Newgrange and the Giant’s Causeway

While in Ireland we got to see two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Newgrange (in the Republic, and a “cultural” site), and the Giant’s Causeway (in the North, and a “natural” site). I would have loved to have seen the third, Skellig Michael in Co. Kerry, but access is strictly limited and entails a boat ride across an often choppy sea, and a perilous climb up steep and slippery steps – not ideal for a tour group of 35!

1. Newgrange is the largest monumental structure at Brú na Bóinne (“Palace of the Boyne”), a complex of tombs, stone circles, and other manmade features just north of the River Boyne in County Meath, north of Dublin. Drogheda (the site of a frightful Cromwellian massacre in 1649, and also the site of the famous Battle of the Boyne in 1690) is about ten kilometers to the east of Brú na Bóinne, but we were there to see something much older: a neolithic passage tomb dating from c. 3200 BC, and thus predating Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids. 

From the outside, it’s really just a large earthen mound, with a retaining wall on the front made up of white quartz cobblestones. This wall is the work of one Michael O’Kelly, the main twentieth-century archaeologist for the site and is based on his “best guess” of what it might have looked like in the neolithic. Needless to say, this feature is somewhat controversial.

Things get really interesting, however, when you enter the doorway shown above. You squeeze down a dry stone passageway for about twenty meters, and arrive in a corbeled interior chamber with three side “chapels,” each with its own stone “altar” (designated a basin). The guide claimed that this passageway is original and was never reconstructed – in fact, the entrance was covered and hidden until AD 1699, when a local landowner found it and brought it to the attention of antiquarians.

No photography was allowed inside, so I scan some illustrations.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 2.

This is a view from the interior chamber looking back towards the entrance. The spiral motif is common at the site, but what it actually means is anyone’s guess.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 17.

This is a view of the right-hand side chapel, with basin stone. Apparently cremated human remains were discovered on these stones, but the cremations did not take place in the chamber itself. This has given rise to the theory that bodies were cremated outside, and the remains brought into the chamber for a special ceremony, most likely at the Winter Solstice, then taken out and interred elsewhere (plenty of smaller burial tombs have been found at Brú na Bóinne).

From a postcard.

Why the Winter Solstice? Because that’s when sunlight penetrates to the interior. Here is another view of the entrance – note the “roofbox” over the door.

From George Eogan and Peigin Doyle, Guide to the Passage Tombs at Brú na Bóinne (2010), 20.

And here is how it works: note the upward slope of the passageway, which blocks out light from the doorway, and allows only the shaft of light from the roofbox to reach the central basin stone. The slight zigzag of the passageway also ensures that the light is focussed by the time it gets to the interior. Our guide turned out the lights in the interior chamber and then lit one that simulated the solstice effect, but she said that it was a poor substitute for the real thing. But to experience this, you have to apply for it. The sunlight gets in for a few minutes a day over a period of about five days, roughly Dec. 19-23. They let ten people in per day, and you can bring a friend, meaning that 100 people can experience the Winter Solstice at Newgrange every year. The trouble is that some 32000 people apply! So the odds really aren’t in your favor, although they have started live streaming it over the Internet.

Brú na Bóinne is by no means the only such neolithic site in Europe. All along the west coast, from Spain to Scandinavia, one finds the remains of these monumental structures, usually circular and astronomically aligned, indicating surplus wealth generated by agriculture, political organization to order them constructed, and far-flung communication networks to spread knowledge of building techniques, and trade networks to import construction materials (Brú na Bóinne contains material from as far south as the Wicklow Mountains, and as far north as Slieve Croob in County Down). Alas, they are definitely prehistoric, in that nothing resembling a script has ever been discovered at any of them, so much of our knowledge of this period must remain speculative. 

2. The Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Similar sorts of formations may be seen elsewhere on the Earth (the one I’m most familiar with is Devil’s Tower in Wyoming), but they are rare and distinctive enough to be intensely captivating.

The standard theory is that the columns were created some sixty million years ago, when a large and thick lava flow cooled very slowly and, due to the chemistry of the basalt, formed regular polygonal columns. These were hidden deep underground, as the top layer of the basalt, exposed to the air, cooled much more rapidly and thus did not develop the distinctive pattern. Successive Ice Ages, however, stripped away those top layers, revealing the basalt columns and creating what, to a human, is a bizarre, ethereal sight.

