Myths and legends

Myths and legends

A young King ArthurA young King Arthur

King Arthur

King Arthur was a legendary ruler of Britain. Tales of his life and deeds are known as Arthurian legends. They tell the story of a great king who brought peace to a war-torn land. The original legends may have been based on a real person who lived in the 5th or 6th centuries AD, but no one knows who he was. The medieval king who appears in the best-known legends was created centuries later. The most detailed account of King Arthur’s life was written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived between about 1100 and 1155. His History of the Kings of Britain drew upon Welsh folklore, but Arthur, the conquering hero, was largely a fictional character made up by Geoffrey. French writer Chrétien de Troyes wrote poems about Arthur between 1155 and 1185. He introduced the character Sir Lancelot as well as the quest for the Holy Grail. A work by Sir Thomas Malory (died 1471), Le Morte D'Arthur (The Death of Arthur), became the best-known account of the legendary king. Modern versions are mostly based on Malory's story.

The Earthly Paradise, a painting by Hieronymus BoschThe Earthly Paradise, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch


According to the ancient Greeks, Atlantis was an island that once lay in the Atlantic Ocean. It was once a paradise, but then sank into the sea, never to resurface. Since ancient times, many people, believing Atlantis once actually existed, have tried to discover exactly where it was located. Others have explored the origin of the legend, to see whether it had any connection with real events. Some historians in the past mistakenly thought that the Native Americans might be descendants of the people of Atlantis, who fled their doomed land as it sunk beneath the ocean. Scholars in the 19th century looked for scientific evidence to support the existence of Atlantis. But studies of the Atlantic Ocean floor have revealed no sunken islands nor continents. Atlantis must have been no more than a mythical land.

Beowulf goes into battleBeowulf goes into battle


Beowulf is a poem dating from Anglo-Saxon times, thought to be between 700 and 1050 AD. The author is unknown, but it was probably written by a monk (monks and scholars were among the few people who were able to read and write in those days). It is written in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons who settled in England in the 5th century AD. The epic poem tells the story of a Norse, or Viking, warrior, Beowulf, who fought and defeated several monsters that had been terrorizing the Viking homeland of Scandinavia. The long poem, known as an epic, celebrates the fighting spirit of the Norse warriors, their courage, loyalty and sense of honour.

Bluebeard gives his new wife the key to the castleBluebeard gives his new wife the key to the castle


Bluebeard is the villain of a European folktale. According to the famous version by French author Charles Perrault (1628–1703), Bluebeard married several women one after the other, murdering each one of them in turn. He kept their bodies in a special room inside his castle. After he married his eighth wife, he gave her the key to the castle, on condition that she could go anywhere in the castle but for that one room. While Bluebeard was away, she could not resist opening the door to the forbidden room, where she discovered the horrific remains of his previous wives. She fled the room, but the blood staining the key would not wash off. Bluebeard returned home unexpectedly and, noticing the blood on the key, immediately realised his wife had discovered his secret. Enraged, he told her that she must prepare to die. Fortunately for her, her brothers came to her rescue and killed the murderous Bluebeard.

A statue of Paul Bunyan in MinnesotaA statue of Paul Bunyan in Minnesota

Paul Bunyan

The legend of Paul Bunyan, the American lumberjack, dates from the early 20th century. At that time, the United States was expanding westwards, and farmers were clearing the land of trees so they could grow their crops. Paul Bunyan was a giant with superhuman strength. It is said that as a baby, he destroyed acres of forest simply by rolling over in his sleep. He created the Grand Canyon just by dragging one of his tools along the ground. He cut down all the trees in North Dakota and turned the region into farmland. Johnny Inkslinger, who recorded his feats, used up nine barrels of ink every day doing so. Bunyan's giant blue ox, Babe, which was said to measure 42 axe handles wide across the forehead, was strong enough to pull the bends out of a winding road. Seen by some as a symbol of the proud American spirit, others say that Paul Bunyan was not truly a folk hero, but a deliberate creation of businessmen seeking to promote the timber industry in America.

