The origin of legends

‘Legend has it . . .’ and most of Man’s legends are thousands of years old. The Dragon, for instance, has been around for centuries, in art and tales told by men. Dragons do not exist, that we know for certain, and yet the fable of St. George and his Dragon gave us a patron saint of England who was not actually English, and the dragons appearing in heraldry for more than a thousand years. Did the idea of dragons, as huge lizards with wings and breathing fire come from Neanderthal (and imaginative) man finding fossils of the pterodactyl – which certainly existed – but hundred of millions of years ago. Perhaps the legendary Monster of Loch Ness is a subaqueous dragon.

Legends are truly international; each country has them. Most seem to have heroic or military genes. Very few are dusty myth. The United States has the legend of The Noble Savage, and of the rather more down-to-earth soldier who fought with him – George Custer and his last stand, for example. England and other European countries have The Crusades, whose origins were Wrong but Wromantic. North and South America have legends of slavery, but the grim reality of African chiefs selling their young people to Arab slave traders has been overtaken by the legend of Wicked Plantation Owners Flogging The Poor Black Man – much better copy.

The tale of the hero Hercules and his Twelve Labours now; what’s the origin, and what about the legends swirling poetically round the hero Achilles and his heel?

And incidentally where was Troy? Were Mermaids really just seals playing around rocks or sunning themselves seen by half-sober seamen after months at sea? Was the Earth once roamed by beautiful, long-maned horses with a long horn apparently growing out of the forehead? And where did the name ‘Unicorn’ come from?

Perhaps ‘Unique Horn’. Could one look at the sky in ancient times and spot a winged horse known as Pegasus shooting by like a Phantom jet? It is legend of course, but what is the origin?

Britain’s old highways produced the legend of The Highwayman, a noble fellow who held up coaches full of wicked rich men and their screaming daughters at the point of a pistol. It is pure legend, because real highwaymen lived in a desperate age when a child could be hanged for stealing half a loaf. Highway robbers invariably killed coach drivers, footmen and the passengers if he had enough pistols and could afford the powder and balls.

There was, however, a real high-class highwaywoman who really did hold up coaches in the moonlight, and give proceeds to charity: a legend that became fact.

The legend of Robin of Locksley is so strong it has caused a great number of Hollywood actors to impersonate ‘Robin Hood’, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner etc. The latest in a long line is Russell Crowe. But there never was a Robin Hood; a dastardly sheriff of Nottingham yes, and an even more dastardly King John, yes. Robin Hood no. This is legend without origin.

Beowolf is an ancient piece of primitive literature composed in even more primitive English, more Germanic than Anglo-Saxon. But what was the origin of the she-devil mother living at the bottom of the sea who wanted to eat him? The legend of Hansel and Gretel has been used by more writers than just those old Grimm Brothers. The origin, what was it? Was there really living in some black forest near Braunläge a wicked woman who trapped and ate small blond children? Is that how the legend was born?


If you were a Phoenician sailor might you have seen well-armed young ladies nakedly riding horses and attacking on sight – because they were Amazons? Why is Peter the Great of Russia a legendary hero to Russians when he beat his own oldest son to death with a knout? How have legends about a rebellious young Jewish son of a carpenter managed to thrive for two thousand years, and be worshipped with real faith in Christian churches across the world?

This website has the good fortune to be followed by many thousands of history lovers round the planet. Explanations of these legends or others not mentioned are more than welcome in the form of Comments. Please write legibly and in English so that everybody else can enjoy your comment too.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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