Myths, legends and histories come together to form the most basic narratives of culture, telling us what makes its core.
Here is a selection of our favourite 5 tales from Europe, to inspire you to discover new cultures.
Northlights – Scandinavia
Ancient tales inspired by north lights varied across Nordic countries, some of the reverence, some of fear and respect. Most Nordic cultures believed that dying in battle was the greatest deaths of all and as a result, many of their myths and legends glorify the fallen warrior.
The Vikings celebrated the Aurora, as a sign from the gods.
At the core of the Viking beliefs, was Odin– all father. Odin lived in Asgard, waiting for the prophesied Ragnorok – the end of the world, destined to be his greatest battle. Needing the greatest of warriors by his side for the battle that would end the world, it was believed that Odin would pick all those who died in battle on Earth, to join him in Asgard.
According to mythology, the fallen warriors would travel to an enormous majestic hall called Valhalla (Old Norse translating to ‘the hall of the slain’) in Asgard. Leading the warriors there would be a group of Valkyries – armour clad women warriors on horseback – the reflections of whose armour were believed to be the stunning display of colours in the winter sky.
Other legends said that the northern lights were the last breath of fallen warriors as they left for their final resting place – Valhalla, Asgard. Others said that the colours were that of the Bi-frost, the bridge that leads them there.
On the contrary, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people (Sami) saw the lights to be a bad omen, believed to be the souls of the dead, the Sami thought that if you called for the attention of the light, it would swoop down and carry you into the skies.
The folk in Finland believed that these lights came to be when Arctic foxes ran, brushing their tails against the mountains creating sparks which lit up the sky. The Greenlanders believe that the lights are souls of children, who died at birth, dancing across the sky.
However, irrespective of whether the lights were seen as good omens or bad, it is clear that the northern lights have always been given a significant place in Nordic society, and was seen to be as magical as we see it today.
Romulus and Remus – Italy
Roman myths tell us that the twins Romulus and Remus were the founders of the city of Rome.
Overthrowing King Numitor of Alba Longa, his brother, Amulius had annexed the throne.
When twins were born to the daughter of King Numitor and the Mars God. Amunilus, sensing a threat to the throne, ordered them killed and they were left to die on the banks of the River Tiber. Rescued and nursed by a she-wolf, the twins Romulus and Remus were later adopted by a shepherd, who raised them to adulthood.
Over time the twins grew to be natural leaders. Taken as prisoners to Alba Longa, they learnt of their past and helped restore the throne to their grandfather, before setting out to establish a city of their own.
Arriving at the seven hills they got into a disagreement about who had the support of the gods. Remus was killed in the dispute and Romulus built the city on Palatine Hill near the legendary site of the wolf mother’s lair. Deified, as the divine spirit of Rome and the Roman people, he came to be known as the god Quirinus.
Santorini and Atlantis – Greece
Atlantis – a fabled utopia which disappeared into the depths of the sea, destroyed by the Gods has been one of the oldest myths known to mankind. Narrated by various cultures with variations of their own, the most popular one remains to be the one told by the famed Ancient Greek philosopher Plato.
In his dialogues Critias and Timaeus, Plato talks of an island and its civilisation of divine origins, outside the columns of Hercules (commonly interpreted as the Strait of Gibraltar) in an advanced state of technological and intellectual progress. Time progressed to leave the population of the island to be significantly numbered with humans, eventually leading to an increase in war and related crimes. As a punishment for their moral decline, the people and their island were destroyed by the gods, in a series of earthquakes, sinking it into the sea.
Many speculate this island to be the Island of Santorini.
Plato speaks of a circular island, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the size of Lybia and Asia combined.
The island of Santorini is crescent-shaped, its original form believed to have been changed due to a significant amount of volcanic activity. Is the destruction of Atlantis and the massive Minoan eruption in the bronze age one and the same?
All these similarities are balanced by an equal number of differences, such as the mismatch in the timeline, location and size of the Island.
That being said, the entire story could just be a tale to teach a lesson in morality, however, the fact that the existence of Atlantis hasn’t been disproved will always keep men searching for the sunken city of legend.
Loch Ness monster – Scotland
The tale of Loch Ness Monster haunts the breathtaking landscapes of the Scottish Highlands form the Celtic Age. The first sighting recorded more than a thousand years ago, Nessie as the locals call her, is rumoured to be Dinosauresque with the ability to shapeshift into human form and jump out at unsuspecting passersby, dragging them down the depths of the Loch, to their death.
Even though much of the evidence regarding the existence of the monster has been discredited, a number of sightings keep getting reported each year.
Giants Causeway – Ireland
Formed by massive volcanic activity, roughly 50 to 60 million years ago, the Giant’s Causeway is made up of innumerable giant polygonal columns in County Antrim, along the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. These natural geological formations are so striking in the fact that they are near perfect hexagons which stack like puzzle pieces, making the most surreal landscape that leads out into the sea.
However, the locals have a different tale to tell.
About two thousand years ago, a giant named Fionn mac Cumhaill lived on the coast of Antrim, with his wife. The strongest giant in all of Ireland he was fifty-four feet and had the strength of 500 men. Across the sea, on the coast of Scotland lived a giant by name Benandonner, who believed he was the strongest of all, constantly taunting Finn from across the waters.
One day, mad with anger Finn scooped up a piece of earth to throw at Benandonner, the scooped hole forming Lough Neagh. The throw was a miss, landing in the middle of the sea forming the Isle of Man.
Finally deciding to fight Benandonner to settle matters of strength, Finn started to build a path to Scotland, laying out a path made of thousands of rocks. Benandonner heard what Finn was doing and decided to build a path of his own to cross the sea. At last, Finn’s path met Benandonner’s. Looking up he saw Benandonner come over the hill, he looked twice his size and could possibly be twice as strong as him. Running back home he asked his wife to help him hide. Disguising Finn as a baby, she put him in a cradle. Benandonner walking in on the crying baby was terrified to realize how big the father might be if the baby was that big! Turning as fast as he could, he ran home, across the causeway, hoping that Finn would not follow him.
Today you can see a small part of the causeway. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, it forms one of the most iconic of landscapes Ireland.