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Subject: ‘Myth’

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The poet Francois Villon was King of France for a day

Posted in Legend, Literature, Myth, Oddities, Royalty on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Francois Villon the vagabond King,  picture, image, illustration
Francois Villon, the vagabond King

Did medieval Paris really have its own underworld monarch, the king of the beggars? Is it historically true that, for a joke, King Louis XI went so far as to make this arch-criminal king of France for twenty four hours? Was the beggar king a spare time poet, as well as a soldier of such ability that he saved his city from capture during his brief reign? Was there ever, in fact, a man behind the legend of the Vagabond King?

It was always a good story, and in one form or another it has cropped up again and again over the years. Books, plays, even an opera have been written round the cheerful 15th century crook who was supposed to have made the most of a royal whim. It always sounded too far-fetched a story to be true, and few scholars would have wasted their time over such an improbable tale if the Vagabond King had not possessed a name. Fortunately one crops up in all the stories: Francois Villon.

At least we know that this man was real enough. He was born in Paris in the year 1431, and became a Master of Arts at the university of that city, as well as finding fame as a poet whose work is one of the glories of France.

If this makes him sound an unlikely candidate for the title of the Vagabond King, it must be remembered that legends have an almost uncanny knack of proving themselves to be true.

Nevertheless, for four hundred years nobody read Villon outside his homeland, and it was not until half-way through the 19th century that a number of English poets began to translate his work, much of it written in medieval French slang. Suddenly people wanted to know more about this man whose words had the power to make 15th century Paris jump into focus like a film.

For a time, the Vagabond King story was widely believed. Then, as Villon’s works became more and more fashionable, historians began to wonder just how much of the strange tale was really true. The search for the Vagabond King had begun.

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The search for the ‘Abominable Snowman’ is not yet over

Posted in Adventure, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Myth, Superstition on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Yeti first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

The Abominable Snowman,  picture, image, illustration
The Abominable Snowman

Only desperate men would have been wandering among the high passes of the Himalayas in winter, but Slavomir Rawicz and his handful of gaunt companions comforted themselves with the thought that the Indian frontier and freedom could not be far away. The year was 1942, and the little group of Polish officers was nearing the end of one of the epic marches of World War II. One-time prisoners of the Russians, the Poles had broken out of their prison camp and had made their way across the pitiless wastes of Mongolia until they had reached the “Roof of the World” that lay between them and their goal. Suddenly Rawicz gave a warning signal. It was unbelievable in those desolate wastes, but there were two men ahead.

Men? The escapers started wide eyed. What kind of men stood more than seven feet tall? Or tramped naked through the snow and biting wind, their huge bodies covered with coarse hair? The watchers kept silent until the weird figures moved away. Later, when they reached their destination, they recounted what they had seen.

“Those were not men,” they were told. “Those were Yeti.”

“Yeti?” Strangers to the East, the Poles had never heard the name before. Nor could they know that they may well have seen the fabled creature that some of the finest mountaineers in the world would soon be tracking in vain.

Some called the creature the Yeti. Others, the Abominable Snowman. Or Kangmi, or Bhanjakris or Rakshi. The monster had many names. But, legend apart, did it really exist?

The long quest for the Yeti has much in common with the search for Flying Saucers. A terrifying, hairy giant, whose favourite haunts are the slopes of Mount Everest, the Yeti is reputed to have been seen by scores of men, ranging from the inhabitants of remote Buddhist monasteries to British army officers. But just like the elusive Flying Saucer, it manages to avoid direct scientific observation. Yet most descriptions of the Yeti follow roughly the same pattern, even in legends that go back hundreds of years.

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The legend of King Arthur and his fabled Camelot

Posted in Archaeology, Castles, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Royalty on Friday, 7 March 2014

This edited article about King Arthur first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 585 published on 31 March 1973.

Arthur and Excalibur
Arthur takes Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake by James E McConnell

“Then there was a great battle, and King Arthur slew many with his sword, Excalibur. By dusk the enemy had fled, and the king led his Knights of the Round Table in triumph back to Camelot . . . .”

So for years the hero-king has ridden through the story books, ruling with the help of a band of fearless knights pledged to the task of keeping the peace and seeing justice done. But was there ever such a man? And if he is fact, not fiction, when did he reign? And where was Camelot?

The search for Arthur and his Camelot has been keeping historians busy for the last hundred years, although only recently has the pace quickened to a full scale exercise in historical detection.

At first, the doubters claimed it was easy to dismiss the whole story as a fairy tale. After all, the Knights of the Round Table all wore armour and spent their spare time jousting, which clearly set their period at around the 14th century. And whoever heard of a King Arthur the First living then? Equally suspect was the point that many of his knights’ adventures had been told and retold in France since earliest times with absolutely no mention of any English king and his castle at Camelot.

