This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About

Khalid Elhassan - September 1, 2019

Some famous people and events from mythology are pure fiction. They are inventions of fertile imaginations and the creative products of storytellers meeting the demand for juicy tales. However, some mythology is based on actual history. While the links might be tenuous at times, they are there for us to trace myths back to their origins. Following are twenty things about myths that can be traced back to real people and events from history.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Santa Claus as imagined today. New York Post

The Saint Behind Santa Claus

In the run-up to every Christmas, children (and some adults) become giddy with anticipation of what Santa Claus has in store for them. Like an omniscient deity, Santa can tell who has been naughty or nice, rewarding us accordingly with either goodies or a lump of coal. The American version of Santa, the dominant depiction, is the product of a melting pot of cultures. The result was the jolly, bearded grandfatherly figure we all know.

Christian Culture

Originating in Western Christian culture, today’s Santa Claus is a blend of various inputs. There is the English folkloric figure Father Christmas, the gift giver. The Dutch figure Sinterklaas, whose feast occurs in early December. There is even a touch of the ancient Germanic god, Odin. He is/was associated with the pagan midwinter festival of Yule. However, the chief figure behind the Santa myth is Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop of Myra, a city on the southern coast of modern Turkey.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Saint Nicholas. Dominican Friars

The Real Saint Nick

The real Saint Nick was probably bearded, but he was not the jolly fat old man gracing 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. Real-life stakes were higher than depictions on coffee cups or the wording of season’s greetings. Hailing from a rich family, Nicholas’ wealthy parents died when he was a young man, leaving him with a considerable inheritance. Unlike what many other young men might have done in his shoes, Nicholas refrained from partying it up. Instead, he used his inheritance to care for those in need, such as helping a poor man with three daughters who could not afford a dowry.

St. Nick’s Generosity Grows

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. They were secretly tossed in through a window by Nicholas. The bag of gold would land in a shoe or stocking left by the fireplace. His reputation as a secret gift-giver grew over time, and Nicholas became known for depositing coins or treats in the shoes of children. 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 freed by Constantine. Stories about Nicholas’ generosity grew; he was canonized after his death, becoming the patron saint of children. This created the chief inspiration behind Santa Claus.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
A seventeenth century woodcut of Robin Hood and Maid Marion. Wikimedia

There Was Probably a Real Robin Hood, But He Was No Hero

One of England’s greatest folkloric legends is that 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. Surprisingly, for a figure whose story revolved around stealing from 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 from a commoner bandit, and transform him into a nobleman to whom the well-heeled could better relate. Such gentrification can be traced to the playwright Anthony Mundy, who reinvented the outlaw as an aristocrat, Earl Robert of Huntington, who was wrongfully disinherited by his uncle. So he flees to Sherwood Forrest where he becomes an outlaw, meets and falls in love with Lady Marion, and kicks off the legend.

The Real-Life Robin Hood

In real life, of course, there was no character who performed all the noble deeds of derring-do ascribed to Robin Hood. However, there were plenty of outlaws, nearly all commoners, who gained a measure of popularity with the lower classes for thumbing their noses at the upper-class oppressors. Indeed, in the medieval era, “Robinhood” or “Rabunhod” or “Robehod” were common nicknames for criminals, that appear in numerous 12th century court records. However, those Robin Hoods were the kinds of criminals who did what they did not out of any high-brow motives, but for the mundane reasons that led most people into crime back then, and that still put people on the paths of criminality in the present.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Robin Hood and His Merry Men Entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest, by Daniel Maclise, 1839. Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

Will The Real Robin Hoods Please Stand Up?

Even if we set aside that Robin Hood was probably just a generic period nickname for criminals, identifying 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. As a result, identifying just which criminals named Robin Hood or some variation thereof might have inspired the legend of Robin Hood, is a particularly difficult task for historians. This partially explains why numerous candidates have been proposed over the years.

Potential Candidates

The earliest mention is Robert Hod of York, who became an outlaw after his goods, worth 32 shillings, were confiscated to settle a debt owed to a local church. Other candidates include the brothers Robert and John Deyville, who fought on the losing side in the Second Barons’ War (1264 – 1267). 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. What is known of Godberd’s activities led some historians to label him as “the prototype Robin Hood”.

