The myths of the ancient world still inspire us today in literature and in pop culture. We tend to take it at face value that what history calls myth is nothing more than that. While there are those who firmly believe that every myth has a basis in reality, there’s little done to investigate that claim and prove whether it’s true or false. Sometimes it does happen that we come across evidence proving that an ancient story wasn’t just a flight of fancy by someone writing fiction.
10. Amazon Warriors
One of the most popular and enduring myths from all of Greek mythology is that of the Amazon warrior. In fact, the idea was so popular with modern sensibilities that the character Wonder Woman folded that mythology into her origin.
According to the tales this was a society of warrior women that lived in Asia minor, or modern day Turkey. They fought with a power and ferocity to rival any man. For years it was believed that these were just fanciful tales and the idea of an entire society of female warriors was all but absurd. How could they survive without men? How could they rival other armies in battle? Well, that’s something for anthropologists to work on since it turns out that the Amazon warrior women were absolutely real.
Archaeological evidence discovered in Russia indicates these warriors existed and were likely Scythian nomads. Researchers discovered a grave of four women warriors buried alongside their weapons in 2020. They range in age from perhaps 40 to 50 years, down to 12-years-old.
Prior to the actual bodies discovered, many modern historians believe that Amazons were metaphorical rather than literal. They were Persians, or even just stand-ins that were put in stories to make Greek warriors look better. And, as you might expect, others believed that they were invented by Greeks as a way to demonize women who did not follow what was considered the societal norms of the time.
Real Amazons roamed the areas from the Black Sea to Mongolia. They may have been among the tribes that the Great Wall of China was built to repel. Homer in “The Iliad” wrote the first myths about them and it’s likely there were also men in the tribes, and many of the myths were exaggerated and fictionalized, but they were clearly based in some fact.
9. The City of Troy
Troy was one of the most famous cities from Greek mythology and has been immortalized on film numerous times over the years. Everyone knows the story of the Trojan Horse, and how the great warrior Achilles fought Prince Hector of Troy and suffered that fatal ankle injury. The story has everything that makes a great myth, enough to make it seem like none of it could be true.
While the idea of the Trojan Horse is definitely a suspect one, and it’s unlikely any great warrior was all but immortal save for his ankle being vulnerable, Troy was a real place.
It was in the 19th century when German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of what he identified as the ancient city of Troy in modern day Hisarlik in Turkey. His methods were not as scientific as they could have been, as he chose to use dynamite for the excavation, which likely damaged a lot of historically significant artifacts.
The city of Hisarlik was identified as the location of the mythological Troy for thousands of years, but it was generally dismissed as being a city of the same name rather than the same city from Homer’s “The Iliad.” One of the problems in identifying it is that the city was routinely destroyed and then rebuilt on the ruins. There is evidence of at least 10 cities being built on the same site, which could have all been called Troy, but not necessarily have been the same Troy.
8. Giant Squid
Some of the hardest myths to take seriously are ones about monsters and giant beasts. Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and El Chupacabra are all likely very much rooted in the realm of fiction. One creature long thought to just be the fanciful imaginings of sailors that turned out to be the real deal, however, is the giant squid.
Giant squid can reach sizes of at least 33 feet and weigh over 400 pounds. The largest specimen discovered weighed nearly a ton and was 59 feet long. While stories of these creatures have existed for centuries, the first photographic evidence that they were real, living things didn’t exist until the year 2004.
Because of the depths at which they live, they’re rarely seen and because they’re the largest invertebrates on earth, stories of them were easy to dismiss before evidence was discovered. Any sailor who claimed to have seen a 60-foot-long, one ton squid would easily be dismissed as telling a tall tale.
Two years after Japanese researchers first photographed one of these beasts, a live specimen was caught and brought to the surface, though it was a relatively small specimen at 24 feet.
7. The City of Tenea
If you know the history and myths of Troy, you may also know the city of Tenea. Rumored to have been built by Trojan prisoners of war, Tenea was the place King Agamemnon allowed them to have as their own. Obviously if Troy’s existence was the stuff of legend, then the city built by its prisoners would be just as suspect. But archaeological evidence suggests that this place was also real.
Greek archaeologist Eleni Korka discovered the city which was famously mentioned in the story of Oedipus and others, in the Peloponnese region of Greece. Located between Corinth and Mycenae, it was a large and prosperous city that seemingly vanished without a trace.
Archaeologists had been hunting for the site since 1984. Locals had discovered a sarcophagus unlike any that had ever been discovered and the search was on. By 2010 Korka was working with police to stop smugglers who had been looting treasures from the area, which still hadn’t been narrowed down to a place that could be legally and properly excavated. The looted statues proved the city did exist somewhere though, and by 2013 she had permission to dig. Since that time numerous other sarcophagi, coins, roads, relics and more have been unearthed.
6. St. Francis of Assisi’s Bread Sack
The Friary of Folloni in Italy is home to a curious relic that no other church can lay claim to. According to legend, in the year 1224, St. Francis of Assisi sent them a bag of bread from France. It was hand-delivered by an angel. The cloth bag stayed in the friary for 700 years, reduced to little more than fragile scraps of cloth, and the story survived along with it.
