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Subject: ‘Myth’

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The terrifying punishment of King Tantalus gave a new word to the world

Posted in Ancient History, Interesting Words, Language, Legend, Myth 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.

Tantalus, picture, image, illustration
The punishment of King Tantalus

Everyone has been tantalised in their time, including the man who was first to suffer – Tantalus! He was a king who had been invited to dinner with the gods on Mount Olympus, where he rashly stole their nectar and ambrosia. For this and other tactless crimes, including serving up his own son as a dish for the gods to test their divinity – he was put waist-deep in a lake with delicious fruit above him that he could never reach. And when he wanted to drink, the water always receded. Meanwhile, his son was returned to life by the gods and was exactly as before except for a portion of a shoulder that an absent-minded god had nibbled. It was replaced by ivory! Meanwhile his father went on being tantalised.

The beautiful Medusa’s looks were ruined by jealous Athene

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes and Heroines, Legend, Myth 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.

Perseus, picture, image, illustration
Perseus and the Medusa

Medusa was a beautiful maiden, famous for her hair, who loved Poseidon and, as a punishment, had her hair turned to serpents by Athene; her face was made so ugly that anyone who looked at her became stone. She was also given wings and brazen claws. She was the leader of the Gorgons, women who had suffered the same fate. A young hero named Perseus was sent to fetch Medusa’s head. Fortunately for him, the goddess Athene gave him a polished shield so he would only see Medusa’s reflection, and Hermes gave him a sickle and other aids, including winged sandals. He flew to the Gorgons’ lair and beheaded Medusa. From her body sprang the winged horse Pegasus and the warrior Chrysaor. Perseus escaped in an invisible helmet.

The eleventh of the Twelve Labours of Hercules

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes and Heroines, Legend, Myth 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.

Hercules, picture, image, illustration
Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides by Walter Crane

As a punishment for murder, the invincible hero Hercules was forced by the Oracle of Delphi to perform 12 labours. The 11th was to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides, which grew on Mt. Atlas, where Atlas himself held up the world. Accounts vary, but one has the hero persuading Atlas to fetch the apples while Hercules held up the world! When Atlas brought the three apples back he did not feel like resuming his burden! Hercules managed to trick him into taking the world back and escaped with the apples. Another version has him killing a dragon to get the apples. On the way home he killed a giant. For the record the Greeks called him Heracles, but Hercules is his better known Roman name.

Jason’s extraordinary voyage on the Argo to find the Golden Fleece

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes and Heroines, Legend, Myth 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.

Jason and Golden Fleece, picture, image, illustration
The Legend of the Golden Fleece by Roger Payne

Jason was the leader of an expedition which set out in a ship called the Argo to find the Golden Fleece. Among the Argonauts who accompanied him were Orpheus and Hercules. After many adventures they came to the Kingdom of Aeetes, who admitted he had the Fleece but refused to give it up unless Jason performed two dangerous tasks. Luckily for Jason, the King’s daughter Medea fell in love with him and, being a marvellous magician, helped him. So Jason and Medea reached the Fleece and he slew the ferocious dragon that guarded it and seized the trophy. Jason and Medea lived happily for ten years, but he fell in love with someone else, which is another legend!

The search for King Arthur and his legendary Camelot

Posted in Archaeology, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Royalty on Tuesday, 10 December 2013

This edited article about King Arthur first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 485 published on 1 May 1971.

King Arthur, picture, image, illustration
King Arthur by James E McConnell

The legends of King Arthur are familiar to most of us, and have been the basis for many stories. But how true are they? Here is one of the stories which has lasted down the years.

Six great battles stained the fair land of Britain – but in them all King Arthur had the victory and Britain lay at peace. The Saxons had fled, the Picts also, so Arthur said to Merlin his Wizard: “Now we must leave the mountains, for I will make my capital at Camelot which will be the finest city in all Christendom. In this city I shall live with a wife. It is right that a King should have a Queen and I have chosen Guinevere for she is the fairest of all maidens.”

“This is true,” Merlin replied sadly. “But I wish you had chosen another maid to be your wife for Guinevere’s very beauty will I fear, destroy your kingdom.”

