There's a Unesco World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland that was on our list of things to see before we left Europe, so we had to squeeze it in. It's the Giant's Causeway, where a bazillion hexagonal basalt columns are sticking out of the sea.
What the heck?
For thousands of years there was a perfectly good explanation for this. The legendary Irish giant Finn McCool had once lived on the northern coast, and this site marked the spot of one of his most epic fights with the Scottish giant Benadonner.
Finn McCool stood on the Irish coast and hollered to Benadonner on the Scottish coast, calling him a sissy boy. (He flung a big piece of mud at him to make his point, and it became the Isle of Man.)
And Benadonner was like, "Oh yeah?! I'll come over there and show you a thing or two. Except. I can't swim. So thank your lucky stars."
And Finn McCool was all, "Sure. Well why I don't I just build you a bridge, huh?! Let's see what you do then."
And he spent the next week building a stone causeway to Scotland to call Benadonner's bluff.
But then, as he got closer and closer to Scotland he realized that Benadonner was much bigger than he had seemed at a distance. Finn McCool did the math and realized that he didn't stand a chance, so he ran back home. And he cried to his wife, "I'm doomed!"
But his wife was clever. And as Benadonner approached over the causeway, she put a pretty little blanket over Finn McCool and told him to pretend to be asleep. When Benadonner arrived, he demanded, in his bellowing giant voice, to see Finn McCool. His wife replied that he would soon be returning from the fields, but shhhhh, don't wake my baby! Benadonner looked at the sleeping Finn McCool and thought, if that's the baby, the father must be much larger than I thought! And he ran back over the causeway, destroying it as he went so his nemesis could never follow him.
I like this story. And I like that the Irish people took it as a perfectly sensible explanation for the causeway's existence for thousands of years. Especially since there just happens to be a smaller version of this "causeway" on the Scottish coast.
Nowadays we have different explanation. In the paleogene period, lava flow on the cliffs cooled from the bottom-up and cracked into all those basalt columns.
A little less dramatic, that.
But when you read about the Giant's Causeway, these two versions are always presented as "Myth and Reality", and I have a tiny, nagging problem with that.
I mean, I know that we're way more technologically advanced than past peoples and that we've had a lot more years to observe the natural world and think about things. But seriously. What gives us the right to say that every explanation we have today is "reality"?
A thousand years ago they were just as sure that every theory they had was reality. Everything they thought was based on the latest technology and the most advanced research, but hey, years later it still turned out to be bunk. Why would now be any exception to the long, consistent pattern of human history--the pattern where we think we know exactly what's going on, and our explanations make perfect sense to us, and then as time passes later humans look back at our explanations and say, "....and they really believed that was true! How cute."
Maybe in the future, after some new discovery or some new theory or some new technology, they'll look back at our time and say, "They thought Finn McCool wasn't real! They thought giants were only a myth!"
Yeah, so it's unlikely. But who's to say that anything's set in stone? Besides stone, I mean. Give it enough time and pretty much everything we think is true will turn out to be false.
Except the fact that this is the finest child's toy in human history. That will always be true.