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Ask Michael Wood pattern

Below Michael Wood answers questions submitted by PBS viewers after the November 2005 airing of In Search of Myths and Heroes. He is no longer answering questions, but if you would like to send feedback, please feel free to do so on the following page, http://www.pbs.org/mythsandheroes/feedback.html.

Q: Herodotus thought the Colchians were left behind as a military outpost from the expeditions of Pharoah Sesotris since they were black like the Ethiopians, and that the Golden Fleece recalled the god Amun. Are these valid points of view?

In some early Greek legends the Colchians are thought to be black because they live in the place where the sun rises — but there is no truth in the ancient Egyptian connection.

Q: Why did you choose the four myths used? What others did you consider?

We looked at a variety of myths and legends including the Epic of Gilgamesh, El Dorado, The Ramayana and many others. In the end we chose a spread of stories from the Bible, The Celts, The Greeks and India: it gave us a geographical and thematic spread in our attempt to show myths influence culture. And they were all Jungian archetypes as well!

Q: Could all the myths be related to facts or events that have occurred in the past? For example, could the great flood myths told by nearly all cultures around the world be connected to the dramatic rise in sea level at the end of the last ice age between 17,000 and 7,000 years ago? Could the Vedic scriptures of India be describing the rapid meltdown of the glaciers and ice fields in the Himalayas in the space of several centuries, with catastrophic flooding events (e.g., ice dam bursts) taking place now and then?

Flood myths occur in virtually all cultures around the world and it's quiet conceivable that they do reflect memories of real natural cataclysms! The Vedic myths though are relatively recent in historical time, the earliest (Rig veda) being maybe 15th century BCE, the later vedas down to maybe 800BCE; so it's unlikely they record much older geological and meteorological events.

Q: Who were Jason's crew could you please name each person?

That's a bit of a task! There are lots of versions of the Jason myth and the crew increased in size with each telling, from the original fifty to more than a hundred. However the core group stayed the same; Orpheus (the greatest singer), Hercules(the strongest man), Atalanta (a woman, the best runner), Polydeuces, Castor, Theseus and like the Magnificent Seven they all had their own special talents.

Q: Do you see a connection between the myth of Lot's wife looking back and losing her life by being turned into a pillar of salt and Orpheus looking back for Eurydice and he losing her as well?

Perhaps the Jungian concept of archetypes connects them; they are both about trust and the fateful consequences of disobeying the law of the Underworld or the Lord of Death.

Q: Was Sinbad real or a myth?

The stories of Sinbad seem to come from Basra in Iraq, the greatest trading post in the world during the early Middle Ages. Although the character is fictional the tales depict real voyages and no doubt are the kind of stories that were told on such voyages.

Q: Sorry, have to ask. Are you married, you are such a sexy man and intelligent to boot, such a rare combo, I've found.

I am very happily married!

Q: For your movie, did you draw on any of the work presented in Nicholas Clapp's book Sheba published in 2001?

No, I've never read it.

Q: Is the DVD: In Search of Myths and Heroes available from other than PBS.org store ?

The BBC DVD can be purchased from Amazon's web site: www.amazon.co.uk.

Q: I have read In Search of the Trojan War. Was there ever proof found of an actual wooden horse where soldiers lie in wait until inside the city gates like the Homeric stories?

No, most scholars think that though Troy really existed, the horse is just a fable but in the book, you may remember, I suggested it could be a memory of the wooden "horses" filled with men which operated like battering rams in ancient siege warfare.

Q: The myths of Jason and Helen of Troy are both set in the 13th century B.C. Is there any connection between the stories or characters? Would Jason or any of the Argonauts competed for Helen's hand in marriage?

The story of Jason is set in a time before the Trojan war. The heroes have to sail past Troy by night to avoid being stopped by their customs and security people! The connection though may be that the area of Volos, where Jason came from, seems to have been an early centre of Greek poetry and Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War, also came from that part of Greece, in Thessaly, so maybe both stories took their earliest forms in that area, using the traditions of its dynasties and their heroic deeds.

Q: You suggested that Arthur was an elder son of a Scottish King that was killed in a battle at Camloden, did you not? What century was that battle relative to when Wales first claimed him as theirs?

The battle site is actually called Camlann in the Annals of Wales, and I connect it with the battle fought somewhere in that region around 590 CE in which prince Arturius of Dalriada is killed. The first appearance of Arthur as a Welsh superhero is in Nennius in 829 CE.