A giant “doll” representing El CidA giant “doll” representing El Cid

El Cid

El Cid was another name for Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043–99), the great military leader and Spain's national hero. He fought for and against both Spanish kings and the Muslim rulers of Spain. The Moors, the Muslim inhabitants of Spain and North Africa during the Middle Ages, gave him the name El Cid, from an Arabic word meaning "Lord”, in honour of his military prowess. Christians of the same period called him El Campeador, “Champion”. His exploits inspired many legends and poems written by both Muslims and Christians.

A portrait of Davy CrockettA portrait of Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett

Davy Crockett (1786–1836) was a frontiersman, a pioneer explorer of America’s West, who became one of the country’s first folk heroes. A fearless hunter, he was a popular figure amongst other white Americans during his lifetime. Tales about him grew into legends after his death. Elected to the US Congress in 1827, he travelled to Texas to help the American settlers there to overthrow Mexican rule. He died defending the Alamo Mission from Mexican troops on 6th March 1836. Davy Crockett loved to tell tall tales that showed him as the bravest hunter of raccoons and bears—and the best shot—in America. In his tales, he was said to climb up the Niagara Falls on an alligator's back, drink all the water in the Gulf of Mexico and twist the tail off a comet.

El Dorado, the “Gilded One”El Dorado, the “Gilded One”

El Dorado

El Dorado was the name given to both a fabulously wealthy city of gold and the king who ruled over it. Though both were legendary—not based on any fact—they were widely believed to exist by the European explorers who landed in Central and South America after the region was conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Native peoples told tales of a rich king who covered his body with gold dust and who would throw gold into a lake as an offering to the gods. The Spanish came to know of both this legendary king and the city he ruled over as El Dorado—the Gilded One.

1625 Map showing location of El Dorado1625 Map showing location of El Dorado

The story was based on the ceremony performed by Muisca people of Colombia. Their king, covered with gold dust, sailed on a raft in a lake and made offerings to the gods. El Dorado was believed to be close by Lake Guatavita, near present-day Bogotá. Spanish explorers searched the area in the late 1530s, but failed to find El Dorado. Others, such as the English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh (c.1554–1618), spent years scouring other parts of South America for evidence of legendary golden cities, but none was ever found. Local inhabitants often claimed that El Dorado lay somewhere far away, so that the Europeans would leave them alone.

Count DraculaCount Dracula


Dracula was the nickname given to a real historical figure: Vlad III (1431–76), or Vlad Draculea, Prince of Wallachia, a region of Romania lying between the Carpathians and the River Danube. A monstrous ruler, he was also known—after his death—as Vlad the Impaler. The word Draculea means "Heir of the Order of the Dragon”, a group of warriors dedicated to protecting Christianity in Eastern Europe and fighting the Ottoman Turks. However, Draculea is now much better known as Count Dracula, the vampire. He was the main character in an 1897 novel by the Irish author Abraham (Bram) Stoker (1847–1912). Dracula’s legendary home may also be based on a real castle—Bran Castle in Transylvania, another region of Romania.


A dragonA dragonIn many myths and legends, dragons are fire-breathing, lizard-like creatures with scaly bodies, bat-like wings, four legs, a spiny back and a long tail with an arrowhead at its tip. Heroes slay them in battles of good over evil. Because of their reputation for fierceness, dragons were seen as symbols of military might by both the Romans and the Celts (to this day the dragon appears on the flag of Wales, a Celtic nation). A dragon is slain by Beowulf, a Norse warrior, in a story dating from Anglo-Saxon times. In Chinese legends, however, dragons are symbols of happiness, good fortune and wealth.

A petroglyph (rock art) of Baiame, the Creator GodA petroglyph (rock art) of Baiame, the Creator God


The aboriginals of Australia (its native people) traditionally believe that the Earth and everything that lives on it were created by mythical ancestral beings. This process of creation is called “Dreamtime”. They believe that the spirit goes on for ever, known as “Eternal Dreaming”. The spirits of these beings slept beneath the ground, and emerged during Dreamtime. As they wandered across the land, the beings took on the form of humans, animals and plants. They created the hills and plains, and caused it to rain. When the spirits lay down on the still soft rocks, they left impressions of themselves. The aboriginals believe that the ancestral beings are still alive today.