Camelot was a fine city, yet finer still was the wedding between Arthur and Guinevere. When it was over, the King and all his knights entered the great hall that Merlin had built, there to feast and rejoice.

“What is this?” cried Arthur when he entered the door.

“This is the Round Table,” said Merlin, smiling. “See – it has seats for one hundred and fifty knights. Here you shall find the adventures that will fill your years – though I shall not stay to see them.”

The knights were puzzled, but they took their places and ate their fill. All of a sudden there was a clatter of hoofs and a baying of hounds as into that hall ran a white deer pursued by a small white dog. Thundering after came a pack of black hunting hounds.

Round and round the Table they sped until the small white dog knocked Sir Abelleus from his chair. Seizing the dog, the knight stormed from the hall in fury. Then the deer fled through the door followed by the black hounds, and disappeared into the woods. Hardly had they gone when a fair maiden entered.

“That white dog was mine, noble Arthur,” she cried. “One of your knights has stolen it!” Then another figure entered, a huge knight on a war-horse, who snatched up the woman and galloped into the forest after the hounds.

So began the First Quest for Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, as they set out in pursuit.

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Theseus asked to be sent as a sacrificial tribute to King Minos

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Monday, 9 December 2013

This edited article about Crete first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 483 published on 17 April 1971.

Theseus kills the Minotaur, picture, image, illustration
Theseus kills the Minotaur by Canova

History often lies hidden beneath layers of legend, and archaeologists have now discovered that many ancient tales are based on fact. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur hid the most dramatic secret of them all.

Deep beneath the palace of Knossos, where ruled mighty Minos king of Crete, lay a great maze called the Labyrinth. It was so huge, so complex that anyone who entered it at once became utterly lost. But no one ever starved to death in the Labyrinth – none survived long enough for that – for this maze was the home of a fearsome monster, half-man, half-bull, called the Minotaur.

Poseidon, God of the earthquakes and oceans, sent this monster to punish King Minos for his greed, and the only food it would eat was human flesh. So, every year, seven youths and seven maidens were dragged from Athens to be hurled one by one into the Labyrinth and there devoured by the Minotaur.

Athens was forced to send these victims as a tribute to Minos, who was the most powerful ruler in all Greece. Then one year Theseus, son of the King of Athens, determined to end this horrible sacrifice.

“Send me to Crete, O my father,” he insisted. After much argument, his father sadly agreed. The black-sailed ships sailed away with their cargo – but Theseus went cheerfully.

Once in Knossos, he soon won the love of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, and it was she who ran to old Daedalus, the builder of the Labyrinth.

“Daedalus, All Wise,” wept Ariadne. “How can I save young Theseus from the Minotaur?”

Old Daedalus thought a while, then replied, “He must unwind a ball of string as he goes into the maze. If the Gods allow him to escape the Minotaur, he will then be able to follow this string back to the entrance.” Truly, Daedalus was cunning and wise!

On the terrible day that Theseus was to be thrown into the Labyrinth, Ariadne gave him a sword which he hid beneath his shirt. Into the maze of twisting passages Theseus walked boldly, until he found the Minotaur. Long they fought and hard, but Theseus slew the Minotaur with Ariadne’s sharp sword and, gathering up the string, walked back to the gate where the fair princess awaited him.

This is part of the legend of Theseus. But is it only a legend? For hundreds of years, people thought it merely a tale with no truth in it. Long ago, St. Paul heard it and warned his friend Titus that “the Cretans are always liars.”

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Francisco Vazquez de Coronado sought the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Friday, 15 November 2013

This edited article about El Dorado first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 461 published on 14 November 1970.

Coronado in America, picture, image, illustration
Coronado and his men got as far north as Kansas, as far east as Texas and Oklahoma; they were the first to hunt buffalo, the first to gaze awe-struck at the Grand Canyon, and the first to discover the American West by Ron Embleton

To the Spaniards who had conquered Mexico and Peru nothing seemed impossible, and no story of fabulous treasure too far-fetched to be true. Had not Cortez and some 500 Conquistadors – Conquerors – toppled the mighty Aztec Empire? Had not Pizarro, with less than 200, conquered the Incas and looted unimaginable quantities of gold?

