In medieval times, the philosophers’ stone was the substance that alchemists claimed would turn base metals into gold. The great search for the stone laid the groundwork for the development of the science of chemistry.
Despite rumors that the slightest nibble on the Christmas flower poinsettias will result in death, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission determined in 1975 that the toxicity of poinsettias is a myth, though the flower is a nonfood substance and, if eaten, could cause some discomfort.
Nereids were 50 nymphs of the sea, daughters of the sea-god Nereus, often came to the aid of sailors in trouble.
The Round Table seated 150 knights, with one place left open for the Holy Grail. The table’s design was conceived by Merlin to prevent any bickering about who would get places of honor.
The Greek Adonis, the Babylonian Tammuz, the Sumerian Dumuzi, and the Egyptian Osiris are all forms of the same god. After being carried off to the underworld, Tammuz, god of crops and vegetation, was rescued by his lover Ishtar. All life on earth withered between his dying (in winter) and his rising (in spring).
Pixies are mischievous sprites of English folklore that like to play pranks on people. They are most famous for leading people astray. Hence, anyone lost on a familiar road, bewildered, or confused came to be called “pixie-led” or “pixilated.
The Princess slept on 20 mattresses and 20 eiderdowns (fluffy featherbeds), between 2 of which was placed a single pea.
The Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. Originally there were only three, associated with memory. Their number was expanded to nine to represent each of the individual arts. They are: 1. Calliope, muse of epic poetry 2. Clio, muse of heroic poetry or history 3. Erato, muse of love poetry 4. Euterpe, […]
The ancient Scandinavians appear to be responsible for the legend of newborn babies being delivered by the stork. The myth grew out of observations of storks, their nesting in chimneys, their monogamy, and their gentle behavior toward their kin. The myth did not gain worldwide acceptance until the nineteenth century, when Danish writer Hans Christian […]
Yin is female, dark, negative, earthly. Yang is male, bright, positive, heavenly. In Chinese mythology, both are ethers born in the division of the original cell of chaos, Ch’i.
Black is the color of mourning today because in ancient times, it was believed that the spirits of the dead could repossess the bodies of the living. So, to disguise themselves from evil spirits, mourners painted their bodies black. Later societies translated this custom into wearing black clothes and veils.
They were giants born of Uranus (Sky) and Gaea (Earth). Each of them had the characteristic single eye in the middle of the forehead. The most famous Cyclops, Polyphemus, ate some of Odysseus’s crewmen in The Odyssey. Others, Brontes, Steropes, and Argeswere famed for having fashioned Zeus’s thunderbolts.
As presented in Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Galahad was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Princess Elaine. Also the last descendant of Joseph of Arimathea, he was the purest knight of the Knights of the Round Table.
Zeus’s parents were both Titans, children of Uranus (Sky) and Gaea (Earth). Zeus’s mother was Rhea; his father was Cronus. Fearing that one of his sons would overthrow him, Cronus swallowed his five other children, but Rhea rescued Zeus and had him raised in secrecy in a cave. Eventually Zeus tricked Cronus into vomiting up […]
The Egyptian pharaohs claim to be descended Ra, the sun-god. Ra is sometimes represented with the disk of the sun on his head and surrounded by Uraeus, the sacred flame-breathing asp.
The Grateful Dead does not mean a rock group. It is a folktale in which a young man buries a corpse at great personal risk, then obtains a bride with the help of the grateful deceased. A version of the tale appears in the apocryphal Old Testament book of Tobit.
One reason spilling salt is considered bad luck is because salt was once valuable and difficult to obtain. According to an old Norwegian superstition, a person is doomed to shed as many tears as it takes to dissolve the spilled salt. Another reason is the belief that spilled salt refers to the devil. In the […]
Before it became the Nazi symbol of Aryan superiority, the swastika had several meanings, all positive. In Sanskrit, the word swastika means “conducive to well-being.” The Aryans of India believed swastikas represented the sun’s motion across the sky, a symbol of its goodness and regenerative power. The Greeks and Persians believed it represented prosperity and […]
Ragnarok is the day of doom in Norse mythology and corresponds to Gotterdammerung, the Teutonic Twilight of the Gods. On Ragnarok, a battle between good and evil results in the world’s being consumed by fire. Later, a new world, new humans, and new gods spring up around the core of a few survivors.
This basic element of tennis rackets and violins called catgut comes not from cats but from the intestines of sheep. The cat in the word may have derived from kit, an old word for a small violin. Valued for its toughness, catgut is also used for artificial limbs and in small machines like typewriters and […]
Some believe the custom of wearing wedding rings is a vestige of ancient barbarian marriages. This was when a man would capture a woman and bind her to his house in fetters, now symbolized by a ring. Others think the practice originated in ancient Egypt about 2800 B.C. As the circular ring has no beginning […]
The last legal bacchanalia was in the second century B.C. before the Roman senate banned this festival honoring Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Originally a religious rite celebrated only by women, it eventually included men and became an excuse for drunken orgies.