Q: After viewing the first two programs of the series, I'm curious which is your favourite?

Of the four films, it has to be Shangri-la as it was such an amazing journey and a wonderful personal experience.

Q: I would like to ask you if you have ever done anything on the BOG BODIES?

No, I haven't done anything on the bog bodies.

Q: Does the fact that a whole living culture (lineage of Ethiopian Kings and ancient historical documentation) lend more credence that the Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian as opposed to Yemenite?

There is little doubt that the biblical name of Sheba refers to the historical kingdom of Saba, now Marib, in the Yemen. However as we showed in the film, the Kingdom of Saba ruled Ethiopia for a period just as in the Roman period the kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia ruled in the Yemen. Exactly how the Ethiopian tradition developed no one yet knows-but for all we know it may draw on a common fund of stories.

Q: What is going to happen to the village from 3000 years ago where Queen Sheba ruled in Yeoman?

When the last people go it will be demolished and the hill excavated unfortunately.

Q: Did the son of Sheba and Solomon father any children?

All the Ethiopian emperors right down to Haile Selassie claim descent from Menelik.

Q: How can I reach you by postal mail?

Please see the Maya Vision web site: www.mayavisionint.com. I will be away a lot of the time travelling for my next series on the history of India but if you have any queries one of my colleagues will try and help you.

Q: Do you feel that the accounts in the Kibre Negast are closely aligned with the references pertaining to the Queen of Sheba as reflected in the Bible?

The Kebra Negast was written in the 13th century CE and it obviously builds on the Bible story and other traditions including earlier Ethiopian traditions, oral and written.

Q: I am curious, do you have any projects directly involving Persia, or Persian culture?

I worked extensively on Persia, travelling around Iran, in In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great and I loved it. I have proposed other projects there as I would love to return.

Q: In the movie the Shadow (Alec Baldwin) who is he? LLahsa I know that is in Tibet, but what mythical character are they talking about?

I'm very sorry but I've not seen the movie.

Q: How did you get into films and history?

I got into history as a young boy and studied it at university. When I left I was lucky enough to get a job working in TV as a journalist and it was another stroke of luck that let me bring my love of history to television and make In Search of the Dark Ages for the BBC.

Q: Why don't you do a myth special on the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest United States? I also think that you should direct an animation special on the rise and the fall of the Roman Empire.

I filmed at Casas Grandes in the series, Conquistadors, and I agree it is a fascinating area. I have wanted to do something on the fall of the Roman Empire for a while now.

Q: Is there anything to substantiate the fact that there might have been actual people whose traits and experiences influenced the creation of these specific characters and places?

There is no doubt that the stories and myths use real places and landscapes so why not real people? The name Jason appears in Bronze Age, Greek (Linear B) tablets and the name Arthur, as Arturius, appears in a 7th century North British source (Adomnan's Life of St Columba) regarding a battle fought c590CE.

Q: Is it possible to buy tapes or dvds of your show my dad and I would like to watch them but we can't stay up that late to watch them?

You can buy VHS or DVDs of the series from PBS online shop, www.shoppbs.org

Q: What is the original name of King Arthur, and, or, what reason is given for the possible place for Camelot not excavated yet?

The name Arthur is derived from a real Late Roman/Dark Age name Arturius and the battle site where 'Arthur' fought and died is sited in the Welsh Annals as Camlann-apparently a fort on Hadrian's Wall in the region where the historical Arturius died in the 6th century. Camelot, however, is a fictional place.

Q: Would you be willing to do one more, In Search of Myths and Heroes!? This one would deal with Hero Pharaoh Necho II and Bible Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

Yes, I would love to make another series, although I am not sure who should feature in it. Thank you for your suggestions.

Q: Where did James Hilton find the myth to put into Lost Horizon?

Traveller's accounts of western Tibet and Tibetan Buddhist myths were in print and available in the 1930s: Tucci's photos of Tsaparang came out the year before Hilton published Lost Horizon.

Q: Do you think there is some truth in these myths? Or do you think these myths are more like faith?

I don't think literal historical truth matters in these myths. They last for thousands of years because they are universal and not specific, though they may often have a historical kernel of some kind.

Q: Is this the same programme which I saw on PBS a couple of years ago where they searched and finally came to a valley where an ancient fore-bearer religion of Bhuddism still exists?

No, it's not.

Q: I would like to find out more about the origins of the habesha people, their kings (Ezana, Yohannes, Menelik and Haile Selasie). Is there a good place to start? What books did you use?