One group of northern Australian aboriginals describe how an ancestral being took the form of a snake and sent bats for humans to eat during the Dreamtime. But the bats flew too high. So the snake gave up one of its ribs to create the boomerang, a throwing weapon that enabled the people to fell the bats in mid-air.

Poster advertising a performance of Goethe’s FaustPoster advertising a performance of Goethe’s Faust


Faust, or Faustus, was a German magician who agreed to sell his soul to the devil, Mephistopheles, in exchange for magical powers, youth and “world pleasures”. But, in making a pact with the devil, he turned away from God and thus faced eternal damnation. Mephistopheles helped Faust meet Gretchen, a beautiful and innocent girl. The story ended in tragedy: Gretchen’s life was destroyed, but she was saved by her innocence and went to Heaven. The wretched Faust, however, was left to grieve in shame. One famous version of the legend is the play Faust, written by the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). The legend of Faust is said to be based on a real person, a scholar who lived between about 1480 and 1540.


 Prince Ivan returns on a flying carpet with the caged... Prince Ivan returns on a flying carpet with the caged...The firebird is a magical bird with golden feathers that appears in many Russian folk stories. In one story, the firebird stole apples from the Tsar's garden. The Tsar promised his kingdom to whichever of his sons could catch the firebird. The youngest son, Prince Ivan, succeeded in capturing it with the help of a wolf. He then met a beautiful princess. Ivan's two jealous brothers killed Ivan and captured the princess. The wolf brought Ivan back to life just in time to stop his older brother from marrying her. When the Tsar heard the story, he threw his two evil sons into jail and gave Ivan his blessing to marry the princess.

Prince Ivan and the firebird’s magic featherPrince Ivan and the firebird’s magic feather

In another tale, Prince Ivan set the firebird free in exchange for a magic feather. This feather protected Ivan from an evil magician who threatened to turn him to stone. The firebird showed the prince an egg that contained the magician's soul, Ivan broke the egg, killing the magician and freeing the thirteen princesses he had imprisoned in his castle. The story was made into a ballet, The Firebird, for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1910 with music by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971).

The Flying DutchmanThe Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman was the name of a legendary ghost ship that could never make port and was thus doomed to sail the oceans forever. A sighting of it was considered a sign of bad luck for sailors. The legend was inspired by the story of a Dutch sea captain named Vanderdecken who boasted that he could sail around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa during a fierce storm. As punishment for his boasting (or, in some legends, for selling his soul to the Devil), he was condemned to sail the oceans until the end of time. The Flying Dutchman (1843), an opera by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–83), helped to spread the story's popularity.

A sculpture, possibly of GilgameshA sculpture, possibly of Gilgamesh


The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem from Mesopotamia, written between 1500 and 1000 BC. The poem told of the adventures of Gilgamesh, the mythical King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, a strong and courageous man created by the gods and who lived with wild animals in the forest. Its theme was the king's quest for immortality through heroic deeds. These included slaying the monster Humbaba, guardian of the forest, and the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar to kill him when he rejected her offer of marriage.

One of the best known passages in the poem is the tale of a great flood, which may have inspired the Biblical story of Noah. Following the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh set out on a journey to find a man called Utnapishtim, who had survived a great flood and was granted immortality by the gods. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh how he had constructed a boat to save his family and various animals. He then offered Gilgamesh a challenge: if the king could stay awake for seven days, he would be given the immortality he desired. But Gilgamesh failed to do so. Utnapishtim then told him where to find a plant that could restore his youth—but a snake stole it (and used it to renew its skin by moulting). A wiser Gilgamesh returned to Uruk resigned to his fate as a mortal human.

Lady GodivaLady Godiva

Lady Godiva

In a legend dating from 13th-century England, a woman called Lady Godiva once rode naked on her horse through the city of Coventry, with only her long hair to conceal her body. She was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. She told him she thought that his taxes on the people were unfair. He agreed to abolish them—but only if she rode naked through the marketplace, something he thought she would never do. But she did. The people of Coventry respectfully stayed indoors, but a tailor named Tom sneaked a look out his window and was immediately struck blind—the origin of the expression "peeping Tom." Leofric kept his word and abolished the taxes.