But our tour guide, Jamie Kerr of EF Tours, mockingly denigrated this theory. She preferred the original, mythological explanation, and the reason why it bears the name “Giant’s Causeway.” A similar basalt formation may be found in Scotland on the Isle of Staffa, which gave rise to the idea that:

Finn McCool was a giant who, for the most part, lived a quiet life with his family here on the Northern Irish coast. But there were rivals, other giants, and perhaps to pre-empt a challenge from his Scottish neighbour, Benandonner, Finn laid down the gauntlet and then built the Giant’s Causeway so they could meet and do battle.

However, on his way over to Scotland, Finn spied Benandonner in the distance and realised that his rival was much bigger, taller and stronger than he had appeared from across the water. Finn decided he didn’t want to fight Benandonner any more and ran back home as fast as he could – so fast that he lost his boot on the shore.

Finn found his wife Oonagh and explained the terrible mistake he had made. Oonagh, being the brains of the pair, devised the plan of dressing up Finn as a baby and putting him into their son Oisin’s cot, covering him with blankets and wrapping a shawl around his head.

Just then there was a loud banging at the door – Benandonner! ‘Where’s Finn?’ he demanded, ‘I want to fight him!’

‘Calm down!’ said Oonagh, ‘Finn’s out herding the cows… but while you’re here why don’t you let me introduce you to our son Oisin?’

When Benandonner saw the giant baby in the cot he got scared. He thought, if that’s the size of the baby, how big is the father?

Benandonner immediately ran out of the house and home across the Causeway, tearing it behind him to make sure Finn couldn’t follow him.*

The current visitors’ center, which opened in 2012, is architecturally very well done (more at dezeen – check it out). It lies unobtrusively low to the ground, but its walls reflect the Causeway’s geological formation.

After our visit I kept seeing references to the Giant’s Causeway all over the place, and it seems to me it’s a symbol of Northern Ireland. This is a memento on display in the Belfast City Hall Museum. A bonus is that the six-sided columns (and in this case, six columns) can refer to the six counties of Northern Ireland.

I never made this connection, but the Giant’s Causeway is the setting for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fifth studio album Houses of the Holy (1973). I loved this record in high school! Where’s that confounded bridge?

* From Anna Groves, A Souvenir Guide to the Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim (National Trust, 2016). The funny thing is that in recent times there really was a science vs. mythology dispute at the Causeway: some of the exhibits in the new visitors’ center, when it opened in 2012, gave a Young Earth creationist view of the site, soliciting praise from Answers in Genesis, and condemnation by Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins, et al. (Following a review, the creationist interpretation was downplayed.)

Hymns

From Ponder Anew, a blog on Patheos (via my friend Bill Campbell):

No, the melodies of our beloved hymns weren’t borrowed from drinking songs, bar tunes, and tavern music. I’ve had about ten comments on my blog posts this week alone trying to use the bar song myth as their smoking gun in the case for commercial worship. It’s an argument many love to make, but it didn’t happen.

Those most often implicated in this myth are Martin Luther and the Wesleys. Luther did use German Bar form, a musical style in an AAB pattern having nothing to do with the suds. There is no indication John John and Charlie ever suggested such a thing, and knowing their position on imbibing and the importance placed on proper text/tune pairing, it’s unlikely the would have even considered the idea. Tunes were occasionally borrowed from existing folk songs, but they weren’t simply extracted from whatever people were singing at the local watering hole and paired with jesusy poetry. And even if they were, it was not, as commercial worship apologists are wont to say, in an effort to borrow from culture for the purpose of evangelism or getting butts on the stools…er…in the pews.

This rumor has been thoroughly debunked by both scholars and laypeople. So why do people still believe it? I’m not entirely sure, but it seems like the “Grassy Knoll” theory of Christian hymnody. There’s no evidence for it, but dang it, it’s just more interesting than the truth.

Irresponsible? Yes, absolutely.

Difficult to suppress? You bet.

Some Twitter exchanges promoting the idea follow.

Chastity Belt

The iron maiden, the one-handed flail, the droit de seigneur, and now the chastity belt – all examples of the “weird Middle Ages” that never actually happened. From the ever interesting Atlas Obscura:

Everything You’ve Heard About Chastity Belts Is a Lie

Including their very existence.

WHAT WAS THE CHASTITY BELT? You can picture it; you’ve seen it in many movies and heard references to it across countless cultural forms. There’s even a Seattle band called Chastity Belt. In his 1969 book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), David R. Reuben describes it as an “armored bikini” with a “screen in front to allow urination and an inch of iron between the vagina and temptation.”

