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10 Fascinating Stories Of Mythological Kings
Some of the most fascinating people in history are the great kings and leaders. This is partly due to the fact that they’re usually well documented in history, but they also often had larger-than-life personas. A king is an authority unto himself, and is thus often depicted as a figure well above a mere mortal. The legends of these kings have long captured our imaginations.
In the old Greek legends, there was a great kingdom known as Argo. During the reign of King Anaxagoras, some women argued that the Earthly temples were better than those of the gods. This obviously angered the Greek gods, who were not the type to take that kind of insult lightly. There are multiple versions of the story, but most involve either Hera or Dionysius cursing the women of the land with madness as punishment for their slight against their creators.
Details on how the mad women behaved are somewhat vague, but most stories say that their hair started falling out and their skin was covered in scabs. To restore the sanity (and looks) of the kingdom’s women, the king sought out a man named Melampous to help cure the women of the malady. Melampous told the king that he could fix the problem, but he would only do so for half of the kingdom. The king found his offer absurd and rejected it, but it soon became apparent that no other solution could be found—and the women were steadily getting worse.
Knowing that he had no other choice, the king agreed to the original offer, but it was too late. Now that Melampous had more leverage, he demanded two-thirds of the kingdom—one-third for himself and one-third for his brother. Having no other choice, the king reluctantly agreed and the kingdom was split in three.
Dushyanta was an important king in Indian mythological traditions, but his story cannot be told without first recounting the origins of his bride, Shakantula. A great king named Kaushika was trying to achieve a form of spiritual transcendence by giving up his worldly life, but Indra (king of the gods, in Hinduism) was threatened by his quest and sent a beautiful woman named Menaka to distract him from his goal. Indra’s plan worked and the two soon had a daughter named Shakantula, but they unfortunately abandoned her as an infant. The young girl was adopted by a wise old sage named Kanva and raised in his humble shack in the woods.
One day, when the girl had become much older, the king Dushyanta was hunting in the woods and came upon her abode. Dushyanta quickly fell in love with the young woman and asked her to marry him. Unfortunately, her adopted father was not at home and she wanted his blessing for the wedding. The king managed to convince her to go ahead with the marriage by telling her that they could use the trees as witnesses to the union.
After the wedding, the king claimed that he would not feel right taking her without first talking to her father, so he left her (although he stuck around long enough to get her pregnant). The king never returned, and eventually the family gave up on him ever making good on his word. They named the boy Bharata and went on with their lives.
But as the boy grew, he began asking about his father, and Shakantula finally ventured out of the forest to find the king. When she found and confronted Dushyanta, though, he pretended not to know her. When she told him that their witnesses had been the trees, he and his court scorned her words. As she was about to leave angrily, the sky tore open and the voice of one of the gods told Dushyanta to take responsibility for his son and the wife he had married. Not wanting to anger a divine power, the king finally accepted Shakantula and Bharata as his own.
The story of King Breogan begins with a bit of magic. Wishing to see to every corner of his realm, the king reconstructed the tower of Hercules. A high tower is a great vantage point for seeing distant places, but Breogan burned with the desire to see even farther. As luck would have it, he chanced upon a magic mirror that let him see far beyond the borders of his kingdom.
The legends say that Ith, the son of Breogan, looked through the mirror and was able to make out the distant coast of Ireland. As he continued to gaze upon the land, he became more and more enamored with it, and eventually he decided to set out on an expedition of conquest. He went out with a fleet of seven ships, but legend is unclear as to what happened to him after that. Some believe that his own men mutinied and killed him, while other stories say that his ships were destroyed by a storm. All the legends agree, though, that Ith and his men were not seen again until their bodies washed up on the shores of Breogan’s empire. Angered by the death of his son, the great king gathered 36 different chieftains and went on to invade Ireland.
7The Fisher King
The story of the Fisher King is not necessarily the story of one particular king and is often tied into the quest for the Holy Grail. The theme usually involves a kingdom in the throes of a serious problem—sometimes it’s a financial problem, sometimes the land is too barren to grow crops, and sometimes a disease has ravaged the people of the land. The king himself, in these legends, is also ill or weakened and it is suggested that the two problems are inextricably intertwined. The king hardly has the power to fix the problem himself, but is instead stuck waiting for a knight in shining armor to come to the rescue. The knight may find some relic—such as a grail—and use that to fix the problem, or he may need to discuss something with the king in just the right way.
This theme has been used heavily in Arthurian legend. In some forms of the tale, King Arthur didn’t really want his knights running off on a quest to find the Grail because he believed that sending your knights far away from the kingdom they need to defend is generally a bad idea. However, due to being afflicted by the Fisher King malady, he sends them off with his blessing to find the cure and thus save all those who depend on him.
But although it’s used widely in Arthurian legend, the tale of the Fisher King is not unique to those stories and could just be an allegory for government in general. If the government is not well, the people will not be either, and vice versa.
Glaucus was a great king in Greek mythology, a man descended straight from the Titans. Being a descendant of the gods as well as a king, it’s not surprising that he was more than a little eccentric. See, Glaucus really liked to ride horses and participate in chariot races. This in itself was a pretty normal hobby for the time, but Glaucus took things to the next level. For some reason, he decided that his horses should be fed nothing but human flesh. While the tales don’t say where he got the flesh, it’s not hard to imagine that some despicable things must have happened.