A very good guide to the origins of Ethiopia (with good photos) is Ancient Ethiopia by David Phillipson (1998).

Q: I very much want a copy of the programme on VHS tape, can you advise how? I wonder why they didn't simply sail to the shore nearest to Sheba's city, rather than take a very much longer/more arduous desert trek? Wasn't that also an ancient alternative?

You can buy VHS or DVDs of the series from PBS online shop, www.shoppbs.org. The route from Marib was a caravan route from Arabia to the near east.

Q: What is your next project after In Search of Myths and Heroes?

A six-part history of India.

Q: I wanted to know if, in your journeys, you have uncovered other sources (non-Ethiopian) pointing to the nature of the relationship between Queen Sheba and King Solomon and most importantly, the birth of Menelik and the nature of his relationship with Solomon?

No, as far as I am aware it is an Ethiopian story.

Q: What do you think is really in the temple at Axum, if not the Ark of the Covenant?

Well, Ethiopians describe what is in the chapel in Axum as the "tabot" or the "Ark of the Covenant", so presumably it is a container with tablets in it. However as no one from the outside has ever seen it we cannot know what date it is, or what it is for certain.

Q: If you go back to Ethiopia, try to find out how the church was chosen to be Saint Mary's name. Who decided the name? Did it come from Jerusalem or was the church in existence before Sheba brought the Ark of the Covenant?

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded by Greek speaking monks from Egypt and Syria in the 4th century CE and the original building of the church was probably from that time. But as you can see from the ruins and fragments around it, it is a much older sacred site going back at least to the 1st century CE. The Sheba story in the bible though may come from 8th century BCE. This is all discussed in the book of the series.

Q: Do you know if any organisations sponsor a tour of Arthur-related sites in Britain? Do you have a published list available of the sites featured in the programme, and are those sites accessible to the public?

Sites featured in the programme are mentioned in the accompanying book, In Search of Myths and Heroes, published by University of California Press, but in the UK, the Cornish Tourist Board publishes a little booklet of Arthurian sites in the south west of England. There are of course many other books on Arthurian themes.

Q: Joseph Campbell expressed a belief that myths come from our deepest self and that they contain clues for our potential evolution. What are your thoughts on this?

As archetypes they do reflect on our deeper selves, that's why they have resonance and the power, even across thousands of years, to move us. I am not sure about the clues to our future evolution, except that they do tell us about some of the essential characteristics of humanity.

Q: In what ways has Legacy informed your subsequent work especially Myths & Heroes? Do you ever give lectures here in the States?

The catch phrase we had in Legacy was, "searching in the present for clues to the past and in the past for clues to the present" and I suppose all the films we have made since have attempted to do that, especially in looking for the living connections between past worlds and our own. In In Search of Myths and Heroes I was trying to show that the stories we tell about ourselves and our past can give just as interesting historical insights as the more usual "stones and bones" approach!

Q: Was the Queen of Sheba Jewish and did she help the Templars move the arc of the covenant to Ethiopia?

No. In the Biblical tradition she's from Saba — Marib in the Yemen; in the Ethiopian tradition she's from Axum.

Q: Would you mind removing the comparison of the great, noble King Arthur to the sadistic tyrant and executioner, Che Guevara?

You have to remember that we are talking about the construction of myths. There is a modern myth of Che as the heroic freedom fighter (about which many have differing opinions!), and there was a 9th century CE Welsh myth about Arthur as a freedom fighter leading the British in a resistance against the Anglo-Saxon invaders, a story for which there is no historical evidence whatsoever.

Q: Any thoughts as to why Shakespeare did not write a play (that we know of) about King Arthur?

A very interesting question, I wish he had lived long enough to get around to doing it! He had read Geoffrey of Monmouth but interestingly he was more attracted to Lear and Cymbeline, two other early British mythic stories.

Q: Will you do an interview(s) on PBS after the In Search series to give additional information that you didn't have time to include in the series and/or was asked by viewers that you think the PBS audience also would like to hear?

I would be happy to do so!

Q: Did you get a detail description of the covenenant? Why wouldn't they allow pictures of the covenenant?

No, I didn't. Sometimes sacred things are not for the eyes of non-believers. They only carry a replica around the streets at festival time. No one gets to see the real thing except the guardian and he must stay inside the shrine until he dies!

Q: I very much enjoyed the King Arthur episode. What was the name of the Irish Gaelic storyteller that you interviewed?

