds. In the 1940s, as the Pacific War turned against Japan, the myth of divine intervention helped drive recruitment for a new form of kamikaze. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen trained for suicide attacks against American land and sea targets, including large ships. Spiritual training stressed their part in the new divine intervention to protect their homeland and above all, their emperor. In all, the second Divine Wind killed nearly 5,000 Americans, wounding more than 4,800 more. At least 47 ships were sunk, and scores more severely damaged.
In late July, 64 CE, roughly 65% of the city of Rome burned in a fire which raged for nine days. It began near the Circus Maximus, according to the Roman historian Tacitus. The region of the city featured narrow, winding streets, and the fire spread quickly among the densely crowded structures, fed by the prevailing winds. As it grew, the flames created whirlwinds of their own, allowing the conflagration to climb the hills of Palatine and Caelian. The population fled to other areas of the city, and eventually to the roads leading from Rome. The emperor Nero learned of the fire while in Antium. According to Tacitus, Nero returned to the city and helped organize relief efforts. However, at some point following the fire, the mythology emerged that Nero had ordered arsonists to burn the city. The fire offered him the opportunity to rebuild Rome in his own design.
As part of the myth, Nero was said to have played his lyre while observing the destruction from his palace. Several versions of the myth exist, repeated throughout history. One claims Nero watched the fire from his palace on the Palatine hill, another that he remained on the Esquiline hill. Yet another claims he ordered the fire set and blamed it on the Christian sect then growing in Rome, allowing him to initiate the persecution of Christians. Tacitus observed the fire first-hand, though at the age of eight, and wrote his version of the events decades later. He stated that others reported Nero playing an instrument and singing while the city burned. He also stated the reports of the emperor’s activities were unconfirmed by any eyewitnesses. Nonetheless, the myths of Nero fiddling while Rome burned grew, and the phrase remains a reference to indifference to catastrophe in the modern world.
At the time of Columbus’s voyage in 1492, virtually no person of any education believed the world to be flat. As early as 400 years before the dawn of the Common Era, Aristotle cited evidence of the Earth being spherical in shape. While it is true that some people still believe the Earth is flat, citing among other things the Bible as their source, nearly everyone knew they lived on a globe by the time of the 15th century. Sailor’s especially saw evidence of the Earth’s true shape on a nearly daily basis. The hulls of ships sailing away dropped below the horizon well before the masts and sails vanished from sight. Ships approaching did the opposite. The sailors on the three ships led by Columbus did not fear sailing off the edge of the Earth, as is so widely reported.
Proving the world is round is just one of many prevailing myths surrounding the first voyage of Columbus to the New World. Queen Isabella pawning her jewels to fund the expedition is another which has no truth to it. Nor did Columbus reach North America on his first voyage. His flagship bore the name Santa Gallega, not Santa Maria, and the tiny vessel known to posterity as Nina was in truth the Santa Clara. Nina was simply an affectionate nickname bestowed on the ship by its crew. Perhaps the greatest mythology surrounding Columbus is his name. In his native Italian, his name was Cristoforo Colombo. In Spain he was known as Cristobal Colon. Whether either of those were his true name from birth remains debatable, as further research reveals new mysteries about the man who gained the title Admiral of Ocean Sea.
Leif Erikson, whom some believe was the first European to arrive in North America, was likely born in Iceland. His father, Erik the Red, received banishment from Iceland, and relocated his family to Greenland, where he established a considerable estate. Leif voyaged as both an explorer and trader as a young man. Among the areas in which he traded was Norway. While there, Leif received baptism from King Olaf Tryggvason, who then dispatched the new convert to preach the Gospel in Greenland. Leif’s father Erik received the news of his son’s conversion with suspicion, but many of his neighbors converted due to Leif’s efforts. Leif Erikson received support in his efforts, according to the sagas recorded at the time, from a Catholic priest who sailed in his ship as a member of the crew.
