It’s Atlantis. Everyone knows the basics: an advanced civilisation on a large island or small continent in the Atlantic Ocean, sunk beneath the ocean in a single day.
The Atlantis story originated in two works by Plato, the Critias and the Timaeus. These tell the story of Atlantis – created by the sons of Poseidon, ruled the world as an economic superpower, and finally destroyed by the gods of Olympus for its hubris.
Of course, so far as anyone can tell, Atlantis never truly existed. It was a myth, a parable regarding the dangers of arrogance and pride.
Legend has it that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born in a most unusual way: when Cronus led his fellow Titans in a rebellion against their father, Uranus, the final victory was achieved when the son castrated his father, and cast his genitals into the ocean (accounts vary as to whether this was offshore from Paphos in Cyprus or the island of Cythera). Aphrodite sprung fully formed and already an adult from the foaming waves of the wine dark sea.
Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus, and it was under this name that she became popular with later Europeans, notably as the subject of the painting “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, and numerous surviving sculptures, such as the Venus de Milo.
Jason was a little-known hero who, in order to win the throne of Iolcus (in Thessaly), recruited a mighty crew and set sail in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. They found it only with the assistance of the goddess Hera and the princess Medea, who betrayed her father and eloped with Jason and the Fleece. Jason made it safely home, claimed the throne and married Medea. This did not end well for either of them.
Jason’s crew was a who’s who of Ancient Greek heroes. It included Hercules, Theseus, Castor, Pollux, Laertes (father of Ulysses), Bellerophon, Iolaus, Nestor, Orpheus, Deucalion, Asclepius, Atalanta, Peleus (father of Achilles) and Autolycus. In fact, not counting the heroes of the Trojan War (who were mostly not yet born at this point), the only significant Greek hero not to participate was Oedipus.
While there actually was a real Lady Godiva – although, as a Saxon, her name was more likely Godgifu or Godgyfu (Godiva is a latinised version) – it’s unlikely that she actually did ride naked through the streets of Coventry.
Legend has it that she rode naked to protest the taxes that her husband, Lord Leofric, had laid upon the common people, and that, in respect for her sacrifice, all of them looked away as she rode through a busy market day street (except for a tailor named Thomas – the original Peeping Tom – who was apparently struck blind for daring to look upon her).
In these enlightened days, of course, no one believes a word of it – but Coventry’s tourist industry still owes a great deal to women who are willing to get their kit off and go for a ride. (Indeed, the date I’ve used here is the date of the annual commemoration of the ride in Coventry.)
It is a matter of some debate as to whether or not Betsy Ross actually created the first flag of the USA. While it is clear that she did create a design of her own which was widely used thereafter (the distinguishing feature of the Betsy Ross Flag is the arrangement of the 13 stars (or mullets, to use the heraldic term) in a circle). But the story of her creation of the flag seems to have been created from whole cloth a generation or so after the event, and there are enough loose threads in the story to make it clear that it is at least partially false (for example, Betsy Ross never met George Washington, and the records of Continental Congress show no committee to design a flag at that time).
The story of Betsy Ross seems to have been embroidered in order to address the lack of female representation in stories of the revolution, while still being an acceptably feminine role model (by the standards of the day) who would not threaten the nation’s social fabric. And for over a century, it had that role sewn up, appearing in history books as fact. It is only more recently that a generation of historians needled by the inconsistencies have cut truth from fiction.