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.
Gilgamesh is the title character of one of the oldest known literary works, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from approximately 2150 BCE. The most complete surviving version of the Epic was recorded on twelve clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal, a later Mesopotamian king.
Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk, an early Sumerian realm that encompassed what is now Kuwait and southern Iraq. His parentage was partially divine – he was two thirds god and one third man. As a result of this, he was abnormally strong and long-lived – some sources describe him as immortal. He seems to have been based on actual historical figure, and several details in the Epic appear to derive from historical figures who were his contemporaries. However, despite his reality, it is unlikely that he reigned for the 126 years attributed to him by Sumerian historians.
Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk for many years, but was not well-loved by his subjects, as he was an oppressive ruler, who insisted of the privilege of sleeping with the young women of the city on their wedding nights. The goddess Arura, seeking to humble Gilgamesh, created a man named Enkidu, who was his opposite in all ways: wild where he was civilised.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu became fast friends, and the two journeyed together from Uruk to the Cedar Forest, where they faced and slew Humbaba. Later, after the gods slew Enkidu, Gilgamesh pleaded for his return, and later journeyed to the underworld to rescue him. Gilgamesh prays to the gods to restore Enkidu’s life, and moved by his humility, they accede.
There are two Niobes in Greek Myth: one was the daughter of Tantalus, and a prideful mother whose children were slain by Apollo and Artemis. The other, less well-known, was the daughter of Phorenus, and the mother, by Zeus of Argus – for whom the city of Argos was named.
It should be noted also, that thus Argus was not any of the other figures in Greek Myth named either Argos or Argus – he was not the shipwright who built the Argo, nor the son of Jason and Medea named for that shipwright. Neither was he a legendarily faithful dog whose master was Odysseus, nor the hundred-eyed giant known as Argus Panoptes. He was just this guy, who happened to be the third king of Argos, and the first child Zeus had by a mortal woman. He would have lots of half-siblings, mostly posthumously.
By William Henry Goodyear, A History of Art: For Classes, Art-Students, and Tourists in Europe, A. S. Barnes & Company, New York, 1889. Page 158. Scanned by Dave Pape., Public Domain, Link
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When You Sleep — Cake
Europa was the daughter of the Phoenician King and Queen, Aegnor and Telephassa. But one day, she was kidnapped by Zeus, who had taken the form of a white bull, and carried off to Crete. Here, Zeus seduced her (accounts differ as to whether he was still in the form of a bull at the time). Europa became the first Queen of Crete, and bore three sons: Minos (her heir), Sarpedon and Rhadamanthis.
So myth tells us. The truth of the matter may never be known, but from what we know of Minoan culture (named for Europa’s son), the bull was an important part of it, featuring in their religious and cultural ceremonies. The myth seems than an attempt to rationalise curious aspects of Cretan culture by mainland Greeks.
Europa’s three sons, in the myth, all became kings, Minos in Crete, Sarpedon in Lycia and Rhadamanthus in Boetia. Europa herself gave her name to the entire continent of Europe. Myth is with us, always.
The Minotaur was not the son of king Minos of Crete, but no doubt he felt responsible for it – it was the child of his wife and a sacred bull of Posiedon (or possibly a god in the form of said sacred bull). But it was too dangerous to let roam free; too holy to kill. Minos, along with his advised Daedelus, devised a solution: they would imprison the creature in a maze, the original Labyrinth.
The question still remained of what to feed the beast. Fortunately, at around this time, Minos won a war with Athens, and as part of the terms of surrender, he required them to send a dozen Athenian youths each year – which he then deposited in the Labyrinth: meat for the beast. This plan could have gone on for ever, but a young Athenian of dubious morality and considerable political skills by the name of Theseus got in the way of it.
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.
One can’t help thinking that Leda knew more than she was telling. Legendarily one of the most beautiful women in ancient Greece, this queen of Sparta dallied with a swan (who, it turned out, was actually Zeus in disguise), and gave birth to perhaps the only woman to be more beautiful than her: Helen (later of Troy).
In fact, she gave birth to four children, two sets of twins. Half of them were mortal, the children of Tyndareus (her human husband), and half were half-divine, the children of Zeus. Which children are descended from which father is inconsistent across the various tellings of the myth, although a majority of versions record that Helen was half-divine (accounting for her legendary beauty).
At least, according to the calculations of Eratosthenes, it ended on this date.
You know the story: Paris and Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon, Hector and Achilles, Ulysses and a huge wooden horse. Ten years of war before the walls of Troy, ended finally by gambling on a deception.
