Painting of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The Legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the medieval legend of a town plagued by rats. It’s about the wandering bard who showed up during the height of the infestation. This bard wore vibrant clothes and promised to rid the town of rats in exchange for gold. The townspeople were desperate, and they agreed, but then the story takes a darker turn.

A legend is a historical but unverifiable story. In this case, there are records of a bard who called himself the Pied Piper showing up in the small German village of Hamelin in the year 1284. There are also records of 130 children being led astray and going missing. It’s reasonable to think that some parts of this legend might be true.

Pipers were wandering musicians who could be hired during festivities. They were of a lower class, often despised, and sometimes considered dangerous. They often wore pied (multicoloured) clothes.

The tale has been interpreted in different ways over the centuries. I’ll explain everything at the end.

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Painting of David from the Biblical story of David and Goliath.

The Legend of David & Goliath

The legend of David and Goliath comes from the Hebrew Bible. More specifically, from the Book of Samuel. I call it a legend. You might not.

Legends are historical but unverifiable stories. They’re the rivers that flow between myth and history. This particular legend is three thousand years old. I suspect it’s rooted in truth, but how much of that root remains? Even the Hebrew Bible is conflicted, unsure of whether David or Elhanan faced Goliath.

It’s reasonable to think David existed. Most historians agree that he eventually became the king of all the tribes of Israel. It’s said he rose to prominence after his encounter with the giant, Goliath. This is the story of that encounter.

I’ll tell the story in my own words while keeping it true to its original meaning. I’ll explain that meaning after.

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Milo of Croton as painted by Juan Artola Miranda.

The Tragic Legend of Milo of Croton, the Man Who Carried the Bull

The legend of Milo of Croton is a tragic tale of gradual improvement leading to incredible strength. Weightlifters use his story to explain the Principle of Progressive Overload. Novice lifters are weak, so they begin by lifting light weights. Those weights stimulate muscle growth, allowing them to lift slightly heavier. Those heavier weights provoke more muscle growth, allowing them to lift heavier still.

Milo is a historical figure. He almost certainly existed. All the great historians of his time referenced him, including both Herodotus and Aristotle. He lived alongside figures like Pythagoras. However, these old stories are so heavily shrouded by the mists of time they’re nigh indistinguishable from legend.

Here is the Legend of Milo of Croton.

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A painting of the mythological sirens from Homer's Odyssey.

Odysseus & the Sirens (Homer’s Odyssey)

The story of Odysseus and the Sirens comes from The Odyssey, by Homer, written in the 8th century BCE. It’s one of the oldest and most important works in Western literature.

It is the story of the valiant warrior king Odysseus (also known as Ulysses). As he journeys home after a great war, he encounters many perils, including the fearsome sirens. This is that story, translated from Greek and written in modern prose.

Slashes made by an enraged barbarian fabulist.

A long time ago, as Odysseus sailed across the vast Mediterranean Sea, his men began to whisper of Sirens, hideously beautiful, enchanting creatures known for their irresistible voices. It was said that any sailor who heard the Sirens’ song would be driven mad with desire and steer their ship toward the rocky shores, dooming themselves and their crew.

Odysseus instructed his crew to fill their ears with beeswax, so they could not hear the alluring melodies. As for himself, he had his sailors tie him to the mast of the ship, allowing him to hear the Sirens’ song but preventing him from succumbing to their charm. He ordered his crew not to untie him, no matter how much he pleaded or commanded.

As their ship sailed closer to the island, the Sirens began to sing their bewitching song. The crew, with beeswax in their ears, remained focused on their tasks, unable to hear the enticing melodies. Odysseus, however, was captivated by the beautiful voices, and in his enchanted state, he begged his crew to release him. He clawed at the ropes. He shrieked and screamed. But his loyal sailors, unable to hear him, continued doing their duties.

Eventually, the ship moved out of the Sirens’ reach, and their song faded into the distance. Odysseus returned to his senses, grateful for his crew’s unwavering obedience and his own forethought. They had once again escaped peril through cunning and teamwork.

I love the message in this story. With a little pre-planning, we can restrain our future selves, preventing ourselves from succumbing to temptation. You can remove junk food from your cupboards, set unbreakable deadlines, or make bets against your friends and enemies, forcing your future self into the path you set now, with a clear and sober mind.

Illustration of Hernan Cortes the conquistador leading his army to conquer Mexico.

