Now, anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m at my happiest when exploring castles. I absolutely love the history encased in their thick stone walls so no trip to a new place is complete without exploring a new one. Earlier this year I was delighted to visit beautiful Kronborg Castle in Denmark.
Kronborg overlooks the narrowest part of the Øresund Strait between Denmark and Sweden and it is most famous for being the inspiration for Shakespeare’s haunted castle ‘Elsinore’ in his play Hamlet.
The location of Kronborg Castle and its exposure to the elements make it easy to imagine ghosts looking out to sea from its high walls. For me, however, the spookiest part of this building can be found underground. The cold, dark and damp ‘casemates’ are beneath the main body of the castle. It is so dark down there that you need a torch to explore but, if you’re brave enough, hiding in the shadows, you can find a sleeping giant.
This sleeping giant is Holger Danske. The legend of Holger Danske tells that this giant will wake when Denmark is in danger and its people need him to fight against their enemies. He was in a very deep sleep when I visited but this idea of a sleeping hero who will rest until a nation needs help can be found all over the world.
Probably the most famous legend (certainly for me) is that King Arthur will one day return to save the people of Britain. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded that Arthur had been taken to the legendary Isle of Avalon to recover from his battle wounds. Other variations describe his entire court of knights and ladies sleeping in a secret cave until the day comes when we need him to return.
Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis Drake was an Elizabethan explorer who led the second expedition to travel all the way around the world in a single voyage. He completed this circumnavigation with a seemingly ordinary snare drum. Just before he died, Sir Francis said that if England were in trouble, someone should bang that drum. This signal would call him and he would return to protect his country. The drum still exists and a replica of it is currently on display at Drake’s former home Buckland Abbey in Devon.
The great giant of Irish mythology, Finn MacCool was a hunter who is said to have built the Giant’s Causeway so that he could get from Ireland to Scotland without getting his feet wet. According to legend he sleeps in a cave until Ireland needs him. In one version of the myth, he will be woken when a hunting horn called Dord Fiann is sounded three times.
One of the tales gathered by the Brothers Grimm told of the medieval Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa because of his red beard). He died during the Third Crusade in 1190 but legend has it that he sleeps beneath Kyffhäuser Mountain in Germany. According to the story he has sat for so long at a stone table that his beard has grown right the way through it.
The legend of the waiting hero also exists much further afield than Western Europe. Born in the ninth century, Muhammad al-Mahdi is believed to have disappeared because of the Occultation. This is belief that as a descendent of the muslim prophet Muhammad, he will one day return and bring peace to the world.
Even further East, in Japan, the Buddhist monk and scholar Kobo-Daishi (also known as Kūkai) is said to have been in a meditative state on Mount Kōya since the year 835 as he waits for the arrival of the next Buddha. He is still celebrated in Japan and pilgrims make the journey to Mount Kōya to ask for his help.
In fifteenth century Byzantium, Emperor Constantine XI died when the city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire. Legend tells that he was turned to stone by an angel and so he became known as the ‘Marble Emperor’. The angel buried this stone emperor beneath the city walls. He is said to be waiting for the day when he can recover the city from his enemies.
Yes, the ‘good king’ from the Christmas carol! He was actually a tenth century Bohemian duke who was assassinated by his wonderfully named younger brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. The legend tells that Wenceslas sleeps inside Blanik mountain in the Czech Republic along with an entire army. The story goes that he will brandish the legendary sword Bruncvik and lead that army to the rescue of the Czech people when they need him.
Where are the Women?
In my search for sleeping heroes I have been disappointed not to be able to find a single woman who lies in wait in a cave to save her nation. Admittedly, very few historical or even fictional women have quite held the same positions of military power as those men listed above but there are some and there are plenty who were leaders and who are still are symbols of their nations. Instead, the only sleeping women I can find are those in fairy tales who wait to be woken by the kiss of a prince. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are lovely but they wait to be rescued and are not the rescuers. If you can find any others, I’d love to hear about them.
And Many More…
These are just a few of the numerous sleeping giant and hidden heroes from all around the world. There are many others, including:
- Csaba, son of Attila the Hun, will ride down from the stars to rescue his people (in what is now Hungary).
- Gerald FitzGerald rests with an entire army and waits for the time when Ireland needs his help.
- Emperor Charlemagne is said to sleep with his entire court beneath Untersberg mountain near Salzburg.
- In Arthurian legend, the wizard Merlin was trapped inside a tree.
- Do you know of any more…?
Here are just a handful of the resources I used to find out more about these sleeping giants:
Geoffrey of Monmouth, ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’, translated by Lewis Thorpe (London, 1973).
Grimm, J. and Grimm, W., Deutsche Sagen (Berlin, 2015).