Although a Lady Godiva really did exist, the legend probably combined her name with an ancient pagan (non-Christian) ceremony in which a May Queen is led through the countryside to celebrate the renewal of spring.

Theseus confronts the MinotaurTheseus confronts the Minotaur

Greek myths

The mythology of the ancient Greeks tells of a world of gods, monsters and heroes. They inhabited a land that reached from the top of Mount Olympus to the Underworld below ground. Despite their awesome powers, the Greek gods and goddesses were similar to humans, or “mortals”; their actions were often driven by pride, jealousy, love and the desire for revenge. The gods often left their home on Mount Olympus to become involved in the affairs of mortals. Greek myths originate with the civilization of both the Mycenaeans, on the Greek mainland, and the earlier Minoans, on the island of Crete. The ancient beliefs merged with legends from Greek kingdoms and city-states as well as myths borrowed from other peoples. The works of Homer, from the 8th century BC, are important sources for Greek mythology. His epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, show how the gods influenced human destiny.

A statue of Hiawatha, Ironwood, MichiganA statue of Hiawatha, Ironwood, Michigan


Hiawatha was a Native American chief. According to 16th-century legend, he helped persuade the people of five different tribes to live in peace and join forces against their enemies. Hiawatha (whose name means "river-maker“) belonged to the Mohawk tribe. He met the prophet Dekanawida, who told him of his desire to unite the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes into one nation.

Hiawatha set out to carry out the prophet’s wishes, but was opposed by the powerful Onondaga chief Atotarho, who sent a huge white bird to seize Hiawatha's daughter and kill her. Despite his terrible loss, Hiawatha continued his peacemaking work. When the tribes’ land was invaded by another people intent on war, Hiawatha called the leaders together and gave them each a task to help defend their new nation, which he called the Iroquois. Finally, his work completed, he sailed up to heaven in his sacred canoe.

Ned Kelly, wearing his suit of metal armourNed Kelly, wearing his suit of metal armour

Ned Kelly

Edward "Ned" Kelly (1854–1880) was an Australian of Irish descent. He was a bushranger, an escaped convict who lived as an outlaw in the bush, the sparsely inhabited scrublands of Australia. Ned fled there in 1878, after being accused of the attempted murder of a police officer at the Kelly family home. Ned and his brother Dan, along with two accomplices, later shot dead three policemen and committed two armed robberies. After their attempt to ambush a police train failed, Ned and his gang—clad in suits of metal armour—fought a violent gun battle with the police in June 1880. All were killed except Ned, who was captured. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. His final words were said to have been: "such is life".

Kelly became a legendary figure in Australia: some celebrate him as Australia's equivalent of Robin Hood, while others regard him as a murderous villain.

Photo of a “street” leprechaunPhoto of a “street” leprechaun


A leprechaun is an elf from Irish folklore. Often pictured as an old man with a red beard, a green jacket, a cocked hat, a leather apron and leather shoes with silver buckles, a leprechaun is said to know the secret whereabouts of hidden treasure—usually a pot of gold.

According to legend, a person who captures a leprechaun can discover where to find the treasure. However, finding a leprechaun—and then keeping hold of one—is extremely difficult. The best way is to sneak up him while he is mending his shoes, the only time he sits still. A leprechaun frequently plays pranks on people, causing small accidents around the house, just to let them know he is there. One legend has it that the leprechaun is the Irish god Lug, who later became a fairy cobbler named Lugh Chromain (“little stooping Lug”).

A hoax photo of Loch Ness Monster (1934)A hoax photo of Loch Ness Monster (1934)

Loch Ness Monster

The Loch Ness Monster ("Nessie") is thought by some to be a giant animal living in Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands—although it is now widely regarded as a myth. Legends about the monster have been told for centuries. The first reported sighting was said to be made by St Columba in the 6th century AD, an Irish missionary who had come to Scotland to spread Christianity. Some believers suggest that Nessie could be a plesiosaur, a prehistoric marine reptile with a long neck and flippers. Unfortunately, the lake is too cold for such a large, cold-blooded animal to live in. Sightings would also be much more frequent because of a plesiosaur's need to surface regularly to breathe.

