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Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Legend and Reality

Legend and Realty

by C.A. Asbrey

In the third, and last, in my series of the truth behind folkloric traditions, I use Ireland as an example of European myths and legends, mainly because it distils down the earliest traditions in one of its oldest forms, but still reflects Europe as a whole. In this post, I'm going to stick to things which are pan-European, in various guises, and look at what we know about the real people and evidence behind the legends.

Witches and Wizards

It's commonly accepted that witches in Europe are a legacy of the pre-Christian pagan religions. Wiccan is a much more recent reinvention, as are modern Druids. When Christianity first arrived, paganism sat alongside the existing belief systems, and on the whole, the populace converted as dictated by their rulers. Because it wasn't an epithany winning over hearts and minds for most people, they were reluctant to give up their traditional celebrations. This meant that the winter solstice became Christmas, Ä’ostre became Easter (and remained a lunar date), Samhain became All Saints' Eve, maidens still danced around maypoles for May Day, and so on. The pagan elements were retained, but gradually the magical connotations of the evergreens, the boughs of May, and the eggs and rabbits (originally hares) were forgotten. They simply became engaging traditions.

But before the real meanings were obscured by the passage of time, people persisted in using the remedies, spells, and potions passed down through their families. By the time of the witch purges which swept through Europe from 1450 to 1750, most of the people tried and killed were not actually witches. They were either slightly strange or anti-social, or inconvenient. Witch trials were actually a product of public hysteria, mixed with out-and-out revenge against rivals. And there was a lot of money in it. The witches' lands and wealth could be seized, and estates could be expanded when you bid at the public auction for your witchy-neighbour's farm. That annoyingly opinionated woman could be easily disposed of, and far too often, relatives connected to her accusers inherited her property. 

The typical view of a witch is a tall, pointy hat and a broom. Why was that? Did people actually wear these hats? Unfortunately, Western Europe's damp climate is terrible for preserving fabrics, except in extreme conditions, but the same people who spread west from Siberia, also went east. And their descendants, although mixed with East Asians, and West Eurasians, show a remarkable continuity with Western European practices of the time. A notable factor in the genes of the peoples of the Taklamakan area, is that the male genes are almost exclusively European, and the female genes are from the locales in which they settled. 

And the Taklamakan desert is a perfect climate to preserve ancient bodies and fibres. The mummified bodies and artefacts are a fascinating insight into the culture the Westerners brought with them. Things notably different to anything else found in the region, like tartan, red and blonde hair, and styles found in Indo-European people as far away as Denmark and Germany. The 'Witches of Subeshi.' show a remarkable synchronicity with our view of witches clothes.       

It's worth noting that their tall hats seemed to be associated with controlling birds of prey, and that one body was found wearing one glove. Could that be an origin of the witch calling a 'familiar'? However, many were found without such bird-handling paraphernalia. Other cultures wore such hats, but it's worth noting they did not hold the same significance. The religious aspect of the tall hat to these people was clearly spiritual. That's established by the Tall golden, conical hats embellished with star and moon symbols were worn by priests in the Bronze Age to denote their special ability to read the stars. These early astronomers were thought to have magic powers and divinatory ability, as they would use their skills to predict the weather. 

Four different versions of these golden hats have been found in Europe ranging from 18,000 to 700 BCE. They seem to depict astrological processions, allowing the wearers to make predictions about the phases of the moon which reinforced their status in the bronze age as religious leaders.

Wilfried Menghin, the director of the Berlin Museum, has been extensively studying the hats. According to Menghin, the king-priests “would have been regarded as Lords of Time who had access to a divine knowledge that enabled them to look into the future." According to Menghin, "the sun and moon symbols are a match with the “Metonic Cycle,” which provides an explanation of the time relationship between the sun and moon. The knowledge that this pattern provided would have allowed for long-term predictions of sun and moon cycles. Overall, this shows that those who inhabited Europe during the Bronze Age were far more sophisticated than initially believed. It is easy to see how the ability to make such long-term astrological predictions would give one the appearance of having divine or magical powers back in the Bronze Age. Perhaps the idea that tall hats were worn by ancient wizards isn’t a legend or a myth, but a true reflection of how the wearers were viewed due to their ability to predict time." 