The legendary Christian ruler Prester John was believed to have reigned in Asia beyond Persia and Armenia, under the humble title Presbyter or Prester, that is, priest. European Christians hoped Prester John would help them drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land. Explorers like Marco Polo went looking for him; at least one forged […]
Yes, according to legend, Mother Goose was real. She was Elizabeth Goose, a New England widow who married Isaac Goose, adopting a family of 10, and later bore 6 children. In 1719, her book of rhymes, Mother Goose’s Melodies for Children, was said to have been published by her son-in-law. No copy of the book […]
The moon does occasionally appear blue because of dust conditions in the atmosphere. The most famous widely observed blue moon of recent times occurred on September 26, 1950, owing to dust raised by Canadian forest fires.
Daughters of Zeus, they were Greek goddesses of fertility, later associated with beauty and love, Aglaia (Brightness), Euphrosyne (Joyfulness), and Thalia (Bloom). Their collective name, Graces (they were also known as Chorites), referred to the gracious or pleasing appearance of fertile gardens and fields.
Ishtar was the great mother goddess of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Her concerns included fertility, healing, sexuality, and lust.
Quetzalcoatl was the Aztec god of the atmosphere and of civilizing influences. Besides ruling the wind and sun, he invented agriculture, the calendar, and many arts and crafts. Sometimes represented as a feathered serpent, sometimes as a bearded man, he was also identified as a priest-king who had sailed away, promising to return.
In Western Europe, people have considered the feet of rabbits lucky since before 600 B.C. Several characteristics of the rabbit may have led to its great popularity: It is born with its eyes open, suggesting innate wisdom; it spends much of its life underground, suggesting a connection to a mysterious netherworld; it is prolific, suggesting […]
In Malory’s Mane d’Arthur, the Lady of the Lake is a supernatural figure who lives in a magical lake. She steals the infant Lancelot and raises him in the lake, hence his name, Lancelot du Lac. She also awards King Arthur the sword Excalibur, which he takes from an arm reaching out of the lake. […]
The fair exists in literature, created by John Bunyin in The Pilgrim’s Progress (Part I, 1678; Part II, 1684). Established in the town of Vanity by Beelzebub, Apollyon, and Legion, it lasts all year and sells all manner of earthly treasures and enjoyments.
It is well known that Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology who was punished in Hades by having to roll a stone forever up a hill, only to have it roll back down. It is less well known that he was given this sentence as punishment for cheating death. Sisyphus, a king of Corinth, […]
In Greek mythology, Chaos was the primal void that gave birth to Gaea (Earth), Tartarus (Infernal Regions), Eros (Love), Erebus (Darkness), and Nyx (Night).
The Phrygian king Tantalus committed an abomination when he cut up his son Pelops and served him for dinner to the gods. He was punished in Hades by unending thirst and hunger. Water slipped away from him whenever he tried to drink it; fruit trees were forever out of reach. This story is the source […]
Priapus, a Greek god of animal and plant fertility, was known for his enormous phallus. He was usually described as the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, though sometimes his mother was said to have been a local nymph. To sophisticated city-dwellers, Priapus often became the subject of racy humor, but rural people adopted him as […]
Over the course of 12 years’ service to Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, Hercules performed the following known as The Twelve Labours of Hercules: 1. Killed the Nemean lion 2. Killed the hydra of Lerna 3. Captured the Erymanthian boar 4. Captured the hind of Artemis 5. Killed the man-eating Stymphalian birds 6. Cleaned the Augean […]
In Greek mythology, Nike was the goddess of victory. She was the daughter of the giant Pallas and the river Styx. In Rome, Nike was called Victoria.
Both Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus were fathered by Zeus, king of the gods. Apollo’s mother was the goddess Leto; Dionysus’s mother was a mortal named Semele. Apollo was the god of light, healing, music, and archery. Dionysus, a darker figure, was the god of wine and fertility.
According to legend you get the gift of eloquence when you kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland. To reach the Blarney Stone, go to the southern wall of Blarney Castle in the village of Blarney, County Cork, Ireland. The stone is under the battlements there. Be warned: You have to hang head downward to kiss […]
Yes, hares supposedly bring bad fortune. Legend has it that witches transform themselves into hares, so crossing a hare’s path may mean meeting up with a witch. Further, hares have been believed by some to be melancholy creatures; thus, eating a hare can ruin your day.
In the Jewish calendar, Tammuz is the name of the month that falls during June and July.
The practice of people crossing their fingers may have evolved from the sign of the cross, which was believed to ward off evil.