Since the dawn of civilization, humans have dreamt and told stories about strange and mysterious places. Passed down through folklore are stories of lost empires and a hidden history. The following are 10 mythological places from around the world, some of which may have once existed.
Atlantis was an island and home to an ancient lost civilization whose inhabitants lived in a Golden Age of knowledge and prosperity. The Greek philosopher Plato mentions the island in two of his writings around 360 B.C, the dialogs of Timaeus and Critias. The dialogs describe a story told by Critias of Athens about his grandfather who had supposedly met with an Athenian poet and lawgiver Solon who had travelled to Egypt. Solon had been studying the gods and stories surrounding Egypt and compared these stories with Greek beliefs. This is how he learnt of the legend of Atlantis.
According to legend there was an empire called Atlantis on a large island in the Atlantic Ocean which also ruled over parts of the continents of Africa and Europe. Atlantis was described as a utopian civilization with great engineering and technical advances. The city was separated by rings of alternating land and water. The soil was described as rich and the architecture as extravagant. The central plain outside the city had canals as well as a magnificent irrigation system. The empire had a peaceful existence for many years until waging an unprovoked imperialistic war on the remainder of Asia and Europe. After Atlantis lost a great battle, the island was suddenly shaken by violent earthquakes and sank into the sea taking all its inhabitants and their knowledge with them.
In Norse Mythology Valhalla is a majestic enormous hall for warriors slain in battle. Sometimes referred to as “Viking Heaven” Valhalla is ruled over by the god Odin. Half of those who die in combat travel to Valhalla upon their death led by there by one of Odin’s 12 handmaids the Valkyries. The other half go to the goddess Freyja’s field Folkvangr.
Valhalla is depicted as a stunning building, thatched with golden shields. Outside Valhalla one of the most beautiful creations of all grows, a golden Tree called Glasir. A goat named Heiorun and a stag named Eikthyrnir graze near the great hall. The goat produces an endless supply of the finest mead from its udders. The mead is consumed every night to celebrate the victories of the day. The stag produces water from his antlers which turn into a spring, eventually becoming the origin of all the world’s water. A boar named Saehrimnir provides meat for the warriors. The boar is extremely large, able to feed over 800 warriors and can regenerate itself. The boar is slaughtered daily and made whole again each evening. In Valhalla the dead warriors join the Einherjar (those who died before them in combat) including legendary heroes and kings. The warriors wait in Valhalla until the Ragnarok (Doomsday) when they will march out of the 540 doors of the palace to fight besides Odin against the giants.
Scholomance is a mythical school of dark magic whose existence was passed down through Romanian folklore. The school was supposedly situated in the mountains to the south of Hermannstadt, Transylvania. Black magic was allegedly taught at this school and classes were taught by the devil himself. The school was hidden underground and students who attended were unexposed to sunlight for the seven years of their study. Magic spells were taught such as the ability to speak with and understand animals. The school would enrol only ten students each year. After the curriculum was completed only nine of the students were released. One of the graduates was always chosen by the Devil as payment for the lessons. The chosen student was tasked as the Devil’s Weathermaker who lived in an infinitely deep lake, rode a dragon to control the weather, and created thunder bolts.
The legend spread in popularity after 19th century author Emily Gerard travelled to Transylvania and published the story in a collection of folktales. Her collection famously had an influence on Bram Stoker who used the idea of Scholomance in his genre changing novel Dracula to explain how the vampire’s family learned their demonic magic.
El Dorado the Lost City of Gold
The legend of El Dorado is about a fabulous rich city of gold located somewhere in South America. The city was said to have deep mines of gold and silver located nearby, which they used to pave their streets and construct beautiful temples. The story sprang up shortly after the arrival of the first Spanish explorers in Central and South America. The local people told stories about a wealthy king who would cover his body in gold dust before washing it off in a sacred lake. The king would also toss gold, gems, and jewels into the lake as an offering to the gods. The Spanish referred to this king as El Dorado which means “the gilded one.”
Local inhabitants would usually claim that El Dorado was far away, deep in the jungle. Likely in hope that the Europeans would set out for this location and leave them alone. There may be however, some grains of the truth to the legend. The Muisca people of present-day Colombia had a tradition which mirrors the original story. Kings would coat themselves in a sticky sap before covering themselves in gold power and would then take a canoe into the centre of Lake Guatita. The king would then bath in the lake, emerging clean, afterwards a great festival would be held in celebration. During the 16th and 17th centuries desperate explorers from across the globe searched in vain for the lost city. Many dying in the harsh, dense, and unforgiving jungles.
Avalon also known is the mythical island which appears throughout the King Arthur legend. The name ‘Avalon’ comes from the Celtic word “abal” which means apple. Avalon was said to be a beautiful paradise island full of wild apple trees, grapevines, and wheat. The abundance of fruit trees meant any inhabitants on the island did not need to farm and instead lived out an idyllic existence. Avalon was believed to have existed in another realm which could only be assessed with magic.
The myths surrounding Avalon started in folklore but in 1136 AD Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain wrote of it as if it were a real place. Many explores and scholars have tried to find the actual location of Avalon. The Isle of Man is one possibility because of its association apple trees and as it was said to be a realm of healing, with no winter, and where youth was eternal. Versions of the myth differ but according to some the ruler of Avalon is the sorceress Morgan le Fay, who is also the half-sister of King Arthur. After King Arthur was mortally injured in battle he taken to Avalon and healed back to health. It is said that King Arthur remains there and will one day return to save Britain when he is needed most.
