It probably comes as no surprise that most mythology and folklore and works of fiction are, well – fictional. Figments of creative imagination. However, sometimes myths and folk tales, and even fiction, have a kernel of truth and real people and events within. Take the movie Saving Private Ryan. A fictional story, but one whose premise is actually based on real-life events. Following are thirty things about that and other well-known fictional characters and stories based on real people and events.
30. The True Facts Behind a Great Fictional Movie
Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s critically acclaimed 1998 war epic, won five Oscars, including a Best Director. It is widely regarded as one of the best war movies, and indeed, as one of the best films of all time, period. It depicts the travails of a fictional team of American GIs assigned a special task in the midst of World War II’s Normandy Campaign. Their mission: to find and recover the eponymous Private Ryan of the 101st Airborne Division – the missing but presumed still alive last of four brothers, the rest of whom were killed in combat.
As the GIs tramp through the chaos of war-torn Normandy, they meet, overcome, and survive a variety of obstacles and dangers, until they finally locate Ryan. Although upset by the news, he refuses to abandon his comrades who are about to come under German counterattack, and his would-be-rescuers are all but wiped out in battle against the Nazis. Although the story is fictional, it is nonetheless fiction based upon a real wartime tragedy: the fate of the Niland Brothers, below.
During WWII, Edward, Preston, Robert, and Frederick “Fritz” Niland, four sons of Michael and Augusta Niland of Tonawanda, New York, served in the US military. Preston and Robert had joined the US Army before America’s entry into the war, and the other two joined the military in 1942. Because of the Sullivan Brothers tragedy in 1942, when five siblings in the US Navy were killed when the ship aboard which they had served together, the USS Juneau, was sunk, new rules prevented immediate family members from serving together. So the brothers ended up in different units.
Three served in the US Army: Preston in the 4th Infantry Division, Robert in the 82nd Airborne Division, Frederick in the 101st Airborne Division, while Edward joined the US Army Air Forces. Then came 1944, a horrible year for the Nilands. In mid-May, 1944, Edward’s B-25 Mitchell medium bomber was shot down over Burma, and his parents received a telegram that he was missing, presumed dead. Just a few weeks later, before they had even begun to process their grief, Mr. and Mrs. Niland received two more blows: Robert had been killed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, and Preston was killed nearby the following day, June 7th.
When higher-ups in the US military heard of the tragic story of the Niland brothers, they determined that their parents would not suffer the death of their last son. So orders were swiftly sent out to find Frederick “Fritz” Niland of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, whose paratroopers had jumped into Normandy on the night before the amphibious landings took place. Fritz had fought almost nonstop for the first week or so of the Normandy Campaign. Nine days after D-Day, he stopped by the 82nd Airborne Division to see his brother Robert, only to find out that he had been killed on D-Day.
Robert Niland had landed with the 505th Parachute Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne Division, near St. Mere-Eglise, on the night of June 5-6, 1944. After the town was captured in the early morning of June 6th, the paratroopers set up a defensive perimeter around it. When a strong German counterattack threatened to overrun their position, Robert and two comrades volunteered to stay behind and cover the rest of the unit’s retreat to St. Mere-Eglise. He was killed while he manned a machinegun in the face of a powerful German onslaught.
27. A Day After His Brother Was Killed in Normandy, Preston Niland Was Killed Just a Few Miles Away
On the same morning that Robert Niland was killed, his brother Preston, a lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Division, led his men ashore on Utah Beach. Unlike the neighboring Omaha Beach where US attackers suffered horrific losses, the casualties on Utah Beach were relatively light. However, they began to mount once the GIs moved inland and came under fire from numerous German artillery positions. Lieutenant Preston Niland and his platoon were ordered to take out a particularly troublesome artillery position at Crisbeck.
The German battery at Crisbeck had already sunk an American destroyer, the USS Corry, so it was vital that it be taken out as soon as possible. On June 7th, 1944, Lieutenant Niland led his men in an attack against that artillery position, and amidst heavy fighting, he fell, mortally wounded. Within a mere three weeks, tragedy had befallen three Niland brothers, and Michael and Augusta Niland received the terrible news about three of their sons within a brief span of time.
