Hello, hello, everyone! How lovely it is for you to stop by today. I do hope you enjoy Ms. Craw's guest post about mythical places. I loved reading through the post!
As a one-time student of anthropology with a particular interest in archaeology, it was a delight to write this post about mythical places for No Bent Spines. Thank you for having me over.
Some of the greatest finds in archaeology have come about after studying, analyzing and scrutinizing cultural legends and myths for elements of truth. As an archaeology enthusiast, I love it when physical evidence can link us back to the truths within stories…especially ancient ones. What follows are seven examples of mythical places and short discussions about the archaeological finds associated with them. Let’s have some fun!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularly described Xanadu in his poem, Kublai Khan, as a stately pleasure dome, where every fantasy could be indulged. The ideas in his poem were unique for the early 1800s when it was published, but they didn’t spring forth from Coleridge’s imagination like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. He was inspired by writings based on the travel accounts of Venetian explorer Marco Polo.
Marco Polo recounted visiting Xanadu, also known as Shangdu, in 1275 AD. He said it was the summer home for a Mongol ruler. According to him, there was a grand marble palace at Xanadu. Some of the many rooms inside it were gilted with pure gold. Other rooms were lined with fine silks or expertly painted. Outside the palace were fountains, rivers, brooks, and beautiful meadows to wander and explore.
Marco Polo’s account of Xanadu sounded plausible, but skeptics doubt he ever made it into China during his travels. As more and more people came to believe his stories were based on hearsay, Xanadu lost its standing as a historical place and became more of a mythological idea.
Then in 1870 some ruins were discovered north of Beijing near the modern city of Duolun. They included remnants of temples, blocks of marble, and tiled artwork. After careful study, there was enough correlation between Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan’s summer palace and the layout of the ruins to suggest the site had once been the real Xanadu.
Most of the artifacts have gone missing since they were discovered. It is believed villagers began carrying them away to use in constructing their own houses. Today, all that is left of Xanadu is a grassy mound where a palace once stood…but we can say with relative certainty it did exist.
Ironically, Marco Polo gets the last laugh. Either he really did make it to China or his source of information was uncommonly reliable. Only he knows for sure.
According to folklore that extends back to a time before written record, a magical people once lived in great cities underneath the trees of Ireland. A group of those people were led by King Finvarra. King Finvarra was a pretty decent guy. He was a good listener and willing to grant favors to people so long as they agreed to assist him when he needed it. His biggest character flaw was a tendency to kidnap pretty human women. Something that was always getting him into trouble.
In legend, the entrance to Finvarra’s magical kingdom is located within the Knockma Woods of western Ireland. Recent archaeological excavations suggest that Knockma was occupied sporadically between 6000 and 7000 BC. During that time, ancient people were building passage tombs there, suggesting it was a significant ceremonial place.
Some believe that stories about the ancient people of the Knockma Woods were passed down orally through the centuries and that those stories serve as inspiration for some of the myths about King Finvarra and his people.
The City of Troy
Homer wrote about the battle of Troy in his epic poem the Iliad, but because he wrote it almost five hundred years after the battle supposedly took place, there has always been some debate about how much of Homer’s story is historical versus fictional.
Just for giggles, let’s do a speedy review of the battle of Troy.
The trouble all started around 1200 BC when King Menelaus invited his frenemy Priam, the King of Troy, over for dinner. Rather unwisely, Priam brought his son, Paris, along. Paris had issues with boundaries and when he took a liking to Helen, the King’s wife, he stowed her away in his luggage for the boat ride home to Troy. Not surprisingly, this infuriated King Menelaus…and the battle was on. The Greeks sailed to Troy and besieged the city. They didn’t make much progress against the Trojans, though, because the city was well fortified and King Priam had friends on the outside who would stir up trouble to draw the Greek forces away every now and then. After ten years of living in a tent outside the city walls, someone came up with a pretty farfetched idea. Let’s build a wood horse, he proposed. We’ll put some of our best fighters inside it, and then the rest of our army will pretend to sail away. When they see us go, those gullible Trojan’s will open the city gates and pull our wooden horse inside to celebrate victory. Then our fighters will jump out and kill them all. Though farfetched, the plan worked, and the Greeks burned the city of Troy to the ground.
By the mid-1800s, most people thought that if the city of Troy ever really existed, it would never be found. Then along came the wealthy German businessman, Heinrich Schliemann. He was obsessed with the myth of Troy and hunted down every clue he could find within the words of the Iliad. His work paid off, and believing he’d finally unlocked the mystery, he started an excavation in northwest Turkey. In 1869 he published his findings and asserted that he had found Homer’s city of Troy.
Today, Schliemann’s Level VII at Hissarlik is generally, but not conclusively, identified as the archaeological remains of the legendary city of Troy.
If you want to start an argument at a dinner party full of historians, all you have to do is bring up King Arthur Pendragon. Though the myths of King Arthur are colorful and rich, his historical existence has been the subject of debate and dispute for centuries.
The stories built around the myth of Arthur’s castle in Camelot are diverse but generally include a common set of elements. Camelot was Arthur’s capitol city. He married his wife, Guinevere, at a chapel within its walls and held court with his Knights of the Round Table there. Sometimes the city is described as pastoral, standing along a river, surrounded by plains and forests. Other times it’s described as an example of advanced engineering, built out of white marble that glistened in the sun.
What we can assume with some degree of confidence, is that Camelot, or the city that inspired it, would have been walled defensively. Arthur, or the man who inspired him, was a fighting guy who led the defense of Britain against Saxon invaders. It’s logical to think he would have made contingencies for a battle on his home turf. We can also assume the city would have been occupied for a period of time 400 and 600 AD.
