Not All Myths & Legends Are Based In Truth

In far too many SF works, a lone protagonist chasing down a “crazy” old story or an ancient legend boldly declares that there must be something to it because all myths have a grain of truth to them! Inevitably the protagonist will be vindicated, with the myth or legend turning out be true beyond xir wildest dreams.

But the reality is, this doesn’t hold up. There are plenty of myths and legends with absolutely no truth at all behind them - or the truth is actually quite boring and mundane.

Examples of myths and legends that are definitely not based in fact.

Lemuria: If you dig around in the right places on the Internet, you’ll find all sorts of people talking about the lost continent of Lemuria and its fantastic inhabitants (who may or may not have had connections to Atlantis!). What ancient tales support this myth? Which scholars carefully passed down the knowledge of this marvelous land throughout the generations?

Well… none and nobody.

Long story short, in the mid-19th century a scientist by the name of Phillip Sclater noticed something a bit puzzling: there were lemur fossils to be found in India and living lemurs to be found in Madagascar, but there were no lemurs at all to be found in Africa and Asia between. In order to explain the odd distribution, Sclater proposed that India and Madagascar had once been connected by a landmass that ultimately sank into the ocean to disappear forevermore, which he called “Lemuria.” Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of New Age philosophy, heard about Lemuria and incorporated it into her developing belief system.

Unfortunately for Blavatsky, scientists would soon after discover the real reason for lemur distribution: plate tectonics. India and Madagascar weren’t connected by a now-missing landmass; they had simply been connected to each other and continental drift eventually pulled them apart. No missing continent, let alone a fabulous civilization upon it, had ever existed.

Slender Man: Any number of people “know” through research that the Slender Man we know on the Internet was based on a legend passed down through the ages, eventually popularized by Something Awful member Victor Surge who posted a photomanipulated image on Something Awful thread titled “Create Paranormal Images.”

In reality, Slender Man was created from whole cloth. The alleged “Der Ritter” woodcut image was created by a Something Awful member who modified a woodcut depicting the personification of Death. The “Thief of Kuk” image allegedly showing Slendy as depicted by ancient Egyptians in 3100 BCE was created by another Something Awful member. Fear Dubh and Der Großmann are likewise modern fabrications rather than genuine old-time myths.

If anything, the Slender Man myth proves just how incredibly easy it is to get people to believe something made up from whole cloth. With all of the images and witness reports and tales going back to antiquity, people reason that there must be something to do it, once again proving the old adage that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.

Planet X/Nibiru: A quick search on the Internet will reveal hundreds of people who are completely convinced that a mysterious tenth (or twelfth) planet is going to swing by Earth bringing calamity any day now. (So far, every proposed arrival date has failed spectacularly, by the way.)

The modern Nibiru myth goes back to a man named Zechariah Sitchin, who decided that the Sumerian gods were really aliens from another world - because hey, totally plausible that primitive people could mistake aliens for gods whatwith their superior technology. In order to make his case, Sitchin took some - ahem - liberties in his own translations of ancient Sumerian texts. (Fun fact: the Sumerians left dictionaries behind that tell us precisely what their words meant, and they don’t mean what Sitchin says they mean.)

Critically wrong or not, many people took Sitchin’s “translations” to heart, and now many are convinced that a tenth/twelfth planet is due to arrive any time now. So right here, we have a bunch of people convinced of a myth based on nothing but one man’s attempt to shoehorn an old belief system into his own personal ideology. But this is only the setup for the next part of the story: the people who mistook lens flares for planets.

Because people were convinced that a rogue planet was coming along, they started to look for one. Believers started posting pictures that showed an anomalous round object in the sky, looking much like an extra moon or… an incoming planet! Of course, all of these pictures were taken with the camera pointed in the general direction of the sun.

Sure, you could argue that the myth has a grain of truth in it in that there are other planets out there - and you’d be right. But it’s a very mundane truth. The other planets out there (so far as we know) aren’t inhabited by aliens who pretended to be gods, and none of them are hurtling toward us to bring doom and destruction. And while rogue planets technically are possible, the scenario Nibiru believers claim will happen isn’t. (Any incoming rogue planet would be visible for years before it was anywhere near close, and its existence would be impossible to cover up.)

Sometimes instead of looking for a grain of truth behind a legend or story, you need to look for a motivation.

There are many, many reasons people simply make things up. Here are a few examples.

To further an agenda: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a good example of this - long story short, Czar Nicholas II wanted to get rid of Jews living in Russia, and the Okhrana, the Russian secret police, forged a book allegedly detailing their eeeevil secret plot to take over the world to garner public support for the cause.

For money and/or fame: In 2009, Richard and Mayumi Heene, whose plans of making money involved getting themselves onto reality TV shows, concocted a plan to put their family into the spotlight: launch one of their hot air balloons and claim their son Falcon had gone up inside. (Young Falcon Heene, who became known as "Balloon Boy," was hiding up in the attic all along.) Tragically for Mr. and Mrs. Heene, their ruse was soon discovered and the couple found themselves facing felony charges.

To cover up another act: When nine-year-old Frances Griffiths returned home with wet shoes and stockings from a creek she wasn't supposed to be playing near in the first place, her mother demanded to know why she kept going down there. The young lady responded that she'd been going down to see the fairies. When her mother didn't buy it, Frances's cousin Elsie Wright claimed that she'd also seen the fairies - and what's more, if her father would loan her his camera she could take pictures to prove it. Ms. Wright would draw pictures based on those found in a book, cut out the pictures, and stand them up with hatpins to photograph. The whole thing would go on to be known as the Cottingley Fairy Hoax.

For the lolz: Prank phonecalls. Snipe hunts. Newbie pranks. 'Nuff said.

Also, take a look at:

Tips To Identify Hoaxes & Urban Legends
A Beginner's Guide To Spotting Cranky Websites
Talking About Your Strange & Apparently Paranormal Experiences Without Sounding Like A Complete Kook

External resources/works referenced

A Geologist's Dream: The Lost Continent of Lemuria
Atlantis, Lemuria and Mu: Were They Real?
Something Awful - Create Paranormal Images
Zechariah Sitchin's Errors: An Overview
Nibiru Solar Flare Lens Mistake
Ask An Astrobiologist - Nibiru and Doomsday 2012: Questions and Answers
Bad Astronomy's Nibiru/Planet X Resources
What's the story with the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"?
Documents: 'Balloon boy' dad had hoax in mind, wife says
The Case of the Cottingley Fairies
The Museum of Hoaxes - The Cottingley Fairies

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