The only consolation that the Niland brothers’ parents received amidst their grief was a letter from their son Frederick, sent before he had learned the fates of his siblings, in which he wrote: “Dad’s Spanish-American war stories are going to have to take a backseat when I get home“. Orders were quickly dispatched from the War Department to Normandy, to find Frederick, and return him to the US and his grief-stricken mom and dad as soon as possible. The task fell to Father Francis Sampson, chaplain of 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
Father Sampson managed to track Fritz down – albeit in a less dramatic fashion than in the fictional Saving Private Ryan. By then, he had learned on his own from a visit to the 82nd Airborne that he had lost his brother Robert, and his grief was amplified when the chaplain delivered the heartbreaking news about his two other brothers. Father Sampson then began the paperwork necessary to get Fritz out of the European Theater of Operations, and back to the US. He did that, but as seen below, there was to be yet another twist to the story.
25. The Real Paratrooper Upon Whom a Fictional Character is Based
To the relief of his parents, Frederick “Fritz” Niland made it home in one piece in 1944. Back in the US, he served out the rest of the war as an MP in New York. Then in May 1945, Michael and Augusta Niland received a bit of unexpected good news. Their son, US Army Air Forces Technical Sergeant Edward Francis Niland, who had been shot down in Burma the preceding May and listed as missing, presumed dead, was not, as it turned out, dead. Edward had managed to safely parachute from his stricken B-25. He then wandered in the Burmese jungle for days, before he was captured on May 16th, 1944, and was made a prisoner of war.
Edward survived the abuses, brutalities, and miseries of a Japanese POW camp, until it was liberated by British forces on May 4th, 1945. He had lost a lot of weight in captivity and returned to New York a skeletal 80 pounds, but what mattered is that he returned, alive. He lived in Tonawanda until his death in 1984, aged 71. As to Fritz, he went on to earn a dentistry degree from Georgetown University after the war and became a dentist. He died in San Francisco in 1983, at age 63. His and his brothers’ story was recounted in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, and the fictional Private Ryan of Steven Spielberg’s movie is loosely based upon him.
Semiramis in Greco-Roman mythology was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal, who was fed by doves after her divine mother abandoned her as an infant in order to drown herself. Semiramis grew into a formidable woman who married a general, advised him into great victories, then switched husbands and married the king. As queen and queen regnant, she personally led troops into battle and conquered much of Asia, as well as Ethiopia and Libya. Domestically, Semiramis restored the decrepit ancient Babylon to its former glory, built the city’s famous Hanging Gardens, and protected it with impregnable defensive walls. All of that is fictional, but Semiramis’ legend was based on the life of an actual ninth century BC Assyrian queen named Sammu-Ramat.
The wife of King Shamshi Adad V (reigned 824 – 811 BC), Sammu-Ramat took the reins of power after her husband died. She then ruled for five years as queen regent for her underage son Adad Nirari III, until he was old enough to rule in his own right. Steles from that period record that Sammu-Ramat negotiated alliances on behalf of her son, and that she was a generous patroness of religious temples. She seems to have ruled well enough to become a revered figure in Assyria. Between that, and the fact that rule by a woman was such an extraordinary event in Assyrian history, the story of Sammu-Ramat grew over the years, until she emerged centuries later as a full-blown mythological figure, the legendary fictional Queen Semiramis.
In the early fifth century AD, the once mighty but now seriously troubled Roman Empire found itself under massive pressure from barbarian invaders on multiple fronts. So the Romans withdrew their forces from the far-off province of Britain, to use them in an attempt to hang on to territories that they viewed as more vital. It is unclear if the Roman authorities at the time thought that the withdrawal from Britain was permanent, or whether they just considered it to be a temporary pullback, with plans to return once things had settled down.
As it turned out, the legions never returned, and Roman Britain was left on its own for good. The locals, the Romano-Britons, were beset by invaders, most significantly the Picts who attacked from Scotland, and Saxons who struck from across the North Sea. In what turned out to be a bad idea of epic proportions, the locals, perhaps with the logic that it takes a thief to catch a thief, decided to hire Saxon mercenaries and settle them in Britain, to defend them from other Saxons and similar barbarians. As seen below, it did not turn out well. However, somewhere in the resultant mess was born the legend of perhaps the greatest fictional king ever, so there was at least that silver lining.