Now here’s where it gets gloriously curious. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful account says Arthur’s capital city was Caerleon in Wales. Interestingly there are quite a few archaeological finds in Caerleon that correspond nicely to the legend of Camelot, including a still-visible Roman amphitheater, which has been associated with the round-table element of Arthur's tale. However, there is also record of a historical leader with characteristics similar to Arthur who lived near Shropshire, England. The remains of an ancient city and castle fitting the correct time period have been found near there too.
I won’t venture a guess as to which, if either, of the two cities is more likely to have inspired Camelot, but I’d sure like to visit both possibilities someday.
The Isle of Avalon
Avalon is the legendary island where King Arthur's sword Excalibur was made and where he was later taken to heal from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann. In some accounts, Avalon was the original home of Morgan le Faye, a healer, enchantress and the eldest of nine sisters with like abilities. She and Arthur may have been half-siblings, but they never really got along.
In Welsh, the “island of Avalon” translates to the “island of apples.” Somewhere around 1100 AD, Avalon became associated with Glastonbury of the abundance of apples that once grew there. Skeptics of the idea, pointed out that Glastonbury isn’t an island. Proponents argued that the land is raised and surrounded by marshes that flood. When flooded enough, Glastonbury would look a lot like an island.
Around 1190 AD, monks at Glastonbury Abbey conducted a survey of their grounds and found a massive treetrunk coffin and a lead cross. Inscribed on the cross were the words, "Here lies entombed the renowned King Arthur in the island of Avalon.” When they opened the coffin, they found two bodies, one female and one male. It was recorded that the bones of the male were gigantic. Not surprisingly, the Glastonbury monks gladly proclaimed they’d found the remains of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. In 1278, the remains were reburied with great ceremony.
Most historians today think the Glastonbury monk’s made up the story about finding Arthur and Guinevere’s bodies. They attributing it to a publicity stunt. I tend to agree with them. Yet it is still possible that Glastonbury served as inspiration for the isle of Avalon.
It was said the streets of El Dorado were paved with gold, and for more than two hundred years after the first recorded mention of it in 1535 AD, the myth continued to seduce European explorers. Greed and misguided attempts to find it, cost the lives of hundreds of people along the way.
The inspiration for the El Dorado myth seems so twisted that looking back at it would be laughable if the consequences hadn’t been so sad. When conquistadors heard whisperings of an El Dorado…or gold one, it was probably easier for them to visualize it as a place rather than as a person. Undoubtedly, the natives were happy to let them believe El Dorado was a place, hoping the Spanish would leave and look for it somewhere else.
In actuality, El Dorado seems a reference to rulers of the Muisca Empire and one of their initiation ceremonies. Each new ruler had to undergo a rather unique ritual wherein he was covered in honey and gold dust… becoming the gold one. Then he was loaded on a raft and sailed out onto Lake Guatavita. After a time, he would wash the gold off while his priests threw more gold and precious stones into the Lake.
Archaeologists have since found some remarkable artifacts at the bottom of Lake Guatavita in Columbia. Many of which are made of pure gold.
The Lost Island Of Atlantis
Fun fact…I wrote a book based loosely on the myth of Atlantis. It’s called Atlantis Rising. You should probably read it, because it’s a lot of fun.
Plato wrote that the island of Atlantis was ruled by ten kings who were Poseidon’s sons by a mortal mother, making them half human and half gods. The Atlantean people had an amazing grasp of science, architecture, seafaring and civil engineering. For a long time, they lived peacefully with a strong moral conscience. Then pride and greed crept in, turning them into an invading and warring civilization. Gathering a huge army together, the Atlanteans went to battle against the ancestors of the Athenians. By then, the gods had become angry with the people of Atlantis and helped the Athenians defeat them. When the Atlanteans returned home, the gods sunk their island in just a night and a day’s time.
For hundreds of years, people have wondered if Plato’s Atlantis was a real place. In the late eighteen hundreds, amateur archaeologists started to seriously speculate on its location. Their theories put it in places like Antarctica, Bolivia, Turkey, Germany, Malta and the Caribbean. One by one, these ideas were dismissed.
As a writer, I’m apt to believe that Plato took inspiration for the story of Atlantis from the retelling of a massive volcanic eruption that devastated the island of Santorini around 1500 BC. The eruption and tsunami that followed destroyed the Minoan city, Akrotiri. Archaeological evidence suggests the Minoan people had complicated systems of architecture, trade and seafaring. They are also thought to have enjoyed relative peace without much infighting between settlements. All of these elements are characteristic of Plato’s Atlantis. As is the volcanic eruption which destroyed Akrotiri.
Whether the island of Atlantis is still to be found, whether it was inspired by historical events or whether it is entirely fictional…it is a myth that continues to inspire imagination and some pretty good stories.
Release Date: 1/16/2015
What would you do to protect those you love? For Alison McKye, protecting her adoptive family means being as invisible as possible. To exist and yet never be noticed. It's the only way Alison can protect her family from who—and what—she is...
Alison isn't exactly human. She's a Dewing, an ancient race of beings with strange and powerful gifts.She has the ability to “push” thoughts into the minds of others, but her gift also makes her a target for those who desire her power for themselves.
There's a war brewing between the Dewing, and humans are caught in the middle. If Alison's gift falls into the wrong hands, there's no telling what might happen.
And if they're all terrified about who she is, wait until they see what she can really do...
Gloria Craw grew up reading and daydreaming in the desert southwest. She attended the University of Utah and graduated with a degree in Anthropology. These days, she lives near Seattle, Washington. She creates alternate realities, featuring suspense, the supernatural and a twining of romance. When she's not writing, she's fangirling over Arrow and Grimm. Sometimes Sleepy Hallow and Covert Affairs too. Twitter / Facebook / Website