10 Universal Myths Of The Ancient World
No matter where you’re from, you probably have your fair share of wild myths. From stuff like the legend of King Arthur and his magic BFF to the mischievous gods of Ancient Greece to the insane epics of Hindu mythology, just about every culture comes with a set of stories that most other cultures call foreign or strange.
But then there are the universal myths—myths that crop up repeatedly in cultures separated by hundreds of miles and thousands of years. These myths are so near-universal that their prevalence is downright spooky.
10 The Great Flood
The idea of a flood that drowns the entire world pops up in almost every single culture. Jews and Christians know it as the story of Noah, but other versions almost certainly predate the Genesis account. The Ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh includes the tale of Utnapishtim, who builds a boat, fills it with animals to escape a deluge, and eventually comes to rest on a mountaintop. The Greeks had Deucalion, who survived a flood sent by Zeus. Other versions appear in Hindu, Mayan, and Native American legends.
These tales may or may not be inspired by reality. In 2009, National Geographic reported on the utter lack of evidence for a globe-destroying super-flood. Yet theories still persist of an ancient comet strike near Madagascar sending tsunamis across the globe or a sudden flood caused by melting glaciers drowning the entire Black Sea area. Could this universal myth simply be the faded memory of a real event that occurred around 5,000 BC? We may never know.
9 Paradise Lost
As anyone who’s heard to their grandpa wax lyrical about the 1950s knows, people see the past through rose-tinted glasses. But this yearning for nostalgia isn’t just restricted to old folk rattling on about how kids showed more respect in their day. Very often, it fills entire cultures.
Take the Garden of Eden. The story of a harmonious land uncorrupted by pain or lust is the biggest slice of “good old days” nostalgia you’ll ever encounter. The Ancient Greeks, meanwhile, fondly recalled their Golden and Heroic Ages—a time when the world was happier, men were men, and things basically didn’t suck so bad. Similar ideas appear in Hindu, Norse, and Persian belief, always featuring a lost utopia to which modern culture can never return.
Interestingly, there may be a scientific reason behind all this. Recent research into nostalgia has shown that idealized memories of the past may make us happier in the present.
8 Epic Cosmic Battles
The idea of an unimaginable war that threatens to tear apart the cosmos connects with us so deeply that it still powers our epic stories. The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Doctor Who, and countless others all feature this age-old trope. It can be found in the legends of almost every ancient culture. Christianity has the battle between God and the rebel angels led by Satan. Ancient Greece had the story of the Titans taking on the gods of Mount Olympus. The Hindu tradition involves a dizzying series of battles so epic they’d give Peter Jackson daymares.
There are couple of ways of looking at this. One is to go down the Scientology route of claiming these legends are genetic memories of some apocalyptic battle that tore the galaxy apart billions of years ago. The other is to remember that most cultures throughout history have consistently been on the brink of war or prone to invasion, so an apocalyptic slaughter was probably never far from everyone’s minds. Either way, it suggests the human drive to war is just about universal.
If you hated the last couple of years of hormone-driven angst-inspired vampire media, try living in Medieval Europe. Back then, belief in vampires was so prevalent that barely a single country didn’t consider them a terrifying fact of life. When crops failed or there was drought or a baby was born with a slight deformity, you’d better believe vampires got the blame—a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.
Undead bloodsuckers aren’t a modern invention. They weren’t even dreamt up this side of the Common Era. Cultures as mind-bendingly old as the Ancient Egyptians believed wholeheartedly in their existence, while versions of them turn up everywhere from China to Tibet to India. Even the Persians of Mesopotamia had a selection of ferocious blood-drinking demons to terrorize children, although they bore differences from our modern Anne Rice-inspired variety.
Looked at rationally, it’s easy to see how the vampire legend arose: our fear of death crossed with a huge degree of medical ignorance. Looking at it again after dark when a scary wind howls outside . . . well, let’s just say we won’t be hawking off our garlic stocks anytime soon.
6 The Atlantis Myth
We all know the myth of Atlantis: a utopian city wiped out in a single night thanks to an unearthly cataclysm. But Atlantis is only the most famous of mythical lost cities. Near-identical stories crop up with such regularity that it’s tempting to think they must be somehow related.
Take Iram (also known as Ubar). A fabled city in the deserts of modern Saudi Arabia, Iram is said to have been wiped out in a single night when Allah buried it under a flood of sand. In other words, it’s the Atlantis myth translated to a world without water. Then you have Ys off the coast of France, which was supposedly flooded around the 5th century by a mythical warrior king. And that’s before we get onto the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Hindu myth of Tripura, which both involve gods wiping out immoral cities in a rain of fire.