22. The Romano-Britons Discovered That the Saxons Radically Differed With Them on What Negotiations Meant
Once the Saxons had settled in Britain and got themselves comfortable, they decided that they not only liked the place, but that they also wanted more than what had been originally offered. So they accused their hosts and employers of a failure to meet their side of the deal, and charged them with having deceived and cheated them out of the supplies that they had been promised. The Romano-Britons sent their leaders to try and negotiate with the Saxons and reduce the tensions.
Unfortunately for the locals, the Saxons’ idea of negotiation was to suddenly pull out their daggers in the middle of the sit down, and massacre the native leaders. They spared just one of the Romano-Britons, a leader named Vortigern, and kept him alive as a puppet ruler in exchange for his promise to grant the Saxons more land. The ensuing conflict, as the Saxons gobbled up more and more territory from the locals, gave rise to the tales of a mythical British leader: King Arthur, who valiantly fought against the invaders. His fictional exploits are with us to this day.
21. The Real Warrior Behind the Fictional King Arthur
Through their puppet ruler Vortigern, the Saxons extorted great tracts of land from the Romano-Britons, then sought more. They eventually launched a massive onslaught that was described by Saint Gildas, a British cleric, who penned De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (“On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”), circa 510 – 530. From gradual expansion, the Saxon effort – eventually joined in by fellow Germanic tribes the Jutes and Angles – became a war of conquest that sought to seize all of Britain. As the invaders fought to displace the local inhabitants and replace them with Germanic settlers, the hard-pressed Britons had the good fortune to find an effective warlord, whom subsequent mythology morphed into the fictional King Arthur.
Arthur does not appear in any contemporary sources, but there is evidence that a British war leader, perhaps named Arthur or something close, was active at the time. For example, a sixth-century engraving found in Cornwall bore the name of an important person named “Artognu”. In 2010, Archaeologists found what might have been Arthur’s real Round Table at the site of his reputed Camelot. The fabled edifice was not in a purpose-built castle but was housed instead in a preexisting structure: a Roman amphitheater in Chester. The Round Table was not a literal piece of furniture, but a vast wood and stone structure that could have allowed up to 1,000 of Arthur’s men to gather. Historians believe noblemen would have sat in the front rows of a circular meeting place, while lower-ranked attendees sat on stone benches further back.
It grieves us greatly to break it to those unaware of the fact, but Santa Claus is not real, but a fictional character. In the runup to every Christmas, kids – as well as adults who have managed to hang on to the kid within – become giddy with anticipation of what Old Saint Nick has in store for them. Like an omniscient deity who can observe all and see into our souls, Santa can tell who has been naughty or nice, and rewards us accordingly with either goodie in our stockings, or a lump of coal.
The American version of Santa has him busy in his workshop in the North Pole, where Christmas elves toil to make toys for him year-round. He then distributes them around the world with flying reindeer that pull his sleigh through the air. That take is the one that became the globally dominant depiction of the legend, and it is the product of a melting pot of cultures, that resulted in the fat, jolly, and bearded grandfatherly figure we all know and love.
With origins in Western Christian culture, the Santa Claus of today is the product of a blend of various fictional inputs. From the Dutch, we get the figure of Sinterklaas, whose feast occurs in early December. From the English, we get the folkloric figure of Father Christmas, the gift giver. For good measure, there is even a touch of the ancient Germanic god Odin, who is associated with the pagan midwinter festival of Yule. However, the chief figure behind the Santa myth is Saint Nicholas.
A fourth century AD Greek bishop of Myra, a city on the southern coast of modern Turkey known today as Demre, the real Saint Nick was probably bearded, but he was not the jolly fat old man who graces Christmas cards. Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari (270 – 342 AD), was born in the Roman Empire at a time when Christianity was persecuted, with real-life stakes higher than depictions on coffee cups or the wording of season’s greetings.
The real Saint Nicholas hailed from a wealthy family. His rich parents died when he was a young man, and left him with a huge inheritance. Unlike what many other young men might have done in his shoes, Nicholas did not party it up and splurge on life’s sensual joys. Instead, he used his inheritance to care for those in need. One beneficiary of his largesse was a poor man with three daughters, who could not afford dowries for them. Without dowries, the girls’ father would have sold them into slavery – it was a pretty harsh world back then. However, on three occasions, a bag of gold appeared in the girls’ home, secretly tossed in through a window by Nicholas, to land in a shoe or stocking left by the fireplace.