Hawaiki by Wilhelm Dittner (1907) and the Marae of Mahaiatea, Tahiti, (1788)
In Polynesian mythology Hawaiki is the legendary homeland of the Maori peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Hawaiki is regarded as both a physical as well as a mythological place. The Maori people believe their ancestors partake in a deliberate migration from Hawaiki about a 1000 years ago, navigating the seas in canoes. In Maori mythology Hawaiki is an island where Lo, the supreme being created the world and the first people. Hawaiki is described as a mystical place, where people can turn into birds or descend into the underworld. The gods are believed to live there, including the trickster demigod Maui. The first woman Hineahuone was said to be fashioned from the soil of Hawaiki. The homeland is strongly associated with the cycle of life. Polynesian oral traditions say that the spirits of their people return to Hawaiki after their death.
The actual location of Hawaiki has never been confirmed and there is some uncertainty if it is a real physical island or a mythical place only. In recent years there has been evidence to support the theory of deliberate migration across the ocean in canoes, but there has been debate about where the journey started. Hawaii is believed to be the most likely starting point but some theories state that the Maori people might have actually originated from Taiwan, India, or Mesopotamia. Hawaiki has also been associated with the Tahitian island Ra‘iātea also known as Rangiatea in Maori. Like Hawaiki, Ra‘iātea is considered as both a physical and spiritual place.
Illustration from the novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne painted by Édouard Riou
Agartha is a legendary city that is said to reside in the Earth’s core. Agartha is often related to the Hollow Earth theory and is a popular subject in Esotericism. Shamballa also known as Shangri La is sometimes said to be its capital city. According to the legend there was once an ancient race that populated the Earth’s surface millions of years ago, before moving to the underground city. Many theories suggest that those who survived the sinking of Atlantis afterwards built Agartha. The inhabitants of Agartha are supposedly more strikingly beautiful compared with surface dwellers. Central Asian Buddhists spoke about the kingdom of Agartha and stories of a civilization which lived in the hollow earth were passed down the generations. Agartha was regarded as a centre of intellectual progress and enlightenment.
Belief in Agartha gained popularity in the 1940s, when U.S Navy Admiral Rich Byrd claimed to have discovered an entrance to Agartha. Byrd recounted that when he flew directly over the North Pole he noticed an opening in the top. Byrd states he saw flowing rivers, green vegetation, and even a woolly mammoth. Byrd was writes in his dairy that a flying machine appeared to greet them, and the beings gently took control somehow and landed his aircraft and he met with these strange people. The Nazis were also supposedly interested in discovering the secret passage to Agartha. Dispute popular theories and many conspiracies there has currently been little evidence that Agartha exists.
The Land of Cockaigne
The land of Cockaigne is place of plenty in medieval myth where food never runs short. In Cockaigne the physical comforts and pleasures of life are in abundance. Rivers flow with wine, houses are topped with pie, and shops give away their goods for nothing. The people there practiced free love and they never argued. All inhabitants dressed in stunning clothing and enjoyed eternal youth. Cockaigne first appeared in oral accounts in the middle of the 13th century in Europe. During this time dispute recent economic and social developments, food shortages were still common. The first known text to mention Cockaigne is the French de Coagne which dates to around 1250 AD dedicates 58 of its 188 verses to descriptions of food including rains of custard.
Cockaigne was described as a medieval peasant’s dream of idleness and gluttony. The dream offered relief from backbreaking physical labour and the daily struggle for meagre amounts of food. The word Cockaigne is believed to be derived from a word Medieval French word cocigne which is probably related to the word cake. Many writers have identified London as the likely inspiration for Cockaigne. London was an industrious and developing city and it may have appeared there was food in abundance due to the heavy trade. Some believe this may have led to the use of the slang word cockney when referring to inhabitants of certain areas of London.
Diyu is the realm of the dead or “hell” in Chinese mythology. It is loosely based on the Buddhism concept of Naraka, Taoism, and traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterlife. Diyu is described as an underground maze with various levels and chambers. Diyu was similar to hell as it served as a sort of purgatory. Souls are punished to atone for the sins they committed when they were alive. The souls would be purified in preparation for reincarnation. Diyu is divided into different sections or levels best suited for certain crimes or sins.
The exact number of levels in Diyu differ between Buddhist and Taoist interpretations. the Buddhist text Sutra on the Eighteen Hells written during the Tang dynasty mentions describes Diyu as having eighteen different levels of punishment awaiting sinners. The first layer is the chamber of tongue ripping, for those who stir up troubles by gossiping. The second layer is the chamber of scissors for those who break the marriage of others will have their fingers cut off. The final level was the chamber of saw for those who exploited the loopholes in the law and engage in unfair practices in business, they will be sawn into half by demons.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were the fabled gardens which adorned the capital of the Neo Babylonian Empire. The gardens were believed to have been built by King Nebushadnezzar II (605-562 BC) as a gift his wife Amytis. Amytis was from Persia and missed the cool temperatures, mountainous terrain, and greenery of her homeland. The Hanging Gardens are described as a tall building built upon stone in a way which resembled a mountain. Multiple terraces were believed to have existed holding mounds of soil deep enough for varied plants, trees, and flowers. Greenery would overhang the wall and cascade down hence the term hanging. A sophisticated irrigation system was installed to keep these exotic plants alive in the desert. Some sort of pump perhaps a chain pump was used to bring water up through the building from either a nearby river or well. Birds and small wildlife were also believed to have been released in the gardens to provide Amytis with some company.
Despite being one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the gardens existence is disputed amongst many historians and regarded as a myth. Nevertheless, many theories persist regarding the possible location of the gardens including Nineveh which is about 340 miles of Babylon. To date no archaeological evidence has been found to prove the gardens existence.