The facts certainly seemed to support the non-believers. The story of the Knights of the Round Table came to us from the pen of Sir Thomas Malory, a rather shadowy figure who died in 1471. His book was printed by Caxton 14 years later, and the great printer himself seems to have had his doubts, for he wrote in the preface “Sir Thomas Malorye did take out of certyne bookes of frensshe and reduced it to Englisshe.”

And if that was what Caxton believed, what was the point of trying to prove otherwise? Obviously, the good Sir Thomas had written one of the first best-sellers, a kind of medieval James Bond. And that was that.

After several hundred years scholars suddenly woke up to the fact that the name of Arthur and his followers kept cropping up in the most unlikely places. In the 11th century Black Book of Carmarthen, for instance. In the History of the Britons, compiled in the 9th century by the Celtic monk, Nennius, and in William of Malmsbury’s Acts of the English Kings. Someone even found a 12th century carving in an Italian church that showed Artus de Bretani (Arthur of Britain), Galvagnus (Gawain), Che (Kay) and others storming a castle where Mardoc, or Mordred, held Guenevere a prisoner. All of which dated back to long before Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur was written.

The evidence pointed to only one explanation: that although Malory had undoubtedly collected his stories from a number of sources and knitted them all together within the framework of the Round Table, the stories themselves were the products of ancient romancers. But the people in the stories were a different matter. Certain statements were repeated so often that it seemed probable that they had really lived.

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Sky Woman fell from heaven and became Earth Mother

Posted in America, Historical articles, Legend, Myth on Thursday, 13 February 2014

This edited article about American folk tales first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 551 published on 5 August 1972.

American folk tales,  picture, image, illustration
A montage of American folk characters showing the Sky Woman (right) being carried slowly to earth by water birds, by Richard Hook

The Indian tribes of North America were very rich in myths and legends. Many of these tribes had a legend which explained to them how the earth was made, how the rivers, the mountains, the deserts, the lakes, and the seas came to be. It then went on to explain the earth’s habitation by the living creatures – the trees, flowers, birds, the animals and then Man.

This legend varies in its telling from tribe to tribe, but the Sky Woman invariably plays a leading role. Our version of this story is that as told and handed down by the wise men and elders of the Seneca tribe.

Once there was no earth, just sea; a vast expanse of water only inhabited by the creatures suited to aquatic existence – the birds, animals and fishes of the great waters.

Above these waters was heaven; a heaven frequented by those birds and animals not of the sea and Man, living together in a paradise ruled by a great chief and lit by the beautiful fluorescent blossoms of the Tree of Light which stood at the door of the great chief’s lodge.

The Chief had a dream. He dreamed that he should marry. His bride-to-be was the most beautiful of all the maidens in the tribe. At first their marriage was a success, but as time went by the chief became jealous. So aware was he of his wife’s incredible beauty that he could not bear any of the young men of the tribe to gaze upon her. Soon his jealousy produced fits of blind rage and hatred.

Whilst in the grip of one such rage, the chief staggered from his lodge, rushed at the Tree of Light and tore its roots from the ground. The roots of the Tree of Light had grown right through the floor of heaven. By up-rooting the tree the chief made a gigantic hole. The light from the fallen tree now shone down for the first time on the watery world below. The chief forbade any of his tribe to go near the hole. He warned them of the perils awaiting them if they were to slip and tumble into the unknown depths. He promised them terrible punishments if he was to see any of them actually look down through the hole.

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The Colossus of Rhodes celebrated victory over Cyprus

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Famous battles, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History, Myth on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about the Colossus of Rhodes first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 543 published on 10 June 1972.

Colossus of Rhodes,  picture, image, illustration
The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

A giant bronze statue, one of the wonders of the ancient world, crashed to the ground in the harbour of Rhodes 200 years before the birth of Christ. Ever since, men have tried to unravel the mysteries of this exciting secret of the past

“The greatest statue conceived” is how it has been described. Yet no one alive in our world today has ever seen it.

The statue was the Colossus of Rhodes; an immense nude form which, according to those who saw it, was not merely the largest but the most perfect model of a human form ever fashioned by man. And the Greeks of old, in whose time it was made, were exacting critics in such matters.

Of this great statue nothing remains; there is nothing even to indicate where it stood. More than 200 years before the birth of Christ it fell to the ground. The bronze giant, accounted one of the seven wonders of the world, has now been entirely demolished – sold as scrap it is said.

So meagre are the reliable descriptions which have been handed down to us that it is difficult to visualise a reconstruction of this wonder. The Colossus was an immense statue of Helios, or Apollo as the Romans called him, the sun god and protecting deity of the Greek island of Rhodes.