Nicholas’ reputation as a secret gift-giver grew over time, and he became known for depositing coins or treats in the shoes of children, who would leave them out for that purpose. Eventually, he became bishop of Myra at a young age, but his bishopric was interrupted when Emperor Diocletian launched a round of Christian persecutions. Nicholas ended up exiled and imprisoned until he was freed by Constantine the Great, the empire’s first Christian ruler. Stories about Nicholas’ generosity grew, and he was canonized after his death. He became the patron saint of children and the chief inspiration behind the fictional Santa Claus.
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (circa 1404 – 1440), is the real-life man upon whom the legend of the fictional Bluebeard is based. A French nobleman from Brittany, de Rais was a respected knight and a national hero of France who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc’s chief captain and right-hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his life.
As it turned out, when he was not in the limelight, de Rais was an outright monster. It was a shock to all, but especially to his family, the House of Montmorency – one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families in France. From an early age, Gilles seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. For example, by the time he was fifteen years old, he had already gained military distinction for his heroics amidst a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany.
Gilles de Rais burnished his reputation even more in Anjou, where he fought for its duchess against the English in 1427. By the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English, de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to The Maid of Orleans as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans.
He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements. Gilles had inherited significant landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more extensive holdings and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon became clear that he was not as good at money management as he was at managing men in battle.
Once he took over the personal management of his estates, it did not take Gilles de Rais long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king of France. Within a year of his retirement, de Rais lost most of his lands, and his family secured from the king a decree that forbade him from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, Gilles turned to alchemy, in the hope that he would find a way to turn base metals into gold.
He also turned to Satanism, in the hope that he would gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the Devil. Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic de Rais got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated so badly that he kidnapped a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, which unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once-celebrated national hero had murdered children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.
14. The Fictional Bluebeard’s Real World Inspiration
To carry out his depravities, Gilles de Rais’ modus operandi was to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothes. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them before he eventually led them to a bedroom, where he and his accomplices would pounce upon and seize their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of the sight of the stark terror in their eyes when he explained what was in store for them. And what was in store was none too good.
Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothing would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped into a moat. After Gilles confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. His execution on October 26th, 1440, was commensurate with the horrific nature of his crimes: he was burned and hanged at the same time. His infamy inspired the fictional fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
The tale of the medieval outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil King John, and helped the rightful monarch Richard the Lionheart regain his throne, is one of England’s greatest folkloric legends. Surprisingly, for a fictional figure whose story revolved around armed robbery of the rich, Robin Hood first gained widespread popularity as a result of plays originally staged for the upper classes in Elizabethan England. First, however, the playwrights had to gentrify Robin Hood.
So he was transformed from a commoner bandit and remade into a nobleman to whom the well-heeled could better relate. Such gentrification can be traced to the playwright Anthony Mundy, who reinvented the fictional outlaw as an aristocrat, Earl Robert of Huntington. He had gone away to the fight in the Crusades and returned to discover that he had been wrongfully disinherited by his uncle. So he flees to Sherwood Forrest where he becomes a bandit, meets and falls in love with Lady Marion, and kicks off the legend.
12. The Hard-to-Trace Origins of a Great Fictional Hero
In real life, of course, there was no character who performed all the noble deeds of derring-do ascribed to the fictional Robin Hood. However, there were plenty of outlaws, nearly all commoners, who gained a measure of popularity with the lower classes because they had thumbed their noses at the upper-class oppressors. “Robinhood” or “Rabunhod” or “Robehod” were common nicknames for criminals and appear in numerous twelfth-century court records. However, those Robin Hoods were not the kinds of criminals who acted based on any highbrow motives.
Instead, they became criminals for the mundane reasons that led most people into crime back then, and that still put people on the path of criminality in the present. Even if we set aside that Robin Hood was probably just a generic period nickname for criminals, to identify the original Robin Hood is no easy task. In England, Robin was and remains a diminutive of the name Robert, and Robert was a very common first name back then. Likewise, Hood was a common surname in medieval England.
