Myths and Legends - Fact and Fiction

A recent report on the origins of many legends and fairy tales has found stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk are thousands of years old. The brothers Grimm held much the same view and we find other examples such as the Egyptian Cinderella - Rhodopis - dating to 1350BC or earlier.

It looks safe to say that many tales and legends have offered entertainment and insight for millenia. As part of that they have held a universal appeal in terms of being handed on fairly intact from one generation to another.

Stories, folklore and superstition sometimes suggest part of the appeal lies in themes of personal development and/ or handing on common sense to children. While this may be true such information tends to be fairly piecemeal and unreliable. Nevertheless, we can see layers of meaning and practicality in tales and legends which reference the night skies.

Many legends often spun around personifying the movements of planets, stars or constellations have been shown to build astronomical knowledge into legends. Hamlet's Mill presented a partial breakthrough in understanding when specifically matching legends to astronomical events. However, the book was more about a journey into the field than about reaching an end point and presents as a demanding read.

Nevertheless, if we know there is some consistent, broadly scientific information recorded in many tales and legends we can be alert to options beyond those already identified. Which is why the repeated appearance of references to red moss in a series of Gaelic legends stood out like a sore thumb. Every time the hero or such like was wounded green or red sphagnum moss was to all intents and purposes prescribed as an absolute must.

Which led to looking up the properties of sphagnum. During WWI cotton became too expensive or hard to get to meet the huge demand for dressings for war wounds. The mass produced substitute offering he best option they could find was sphagnum.

So these tales handed down over thousands of years are at least in some cases packed with practical knowledge. It may have to be treated with extreme caution and could have been distorted along the way, but there is more there than entertainment for children.

As antibiotics become less effective through overuse sphagnum may be one of the options brought back into view. And it's not a one off, as honey provides another example of a longstanding treatment for wounds which fell out of use.

To be clear, that doesn't mean I have any idea how these might combine to offer any alternative to antibiotics. There remains a desperate need to develop new antibiotics. At the same time the underlying realities within the imaginative framework of fairy tales and legends serves as a reminder not to be in too much of a hurry to discard the past - even if it is green and mushy.


Hear, o youth! It happened once that Rhodopis, the rosy checked, came down through the palm groves to bathe in the river Nile. Beautiful as the dawn was Rhodopis; her mouth was pure of evil speaking; her two hands were pure of evil doing, and her forehead shone with the light of the Double Truth. Amid the papyrus reeds on the bank of the river she left her pure white garments and a pair of tiny gilded sandals. Then she flung herself lightly on the bosom of old Father Nile. But as she disported herself in those sacred waters, lo! there came flying toward her a mighty eagle. Above the papyrus reeds he hovered and spied among them the gleam of gold. Down to the earth he swooped, seized one of the beautiful gilded sandals, and soared again up to the heavens. Rhodopis cried out and stretched forth her arms, but already the eagle was lost to sight in the bright beams of Ra, the Sun.

Now it chanced that at that very hour there sat before the Temple of Ptah in the great square of the royal city of Memphis, the King himself, administering justice, on his head the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. Before him came one dragging a poor peasant bound in chains.

“This fellow will not pay his tax of one tenth of his harvest to thy royal granary!” said the tax-collector.

The peasant fell on his face before the King.

“Hail unto thee, great Lord of Truth and Justice!” he cried. “Worms destroyed the half of my wheat, swarms of rats laid waste my fields, the little birds pilfered, and the hippopotomi ate the rest. At such a time came thy tax-collector to demand the royal tax. When I made answer that I had no corn for myself and hence none to give thee, there came the keepers of the doors of thy granary with cudgels. They threw me full length upon the ground, bound me hand and foot and dragged me here to thee. My wife they cast into chains - my children likewise. Justice, O King! Justice!”

The King rose up with flashing eyes and out-stretched hand.

“Thou hast committed iniquity,” he cried to his tax-collector. “Thou hast oppressed the poor. The tax is for those to pay who have wherewithal to pay it. Thou shalt serve me no more. Begone! This man shall go free.”

Then he bade those who held the peasant to loose him, to give him food and drink and a gift for his wife and children.

“I would cause no child of tender age to mourn.” he said. “I would despoil no woman. Go safely home, my man. Thou hast no corn or wheat, ‘tis true, but thou hast a greater treasure - even those who love and cherish thee.” And he sank wearily down on his seat of justice, for he had no wife nor child of his own. No woman had he yet found worthy to share his throne and help him rule his people.