A mermaidA mermaid


Mermaids and mermen (their lesser known male equivalents) are mythical creatures with the upper bodies of humans and the lower bodies of fish. They are usually portrayed as beautiful—but they are also associated with danger. The idea of a creature in which human features are combined with those of fish date back to ancient times. The Babylonian god Oannes was said to be part-man, part-fish. Ancient Greek gods often appeared as human figures with curved fish tails below: they were called nereids if they were female, or tritons if they were male.

In European legend, mermaids were closely linked to sirens, beautiful creatures whose singing lured sailors to their deaths. Catching sight of a mermaid was considered bad luck, as they often appeared before storms and were believed to carry drowned men away to their kingdom at the bottom of the sea. In some stories, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid (1836), a mermaid marries a human and takes a completely human form to live on land.

Some of the reported sightings of “mermaids” by sailors in the past may have been mistaken encounters with dugongs and manatees, marine mammals with two front limbs and fishy tails—although there is little resemblance between these burly creatures and beautiful, golden-haired young women of legend.

Sigurd slays Fafnir the dragonSigurd slays Fafnir the dragon


The Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) is a German epic poem, based on old Norse legends, dating from around 1200. The Nibelungs were dwarfs who inhabited an underground land called Nibelheim. They had a treasure of gold. Sigurd, a German prince (also known as Siegfried), seized this treasure after defeating a dragon, Fafnir, who had been guarding it. The dragon warned that all who possessed the treasure would be cursed to die, but Sigurd ignored this warning. Although the Nibelung legends originate in pre-Christian Scandinavia, they reflect a Christian view of chivalry and courtly life. The legend provided the characters for a series of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), written by German composer Richard Wagner (1813–83) between 1853 and 1873.

Pele, fire goddess of HawaiiPele, fire goddess of Hawaii


In Polynesian mythology, Pele is the fire goddess of Hawaii, who lives in the crater of the volcano of Kilauea on the big island of Hawaii. She originally came to Hawaii from the island of Tahiti. She searched for a place to live on each of the islands, but the sea flooded whichever one she chose for a home. Eventually she found refuge in Kilauea.

Pele fell in love with Lohiau, the young chief of a neighbouring island. She sent her young sister Hi'iaka to bring him to Kilauea, granting her magical powers to enable her to accomplish her task. But when Hi'iaka arrived at the home of Lohiau, she found that he had already died of a broken heart. Hi'iaka caught his spirit, however and used her magic to bring him back to life.

Meanwhile Pele became jealous, believing her sister had run off with her beloved, so she killed Hopoe, Hi'iaka’s closest friend, by smothering her with volcanic lava. When Hi'iaka finally brought Lohiau to Kilauea, she was appalled to hear of the death of Hopoe. So she took Lohiau back to his home island, and, having fallen in love with him herself, decided to live with him there.

A phoenixA phoenix


The phoenix is a bird of ancient Egyptian legend that lived for hundreds of years and was reborn after it died. The size of an eagle, the phoenix had brilliant golden and scarlet feathers. Preparing to die, the phoenix built a nest of herbs and spices, including cinnamon and myrrh. Then it set the nest alight and died in the flames. A new phoenix rose from the ashes. When the young bird grew strong enough, it placed the ashes of the dead phoenix in an egg made from the spice myrrh. It carried the egg to Heliopolis, the Egyptian city of the sun, and placed it on the altar of the sun god, Re

The Pied Piper of HamelinThe Pied Piper of Hamelin

Pied Piper

The German town of Hamelin once became overrun with rats. A man in a strange outfit of many colours (“pied”) appeared before the mayor of the town and offered to banish the rats in return for payment. The mayor agreed. The man then played his pipe and all the rats followed him out of town, where all but one drowned in the nearby river. The mayor refused to pay the mysterious piper. So he again played his pipe, this time leading the children of Hamelin away to a cave in the mountains, where they were never seen again. The story of the Pied Piper, a legend from medieval times, was made famous in works by Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and the English poet, Robert Browning.