“The whole business was fastened with a large padlock,” he writes. With this device, medieval men going off to medieval wars could be assured that their medieval wives would not have sex with anyone else while they were far, far away, for years at a time. Yes, it sounds simultaneously ridiculous, barbarous, and extremely unhygienic, but … medieval men, you know? It was a different time.

This, at least, is the story that’s been told for hundreds of years. It’s simple, shocking, and, on some level, fun, in that it portrays past people as exceedingly backwards and us, by extension, as enlightened and just better. It’s also, mostly likely, very wrong.

“As a medievalist, one day I thought: I cannot stand this anymore,” says Albrecht Classen, a professor in the University of Arizona’s German Studies department. So he set out to reveal the true history of chastity belts. “It’s a concise enough research topic that I could cover everything that was ever written about it,” he says, “and in one swoop destroy this myth.”

Here is the truth: Chastity belts, made of metal and used to ensure female fidelity, never really existed.

When one considers the evidence for medieval chastity belts, as Classen did in his book The Medieval Chastity Belt: A Myth-Making Process, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that there’s not much of it. First of all, there aren’t actually all that many pictures or accounts of the use of chastity belts, and even fewer physical specimens. And the few book-length works on the topic rely heavily on each other, and all cite the same few examples.

“You have a bunch of literary representation, but very few historical references to a man trying to put a chastity belt on his wife,” says Classen. And any literary reference to a chastity belt is likely either allegorical or satirical.

References to chastity belts in European texts go back centuries, well into the first millennium A.D. But until the 1100s, those references are all couched in theology, as metaphors for the idea of fidelity and purity. For example: One Latin source admonishes the “honest virgin” to “hold the helmet of salvation on your front, the word of truth in the mouth … true love of God and your neighbor in the chest, the girdle of chastity in the body … .” Possibly virgins who took this advice went around wearing metal helmets and keeping some physical manifestation of the word “truth” in their cheeks, like a wad of tobacco, in additional to strapping on metal underwear. Or, possibly, none of this was meant to be taken literally.

More, including pictures, at the link.

Paul is Dead!

Like the Satanic Panic noted below, another rumor I recall learning about in the 1980s (although its origins were earlier, of couse), was the notion that Paul McCartney, bassist and lead singer for the rock band The Beatles, had died and was replaced by a lookalike named Billy Shears from Ontario, Canada, who had been given additional plastic surgery and voice training so that he was indistinguisable from the original Paul. You could search for clues explaining this situation in the Beatles’ song lyrics and on the covers of their albums. A newly-made friend in junior high school expanded my universe by explaining some of them to me; I was no longer in grade school, for sure.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ seminal album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, here is an image of the gatefold picture, featuring all four Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s uniforms – and one of the clues:

Wikipedia.

The patch on Paul’s left shoulder, I’ve read in several places, reads “O.P.D.” – allegedly a Canadian abbreviation for “Officially Pronounced Dead.” But it in fact reads “O.P.P.” and is the shoulder flash of the Ontario Provincial Police.

Wikipedia.

The patch, according to Wikipedia, had been “given to John Lennon the day after their 1966 concert in Toronto by a summer student working in the garage of the OPP Headquarters (The group was being transferred to a police van for the trip to the airport).”

But the Ontario origins of the patch doubtlessly contributed to the notion that Paul’s replacement was from that particuar Canadian province.

Satanic Panic

From Atlas Obscura (courtesy Andrew Reeves), an interesting article on the supposed Satanic origins of the old Procter and Gamble logo. I remember hearing about this in the 1980s, along with the idea that backwards messages in rock music were instructing teenagers to kill themselves, the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons would open you up to demonic possession, and that there is a supercomputer in Brussels (nicknamed “The Beast“) with everyone’s name in it.

When 1980s Satanic Panic Targeted Procter & Gamble

The company spent decades battling false claims that it was in league with the Devil.

IF YOU WERE ALIVE IN 1982, you might remember a very special episode of Phil Donahue’s talk show. On that day, the President of Procter & Gamble went on the program and admitted that the company supported the Church of Satan and that its logo contained Satanic symbols. Oh, it happened in 1985? Actually, others remember the episode airing in 1989.

The truth is, this never occurred. P&G has never had any connection to the Church of Satan. The Church itself describes the claim as “completely false.” But the truth has never stopped a good rumor from catching on.

