Selected Legendary Tales from West
Continued from the Previous Page
In the previous part, the author had illustrated how nearly eight hundred years of Islamic invaders and European (mainly British) colonial dominance over the Indian sub-continent during the last millennium led to systematic and irreversible destruction and loss of the Indian cultural and literary heritage. These alien rulers not only enslaved the sub-continent physically and materially but also tried to ruin it culturally and spiritually that also gave rise to a class of Indian, who tend to believe everything indigenous as inferior to everything from West. Consequently, the medieval era has not much to count upon but the Indian scriptures, texts and treaties from the ancient times have still remained priceless gems of the eternal knowledge and wisdom in the form Vedas, Upanishads, Shastras, Puranas, Epics, and other secular literature, including Subhashitas, Kavyas, Natakas, Alankaras, etc. There is no dearth of Indian legends, fables and folklores in these categories; however, for the brevity sake, only few were briefly illustrated.
In the current piece, the author proposes to illustrate few similar legends from the West, particularly Greek and Roman civilizations on similar analogy in the modern times. These civilizations almost concurrently and independently developed in the West and are believed to have their own quota of gods, demigods and other extraordinary supernatural beings along with the human race, including philosophers and scholars. For instance, on the pattern of Vedvyasa, Valmiki and Yagnavalkya, the Greeks and Romans had their Homer, Hesiod and Socrates, who not only propounded original philosophical thoughts but also created all time great epics like Iliad and Odyssey. Roman and Greek ancient literature have documented tales of many unforgettable mythological gods like Zeus along with many other lesser gods and goddesses, and characters like Minos, Oedipus, Heracles, Jason, Helen, Odysseus, Aeneas, and so on. However, only a few illustrative legendary tales are briefly undertaken from different periods and places for the current discussion.
1. Legends of Olympus
Mount Olympus is illustrated as the abode of the gods in Greek mythology, which was created after the Titanomachy - the epic battle between the younger gods, the Olympians and the older gods, the Titans. Following the battle, the Olympians were victors who then created own majestic home as Mount Olympus that remained invisible to human eyes by perennial clouds’ cover. Zeus was the king of gods, who as per convenience used to go out and return through a gate of clouds round the clock guarded by Horae, the goddess of the seasons. According to Greek mythology, twelve Olympian gods resided at Mount Olympus, including Zeus, his wife Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Artemis, Apollo, Demeter, Hester, Aphrodite, Hermes, Hephaestus and Ares. There is another legendary tale to glorify Zeus: The Olympus was attacked by the monster Typhon, who allegedly had fire-breathing 100-heads and in the ensuing war only Zeus, Athena and Dionysus could muster courage to face the monster, who was eventually defeated by Zeus using lightning bolts and extradited to Tartarus (a part of underworld).
In Greek mythology, Zeus is considered the mightiest god, who rides on eagle, carries thunderbolts, and holds aloft a pair of scales for ensuring balance and justice in the world. The story begins with a chaos having a gaping void full of darkness in the world. Then came Gaia, the goddess representing the earth and arena of life. Then followed Uranus, the starry sky, coming out of Gaia and becoming her lover. Two remain clanged together and produced children but they were all hideous and malformed: For instance, Hecantonchires had a hundred hands and Cyclopes had only one eye; so disgusted Uranus did not let them out of Gaia’s womb. Later, he had healthy and smart twelve Titans in Gaia’s womb, but feeling insecure, he didn’t allow even them to come out of the mother’s womb. Now, an exasperated Gaia gave the Titans a knife telling them to castrate their father but none obelized except Cronus, who cut off his genitals causing the sky (Uranus) and the earth (Gaia) to separate.
The blood spurted from the wound of Uranus and spilled into the ocean, and the waters became foamy. The goddess of love Aphrodite emerged from this foam whose son was winged Eros, capable of shooting arrows of desire among human beings. Cronus imprisoned his malformed two brothers, one with hundred arms Hecatoncheires and the other one-eyed Cyclops in the Tartarus, and declared himself as the head of Titans. He did this with a view to remove all ugliness and disorderliness, and in the process he organize the world in an orderly manner. Following the matrimonial alliances between various Titans, the sun, moon, dusk, dawn, rivers and streams etc. were created on the earth. However, when Cronus married Rhea, his mother Gaia foretold him that his children would dislodge him in same way as he did it to his father. So out of sheer insecurity and fear, Cronus started devouring their every child and thus terminated three daughters and two sons.