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This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Queen Semiramis receiving news of a revolt. Stravaganza

The Real-Life Queen Who Inspired the Legend of Semiramis

In Greco-Roman mythology, Semiramis was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal, who was fed by doves after her divine mother abandoned her as an infant so she could drown herself. Semiramis grew into a wise and formidable woman, who married a general, advising him into great victories, before switching husbands and marrying 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 was supposed to have restored the declining ancient Babylon to its former glory, built the city’s famous Hanging Gardens, and protected it with impregnable defensive walls. While that Semiramis never existed, her legend was based on the life of an actual Assyrian queen named Sammu-Ramat, who lived in the 9th century BC.

Shamshi Adad V

The wife of King Shamshi Adad V (reigned 824 – 811 BC), Sammu-ramat took the reins of power following her husband’s death. 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 recorded Sammu-Ramat as negotiating alliances on behalf of her son, and as 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 Queen Semiramis.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Midas and his golden daughter. Wikimedia

There Actually Was a King Midas, Even if He Lacked the Golden Touch

In Greek mythology, King Midas of Phrygia helped out a drunk satyr – a male nature spirit with a horse’s tail and ears – who rewarded Midas by granting him a wish. Midas’ wish to turn everything he touched into gold was granted, but it ended up backfiring 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 everything that Midas touched turned into gold, whether he wanted it to or not. That included his beloved daughter, who was killed when Midas inadvertently turned her into a golden statue by touching her. His food and drink was also turned into gold, causing Midas to die of thirst and starvation – although another version of the myth has the god Dionysus lifting the curse after Midas learned his lesson.

No Golden Touch, but an Influential Myth

The experience made Midas hate wealth and riches, so he left his palace and moved to the countryside, to follow 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 Midas, who sided with Pan. A ticked-off Apollo stated that Midas “Must have the ears of an ass!“, and promptly turned the king’s ears into those of a donkey. While the preceding mythological Midas stories never actually happened in real life, there were several ancient kings of Phrygia, in modern Turkey, who answered to that name.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Reconstruction of Tumulus MM, named after King Midas. Museum of Anatolian Civilizations

The Real King Midas

As it turns out, there actually was an 8th century BC king Midas of Phrygia, whom we know of from ancient Greek and Assyrian sources. According to Greek sources, this King Midas married a princess Hermodice, who is credited by some ancient sources with inventing Greek coinage, or money. Thanks to Midas’ wife, Phrygia, as an early adopter of coined money would have probably experienced an economic boom in comparison to her neighbors, who still relied on the more inefficient barter system for trade. So from that perspective, it is not hard to see how the stories of Phrygia’s King Midas having a golden touch got started. Simultaneously, Assyrian tablets from that period refer to a king “Mita” attacking Assyria’s east Anatolian territories.

More Evidence

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. Measuring about 900 feet long and 160 feet high, the compound included a royal burial from circa 740 BC, that included the remains of a coffin containing a 5 foot 3 man in his 60s. Accompanying him to the afterlife 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 of the golden touch, although later dating indicates that it was probably not the grave of our Midas, but that of his father.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Vortigern and the Romano-Britons welcoming the Saxons. Alamy

The Real War That Gave Rise to the Myth of King Arthur

In the early fifth century, the 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 they viewed as more vital. It is unclear if the Roman authorities at the time viewed the withdrawal from Britain as permanent, or just a temporary pullback, with plans to return once things settled down. As it turned out, the legions never returned, and Roman Britain was left on its own. The Romano-Briton were beset by their own invaders, most significantly the Picts in Scotland, and Saxons from across the North Sea. In what turned out to be a bad idea of epic proportions, the locals, perhaps reasoning 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.

The Saxons Expand

Once the Saxons settled in and got comfortable, they decided they wanted more. So they accused their hosts and employers of failing to meet their side of the deal, and charged them with shortchanging the Saxons on 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 during the sit-down, and massacre the native leaders. They spared just one of the locals, 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.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler, 1903. Wikimedia

The Real King Arthur?

The Saxons absorbed the lands extorted from the Romano-Britons through their puppet British ruler, Vortigern, then sought more. The invaders eventually launched a massive onslaught 4that 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 legend morphed into the myth of King Arthur.

