What do the Myths of King Arthur, the Christian Kingdom of Prester John, the Selkie (or Finfolk) of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Amazonian Warrior Women, the biblical Tower of Babel, and Krishna’s holy city of Dvaraka, all have in common? Well, despite all being mythological, there is varying extents of factual evidence to all of them.
The Arthurian Myths:
This one is a multi-part myth, the myth of King Arthur, the Sword in the Stone (or in some versions, sword in the lake), and the Round Table.
Let’s start off with who is the most likely candidate for King Arthur. There was a Roman general named Lucius Artorius Castus, and in the far reaches of the Roman Empire (in Lucius Artorius Castus’ case, it was in England) generals didn’t use the flags of the Roman Empire, but of the individual generals. And his individual flag was a red dragon (leading to the name of Arthur Pendragon), and was one of his fortresses was near modern day Newport (Wales), and this is a major contributing factor to both Welsh mythology and culture (including the Red Dragon on the Welsh flag). His battle-banner (different from their flag) was a blue background with 3 golden crown, and that symbol has been used in England to represent the three regions (Scotland, England, Wales), as well as a symbol in Sweden, Denmark, and several towns in Germany.
Now Lucius’s soldiers were primarily Sarmatians, and it was their rituals and myths that eventually became the modern Arthur myths.
So first lets start off with the “Knights of the Round Table” myth. It is based on Sarmatian tradition, where during times of war, people sat at round tables as a sign of comradery as they were all considered equals (as the table was round, there was no “head” of the table).
The Sword in the Stone myth is based on Cimmerian (and later other steppes tribes, including the Sarmatians) religious worship. Herodotus mentioned this as a primitive worship of Ares/Mars but it was a bit different. It was a three pronged system of worship, where there would be a base of earth, followed by stone, and then the sword on top. The earth would represent the ancestors of the people, the stone would represent the living, while the sword would represent their god. Sword worship was pretty big amongst the steppes people, as they were often warring tribes. This was later passed on by the ancestors of the Sarmatians to other cultures (who were culturally and ethnically similar), such as the Mongolians, the Huns, and later on the Alans and Goths (the Goths kept the myth going to the point it was mentioned in the Icelandic Old Edda).
The similar “Sword in the Lake” legend (Lady of the Lake) comes from an old Sarmatian legend of their king Batraz, who ordered his soldiers to throw his magic sword in a lake when he was dying. Many other Sarmatians (especially generals, and royalty) would often re-enact that portion of the myth if they were to die in combat, with having one of their loyal companions throw the sword into a nearby lake.
The Legend of Prester John
The Legend of Prester John was a persistent European Christian myth that there was a legendary Nestorian Christian kingdom lead by a King known as Prester John. It is important to note that the kingdom and the name Prester John itself, is questionable at best. The myth of Prester John and his Christian kingdom pre-dates a letter supposedly written by him by roughly 20 years, and the letter written by him is by most scholars, considered a forgery. A detailed forgery, with some real knowledge (such as the knowledge of nations/tribes of Nestorian Christians in eastern Asia), but a forgery none the less. But, there is some truth to the fact that there was several powerful Nestorian Christian kingdoms outside of Europe. There were three major areas Prester John’s kingdom was supposed to be. and these have been imagined from Mongolia, India, and Ethiopia. It’s origins constantly changed as Christian Europe refused to believe the kingdom could be defeated by “heathens and pagans” so anytime a place it was assumed to be became conquered, it’s place of origins changed. It was also thought that they were going to ally with Christian Europe to reclaim the holy lands in the Middle East, so the myth was also expanded heavily by the various kingdoms funding the crusades ongoing at the time.