Consequently, when the sixth child was born, an incensed Rhea passed on the child to the forest nymphs, and presented a stone in place to Cronus, who simply swallowed without checking it and burped feeling now secure. This child was actually Zeus who grew up in secrecy, on the milk of the goat Amalthea. He was so strong that he broke one of Amalthea’s horns, which became the horn of plenty, or the cornucopia – the symbol of abundance and nourishment. When Amalthea died, Zeus made his shield, Aegis, from her hide. When Zeus became full grown adult, he resolved to rescue his siblings trapped in the tummy of Crotus. Accordingly, disguised as a cup-bearer, he offered his father a drink that made him vomit disgorging his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, and the sisters, Hestia, Demeter and Hera all alive. Together with siblings, Zeus waged a war against the father; thus, Cronus was defeated and locked away in Tartarus. The victorious Zeus now proclaimed self as the king and declared Mount Olympus his abode, and together with siblings, they came to be known as Olympians. Envious and led by Atlas, some Titans challenged the rule of Zeus and waged a war on Olympians, that came to be known as Titanomachy.
In this great battle, Olympians convincingly defeated Titans with the assistance of the thunderbolt fashioned by Cyclops for Zeus. The defeated Titans were vanquished to Tartarus and their leader Atlas punished to carry the burden of sky on his shoulders for eternity. Gaia, however, did not approve the way the Olympians treated the Titans, hence she created a terrifying monster called Typhon, a grisly monster with a hundred dragons' heads, to destroy Zeus. Terror-struck, many gods took the form of animals and ran away but Zeus fought with courage and valour, and defeated it. Subsequent more attempts by Gaia to subdue him were futile and he emerged as the undisputed master of the world. Thus, Zeus became overlord of the cosmos, ruling the sky and overseeing the earth using thunderbolt to discipline it as required. Of his two trusted brothers, Poseidon became the ruler of the sea and rivers and Hades of the underworld as lord of the dead. His three sisters Hestia, Demeter and Hera represented as goddesses of hearth, life-giving grain and household, respectively. The Olympians gods consumed ambrosia and nectar as food and drink, respectively.
2. The Legendary Tale of Lady Godiva
Western historians have often debated the legend of the Lady Godiva if she is a mythological character or there indeed was a lady of this name. However, the popular belief is that Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon noble woman and spouse of the ruler of Coventry, England. She was also known for her generosity towards the church, and other charitable causes. Contemporary texts have a mention of “Godgifu” (alias Godiva) as being one of the few female landowners in England in the 11th century without a description of her legendary naked horseback ride, which is ascribed by some to an English monk Roger of Wendover, known for exaggeration of the truth in his writings. Another legend of “Peeping Tom” attached with her story is also believed to have been added later sometime in the 16th century. The tale of Godiva was later popularized by the likes of Lord Tennyson, who wrote a famous poem called “Godiva” in 1840.
As the story goes, the Lady Godiva was an eleventh century noblewoman married to Leofric, the powerful Earl of Mercia and Lord of Coventry in England. Godiva was deeply pained by the ever growing and crippling taxes that her husband kept levying on the habitants of Coventry. She was a kind hearted and God-fearing lady; so, when her husband issued another heavy tax “Heregeld” (tax levied for maintaining an army) on the local people, Lady Godiva begged him to annul this oppressive tax. On her repeated insistence to stop the tax burden, her husband Leofric teasingly bantered that he would indeed lessen the tax burden if she rode naked on the horseback through the centre of town. Already committed to help the public by all means, Lady Godiva agreed on the condition that Leofric would indeed honour his words afterwards in letter and spirit. Accordingly, she stripped off her clothes, climbed on the horse back and galloped through the centre of town with only long flowing hair to cover her modesty.