The Legend of Hernan Cortes & His Ships

Hernán Cortés was the Spanish conquistador who led the expedition that toppled the Méxica empire. The Méxica was the group of Aztecs who ruled over the land now known as Mexico. When he first arrived, there’s a legend that he burned his ships to prevent his men from retreating. That’s not true. His plan was more devious than that. Here’s what really happened.

Slashes made by an enraged barbarian fabulist.

In the early 16th century, the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, began making plans to conquer Mexico. He sent out two expeditions to scout the coast, neither of which returned. He knew he needed to send a larger force with a cleverer captain, but not too clever, for Velázquez wanted to keep the lion’s share of the glory for himself.

Hernán Cortés, a wealthy magistrate, offered to contribute funds to the third expedition on the condition that he would be the one to lead it. Cortés had a reputation for being overly ambitious, and Velázquez was hesitant to give him command. Velázquez hesitantly appointed him captain, then quickly changed his mind. However, Cortés knew Velázquez to be a fickle man, so he had set sail before the news of his demotion could reach him.

Cortés arrived on the Eastern shores of Mexico with 500 men armed with horses, guns, armour, and canons. They were greeted by the native Totonac people, who told tales of the golden city of Tenochtitlán, ruled by the fearsome Méxica, savage conquerors who worshipped gods of war and sacrifice. The Totonac people told of how barbaric Aztec warriors had invaded from the north, flaying the indigenous peoples alive, tearing their beating hearts from their chests, eating their organs, and wearing their skin. Cortés saw an opportunity in their terror.

Cortés was the captain of a scouting expedition, nothing more. His men knew this, and upon hearing these horror stories of the Méxica, they were eager to keep close to the shore, build tall walls to hide behind, and return to Cuba as soon as possible. Cortés had much grander plans. He wished to conquer all of Mexico. But for his plan to work, he would need the unwavering commitment of his men.

Late one night, under a moonless sky, Cortés had a few of his most trusted men bore holes in the hulls of his ships. When dawn broke, his soldiers awoke to the sight of their ships sinking slowly into the ocean. Cortés explain how the ships had been ravaged by shipworms and could no longer make the return voyage home. They were trapped in Mexico.

With no choice but to continue onwards, his men salvaged their supplies from the ships and used the timber to construct fortifications. Steeling themselves against the nightmarish visions of blood-soaked altars, frenzied cannibal feasts, and the relentless onslaught of Aztec warriors, the men vowed to fight for their lives, for glory, and for the promise of untold riches.

The tyranny of the Méxica empire had created many enemies among the subjugated indigenous groups. Cortés took advantage of their fear and anger. He rallied them together as he marched towards Tenochtitlán, hacking their way through dense jungles filled with poisonous snakes and insects, marching over treacherous mountains where icy winds blackened their fingers and toes, and stumbling across arid deserts where the sun burned their skin from their bodies.

With no ships to retreat to, Cortés and his men had no choice but to press forward for God, for Glory, and for Gold.

Painting of King Louis XI

The Legend of the Spider King & His Astrologer

King Louis XI ruled France during the 15th century (1461-1483 AD). He was known for his webs of intrigue, earning him the monicker of “The Spider King.” He was also known for his love—and fear—of astrology. This story is either true or rooted in truth.

Slashes made by an enraged barbarian fabulist.

The problems began when the Spider King’s most trusted astrologer accurately predicted that a lady at court would die in eight days’ time. This filled the Spider King with dread. If the astrologer’s abilities were genuine, he possessed enough power to threaten the king. Even if the astrologer had killed the lady to make his prediction come true, he was just as dangerous.

Determined to rid himself of this potential menace, the Spider King devised a trap. He invited the astrologer to his quarters, secretly instructing his guards to throw the fortune-teller out of a high window on his signal. But as the astrologer entered the king’s chamber, the Spider King decided to test him one last time before carrying out his plan.

“You claim to understand astrology and to know the fate of others,” the king said to the astrologer. “So tell me: how long do you have to live?”

The astrologer, perhaps sensing the king’s intentions, replied calmly, “Your Majesty, I shall die just three days before you do.”

The astrologer’s words struck fear into the heart of the King once again. Fearing for his life, the king ensured that the astrologer was provided with the finest food, comfortable lodgings, and excellent care, hoping to keep him alive for as long as possible.