Knowledge is power, and the ability to predict weather and astrological phenomena has to be right up there in a society depending on agriculture and sailing. And restriction of knowledge has been used to control people since time immemorial. Being able to predict eclipses must have brought early peoples to their knees.

What about the brooms? The stereotype of witches riding brooms has its root in the hallucinogenic culture of the time - and beyond. 

Tropane alkaloids come from a number of plants: including Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Hyoscyamus niger (henbane), Mandragora officinarum (mandrake) and Datura stramonium (jimsonweed). During the Middle Ages, parts of these plants were used to make "oyntments" or "witches' salves" for witchcraft, sorcery and other nefarious activities. They were potent. And old documents how they were best absorbed through mucous membranes. Studies in the 70s also showed that some of the substances they used inhibited the growth of cancer cells, but I'm fairly sure they used them as for sheer escapism.

An 1324 investigation of the case of Lady Alice Kyteler:"In rifleing the closet of the ladie, they found a pipe of oyntment, wherewith she greased a staffe, upon which she ambled and galloped through thick and thin."

15th century records of Jordanes de Bergamo say: "But the vulgar believe, and the witches confess, that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint themselves under the arms and in other hairy places."

There is also documentation of pagan rituals in which farmers would dance astride broomsticks and pitchforks at the time of the full moon to encourage the growth of their crops. This ritual took a long time to die out and was reported right into the Middle Ages, but no doubt witch-hunts brought them to an end.

Cyclops, One-eyed Monsters, Dragons, and Giants

Tales of One-eyed monsters proliferate in Europe, from the Cyclops, Balor, the Irish giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead, the Fachan, a Celtic monster with one eye, one arm and one leg. Then there's Hagan the Burgundian warrior, Likho, the Slavic monster, Tepezog, the Turkish ogre, Ojancanu the Cantabrian Giant, and Odin, who traded one eye to drink from the Mimir's well. 

Whilst losing an eye isn't exactly unknown, even in modern times, it was more common in the past, especially in cultures where people fought hand-to-hand and battled neighbouring tribes over scarce resources. I think we can safely assume that some of the legends come from heroism at such skirmishes. Others could come from genetic disorders in stillborn humans and animals. 

There is another explanation for the belief in the one-eyed monster, though. A cousin to the elephant, deinotheres roamed Europe, Asia, and Africa twenty-three to five million years ago. The ancients undoubtedly encountered fossil evidence, and some ancient mammoth tusks have been found engraved. To the modern eye, the single hole in the centre of the skull is indicative of a trunk, but taken at face value, the hole resembles the orbit of a vast eye, set in a monstrous skull. 

Fossil evidence is also an explanation for many huge mythical beasts. To the people encountering these remains, they were evidence of massive beasts roaming the earth, which of course they were, but they had no way of knowing how old they were. 


Unicorns are one of the most popular mythical animals, but they are most probably a conflation between fossil remains and the horn of the narwhal. Despite being mentioned in the Bible, by Pliny, and in medieval bestiaries, unicorns have never existed in the form of the beautiful horse with a horn on its forehead. 

It has existed in the form of animals with a single horn, though. The woolly rhinocerous is a prime candidate, having roamed Europe and Asia during the Pleistocene era, and existing right up to around 8,000 years BCE. They certainly co-existed with humans, with cave paintings showing them being hunted in the Paleolithic era. Frozen remains as well as fossil remains have been found, and sometimes their bones have been found alongside humans in caves, indicating that some kind of ritualistic use had been made of the remains. One frozen body showed marks of human spears on the body. A 13,000 year old spear tip, fashioned from the tip of a rhinocerous horn has been found in northern Russia.

Despite living at the same time as humans, their remains have been mistaken for more than just unicorns. The Siberians believed the horns were the claws of some giant mythical bird. In another case, a skull was mistaken as the skull of a dragon, and even right up to the Victorian era straight cephalopod shells were mistaken for unicorn horns. 

However, another candidate is a new fossil found in Siberia. Elasmotherium sibiricum lived about 29,000 years ago, and stood about six feet tall, fifteen feet long, and weighed around 8,000 pounds. Scientists previously thought it had died out about 350,000 years ago. The skeletal remains are far more delicate than those of the woolly rhincerous, and more easily mistaken for a horse 

This is just a brief look at the truth behind the legends of the past. I'm sure there are many more aspects I haven't covered, such as vampires being linked to the symptoms of porphyria, and their victims' wasting diseases mistaken for being systematically fed on. Or the mermaids, mermen or water monsters being seen as the reason people wearing heavy clothing drowned so easily, or who felt themselves being dragged into the depths. I'm sure you can find any amount of examples, but as this post shows, very often perception is in the eye of the beholder.