The most likely place of origin is Mongolia, which before the rise of Genghis Khan, and until the division of the Mongol Empire, was actually a stronghold of Nestorian Christianity. In fact, some historians suggest that Genghis Khan’s adoptive father Toghrul may have been Prester John (and other historians suggested that Genghis Khan may have been the Nestorian King David, the grandson of Prester John). The more common theory is that Toghrul was Prester John is heavily due to that fact that Toghrul himself was a Nestorian Christian, and that one of his daughters became one of Genghis’s many wives (and was heavily his favourite). Toghrul’s clan (the Kerait) were also one of the most influential clans at the time, and were predominantly Nestorian Christian (so despite Toghrul not being a monarch in the European sense, he was still comparable to being a king). Another Mongol origin of Prester John was the Khara-Khitai Khanate (which merged into the Mongol Empire when it rose). While the Khara-Khitai were Buddhist, they had several tributaries and vassals that were Nestorian Christian. And Buddhism wasn’t known in Europe at the time, so the thought was “If they aren’t Muslim, they must be Christian”. This theory is backed by the fact that Hugh, Bishop of Jabala (in Syria), claimed that “the forces of Prester John” helped reclaim some cities that were conquered by the Seljuk Turks. This part lines up with the historical battles between the Khara-Khitai and the Seljuks, so it is possible that the Buddhist leader Yelu Dashi may have been the one referred to as Prester John (though there is no record of Yelu Dashi ever being called that by anyone else).
After the collapse of a unified Mongol Empire it was believed that Prester John was in fact located in India. The problem with it being located in India was the fact that Europeans had a very vague concept of where or what India was, and that Prester John was a king of one of the “Three Indias”. The one in India would have been likely due to the fact that Saint Thomas the Apostle having gone towards India to convert people to Christianity in the third century. There was a Christian sect in India at the time, but they had little (as in next to no) contact with Europe for hundreds of years. Of those three India’s, one was in fact Mongolian territory just north of India, one was somewhere “East of Persia” (some of which was also Mongolian territory, other parts would have been in India proper).
The third India, was in fact the final place they figured Prester John’s kingdom may have been, and that is Ethiopia. They knew that Ethiopia was a relatively powerful Christian kingdom, and it grew more distant as the rise of Islam made it harder for Christian Europe to contact them. Ethiopia was quickly discounted as the origin of the Prester John myth though (before the letter was identified as a fake) due to the fact that they had never heard of that myth before European contact.
Selkie/Finnfolk of the Orkneys and Shetland:
The Selkie (also known as the Finnfolk) myths are similar myths on two separate islands off the Scottish coast. The Selkie (or Seal-folk) were people who could shapeshift between Seals, and Humans, in a process that involved shedding their seal skin. Now in Shetland, these people were often called Finfolk, which is itself a bastardization of Norse for the Finnish people (often called Finnfolk). Now the reason this bit is important, is because it was often assumed the Suomi (native people of Finland, especially northern Finland, also found in northern Sweden, Norway and northern Russia near the Finnish border) were all assumed to be witches, shamans, and shapeshifters. While these islands also had myths of merfolk, the peoples of both islands made distinctions between the Selkies/Finnfolk and the Merfolk (one being able to live on land and water, the other being half aquatic/half human and can only live in water). In times of trouble, Scottish people would hunt seals for food and clothing, but on the islands of Scotland, it was always considered bad luck, and would result in retribution from the Selkies. It wasn’t uncommon to hear stories of how Selkie men and women would copulate with humans, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. The resulting children were said to have webbed toes and fingers. The origin of that is often because of the MacCodrum clan (Also known as the MacCodrums of the Seals), which often had the hereditary trait of syndactyly, which is a genetic trait often resulting in webbed fingers (sometimes even merging them, so they look like “flippers” or “fins”). Other more rare birth defects (such as anencephaly, which could result in deformed heads, almost resembling seal heads), or ichthyosis (a disorder that gives scaly skin) were often considered children who had parents or ancestors who were Selkie themselves. But noted antiquarian and Scottish Folklorist David MacRitchie pointed out that the origins of these myths likely came from early encounters with Suomi people who came to the Orkney and Shetland islands, and they often used Seal-skin Kayaks and Clothing. To top it off, most of the early Scandinavian peoples were exceptional swimmers, and would often strip off their sealskin clothing to dry while they lay on the rocks afterwards (leading to the myths of them “shedding their skins” in transformation). There was also the possibility of encounters with the “Finn-men” which was the term for Inuit people from the Davis Strait, which twice a year travel from northern Canada, Greenland, and Iceland was possible (but around the 1300’s access to these areas were completely cut off for a couple hundred years though it did remain part of Danish patrimony, even though it was heavily under Inuit rule). The Inuit people, much like the Suomi, often used Seal-skin clothing and kayaks, and would dry them out after swimming or longer journeys.
