We all have stories of famous people from history who shape the fables and lessons of our childhood. Perhaps the biggest lesson we learn when welcoming adulthood is the lie that Santa Claus doesn’t fly around the world in a night. We begin to understand that some people don’t exist, and never did. However, in an age of Google searches and Wikipedia entries, it isn’t so easy to tell the fact from the fiction. Who was real and who is Fake News? It might surprise you to know that these following people never existed – even though your history paints a different picture.
Made famous by the Disney film of the same name, Mulan is the tale of how a warrior’s daughter dresses up as a man to fight when her father is sick. It’s the awesome tale of female empowerment that challenges gender roles and inspires young girls. Unfortunately, although it is a famous story in Chinese literature, there is very little evidence to suggest any of it happened. There are 120 biographies on famous Chinese women in history, and Mulan is never mentioned, even though other warriors are.
Surely one of the greatest playwrights in history existed? His name appears alongside some of the greatest stories ever written. There are even portraits of him that clearly show the same man working on his literature. However, some historians claim that William Shakespeare was just a pen name and that the ‘real’ author of these plays and sonnets has been lost in history. Records show that although there was a man called Shakespeare, there was never any evidence he studied or learned to write. Who is the ‘real’ Shakspeare?
Ready to face some confusing truths? Let’s start with his famous quote: “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Ironically, Confucious may not have existed which means that his name isn’t correct and isn’t truthful. The misattribution of this quote could have been due to various depictions of him – described as an idealist, a politician, or even a superhero. His conflicting accounts challenge his validity.
Tell is a Swiss folk hero who allegedly lived in the 14th century. After defying Austrian officials, he was forced to shoot an apple off his son’s head, which he did successfully from 120 paces away. Or so the story goes. There’s little chance William Tell existed due to lack of actual evidence and his similarities between the English Robin Hood equivalent. The story is also similar to some Viking stories from around the same time. So we can not tell if Tell was really real.
His legendary book The Art of War has been read and studied for thousands of years on how to wage war against your enemies. Interestingly, it is very possible that Sun Tzu is a pen name. There is no history about its publication, and rumors state that the book would magically appear when people needed it most. That being said, it is considered that The Art of War was actually just sewn together with contributions from many people and copied.
Sybil Ludington is one of those strange people in history for being remembered for being forgotten. At only 16, she was the unsung hero of the Revolutionary War by riding 40 miles alone in the stormy weather to challenge the British in 1777. However, strangely her story wasn’t corroborated until 1880, which means that more than 100 years went by until history started to report on her, meaning the very fact she existed is thrown into question. What do you think?
The Greek poet wrote two books your English teacher probably forced you to read when you were younger. His epics The Iliad and The Odyssey are still talked about today, even though he didn’t write them! The stories originated around 1000 years before he wrote them down. Many historians claim that Homer was blind, and even a woman, or not at all one person but a collection of many. We won’t know if he was a person or not – but his work lives on.
You probably know about King Arthur from tales when you were a child and his tales from The Sword and the Stone. Legend has it that he received a sword from The Lady in the Lake and ruled England against the Saxon armies. Various historians claim that he didn’t actually exist but that he embodies a few war generals from the time. Of course, the tales of folklore are exaggerated but sadly it appears that he did not exist either.
History loves its Marys! Whether its The Virgin, The Poppins, or The Magdalene – Marys leave an impact. Mary Magdalene is known to ‘know men biblically for pay’ – meaning she was a prostitute who sought atonement for her sins. However, there is no evidence to suggest she was a pay-for-player in the bible. There is actually a lot of confusion between conflicting texts that describe Magdalene as the Virgin Mary, whereas others say she married Jesus. Either way, this writer’s favorite Mary is the Bloody!
Pope Joan is the story of a famous female Pope from 855 AD when women usually didn’t become Pope. Unfortunately, she got pregnant two years after taking the throne and was either murdered or banished. It served as a lesson of some sort for people. The official statement from the Catholic Church is that the tale is an urban legend. It makes sense since Pope Joan only appears in one book, History of Emperors and Popes, and it may not have been added by the author!
Even though his formula is a theorem, his existence is still a theory – to the horror of high school students around the world. Amazingly, the book titled classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1 explains that Pythagoras never wrote anything that we know today. Everything was recorded by people who called themselves Pythagoreans – think of ‘Belibers’ for mathematics. People today think he didn’t discover his own law and was just a figurehead to a strange cult.
This English folk hero stole from the rich to give to the poor, lived in a forest, and frequently flirted with Maid Marian. The individual stories we know today, mainly from Disney films, are fictitious, but did such a person exist? Identifying a single person can be difficult, considering there was a trend of criminals calling themselves ‘Robin Hood’ in the 13th and 14th centuries. Nevertheless, some historians claim that the folk hero is based on Fulk FitzWarin – a less catchy name!
His presence in musical folklore has been strong since the 1800s, but that might be the only thing that was real about John Henry! The story of the ex-slave who worked on a railroad who died from overwork is widely understood as nothing more than a fable. Today he remains the first man to battle the machines and lose to robots replacing humans. We will next see John Henry on Netflix, played by Dwayne Johnson who is kicking off a shared universe of folklore.
St. Christopher is considered as pretty great by many people around the world as someone who is a saint of travelers and fruit sellers. Unfortunately, The LA Times explained that many scholars are convinced he wasn’t real. All the stories about him remain myths: he did not convert 40,000 people to Christianity, he most likely was just captured by the Romans and ultimately killed. In 1969, the Vatican kicked him out of the Calendar – which is actually pretty intense.
The character of Kunta Kinte was elevated to widespread fame after the release of Roots – from Pulitzer Prize-winner Alex Haley. In the story, he writes about his ancestor, a slave from the 1760s, who escaped capture in America. There was even a TV mini-series celebrating the life and impact of Kinte. However, this was proven to be just a story – with various inaccuracies and clear signs of plagiarism from the author. Even though the impact and emotional response may be real – the character wasn’t.
This famous lawyer shaped much of the policy of Sparta in the fourth century. However, historians don’t easily agree whether he was responsible for the laws or was just a mascot for much of the decision processes. It gets even more bizarre when you realize that actually he wasn’t real to begin with – he was just a person that ancient Greeks could reference when discussing law and politics. It was much easier than referencing every single lawmaker! The more you know!
As the founder of Taoism, Lao Dan is considered a respected figure, indeed. However, according to some sources, there is often conflict in how people should refer to him. Some say his real name was Sima Quian, or that he is confused with Li Er. Also, his writings match the style and content of other authors, challenging his validity. Some people even contest that the writing was written and credited to the name several years after he died, which is quite mad, indeed.