Ryan loves to read and review literature. He writes book reviews in his spare time.
Are Myths and Legends Based on Real Events?
Myths and legends tend to be based upon some figment of truth, hidden in the distant past, veiled by the shroud of years and the mutation of rumors. Otherwise, why would every major culture (save those that did not arise on flood plains, like Japan) possess their version of the myth of the Flood? It seems that it exists because, at some point in the past, a devastating flood did occur and entered into mythology.
Stories like this are the bedrock of L’Histoire des Mondes Imaginaires (The History of Imaginary Worlds), a French book by Michel Udiany, which explores a wide gamut of myths from European and Middle Eastern religion, mythology, and legends, and their relationships to reality.
These stories are individual and can be read on their own, but they do follow a roughly chronological order. So, generally one should read the stories as having a standard succession. Such stories are wide-ranging: the Flood, the land of Punt, the Odyssey, Troy, the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad, Irish monks and Phonecian soldiers who are speculated to have reached America, the Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Phonecian, and Persian voyages of exploration in Europe, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, etc. They are fascinating conjectures, regardless of whether they are truly attached to the real world or not.
Some of the voyages and the speculation about them heavily reminds one of 1421 by Gavin Menzies. This is not, unfortunately, a great compliment, since while 1421 is a fascinating conjecture and an interesting book, it notably overstretches its case of global Chinese exploratory voyages reaching the New World and is rightfully considered pseudoscience.
But l’Histoire des Mondes Imaginaires isn’t quite the same, since it is more in the business of speculating on the possible rather than insisting on its truth, and it does have an intriguing list of possible evidence. For instance, in the case of Irish monks and Phoenician soldiers speculated to have reached America:
- Brazil, of possible descendence from braz-ilha ("big island") in Gaelic, or "Brzl" in Phonecian, a word for iron.
- Descriptions of the voyages of Irish monks written in the 13th century that appear to include information that should have been unknown to Europeans of the time and yet match well the descriptions of the Caribbean, with coconuts, eternal tropical warmth, and grass or weeds in the sea which accords closely with the Saragossa sea.
- The word for the Antilles, Phonecian fragments in Brazil, or the tribes of White Indians found in North America—speaking a patois of local languages mixed with something else—perhaps Irish, like the monk hypothesis.
None of these provide conclusive proof, and all could have come about by flights of fancy or hoaxes, but they are nevertheless interesting possibilities.
The book is on firmer ground when it explores the myths of the Old World. At times, some myths are decisively rejected, such as the city of Ys, rumored to be lost beneath the waves, with various pieces of evidence for this Gaelic or Basque city in the Bay of Biscay—but which were only compiled into a cohesive myth in 1926 by Charles Guyot.
Irish, Breton, and Basque stories of sunken cities do exist, but Ys is a fabrication. Others are perhaps not full fabrications but were nevertheless in part designed to fulfill political objectives: the most notable of these is that of King Arthur, which gained prominence in the 12th century to bolster the prestige of the Norman-French kings of England by doing their best to link them to the Arthurian spirit.
Thus it includes a confused collection of myths from clearly different time periods:
- Christian themes which would not have been nearly as present in the religion of 5th and 6th century Britain.
- Stonehenge, built long before.
- A conquest of France, perhaps associated with the Roman general Maxime's conquest of Gaul in 383, as part of his scheme to take over the empire using Britain as his initial base, etc.
The Arthurian legend reflected real events or allegories of them, but it was tamed, and much effort was made to defang it of its rebellious tendencies by “finding” the tomb of Arthur to lay it to rest without the threat of a charismatic British leader who might one day arise to throw out the invader.
The legends of the Odyssey, Jason, and the real but myth-clouded voyage of Pytheas are brilliantly analyzed. Udiany, the author, shows that these were based on real geographic knowledge and trade routes at the time but carefully obscured so that valuable, secret knowledge couldn’t be lost: the legends routinely recount the time spent in voyage or other navigational details and he explores what the meaning of some of the places visited could have been. And his look at Pytheas is a great description of an otherwise much-forgotten voyager.
Reading through the book, one gets little tidbits of knowledge that are fascinating, such as:
- How the Egyptian word for the Upper Nile, the south, has become, over time, our own word for the direction.
- The real and documented Persian or Carthaginian expeditions and explorations to the west or south of Africa.
- Roman merchant colonies in India, historical cities that really were drowned out by the ocean or floods.
You are sure to learn at least something from reading it. But much of it feels like pure conjecture, and it can be difficult to be certain which side one is reading—the historical truth or the speculation?
Furthermore, the book is entirely lacking in traditions and myths from the extra-European and Middle Eastern worlds. Of these, there are plenty of speculative lands and places imagined by these people, from the most fantastical, such as the Chinese belief in the gardens of the moon, to the most famous, such as Yetis, Sasquatch, the Australian Dreamtime and their sleeping gods, or a thousand and one other legends.
In an interconnected and globalized world, a comparison of these myths and legends would have been intriguing, although it is understandable that the line had to be drawn somewhere, and if so, why not the cultural boundaries of the Western and Abrahamic world?
An Intriguing Analysis
If a single word had to be picked to describe the book, it probably would be something like "intriguing" or "interesting." The stories could have been better wound together and put in a more clear framework—at times, it is hard to make out what the original myth or legend was amid a welter of detail about Roman exploration in Africa, for example. And, of course, it focuses on a relatively limited band of myths. But it has many excellent and intriguing explorations of diverse subjects. Sometimes it drags, but as a whole, it is a wide-ranging and original interpretation of the legends that our civilization is based on.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.