Amazon Warrior Women (Eurasian Scythians/Sarmatians):
In Scythian and Sarmatian cultures, gender roles were far less defined then they were in most of the Eurasian world. This was heavily due to their nomadic lifestyle, where everyone worked where they were best suited. It also helped that the women of these tribes were unnaturally tall compared to the women often seen by the Greeks, Romans, and other central and western European tribes (With women in the Scythian/Sarmatian tribes averaging 5’6, while in Rome and Greece women averaged 5’1). Men in Rome and Greece at the time averaged 5’6 while Scythian and Sarmatian men were closer to 5’10 (making their warriors seem ever more fierce and “barbaric giants”). Women were often known for hunting, and riding into war, alongside the men, and often wore the same attire, which made it far more difficult for others to distinguish between them. Women were often buried with their weapons as well, and often had similar battlescars as their male counterparts. Greek philosophers often claimed their marriage law pointed out that women were not allowed to get married until they had killed at least one person (though it is unsure if this is actually true).
Tower of Babel (Etemenanki ziggurat):
The biblical Tower of Babel was a tower built by post-deluge (after the great Flood) people in an effort to reach heaven. God looking down, decided to make the people speak different languages (as at the time, they supposedly all spoke one language) to stop their construction. Now while there was notable flooding in that region around that time-frame, the existence of god is something we aren’t going to touch at this time. But, we can say that there is archeological evidence of a tower (Babylonian ziggurat) in the region that the Tower of Babel was supposed to be found. This tower was known as the Etemenanki ziggurat. Etemenanki would roughly translate from Sumerian as “Temple of the foundation of Heaven and Earth” and was dedicated to the god Marduk. It is hard to determine how old this ziggurat is, as it has been demolished and rebuilt several times. This ziggurat is estimated to be from at least 2000 BCE, as it was referenced in a poem from the Middle Assyrian period. There are also parts of the tower that date to 1400 BCE, 1200 BCE, and 900 BCE. In 330 BCE it was demolished by famed general Alexander the Great as he also intended to rebuild it as well (as had several other previous conquerors of the region, including the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. There was one later attempt to rebuild the ziggurat, by the Seleucid Empire crown prince Antiochus I, who cancelled the project and further destroyed the ruins after he slipped and fell while examining it.
Krishna’s city of Dvaraka (Dwarka):
The city of Dvaraka (also known as Dvaravati) is one of the 7 holy cities of Hinduism. While the city isn’t “there” anymore per se, it is currently underwater between the modern city of Dwarka, and a nearby island, Bet Dwarka. Dating of some of the ruins show that the city is at least 3,500 years old (with some suggesting around 9,000 years, and some religious scholars suggesting 12,000 years old), and that it’s first king, was in fact, someone named Krishna (as with the Tower of Babel, we’re not arguing whether it is the Hindu god Krishna or not, just that the name inscribed of the first king here was named Krishna, and that this city is the god Krishna’s holy city). It also has signs of a rather busy seaport into the medieval period. Most importantly, the ancient Sanskrit texts describing the city (such as the Mahabharat, the Harivamsa, the Matsya, and the Vayu Purans) are mostly rooted in fact, not fiction. While the description of 900,000 palaces constructed of silver and crystals are likely not true, the general dimensions, the harbours, the seals, were all well documented and fairly accurate. An interesting thing to note is that Dvaraka/Dwarka has been built and rebuilt multiple times in the same region, as the various cities with these names tend to be destroyed, often by the sea. The current city of Dwarka is estimated to be the 7th city with this name in that region (and has a temple to Krishna that is dated to be 2,500 years old, just to give an idea of how long this city has been around), and the one we know that is sunken just off of Dwarka’s coast, shows little sign of natural disaster, so it’s assumed to have been sunk by rising sea levels.