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Are legends fact or fiction?

Peter Williamson, 16 May, 2017
There's a fine line between fact and fiction. Many legends and myths that have come down to us over the eons seem implausible and fantastical, yet are quite possibly founded on truth – or a grain of it at least.
 

Can their origins be traced to some factual event, or has time, blissful ignorance, superstition and centuries of Chinese whispers obliterated all trace of logical explanation? Is there fact behind any of the fiction?

Let’s start with giants – they’ve got a lot to answer for. It seems that any inexplicable natural geological formation of gigantic proportion (and therein lies the first clue) is to be blamed on, or accredited to, giants. Take the Giants’ Causeway on the coast of Northern Ireland – who else could have built that? Can nature prescribe such geometric design? Or the Hole of Horcum on the North Yorkshire Moors. If Wade the Giant hadn’t scooped up a great fistful of earth to throw at his wife, how can this vast depression be explained? It’s unlike anything else for miles. And what about two massive sea stacks in the Faroe Islands, called Risin and Kellingin. We’re led to believe these are the remains of two giants who had come to tow the islands north to Iceland – but were caught in the act by the sun and turned to stone, to stand for all eternity, tormented by the icy waves.

Sadly, modern scientific understanding has repudiated these more prosaic explanations, offering sound geological (yet far less colourful) answers to suggest that such giants are, in fact, fiction.

But dare we say the same of religious beliefs? Religion has historically always found a way of explaining the inexplicable, too. God is in the Heavens above, while Satan lives in the underworld – under our very feet – constantly trying to lure us to sinful ways via vast caves or deep, dark chasms, where few men dared to tread. These unlit portals must surely be the gateways to Hell itself.

In the Dordogne Valley in France, the Gouffre de Padirac was believed to have been created by Satan after a confrontation with St Martin. The Devil dared St Martin to make his mule jump any obstacle that he lay before him, in return for which he would surrender the souls he was carrying off. He then struck the ground with his foot and the Gouffre (a deep chasm) opened up – but the mule leapt it, leaving signs of his epic effort on the wall of the cave. If you enter today, you can see the hoof proof for yourself! So it must be true.

In other places, mythical beasts have left their mark. Who hasn’t heard of dragons and dragon-slayers? But a half dragon-half turtle? If you live in Tarascon on the banks of the Rhône in southern France, this creature is to be feared, and alongside the Château de Tarascon stands a stone-carved representation of this curious-looking creature. The Tarasque is said to have inhabited the swampy waters around the town ‘in the olden days’ from where it terrorised (and ate) the population. Legend has it that Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha arrived in Marseilles and were challenged to show the power of their God by taming the Tarasque – which they duly did. On its death, the jubilant townsfolk immediately converted to Christianity.

If that’s ‘the fiction’, then the most likely explanation of ‘the fact’ is that the Tarasque was a crocodile brought back by Roman settlers from Egypt, which then escaped. Never having seen anything like it, local people would reasonably have mistaken the creature for a dragon, particularly if it devoured their livestock and presumably the occasional citizen, too!

Despite so many of these myths and legends appearing at first glance to be nothing more than the product of fanciful imaginings intensified through the mists of time, like the Tarasque, there may actually be more than just a grain of fact behind the fiction.
 

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Discover the wonderful views, pretty villages and tasty cuisine of the Dordogne Valley, plus the spectacular Gouffre de Padirac.
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Explore the remarkably dramatic landscapes of these remote islands, on foot, by boat and by car.
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