Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Treasure Hunter that Found Unique Viking hoard to be Awarded £2 Million

Ancient Origins

Derek McLennan, a British metal detectorist who unearthed the richest collection of unique Viking artifacts ever found in the UK will receive an astonishing £2 million (US$2.6m) as a reward. The amount is ex gratia and has been set to reflect the market value of the find.

 Amateur Treasure Hunter About to Receive 2 Million Pounds for his Discovery
Derek McLennan discovered the 10th-century hoard in a Dumfries and Galloway field (one of 32 unitary council areas of Scotland) in 2014. The incredibly valuable treasure includes silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, a bird-shaped gold pin, an enameled Christian cross, and a Carolingian vessel filled with artifacts.

McLennan notified the authorities about his valuable finds and now, three years later, the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (the body that rules on ownerless goods and property), has ruled that the one-hundred unique items of the hoard should be held with National Museums Scotland (NMS) for public display, after offering ex gratia to McLennan, the enormous sum.

In contrast with the rest of the UK, where awards are split with the landowner, rules on discoveries in Scotland reward only the finder who receives the whole payment and now NMS has six months to raise the funds. Dr. Evelyn Silber, University of Glasgow’s honorary professorial research fellow in History of Art and Safap chair, told The Guardian, “The panel is grateful to the finder for reporting these stunning artefacts which include decorative glass beads, silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, a bird-shaped gold pin and a highly-decorated gilt vessel recognized as being one of only three known examples. These will now be preserved and put on display for the people of Scotland, and the world, to enjoy.”

The Carolingian vessel filled with artifacts. (Historic Environment Scotland)

 The Discovery of the Hoard
 But how did Derek McLennan end up discovering the richest Viking hoard in British history? Was it pure luck or did he knew something? As April Holloway reports in a 2014 Ancient Origins article, McLennan used a metal detector on Church of Scotland land when he picked up a signal indicating the presence of metal beneath the ground. He dug down some 24 inches (60cm) before finding the first item. As soon as Derek recovered the first arm-ring he realized the significance of his find and contacted the Scottish Treasure Trove Unit. They sent an experienced archaeologist, Andy Nicholson and the hoard was excavated properly.

What’s interesting, however, is that the Church of Scotland, which owns the land where the treasure was found, reached an agreement with McLennan back then about the equitable sharing of any proceeds that he would be awarded and now it’s unknown whether McLennan will honor this agreement with the Church of Scotland, or if he will claim the rules of Scotland as we already mentioned before, which rewards only the finder of the treasure.

Some of the treasures: A silver disk brooch decorated with intertwining snakes or serpents (Historic Scotland), a gold, bird-shaped object which may have been a decorative pin or a manuscript pointer (Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland), one of the many arm rings with a runic inscription (Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland), a large glass bead (Santiago Arribas Pena), and a hinged silver strap (Robert Clark, National Geographic / Historic Environment Scotland).

Hoard is of International Significance
David Harvie, the Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer, described the Galloway hoard as globally remarkable and one of the most important finds ever discovered in Scotland. “I am pleased to announce that I am minded to accept the recommendation of the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel [Safap] that these wonderful items be allocated to National Museums Scotland, subject to it meeting the ex gratia award which would then be payable to the finder,” he told The Guardian.

Dr. Gordon Rintoul, director of NMS, appears to be grateful in his statements as The Guardian reports, “The Galloway hoard is of outstanding international significance and we are absolutely delighted that QLTR has decided to allocate it to NMS. We now have six months to raise £1.98m to acquire this unique treasure for the nation and ensure it can be enjoyed by future generations both at home and abroad.”

Additionally, NMS stated that several other finds from the UK and Ireland have been remarkable as well, but the Galloway hoard offers an incredible variety of objects, revealing previously unknown relationships between European nations in the 10th century, a fact that opens new horizons of study and research on the matter.

Top image: Left: Large silver alloy Carolingian vessel, which was part of the hoard. Right: Derek McLennan, the finder of the treasure hoard. Photograph: Jamie Simpson

By Theodoros

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Does the Fierce Reputation of The Picts Reflect Reality?

Ancient Origins

It’s not that the Picts, a group of British Isle inhabitants, were that different from native Britons around the fourth century, a historian suggests in a new book. It’s just that Julius Caesar didn’t conquer them.

The often mischaracterized, always mysterious people could serve as a historical laboratory to explore how the island’s culture might have developed without Roman intervention.

 Although the Picts’ legacy stretches back centuries before that first encounter with Rome, the group entered the historical record as Roman forces began to push their empire’s frontiers into northern England.

Roman Occupation
By the fourth century AD, Romans typically referred to the fierce warriors who lived north of Hadrian’s Wall—Rome’s nearly 80-mile long defensive line in England—as the Picts.

Part of Hadrian's Wall running downhill from the northeast corner of Housestead’s Roman Fort. (Public Domain)

“The big myth is that the Picts were somehow different from the native Britons, the people that Julius Caesar met when he came over to England,” says Benjamin Hudson, professor of history and medieval studies at Penn State and author of The Picts (Wiley Blackwell 2014).

“They weren’t different—they were merely Britons that the Romans didn’t conquer.

 One of the many neglected aspects of Pictish society is what it can tell the historian—one of the questions we have about what happened after the Roman occupation of southern Britain is why the Britons reverted so quickly to the type of organization they had prior to the Romans. I

f you look at the Picts you find that the identity and the organization of the Picts is similar to southern Britain after the Romans left, but Roman writers weren’t interested in that part of history.”

 Warriors or Victims?
 Throughout history, the Picts have often suffered from the biases of the times, which led to the overgeneralization of their society. Roman historians portrayed the Picts as warriors and savages.

Hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman (a member of an ancient Celtic people from Scotland). De Bry’s engraving, “The True Picture of a Women Picte,” 1588 (Public Domain)

 The name Pict is a pejorative from a Latin term for picture. The Picts used body art, something that horrified and intimidated the invading Romans. More recent historians may have created an image of the Picts as helpless victims of progress and warfare.

The truth, according to Hudson, is probably much more nuanced.

As much as they are known for their body art, the Picts are also known for the variety and quantity of sculpture and artwork that they left, a proficiency that defies their early reputation as uncivilized warriors.

“They have almost as many monuments as does the area south of Hadrian’s Wall,” Hudson says. “Some of these are miniature on the Stonehenge model, standing stones. Some of them are in burial mounds made in concentric circles.”

Serpent Stone, Pictish monument engraved with symbolism Aberlemno, Scotland (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That is only one of the mysteries of Pict sculpture, however. The monuments are adorned with symbols that have yet to be translated.

“Despite claims to the contrary, nobody has yet come up with a translation of the Pictish symbols that satisfies everybody else,” Hudson says. “Are we looking at pictographs or are we looking at something from more of a Scandinavian context?”

The Scots, who eventually invaded the territory controlled by the Picts in the mid-ninth century AD, eventually absorbed the people into their own culture.

Detail from a frieze in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, Edinburgh. (

“The Picts didn’t go out with so much of a bang as they went out with a whimper,” Hudson says. “When the Scots King Kenneth McAlpin moved his troops from western Scotland to eastern Scotland, we find that he amalgamated the Pictish people he found there and suddenly they took on the name of their conquerors. For a time, they were called the Picts, and then Scot-Picts and then, eventually, just Scots.”

Source: Penn State University

The article ‘How The Picts Got Their Fierce Reputation’ by Matthew Swayne Penn State University was originally posted on Futurity and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

 Top Image: Saint Columba converting King Brude of the Picts to Christianity, Scottish National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017: A Day to Remember the sacrifices of our Armed Forces


Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States for remembering the people who died while serving in the country's armed forces. The holiday, which is currently observed every year on the last Monday of May, originated as Decoration Day after the American Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans founded in Decatur, Illinois, established it as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the Union war dead with flowers. By the 20th century, competing Union and Confederate holiday traditions, celebrated on different days, had merged, and Memorial Day eventually extended to honor all Americans who died while in the military service.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Featured Author - Mary Anne Yarde

Mary Anne Yarde
 Author of the best selling Du Lac Chronicles series. 

Born in Bath, England, Mary Anne Yarde grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury--the fabled Isle of Avalon--was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood. 

At nineteen, Yarde married her childhood sweetheart and began a bachelor of arts in history at Cardiff University, only to have her studies interrupted by the arrival of her first child. She would later return to higher education, studying equine science at Warwickshire College. Horses and history remain two of her major passions. 

Yarde keeps busy raising four children and helping run a successful family business. She has many skills but has never mastered cooking--so if you ever drop by, she (and her family) would appreciate some tasty treats or a meal out!

Five things you didn’t know about me!!

I am scared of heights.

 When I was seven, my school thought it would be fun if we dressed up as nursery rhyme characters for ‘Book Week.’ I dressed up as Mary Had A Little Lamb — I know, how original! I did however bring a real life lamb with me — no one else thought of doing that, did they?! It meant I spent the day in the school playing field, as the lamb was not allowed inside the school building. So if you ever want to get out of school, I recommend bringing a sheep with you, it works every time!

  I once slept in an aircraft hanger ~ don’t ask!

  I once slept on the floor of a convent ~ again, don’t ask!

  I got married at Gretna Green.


 The Du Lac Chronicles

 A generation after Arthur Pendragon ruled, Briton lies fragmented into warring kingdoms and principalities.

 Eighteen-year-old Alden du Lac ruled the tiny kingdom of Cerniw. Now he half-hangs from a wooden pole, his back lashed into a mass of bloody welts exposed to the cold of a cruel winter night. He’s to be executed come daybreak—should he survive that long.

 When Alden notices the shadowy figure approaching, he assumes death has come to end his pain. Instead, the daughter of his enemy, Cerdic of Wessex, frees and hides him, her motives unclear.

 Annis has loved Alden since his ill-fated marriage to her Saxon cousin—a marriage that ended in blood and guilt—and she would give anything to protect him. Annis’s rescue of Alden traps them between a brutal Saxon king and Alden’s remaining allies. Meanwhile, unknown forces are carefully manipulating the ruins of Arthur’s legacy.

Amazon US

The best-selling Du Lac Chronicles continues:

 War is coming to Saxon Briton.

 As one kingdom after another falls to the savage might of the High King, Cerdic of Wessex, only one family dares to stand up to him — The Du Lacs.

 Budic and Alden Du Lac are barely speaking to each other, and Merton is a mercenary, fighting for the highest bidder. If Wessex hears of the brothers’ discord, then all is lost.

 Fate brings Merton du Lac back to the ancestral lands of his forefathers, and he finds his country on the brink of civil war. But there is worse to come, for his father’s old enemy has infiltrated the court of Benwick. Now, more than ever, the Du Lac must come together to save the kingdom and themselves.

 Can old rivalries and resentments be overcome in time to stop a war?

 The Du Lac Devil is a standalone novel and has a recommend reading age of 16+

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Five things you didn’t know about the Caucasus

Situated on the border of Asia and Europe between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the Caucasus is shrouded in myth and mystery. In Sunday Feature: Caucasian Roots, Hughes examines the fables surrounding the Caucasus, and tests how far they are backed up by reality. She follows the trail of the Caucasus in antiquity from the Black Sea coast of Ancient Colchis to the shadow of Mount Ararat in Armenia. 

 Here, writing for History Extra, Hughes reveals five things you (probably) didn’t know about the Caucasus… 

 ‘White Caucasian’ 
 Every year millions of people around the world describe themselves as being ‘White Caucasian’. But why? 

 The answer is a combination of sexual fantasy and pseudo-science. In 1775 the anthropologist and passionate craniologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published the first draft of his thesis dividing the world in to five ‘varieties’: Mongolian, Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian and Caucasian. 

 He developed his findings from his own collection of 60 skulls, among which was the remains of a young Georgian woman [as in the American state] – the ‘Caucasian’ variety. Believing this skull to be ‘perfect’, and moved by tales of the 17th-century Huguenot travel-writer Sir John Chardin – who described Georgian women as being simply the most beautiful in the world – Blumenbach concluded that the Caucasus was the locus for the origin of white people. 

 We have been calling ourselves Caucasian ever since. 

 Dmanisi’s early man
 In a hilltop settlement close to the Armenian/Georgian border, excavations [details of which were fully published in 2013] uncovered the remains of five men and women of the homo erectus variety. Some standing under 3ft tall, these dated back 1.8 million years – making them the very oldest discovered outside Africa. 

 One male had been kept alive despite having a deformed jaw and no teeth – suggesting he was fed, and that these pre-humans operated guided by empathy. The group may well have been attacked and eaten by sabre-toothed tigers. Best-selling myths 

 Some of the most tenacious and popular myths from the ancient world are located in the Caucasus. This was said to be the home of Amazons, of Medea and her aunt Circe, where Jason adventured with his Argonauts and where Prometheus was chained to a rock for the crime of stealing fire from the gods. 

 Early and prodigious metalworking did take place in the region – perhaps sparking those tales of Prometheus meddling with fire and being bound to the Caucasian mountains with iron rivets. 

Drunk Noah 
 We’re told that Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Ararat (Marco Polo popularised this as being the Mount Ararat in modern-day Turkey, just across the border from Armenia), and that he came down to cultivate the land and to plant vines – from which he ‘became drunken’. 

 The region claims to be the first to have domesticated the vine. Certainly, winemaking equipment and residues, 8,000 years old, have recently been discovered in both Georgia and Armenia.  

Djabal al-Alsun 
 Mediaeval Arab geographers described this isthmus of land between the Black and the Caspian Seas as that “of many languages”. That tradition continues today – 40 languages are spoken in the region. 

Recently in the Areni cave the world’s oldest leather shoe was found – dating back to c3500 BC. Rather than being a ‘liminal’ and ‘remote’ place, as the Caucasus was often described by classical authors, the area has long been a crossroads and congruence of cultures.

 Circassian beauties 
 The idea of gorgeous, languorous women from a remote land promised good box office takings: PT Barnum ‘imported’ Caucasian women who, for a dime, would recount the tale of their capture and life in the Sultan’s Ottoman harem – and then liberation by one of PT Barnum’s agents. 

 Generally these were, in reality, young Irish girls who had their hair coiffured into ‘wild-woman’ bouffant hairstyles – reminiscent of the afro. The reason for this seems to have been a visual indicator of ‘slave’, and a cultural reference to the thick hair and sheepskin hats of native Caucasians. The false hairdos were held in place by a combination of beer and egg white. 

 The Circassians were in fact a tribe from North West Caucasus, but their name became interchangeable with Caucasian. Beauty treatments such as ‘The Bloom of Circassia’ lotion were bestsellers in Europe and the US throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

 Dr Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster – she is currently writing a new history of Istanbul. Visit to find out more.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pandora: The Tale of a Good Girl Gone Bad?

Ancient Origins

When Pandora opened her box, as the Ancient Greek myth goes, all manner of evil was released into the world - ending the Golden Age of man and forsaking them to a life of death and rebirth. Being the first woman created by the gods, she was sent as a punishment. This set a very negative precedent for the women that would succeed her, and this sexism remains in modern times. However, Pandora was not always despised as the bringer of evil. Originally, she was seen as a life-giving goddess much like the better-known goddesses Gaea, Athena, and Demeter. Over the years, Pandora went from a revered goddess to the root of all evil, later to be conflated with other religions and immortalized in art and myth.

Pandora’ by John William Waterhouse, 1896. (Public Domain)

Pandora Unleashes a Punishment for Mankind
The earliest written myth of Pandora comes from Hesiod in “Works and Days”, as well as his “Theogony” to a lesser extent. It is in these works that we see the first version of her as an ill-fated human that brought evil into the world. As the myth goes, she was the first woman created by the gods, Hephaestus and Athena at the request of Zeus. Zeus requested that she be made as a punishment to be unleashed on mankind, due to the transgressions of Prometheus, who had stolen fire from the gods and given it to man. Hephaestus molded her from the earth, just as man was created, but all of the gods gave her unique and seductive gifts - the translation of her name is “all-gifted.” 

When Pandora was delivered to mankind, she brought with her a pithos (an ancient Greek vessel), later misconstrued as a box, which contained disease, pain, and various other evils that were released to the world. However, once the box was opened and Pandora saw all the evils fly out of it, she attempted to replace the lid, leaving one thing behind - hope. Thus, ended the Golden Age of man and the Silver Age began, in which man was not subjected to death. With the introduction of women came birth, leading to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Prometheus creating man in the presence of Athena. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. (CC BY 2.5)

 Pandora the Demi-Goddess
Pandora is often accompanied by the epithet “Anesidora,” meaning “she who sends up gifts” which is a variation on Pandora meaning “all-gifted.” Similarly, some have suggested that Pandora’s name does not mean “all gifted” but rather “all-giving.”

The epithet “Anesidora” was more commonly applied to the goddesses Gaea and Demeter, implying that Pandora was akin to these great goddesses rather than the bringer of evil in the world. In classical scholarship, it is generally agreed that, for female deities in particular, it is common for initial deities to be broken down to form splintered, lesser versions. This happened with the so-called “Great Goddess” who would produce goddesses with more specialized functions such as: Gaea, Demeter, Persephone, Artemis, and Hecate. Pandora also appears to be a product of this splintering. It has been suggested, from documentation that is now lost to us, that originally Pandora was an embodiment of the fertility of the earth and its capacity to bear fruits for the benefit of mankind. While it is not in the written record, it can be seen in 5th century BC pottery and therefore scholars have been working with this medium to gain a greater understanding of Pandora prior to Hesiod.

Pandora was a beauty to behold and when he saw her, Epimetheus forgot all the warnings about accepting a gift from Zeus. ‘Pandora,’ Jules Joseph Lefebvre. (Public Domain)

Hesiod’s Socio-Political Role for Pandora
Over time, this image of Pandora as an all giving goddess devolved into the “all-gifted” version of herself that we all know today. A commentary on Hesiod’s works argues that Hesiod shows no awareness of the previous mythology surrounding Pandora in her role of a life-bringing goddess. However, other authorities on the subject argue quite the opposite, that Hesiod was aware of these previous myths and intentionally subverted them in favor of a more patriarchal view. In this sense, it is argued that the myth of Pandora is not a genuine myth but rather an anti-feminist fable of Hesiod’s own devising, that was used as a commentary on the culture that he lived in and that perpetuated his own biases.

It has also been suggested that Hesiod was aware of a shift in power in his time from matriarchy to patriarchy and this was his way of explaining the female fall from power. In later art, Pandora is seen as the anti-Athena, from opposite sides they reinforced the ideologies of the patriarchy and the highly gendered socio-political realities of 5th century BC Athens. Athena rose above her gender in order to defend it, whereas Pandora embodied the need for male control.

Pandora and Eve, Two First Ladies
 In her later role, as the source of all evil in the world, strong parallels can be drawn between Pandora and Eve in the Christian Book of Genesis. Each were the first woman in the world, and each played a major role in the world’s transition from a place of ease and bountiful life, to one of suffering and death.

The Fall of Man by Peter Paul Rubens. (Public Domain)

 In both stories the transition in the world is brought on as revenge for a transgression against divine law. Both women were given one prohibition to maintain their idyllic lives, and both were drawn to violate the prohibition - bringing evil and suffering into the world and ending the paradise they lived in, not only for themselves, but for all mankind. However, one major difference remains, Eve was created by God to help Adam, whereas Pandora was created as a punishment from the gods. Some believe that the stories of Eve and Pandora have been retold over the centuries to more closely resemble each other, and this may be why they seem so similar in the present day.

 Top Image: Pandora, lifting the lid of the ‘pithos’. By Nicolas Régnier Source: Public Domain

By Veronica Parkes

Cartwright, M. Pandora (online) Available at:

Atsma, A. J. 2011. Pandora (online) Available at:

Greek Mythology. 2015. The Myth of Pandora’s Box (online). Available at:

History. Greek Mythology (online). Available at:

Thursday, May 25, 2017

In Search of The Lost Testament of Alexander the Great: Excavating Homeric Heroes

Ancient Origins

The ancient city of Aegae in Greece, where the royal tombs are located, dates back to the 7th century BCE; it became Macedonia’s first capital after it was conglomerated from a collection of villages into a city in the 5th century BCE. Aegae was eventually supplanted by a new capital at Pella in the 4th century BCE but retained its status as the spiritual home and burial ground of the Macedonian kings. 

Aegae Becomes Lost to History
Both settlements were partially destroyed by Rome in 168 BCE following the Battle of Pydna when Macedonia was finally defeated, and a landslide which buried the older capital in the 1st century, after which it was uninhabited. The name ‘Aegae’ ceased to be used and its history was grazed over by goats and sheep and survived in oral legend only, while papyri and faded vellums told of a former city of kings. Only a nearby early Christian basilica built from the stones of the ancient ruins marked the forgotten location. In the 1920s, on what had once been the southeast side of the Macedonian royal palace, Greek refugees from the Euxine Pontus region of Asia Minor founded the village of Vergina, and the still unidentified fallen stones were used as masonry in the new houses.

 Supervised excavations at what turned out to be the founding city of the Argead (otherwise, Temenid) dynasty go back to the 1860s when a dig by French archaeologist, Léon Heuzey, sponsored by Napoleon III, revealed a Macedonian tomb next to the village of Palatitsia, ‘the small palaces’, a name that hinted tantalizingly at its former significance, though it was erroneously thought to be the site of the ancient city of Valla. In the 1930s, Konstantinos Romaios, a professor of archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, revealed a further tomb, but as Albert Olmstead’s above despondent summation affirms, as late as 1948 archaeologists still had not pinpointed the location of Aegae.

Royal Macedonian Burial Mound in Vergina. (Benjamin /CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Between 1958 and 1975 excavations in the area were extended by Georgios Bakalakis and Fotis Petsas, the antiquities curator (from 1955-1965). Professor Manolis Andronikos, a pupil of Romaios, eventually became convinced the so-called Great Tumulus, Megali Toumba, must house the tombs of the Macedonian kings. But it was the British historian, Nicholas Hammond, who first voiced the idea (in fact in 1968) that the ancient ruins lying between Vergina and Palatitsia (rather than those at the town of Edessa) were in fact the lost city of Aegae, a contention that was not immediately accepted.

The City of Kings is Found
After initial disappointment in 1977 when shafts were sunk through the center of the mound (where remains of a stoa and/or cenotaph tumulus might have nevertheless been found) with some 60,000 cubic feet (1699 cubic meters) of earth removed, and while preparing an access ramp on the southeast perimeter for works planned the following season, Andronikos stumbled across gold, literally: two royal tombs were finally revealed. Tombs I and II had originally been buried together under a single low tumulus with Tomb II at its center; Tomb III, close by, was discovered the following year. Andronikos was exposing what is now referred to as the ‘royal burial cluster of Philip II’, Alexander’s father.

A model of the tomb of Philip II. (CC by SA 3.0)

The precious articles found within suggested to Andronikos that in the ‘monumental death chamber’ of Tomb II, ‘laid on an elaborate gold and ivory deathbed wearing his precious golden oak wreath’ – which features 313 oak leaves and 68 acorns – King Philip II had been ‘surrendered, like a new Heracles, to the funeral pyre’. For the flesh-boned cremation (the evidence lies in the color, warping and minute forms of bone fractures) which took place soon after its occupant’s death (distinct from ‘dry-boned’ which takes place long after death when flesh has rotted away) revealed traces of gold droplets, a clue that the king was placed on the pyre wearing his crown. A more recent analysis suggests that in the holokautoma, the total incineration, his body was wrapped in an asbestos shroud to help separate the bones from the pyre debris.

Within the Great Tumulus of Aegae, Andronikos discovered some ‘forty-seven complete or nearly complete stelae’ [commemorative stone slabs] representing commoners’ graves dating back to the second half of the 4th century BCE. Since his death in 1992, the Eucleia and Cybele sanctuaries, the acropolis and vast necropolis with graves dating mostly to the Early Iron Age (1,000-700 BCE), and the northeast gate, have all been revealed, along with the royal palace, which is now considered to be the largest building in classical Greece. Occupying 41,259 square feet (3833 sq. m.), it is three times the size of the Athenian Parthenon. Archaeologists have unearthed the fortress walls, more cemeteries with more sanctuaries and over 1,000 identified graves in total, besides the burial clusters of royal women and earlier Temenid kings (clusters ‘B’ and ‘C’), including the Heuzey and Bella clusters closer to Palatitsia. All in all, some 500 tumuli have been exposed covering over 900 hectares between Vergina and Palatitsia and they reveal the extent of the ancient city, which, with its suburbs, covered some 6,500 hectares.

 The Death of Philip II
Having survived numerous battles, skirmishes, city sieges and hostile alliances against him, Philip’s death was sudden and unexpected. Intending to show the Greek world his impressive enhanced religious capital at Aegae with its revolutionary palace design that would have been visible from afar as visitors crossed the plains below, and when entering its older amphitheater at which the tragedies of the resident Euripides must have once been heard, Philip was stabbed at the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra, in 336 BCE. It was nothing short of a ‘spectacular, world-shaking event’. Unearthing in 1977 what is thought by many to be his tomb was no less dramatic and it has since been dubbed the ‘discovery of the century’.

A bust of Philip II of Macedon. (CC by SA 3.0)

Philip’s funeral had been overseen by a grief-stricken, or perhaps a quietly elated, king-in-the-waiting, Alexander the Great. His bones appear to have been washed in emulation of the rites described in Homer’s Iliad in which Achilles’ remains were similarly prepared before being steeped in wine and oil. After cremation, the bones were carefully collected and placed in the twenty-four-carat gold chest or larnax weighing 11 kilograms (24.25 lbs.), in a similar manner to the burial rites of Hector and Patroclus, and they were possibly covered in a soft purple cloth. However, the discovery of traces of the rare mineral huntite and Tyrian purple (porphyra) hint that Philip may in fact have been cremated in an elaborate funeral mask.

The gold larnax found in the main chamber, which contained the cremated bones. Image provided by with permission from David Grant, author of ‘In Search of the Lost Testament of Alexander the Great.'

The remains of bones and trappings of four horses have been found in what appears to have been a purifactory fire above the cornice. Along with two swords and a sarissa (pike), they were left to decay in a (now collapsed) mud brick structure above the tomb. Some scholars believe the remains include the mounts of Philip’s assassins and/or his famous chariot horses. Once again, this would have followed the funerary rites Homer described for Patroclus. The Macedonian burial tradition, clearly following a heroic template, may have influenced Plato when he was writing his Laws which outlined the ideal burial in an idealized state.

Grave Goods of a Warrior King
What are believed by some scholars to be Philip’s remarkable funerary possessions provide a testament to a warrior king: a sword in a scabbard and a short sword, six spears and pikes of different lengths, two pairs of greaves, a throat-protecting gorget besides the aforementioned ceremonial shield (‘completely unsuitable to ward off the blows of battle’, according to Andronikos), body armor and the impressive once-plumed iron helmet. The weaponry is representative of a soldier who fought in both the Macedonian cavalry and infantry regiments. In front of the sarcophagus in the main chamber were found the remains of a wooden couch decorated with five (of fourteen finally recovered) chryselephantine miniature relief figures thought (by some) to represent the family of Philip II.

Winthrop Lindsay Adams insightfully stated back in 1980 that the contents of the antechamber of Tomb II are ‘crucial to identification of the king in the main chamber’. And the contents are fascinating; they include a Scythian gold gorytos, the distinct two-part quiver that traditionally held arrows (seventy-four were found) often poison-tipped and unleashed by a compact powerful Scythian compound bow. This is suggestive of a warrior woman whose identity we probe further in the epilogue. The gorytos, along with the exquisite items retrieved from the main chamber of Tomb II, are now on display in the Archaeological Museum at Vergina; the gold wreaths and the diadem have been described as the most beautiful pieces of jewelry of the ancient world.

The Scythian gorytos (quiver) and a pair of ornate greaves were photographed as they were found lying in the antechamber. Image provided by with permission from David Grant, author of ‘In Search of the Lost Testament of Alexander the Great.'

 Unravelling Identities
Osteoarcheological studies on the bones of the two individuals from Tomb II, one of the longest and tallest of the chamber tombs at Aegae, have led to conflicting conclusions, as the press release made clear. But as Antikas’ 2014 report points out, the ‘…remains had been studied insufficiently and/or misinterpreted, causing debates among archaeologists and anthropologists for over three decades.’ Fortunately, the last thirty years have witnessed significant advances in bioarcheology. Working on behalf of the Aristotle University Vergina Excavation, Prof. Antikas explains that from 2009 to 2014 osteological and physiochemical analyses backed by CT and XRF scans (X-ray-computed tomography, scanning electron microscopy and X-ray fluorescence) have provided new theories regarding age, gender, paleopathology and morphological changes to the bones which are now catalogued by 4,500 photos.

Although the new investigations employed the latest tools in the science of physical anthropology that the earlier examinations of teams had not benefitted from in the 1980s, the technology has not yet put an end to the debate. In 2008, and prior to the highly scientific post-mortem by Antikas’ team in 2014, the Greek historian, Dr. Miltiades Hatzopoulos, summarized the background to the previous research: ‘The issue has been obscured by precipitate announcements, the quest for publicity, political agendas and petty rivalries...’ The summation sounds remarkably like the motives of the agenda-driven historians who gave us Alexander’s story.

Yet the Great Tumulus at Aegae, built from layers of clay, soil and rock, and thrown up by unknown hands laboring under a still-unnamed king, seems to have protected some of its finest secrets from historians and looters, both from the marauding Gauls and the invading Romans, who carted everything they could back to Italy following Macedonia’s defeat. No doubt there is much more still to be discovered; the recent excavations at the Kasta Hill polyandreion (communal tomb) at Amphipolis some 100 miles (160 km) from Vergina and the newly unearthed tombs at Pella and Katerini, remind us we have only unearthed a fragment of classical Macedonia, and, we suggest, no more than fragments of the story of Alexander himself.

This article is an extract from the newly-published book ‘In Search of the Lost Testament of Alexander the Great’ by David Grant. Visit

Top image: The entrance of Tomb II at of ancient Aegae, widely held to be the tomb of Philip II, Alexander’s father. Image provided by with permission from David Grant, author of ‘In Search of the Lost Testament of Alexander the Great.'

By David Grant

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Archaeologists Discover Paintings of Ancient Egypt in a 2,000-Year-Old Villa in Pompeii

Ancient Origins

A team of archaeologists have discovered impressive paintings of Ancient Egypt in a Roman villa in Pompeii. The portraits clearly show the vast influence the Egyptian culture had in early Roman society. Experts speculate that some of the paintings could possibly underscore an early form of Globalization.

 Drawings Show Strong Egyptian Influence on Early Rome Daily Mail reports that paintings portraying the River Nile were found in a beautiful garden in a luxurious ancient villa in Pompeii. Experts are optimistic that these paintings will reveal a lot of secrets on how the early Roman Empire was influenced by ancient Egypt.

Complex drawings from Casa dell'Efebo – one of the largest households in the city before it was severely damaged during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 – present a series of Nilotic murals with hippopotamuses, crocodiles, lotuses and short-statured men battling with vicious beasts.

Painting of a short-statured man fighting a beast (CC by SA 3.0)

Caitlin Barrett from the department of Classics at Cornell University claimed that the drawings give the house a cosmopolitan touch and outlines how the Romans were influenced by the ancient Egyptian culture such as religion. “The paintings from the Casa dell'Efebo were created after Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, but several generations after Augustus' initial conquest of Egypt. Some researchers have turned to explanations emphasizing religion: maybe paintings of Egyptian landscapes have to do with an interest in Egyptian gods,” she told IBTimes of UK. And added, “Others have interpreted these paintings as political statements: maybe this is about celebrating the conquest of Egypt. I suggest that instead of trying to apply a one-size-fits-all explanation, we should look at context and individual choices.”

Sexual Activity is Present Regardless the Political and Cultural Focus of the Paintings
It’s no secret that Pompeii was famous for its intense sexual life and wild parties. As a result of this lifestyle, many paintings discovered from that era are extremely graphic, including strong doses of excessive sexual content. Let’s not forget that when the city was rediscovered in 1599, the city became buried again (thanks to censorship) for nearly another 150 years before the king of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, ordered the proper excavation of the site during the late 1740s. As DHWTY reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, despite the erotic nature of these images, it has been suggested that they were merely an idealized version of sex. Thus, it has been postulated that the lives of the prostitutes at the most famed bordello in Pompeii, Lupanare, was far grimmer than the erotic images suggest. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the main theme of the recently discovered paintings is sex and alcohol consumption.

A fresco found within one of Pompeii’s brothels. Source: BigStockPhoto

Paintings Could Underscore a Form of Globalization
Despite the obvious themes of the paintings, Barrett also argues that they could underscore how the Romans interacted with the outside world; thus a form of globalization. The study, which was published in the American Journal of Archaeology, appears to share its views with Barrett’s suggestions and also proclaims that artifacts discovered around the garden of the household and the building’s elaborate architecture such as water installations mimic the diverse nature of the Roman Empire. Barrett stated as Daily Mail reports, “In this particular assemblage, rather than solely trying to make some kind of statement about Isiac rituals or Roman politics, the owner of this house seems to be asserting a cosmopolitan identity as a citizen of the Empire. In Pompeian houses at this time, when people are representing faraway lands in domestic art, they are also trying to figure out what it means to them to be participants in the Roman Empire.”

Representations of sexual activity, music and alcohol consumption are often central to these paintings (CC by SA 3.0)

The study adds that the paintings of the Nile in the Pompeian villa provided its owners with a unique chance to come in contact with shifting local and imperial Roman identities and to reproduce a microcosm of the world they lived in, “People sometimes imagine phenomena like globalization to be creations of the modern world. In fact, if you look at the Roman Empire there are lots of parallels for some of the cross-cultural interactions that are also very much part of our own contemporary world” the researcher of the study concludes at the end.

Top image: Painting of a scene around the River Nile in Egypt, found in Casa dell'Efebo (CC by SA 4.0)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Brown Windsor soup

History Extra

In every issue of BBC History Magazine, picture editor Sam Nott brings you a recipe from the past. In this article, Sam recreates a hearty meat soup that was popular in the 19th century.

 The origins of Brown Windsor soup are unclear. No one is quite sure where the recipe originates, but it is said to be have been one of Queen Victoria’s favourite soups, and was often served at palace banquets.

 The soup seems to have been viewed in a comedic light in the second half of the 20th century, and was featured in television and radio comedy shows such as Fawlty Towers and The Goon Show. But despite this (or maybe because of it) and because I am a big fan of robust, meaty soups and stews, I was intrigued to see what Brown Windsor soup would taste like.

 I have to admit, sadly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the result. Perhaps with some tweaks to the recipe (less butter – lamb is quite fatty as it is – more seasoning and lots more fresh herbs, like thyme) the dish would be a bit more exciting. As it is, it seemed like a lot of effort for something that tasted rather plain and a bit fatty – and that looked very brown!


• 2 tbsp butter
 • ¼ lb stewing beef
 • ¼ lb lamb steak or mutton
 • 4 cups of beef stock
 • 1 onion, sliced
 • 1 carrot, sliced
 • 1 parsnip, sliced
 • 2 tbsp flour
 • 1 bouquet garni (bunch of herbs)
 • Salt and pepper to taste
 • ¼ tsp chilli powder
 • ½ cup cooked rice (optional)
 • ¼ cup Madeira wine (optional)

Cut the lamb
 and beef into 1-inch cubes and roll in the flour.

 Place the butter in a large saucepan over a low- medium heat. Fry the meat off for three minutes and then add the rest of the flour. Fry for a minute longer until the butter and flour mix is a golden brown colour.

 Add the sliced vegetables and stir in the stock. Add the bouquet garni, partially cover the saucepan and simmer for two hours.

 Add the rice (if using). Stir in the Madeira wine (if using). Serve piping hot.

 Difficulty: 2/10

 Time: 2 hours, 15 mins

 Recipe based on This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Hobbyist Metal Detectorists Find Hoard of 3000-year-old Axes in Farmer's Field in Norway

Ancient Origins

Some 3,000 years ago, 24 axes were cached in Stjørdal municipality, about 44 km (27.3 miles) east of Trondheim. They're now seeing the light of day once again.

 In late April, a sensational discovery was made in a field in the village of Hegra, not far from the Trondheim International Airport in Værnes. Numerous axe heads, a knife blade and some fragments were lifted out of obscurity. The objects date back to the Late Bronze Age, approx. 1100-500 BC. 

Archaeologists from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) University Museum and Nord-Trøndelag County Council unearthed the findings with the help of with six private metal detector hobbyists from the area.

 Found with metal detectors
Brothers Joakim and Jørgen Korstad from Stjørdal municipality made the first discoveries on this field in January this year. They found nine socketed axes (also called Celts), a spearhead, a casting mould, and a fragment of a possible bronze lur. The metal detector hobbyists contacted county archaeologist Eirik Solheim, who says that the brothers did everything right in the process of informing him about the finds.

One of the axe-heads after it was dug up. Credit: Eirik Solheim Between the two searches, the Hegra find now consists of 30 Bronze Age artifacts.

 "The 24 axes are a particularly special part of this discovery. There have never been so many axes in a single deposit before in Norway, and they're rare in the Scandinavian context," says archaeologist and researcher Merete Moe Henriksen in NTNU's Department of Archaeology and Cultural History

Hidden or sacrificed?
Archaeologists call this kind of find a hoard, when they uncover objects that have been hidden away or buried in the ground. It is still too early to say why the axes and other objects were buried 3000 years ago.

"There may have been religious reasons linked to a sacrifice, or they might have been cached temporarily, with the intention of recasting the metal later. This was a known practice in the Late Iron Age," says Henriksen.

The whole hoard of 24 axe heads and 6 other Bronze Age articles (Credit: Thehistoryblog)

Stjørdal municipality is one of the areas in central Norway that has a concentration of ancient rock art and rock carvings. Solheim has wished for a museum to showcase the rock art of the area.

"We know that there's been a lot of activity in this area, but we've lacked artefacts. Now this shows up and it's infinitely more than we could have asked for. It's so spectacular and totally cool," he says.

Archaeologists hope to get in one more excavation of the Hegra field this fall. This would help them to better understand the context of the findings, which would hopefully reveal more about why the objects were cached.

Top Image: Some of the original 9 axe heads or “Celts’ plus the spearhead found by the Korstad brothers. Source: Jorgen Korstad

The article, originally titled ‘Three-thousand-year-old axes found in farmer’s field in mid-Norway’ was originally published on Science Daily.

Source: The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). "Three-thousand-year-old axes found in farmer's field in mid-Norway." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 May 2017.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hold Your Horses! Did Caligula Actually Make a Steed a Roman Consul?

Ancient Origins

When we think of the emperor Caligula, it is John Hurt’s wonderfully maniacal performance in the BBC TV series I, Claudius that usually comes to mind. Hurt dances in a gold bikini, sports a beard soaked with the blood of his progeny, and parades his favourite horse, clad in the toga of a consul, in front of shocked onlookers. He is the very model of a mad Roman emperor.

The story that Caligula made his favourite horse, Incitatus, a consul has long tickled our imaginations. The internet is awash with articles and blogs chewing over whether it is really true. The horse has even made it into the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: its definition for the name “Incitatus” reads “the name of Caligula’s horse, made a consul by the emperor”. Perhaps the greatest testament to Incitatus’ immortality, however, is the fact that he has his own Wikipedia page.

While the ancient evidence mentions a plan for making Incitatus consul, the repeated retelling of the story over centuries (in particular, as a snide way to suggest that a politician might be out of his or her depth) means we often forget that Caligula’s horse never actually sat in the senate at all.

Caligula and his horse. (Yo amo la Historia)

The Emperor’s Favorite Ass
The office of consul was the highest magistracy in the Roman Republic. Under the empire, the position still existed, though it was primarily an honorific office, which emperors used to reward loyal senators. On the subject of Caligula’s horse, the ancient sources are unambiguous in their testimony: he was not made a consul.

The biographer Suetonius does, however, report that the emperor lavished gifts upon Incitatus, equipping him with a marble stall, ivory manger, purple blankets, luxurious furniture, and his own slaves. At the climax of this passage, Suetonius writes:

 …it is also reported that he designated [Incitatus] to the consulship.

Another ancient source, the historian Cassius Dio, gives a slightly different version:

…and he even promised to designate [Incitatus] consul. And he would most certainly have done this, if he had lived longer.

The story therefore probably owes its origin to an off-hand remark made by Caligula that he would make Incitatus a consul (though he never followed through with it).

Although Caligula remarked that he would make his horse Incitatus a consul he never followed through with it. (Tvtropes/CC BY NC SA 3.0)

Why would Caligula say this? One of the most popular theories is that the emperor was criticising the consuls: they were such “asses” that he might as well include his horse in this elite group.

The name of the horse is particularly relevant here. “Incitatus” means “fast-moving”. The historian David Woods has ingeniously suggested that the name was intended to be an insult directed towards one particular consul, Asinius Celer, whose name means “swift ass”. A joke by Caligula the comedian has been interpreted as historical fact.

Emperor Caligula. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Party Fit for a Horse
Caligula was a far cry from his imperial predecessors Augustus and Tiberius. We think of Augustus as the “first emperor” but he positioned himself as a leading Republican politician, not a monarch. His successor, the dour Tiberius, tried to refuse as many monarchical honours as possible.

Caligula, on the other hand, was a boisterous young man in his mid-twenties. He was keen to experiment with the opportunities his position allowed him, adopting ceremonies and dress that were more in keeping with eastern kings. In short, Caligula wanted to be – and be seen to be – a monarch.

The youth of Rome loved their horse-racing. The attention Caligula lavished on Incitatus went above and beyond that shown to prize steeds by other young aristocrats. He was the emperor, so bigger and better was the name of the game.

Caligula did hold parties for his friends in the horse’s grand stables, where Incitatus himself was the “host”. But all the bling was really for Caligula and his mates, so they could live it up in style – it was not for the horse. Caligula’s regal pretensions did not sit well with Roman aristocrats, who wanted their emperors to respect them and Republican institutions such as the consulship. We can easily imagine Caligula and his drinking buddies lampooning the stuck-up consuls as “asses”, and the emperor declaring that Incitatus would soon be joining their ranks!

Caligula’s Horse (Dali’s Horses), Salvador Dali, 1971. (Fair Use)

The Neighs Have It
The story of Caligula and Incitatus proved so irresistible as a paradigm of political abuse that it didn’t seem to matter that the horse never donned the consular toga. In particular, commentators through the centuries have had a great deal of fun in comparing contemporary politicians to the emperor’s favourite horse.

 One of the cleverer examples of this is a piece from the London Magazine and Monthly Chronologer, printed on 6 February 1742. In a column entitled Common Sense, the subject for discussion is “Caligula’s Prime Minister”. The Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time was Robert Walpole, who, on 28 January 1742, had lost a vote of no confidence in Parliament. The author of this satire immediately lays his cards on the table, stating that Caligula was a good and able emperor who chose the best candidate for the job of “Prime Minister”:

What a happiness … must it have been to have liv’d under the auspicious Reign of the Emperor Caligula, who had so great a Regard to Merit wherever he found it, and took such a fatherly Care in providing for the Happiness of his People, that he made his Horse a Minister of the State.

Imaginary depiction of Caligula making Incitatus a consul. (imgur)

Incitatus comes up trumps compared to Walpole, as the horse demonstrates all the qualities of a good Prime Minister. The real blow, however, is dealt at the end of the piece:

Whoever considers these Things with an unprejudiced Judgement, will upon an impartial Comparison with another whom I have in my Eye, be obliged to own, that the Horse was not only the honestest, but by far the wisest Minister of the two.

Caligula’s horse also appears in more serious contexts, such as a British response to the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, entitled the “Rights of Great Britain Asserted against the Claims of America”. The author cites the story of Incitatus’ consulship as one of many examples from ancient Rome where the wrong people are given decision-making power:

The extension of the right of electing Magistrates to the people at large, was the principal cause of the fall of freedom in Old Rome. The prejudices and fears of the rabble were the steps by which ambitious men ascended to a power, which they converted into tyranny over their foolish Constituents…the grandsons of voters who placed Marius, Cinna, and Caesar at the head of the State, were employed by Caligula in raising his horse to the Consulship.

Here the story of Incitatus becomes a parable of what happens when a state abandons its founding principles at the behest of sycophants.

But there is a final twist in this horse’s tale. Cassius Dio states that Caligula made a horse – assumed to be Incitatus – a priest of the emperor’s cult. This has usually been overlooked, perhaps because Dio mentions it in a different section and does not explicitly name Incitatus.

As a result, we have been accustomed to interpreting this story as one about the abuse of political, rather than religious, power. Even though Caligula’s horse never actually got to sit in the ivory chair in the Roman senate (his ivory stable had to suffice), we still like to imagine a time when a politician literally was an ass.

Top Image: An equestrian statue of a Julio-Claudian prince, originally identified as Caligula. Source: Trustees of the British Museum/CC BY NC SA 4.0

The article, originally titled ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Caligula’s Horse’ by Shushma Malik and Caillan Davenport was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ten Mythological Creatures in Ancient Folklore

Ancient Origins

The world is full of stories about mythical creatures, legendary beasts, and supernatural and god-like beings. For thousands of years, humans everywhere—sometimes inspired by living animals or even fossils—have brought mythic creatures to life in stories, songs, and works of art. Today these creatures, from the powerful dragon to the soaring phoenix, continue to thrill, terrify, entertain, and inspire us. Some, such as the Loch Ness Monster or Sasquatch, continue to be "sighted" and sought to this day. While the origins of these fabulous creatures are varied, and often disputed, they have played significant roles in human society, and have served to stimulate the imagination and desire that is ingrained in human nature to experience more than this physical world. Whether they truly exist in physical form is indeed secondary to their existence in the minds of so many people throughout the world and through history.

The legendary Kraken

According to the Scandinavian mythology, the Kraken is a giant sea creature (said to be 1 mile long) that attacks ships and is so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island. It is first mentioned in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th century Icelandic saga involving two sea monsters, the Hafgufa (sea mist) and the Lyngbakr (heather-back). The Hafgufa is supposed to be a reference to the Kraken. The existence of the Kraken was even acknowledged in scientific texts, including the first edition of Systema Naturae [1735], a taxonomic classification of living organisms by the Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carolus Linnaeus. He classified the Kraken as a cephalopod, designating the scientific name Microcosmus marinus. Although any mention to Kraken was omitted in later editions of the Systema Naturae, Linnaeus described it in his later work, Fauna Suecica [1746], as a "unique monster" that "is said to inhabit the seas of Norway”. Accounts of the Kraken are believed by many historians to have originated from sightings of the giant squid, which can reach 18 meters in length.

Grendel, the beast of Hrothgar

Beowulf is an Old English heroic epic poem set in Scandinavia and cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature of all time. Dated between the 8th and early 11th century, the epic poem tells the story of Beowulf, a great hero who comes to the aid of Hroðgar, the king of the Danes, by defeating a beast known as Grendel who had been terrorising the great mead hall built by Hroðgar and threatening the entire kingdom. Archaeological research has verified that the great hall commissioned by Hroðgar did indeed exist, and was located in the country’s earliest royal capital, Lejre, 23 miles west of modern Copenhagen. Whether Grendel (meaning quite literarily ‘the destroyer’) originally existed in some less legendary form – perhaps symbolizing a malevolent spirit responsible for disease and death, or a particularly fierce-looking human enemy – is as yet unknown.

The mythological Kappa

In ancient Japanese folklore, the Kappa is a water demon that inhabits rivers and lakes and devours disobedient little children. The Kappa, a word meaning ‘river child’, is usually depicted with the body of a tortoise, a beak, and the limbs of a frog, and has a hollow filled with water on top of his head. While they are primarily water creatures, they are believed to occasionally venture onto land. According to legend, the cavity must be kept wet when the Kappa ventures out of the water, or he will lose his powers. The Kappa is one of the most well-known folk legends in Japan and many believe the mythical creature to be true. In fact, there are signs near some lakes in Japan warning people of their presence. However, others maintain it is much more likely that the legend of the Kappa is connected with sightings of the Japanese Giant Salamander, or ‘hanzaki’, which is known to be aggressive and to grab its prey with its powerful jaws.

 The legend of Nian

According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called Nian, who had the body of a bull and the head of a lion. It was said to be a ferocious animal that lived in the mountains and hunted for a living. Towards the end of Winter when there was nothing to eat, Nian would come on the first day of New Year to the villages to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. The villagers would live in terror over the winter, but over time they learned that the ferocious Nian was afraid of three things: the colour red, fire, and noise. So when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. They also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again. According to legend, the Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk, and Nian became Hongjun Laozu's mount. After Nian was captured, everyone had a big celebration and the ritual involved in banishing him was repeated the following year, and so the ritual was passed down from generation to generation and the custom of celebrating New Year with firecrackers, noise, and the colour red has persisted to this day.

Naga, the water deity

The naga is a legendary aquatic, serpentine creature that resides in oceans, rivers, lakes, or waterfalls. Nagas are said to have black scales and can grow to hundreds of feet in length. Nagas are traditionally worshipped as personifications of water deities and considered bringers of rain and clouds. They are guardians of temples and holy places. Most Kaliyatran believe that the superior God direct the actions of the nagas, and these sea serpents are honoured with many titles such as the "Maharaja Sarpa" and the "Naga who is God". It is commonly believed that nagas live in underground cities, are capable of speech and can use their heavenly powers to control weather and assume humanoid form at will.

The tradition of the Piasa

The legend of the Piasa Bird dates back to long before European explorers came to region. It has been traced to a band of Illiniwek Indians who lived along the Mississippi in the vicinity north of present-day Alton. This tribe, led by a chief named Owatoga, hunted and fished the valley and the river and lived a contented life until the "great beast" came, described by French missionary priest Jacques Marquette in 1673 as follows: “it is as large as a calf, with horns like a roebuck, red eyes, a beard like a tiger and a frightful countenance. The face was something like that of a man, the body covered in scales, and the tail so long that it passed entirely around the body, over the head and between the legs, ending like a fish.” As with the Illini tribes, there can be found traditions of similar large birds and dragons throughout the world. The Dacotah tribe believed that thunder was a monstrous bird flying through the air and claimed that these birds were large enough to carry off human beings. In the ancient Buddhist caves of India there can be found a number of carved and painted dragons that easily fit with the descriptions of Piasa. Some have questioned whether the so-called mythical creature could have been an ancient species of bird that actually existed. That so many cultures and groups of people separated by thousands of miles and years have similar tales of immense flying creatures is curious to say the least.

The Menhune of Hawaii

In Hawaiian mythology, the Menehune are said to be an ancient race of people small in stature, who lived in Hawaii before settlers arrived from Polynesia. Many scholars attribute ancient structures found on the Hawaiian Islands to the Menehune. However, others have argued that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact mythology and that no such race existed. The mythology of the Menehune is as old as the beginnings of Polynesian history. When the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii, they found dams, fish-ponds, roads, and even temples, all said to have been built by the Menehune who were superb craftspeople. Some of these structures still exist, and the highly-skilled craftsmanship is evident. According to legend, each Menehune was a master of a certain craft and had one special function they accomplished with great precision and expertise. They would set out at dusk to build something in one night, and if this was not achieved, it would be abandoned. To date, no human skeletal remains of a physically small race of people have ever been found on Kaua’I or on any other Hawaiian islands. While this does not disprove that a race of small people existed, it does draw the truth behind the legend into question. Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence, both archaeological and in the numerous legends passed down over generations, that suggests that there was indeed an ancient race of highly skilled people who inhabited the Hawaiian islands long before the Polynesians arrived.

Cipactli, the Aztec creator

The Aztecs of Mexico held the belief that the Earth was created from the destruction of a large sea demon, created by and known to the gods as Cipactli. Cipactli was described in many fashions: a crocodile with toad and fish characteristics, a sea demon or monster. Regardless of the description, the Aztecs considered this asexual sea monster the source of the cosmos. Cipactli’s appetite was insatiable, and each joint of the creature bore a mouth. As the gods began the process of creation, they soon realized that their other creations would fall into the void and be devoured by the demon, so they decided to destroy Cipactli. Tezcatlipoca lured the monster in and lost a foot to its insatiable appetite before the gods were able to defeat it. Cipactli put up a fight, but in the end the gods prevailed. They pulled Cipactli’s body in four directions and freed the universe from its body. Then Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl created the heavens and the Earth and everything therein from Cipactli’s body. The creature’s head became the thirteen heavens, its tail the underworld, its midsection the Earth

 The majestic griffin

The griffin is a legendary creature with the head and wings of an eagle, and the body, tail, and hind legs of a lion. As the eagle was considered the ‘king of the birds’, and the lion the ‘king of the beasts’, the griffin was perceived as a powerful and majestic creature. During the Persian Empire, the griffin was seen as a protector from evil, witchcraft, and slander. While griffins are most common in the art and mythology of Ancient Greece, there is evidence of representations of griffins in ancient Persia and ancient Egypt dating back to as early as the 4th millennium BC. On the island of Crete in Greece, archaeologists have uncovered depictions of griffins in frescoes in the ‘Throne Room’ of the Bronze Age Palace of Knossos dating back to the 15th century BC.

The four mythological creatures of China

In ancient Chinese astronomy, the sky ecliptic was divided into four sections. Each of these sections contained seven mansions, and together they formed the 28 Mansions. The 28 Mansions may be considered to be equivalent to the zodiacal constellations in Western astronomy, although they reflect the movement of the Moon through a sidereal month rather than the Sun in a tropical year. This enabled the ancient Chinese to mark the travelling positions of the Sun and the Moon, as well as to determine the time and seasons. Each section of the sky is assigned to a mythological creature, collectively known as the Four Symbols. These creatures are the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South. Apart from their astronomical significance, each of the Four Symbols is surrounded by various mythological associations.

By April Holloway