The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
The Most Epic Myths from Around the World

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World

Larry Holzwarth - April 30, 2021

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Scholars consider it highly unlikely that Jesus of Nazareth was born in December. Wikimedia

9. Jesus of Nazareth was born in December

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Julius Caesar did not enter the world through the operation which now bears his name. Wikimedia

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Codex containing the Nicene Creed from the fourth century CE. Wikimedia

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Hindus do not worship cows as a deity, any more than Christians worship a lamb. Wikimedia

12. The myths that Hindus worship cows

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Beowulf preparing to behead the dead Grendel, from a 20th century British text. Wikimedia

13. The Norse saga of Beowulf and Grendel

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Beowulf in combat with a Water Witch. Wikimedia

14. The second saga of Beowulf

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Flying chariots and other vehicles and houses are common myths throughout the world. Wikimedia

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Japanese mythology contains many stories similar to those of other cultures. Wikimedia

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
The exploration and colonization of Africa revealed a diverse and complex mythology across the continent. Wikimedia

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
Throughout Polynesia, differing mythologies developed among the people of the islands. Wikimedia

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 Most Epic Myths from Around the World
The Inuit mythology remains largely one of oral tradition and lore. Wikimedia

19. Inuit myths and the legend of Kiviuk

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.

The Most Epic Myths from Around the World
The tale of Prometheus and his torment is repeated in several mythologies, though with some differences. Wikimedia

20. Prometheus and the creation of humanity

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.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Inuit Myth and Legend”. James Houston, Canadian Encyclopedia. February 7, 2006. Online

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