So when the news reached Mexico City that to the north were seven golden cities, the Seven Cities of Cibola, it was thrilling, but it came as no surprise. Men were searching for El Dorado in South America: why should there not be another in the north?

Rumours had started flying back in 1536 when some soldiers had come across a white man thickly bearded and with tangled hair, who wept with joy to see them. Though he had some Indians and an African with him, he had not seen another white man for eight years. He was called de Vaca.

Back in Mexico City he explained that he was a survivor of an expedition sent to conquer Florida and regaled everyone with details of his hair-raising adventures.

Treasure came into the story, but his listeners felt he was holding something back. The tough Conquistadors suspected he was anxious to pass information to the King personally, or, perhaps lead an expedition himself. He had entered Mexico from the north and they wanted to believe that in the north lay the richest prize of all.

The Viceroy, as deputy of the King of Spain, decided to send out a Franciscan friar named Marcos de Niza, on a pilot expedition north. The friar took with him de Vaca’s Negro companion, Estevan, and when he returned be brought electrifying news. He had seen the golden city of Cibola!

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The legendary Robin Hood was just a Yorkshire lad from Wakefield

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Friday, 15 November 2013

This edited article about Robin Hood first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 460 published on 7 November 1970.

Robin Hood, picture, image, illustration
Robin Hood with the Sheriff of Nottingham's soldiers in hot pursuit by John Millar Watt

The banqueting room of Nottingham town hall was packed with richly clothed nobles, tearing hunks of roast beef from enormous joints and swilling them down with gulps of wine from glittering silver cups.

At the head of the table sat the sheriff, a rich, powerful and cruel man. A servant banged a gong, and the sheriff rose unsteadily from his throne-like chair and cried out:

“Gentlemen, I give you a toast! To the downfall of Robin Hood, and God bless our Prince John.”

Suddenly, a door banged, followed by the noise of other doors and windows being opened and shut. A tall, handsome man, clothed in green and wearing a forester’s cap, leapt on to the table.

From the other doors and windows emerged a dozen similarly dressed followers, armed with swords or bows.

The sheriff sank back into his chair. “It’s Robin Hood,” he gasped.

The tall man in green smiled. “Turn out your pockets, gentlemen,” he ordered.

Few people have not at some time or other had this sort of image of Robin Hood, the celebrated outlaw of Sherwood Forest, who robbed the rich to give to the poor, who was the implacable enemy of Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

But did Robin Hood exist and, if so, was he as legend has portrayed him?

The evidence for Robin’s existence is meagre, to say the least. Most of what we know is derived from poems, ballads and plays. Throughout literature, however, there runs a slender thread of historical fact.

Beginning with the poetry, the earliest ballads mentioning Robin’s name were written in the North of England in the Middle Ages.

Additions to the legends were made over the next 200 years, some of which confused details of Robin’s career with those of Hereward the Wake and Sir William Wallace.

If the authenticity of Robin were to rest entirely on the literary references to him, it is easy to see why to some he never existed at all.

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The real Dick Whittington was the prosperous son of a Gloucestershire knight

Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, London, Myth on Thursday, 14 November 2013

This edited article about Dick Whittington originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 458 published on 24 October 1970.

The legendary Dick Whittington, picture, image, illustration
The legendary Dick Whittington and his Cat by Nadir Quinto

Of all the hundreds of men who have been Lord Mayor of London since this ancient office came into being in 1189, Richard Whittington is remembered above all others. Although his wealth was immense, and his good works many, he is remembered most of all as a character in pantomime legend.

In legend, Dick Whittington was a poor orphan boy who left his country village to seek his fortune in London, where he believed the streets were paved with gold. Of course, he found no gold lying around like stones, and he fell upon hard times, without a roof over his head, without a morsel of food in his stomach nor a penny in his pocket, and his only friend in the world was his cat. Tired and weary, he fell asleep on the doorstep of a large house where he was found by the owner, a wealthy merchant by the name of Fitzwarren. The kindly man took in Dick and his cat and gave him a job in his house as a kitchen hand.