However, before the commencement of her determined venture, she had passed on her words to the people of Coventry to remain indoors and not to come out or peek during the ride and run event. The public obelized, but one man, a tailor named Tom, could not resist his temptation to watch the woman without clothes and opened his window to get an eyeful. While this appears among the most famous instance of voyeurism in history, the legend also holds that on doing so the man became instantly blind. Ever since, the aphorism “Peeping Tom” was popularised in England. After finishing her nude drive on the horseback, Lady Godiva confronted her husband demanding to meet his promise and, true to his word, Leofric indeed reduced the people’s tax burden. While her association and generous contributions to the church was well known but the aforesaid event found a mention after almost two centuries of her death.
The historians in the West have remained divided about the tale of naked Lady Godiva riding the horseback through the middle of the town and have attempted to explain it in various ways. For instance, a more plausible rationale for the story recalls the custom in vogue at the time for the penitents to make a public procession in a sleeveless white garment similar to a slip today and one considered as the underwear. It suggests that Godiva might have actually paraded through mid-town as a penitent. Yet another preposition suggests that Lady Godiva's naked ride might actually refer to her passing through the streets without her jewellery, a symbol the upper-class in the ancient times. However, such versions to reconcile the facts with the legend do not have much weightage or relevance because the word naked is known only to mean "without any clothing" in the modern age.
3. The Myth of the Fountain of Youth
The legend of the Fountain of Youth in the many parts of the Western globe mentions about the existence of a water fountain having special rejuvenating powers with the traditional belief that by bathing in and drinking it, people acquired eternal youth. Alexander the Great was said to have experienced a healing “river of paradise” during his expedition of the conquest of the world in the fourth century BC, and subsequently similar legends were also reported in such locations as the Canary Islands, Japan, Polynesia and England. Even during the Middle Ages, some Europeans believed in the mythical king Prester John, who supposedly had a fountain of youth and a river of gold in his kingdom. All this perhaps represents people’s ardent yet unyielded desire for the miracle cures and magical waters.
Notwithstanding it, none is aware about the Youth Fountain’s exact location, and various Western explorers and adventurers have cited its location at different places such as American legendary tales claim it somewhere in Florida state while the European tales suggest its existence in Spain. The stories of this mythical water spring have been narrated in the West for the thousands of years, arguably with the earliest appearances in the illustrated accounts of an ancient Greek historian, Herodotus in 5th century BC and the “Alexander Romance” in 4th century AD, which is an account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great, many events and illustrations of which are considered fictional by the modern historians and scholars. It’s so because the exact author is unknown, the original historian is in the name of Alexander's court historian Callisthenes, who actually died before Alexander; hence could not have written full account of the latter’s life.
Tales of similar waters have also been circulating among the Caribbean people during the Age of Exploration (early 16th century), glorifying the restorative powers of the water fountain in the mythical land of Bimini. Rallying around the centuries’ old myths of such miraculous and rejuvenating water, several explorers and adventurers pursued exotic lands and locations to discover the said Fountain of Youth with magical properties or some other similar remedy to the aging, which supposedly could be a spring, water reservoir or even river stream, capable of reversing the aging process and cure sickness of people. The most prominent and popular story about the magical fountain relates to the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, first Governor of Puerto Rico, who supposedly travelled to Florida in 1513 in search of the Fountain of Youth.
Juan Ponce de León, popularly known as Ponce de León, was actually a Spanish explorer and conqueror, who is believed to have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. In lieu of his services, he had got royal permission to colonize San Juan Bautista (now Puerto Rico) in 1508, where he became first governor of the conquered island. As he was in good books of the Spanish king, he received another contract in 1512 to explore for settlement an island known as Bimini, where as per some accounts he was expected to find a miraculous spring or lake with healing powers during the expedition. According to some modern age historians, Ponce de León sailed in 1513 to the eastern coast of Florida and other places and later repeated his expedition again after eight years without a reference to the Fountain of Youth; instead, the main objective of his expeditions was to find new lands for settlement and spread of Christianity.