When Leif visited North America, which he called Vinland, he arrived as the first Christian missionary to the New World, nearly 500 years before Columbus. He established reasonable trade relations with the natives he encountered, though he referred to them in a word which loosely translated meant “the wretched”. He took two of the wretched back to Greenland, where they were taught the Norwegian language and converted to Catholicism. They were later returned to Vinland. Erikson and the settlers in the Norse communities in Iceland and Greenland are usually depicted as fierce pagan warriors and sailors. In truth, Leif Erikson was a gentleman farmer, a Catholic missionary, and dedicated to peaceful conversion of those he encountered in his travels.
8. Medieval cooks used spices to cover the taste of rotten foods
A longstanding myth claims spices were coveted during the Middle Ages as a means of masking the smell and taste of rotten foods, especially meats. How and when it emerged is unknown, but what is known is that spices at the time were prohibitively expensive. Most came from Africa and the Indies, and travelled a long and dangerous journey to reach European destinations. Having procured them at considerable expense, Medieval cooks did not waste them while preparing spoiled foods. Instead, they used them in the same manner as today. Spices and herbs enhanced the flavor and appearance of foods, rather than concealing their level of freshness, or rather their lack thereof.
Often the meat served at Medieval tables was freshly killed, from either game or domestic animals. This meant Medieval meals were often centered upon meat which was fresher than that found on tables today. While it is true that foods spoiled quickly during Medieval times, it was often because uneaten foods – leftovers, as it were – did not have a means of preservation, especially in warm periods. Wealthier families often disposed of leftovers by leaving them outside for the poor to pick over. Had they used spices to mask the flavor of spoiled foods, especially meats, they would have endured the same results as eating rotten meat today delivers.
Scholars disagree on the exact date, and even the year, of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and nearly all agree it did not occur on December 25th. December became the month of Jesus’ birth following the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. The Roman celebration of the winter solstice was supplanted by a celebration of the Nativity by Christians, the first documented event occurring in 336 CE in Rome. The events related in the Biblical story of the birth of Jesus do not support it occurring in early winter, either in the story itself or in other ancient documents. For example, the Biblical narrative refers to the shepherds tending their flocks in the hills, an unlikely occurrence during the winter months. Some scholars turn to the sky to pinpoint the date of Jesus’ birth, with conflicting results.
The Star of Bethlehem has been postulated as being a comet, observed by Chinese astronomers in 5 BCE; a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in June, 2 BCE; or a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in October, 7 BCE. Some theologians argue Jesus’ birth occurred in the Spring, citing the presence of the shepherds, more likely to indicate the warmer months. Others argue that King Herod, who played a major role in the narrative, died in about 4 BCE, indicating the birth occurred well before that year. The truth is nobody can state with certainty the exact date, or even the year, of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, including those professing to be Christians. For example, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas in early January, rather than December 25 as on the Roman Catholic calendar.
10. Julius Caesar was born via a C-section, giving the procedure its name
Or, in some tellings, being named Caesar because the procedure in Latin was called Caesar. The myths can be traced to a document from the 10th century. According to the document, known as Suda, “For when his mother died in the ninth month, they cut her open, took him out, and named him for thus; for in the Roman tongue dissection is called Caesar”. In Rome at the time of Caesar’s birth, a law known as Lex Caesarea required an infant be removed from a dead mother immediately, in hopes of saving the child. However, Caesar’s mother, Aurelia, did not die preceding or during child birth, as is claimed in Suda. She took responsibility for much of Julius’ upbringing, as her husband, also named Gaius Julius Caesar, spent long periods away from home.
The younger Julius Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, died in childbirth, and Aurelia took over responsibility for raising her granddaughter, Julia. Until Caesar’s second marriage Aurelia presided over her son’s household. She died in 54 BCE, in Rome. Had Julius Caesar been born via a caesarian operation, Aurelia would almost certainly not have survived, given the medical abilities and techniques of the time. The Lex Caesarea required the removal of an infant from a dead mother, intended to save infants mainly during a mother’s death in childbirth. Yet the myth that Julius Caesar was delivered via a c-section remains an often cited one, despite its obvious lack of truth.