To better understand the P&G rumor, it’s important to grasp its broader context. During the late 1970s through the late 1990s, a potent fear of Satanic cults, known as Satanic Panic, gripped the United States. Years of news and cultural touchstones like the Manson Family trial and The Exorcist had primed the country for this paranoia. In his seminal 1972 study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics, British sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the phrase “moral panic” in reference to events like this, which appear suddenly to threaten societal norms. These events are misrepresented in sensationalistic fashion in the media and eventually reporting on the subject comes to define it for the public.

When the first article on the P&G rumor, “Rumor Giving Company a Devil of a Time,” appeared in The Minneapolis Tribunein March 1980, Satanic panic was hitting its peak. The story detailed an accusation of Satanic imagery hidden in the company’s logo—a man in the moon looking out on 13 stars. But as a spokesperson from P&G, Tressie Rose, explains, this claim was without merit. “[It was] first developed by wharf hands to mark STAR candle crate boxes,” Rose writes in an email. “We then decided to formalize it, created the graphic, 13 stars for the 13 original American colonies. It was officially trademarked in 1882 but the incorporation of a face in the moon happened before that. It was the logo created in 1930 that created the rumor but not until the 1980s, 50 years after its creation.”

To most people, that design would appear insignificant, but most people aren’t Jim Peters. In the 1980s, Peters was the music director at the Zion Christian Life Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a member of a family of anti-rock crusaders who instigated a record-burning campaign in 1978. His brothers, Dan and Steve, initially gained notoriety for a series of seminars and a pseudo-documentary in the vein of Rock, It’s Your Decision called Truth About Rock.

Jim, who could not be located in research for this article, was just as ambitious and had been delivering seminars of his own. When interviewed by The Tribune for the article, Peters claimed to have found a copy of the P&G logo in a book by British occultist E.A. Wallis Budge called Amulets and Superstitions. A member of P&G’s public relations team responded at the time by stating, “This is the kind of rumor we can’t do anything about… People will believe what they want to.

To its credit, P&G was right and the story disappeared for almost two years until January 1982 when papers in the Midwest began running variations on a wire story from United Press International. The articles had titles like “Soap Baron Battles Devilish Rumors” and again made references to P&G’s logo, but this time without any connection to Jim Peters.

There’s more at the link, including the information that Amway reps were partly responsible for perpetuating the rumor that the P&G logo was somehow Satanic. Wallis Budge, though, was a lot more than an occultist.

Gavrilo Princip

It was posted several years ago now, but I just discovered this most interesting Smithsonian Magazine article:

It was the great flash point of the 20th century, an act that set off a chain reaction of calamity: two World Wars, 80 million deaths, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, the atomic bomb. Yet it might never have happened–we’re now told– had Gavrilo Princip not got hungry for a sandwich.

We’re talking the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, of course—the murder that set the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire on a collision course with Serbia, and Europe down the slippery slope that led to the outbreak of the First World War a month after Princip pulled the trigger on June 28, 1914. More specifically, though, we’re talking the version of events that’s being taught in many schools today. It’s an account that, while respectful of the significance of Franz Ferdinand’s death, hooks pupils’ attention by stressing a tiny, awe-inspiring detail: that if Princip had not stopped to eat a sandwich where he did, he would never have been in the right place to spot his target. No sandwich, no shooting. No shooting, no war.

It’s a compelling story, and one that is told in serious books and on multiple websites. For the most part, it goes something like this:

It is the summer of 1914, and Bosnia has just become part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. A handful of young Bosnian-born Serbs decide to strike a blow for the integration of their people into a Greater Serbia by assassinating the heir to the Austrian throne. Their opportunity comes when it is announced that Franz Ferdinand will be making a state visit to the provincial capital, Sarajevo.

Armed with bombs and pistols supplied by Serbian military intelligence, seven conspirators position themselves at intervals along the archduke’s route. The first to strike is Nedeljko Cabrinovic, who lobs a hand grenade toward Franz Ferdinand’s open touring car. But the grenade is an old one, with a 10-second fuse. It bounces off the limo and into the road, where it explodes under the next vehicle in the motorcade. Although several officers in that car are hurt, Franz Ferdinand remains uninjured. To avoid capture, Cabrinovic drains a vial of cyanide and throws himself into a nearby river—but his suicide bid fails. The cyanide is past its sell-by date, and the river is just four inches deep.

The bombing throws the rest of the day’s plans into disarray. The motorcade is abandoned. Franz Ferdinand is hurried off to the town hall, where he is due to meet with state officials. Disconsolate, the remaining assassins disperse, their chance apparently gone. One of them, Gavrilo Princip, heads for Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, on Franz Joseph Street. It’s one of Sarajevo’s smartest shopping destinations, just a few yards from the bustling through road known as Appel Quay.