Quetzalcoatl depicted in the Codex BorbonicusQuetzalcoatl depicted in the Codex Borbonicus


Quetzalcoatl was the legendary ruler of Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is the name given by historians to the region of central and southern Mexico and northern parts of Central America where several great ancient civilizations grew up, beginning thousands of years ago. In the religion of the Aztec Empire, Quetzalcoatl was the god of order and civilization.

The name Quetzalcoatl, which means “feathered serpent” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, combines the magnificent, green-plumed quetzal bird, symbolizing the heavens and the wind, with the coatl (the word for “snake” or “serpent” in Nahuatl), which represents the earth and fertility.

Robin Hood, a skilled archerRobin Hood, a skilled archer

Robin Hood

Robin Hood was a legendary English bandit who stole from the rich to help the poor. His name was already well established as a popular legend by the 1300s. It is possible that the Robin Hood legend comes from the old French custom of celebrating May Day. A character called Robin des Bois, or Robin of the Woods, featured at the festival, and this tradition may have crossed over to England—along with a slight name change. In those days, ordinary people were upset about new laws which kept them from hunting freely in forests that were now claimed as the property of kings and barons. The Robin Hood stories reflected this popular discontent. The unrest erupted in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Robin was most likely an imaginary figure, although some of the stories may have described the adventures of a real outlaw.

The Song of RolandThe Song of Roland


Roland was the bravest and most loyal of the paladins (knights) who served Charlemagne, king of the Franks. Roland (also called Orlando) was said to stand 2.4 metres (8 feet) tall. He carried a magical sword called Durendal, which had once belonged to the hero of Troy, Hector. The story of Roland's death is told in an epic poem called The Song of Roland. During Charlemagne's campaign against the Muslims in Spain in 778, the king had sent Ganelon to negotiate with the Muslim leader. But Ganelon was jealous of Roland and wished him dead, so he plotted with the enemy, revealing the route Roland's army would take. The Muslims ambushed Roland at Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees Mountains. The paladins had told Roland to blow his horn of ivory (called an olifant) to summon help from Charlemagne, but Roland refused to do so until it was too late. When Charlemagne's troops arrived, Roland and many of the bravest paladins were dead.

Romulus killing Remus with a spearRomulus killing Remus with a spear

Romulus and Remus

In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, the only daughter of King Numitor, and the god Mars. When Amulius, Numitor’s brother, who had seized Numitor’s crown, found out about the twins, he immediately ordered that they should be thrown into the River Tiber. But, instead of drowning, the boys floated downstream, coming ashore near a fig tree. A she-wolf fed the twin boys and kept them alive until a shepherd found them. When they grew up, they killed Amulius and put Numitor back on the throne.

Sinterklaas on his horseSinterklaas on his horse

St Nicholas

St Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors and merchants, as well as being the patron saint of Russia. He is the origin of the figure we know today as Santa Claus. According to tradition, St Nicholas was born in Patara in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). He became bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD, but was persecuted and imprisoned for his Christian faith.

St Nicholas had a reputation for being exceptionally kind and generous—especially towards the poor. According to one legend, he miraculously brought back to life three young children who had been chopped up and put in a barrel of saltwater to serve as bacon.

During the Middle Ages, it became customary across Europe to give gifts to children on St Nicholas’s feast day, 6th December. To the Dutch, he was known as Sinterklaas, and when Dutch settlers came to North America, they brought this tradition with them. After the English took over the Dutch colonies in North America, they too adopted the custom. Not wishing to celebrate the feast day of a Catholic saint, however, they moved it from 6th to 25th December, and changed Sinterklaas into the non-religious, jovial figure of Santa Claus. He later became "merged" with another, older traditional character called Father Christmas—who brings gifts to children every Christmas Eve.

A statue of St PatrickA statue of St Patrick

St Patrick

Born in Roman Britain around AD 389, St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, was the son of a Christian minister. At the age of 16, St Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken back to Ireland where he was forced into slavery. Working as a shepherd for six years, he found time for prayer and eventually became a Christian himself. He had a dream in which he was told that a ship had been made ready for him to escape his captors. He travelled to Britain and France, where he studied to become a missionary. One day he had a dream in which some people who lived near the sacred wood of Foclut in Ireland called out to him: "We beg you, holy boy, come here and walk among us!” St Patrick returned to Ireland, where he set about converting the chiefs and their people to Christianity.

