The Queen of Sheba
Michael Wood’s first journey is inspired by a Bible story: the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon in Jerusalem. The Bible tales, which were written down in the Iron Age in the Near East, have had an extraordinary impact on western civilization, more so than perhaps any body of myths and stories. These stories have proved amazingly tenacious and enduring: they even provide the state myth for two of the modern countries on Wood’s itinerary, Ethiopia and Israel. The tale of the Queen of Sheba amounts to only a few lines in the Bible text, lines that have so far proven impossible to verify as history. The tale has spawned a vast body of later myth: Koranic, Jewish and Christian -- especially Ethiopian Orthodox Christian -- where the queen is viewed literally as the mother of the nation, whose son brought the Lost Ark of the Covenant back to Axum, where Ethiopians believe it still resides. Wood also pursues the fascinating references to the far-flung trade routes, to the Incense Coast, the Horn of Africa and the Yemen. Wood investigates the gifts that Sheba brought to Solomon: the rare incense and spices that were part of the opening of the world to long distance trade in the first millennium B.C. Thus Wood is off on the exploration of a myth, while also examining the real historical links which connect early Arabia and the Near East and Africa with two civilizations barely known to the outside world. Wood journeys to the sites of these ancient civilizations, traveling from Jerusalem around the Red Sea to the local civilizations of the Yemen (the first civilization of early Arabia) and of Axum (the first civilization of Black Africa).
Arthur: The Once and Future King
Wood next explores the great cycle of Celtic myths that have been nearly as influential in Western culture as those of the Greeks. The legends of King Arthur rose to prominence in the 9th century in Britain, but were already taking shape a few centuries before. These legends reached their full glory in the 12th and 13th, centuries, when in the courtly jests and romances in Europe Arthur and his warriors were transformed into the model of Christian knighthood, searching for the ultimately unattainable, mystical cup of Christ, the Holy Grail. This version of the myth has spread, in poems, books, novels, films ¾ a popularity that shows no signs of letting up. But where did the story come from? Was there a real Arthur? And why did the storytellers of Britain create him in the way they did? Wood finds that excavating one’s own culture can be extremely difficult, as he attempts to see his own culture with a foreigner’s eye. He finds that in Britain this tradition is almost gone. Yet Wood finds that just enough clues remain. On a journey through the culture and language of Celtic Britain and Ireland, searching back to the time when they were decimated by their English and Norman conquerors, driven to the fringes where the last bards still exist today. Even now, in 21st century Britain, just below the surface, the clues survive that point Wood to the Once and Future King.
Wood’s next adventure takes him in search of one of humanity’s greatest myths, the tale of an earthly paradise. But this journey was inspired by a modern myth: the tale of the lost paradise of Shangri-La. The tale first appears in the novel Lost Horizon, written by James Hilton in the 1930s as western civilizations rushed headlong into world war. Since then, through Hollywood, radio and countless books, the tale has exerted a tremendous hold on the imagination of the world; even the presidential retreat at Camp David was originally called Shangri-La. Wood believes the roots of the myth lie in the age-old yearning for the changeless in the face of inevitable change. The direct source of the story is a 1,000-year old legend still told among the Buddhists of India, of an untouched land somewhere beyond the clouds in Tibet, where human beings live in harmony with themselves and the world, free of war and violence. In the 16th century, when the Europeans first heard this story, they of course actually tried to get there. But was Shangri-La based on a real place? Who were its inhabitants? How does one get there? And what does the legend tell us about ourselves today? On this extraordinary journey, Wood goes through India and Nepal (avoiding Maoist guerrillas), then on to western Tibet. There he treks to Mount Kailas, the sacred center of the world for Hindus and Buddhists, then on to the most remote and least known lost city in the world.
Jason and the Golden Fleece
The final journey in the series was inspired by one of the most famous myths of the Heroic Age of ancient Greece. Among all the peoples of the world, the Greeks have handed down to us the greatest number of myths in world literature. This myth, of the hero’s quest, is one of the oldest on earth, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Knights of the Round Table right down to Star Wars. It is the tale of the hero, Jason, who sails into the unknown to fulfill an impossibly dangerous mission. It is a task that takes him into the realm of death itself, where he is only saved by love, in the shape of the priestess Medea and her magical arts. But, as always with Greek myths, the price for such a deal is high, and the power of love turns out in the end to be as destructive as it is life-giving. The story probably comes from the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago. Setting out on this journey, heading from the holiday islands of the Aegean to today’s war-torn Caucasus, the questions confronting Wood were many: What was the original form of the tale? Where was the journey originally imagined? Indeed, was it a real journey at all? What is the meaning of the tale? And is there any historical truth in the legend’s picture of an archaic and ancient kingdom on the edge of the then known world? This was a world where women were the oracles, and where ram’s fleeces were hung in the sacred groves of the God of Death. The tale of the Golden Fleece takes us from the Aegean to the outer limits of the world -- and the imagination -- of the early Greeks, to the Black Sea and the mysterious land where the Sun rose on the shore of the great ocean: a land where, amazingly, living connections still survive today with the world of Jason and Medea.