In the end, the Greeks swept in, destroying the city and leaving very few survivors. Legend holds that some of them went to Carthage, and then to found Rome; another group of survivors founded London. Being descended from a Trojan was like the first millennium equivalent of being descended from convicts in Australia is today – it was thought cool.
Call him Odysseus or Ulysses, there’s never been any denying his cunning or his pride – and this particular incident in his legend displays both to full advantage.
It so happened that Ulysses’ ship was on course to pass by the island of sirens – horrible monsters who used their bewitching song to lure sailors to their deaths (they ate them, and not in the good way). Ulysses decided that he wanted to be the first man to hear their song and live.
This is how he did it: he commanded his men to tie him to the mast, then to stop their ears with wax, and to neither remove the wax nor let him loose until such time as the island was out of sight. His plan worked to perfection, and he remains the only man to have heard the sirens sing and lived to tell the tale.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World (the original seven, now usually called the wonders of the Ancient World), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. Of all the Seven Wonders, they are one of the only two to be secular (along with the Lighthouse of Alexandria) and the only one to be famous as much for the living entities in it as its architecture.
One of the taller buildings in the world – at that time – the Hanging Gardens were like overgrown version of the classic Sumerian ziggurat. They were famous for their beauty, but as a royal preserve, they were more the kind of tourist attraction one gazes at longingly rather than actually walks through.
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.)
The Children’s Crusade is the name given to a variety of fictional and factual events which happened in 1212 that combine some or all of these elements: visions by a French or German boy; an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity; bands of children marching from various other European nations to Italy; and finally, the children being sold into slavery and failing entirely in their admittedly unlikely and quixotic mission.
It has become a byword for tragedy, waste, naivete and religious stupidity, although of course, since it was never officially sanctioned by Rome, the Catholic Church denies all responsibility for it.
The legends are very specific: in the year 1284, the town of Hamelin, in the in Lower Saxony region of Germany, was overrun with rats. Hordes of rats. One day, a piper claiming to be a rat-catcher appeared in the town. A deal was soon struck: he would play his pipes and draw the rates away, the townspeople would pay him handsomely.
The piper led the rats into the nearby Weser river, where they drowned. But then the townsfolk reneged on their part of the deal. This was decision-making roughly on a par with saying “oh, what a lovely wooden horse, let’s drag it into the middle of Troy.”
The piper returned on the feast day of Saints John and Paul. He played once more, and this time, he enchanted the children of the town. 130 children followed him, leaving behind only one or two (accounts vary). Accounts also disagree over what happened to the children – some say he drowned them like the rats, some say they were safely returned after he was paid several times his original price. So it’s six to five and pick ’em whether the Pied Piper was a mass murderer, or merely a staunch advocate of contract law.
William Tell – or, in the languages of his native Switzerland: Wilhelm Tell (German); Guillaume Tell (French); Guglielmo Tell (Italian); and Guglielm Tell (Romansh) – is a legendary figure, as much a symbol of Swiss resistance to tyrannical rulers as Robin Hood is a British one. Also, and I don’t know if you’ve heard this, both of them were also seriously badass archers.
Although the reasons why differ, the basics of the story remain the same: Tell shot an arrow right through an apple balanced on his own son’s head. In some versions, he was forced to do this, in others, he wagers his ability to make the shot. In either case, the tyrant on the other side of the story is a Vogt named Albrecht Gessler, who is an enormous dick even by folk tale standards. Which is why the second part of the story about Tell’s archery prowess features him killing the Vogt (again, accounts differ: with an arrow, or with a crossbow bolt), and leading a popular rebellion in Switzerland.
The rebellion, by the way, appears to have been real. The apple-shooting, less so – it’s a fairly common motif in European folk tales. And Tell himself? Did he exist or not? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. He’s more important as a symbol than as a man.
It’s not true to say that Sir Walter Raleigh – privateer, nobleman, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, soldier, sailor, explorer and unsuccessful quester for the fabled city of El Dorado – killed more men than cancer.
However, as the man generally credited with the introduction of tobacco products to England – where they became popular at court, thus guaranteeing their spread throughout the rest of the nation and rival European courts (fashion is a harsh mistress) – he should at least be thought of as one of cancer’s most able accessories before the fact.
It would be nice to say that he died of lung cancer, but actually, he was beheaded in what many believe to have been a political maneuver aimed at placating the Spanish (whom Raleigh had fought during the Armada incident and the related war), and something of a miscarriage of justice (since King James, Elizabeth’s successor, did not have much love for her former favourites).
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.