There are several legends about St Patrick, the most famous one being that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland. In another, he used the shamrock, a three-leafed plant, to explain to a pagan (non-Christian) Irishman the Holy Trinity: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The shamrock is now Ireland's national symbol, widely displayed on St Patrick's Day, 17th March.

Painting of St ValentinePainting of St Valentine

St Valentine

St Valentine is the patron saint of love. According to one account of his life, he was a Roman priest who was imprisoned and tortured in around AD 273 because he helped persecuted Christians. The legend goes that he restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter, Julia. They fell in love with one another. On the day of his execution he left her a farewell note that was signed “From your Valentine". The legend of St Valentine originated in 14th-century England, notably by the great poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400). It was around then that his feast day of 14th February first became known as a day for lovers. The custom of sending notes, or valentines, to a loved ones on Valentine's Day may have come from the belief that birds began to choose their mates around that time.

Sinbad and his men with the giantSinbad and his men with the giant

Sinbad the Sailor

Sinbad (sometimes called Sindbad) the Sailor is one of the stories in One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, a collection of Persian, Arab, and Indian tales written between the 800s and the 1400s. In fact, the Sinbad tale does not appear in the original versions of the Nights, but was added in the 19th century. A merchant from the city of Baghdad (now capital of Iraq), Sinbad made seven voyages to lands around the Indian Ocean. During his travels, he had great adventures, survived many dangerous episodes—and amassed considerable wealth.

William Tell

William tell shoots the apple off his son’s headWilliam tell shoots the apple off his son’s headWilliam Tell was a hero of Swiss folklore. His story took place in 1307, when Switzerland was still under Austrian rule. Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian governor of the village of Altdorf, had decided to raise a pole with his hat hung on top of it, demanding that all the villagers bow before it. Passing by the hat with his young son, Walter, one day, William Tell publicly refused to bow to it, and so was arrested. Intrigued by Tell's famed marksmanship with the crossbow, Gessler hit upon a plan: Tell and his son would be executed—but both their lives would be saved if Tell could shoot an apple off Walter’s head in a single attempt. Tell accepted the challenge and split the apple with a bolt from his crossbow.

Tell escapes ashore from the boatTell escapes ashore from the boat

Gessler then noticed that Tell had removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, not simply the one needed to shoot the apple. He demanded to know why. Tell replied that if he had killed his son, the second bolt was for Gessler himself. Enraged, Gessler vowed to imprison him for the rest of his life.

But Tell escaped from the boat taking him to the dungeon in Gessler’s castle. He returned to ambush and kill his one-time captor along a stretch of the road in the nearby village of Küssnacht, now known as the Hohle Gasse. Tell's act sparked a rebellion leading to the formation of an independent Switzerland.

Totem pole, with the Thunderbird on topTotem pole, with the Thunderbird on top


One of the gods of the sky in Native American mythology, the Thunderbird symbolizes thunder, lightning and storms. A huge bird of great power and strength, it is capable of preying on and carrying off a whale. It creates thunder by flapping its wings, causes sheet lightning by blinking its eyes and throws out bolts of lightning bolts made by the snakes it carries around with it. The Thunderbird also protects humans by fighting evil spirits. The Algonquian people consider the Thunderbird to be the ancestor of humans.

Tristan and IseultTristan and Iseult

Tristan and Iseult

The legend of Tristan and Iseult is the tale of two people who are fated to suffer a forbidden love. A popular poem from 12th-century France, it was probably based on a Celtic legend, originating in Brittany, northwestern France. Over time, the tale became part of the Arthurian legends, with Tristan made one of the knights of the Round Table. The story may have influenced the later story about the romance between Lancelot and Guinevere. The legend of Tristan and Isolde and its idea of romantic love has inspired poets, artists, playwrights and composers ever since medieval times.

A trollA troll


Trolls were creatures in Norse myths. Usually evil and dangerous, they lived in caves. In early legends, trolls were giants who inhabited castles and roamed around at night. If exposed to daylight, they would instantly turn to stone. Later, they were depicted like humans—but hideously ugly.