The monks allowed researchers to analyze the fragments. Testing confirmed that the fragments date back to sometime between the years 1220 and 1295. There was also evidence of ergosterol on the fragments. Ergosterol is a kind of fungus that is known to grow on bread and it indicated that at some point in time there likely was bread in the bag as well.
Obviously there isn’t a test to determine whether an angel delivered the bag to the friary, and its provenance would also be impossible to nail down, but the timeline does check out, as does the nature of what it was. As for the rest, that may be a matter of faith.
5. The Seven Pagodas of Mahabalipuram
According to the myths of Mahabalipuram, there were six temples beneath the sea alongside a seventh, which had long existed and was declared a World Heritage site, on the shore of a city both large and beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that the gods grew jealous and sent a flood to destroy it all. It’s the kind of story that of course sounds like fiction. That was until a tsunami changed things.
In 2004, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused the coast to recede near Mahabalipuram temple in India, revealing the ruins of the legendary city. Whether it was a seaport or a temple was a matter for debate, but the most significant find right after the tsunami was a large stone lion that dated back to the 7th century. Ironically, it’s believed that a tsunami destroyed the site in the first place.
4. The Poukai/Haast’s Eagle
If you’ve never heard of the poukai you’re not alone. This New Zealand cryptid was said to be a giant bird capable of carrying a human being off and devouring it. Scary stuff when you think about it and definitely the kind of thing that you wish was not real. Unfortunately for some of our ancestors that looks like this creature very much was a real thing, and would have been extremely menacing to see swooping down from the skies.
Fossils of a creature called Haast’s Eagle found in 2009 show a bird that was around 40 pounds in weight with a wingspan of three meters. It’s believed that it would have preyed on large flightless birds like moas around 500 years ago, and likely would have been more than capable of picking up a small child in flying away with it.
Females of the species would have been twice as large as the largest eagles that exist today, and the giant talons were sharp enough and strong enough to pierce not only flesh and muscle but sink right into bones to lift prey from the ground.
Because New Zealand has no native land mammals, this bird would have been the top of the food chain and the most terrifying thing the locals had ever seen.
3. The Hittites
The Old Testament frequently mentions the Hittites and their conflicts with the Israelites. For many years their kingdom was one of the most powerful in all the Middle East. It’s said they were a military force to be reckoned with, they even had progressive laws and rights relative to the time, and their lands spanned over 600 miles from the Black Sea to Damascus.
Despite how powerful they seemed, this nation faded so thoroughly from history that by the 19th century most scholars believed their existence to be nothing more than myth due to the lack of historical reference outside of the Bible, and the lack of archaeological evidence.
In the year 1812, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was travelling through Syria and discovered some writings that didn’t match any hieroglyphs he recognized from anywhere else in the world. For the next several decades other explorers and researchers ventured to the same area and in the year 1880 someone finally declared with authority that what they discovered was the land of the biblical Hittites.
2. Viking Sunstones Can Really be Used to Navigate
Of the many remarkable legends of the Vikings that have survived to the modern day, one of the most interesting yet hard to believe is about how they navigated their boats. It was said that they had a magical stone known as a sunstone that could be used to navigate even in the stormiest weather with the sun nowhere in sight. The rock itself would show where the sun was and allow them to navigate accordingly. It sounds preposterous, but perhaps was not.
In the year 2013, a crystal was found in a shipwreck from a British vessel that sank in 1592. Not a Viking ship by any means, but the crystal gives credence to the Viking legend of the sunstone. The crystal was something known as Icelandic spar, which has the curious characteristic of rhombohedral calcite crystals. If that sounds like gibberish, what you need to know is that these crystals are able to refract light in a way that, when the crystal is aligned east to west it creates a single clear image within it. When it’s moved in another direction you get a fractured image. Even in low-light this is able to work, which would allow navigators to determine their heading east or west even when no sun was present.
1. Strengthening Weapons with Spirits of the Dead
There’s a lot of misinformation and bluster surrounding the history of the Vikings. But it’s safe to say that they were formidable warriors when they threw down, and they were feared by their enemies. How they went about achieving this reputation is more interesting than many realize, including the Vikings themselves.
It’s said that the Vikings would imbue their weapons with the spirits of the dead in order to make them stronger and more deadly in battle. On the surface, that sounds like utter fiction.
There is evidence throughout the region of ancient smiths used by the Vikings including bones of humans and animals. While on the surface you could say that forging a weapon in a fire made from the body of one of your victims was a way to put the spirit into the blade, in reality the practice was imbuing carbon into the iron while it was being forged. Essentially, this was creating one of the earliest forms of steel, which had been unknown at the time and would have been far superior to pure iron weapons.
Archaeological evidence suggests that smiths may have taken bones from burial mounds so that the strength of ancestors could be added to the blades. Their understanding of what was happening was not accurate, but the end result was the same: A much stronger blade.