However, some historians linked Ponce de León with the Fountain of Youth after his death. For instance, Gonzalo Fernández, a Spanish colonialist, historian and writer, suggested in 1535 of Ponce de León seeking the fountain in order to cure his sexual impotence, though no credibility could be attached with this averment. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a Spanish shipwreck survivor living among the Native Americans of Florida for many years, also ridiculed Ponce de León suggesting that it was actually a cause for merriment that he sought out the Fountain of Youth. Though the legend of the Fountain of Youth has been kept alive linking it with the explorer and coloniser Ponce de León in Florida but without much cognisance or traction in remaining parts of the United States. It perhaps at best represent people’s age-old desire and curiosity to stay young and healthy through some magical treatment or cure and, in the process, whispers of the water spring or reservoir with miraculous powers of granting eternal youth have been circulating for millennia.
4. Atlantis – Fiction or Reality
The tale of Atlantis is another remarkable legend from the ancient time in the West. This island nation appears to be a fiction mentioned in an allegory on the hubris of nations in the Greek philosopher Plato's works “Timaeus and Critias”, in which it represents the antagonist naval power that besieged the ancient “Athens", another pseudo-historic embodiment of the philosopher’s ideal state in The Republic. In the story, Athens repels the attack of the mighty island kingdom Atlantis and its attempt to conquer the former, which failed on account of the orderly society of the Athenians. At the end, the story concludes with Atlantis falling out of favour with the deities and gets submerged into the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the Atlantis story being of minor importance in Plato's total work, it had a significant impact on the Greek literature.
The saga of Atlantis was narrated by Plato in 360 BC but the events relate to a period about 9,000 years before his time. In the narrative, it is shown as a powerful island populated by technologically advanced and prosperous people but the island was destroyed and submerged in the ocean after being defeated by Athens. Though Aristotle, another philosopher, polymath and student of Plato, held his teacher’s work as fictional but many other historians and scholars took Plato's story literally, with different hypotheses about the island’s potential location. While some believe that Atlantis was actually a metaphorical representation of Minoans, who according to some, were Europe’s first great civilization more than four millennia ago but others generally agree that Atlantis never actually existed, and yet another theory suggests that the island nation (Atlantis) was actually swallowed up by the Bermuda Triangle.
Notwithstanding above, the notion of Atlantic, the lost island as a utopian society has captured and captivated the attention of people in the categories of the dreamers, occultists and New Agers for centuries. Consequently, thousands of books, magazines and websites are devoted to it as a popular theme or topic, so much so that many people are even believed to have lost their fortunes, and even lives, looking for Atlantis. The island nation is often visualised as a peaceful utopian society in the current age, but Plato’s legend had described it differently. Kenneth Feder, a professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University in US, has described Atlantis in his work “Encyclopaedia of Dubious Archaeology” as a place not to be honoured or emulated at all. According to him, Atlantis was the embodiment of a materially wealthy, technologically advanced and militarily powerful, which was corrupted with its wealth, sophistication and might. Hence morally too, Plato’s Atlantis story glorifies the rival Athens rather than this sunken civilization.
Apparently, otherwise not so remarkable tale by Plato, the legend of Atlantis received remarkable attention and popularity on account of Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), a Congressman and amateur historian of US, who claimed in his book "The Antediluvian World," in 1882 that great civilizations and their advances in technology could be traced back to the sunken and long-last island nation narrated by Plato. Subsequently, Donnelly even allegedly went on to add his own visualized facts and illustrations to popularize Plato's story of Atlantis. Donnelly probably does this as his conviction in the concept of "diffusionism," that flourishes on the idea that all great civilizations can be traced back to a single source. It is, however, fairly established that the Atlantis merely served as a plot for the Plato’s stories because there is no other source or record anywhere in the world including ancient Greek literature that suggests about the existence of Atlantis.
Despite its fairly lucid fictional origin, many people have believed in the existence of Atlantis and stories associated with it over the centuries. Many proclaimed Atlantis experts have even suggested the location as the Atlantic Ocean, Antarctica, Caribbean, Turkey, Germany, Malta and so on, based on their own set of evidence and arguments. According to Plato’s own story, it lies in the Atlantic Ocean beyond "The pillars of Hercules" (i.e., the Straits of Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean). Yet remarkably no trace of Atlantis has ever been found in spite of modern techniques of oceanography and ocean floor mapping available for the decades now. Notwithstanding these facts, the allegorical theme of Atlantis had been used in the utopian works of many Renaissance writers, such as Francis Bacon's New Atlantis and Thomas More's Utopia. Plato's vague suggestion of the time of the events and several pseudoscientific speculations on the subject, has actually popularised Atlantis as supposed prehistoric advanced and lost civilization that continues to inspire contemporary fictional writings, including themes for the comic books and films.
5. The Legend of King Arthur
King Arthur is a legendary British eminent character believed to have origin during the dark ages of the medieval times, who valiantly defended Britain against the Saxon invaders during the late 5th and early 6th century. The stories of King Arthur are primarily comprised of the folklore and literary fiction, because the majority of the modern historians agree that he does not belong to the actual British history. Another reason for uncertainties about his existence is that his saga pertains to the dark ages of the European history. The dark age in the European history spans from about late 5th century to about 10th century, which was marked by repressiveness, lack of enlightenment or advanced knowledge, etc. among the Europeans. People also remember this period as dark age because the historians do not have much knowledge about this time.
According to his legendary tale, Arthur was fathered by another legendary king Uther Pendragon of sub-Roman Britain, who had used magical powers to sleep with his enemy Gorlois 's wife Lady Igraine in connivance with the wizard Merlin. Thus, according to one legend, Arthur was an illegitimate child though another version holds that he was conceived after Gorlois’s death and legitimated by king Uther's subsequent marriage to Lady Igraine. The Sub-Roman Britain is actually considered the period of late antiquity in Great Britain, covering the end of Roman rule towards the late 4th and early 5th centuries, and its aftermath into the 6th century. The young Arthur succeeded his father to the throne and married queen Guinevere. The 12th century texts narrate many tales of King Arthur’s chivalrous Knighthood and adventures, including mention of the king’s romantic liaison with half-sister Morgaine and the mystical island Avalon.
The Western historians and scholars have put forth several theories and concepts over the centuries about Arthur’s identity; while some maintain that he never ever existed and is, in fact, a fictional character but others hold him as true historical character. Similarly, tales surrounding Arthur also greatly varied and origin of the most such tales remained uncertain. There is also uncertainty about where and how his legends originated. The legend most probably originated either in Wales or in some other part of the northern Britain inhabited by the Brythonic-speaking Celts. However, he has been mostly highlighted as a knight and warrior of extraordinary potential and power associated with Camelot during 5th to 6th century successfully warding off the invading Saxons. Many authors have been associated with popularising his legend, including Geoffrey of Monmouth. He has also been a popular and famous subject of the Western literature, including the prose and poetry, drama, movies and television soaps.
As could be perceived from the current and previous parts of the “fables and legends” that civilizations have developed independently in various parts of the world with many common features, including rituals, customs and belief systems. In this regard, parallels could be derived among the Hindu, Greek and Roman Civilizations. For instance, the concept of three worlds was prevalent and popular in most mythologies. In the early Vedas of Hinduism, there is a mention of the earth, sky and the atmosphere in between. Then ancient Puranas and Epics talk about the earth (Bhu-loka), the abode of the gods (Swarga-loka) ruled by the king of Devas, Indra, and the subterranean realms of the nagas (Patala-loka). Same way, the Greek mythology too talks about the sky, earth and underworld (Patala-loka); in their scheme of things, Zeus (king of gods) rules the sky and oversees the earth, while Hades acts as lord of the underworld.
Many key Indian gods have similar nature and functions with the Greek gods. Similarly, in Roman mythology, god equivalent of Zeus is called Jupiter, Hades is comparable to Pluto and Poseidon to Neptune, and so on. In Greek mythology, the parts of cosmos are assigned to the Olympian gods but there is no god for the earth; instead, the female divinities like Gaia, Rhea and Demeter are symbolized with earth and its prosperity. In Hindu mythology, the earth itself is personified as goddess. The Mount Olympus of Greeks serves as the central axis of the world, same way as the Mount Meru or Mount Kailasa in Hinduism. Similar parallels could be derived between King Arthur and his knighthood in the West and legendary king Vikramaditya and his adventures in the East. If the quest for immortality and eternal youth compels even Devas in Hinduism to churn the ocean for Amrita (nectar of immortality), the magical waters of the Fountain of Youth represent Westerners quest for the youth and immortality.
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