In one folktale, a man named Esbern fell in love with a girl, but father would not let them marry until Esbern had built a church. A troll offered to carry out this task, on condition that if Esbern had not discovered his name by the time the job was done, he would seize Esbern's eyes and heart. Esbern tried in vain—until the girl he loved prayed for him. Esbern could then hear the troll's wife singing a lullaby in which she named her husband: Fin.


A unicornA unicornThe word “unicorn” comes from the Latin, meaning "one-horned”. A unicorn is an imaginary beast that has appeared in legends from all over the world, including China, India, the Middle East and Europe. Since the Middle Ages, the unicorn has often been pictured as a horse, usually white, with a single horn growing from its forehead. Some depictions of unicorns may have been modelled on certain real animals, such as the single-horned rhinoceros or the narwhal, a small whale with a single, long, spiralled tusk that looks a little like a horn.

The lame Wayland is given broken jewellery to mendThe lame Wayland is given broken jewellery to mend


In northern European mythology, Wayland (known as Volund to the Vikings, or Wieland to the Germans) was a blacksmith who used his powers to make magic weapons and other objects. Nidud, the evil king of Sweden, once captured Wayland and forced him to work for him. To prevent him from escaping, the king made him lame. But Wayland took his revenge by killing Nidud’s two young sons, crafting drinking bowls from the boys' skulls and sending them to the king. Wayland then escaped his island prison by flying away on wings he had made for himself.

An English legend says that if a traveller ties up his horse outside Wayland’s smithy overnight and leaves some money, horseshoes will magically appear on its hooves by the morning.

A werewolf at full moonA werewolf at full moon


Legends from all over the world tell of men who could turn into wolves and then back into their human form again. They are known as werewolves or man-wolves (wer is the Old English word for "man”). In their animal form, werewolves devoured people, alive or dead—although ordinary wolves seldom attack people. In lands where wolves are unknown, such legends involved different animals instead, such as tigers, bears or even snakes. The European werewolf legend dates from ancient times. For example, the Roman author Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses about the Greek king named Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf as punishment for serving human flesh to the Zeus, the chief of the gods. People who were thought to be werewolves were persecuted from the Middle Ages through to the 18th century. By the 20th century fear was replaced by fascination, as werewolves became popular subjects for horror stories and films.

Portrait of Dick Whittington and his catPortrait of Dick Whittington and his cat

Dick Whittington

Richard Whittington (c. 1354–1423) was the son of a knight who became rich from selling fabrics to kings and nobles. He served four terms as Lord Mayor of London. A wealthy man, he left his fortune to form a charity which, to this day, continues to help people in need. The legendary Dick Whittington, however, was a poor orphan boy from Gloucestershire who set out for London, because he had heard that its streets were paved with gold. He found work as a cook's helper in the home of a wealthy merchant. The cook treated Dick badly, so he ran away. But walking up Highgate Hill, on his way home, he heard the bells of a distant church ringing. They seemed to say: "Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London," three times, so he decided to return to the city.

Dick’s cat sees off the rats at the emperor’s palaceDick’s cat sees off the rats at the emperor’s palaceDick sold his only possession, a cat, for a large sum to an Eastern emperor, whose land had become overrun with rats. Whittington invested the money he was paid wisely and became a rich merchant. He married his old master's daughter, Alice Fitzwarren (the name of the real Dick Whittington’s wife) and became Lord Mayor of London three times—as the bells foretold.

A witchA witch

Witches and wizards

Witches and wizards are people who possess magical powers or command supernatural forces. The word "witch" usually refers to a female, while their male equivalents are known as either "wizards" or "warlocks". In many myths and legends, witches are evil and dangerous to ordinary humans. Those who learn magic for the purpose of harming others are called sorcerers or sorceresses rather than wizards and witches. In some stories, people often meet old women, not realising that they are in fact witches. In these instances, the witch may reward kindness but punish rudeness. Belief in witches was widespread during the Middle Ages in Europe. They were said to be worshippers of the Devil. Thousands of women were tortured and executed after being accused of witchcraft. A witch hunt in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 led to the execution of 19 people.

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