Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them

Khalid Elhassan - October 25, 2021

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
An 1839 painting by Daniel Maclise, of Robin Hood and his Merry Men entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest. Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

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).

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Robin Hood statue. Flickr

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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
King Midas turned his daughter to gold. UX Collective

10. Kindness Rewarded With a Sketchy Gift

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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
An irate Apollo gave Midas the ears of an ass. Pixels

9. A Golden Touch, and the Ears of a Donkey

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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
What Midas thought was a gift turned out to be a curse. Comic Vine

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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Reconstruction of the tomb of a real life King Midas. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

7. King Midas’ Tomb

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. Archaelogical 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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
El Dorado’s story grew from a chief covered in gold, to a city of gold. Aleks Palitot

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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
The fictional El Dorado, the City of Gold. YouTube

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 of 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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Sir Walter Raleigh’s disastrous expedition up the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado. Pinterest

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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Patagonian giants. Princeton University

3. The Fictional South American Giants

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“.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Patagonian giants. Science Source

2. Tall Tales That Grew Ever Taller

Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition made contact with the rest of the big Patagonian’s 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.

Fictional Figures and the Real Historic People Behind Them
Tehuelche, the real people behind the Patagonian giants. Wikimedia

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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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here are our sources:

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Semiramis

Ancient Origins – The Search for El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold

Atlas Obscura – The Modern Movement to Exonerate a Notorious Medieval Serial Killer

Archaeology Archive, September 23rd, 1998 – King Arthur Was Real?

Baldwin, David – Robin Hood: The English Outlaw Unmasked (2010)

Canisius College – The Niland Brothers

Encyclopedia Britannica – Eldorado, Legendary Country

Encyclopedia Britannica – Giles de Rais

Encyclopedia Britannica – Samu-ramat

Hemming, John – The Search for El Dorado (1978)

History Collection – The Most Epic Myths From Around the World

Lawrence Today Magazine, Fall, 2004 – European Travel Writings and the Patagonian Giants

Live Science – Santa Claus: The Real Man Behind the Myth

Military – These are the Real Brothers Behind ‘Saving Private Ryan’

Museum of Hoaxes – Patagonian Giants

National Geographic History Magazine, February 5th, 2019 – Who Was the Real Robin Hood?

Parada, Carlos – Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology (1993)

Pollard, Anthony James – Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (2004)

Telegraph, The, July 11th, 2010 – Historians Locate King Arthur’s Round Table

Theoi, Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology – Midas

Wikipedia – Midas

Wikipedia – Saving Private Ryan

Wikipedia – Vortigern

Wolf, Leonard – Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles de Rais (1980)

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