While the veracity of these stories are somewhat suspect (we’re not sure, for instance, that Merlin is still trapped in a cave in Wales), these tales are sometimes tied to particular places in the world which travellers can visit for themselves and wonder what might have been.
So prepare yourself for a tale of witches, wizards and demigods; here are five tourist sights and the legends behind them.
The Welsh town of Carmarthen has not one but three links to Merlin, the sorcerous advisor of King Arthur of the Knights of the Round Table: it’s supposed to be the birthplace of Merlin, is near Bryn Myrddin (Merlin’s Hill), and is home of Merlin’s Oak.
The hill is where Merlin was trapped by Nimue, his apprentice and lover. There are various versions of the story but probably the most common is that Nimue convinced Merlin to teach her all that he knew of magic, and then used this magic to seal him in a cave in the hill while he lay asleep or exhausted. One version of the story goes that he is trapped there until the day when Arthur rises from sleep to defend Britain in its time of greatest need.
Legend also has it that Merlin placed a protective spell on an oak in the town, with a general prophecy that the town would fall when the tree did. Efforts to preserve it have included keeping the dead tree behind iron railings after it was poisoned by a disgruntled local in the 1850s. The Carmarthenshire County Museum says it has the last piece of the oak on display, while a rather disturbing wooden sculpture of the wizard, carved from (presumably non-magic) Carmarthen oak, can be found in the Merlin’s Walk shopping precinct.
It’s also worth noting that several other sites around Britain are billed as ‘Merlin’s Cave’ – he was apparently a popular wizard!
If you’re a classics lover, you’ll know this story like the back of your hand, but for those who didn’t enjoy a little Herodotus with their history, the Oracle at Delphi was famous in the Ancient World for its predictions of the future.
Delphi was the site of a temple of Apollo, which contained the Oracle, a priestess called the Pythia, from 1400 B.C. Supplicants would be led to the Pythia (for a fee), who would give cryptic answers in a trance-like state. According to legend, the Oracle was famous for its uncanny accuracy. Wishing to test the skills of the Oracle, King Croesus of Lydia sent a messenger with instructions to ask, on the 100th day, what the King was doing at that time. The written answer was returned to the King and read:” Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell-covered tortoise, boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron. Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.”
The King declared that the Delphic Oracle had been correct, since, with the departure of the messengers, he had decided to do the most bizarre and unlikely thing he could think of on the appointed day: boil a tortoise and lamb together in a brass cauldron.
The site today contains the ruins of several buildings including the Temple, as well as fantastic views out over the countryside. If you’re thinking of visiting, you might want to check out Seven Good Reasons Not To Cancel Your Greece Vacation.
Aotearoa, or the Land of the Long White Cloud, is a nation rich with stories, not the least of which is the legend about the country’s origin. Comprised of three main islands (North, South and Stewart), the story goes that the demigod Maui, also famous for taming the sun, overheard his brothers’ plans to go fishing without him one day. He made a hook from a magical jawbone, and hid in their canoe, popping out to join in the fishing when they were far out to sea.
Using his jawbone hook, Maui managed to snare something deep in the ocean. Pulling hard, he raised the North Island from the sea, the Maori name for which is Te Ika a Maui, or the Fish of Maui. The South Island’s name is Te Waka a Maui or the Canoe of Maui, and Stewart Island, located beneath the South Island, is known as Te Punga a Maui, or Maui’s Anchor.
Take a look at a map of New Zealand and see if you can spot the Fish of Maui in the North Island’s shape (and travellers to the country might want to check out the wineries too!)
Don’t let the 2004 movie put you off. Made famous by Homer’s The Iliad (from where the saying ‘bites the dust’ can be traced), the archaeological site of Troy in the province of Çanakkale in Turkey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has more than 4,000 years of history documenting the settlement of various civilisations including the Anatolian, Aegean, and Balkan cultures.
The legend goes that after Trojan prince, Paris, chose to gift Aphrodite with a golden apple inscribed ‘To the fairest’, the goddess promised to make the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, fall in love with him. Helen’s husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta, and his twin brother Agamemnon gathered an army and launched ‘a thousand ships’ to lay siege to Troy, where Paris had fled to the protection of his father, Priam, and his older, much nobler brother, Hector.
The 10 year siege finally ended when Odysseus came up with a cunning plan to conceal Greek soldiers inside a giant wooden horse and leave it at the gates of Troy while the rest of the army withdrew, making the Trojans think the horse was a gift to the gods for a safe journey home. The Trojans brought the horse inside the city walls and celebrated, only to have the Greek soldiers slip out in the dead of night and open the gates for the returned army to sack the sleeping city.
The epic tale includes the legend of Achilles, the Greek hero, and was the prequel to The Odyssey, the tale of the wily Odysseus’ journey home from the war. Both works have inspired countless works of art and literature and travellers say visits to the site are heavy with the weight of history.
It’s not just Stonehenge – there are stone circles all over Britain, an estimated 1,300 of them, and the myths associated with them will have you wondering ever so slightly whether you should be wandering amongst them.
People still aren’t quite sure what the circles were used for, but most theories include religious ceremonies and astronomical calendars. The stones used in Stonehenge are famous for being transported from about 320km away in 1700B.C., and for being fashioned to fit without the use joining materials, such as cement.
Meanwhile the huge Avebury henge, made of three stone circles, encompasses part of the village – including a pub. Some guide books suggest visitors stop off for a pint inside a stone circle but be warned, the parking fees are pretty exorbitant!
The myths surrounding stone circles are vary. A famous one, associated with the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds, is that no one can count the same number of stones in a circle – you’ll always come to a different number. A similar tale associated with ‘Long Meg and her Daughters’ in Cumbria is that you cannot count the same number of stones twice, and if you do, the spell transforming the witch Long Meg and her children into the stones will be broken.