In short, the idea of a city obliterated overnight is so powerful it seems to show up everywhere. Are these half-remembered tragedies with some basis in fact (like Pompeii) or just stories that play to the apocalyptic fantasist in all of us? We’ll leave it to you to decide.
5 A God’s Resurrection
Jesus’s resurrection is the big selling point of Christianity, a unique moment that established Christ as the one true savior. At least that’s the idea. In reality, the idea of a dying deity or important human who is later resurrected has been around for millennia.
Most famously, this includes the story of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god whose birth was heralded by a star, who was betrayed by a friend, was murdered, and was later resurrected. But there are less explicit versions too. The Greek cult of Dionysus had their figurehead killed off every two years, only to rise again at a later date. Persephone also died regularly, and many pagan traditions from Scandinavia to Central America involved gods dying and returning to life or men dying and coming back as deities.
Perhaps most interestingly of all, a historical tablet known as “Gabriel’s Revelation” allegedly tells the story of a Jewish rebel known as Simon who was killed by the Romans, only to be resurrected three days later. The catch? It was written in 4 BC, over 30 years before Jesus allegedly pulled off the same trick. Either it’s a mistranslation, or the Son of God was building on centuries of groundwork by other deities.
Dragons are likely the most traveled creature in all of mythology. Even more than vampires, they have a habit of turning up in societies and cultures so far apart in time and space you’d think it was impossible. There are ancient Sumerian tablets that record the act of dragon-slaying, Greek tales of dragons cavorting with other monsters, and an entire science built around the uses of their bones in China. In Central America, the Mayans worshipped the feathered snake Quetzalcóatl, while both Norse and Christian mythologies specifically mention dragons.
As late as 1886, Victorian scientists still held that dragons had once existed but had gone extinct. Not until dinosaurs became firmly established in the public mind did people see the probable link between ancient fossils and dragon myths. Currently, our best guess is that various cultures all stumbled over dino bones at some point and translated them into gigantic mythological beasts.
3 The Hero’s Quest
Thanks to the occasional self-indulgent movie adaptation, most of us probably have a vague knowledge of the poems of Homer. Considered the earliest examples of Western literature, his Iliad and Odyssey are epic myths of tortured heroes fighting their way across oceans and continents in search of metaphorical salvation—and they appear in near-identical form in almost every culture.
It’s called the “hero’s journey,” and just about all epic stories throughout history have followed the specific model. Famously, George Lucas deliberately based the first Star Wars on it, and you can find its influence in The Lord of the Rings, the Oz books, and even Harry Potter. But this archetypal myth was around even before fancy-pants anthropologists handed it over to lazy scriptwriters.
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Sinbad the Sailor in the 1,001 Nights, the legend of King Arthur, the tale of the Argonauts . . . all of these and plenty more fit the structure of the hero’s journey just like Homer’s awesome poems above. In fact, nearly every single culture in recorded history has myths that fall into this category. Even Moses’s epic wanderings in the Bible fit this model. We as a species truly are lazy storytellers.
Cultural myths don’t just entertain us and record historical events. They also serve to explain why the world is the way it is. Hence the prevalence of stories designed to give a reason for some mystery of existence.
In the Bible, we have the Tower of Babel, which explains why we have different languages. God’s speech prior to expelling Adam and Eve from Eden is another example, giving a reason for both the agony of childbirth and why ancient man had to toil all day in the fields. Wander across traditions into the stories of the Ancient Greeks and the legend of Prometheus demonstrates why fire is so valuable, while the story of Pandora gives a reason for the existence of disease and suffering.
Start looking for them and you’ll find these explanatory myths scattered across every culture in history. There are myths that explain why rhinoceroses have no hairs, why incest is forbidden, and how medicine came into existence. Anything you can think of has some poetic explanation somewhere. In an unscientific age, poetry was often all we had.
Everything that begins has an end, and our ancient ancestors knew that as simply as we do. No surprise then that most cultures carry an End of Times myth to counter their creation story—a sort of consolation prize for those who won’t live to see the actual end (i.e. everyone).
For Christians, this apocalypse is a gigantic epic that plays out over many, many years and involves so many disasters, wars, and calamities that it’s hard to keep track. Same with the Norse Ragnarok, which is a collection of disasters and battles that results in the Earth being drowned and recreated afresh. In Hinduism, it’s another epic battle followed by a rebooted universe, while Buddhism annihilates the world in a pyrotechnic fireworks display so amazing it deserves its own Michael Bay film.
In other words, most humans throughout history have lived with their own personal vision of the end of everything, one that makes sense in the context of their lives and cultures. And that’s all these myths really are: ways for us humans to make sense of the world we live in, no matter when or where we are. It’s just an added bonus that some of them make absolutely awesome stories, too.