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
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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