As Princip queues to buy a sandwich, Franz Ferdinand is leaving the town hall. When the heir gets back into his limousine, though, he decides on a change of plan—he’ll call at the hospital to visit the men injured in the grenade blast.

There’s just one problem: the archduke’s chauffeur, a stranger to Sarajevo, gets lost. He swings off Appel Quay and into crowded Franz Joseph Street, then drifts to a stop right in front of Schiller’s.

Princip looks up from his lunch to find his target sitting just a few feet away. He pulls his gun. Two shots ring out, and the first kills Franz Ferdinand’s wife, Sophie. The second hits the heir in the neck, severing his jugular vein.

The archduke slumps back, mortally wounded. His security men hustle Princip away. Inside Schiller’s deli, the most important sandwich in the history of the world lies half-eaten on a table.

Read the whole thing.

Glastonbury Abbey

Archaeology magazine’s Jason Urbanus reports on new findings from University of Reading archaeologist Roberta Gilchrist, who heads up the Glastonbury Archaeological Archive Project, an intensive reexamination of 75 years’ worth of excavations and discoveries from Glastonbury Abbey, many of which have been stored for decades without any scientific analysis. Gilchrist and her colleagues have found evidence that occupation of the Glastonbury site may indeed date back to the purported year of Arthur’s reign in the fifth century, but not due to any mystical connection with the king.

We know for certain that Glastonbury was a thriving community in the seventh century, where Saxon villagers created large furnaces to melt down and recycle Roman glass. Gilchrist’s project has confirmed that the glassworks predated the abbey, possibly by centuries, and was one of the largest glass production facilities in England at the time.

In the early eighth century, King Ine of Wessex offered an endowment to a burgeoning abbey on the site. Thus began the rise of what ultimately became the wealthiest monastery in England. Towering atop a picturesque hill, the abbey grew famous for its beauty and its lucrative glassworks, drawing pilgrims and visitors from all over England and beyond.

Indeed, the abbey was already famous abroad when the Norman Conquest brought England under French control in 1066. The Norman invaders happily claimed the abbey as their own, adding sumptuous new buildings and enriching it further. The monastery continued to grow and thrive for over a century when tragedy struck. A massive fire in 1184 destroyed nearly all the buildings and treasures that the monks had amassed, converting a famous attraction into a smoking ruin overnight.

As they struggled to get funds to rebuild, the monks needed something to make the abbey seem significant again. It was now competing with Westminster Abbey, which had been established in 1065 and whose soaring architecture was already a marvel. But there was one thing Glastonbury could have that Westminster didn’t. In the 1190s, Glastonbury monks let it be known that they had discovered the skeletons of King Arthur and Guinevere in a tree trunk, buried deep underground; they relocated the grave onto the grounds of the Abbey’s new church.

With the help of archaeologists like Gilchrist, however, we are coming to understand that Glastonbury’s significance is far more complicated than we ever imagined. It was a community that thrived on its craft production of glass and then later on its reinvention as part of the Arthurian legend. You might say that Glastonbury’s twelfth-century monks were very modern indeed. They cashed in on the abbey’s long history, using it to turn myth into money.

King Edward I (1277-1307) presided over a translation of these relics, probably as a way of publicizing the idea that Arthur was well and truly dead, and was not hanging out on the island of Avalon, ready to return to aid the British (i.e. Welsh) against the invading Anglo-Saxons (i.e. Plantagenets). But I think the best myth of Glastonbury is that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in the Chalice Wall at Glastonbury.

Hitler Has Only Got One Ball

From the Guardian. No word on the testicular status of Goering, Himmler, or Goebbels:

Hitler really did have only one testicle, German researcher claims

Analysis of long-lost medical notes seems to confirm that Nazi leader suffered from cryptorchidism, or an undescended right testicle

The song sung in schoolyards by generations of British children mocking Adolf Hitler for only having “one ball” might be accurate after all.

A German historian has unearthed the Nazi leader’s long-lost medical records, which seem to confirm the urban legend that he only had one testicle.

The records, taken during a medical exam following Hitler’s arrest over the failedBeer hall putsch in 1923, show that he suffered from “right-side cryptorchidism”, or an undescended right testicle.

Notes written by Dr Josef Steiner Brin, the medical officer at Landsberg prison, state “Adolf Hitler, artist, recently writer” was otherwise “healthy and strong”.

