Lecture 5: Tall tales – 5 Jan 2025

From ancient tales of evil rulers, battlefield apparitions and hauntings, kidnapped children, to madcap stories of octopi in Roman sewers, this talk incudes modern comparisons – from weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s human-shredder – to the black swine of Hampstead sewers. It considers the social and cultural power of such urban legends, how these stories enforce rules about the best way to behave, as well as their role in imbuing prejudices around those deemed to be a threat to society.

Interested in some background reading? Some books on old and new tall tales (and urban legends), include: Scott Wood’s London Urban Legends: The Corpse on the Tube and Other Stories; Jan Harold Brunvand’s Too good to be true: the colossal book of urban legends; Adrienne Mayor’s Flying Snakes and Griffin Claws and Other Classical Myths, Historical Oddities, and Scientific Curiosities

Image: Octopus vase from Palaikastro, c. 1500 BCE. Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.


Marguerite Johnson is a cultural historian of the ancient Mediterranean, specialising in sexuality and gender, particularly in the poetry of Sappho, Catullus, and Ovid, as well as magical traditions in Greece, Rome, and the Near East. She also researches Classical Reception Studies, with a regular focus on Australia. In addition to ancient world studies, Marguerite is interested in sexual histories in modernity as well as magic in the west more broadly, especially the practices and art of Australian witch, Rosaleen Norton. She is Honorary Professor of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Queensland, and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

don’t worry if you miss it – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day


This Lecture is Part of the Folk Belief in The Ancient Mediterranean a 5 part lecture series – tickets may be booked for this lecture here or for the whole series

In this five-part series, Marguerite Johnson takes you on a journey over land, sea, sky, and into the ethereal world of folk belief in the ancient Mediterranean. Complete with illustrations and the words of the ancients themselves, we look at the strange creatures believed to inhabit land and sea, the terrifying demons that threatened to snatch your child, the werewolf and other shapeshifters, the ancient prototype of the fairytale, ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ and some old-fashioned tall tales.

Series image: Sebastian Münster from Olaus Magnus’ Carta marina (Basel c. 1544).

Jan 5th 2025 - 8.00 pm - 9:30 pm

£6 - £10 & By Donation

Thank you for your support