It was designed by a sculptor called Chares and for 12 years, from 292 to 280 BC, he laboured at the task of its construction. It stood at the entrance to Rhodes harbour and in the year 224 BC it was brought toppling down by an earthquake. These are facts, beyond the range of controversy.

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The legendary Delphic Oracle simply ceased to prophecy

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Religion on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

This edited article about Greek mythology first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 522 published on 15 January 1972.

The Sibyl, picture, image, illustration
The Sibyl of Delphi by Roger Payne

If any one man in history were to be named the most bloodthirsty of all time, it would surely be Nero, the tyrant Emperor of Rome, whose lust for cruelty and evil knew no bounds. Roman citizens by the thousands died at his merest whim. Among them was his own mother, Agrippina.

It is said that, in 67 A.D., Nero decided to take a holiday in Greece, where he visited the famous Delphic Oracle at the sacred shrine of Apollo. No sooner had he entered than the old priestess there pointed at him accusingly, her voice rising to a shriek.

“You dare to come here?” she screamed. “You outrage the god you seek. Go away, killer of your mother! And if it was prophecy you sought, the number seventy-three marks the hour of your downfall!”

Nero’s fury overflowed. The priestess was buried alive for daring to speak to him in such a manner, and her temple attendants were murdered. The Emperor swept out, deriding the words he had heard.

As he was only thirty at the time, he was unworried by the thought that some calamity might overtake him in his seventy-third year. That was well into the future. If anything, the prophecy was reassuring to him.

But the following year Nero was dead, forced to commit suicide – and in his place came Galba, the next emperor.

The age of Galba was seventy-three. That was the number that had marked the downfall of history’s cruellest tyrant. So in a roundabout way it was proved that the Delphic Oracle had made yet another accurate prophecy.

Delphi was the most sacred place in Greece. Towering above it was Mount Parnassus in all its grandeur. Below, dark green olive groves surrounded the cliff on which the city stood.

In the days when Greece was great, monuments and treasures lined the Sacred Way which led to Apollo’s temple, all placed there to please the god and praise him for all his greatness or wisdom – and particularly to thank him for favourable prophecies.

The main attraction at Delphi for centuries was its Oracle, which looked into the future of anyone who sought its advice.

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Merlin – master magician of Arthurian legend

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Religion, Royalty, Superstition on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about Arthurian legend first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 520 published on 1 January 1972.

Merlin, picture, image, illustration
Merlin and the Lay of the Lake by Richard Hook

Barbarians were hammering at the gates of Rome, and the mighty Empire was collapsing in disarray. Hastily and frantically, the once powerful legions were recalled from far-flung outposts to defend their motherland in a bitter fight to save and restore the glory that had once been Rome.

It was round about 400 A.D. when they let loose their grip on Britain, abandoning the culture they had imposed on most of the island for about four hundred years. At the same time, raiders from across the North Sea were already steering a course that was to unleash brutal havoc on the confused country.

A period of darkness descended upon the land – and for several hundred years this Dark Age lay like a shroud over history, giving only occasional glimpses of the grim fighting, barbaric horrors and eerie mysteries of the time.

Among the more mysterious people in those distant days were the Druids – the strange priests of a cult that thrived among the Celts of ancient Gaul and Britain.

Since the beginnings of their history – which were long, long before any Roman set foot in Britain – they had exerted a strong and mystic influence over their followers Scholars, early scientists, men of medicine, extraordinary astrologers and astronomers who held the secret keys to all religious rituals and doctrines, the Druids were said to be masters of one of the world’s oldest religions.

Understandably they were called magicians and wizards, and there is little doubt they displayed powers that would mystify us even today. But of all their mysteries, one was more commonplace than any. Since the start of their history, most Druids were renowned for what was called An-da-shealladh – the two sights – the ability to see into the future.

Most famous of the Druids, and most uncanny prophet of them all, was one, Abrosius Merlin.

Merlin! His name must be known by millions, his reputation bound forever with that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

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The myths and legends of King Alfred are more potent than any facts

Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Royalty, War on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about King Arthur first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 515 published on 27 November 1971.

Alfred burns the cakes, picture, image, illustration
King Alfred the Great and the goatherd's famously burned cakes by Peter Jackson

What is fact and what is fancy about our ancestors is always arguable. Was there ever a Robin Hood? Did Canute really command the waves to stay? Who really was King Arthur? Legend and fact are entwined in our island story – and legend must always be treated with caution.

What should be said then, about a man whose legends have survived more than a thousand years? Can they all be the invention of wandering minstrels? These are questions that must be asked about the English king who stands out in popular memory more than any other who reigned in the jungle of England before the Norman Conquest.

Alfred the Great’s life story in the century of terror in which he lived is linked with vivid, human happenings. As a boy he and his three brothers were taught to blow the horn, to bend the bow and to hunt and hawk – these were the lessons that all Anglo-Saxon lads had to learn.

