5 Myths to learn science_Prometheus

5 myths to learn science

Can we learn about biology, medicine or geology through myths and legends? Even if the majority of folklore tales can’t be related to science, there are a few which could be used to discover something we didn’t know about our planet or our bodies. Let’s have a look at 5 different myths and legends to learn science!

Vampires

Legends on vampires have been flourished for millennia; for example, Mesopotamians, Hebrews and ancient Greeks, had tales about blood-drinking demons or spirits, which could be considered as precursors to modern vampires. The modern conception of these folklore monsters has probably evolved from a merge of various traditional beliefs that were held throughout Europe.

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“Nosferatu il vampiro”, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, (1922) | Still frame (detail) Kino Lorber

Porphyria, a group of inherited liver disorders, has been suggested as an explanation for the origin of vampire legends, based upon specific similarities between this condition and the folklore. Porphyria is caused by a mutation in one of the genes involved in the production of heme, which is a component of hemoglobin, the protein carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of our body.

But which are the characteristics responsible of the association with vampires?

  • Sensitivity to the sun and sometimes artificial light, causing burning pain
  • Blisters on exposed skin, usually the hands, arms and face
  • Mental changes, such as anxiety, hallucinations, disorientation or paranoia
  • Fragile thin skin with changes in pigmentation
  • Blood transfusion necessity (occasionally used to dilute innate heme production).

The myth of Prometheus

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who defied the gods by tricking them, stealing fire and giving it to humanity as civilization. Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment for his transgression. Prometheus was bound to a rock, and an eagle—one of the symbols of Zeus—was sent to eat his liver everyday. His liver would then grow back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day in an eternal cycle.

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The Torture of Prometheus, Salvatore Rosa (1646–1648). National Gallery of Ancient Art, Rome.

What could we learn from this myth? This tale is a ‘biology class’ about the regenerative properties of the liver. Among the organs of our body, liver is the one with the greatest regenerative capacity, being able to adjust to tissue loss and return to 100% of its normal weight. Recent studies have demonstrated that all hepatic cell types participate in cell proliferation during liver regeneration and that stem cells are surprisingly not involved.

Werewolves

In folklore, a werewolf is a human with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf, either purposely or after being cursed or wounded by another werewolf, with the transformations occurring during full moon nights. Belief in werewolves developed in parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. As witches, also supposed werewolves were persecuted, accused during witchcraft trials, and eventually burned.

Some modern researchers have tried to explain the reports of werewolf behavior with recognized medical conditions. For example, clinical lycanthropy is defined as a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves a delusion that the affected person can transform into or has transformed into an animal. Despite it has been classically described as a fear of being transformed into a wolf, the animal species attributed to a patient is determined by his/her socio-cultural background or phobias.  

5 myths to learn science_Werewolves
Werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach der Ältere (1512), Herzogliches Museum, Gotha.
5 myths to learn science_Werewolves_Hypertrichosis
Portait of Antonietta Gonzalez, Lavinia Fontana (1595), Musée du Château, Blois.

Another medical condition related with werewolves legends is Hypertrichosis, described as an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body. It could be congenital or acquired later in life and can occur over the entire body, or in localized and restricted areas. Hypertrichosis was also portrayed in paintings, as described in the article: ‘5 Pinturas para aprender ciencia’.

Zombies

Our knowledge of these mythological creatures mainly originates from horror or fantasy movies and books. However, not everybody knows that the term comes from Haitian folklore, in which zombies are widely featured as dead people physically revived by a sorcerer or a witch.

Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist who traveled to Haiti in ’82 to study this phenomenon, claimed that a living person could be turned into a zombie by a mix of two special powders introduced into the blood stream. The first, “powder strike“, includes tetrodotoxin (TTX), a powerful and frequently fatal neurotoxin found in the flesh of the pufferfish (family Tetraodontidae). The second powder consists of deliriant drugs such as datura, poisonous flowering plants. If injected together, these powders induced a deathlike state, in which the will of the victim would be entirely subjected to that of the sorcerer.

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Pufferfish, photographed by David Clode at Cairns Aquarium, Australia. Source: Unsplash
5 myths to learn science_zombie_Datura
Sacred datura (Datura wrightii), Joshua Tree National Park, USA

Davis presented his results in an article published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology and in two popular books: The Serpent and the Rainbow and Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie.

The myth of Scylla and Charybdis

One of the most famous episodes of Homer‘s Odyssey is, when Ulysses and his crew run into the dangerous strait between Scylla and Charybdis. To continue the journey, they must cross the passage between the two shores; however, on the left bank, above a rock, stands a terrible six-head monster, Scylla, while on the right side resides a sea creature, Charybdis, causing deadly water vortexes.  

Ulysses was advised by the sorceress Circe to pass closer to Scylla, eventually losing only a few sailors, rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool caused by Charybdis. And that’s exactly what he did, sacrificing 6 of his men, one for each head of Scylla, but saving the rest of his crew, therefore ‘choosing the lesser of two evils’.

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Scylla and Charybdis, Alessandro Allori (1575). Wikipedia, public domain.

Geographically, the passage between Scylla and Charybdis really exists, it is called Strait of Messina and divides Calabria from Sicily. From the most remote times, it has always been a place full of charm, suggestion and myths due to its difficult navigation. Indeed, this passage is characterized by irregular currents and winds blowing rapidly, sometimes even conflicting with each other. The encounter-clash of the Tyrrhenian and the Ionian seas, having different chemical-physical characteristics such as salinity, temperature and density, as well as a different depth, implies that the waters are not immediately miscible. The currents could reach a speed of 90 Km per hour and, colliding, give rise to huge vortexes that certainly terrified sailors and inspired the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, as well as many others.

And that was the end of our post! We have seen together 5 different legends or myths to learn science, but there are much more! Can you think about other examples?

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