The Real War That Gave Rise to the Myth of King Arthur
In the early fifth century, the 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 they viewed as more vital. It is unclear if the Roman authorities at the time viewed the withdrawal from Britain as permanent, or just a temporary pullback, with plans to return once things settled down. As it turned out, the legions never returned, and Roman Britain was left on its own. The Romano-Briton were beset by their own invaders, most significantly the Picts in Scotland, and Saxons from across the North Sea. In what turned out to be a bad idea of epic proportions, the locals, perhaps reasoning 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.
The Saxons Expand
Once the Saxons settled in and got comfortable, they decided they wanted more. So they accused their hosts and employers of failing to meet their side of the deal, and charged them with shortchanging the Saxons on 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 during the sit down, and massacre the native leaders. They spared just one of the locals, a leader named Vortigern, and kept him alive as a puppet ruler in exchange for his promise to grant the Saxons more land. The ensuing conflict, as the Saxons gobbled up more and more territory from the locals, gave rise to the tales of a mythical British leader, King Arthur, who valiantly fought against the invaders.
The Saxons absorbed the lands extorted from the Romano-Britons through their puppet British ruler, Vortigern, then sought more. The invaders eventually launched a massive onslaught 4that 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 legend morphed into the myth of King Arthur.
Is Artognu the Inspiration for King Arthur?
While Arthur does not appear in any of the contemporary sources, there is evidence that some British war leader, perhaps named Arthur or something close, lived during this period. For example, a 6th century engraving was found in Cornwall, bearing the name of some bigwig 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 a purpose-built castle, but was housed instead in a preexisting structure: a recently discovered Roman amphitheater in Chester. The Round Table was not a literal piece of furniture, but a vast wood and stone structure that could have allowed up to 1,000 of Arthur’s men to gather. Historians believe noblemen would have sat in the front rows of a circular meeting place, while lower ranked attendees sat on stone benches further back.
The Natural Disaster Behind the Legend of Atlantis
During the second millennium BC, the Minoans, based out of the Mediterranean island of Crete, created history’s first naval trade empire. They also developed a particularly sophisticated and advanced civilization for that day and age. Then it all came crashing down, due in large part to a natural disaster: the Thera Volcanic Eruption, circa 1642 – 1540 BC, in what is today the Greek island of Santorini. It was one of the most powerful volcanic blasts in recorded history, estimated to have been about four times stronger than the gigantic Krakatoa explosion of 1883. The eruption sundered the island of Thera, and wiped out the flourishing Minoan settlement of nearby Arkotiri and surrounding islands.
Tsunami in Crete
In addition to the immediate devastation of Thera and the surrounding islands, the eruption produced powerful tsunamis that devastated Crete, contributing to the decline of the Minoan civilization and paving the way for its extinction. Such a disaster, coming out of the blue like a bolt of lightning, gave rise to the legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis, which was doomed by a natural catastrophe and swallowed by the sea. However, the impact of the Thera Eruption went beyond serving as the source material for a myth about a vanished civilization. It was one of history’s most impactful natural disasters, with consequences not only in its own era, but with knock on effects and a chain of causation leading directly to the world in which we live today.
The Legend of Atlantis, and the Shaping of the Modern World
The Minoans, who were later morphed in Greek mythology into the vanished civilization of Atlantis, had been the Mediterranean’s greatest naval power, as well as the dominant force in the Aegean, including what became Greece and the Greek world. A trading power, the Minoans were oriented towards Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, and were strongly influenced by those civilizations. While the Minoans flourished, the Aegean world in their thrall was by necessity oriented in the same direction, and strongly influenced by the Egyptian and eastern civilizations as well. The Thera eruption weakened Crete and the Minoans sufficiently to create a power vacuum in the Aegean, which was filled by the emerging Mycenaeans in mainland Greece. They went on to conquer Crete and destroy the Minoans, and became the dominant power of the Aegean.
The Eruption and Tsunami Could Have Shaped Our Modern World
Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans’ energies were focused not on trade with Egypt and the Levant, but on colonizing the Aegean, the western coast of Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, and the western Mediterranean. That change of orientation significantly reduced Egyptian and eastern influences upon the Greeks, and when the Greek world flourished centuries later, long after the Mycenaeans had themselves vanished, it would do so as a civilization distinct from those of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, rather than as extension and outpost of those cultures. Since western civilization is founded upon that of the ancient Greeks, an argument could be made that today’s western civilization and its impact on the modern world would not exist but for the Thera eruption of the mid 2nd millennium BC.
The Teenage Girls Who Created the Legend of the Cottingley Fairies
You might be excused if you assumed that the creator of the cynical and deductive reasoning detective, Sherlock Holmes, would have been one of those hard to fool skeptical types. In reality, however, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who birthed fiction’s most famous detective, was nothing like his famous character. In his later years, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism, and in his eagerness to credit anything that supported his beliefs, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a hoax perpetrated by two young girls. It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley. There, 9 year old Elsie Wright and her 16 year old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream. Their parents scoffed, so to prove their claims, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”.
The Photos Spread
When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera. Two years later, the fairy photos went viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist type group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them declared that they were crude cardboard cutouts. However, the existence of fairies supported some spiritual aspects of the Theosophical Society, so its members – who included prominent British figures – began spreading the photos and vouching for their authenticity.
Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Supercharges the Cottingley Fairies Myth
In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the Cottingley Fairies photos. He was skeptical at first, and went to the trouble of asking Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before receiving a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle concluded on his own that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’ author was vouching for the photos’ authenticity, en route to becoming a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life. In December of 1920, Doyle published a cringeworthy article urging the public to accept that fairies existed. The article opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the respected author. However, the ridicule did not dissuade Doyle, who followed the first article with a second in 1921, describing even more fairy sightings.
The Fairy Story Gets Out of Hand
A year later, Doyle capped it off by publishing his 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies. As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical. Decades later, in 1983, the cousins published an article in which they confessed that the whole thing had been a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had initially kicked off the prank in order to get back at adults who had teased them for “playing with fairies”. However, the joke snowballed, and eventually got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, the girls could not think of a graceful way to back out, so they just kept the hoax going, until they finally came clean, six decades later.
Sailor Tall Tales Led to the Myths of South American Giants
During his sixteenth century expedition to circumnavigate the world, explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s ships dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, the explorer and his men came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. Magellan ordered a sailor to make contact with the big native, by singing and dancing in turn, as a means of demonstrating friendliness. The strategy worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage: “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”.
Capturing the Patagonians for a Voyage
The explorers proceeded to make contact with the rest of his tribe, and in subsequent weeks, they hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan was ready to depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians sobered up, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who completed the trip and returned to Spain brought back with them tales of a land inhabited by giants. Tales that grew into the myth of Patagonian Giants. With the passage of time, the tall people encountered by Magellan’s ships kept growing taller – at least in the telling.
Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. As if in a race of one upsmanship, others reported that they had contacted Patagonians whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the South American giants would grip European imaginations for over 250 years. The first challenge to the tall tales came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, who encountered Patagonians during 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.“Yet, as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British ship had encountered a tribe of 9 foot tall natives. However, when the ship’s account was finally published, the natives were recorded as being 6 and a half feet tall – tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But they stood in the 6 foot range.
The Native American Chief Who Became a City of Gold
The myth of El Dorado, the City of Gold, seems to have changed like a message in a game of telephone, gradually getting altered with each retelling, until the final recipient ends up with something completely different than the original message. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard stories about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, before rowing into Lake Guatavita, about 35 miles northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The Spaniards coined a term for those mythical Muisca chiefs: El Hombre Dorado, or “The Golden Man”.
The City of Gold is Born
Over the years, and with repeated retellings, El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together. The story was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered significant amounts of gold gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South of America. So they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior.
As the years went by, many Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version describing a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. Wishful thinking took hold and ran with them, and the lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city ended up fueling various expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold. However, seekers who stuck to the original version of the story, about tribal chiefs dropping golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach.
The Search for El Dorado
Other than the partial success at Lake Guatavita, the only results of the search for El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts. One of the more jinxed searches was carried out by the English courtier and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second expedition, in 1617, an aging Raleigh grew too feeble to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up a base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find El Dorado. The attempt ended in utter disaster, and in the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself: upon his return to England, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
The French Hero Who Gave Rise to the Story of Bluebeard
The legend of Bluebeard, about the serial wife killer, can be traced back to Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440). A nobleman from Brittany, Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families of France. From an early age, Rais lived up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age 15, he had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. Rais distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427. He eventually became a national hero, as Joan of Arc’s chief lieutenant and right hand man. Then Rais’ true nature emerged, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster.
When Joan of Arc rose to prominence in 1429 to challenge the English, who had been rampaging throughout France for decades, Gilles de Rais was already a celebrated military man, notwithstanding his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. Rais particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of king Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
Gilles de Rais had inherited huge landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He then married a rich heiress, and that fortunate match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest land owners. With so much wealth and property at his disposal, Rais hung up his spurs, sword, and shield, and retired from the military in 1434. However, it soon became clear that while Rais had been extremely good at fighting and managing fighting men in combat, he was simply nowhere near as good at managing money. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king who, unlike Rais, had an entire country that he could tax in order to refill his coffers.
Alchemy, Satanism and True Nature
Within just one year of Rais’ retirement, he had managed to lose most of his lands. Indeed, he was so inept at managing money and his estates, that his family secured a decree from the French king, forbidding Rais from mortgaging what was left of his property. So to raise more cash, Rais fell in with some charlatans, who got him hooked on alchemy – the medieval version of the Nigerian Prince scam. Rais began sinking both his time and whatever money he could get a hold of, to invest in “research” that he was promised would lead to the discovery of a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. That was not the worst of it, however: another thing that Rais turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children.
In 1440, an increasingly erratic Rais de Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures. A hot headed aristocrat, hopped up on machismo and unused to having his wishes denied, Rais escalated things, until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, that unearthed some pretty horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the dozens. His standard operating procedure had been to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, before leading them to a bedroom where Rais and his accomplices would seize their victims.
A Grisly Truth
As he confessed in his subsequent trial, Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching his victims’ fear, when he explained just what it was that he had in store for them. What was in store for them was nothing good – but we can skip the gory details. Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothing would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After Gilles confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading