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Real World Locations, Where Myth Meets Reality
Mythology presented in books, arts, cartoons and movies have subliminally forged impressions of mythical castles, magical mountains and enchanted forests in people’s minds, but many of the places featured in children’s stories are not simply figments of the imagination but were directly inspired by real places. Visiting all these places will not be practical or financially achievable for most, so one needs a ‘virtual guide’ to take one to ancient event horizons, where myths merge with reality.
Home of the Gods: Mount Olympus, Greece.
Mount Olympus is a maze of 52 peaks cracked with high waterfalls and deep gorges and it ranges to almost 10,000 feet above sea level. As one of the most prominent peaks in Europe, in terms of topographically appearance, this mythological hulk is located on the modern-day border between Greece and Macedonia between the regional units of Pieria and Larissa, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest from Thessaloniki. According to an article on Greek Mythology.com, ancient Greek myths regard the top of the mountain as the dwelling place of the 12 Olympian gods and many famous mythological events occurred on its peaks.
The semi-mythological mountain has dozens of different climbable peaks and while Olympus is challenging, it is accessible to mountaineers with its lower levels enjoyed by hikers who begin their expeditions at the town of Litochoro at the foot of Olympus. The highest and most atmospheric peak is ‘Mytikas’, covered in mist, which is associated with the high king of all Greek gods, Zeus. The whole region of Pieria's Olympus was declared an archaeological and historical site for the preservation of its monumental and historical character relating to this Zeus.
In June 2016 the Olympus National Park Information Center, located at Litochoro, opened its gates to inform visitors about ‘geology, archaeological sites, mythology, monasteries, plants, animals’ and other subjects affecting Mount Olympus. Hikers are guided by professional rangers and guides offer groups tours into the mountain, while an interactive 3D-guide at the Information Centre offers a glimpse of the entire range.
Five kilometers (3.10 miles) away from the sea is ‘Dion’, a sacred city of the ancient Macedonians which was dedicated to Zeus and the 12 Olympian gods. The city lasted from the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD. Currently located within an archaeological park measuring some 200 hectares, this ancient town and its archaeological museum are central to the many sacred and ancient places of worship surrounding it.
Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, England
The county of Nottinghamshire in England's East Midlands is home to the infamous Sherwood Forest, a 1,000-acre nature reserve with a name instantly recognizable because of its association with the legendary Robin Hood. According to an entry on Nottinghamshire.co.uk the historical hooded robber first appeared in poems in the 13th century and survived over the preceding centuries thanks to England’s oral traditions, theater and children's books, which have now evolved into movies, cartoons and television shows.
Robin Hood was a heroic outlaw from old English folklore and has featured in literature as a highly skilled archer and swordsman, sometimes being depicted as having fought in the Crusades before returning to England to find his lands taken by the Sheriff of Nottingham. In an act of retribution, he begins to rob from the rich and give to the poor. His lover, Maid Marian, his band of outlaws, the Merry Men, and his chief opponent, the Sheriff of Nottingham, were all said to have lived during the reign of King Richard I and the earliest known ballads featuring the forest dwelling hero can be traced back to the 15th century.
Now managed by an RSPB led consortium in partnership with the County Council, the park is home to the Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve and is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest. With over ‘900 veteran oak trees’ including England's Tree of the Year 2014, The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest is much smaller than it would have been in the Middle Ages, but there has been a sharp increase in visitor numbers since the latest television series featuring Robin Hood proved very popular in England. The forest park is open every day except Christmas Day, offering walks and trails, bug hunts, adventure playground and public events and there is also an annual Robin Hood festival with Middle Age features.
Fairy Kingdom of Knockma Woods, Ireland
Knockma Woods is a magical and mythological location in the western wilds of Ireland and is associated with some major Irish legends, for example, the legendary warrior queen Maeve was buried under a cairn on Knockma Hill, which is thought of as an entrance or portal into Ireland’s fairy kingdom. According to mythology the region is ruled over by Finnbheara (or Finvarra), the Fairy King of Connacht, and the fairy kingdom is said to exist ‘just beyond’ the many ancient stones and features that appear on the hill.
In Walter Evans-Wentz's classic The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, his informant Mr John Glynn, the town clerk of Tuam, mentions that: “The whole of Knock Ma (Cnoc Meadha) which probably means Hill of the Plain, is said to be the palace of Finvaraa, king of the Connaught fairies.” Often associated with Finvarra is the nearby Castle Hackett, where, according to an old Irish legend, Finvarra abducted the beautiful young bride of an Irish lord to the fairy kingdom. The lord followed Finvarra and his bride to a hill where he ordered his men to dig. However, every morning their work had been repaired by the magic of Finvarra’s fairies, but to stop the fairies from repairing the entrance to the Underworld, the lord cast salt over the hill and eventually saved his wife.
During 1846-7 the potato crop in Ireland failed causing widespread suffering and the country people attributed the famine to a disturbance in the fairy realm. But Knockma is not just a place of legend, and all these fairy stories originate from the weight of archaeology on the hill and in the woods with standing stones, stone circles and stone burial cairns on the hill dating back to the Neolithic Age, some having been built around 6000–7000 BC.
