All myths and legends generally have some foundation in truth or human logic, however obscurely. Typically, the actual occurrences which inspired a legend become distorted – often wildly – in order to make for a good story and to create a memorable allegory.
Myths and legends often serve to inspire fear, awe or loyalty within a community and a civilisation, and this wouldn’t work without a great story. But just how liberal has history been with the truth, in pursuit of a great story?
Some legends are quite clearly linked to verifiable historical events, such as battles, that have been extravagantly embellished. Warriors may be given God-like status or powers, and since nobody’s left to refute the grand stories, the legend sticks. These sorts of heroic, mystical tales are popular even today, with many still believing them to be true. Some of them could be.
However, each legend has a real-life origin story that makes more sense than the admittedly exciting but seemingly impossible fictionalised versions. From the legend of the werewolf, to the Amazon warriors, which legends have a grounding in fact and which are entirely fiction?
10. The Trojan Horse
The Trojan Horse has become a fixture of modern terminology and the legend forms part of our universal consciousness, but where did the legend come from?
It appeared first around 750 BC in Homer’s Odyssey. The actual events of the war supposedly occurred 500 years prior to this, however. The story tells how Greece, after besieging the city of Troy for years, decided to make it look like they had given up and were heading home.
They gave a giant wooden horse, as a conciliatory gift, to the Trojans for the Goddess Athena. Once inside the city walls, Greek warriors emerged from inside the horse and set fire to the city. So is there any truth to the legend?
Archaeological evidence points to the fact that Troy was, indeed, burnt down. However, the wooden horse seems to have been an embellished part of the story. Since siege-engines were covered in wet horse-hides, and this could have been where the story originated.
9. Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great has had many stories told of him, both ancient ones and modern adaptations. But was he really all that amazing? In stark contrast to the many idealised portraits and stories of him, he may have been quite unimpressive looking in real life. Historians claim that reliable sources from the time describe him as being small, short and stocky with an often uncontrollable temper.
These sources indicate that he was not a hero, but was in fact paranoid and mean. He did, however, manage to take over and create an empire that stretched from Egypt to India (naming many cities after himself), and never lost a battle. In terms of conquering, Alexander really did live up to his purported greatness.
8. Pandora’s Box
The story of Pandora’s box is similar in its moral to that of the story of Eve. Although it was told and adapted in other cultures and parts of the world, it began in Ancient Greece.
Pandora was given a mysterious box, in a world without hardship or woes. The box itself contained these ills, and despite being warned against it Zeus knew Pandora would open it as her curiosity grew.
The tale was told as a reminder to be obedient and follow religious and cultural norms while there is, of course, no factual basis to this fantastical story, it represents an important part of the human psyche. Pandora’s Box represents the precise combination of a fear of the unknown and an unrelenting thirst for information that has marked civilisation since time began. Its simplicity and profound moral truth have contributed to this tale’s legacy.
7. The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel may not have existed in exactly the way it’s remembered, but there is evidence that it did, indeed, exist. Actually, its remains can even be seen from a satellite view of the landscape.
It was not destroyed by a God, of course. In fact, it was built as a temple to Marduk, a God, and was apparently destroyed by Alexander the Great.
Alexander may have been the last great conqueror to see The Tower in its glory. He wished to rebuild it, but died before he was able to. Throughout the years, conquerors kept attempting to rebuild it in their own images, but The Tower of Babel was never again finished.
Dracula, the infamous vampire first written about by Bram Stoker, did exist – but maybe not as a vampire. His real name was Vlad the Impaler. The name Dracula comes from his father, who was called “Dracul,” or “devil” in Romanian. The term Dracula therefore means “son of Dracul.”
A Transylvanian noble, Vlad lived in a bloody time and was imprisoned twice. His father was killed, as was his brother, who was buried alive.
Vlad was given the name “Vlad the Impaler” during his own rule, which lasted from 1448 to 1476. He earned the title due to his preferred way of torturing people – impaling them and leaving them to die for days on end. He was even rumored to have dipped his bread in the blood of his victims. Eventually, he was defeated and his head was cut off and put on display. His body later mysteriously vanished, and has not been found.
5. Merlin the Wizard
Merlin the Wizard appears in the tales of King Arthur, but this is not the first incidence of his name appearing in literature. A man with no father, Merlin contains within him a magic that can aid the purposes of both good and evil.
The origin of the Merlin myth explains this: He was first created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1136 AD and appears in his writings on the History of Kings in Britain.
4. The Pied Piper
Could the Pied Piper have actually existed? His tale is partly true, and while details of how the children went missing are unknown, historians believe some tragedy occurred to inspire this sinister tale.
The tale we all know today was adapted as a means of scaring children into behaving. In 1284, so the well-known Grimm tale goes, a rat infestation plagued the town of Hamelin. The Piper said he would remove the rats if they would pay him a certain price.
He removed the rats, but the people went back on the word and didn’t make good on the promised payment. After a year, the Piper came back to the town, but instead of leading the rats away, he led the children away.
The truth? Around 1300, the town of Hamelin erected a stained glass memorial that depicted children being led away by a man, and an inscription on the glass cited that 130 children were led away and lost around that time. The rats in the tale were added at a later date.
3. The Werewolf
Werewolves have become a popular trope in the modern fantasy genre, but they have been around for a very long time. In fact, the werewolf is one of the oldest surviving tales of human-monster hybrids. Werewolves, or Lycanthropes, are humans that shape shift into a wolf or wolf-like form. There are historical accounts of werewolves going to trial and being hunted and executed. Werewolves were accused of being demonic creatures; some of these accounts blamed werewolves for killing livestock and doing evil deeds.
The tale of the werewolf originated in much the same way as the tales of witches did. The notion developed as a means to control the population and explain what happened when one was tempted by evil thoughts and the devil. It’s thought that wolf attacks and rabies, along with superstition and imagination, combined to created the surprisingly believable image of a werewolf.
2. Amazonian Female Warriors
The Amazonian warriors have been present in history for centuries. Most of the images of the Amazons have been painted in a negative light. Male writers, for the most part, have told the story of the man-hating or ugly, manish female Amazons – claims that are generally viewed skeptically.
Is there any truth behind the tales of these powerful female warriors? They appear in Greek fables, but they may have also existed in real life.
In the book The Amazons, the author Adrienne Mayor points to outstanding evidence that these women did exist. There have been skeletons found, for instance, of female warriors from the era with bows, arrows, spears and even horses. And these women are not the exception: About one third of Scythian women were buried with these kinds of tools and weapons. The skeletons even have trauma and battle injuries.
1. King Arthur
The tale of King Arthur has lived on, even if the King himself has not. But does the legend indicate the existence of a real King? What people read and study today is a mix of many legends covering different time periods.
There is evidence, however, that the legend was inspired by a King who really existed. Evidence points to King Arthur being a 5th century British General. He fought for his country against the surrounding tribes and was held up as a hero. He was first written into history in 830 by Nennius.
Later, his tale was elaborated upon. In the 11th century, his life was summarized from birth to death by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the man who also wrote about Merlin as well as Guinevere. The idea of the Holy Grail was not introduced until later. So while it appears as though King Arthur actually existed, the legends surrounding his life are thought to be wildly exaggerated and liberally embellished.