One day, we are told, young Alfred and his three brothers were shown an Anglo-Saxon poetry book by their mother. “He who can read it first can have it,” she said. In due time Alfred, the youngest, won the prize. It was the first step along the road that was to mark him out as a distinctive man among his fellows.

All of Alfred’s brothers briefly ruled Wessex, and all of them died before Alfred succeeded to the crown, which made him overlord of the other English kings. The kingdom, covering a large piece of southern England, was one of several that divided a land torn and ravaged by Danish invaders.

Every Spring these Viking hordes descended upon the coasts of the English kingdoms and scythed their way inland with incredible speed. Their ferocity knew no limits. They tore babies from Saxon mothers’ arms and tossed them on their spear points; they murdered monks at the altars of the abbeys, they took no prisoners except for torture before execution. Alfred had already seen them devastate his inheritance, had fought them with valour, and had witnessed the breakdown of his people into brutalised tribes under the Danish hammer.

For a king in such a society there was little time to wear the crown or enjoy the comfort of a palace. Alfred lived with his army, eating their common food, sleeping alongside his soldiers in the mud. In the year that he became king nine pitched and gory battles were fought with the invaders. While the Saxon resistance did not succeed in throwing the Vikings back into the sea, at least they decided to leave Alfred’s Wessex alone for a while and turned their attention to the kingdoms of Mercia in central England and Northumbria in the north.

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Was King Richard III traduced by Sir Thomas More and William Shakespeare?

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Myth, Royalty, Shakespeare on Thursday, 16 January 2014

This edited article about the Princes in the Tower first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 514 published on 20 November 1971.

Murder of the Princes, picture, image, illustration
The Murder of the Princes in the Tower by Sir James Tyrrell

The following notice appeared in the memorial column of the “New York Times” on a recent August. It read:

“Plantagenet – Richard, of York, Duke of Gloucester, King of England, who died 478 years ago today, the 22nd day of August in 1485, in battle at Bosworth Field, betrayed, slandered, his memory destroyed by the Tudors as was his body, a victim of malicious propaganda horrendously immortalised forever by W. Shakespeare . . .”

Stop! Wait!

These are strong words, indeed, to use about the memory of an English king. Strong – because the blunt facts about Richard III in the history books are quite clear. They tell us that he ruthlessly murdered the two sons of his brother, King Edward IV; Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York. Then, having seized the throne, he was killed fighting on Bosworth Field by the troops of Henry Tudor, afterwards Henry VII.

It was a fitting end, you might say, for a brutal and vicious child-murderer.

The city records of York, however, would disagree with you, and the history books. On learning of Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, the Mayor and Aldermen authorised this entry to be made in the records:

“This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered to the great heaviness of this city.”

Well! What really happened?

Let us glance back a moment over his life. From the first Richard’s was a success story. At the age of seventeen he had joined his elder brother Edward in the fight against the Lancastrians in the bitter closing stages of the Wars of the Roses. Before he was twenty he was the medieval equivalent of a brigadier, and a good soldier.

When Edward became King, he had already learned to trust Richard implicitly and it was to him that he gave the task of driving the Scots from the frontier town of Berwick, which had been a bone of contention between the two countries for many years.

At this time, too, Richard governed the North of England and did so well that he was loved by the whole countryside.

When Edward IV died in April 1483, Richard was the most popular man in England. By Royal Decree he had been appointed Lord Protector – a sure sign of the trust that his brother had placed in him.

So the Kingdom was in his hands until the young Edward, Prince of Wales was old enough to govern for himself. It was at this time, we are told, that Richard took the throne and murdered the Princes.

When Richard was crowned King the two boys were lodged in the Tower of London, which was then a Royal residence and not primarily a prison. And it was here, according to the Tudor historian Sir Thomas More, that they were murdered.

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The god of all the Greek gods was mighty Zeus

Posted in Ancient History, Legend, Myth, Religion on Saturday, 21 December 2013

This edited article about Greek mythology first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 500 published on 14 August 1971.

Zeus, picture, image, illustration
The statue of Zeus at Olympia

Zeus was chief of all the Greek gods; the Romans knew him as Jove or Jupiter. The course of all human affairs was directed by him, and his throne and the seat of the rest of the gods was on Mount Olympus. He was lord of the winds and rain and of thunder and lightning, and he is usually portrayed holding thunderbolts and with a crown of leaves. There are innumerable stories about him and his wife Hera, who was jealous of his interest in other goddesses and mortal women. Zeus knew everything and saw everything, and the Greeks regarded him as a kindly ruler who was often capable of pity as well as wrath. He was the god of the family, of friendship and the god-protector of all Greece.