11. The Many Candidates Claimed to be the Origins of the Fictional Robin Hood
Because his first and last name were so common at the time, it is not easy for historians to identify just which real-life medieval criminals named Robin Hood, or some variation thereof, might have inspired the legend of the fictional outlaw. That explains, at least in part, why so many candidates have been proposed over the years. The earliest mentioned one is a Robert Hod of York, who became an outlaw after his goods, worth 32 shillings, were confiscated by the authorities to settle a debt owed to a local church. Other candidates for the fictional character include the brothers Robert and John Deyville, who fought in the Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267).
Their side lost, and with their cause defeated, the Deyvilles holed up in the woods as outlaws, until the records show that John, at least, was pardoned. However, the likeliest candidate seems to be Roger Godberd, another figure who ended up on the losing side of the Second Barons’ War and became an outlaw. He operated from Sherwood Forest, defied the Sheriff of Nottingham for years, was captured and taken to Nottingham Castle, but managed to escape. He was eventually recaptured and held in the Tower of London, until he was pardoned by King Edward I when he returned from the Crusades. That record led many historians to label Godberd as “the prototype” of the fictional Robin Hood.
As told in Ancient Greek mythology, a satyr – a male nature spirit with the tail and ears of a horse – named Silenus got drunk and wandered off. He was found by some peasants, who took him to their ruler, King Midas of Phrygia. Midas treated him well and afforded him great hospitality for ten days. That kindness earned the king the gratitude of Dionysus, the god of wine, Silenus’ foster son and former student. So he rewarded Midas by granting him a wish.
As just about all of us learned as children, the fictional Midas wished for the ability to turn everything that he touched into gold. The wish was granted, but it backfired badly on him. While that supernatural boon made Midas fabulously wealthy in the short term, it was not a superpower that he could turn on and off at will. It remained permanently on, and all that Midas touched turned into gold, whether he actually wanted it to or not.
King Midas’s gift was fatal to his beloved daughter, who was killed when her father inadvertently transformed her into a golden statue by touching her. His food and drink were also turned into gold, and as a result, the fictional king died of thirst and starvation. However, another version of the ancient myth has a happier – or at least less bad, considering that the daughter stayed dead – conclusion, in which the god Dionysus lifts the curse after Midas had learned his lesson.
The experience made Midas hate wealth and riches, so he left his palace and moved to the countryside. There, he pursued the simple life as a worshipper of Pan, the god of the wild. Some time later, Pan challenged the god Apollo to a musical contest, and Midas was one of the judges. All the judges and witnesses declared Apollo the winner, except for Midas, who sided with Pan. A ticked off Apollo stated that Midas “Must have the ears of an ass!“, and promptly turned his ears into those of a donkey.
8. The Stories Might Have Been Fictional, But There Was a Real King Midas
The above stories about King Midas are all, of course, fictional narratives of Ancient Greek mythology that never actually happened in real life. However, there were several ancient kings of Phrygia, in modern Turkey, who answered to the name Midas. There actually was a late eighth century BC King Midas of Phrygia, whom we know of from ancient Greek and Assyrian sources. According to Greek accounts, this King Midas married a Princess Damodice, who proved to be a great asset to him and his realm.
Some ancient sources, whose numbers include Aristotle, credit Damodice as the inventor of Greek coinage, or money. Thus thanks to Midas’ wife, Phrygia, as an early adopter of coined money would have probably experienced an economic boom when compared to her neighbors, whose economy and trade still relied on the more inefficient barter system. So from that perspective, it is not hard to see how the stories of a Phrygian ruler named Midas who had a golden touch got started, and eventually gave rise to the famous fictional accounts.
Further evidence that attests to the existence of a real-life King Midas comes from the Assyrians. Tablets from the reign of King Sargon II of the New Assyrian Empire refer to a King “Mita” who attacked Assyria’s east Anatolian territories. Some historians believe that this is the same “Midas of Gordias” whom Herodotus writes had donated a throne to the Oracle of Delphi. The Ancient Greek historian, philosopher, and geographer Strabo wrote that Midas committed suicide in 695 BC when Cimmerians attacked and overran his capital, Gordium. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that Gordium was destroyed and put to the torch around that time.