Long thought to have been lost, the records of the examination surfaced at an auction in Bavaria in 2010 before swiftly being confiscated by the Bavarian government. They have only recently been properly studied by Professor Peter Fleischmann of Erlangen-Nuremberg University.

Normally, men’s testicles descend from inside the body into the scrotum during childhood, but Fleischmann told German newspaper Bild the records showed one of Hitler’s testicles was “probably stunted”.

The records seem to contradict long-running specualation that Hitler lost one testicle to shrapnel during the Battle of the Somme in the first world war.

That rumour was backed up by Franciszek Pawlar, a Polish priest and amateur historian, who claimed a German army medic who treated Hitler after the shrapnel incident told him about the injury.

The medical records also contradict Hitler’s childhood doctor, who told American interrogators in 1943 that the future Führer’s genitals were “completely normal”.

Wikipedia on the topic: Adolph Hitler’s Possible Monorchism.

Wild Man Found!

From the BBC:

Rare treasure found in Suffolk depicts medieval ‘Wild Man’

A 500-year-old artefact is one of the earliest depictions of a mythical figure from medieval Europe, an expert has claimed.

Metal detectorists found the spoon handle with an engraving of “Wild Man” near Woodbridge in Suffolk.

A leading historian has hailed the discovery as a “rare find”.
Some of the earliest writings about The Wild Man come from Spain in the 9th Century and he was described as “barbaric, chaotic and unrestrained”.

The 15th Century handle, found two years ago, was declared as treasure at an inquest in Ipswich this week.

Covered in leaves and brandishing a club, the hairy Wild Man was a popular medieval mythical figure mostly found in pictures and literature rather than on objects.

Professor of history Ronald Hutton, from the University of Bristol, said: “It’s certainly one of the earliest depictions of the Wild Man.

“There would have been earlier ones on manuscripts and tapestries but not like this.”

He said it would have been owned by someone “well-off” and from the “upper to middle class”.

People were fascinated by the creature who was “barbaric, chaotic and unrestrained”, he said.

“This might have been given to someone as a present to remind them of how not to behave,” he added.

“He was a bogey in a world obsessed with religious and social order, an awful warning of the consequences of a lack of either.”

The figure is being valued by the British Museum, which will then decide what to do with it.

I’m pleased to see they consulted Ronald Hutton about this – I’ve admired his work over the years, and enjoyed his talk at the Folklore Society in London some five years ago now.

In heraldry the wild man is known as a woodwose and two of them appear as supporters in the royal arms of Denmark:

Royal_coat_of_arms_of_Denmark.svg

Via Wikipedia.

Marathon

Answers.com claims that you need to stop believing the myth that marathons are 26 miles long “because of the ancient Greeks”:

One common myth is that marathon is 26 miles because that is the length that the Greek messenger ran from Marathon to Athens to announce a Greek victory.

In actuality, today’s race length dates back to the 1908 London Olympics.

Runners were set to race about 26 miles, but an extra 385 yards was tacked on so that the royal family could good view of the race, according to the NY Times.

Google Maps claims that the shortest route on drivable roads between Marathonas and Athens is 42.7 km, which translates to 26.5 miles, so it doesn’t sound like too much of a myth. Wikipedia says that:

The International Olympic Committee agreed in 1907 that the distance for the 1908 London Olympic marathon would be about 25 miles or 40 kilometres. The organisers decided on a course of 26 miles from the start at Windsor Castle to the royal entrance to the White City Stadium, followed by a lap (586 yards, 2 feet; 536 m) of the track, finishing in front of the Royal Box. The course was later altered to use a different entrance to the stadium, followed by a partial lap of 385 yards to the same finish.

The modern 42.195 km standard distance for the marathon was set by theInternational Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) in May 1921 directly from the length used at the 1908 Summer Olympics in London.

In other words, prior to the 1920s, there was no standard length for a marathon (just as there is no standard size and shape for a baseball field even today). They then settled on one based on the 1908 Olympics, which only tangentially had to do with the royal family.

A better myth that you need to stop believing would be that Pheidippides ever made the run in the first place, following the Athenian victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Herodotus, our main source for the Persian wars, mentions a runner named Pheidippides who ran to Sparta to ask for help, but the first mention that Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to announce “Victory!” right before falling down dead was Lucian of Samosta, who lived and wrote in the second century AD. In other words, like Archimedes shouting “Eureka” and running down the street naked, or like Newton getting hit on the head by an apple, it’s one of those delightful stories that add spice to a lecture, but which must then be disavowed. (Stephanie Trigg would call it “mythic capital.”)