For-ever Young: Shangri-la, China
In his 1930s novel, Lost Horizon, English novelist James Hilton described the supposedly fictional city of Shangri-la. Since the book's publication many historians, archaeologists and amateur researchers have presented various theories about the real life inspiration for the fictional paradise. Hilton said the magical region was associated with Tibetan culture, ‘a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains’ but many academic scholars have debunked the myth of Shangri-La. Scholar Peter Bishop in his 1989 book The myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, travel writing, and the western creation of sacred landscape, argues ‘it has less to do with an unexplored place and is more connected to a fantasy of the Western world.’
In China, around AD 300, the poet Tao Yuanming of the Jin Dynasty described a Shangri-La type location in his work The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring about a fisherman from Wuling who came across a beautiful peach grove with “happy and content people who lived completely cut off from the troubles in the outside world since the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BC).” Today, various places, such as parts of southern Kham in northwestern Yunnan province, including the tourist centers of Lijiang and Zhongdian, claim the title and ‘Shangri-La’. Xianggelila is a county-level city in the northwestern Yunnan province, of the People's Republic of China and seat of the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
Yunnan matches mythical references to the magical region surrounding Shangri-la in that it is a mountainous area with high elevations in the northwest and low elevations in the southeast and in the west altitudes vary from the mountain peaks to river valleys by as much as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet). Yunnan is also rich in reserves of aluminium, lead, zinc and tin, copper. With approximately 30,000 species of higher plants in China, Yunnan is thought to have in excess of 17,000, which would make any ancient peoples ‘happy and content.’
The Iliad: Ruins of Troy, Turkey
Homer, in The Iliad, wrote extensively about the Trojan War which was fought by mythical figures such as Achilles and Paris backed by ancient Greek gods. Historians long believed that Troy was an entirely fictional city, but today, most agree that the ruins of Troy are located in the province of Çanakkale, modern-day Turkey. According to writer Michael Wood in his highly detailed 1998 work, In Search of the Trojan War, the ruins of Troy are situated at Hisarlik (or Hissarlik) and this hypothesis finds approval from UNESCO, as the location is a World Heritage Site.
The archaeological excavation site at the ruins of Troy have become a major tourist attraction and it includes a replica of the famous Trojan Horse that is large enough for energetic visitors to climb inside and experience one of the most prominent myths from the ancient world. Both Virgil in Aeneid, a Latin epic poem from the time of Augustus, and Homer in his Odyssey, record how Greek King Odysseus designed a huge wooden horse to hide himself and other warrior kings. The Greeks pretended to retreat in their ships and when the Trojans found the abandoned horse on the beach, they dragged it into their city, as a totem of victory, despite soothsayers’ warnings. That night the Greeks crept out of the horse and opened the gates of the city for the stealth Greek army to enter. They destroyed the ‘impenetrable’ city of Troy, ending the 10-year war.
Historian Nic Fields’ in his 2004 book, Troy c. 1700-1250 BC, argues the gift might have been ‘a ship with warriors hidden inside’, referring to ancient Greek authors who called ships ‘sea-horses’. Naval archaeologists support this idea and suggest the original story described Greek soldiers hiding inside the ‘hull’ of a sea vessel. They point out that the term ‘horse’ was misunderstood in the oral transmission of the myth. Dr Fritz Schachermeyr, a retired Austrian professor of history at the University of Vienna stated that the Trojan Horse ‘was a metaphor for a destructive earthquake’ that damaged the gates of Troy allowing the Greek troops to enter the city. In this theory, the horse represents the sea god Poseidon who was also god of 'horses and earthquakes’. While this theory sounds very fringe, it is supported by archaeology determining that the archaeological level of Troy V1 (dating from the so-called Trojan War era) was indeed heavily damaged in an earthquake.
Birth of Arthur: Tintagel Castle, England
Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, England, has become one of English Heritage's top five attractions and hosts around 200,000 visitors a year, peaking at 3,000 a day at the height of the summer season. This other-worldly monumental construction was in existence as early as the first century Roman occupation of Britannia. A more modern castle was built during the Middle Ages, which is associated with the legendary King Arthur. Twelfth-century author Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), written circa 1135-38, claims that the legendary King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel.
According to legend the druid Merlin helped Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, to disguise himself so that he could bed Igraine, the lord of the castle, Gorlois’ wife and ‘in that night was the most famous of men, Arthur, conceived.’
The lands surrounding the ruins of the castle are currently owned by Prince Charles. This wild costal location seduced the world’s more modern literary giants, including Alfred Lord Tennyson who also associated the castle with classic Arthurian legends. This inspired a 2016 project funded by English Heritage to ‘reimagine Tintagel's history and legends across the island site.’ English Heritage commissioned artist Peter Graham to carve a foot-high bearded face representing Merlin into a rock near a cave known as Merlin's Cave, after its mention in Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Rubin Eynon rendered a statue of King Arthur, and a compass sculpture referencing the magical Round Table.
Ashley Cowie is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history. www.ashleycowie.com.
Top Image: King Arthur statue at Tingagel (Deriv/ CC0)
By Ashley Cowie