Ten Discoveries of 2014 that Suggest there is Truth to Ancient Myths and Legends
Myths and legends have generally come to be viewed as work of fiction, superstition, or fantasy. However, many have theorized that myths were, in fact, a way for people to explain real—and perhaps perplexing—events using the knowledge and beliefs of their time. In support of this theory, a number of events described in mythology, which were once considered mere fairy tales, have now been proven through archaeology to have existed, or at least to have some basis in reality. Here we examine ten such myths, which may have some truth to them after all.
Mermaids have occupied our imagination for thousands of years, originating in ancient Assyria with the legend of goddess Atargatis, whose worship spread to Greece and Rome. In history, mermaids have been connected with hazardous events in European, African and Asian culture, including floods, storms, shipwrecks and drownings. Homer called them sirens in the Odyssey, who lured sailors to their deaths. They have been depicted in Etrurian sculptures, in Greek epics, and in bas-reliefs in Roman tombs. In 1493, Christopher Columbus even reported seeing mermaids on his voyage to the Caribbean. But could our concept of a mermaid actually have originated from a real medical disorder?
Sirenomelia, named after the mythical Greek sirens, and also known as ‘mermaid syndrome’, is a rare and fatal congenital malformation characterized by fusion of the lower limbs. The condition results in what looks like a single limb, resembling a fish tail, leading some to questioned whether ancient cases of the condition may have influenced legends of the past. It is known, for example, that ancient descriptions of sea monsters derived from sightings of real-life species such as whales, giant squid, and walruses, which were rarely seen and little understood at the time.
Whether or not the congenital condition may have influenced stories of women with fish-like tails will never really be known. Nevertheless, the likeness between the two has had one positive effect – it has helped children suffering from Sirenomelia to feel proud of their resemblance to the beautiful and mythical beings described in our ancient past and which has persisted through popular media to the modern-day.
Research published this year in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage suggests that an ancient Aboriginal love story written in the sky reveals the Aboriginals’ knowledge of variability in the star Betelgeuse, the ninth brightest star in the night sky and second brightest in the constellation of Orion. Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis, is a variable star whose magnitude varies between 0.2 and 1.2. This means that the star subtly brightens and fades over a period of about 400 days. The variation in Betelgeuse's brightness was believed to have been observed with a telescope in 1836 by Sir John Herschel, when he published his observations in Outlines of Astronomy. However, the recent study suggests the Australian Aboriginals knew of its variability long before this time, and that it was recorded in their ‘Dreamtime’ stories.
One story, now referred to as “The Orion Story” involves the stars making up the constellations of Orion and Taurus. According to the legend, the story tells how the constellation Orion (called ‘Nyeeruna’), which is often portrayed as a male hunter, chases after the Pleiades star cluster, usually portrayed as a group of seven sisters (‘Yugarila’). Standing between Nyeeruna (Orion) and Yugarilya (Pleiades cluster), is their eldest sister Kambugudha, represented by the Hyades star cluster. Kambugudha taunts Nyeeruna by standing before him. The club in Nyeeruna's right hand, which is the star Betelgeuse, fills with 'fire magic' ready to throw at Kambugudha. However, she defensively lifts her foot, which is the star Aldebaran and also full of fire magic, causing Nyeeruna great humiliation and putting out his fire. A detailed analysis of the complete story led researchers from the University of New South Wales to suggest that the reference to the ‘fire magic’ of Betelgeuse is an observation of the star in its bright phase, while reference to ‘putting out his fire’ is an observation of the fading of Betelgeuse.
In ancient Japanese folklore, the Kappa is a water demon that inhabits rivers and lakes and devours disobedient little children. While some believe the legend originated from sightings of the Japanese Giant Salamander, a species still alive today, others maintain that the myth, or at least part of it, is real and that an unusual set of mummified remains, showing a webbed hand and a foot, is proof that the Kappa exists. Now people have the opportunity to see for themselves as the unusual body parts went on display for the first time this year at the Miyakonojo Shimazu Residence on the island of Kyuushuu in Japan. The remains, which include a foot and an arm with hand attached, are said to have been given to the Miyakonijo Shimazu family after a Kappa was supposedly shot on a riverbank in 1818.