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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