Myths and legends are the cornerstones of civilizations. They are stories passed down from generation to generation as a way to share knowledge as well as impart important lessons of survival. Legends and myths helped mold the modern consciousness of man, but they are not always a good source of truth, merely a fictional account. However, there are some legends that hold grains of truth within their manifold layers.
10. Gold Mining Mountain Ants
This myth comes from The Histories of Herodotus. A passage found in his book talked of a place in the far eastern part of the Persian Empire, somewhere north of modern day India, that had a species of very large (smaller than dogs but bigger than foxes) and very furry ants. As the story goes, the place where these ants inhabit was a dry desert land. The ants lived underground and when they went topside their fur was covered in golden sand which was then quickly gathered by the locals.
Herodotus was widely known to have been very liberal with his facts; scholars of history in the past thousand or so years had largely considered most of his work as more fictional than anything, and so the story of the gold mining ants of Persia was relegated to the realms of myth. After all, who has ever seen hairy ants the size of poodles? Even Australia with its penchant for spawning bizarre and murderous animals could not claim to have such a spectacle.
Well, it turned out that Herodotus was right, sort of. The gold digging ants were not really ants but marmots, or groundhogs for most of us (woodchucks for Donald Duck fans). You see, Herodotus had a very atrocious grasp of Persian. When someone told him of the “ants” he took the Persian word for it literally; the Persian word for marmot literally means “mountain ant”. The place talked about in The Histories is in the Dansar Plain of Pakistan, near its North-West border with India, where the Minaro villagers had gathered gold from the sand dug out by the marmots since the time of the Persian Empire. Herodotus should have asked for an interpreter, for more than two thousand years people who read his book were picturing nightmarish images of hairy giant ants.
9. Native American Legends of a Great Flood
Like those from Ancient cultures across the Atlantic, the First People of America also have many stories of a great flood that engulfed the world. The Ojibwe Tribe, who lived around Lake Superior, for example, has a legend about a great flood that was caused by melting snow and ice. The story goes that a mouse nibbled away a bag that contained the sun’s heat thus releasing it to the world and it melted away the snow and ice. The flood that followed was so great that it washed away everything in its path. When the Europeans arrived in the New World and heard from the “savages” these legends they just dismissed it as mere poppycock.
Around the turn of the century, when the American Wild West became more tamed it made possible for scientists to explore and study what were once practically inaccessible or inhospitable territories. The geologists that pioneered the study of the new territories were bamboozled in finding bizarre landscapes that, like the scablands in Washington State, could not be properly explained by the accepted theories of the time. These geologists proposed that maybe the Indians were right all along. Further studies confirmed that there was indeed a Great Flood that happened around fifteen to thirteen thousand years ago. In fact there was not just a great flood, but several great floods that periodically hit most of the Americas when the ice dams, like that of Lake Missoula, were breached. The rushing wall of water caused by the breach reached hundreds of feet and engulfed everything on its path, and probably killing most inhabitants of the area.
8. The Legend of King Jasdhawal of Kanauj
In the north of India, somewhere in the state of Uttar Pradesh, there was a legend told for more than a thousand years of a king who was killed by an angry goddess. The king, Jasdhawal, was ecstatic when he learned of his wife’s pregnancy; he decided to go on a religious pilgrimage to thank the gods for giving him an heir. He brought along with him his pregnant wife and several hundred servants, dancers, hunters and whatnots – since kings always have a posse, obviously. To reach their destination they need to go through a high mountain pass. Unfortunately for them a goddess was having her beauty rest on that spot. When the pilgrims reached the mountain pass their noisy partying and their defiling of her mountain sanctuary irked the goddess. In her anger she threw a tantrum and rained down abnormally sized hailstones as big as cricket balls: thus, ended the reign of the king of Kanauj.
In 1942, a forest guard stumbled upon hundreds of skulls and bones on Lake Roopkund along with precious rings, glass beads, spears, and so on. Authorities were baffled as to what could have caused the death of around six hundred people. Many theories abound, from the abominable snowman to ambushed soldiers, and the mystery was never truly answered for over sixty years. A National Geographic expedition was conducted in 2004 to try and get some answers and when they carbon dated the bones they were astounded with the findings; they were more than a thousand years old, perfectly within the timeframe of King Jasdhawal’s reign. Further studies also revealed that the people died not by avalanche or murdering yeti, but of freakishly large hailstones that pummeled them to a pulp. All these findings led some scientist to consider that the legend of King Jasdhawal’s death may have more to it after all.