Further evidence of Midas’ existence emerged in 1957, when archaeologist Rodney Young opened a massive tomb compound near the site of ancient Gordium, in today’s Turkey. The compound measures about 900 feet long and 160 feet high, and includes a royal burial from circa 740 BC, with the remains of a coffin that contained a 5 foot 3 man in his 60s. Buried with him were ornate tables and bronze vessels containing traces of alcohol – apparently, a final feast for the departed. Young named the tomb the “Midas Mound”, after the legendary king with a golden touch. However, further research indicates that it was probably not the grave of our Midas, but that of his father.
6. The Real Life Origins of the Fictional El Dorado
In the children’s game of telephone, a message passed on in whispers from one person to another gradually gets altered with each retelling, until the final recipient ends up with something completely from what had originally been said. The same thing seems to have happened with the legend of El Dorado, the fictional City of Gold. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. From them, they heard stories about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust as part of a religious ceremony.
They then rowed into Lake Guatavita, about 35 miles northeast of modern Bogota, to drop golden gifts for the water god. The Spaniards coined a term for those mythical Muisca chiefs: El Hombre Dorado, or “The Golden Man”. Over the years, and with repeated retellings, El Hombre Dorado was transformed. What began as a tribal chief coated in gold dust became a city made of gold, then a kingdom of gold, and finally a fabulously wealthy empire that had more gold than the rest of the world put together.
5. Gold Lust Fueled Numerous Expeditions in Search of El Dorado
The legend of El Dorado was helped by the fact that Spaniards and other Europeans had encountered significant amounts of gold among the natives of the Caribbean coast of South America. So it made sense to them that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior. As the years went by, many Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version that described a city of gold, came to believe in its existence.
Wishful thinking took hold of the imaginations of many and ran away with them. That, and the lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the fabled city, eventually fueled numerous expeditions and searches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold. However, as seen below those seekers who shied away from the more fictional accounts and stuck to the original version of the story, met with some success.
4. The Disastrous Expeditions to Find a Fictional City
Some explorers focused on the narrative of the Muisca people about chiefs who dropped golden gifts into Lake Guatavita for the water god. So they set out to drain the lake, and managed to lower its level enough to allow them to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around its edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach. Other than the partial success at Lake Guatavita, the only results of the search for the fictional El Dorado were numerous lives wasted in fruitless treasure hunts.
One of the more jinxed searches was carried out by the English courtier and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who conducted two expeditions in Guiana in search of El Dorado. In the second one, in 1617, an aged Raleigh grew too feeble to endure the rigors of the search. So he set up a base camp in Trinidad, and sent his son, Watt, up the Orinoco River to find the City of Gold. The attempt to locate the fictional city ended in utter disaster, and in the death of Raleigh’s son in a battle against the Spaniards. Things did not end much better for Raleigh himself: upon his return to England, King James I had him beheaded because he had defied his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.
For centuries, accounts of South American giants circulated throughout Europe. The tales were fictional, but they were accepted by contemporaries as all too real. They began with tales brought back to Europe by the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan’s Spanish expedition that circumnavigated the globe. En route, the ships had dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, they spotted a naked huge native singing and dancing on the shore. A curious Magellan ordered one of his men to make contact.
The man imitated the big native, and sang and danced as well, in order to demonstrate friendliness. It worked, and the giant was induced to meet Magellan. As described by a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“.
Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition made contact with the rest of the big Patagonian tribe, and in subsequent weeks, the explorers hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan prepared to finally depart, he wanted to take some Patagonians to display back in Spain. So he invited some aboard his ship with the lure of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and placed them in chains. When the Patagonians came to, the ships were already underway, sailing away from their homeland.
Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the sailors who did complete the trip and return to Spain brought back with them the fantastic tale of a land inhabited by giants. It was a tall tale that kept growing taller. Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. Others came in contact with ones whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the fictional South American giants gripped European imaginations for over 250 years.
1. The Real Native Americans Behind the Fictional Patagonian Giants
The first challenge to the tall tales about Patagonian giants came from the famed British seaman and pirate, Sir Francis Drake, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.”
Yet the fictional accounts of South American giants persisted and were accepted as true by many. As late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of 9-foot tall natives. However, when the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, it turned out that the natives measured actually stood around 6 feet 6 inches tall – quite tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But for the most part, they stood in the 6-foot range.
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