As he spoke and while still he mused on that which he had not, there came suddenly soaring above the square a mighty eagle, and lo! from the eagle’s beak there fell into the great King’s lap a maiden’s tiny gilded sandal. In great astonishment, the King picked up the trinket and held it forth at arm’s length in the palm of his powerful hand.

“What maid beneath the sun,” he cried, “could wear such dainty footgear?” And as he gazed upon it, there rose in his mind a vision of what she must be like whose foot would fit that tiny sandal. Into the robes on his bosom, he thrust the little thing.

“I will hear no more complaints today,” he said and bade those who bore his litter to carry him back to his palace. Once alone in his own inner chamber, he drew forth the sandal again and studied it long and earnestly. Every moment it seemed more beautiful; and more and more lovely grew his vision of her who must have worn it. At length he called to him the Chief of his Scribes.

“Write out for me a royal proclamation,” he ordered.

The Scribe spread out a scroll of papyrus and began to draw upon it strange figures and hieroglyphics.

“Let all the maidens in my land try on this sandal,” said the King. “She whose foot it fits, and she alone, shall be my queen.”

When the Scribe had finished his work, he went forth into the city and a servant bore on a splendid cushion before him the precious gilded sandal. In all the public places the Scribe read the King’s proclamation, and straightway the ladies came flocking to try on the little slipper. There were maidens of high degree and maidens of low degree, there were daughters of nobles and daughters of blacksmiths, daughters of goldsmiths and daughters of glass-blowers, daughters of armorers and daughters of potters, there were women from Upper Egypt and women from Lower Egypt, but not a single one among them could squeeze her foot into the tiny sandal.

Days passed and the King was in despair. The more difficult it seemed to find the mysterious maiden, the more certain he became that she, and she alone, was fitted to be his Queen. At length there came one morning to the Chief Scribe the peasant whom the King had released from his tax, and whispered privately into his ear:

“Go to the Sphinx by the great pyramids in the desert. There comes every day at daybreak to greet the rising sun, a maiden beautiful as the dawn.”

The Scribe bore the news at once to the King, and the very next morning, just as the first faint rays of the sun came gleaming through the palm trees, and crept across the green Nile valley to the sandy edge of the desert, the King, wrapped well from public sight in a cloak, made his way with the Scribe to the spot where rose the three great pyramids. There, too, stood the giant Sphinx with the body of a lion and the head of a man, carved from the solid rock and rising solemn and grand from the sand.

Just as the round red ball of Ra burst full above the horizon’s rim, lo! a maiden, rosy as the dawn, sprang up on the mighty paw of the Sphinx, and raised her hands toward the rising sun—resplendent symbol of the Creator, of Light and Truth and all-sustaining Power.

“Thy appearing is beautiful in the horizon of heaven,” she sang;

Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.
The birds fly in their haunts -
Their wings adoring thee.
The small bird in the egg, sounding within the shell -
Thou givest it breath within the egg.
How many are the things which thou hast made!
Thou createst the land by thy will, thou alone,
With peoples, herds, and flocks -
Thou guest to every man his place, thou framest his life.”

No sooner had the King beheld the maiden’s rosy face, reflecting all the tight of the sun, than he said. “This is indeed the one!” As she finished her song and seated herself on the paw of the Sphinx, he himself took the precious sandal and humbly made his way toward her.

“O maiden that shinest like the sun!” he cried, “does this belong to thee?”

The maiden smiled as she saw what he held in his hand, then she put forth one slender bare foot and slipped it easily into the sandal. In another moment she drew from beneath her the other foot, and lo! there was the mate to the wonderful slipper.

So the King asked Rhodopis - for Rhodopis it was - to be his Queen. Rhodopis gave him both her hands and made answer: “O great Lord, who feedest on Truth and Justice, I ask nothing more than to share such a life as thine.” Then the King led her back to the palace. There was placed on her head the crown of the Queens of Egypt, with the royal asp rising from her brow, Thenceforward, by the side of the just and merciful King, as his beloved companion, she reigned over Egypt - Rhodopis, the rosy cheeked, who wore the little gilded sandals.

From: Beaupré, Olive Miller, editor. Through Fairy Halls of My Bookhouse. Chicago: The Bookhouse for Children Publisher, 1920.

Thanks - as ever - to familiar friends from the Golden Age of Illustration, including Virginia Sterrett, Joseph Urban, Heinrich Lefler, Ivan Bilibin and Arthur Rackham.