7. Bili Ape
Deep in the dark and wild jungles of the Congo sprung legends of big apes that hunt lions, catch fish, and even walk on their two feet; it all oddly sounds like a description of the Mangani apes in Tarzan. Could it perhaps be true? Do we have a species that comes to life from the fading pages of a novel?
The west first heard of the Bili Ape when a Belgian army officer in the late 1900s returned home bringing with him some gorilla skulls which were said to be taken near the town of Bili. The skulls intrigued scientists who thought that they may have come from a new subspecies of gorillas. Unfortunately, due to civil wars in the Congo, no western scientists had been able to conduct a more thorough study.
When the Congo situation stabilized in 2003 scientists quickly took advantage of it and launched an expedition to the Bili Jungle. What they discovered stunned them. They found apes that could simply be described as a cross between gorillas and chimpanzees. They showed behaviour that is similar to gorillas, but looked like giant chimpanzees. What is even more astounding is that they found evidence that may corroborate what the local legends say, that these apes hunt big cats – lions included. Scientists are now studying further if the Bili apes are just oversized chimpanzees that had the wacky idea to copy the behaviour of gorillas, or are a new subspecies altogether. Whatever they may arrive at, one thing is clear; if an ape uprising will come round to bite us I’ll stay clear of those Bili Apes.
6. City of Thonis
During the time of Odysseus there was said to be a city of such extraordinary wealth that the gods envied its splendour. The city was Thonis and legend say that it once sat on the mouth of the river Nile. Beautiful, rich, and powerful, it was the hub of commerce in the ancient world; even Helen and Paris were said to have visited the city when they were fleeing Menelaus, Helen’s angry husband. The city was said to have been swallowed by the waves and its riches lost forever.
For millennia people had considered the city of Thonis as just a legend, a cautionary tale of being too extravagant for their own good. In the year 2000 archaeologists had, after years of looking, discovered a sunken city on the mouth of the Nile. The team, after analysing the artefacts gleaned from the site, had concluded that it is the lost city of Thonis; confirming at long last the truth of what really happened to the lost city.
5. The Beginning of the Universe
All cultures have their own versions as to how the universe was formed. The Chinese believed that a cosmic egg was formed out of nothing and when it cracked open a god appeared and created the universe. The Greeks have their Orphic Egg. The Hindus believed just about the same thing. In fact, almost all the ancient cultures agree on one thing; that the universe started when a spherical shaped object (or thereabouts) appeared out of the blackness and from it spawned everything.
For some time scientists believed that the universe was not created out of nothing but was just there, end of story. As recently as the 1950s till the late 1960s most scientists still believed that the universe did not begin from something, thinking that the universe was eternal. But when modern equipments were made that helped see better the cosmos and make more accurate measurements, a slight hitch to the old concept appeared. It seems that the universe is expanding, what’s more, there appears to be an “echo” or imprint left behind from when the universe first came to be; such an observation could not be explained by the old concept of a stable universe.
Georges Lemaitre proposed a theory of the primeval atom, and it helped explain and clarify our modern understanding of the universe, in the following years many scientists had added their share in solidifying the concept. As of today, it is the most widely accepted (except for some hold over scientists and creationists) theory that explains how the universe began. The theory goes (yes, the Big Bang Theory), that at the beginning there was nothing but a single ball of everything, the primeval atom, a point where all the mass in the universe was concentrated. Then after some time the mass within the primeval atom decided that being jam-packed together is no longer cool, and decided to move away from the congested ball to look for a place of its own; thus the Big Bang.
Notice how the theory of the Big Bang comfortably fit with the ancient legends? An egg that opened up and revealed a god who made everything may well just be a poetic metaphor to explain in a more interesting and layman way something as scientifically complex as the beginning of everything.