There was no reply, so Jake rapped at the door once more, harder and with more insistence. “Tibby. I can’t stay. Open this door.” 
There was something about the thick, heavy silence which felt wrong. Tibby was anything but quiet, so it was fair to assume any room containing him wouldn’t be, either. 
Jake knocked again. “Tibby?” All he could hear was the sound of his own breath echoing against the wooden door. A muscle in his jaw flexed and he felt in his pocket for the room key he’d been asked to hold. He grabbed the wooden fob and called out once more. “I’m comin’ in, Tibby. Make sure you ain’t doin’ anythin’ indecent.” He paused, running through what he knew about the man. “Or strange.” 
The key rattled in the lock and the door swung slowly open. Jake’s jaw dropped open at the carnage which greeted his horrified eyes. 
The room was awash with blood; splattered over furniture, walls, and fabrics. Gouts of gore lay littered on the floor, and adhered to the wall behind the bundle of bloody petticoats in the corner. Thick claret dripped from the drapes in a sickening seep and intestines dangled over furniture and snaked across the floor. 
Tibby lay unconscious near the door, a knife near his hand, his blood-drenched clothes stained red. Worst of all, the pale blue dress was saturated in blood and revealed what looked like a dismembered carcass beneath the pulled-back frills. 
It looked like she’d tried to hide under the bed and had been dragged out as her legs were hidden, but the torso appeared from underneath. The clothing was pulled over her head so all Jake could see were the bare bones of the ribs and the open belly covered in blood with what remained of her intestines. 
“Dear God.” Jake’s reaction to the trauma robbed his voice of its power, his eyes drawn to the intestines strewn on the floor near what what looked like half a kidney. “Tibby! What the hell have you done?” 



  1. As usual as fascinating look into stories that grew from the past. I loved it. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights. Doris

    1. Thanks for commenting, Doris. Happy New Year. I hope 2022 is good to you and yours.

  2. You never fail to amaze me with your fascinating, in-depth blogs, Christine. Amazing research. You've touched on some interesting topics that invites the reader to research some areas even more. Somehow, your graphic excerpt complements some of the myths that have remained through the centuries. Wouldn't the people of say, the Bronze Age, be gobsmacked with a Smart phone, let alone a television. The time you spent researching and writing this third instalment is truly appreciated. Have a wonderful 2022....and more interesting and informative blogs.,

    1. My goodness, yes! They would. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and I hope 2022 is great for you and yours.

  3. Brilliant and fascinating article, Christine!
    Tense and thrilling excerpt!
    I really enjoy your blogs - thank you

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Lindsay. I hope 2022 is great for you and yours.

  4. This is so interesting to get an idea of how something can lead to a legend. It's sorta like a flim-flam machine: you put in a myth or 2 and mix it up with a theory or a combination of reasonable seeming non-truths, and a legend can be created.
    I remember watching an episode on National Geographic about the truth behind the legend of Robin Hood in which it was explained that several outstanding men did certain heroic acts that led to the Magna Carta, but over time, and the retelling of these men and events led to the creation of one person, Robin Hood, who was solely responsible for all those brave acts.
    That elephant skull DID look convincingly like a place where a huge eye must have been instead of the place where the trunk originated.
    A well-researched and engaging article, Christine. Loved the intense excerpt.
    All good things to your corner of the Earth...

    1. Yes, it's a bit like starting a rumour and waiting to see how things alter in the repeated retelling when it comes back to you. I have always thought that legends have a kernel of truth, and that sometimes we just forget the relevance of certain aspects of a story may have a different meaning to us than it did in the past. Here's wishing you and yours all good things in 2022, Sarah.

  5. So interesting to see that the golden hats have the appearance of phallic symbols but that witches hats are commonly associated with women. Loved the explanation of the possible origins for the mythical unicorn. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, I'm sure there were cloth or leather versions which didn't survive, like they did in Eurasia. Here's wishing you and yours all good things in 2022, Ann.