Humans, above all else, are excellent storytellers. Myths and legends have ignited the imagination and fed the souls of human beings for thousands of years. The vast majority of these legendary tales are usually just stories people have handed down through the ages. However, as it turns out, there are plenty of old myths and stories that have more than a kernel of truth to them. In fact, a few of them have roots in real geological and astronomical events of the past, providing warning of potentially catastrophic dangers that threaten our existence, while also speaking volumes to the awe we hold for the wonders of our planet.
So, here are five ancient legends from around the world that are somehow based on true events.
1. The Guest Star
The Ancient Story of “The Guest Star.” In April of the year A.D. 1006, witnesses from Asia, the Middle East, Europe and possibly even in North America, spotted what they described as a “guest star” in the sky. Astronomers digging through ancient texts have found lost records mentioning and describing the cosmic phenomenon. Among them is from the multipart opus “Kitab al-Shifa” or “Book of Healing” by the Persian scientist Ibn Sina, who is also known in the west as Avicenna. In the “Book of Healing,” Avicenna took note of a transient celestial object that changed color and “threw out sparks” as it faded away. What he saw started out as a faint greenish-yellow light, which twinkled wildly at its peak brightness. Then, it became a whitish color before ultimately vanishing.
For a long time, the “guest star” was suspected of being a comet, but now, it has since been determined that the celestial wonder was really a supernova – a cosmic explosion that took place 7,200 years ago but whose visible light only reached Earth at the turn of the first millennium. In 1006 A.D., the supernova was far brighter than Venus and was visible during the daytime for weeks. At present, though its visible wavelengths have since dissipated from view, the high-energy remnants of the supernova can still be seen through NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
2. The Crater Lake and the Battle of the Gods
The Legend Surrounding the Crater Lake. The most common of the legends centering around the Crater Lake in Oregon involves two powerful mythological beings: Skell, the lord of the Above-world; and Llao, the god of the Underworld. The theme of this legend is essentially “good-versus-evil.”
The Native American Klamath tribe believed that the Crater Lake in Oregon was once a tall mountain named Mazama, which back then was inhabited by Llao. The underworld deity engaged in an epic battle with Skell, the sky god, and fire and brimstone flew across the skies between Mazama and the nearby Mount Shasta. Llao was defeated in the fight, and they had to go back to the underworld. With the intention of imprisoning him forever, Skell collapsed the mountain on top of Llao, before topping off this prison with a beautiful blue lake.
The legend was not exactly far from the truth. However, the crater lake was not the product of a battle between angry gods but Mount Mazama, a volcano that erupted 7,700 years ago. So much molten rock was expelled that the summit area collapsed during the eruption to form a large volcanic depression called caldera. Subsequent smaller eruptions occurred as water started to fill the caldera which eventually formed the deepest lake in the United States.
3. The Myth of Rama’s Bridge
The Myth of Rama’s Bridge. In the Hindu epic the “Ramayana,” the wife of the god Rama, gets kidnapped and taken to the Demon Kingdom on the island of Lanka. With the help of an army of ape-like men, Rama, along with his brother Lakshman, built a floating bridge between India and Lanka. He led the army in crossing over the bridge, and successfully vanquished Ravana, the demon king, and consequently rescued his wife.
While this elaborate tale is filled with fantastical details, the mythical Rama’s Bridge itself actually exists. Satellite images reveal a 48-kilometer line of submerged limestone shoals and sand that stretches between India and Sri Lanka. The bridge separates the Gulf of Mannar located in the southwest from the Palk Strait, which is in the northeast. Some of the sandbanks are dry and the sea in the area is quite shallow, being only 1 to 10 meters deep in some places. It was reportedly passable on foot up to the 15th century until storms deepened the channel. Temple records seem to tell that the Rama’s Bridge was completely above sea level until a cyclone in 1480 brought a huge storm surge into the channel and sunk it beneath the waves.
As first described by Greek philosopher Plato in his writings, this myth tells a tale of a civilization at its peak that tragically sank beneath the waves and got lost for all eternity. This great civilization called Atlantis is supposedly founded by a race of people who were half god and half human and lived in a utopia where they possessed great naval power. However, while at the pinnacle of their power and influence, their home – which was located on islands that were said to be shaped like a series of concentric circles – was destroyed in a great cataclysm.
Atlantis was probably not a real place that has existed in ancient times, but a real island civilization may have been the source of inspiration for the tale. It remains heavily debated, but several archaeologists are of the opinion that the myth of Atlantis could have been based on the collapse of the Minoan empire.
Santorini in Greece is now an archipelago, but thousands of years ago, it was a single island – a volcano named Thera. Around 3,650 years ago, a volcanic eruption, which is considered to be one of the biggest in human history, rocked the island and led to its destruction. The vast magma chamber of the volcanic island was emptied so catastrophically and so quickly that the core of the island collapsed, setting off tsunamis that flooded much of Thera with the inflowing Aegean Sea. The eruption blew tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere where it lasted for years and potentially caused many cold, wet summers. Such conditions would have ruined harvests in the region, which is believed to be the main contributor to the quick decline of the Minoan civilization and why they were never heard from again.
5. Noah’s Ark
In the famous story told among Christians, Jews and Muslims, God, a long time ago, chose to destroy the Earth with a great flood but spared a man named Noah and his family. On God’s command, Noah built an ark and filled it with a pair of every animal. When God covered the Earth with water, it drowned everyone and everything that once roamed the land. Noah, his family, and the other animals managed to survive while on the ark, and they were the ones that repopulated the planet after the disaster.
While a boat full of animals of every kind is hardly believable to some, experts say that the epic biblical flood – as often is the case with apocryphal texts – could have been based on a much earlier tale. One such story that comes to mind is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This ancient epic unfolds similarly to its biblical equivalent. In this Mesopotamian saga that dates back to the 7th century BCE, many gods conspired to create a great flood that will destroy the world. One of the gods, Ea, told a man to make a boat to save himself and the rest of his family, along with a group of animals.
So, with similar flood tales told in many cultures, is there any evidence that the great floods referenced in these stories actually happened? Scholars and scientific experts generally agree that there never was a global deluge as there is not enough water in the Earth system to cover all the land. However, some geologists think that the legend of a great flood may have been influenced by a catastrophic flooding event in the Black Sea around 5,000 B.C.
Geological records show that the Mediterranean Sea overflowed into the Black Sea, which is located north of Turkey. It forced the sediment barrier between the two to open in a very dramatic manner, and anyone nearby who witnessed what happened at the time would have seen the creation of waterfall 200 times the volume of Niagara Falls. In a single day, enough water came through the channel to cover Manhattan, and the roar of the cascading water would have been loud enough to be heard at least 100 miles away. And so, anyone who was living in the fertile farmlands on the northern rim of the sea at the time would have had the harrowing experience of seeing the boundary of the ocean move inland at the rate of a mile a day.
Myths are beautiful, breathtaking narratives and literary treasures of our past. But more than that, these ancient tales we have listed – and many other which were not mentioned – were able to provide important clues to our distant past. And these clues were helpful and crucial in filling in the gaps in our scientific and historical knowledge about geological and astronomical phenomena that took place on Earth in bygone eras. So, with the help of science, we can safely say that some tales are not just made-up stories passed from one generation to another; they could be true as well.