4. Ebu gogo
The folks in the Indonesian island of Flores have a myth about small mischievous creatures that loved stealing food and kidnapping children. The creatures, called Ebu gogo by the locals, were described as being dwarfishly short with a hairy body and are very nimble. The Ebu gogo was long considered as purely mythical or merely an overly caricaturized description of a monkey, at best.
In 2003 the remains of a three feet tall individual was found in a cave in Flores, further diggings revealed partial skeletons of nine other individuals. Scientists called it Homo floresiensis, and it may be a species distinct from humans. Additional research still needs to be done on that regard, but for the time being we could comfortably say that the Ebu gogo did live, or as I call them – Homo hobbitsis.
3. Viking Sunstones
The Vikings were fabulous seafarers and invented some very sophisticated navigation techniques along the way. Legends talked about a stone that the Vikings use in finding their way even if the sun had already set or was clouded; they called it sunstones for it points to the position of the invisible sun.
Scientists, for some time, were looking into the possibility that sunstones really do exist for it would explain a great deal how the Vikings were able to achieve their marvelous feats in maritime exploration. In 2002 the scientists had their much sought after evidence to back the theory, an Icelandic calcite crystal was found in a 16th century wreck at the bottom of the English Channel. After the discovery, many more fragments of calcite crystals were found in ancient Viking burial sites. The scientists speculate that no whole sunstone crystal could be found in the burial sites because they may have shattered in the pyre since Viking custom dictates the cremation of their dead.
2. Hoan Kiem turtle
King Le Loi is one of the most revered heroes of Vietnam who was able to repel the occupying Chinese Empire from his country. The legend goes that King Le Loi was able to achieve this glorious feat with the aid of a golden turtle who gave him a magic sword. The legendary sword of Le Loi was said to grant him the strength of a hundred men, the Vietnamese version of Excalibur. One day, after the king had kicked the Chinese out of his country, he was away boating in a lake when out of the water came a giant turtle; the turtle grabbed hold of the magic sword and took it underwater with him and was lost forever. To commemorate the incident the king named the lake Ho Hoan Kiem “Lake of the Returned Sword.” For centuries the Lake was venerated by the Vietnamese as a holy site but the turtle was never seen again.
But then in 1967 a strange twist to the story appeared; a giant turtle measuring two meters (6.6 feet) long was caught at the lake by the Hanoi Food Company, regrettably the turtle died due to severe injuries caused by his captivity. Another giant turtle in the lake was sited multiple times in the following decades, prompting the government to make conservation measures to protect the turtle. Sadly, it seems the giant turtle is the only surviving specimen alive of its kind.
1. Turning Lead into Gold
The quest for eternal life and unimaginable wealth had captured the hearts and souls of men since time immemorial. Heck, countless religions have spawned with the promise of both in the hereafter. For minds inclined to more earthly pursuits they preferred to have wealth and long life in the here and now, that’s where the quest for turning lead into gold came in. For centuries many bright minds had dabbled in alchemy, the mystical precursor of modern day science; their goal was to unlock the secrets of life, the end result would be the making of a Philosophers Stone which has the power to create the Elixir of Life and change base metal into gold. Famous minds, like Tycho Brahe and Isaac Newton, had spent countless back breaking years in trying to discover the process that could make gold as easily as searching for porn in the internet, but to no avail.
Well, it turns out; the key to transmutation is pretty advanced physics, we are talking nuclear reactions and particle accelerations here people. In 1972, Soviet scientists in a secret Siberian research facility had found the lead shielding of an experimental nuclear reactor turned into gold. Don’t start celebrating yet, the gold was highly radioactive and would just decay back to common lead. The Americans did not want to be left in the dust by the Soviets; Glenn Seaborg enters the picture, and found a process called nuclear transmutation. He was successful in transmuting minute quantities of lead into gold. All these is well and good, but to achieve nuclear transmutation entails the artificial increase of neutron energy levels, which just means the cost of pumping that much energy to a neutron is prohibitive, especially since the produced gold is so small in quantity that it is hardly worth the effort. But hey, turning lead into gold, people!
Petros is the unclaimed and unwanted son of Poseidon. Half man-half god, his ultimate power is his ability to maintain a blog, which you can check out at petrosabsalon.wordpress.com.