It was hard work for Dick, but he was given food and a bed, although the cook bullied and ill-treated him all the time.

Then one day Mr. Fitzwarren was sending one of his ships to a distant land, laden with merchandise. Being a kind man he asked all his family and servants if they too would like to send something of their own in the ship, something that could earn them a profit. All eagerly accepted the offer, except poor Dick who had no possessions to send. Then Alice, Mr. Fitzwarren’s daughter, suggested that Dick send his cat.

So off went puss to foreign parts and Dick returned to ill-treatment in the kitchen. Whilst the cook was laying into Dick with her ladle, the cat arrived at a far distant eastern kingdom that was overrun with rats and mice. To the foreign ruler’s delight the cat rid his land of the vermin. The sultan gave the captain of the ship a huge reward to be delivered to the cat’s owner.

Meanwhile, poor Dick had taken as much beating as he could stand, packed up his miserable possessions in a handkerchief, and set off for home.

He travelled no farther than Highgate Hill, where he sat on a stone to rest. As he sat cooling his tired toes, distant Bow Bells peeled out, seeming to say:

“Turn again Whittington,
Thou worthy citizen!
Turn again Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!”

Dick shouldered his stick and turned back the way he came, arriving at Mr. Fitzwarren’s house to find his fortune awaiting him and also, now that he was suitably rich, Alice’s hand in marriage. Not being a greedy lad, Dick shared his good fortune with his friends and the poor and needy, and for these good deeds was made Lord Mayor of London.

The legend of Dick Whittington first appeared in 1605. It was supposedly based on the life of an earlier Lord Mayor.

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The search for El Dorado brought failure and death to Sir Walter Raleigh

Posted in Exploration, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth on Tuesday, 12 November 2013

This edited article about El Dorado originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 454 published on 26 September 1970.

El Dorado, picture, image, illustration
El Dorado, the golden man himself, on the shore of Lake Guatavita

Around Lake Guatavita, two miles up in the Colombian Andes, thousands of Indians were gathering to hail their new chief. Huge bonfires burned on the hills overlooking the lake, as the chief, surrounded by nobles and priests, was borne on a litter hung with golden discs to its shore.

The chief’s body had been anointed with resin and then covered all over with gold dust. He walked towards the lake, then, as the fires blazed up to the sky, and the vast throng threw gold and emeralds and other offerings into the lake, the Gilded Man – El Dorado in Spanish – plunged into the water.

When he emerged his golden load had gone. He stepped ashore, as the people hailed him as their new ruler.

This ceremony happened in the 15th century, or possibly some centuries before, and from it stems the whole fabulous story of El Dorado, the Gilded Man, who was later transformed in people’s imagination into a city of gold, and, finally, into a word meaning a dream country full of easy riches and happiness.

The very beginning of the story may have been when a meteorite fell at Guatavita several thousand years ago. The golden, fiery mass from the sky must have seemed like a golden god to the local Indians who saw it, and it was assumed that it was his spirit in Lake Guatavita, and this probably inspired the great ceremony.

In the early 15th century the first Spanish settlements sprang up along the Caribbean coast. The Gilded Man ceremony no longer took place, but the legend lingered on and the gold-hungry Spaniards became obsessed with it. By 1533, reports of the vast loot that Pizarro and his band of adventurers had gained in overthrowing the Inca Empire of Peru, was driving them to a frenzy of gold-fever. El Dorado stories grew wilder and wilder especially after the death-bed babblings of a Spaniard named Martinez who claimed he had been taken by natives to a golden city and met El Dorado himself.

Martinez also claimed that all the kitchen- and table-ware in El Dorado’s house were made of gold and silver, that the chief had a mock-garden in which every herb, flower and tree was golden. He related that he had been sent away bearing precious gifts, but hostile Indians attacked him and, apart from a few beads, he had lost the lot!

Whether Martinez had had feverish visions or was speaking the truth, his story did not seem so amazing to Spaniards who had seen something of the incredible wealth of the Incas, and their staggering workmanship in gold. The golden city, known as Omoa, or Manoa, became the central point in the whole legendary El Dorado story, and from the 1530s expeditions were continually searching for the Gilded Man in his Golden City.

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