Unfortunately for Glaucus, he may have gone a little too far—before long, his horses had developed an inescapable fondness for human flesh. One day, Glaucus was in a chariot race when the horses pulled apart and ate their own master.
The stories of the dwarf king Goldemar are pretty bizarre. The king would allow people to touch him, but forbid anyone from actually gazing upon him. Those who did touch him found his hands to be cold and disturbingly soft, so perhaps he had something specific he wanted to hide. He was known for being a gambler and, despite his clammy hands, could work wonders on the harp. While each tale has variations, they all circle back to the legend that he didn’t want anyone to look at him.
There was plenty of evidence that he was around—he would certainly eat the meals left out for him—but still nobody laid eyes on him. The story goes that one man was absolutely determined to get a look at the dwarf king, so he endeavored to get his chance. He spread ashes on the ground and threw peas on the floor, hoping that the king would either bend over to get them—giving him a chance to look—or that the king would at least leave marks in the ash that he would be able to see. Greatly angered at this, the king killed the man, roasted some of him, boiled the rest, and ate every single bit. Following this morbid act of revenge, the dwarf king put a curse upon the halls.
The old Greek legends peg Memnon as a descendant of the gods and a great king of Ethiopia back in the days of the Trojan War. When the Trojan War had already been dragging on for 10 long years, King Priam of Troy asked his nephew Memnon to come to his aid. Memnon had been campaigning successfully in Persia not long before and had a massive army at his back. With Memnon’s arrival, Troy once again had a fighting chance. Not only had he brought an enormous host with him, but he himself was an incredibly fearsome warrior.
Memnon threw himself into battle and killed many highly skilled Greek warriors, but when he killed Antilochus—a friend of Achilles—it became personal. The inevitable battle between the two demigods began, and the clash was incredible. The gods would not favor either one in particular, but eventually Achilles won the day. In order to honor Memnon for his bravery and skill, it is said that Zeus had birds swoop and fly over his funeral pyre, then finally fight each other and fall down dead in tribute. The birds are supposed to return every year to do the same on the anniversary of his death. They are known as Memnonidae.
In Greek mythology, Periphas is known as a truly great king who was extremely devoted to Apollo. He made sincere offerings to him on a regular basis, and was greatly beloved by his people. He was the king of kings that everyone wished would reign forever, but a truly long reign was not meant to be. Due to no fault of his own, people started seeing Periphas as more than just a king—they started seeing him as a god.
Before long, people were erecting temples to Periphas and worshiping him as a savior. Zeus was enraged by all the attention that Periphas was receiving and decided that he would have to deal with Periphas once and for all. Despite Periphas not having done anything wrong himself, Zeus’s original plan was to simply obliterate the man from the face of the Earth. However, Apollo had been worshiped faithfully by Periphas, so he interceded with Zeus on behalf of the king.
As a favor to Apollo, Zeus decided not to kill Periphas and instead turned him into an eagle. His wife, who was even further removed from blame, was turned into a vulture. But the will of the gods can be hard to understand—while Zeus punished them by turning them into birds, he also granted them favors. He told Periphas that he was now the head honcho over all birds, and instructed the Greeks to see the vulture as good luck.
According to the legends passed on by word of mouth, there was once a great tribal chieftain named Hotu Matu’a, who lived in a place called Kiva. While there are many variations to the legend, they all suggest that the tribe was defeated in battle and very quickly needed to find a new place to live. The king’s tattooist had a dream of a far-off island that was perfect for them, and that was where they set sail to. In some versions, the king sends scouts out in canoes first, but in every case the entire tribe eventually fills their canoes with food, seeds, small livestock, tablets for writing, and all the supplies they would need to begin their new lives. The journey takes them 120 days, after which they finally find a beach on which to bring their canoes ashore.
The island in the legend is what is now Easter Island and is known for the gigantic head statues that litter its beaches. The story of Hatu Matu’a and his people states that the building of the giant heads—called Moai—was very ritualistic in nature and essentially a religious practice. Upon his deathbed, the king divided the land between his sons, who all became great chieftains in their own right. The people believed that the chieftains had supernatural qualities and that carving a giant head in their likeness would help the people retain that power, which would bless them with good harvests and fertility.
The story of King Yayati comes from Indian mythology, and it starts with the age-old problem of infidelity. Yayati was married to a woman named Devayani and things seemed to be going well until a former princess named Smarmistha became a maid at their house. She convinced the king to wed her as his second wife, and before long they had several children, all kept completely secret from Yayati’s first wife. When Devayani discovered the children, she told her father, who cursed the king for his unfaithfulness by turning him into an old man.
Devayani’s father soon became wracked with guilt for the severity of the curse, but it was too late—he was unable to reverse the effects. So Devayani’s father gave Yayati another chance. According to the magic of the curse, if one of Yayati’s children was willing, they could exchange their youth for their father’s old age. Most of his children rejected his request, but finally his son Puru agreed to do so out of love for his father.
Puru quickly became an old man, and Yayati was blessed with as much youth as he wanted. However, he didn’t find it satisfying. Before long, he realized that no matter how many carnal pleasures he could enjoy as a young man, he would never truly feel fulfilled. Realizing that he had made a terrible mistake, he returned to his kingdom and gave his youth back to his youngest son. Knowing that Puru had been the most loyal and wisest of his children, he made him king and retired into the forest to meditate for his remaining years.
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