11. The Council of Nicaea decided which books to include in the Bible
Following his conversion to Christianity, the Emperor Constantine invoked the Edict of Milan in 313 CE. The edict established tolerance for Christians of all sects throughout the Roman Empire. Different sects within the empire debated certain aspects of the Christian faith. One such sect believed in the position of Bishop Arius, who taught that Jesus’s divinity was not always present during his lifetime. Those who agreed with Arius called themselves Arians, and the Arian controversy created significant rifts among the various Christian groups. Constantine called for a meeting of Christian leaders in an ecumenical council, to be held in Nicaea, in what is modern day Turkey. The Council of Nicaea resolved the Arian controversy and issued the statement of beliefs now known as the Nicene Creed.
It did not address the creation of the canon of books which comprised the New Testament of the Bible. That mythology arose through literature and other forms of entertainment, and gained steam in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not until over forty years later did Athanasias of Alexandria suggest the list of books which comprise the New Testament. Subsequent councils in Hippo and Carthage confirmed the Canon of the Old and New Testaments, with the Third Synod of Carthage finalizing the authorized Canon of the Bible in 397 CE, more than seventy years after the Council of Nicaea. Yet the myth of the Council of Nicaea creating the canon of the Bible as it is known in the Catholic Church today prevails, largely through its spread in entertainment based on fiction.
To those with a limited understanding of other religions and cultures, the longstanding myths that cows are sacred animals subject to worship in India remains. Hindus do not worship cows as they do a deity, nor do they believe cattle bear the souls of the departed. Nonetheless cows occupy a significant place in Hindu literature, religious beliefs, and moral codes. Hindus believe the cow represents the nature of life. As such it gives to nature more than it takes. Mahatma Gandhi said, “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals”. To Hindus, many of whom are vegetarian, the cow harms nothing, consumes only grass, grain, and water, and offers its milk in abundance, used to create cheese, yogurt, butter, ghee, and other dairy products.
As such, celebration of cows is an important part of Hindu services and celebrations. Cows represent patience, forbearance, harmlessness, and other virtues important to the Hindu faith. As such they are decorated in some celebrations and held in reverence, but they are not worshipped. Ancient Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas they represent the joyous life as one of service to others without demand for return, as well as wealth. They are also representative of quiet dignity and strength. Hindus do believe in reincarnation, though which each representing another step in the journey toward oneness with God. The myth that they worship cows began in the west with the first contacts with the Europeans, and has remained ever since.
Originally written in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the epic poem describing the adventures of Beowulf tells of one of the myths of the Danes and Swedes. The first part of the myth tells the story of Grendel, an ogre of fearsome cruelty, the son of an equally brutish mother. Grendel they live in the marshes and swamps of the Kingdom of Hrothgar. On one night, Grendel enters Hrothgar’s castle, kills 30 of the king’s warriors, and carries their bodies to his home in the swamp, for his mother and he to eat. Grendel continues his attacks on the castle for 12 ensuing years, terrorizing the kingdom. Hrothgar and his subjects pray in vain to their pagan gods for relief, and the stories of Grendel’s depredations spread to other kingdoms in the Norse regions, among them the land of the Geats. There they are heard by a Geat warrior named Beowulf.
Beowulf’s feats are already legendary among the Geats when he hears of Grendel. As a slayer of both sea monsters and giants, Beowulf has little trouble recruiting 14 warriors from the Geats to accompany him to Hrothgar. There he fights Grendel in hand to hand combat, ripping the monster’s arm off before Grendel escapes to the swamp, where he dies. Beowulf returns to Hrothgar, presenting the arm of the dead beast to the king, and it is hung in a place of honor in Hrothgar’s castle, Heorot. Meanwhile, Grendel’s mother, vows to avenge her dying son. She travels to Heorot, kills one of the king’s aides, and escapes to the swamp carrying Grendel’s arm. Beowulf then follows the monster to a cave in the swamps, carrying a sword with super powers named Hrunting. When Hrunting fails to injure the monster, Beowulf grabs another sword from a wall in the cave, with which he kills the monster and decapitates the body of Grendel.
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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