His name is Sean O'Duinin

Q: What is the connection with Dumbarton Scotland and Arthur?

There is no connection in the early texts but Dumbarton was the main fortress of the Strathclyde Welsh in the Dark Ages.

Q: How can I get a copy of the booklet Fr. Edmund Campion, the Jesuit, brought to England and read by John Shakespeare, father of William?

I suggest that you look it up in the library in Samuel Schoenbaum's, Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, where there is a full facsimile: though of course the idea that it came with Campion is only a conjecture.

Q: After about the 6th century, childen with names based on Arthur (Arctorius, Arthos, etc.) began to appear. Do you think this was a case of people naming children after Arthurian stories, or after a real historical figure? In other words, is there a historical fire that led to the mythic smoke?

Well in The Dalriada region north of Hadrian's Wall, it's possible that after the tragic death of Artorius — son of King Aidan — in around 590AD, the story became the subject of poems and songs. Maybe that's how that name found its way into heroic stories and lists of battles.

Q: In your show you gave mention to the "picts". Have you done or do you know of any investigative/docu-history programme done on the picts? Somehow they almost always get left out of the "history" of Britain, always the Romans but never the picts. I wonder why this aspect is so dark and untold?

Yes you are absolutely right and it is a very interesting subject. There are very few books about it — The Problem of the Picts by F. Wainwright is one, but I've never seen a TV programme on it.

Q: Was there any evidence of a northern resistance group in your investigation of the Arthurian cycle?

I think those northern battles we talked about were internecine struggles, although King Aidan did fight battles against the Saxons in the late 6th century and the beginning of the 7th century.

Q: My question is about the water from the shrine at Ethiopia, which, supposedly, houses the Arc of the Covenant. Why is the water in the kettle holy? Where does the water come from? Is it a symbolic attachment to the relic?

It is indeed a symbolic attachment to the relic.

Q: What do you have to say about that historical figure of the "Arthurian" period, Ambrosius Aurelianus?

He was a very interesting REAL person in the late 5th century who really did fight against the Anglo Saxons and is recorded in a key near-contemporary source, Gildas. I've looked at some of the evidence for him in a recent book, In Search of England, published by University California Press.

Q: Where in Yemen is the great dam you showed briefly, and how old do you believe it is? Was the great dam built up over a very long period of time?

The dam is in Marib and was built in the 8th century BC by the rulers of that state — Saba. It was restored a number of times before it was finally destroyed around 575AD, an event which some scholars believe is alluded to in the Holy Koran.

Q: My attention was drawn to something which I had hoped would to have been given further time in the episode, that being the "cup" that was recovered from a stone eagle. The eagle had supposedly toppled over and broke into pieces. The break in the statue exposed a small vessel from the 1st century. The character you were speaking with at the time mentioned the vessel was in exhibition at a museum in England. Please, if you can remember the name of that museum and/or a further course of action in pursuing a greater knowledge of that vessel, I would be entirely grateful.

The vessel is in the private possession of Graham Phillips. He has a web site with details tracing the cup back to the 1st Century. See: www.grahamphillips.net. It may be of Roman origin, but I think it was planted there in the 19th Century.

Q: Even though it was a myth, in what text was it written that the Queen of Sheba lifted her skirt while walking across King Solomon's highly polished floors and revealed her hairy leg and a hoofed foot?

This appears in several texts of different religious traditions — Christian, Jewish and Islamic. It is an amalgam of myths from various sources and probably goes back to a pre Islamic folk tale. Try St John Simpson's book The Queen of Sheba

Q: Where to find more info regarding the church that Thomas Wright(?) left hints in the design as to the location of the Holy Grail. Also, what is the correct spelling of Thomas W's name?

See Graham Phillip's web site: www.grahamphillips.net for more info. But be warned — Wright (spelt correctly!) was probably setting up an elaborate hoax. Our point in the film is that from the medieval poems to the da Vinci Code, we are all seduced by the myth of the Holy Grail.

Q: Are there any differences between fairy tales and myths, besides the age of the listeners, since both transmit "learning tools" from one generation to the next?

There is an obvious overlap; and they do traverse one generation to the next. But fairy tales are usually smaller stories, which either end optimistically, as perhaps they should for kids or are overtly didactic. Don't play with matches! Myths tend to be bigger and embedded in national cultures and (perhaps more fittingly for grown ups?) they rarely have happy endings!



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