Is Artognu the Inspiration for King Arthur?

While Arthur does not appear in any of the contemporary sources, there is evidence that some British war leader, perhaps named Arthur or something close, lived during this period. For example, a 6th century engraving was found in Cornwall, bearing the name of some bigwig 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 a purpose-built castle, but was housed instead in a preexisting structure: a recently discovered 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.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
The legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis. Documentary Tube

The Natural Disaster Behind the Legend of Atlantis

During the second millennium BC, the Minoans, based out of the Mediterranean island of Crete, created history’s first naval trade empire. They also developed a particularly sophisticated and advanced civilization for that day and age. Then it all came crashing down, due in large part to a natural disaster: the Thera Volcanic Eruption, circa 1642 – 1540 BC, in what is today the Greek island of Santorini. It was one of the most powerful volcanic blasts in recorded history, estimated to have been about four times stronger than the gigantic Krakatoa explosion of 1883. The eruption sundered the island of Thera, and wiped out the flourishing Minoan settlement of nearby Arkotiri and surrounding islands.

Tsunami in Crete

In addition to the immediate devastation of Thera and the surrounding islands, the eruption produced powerful tsunamis that devastated Crete, contributing to the decline of the Minoan civilization and paving the way for its extinction. Such a disaster, coming out of the blue like a bolt of lightning, gave rise to the legend of the vanished civilization of Atlantis, which was doomed by a natural catastrophe and swallowed by the sea. However, the impact of the Thera Eruption went beyond serving as the source material for a myth about a vanished civilization. It was one of history’s most impactful natural disasters, with consequences not only in its own era, but with knock-on effects and a chain of causation leading directly to the world in which we live today.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
The before and after of the 2nd millennium BC Thera Eruption. Science Photo Library

The Legend of Atlantis, and the Shaping of the Modern World

The Minoans, who were later morphed in Greek mythology into the vanished civilization of Atlantis, had been the Mediterranean’s greatest naval power, as well as the dominant force in the Aegean, including what became Greece and the Greek world. A trading power, the Minoans were oriented towards Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, and were strongly influenced by those civilizations. While the Minoans flourished, the Aegean world in their thrall was by necessity oriented in the same direction, and strongly influenced by the Egyptian and Eastern civilizations as well. The Thera eruption weakened Crete and the Minoans sufficiently to create a power vacuum in the Aegean, which was filled by the emerging Mycenaeans in mainland Greece. They went on to conquer Crete and destroy the Minoans, and became the dominant power of the Aegean.

The Eruption and Tsunami Could Have Shaped Our Modern World

Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans’ energies were focused not on trade with Egypt and the Levant, but on colonizing the Aegean, the western coast of Asia Minor, the Black Sea coast, and the western Mediterranean. That change of orientation significantly reduced Egyptian and Eastern influences upon the Greeks, and when the Greek world flourished centuries later, long after the Mycenaeans had themselves vanished, it would do so as a civilization distinct from those of Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, rather than as extension and outpost of those cultures. Since Western civilization is founded upon that of the ancient Greeks, an argument could be made that today’s Western civilization and its impact on the modern world would not exist but for the Thera eruption of the mid-2nd millennium BC.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
The Cottingley Fairies. Blitz Lift

The Teenage Girls Who Created the Legend of the Cottingley Fairies

You might be excused if you assumed that the creator of the cynical and deductive reasoning detective, Sherlock Holmes, would have been one of those hard-to-fool skeptical types. In reality, however, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author who birthed fiction’s most famous detective, was nothing like his famous character. In his later years, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism, and in his eagerness to credit anything that supported his beliefs, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a hoax perpetrated by two young girls. It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley. There, 9-year-old Elsie Wright and her 16-year-old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream. Their parents scoffed, so to prove their claims, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”.

The Photos Spread

When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera. Two years later, the fairy photos went viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist-type group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them declared that they were crude cardboard cutouts. However, the existence of fairies supported some spiritual aspects of the Theosophical Society, so its members – who included prominent British figures – began spreading the photos and vouching for their authenticity.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Comparison between the Cottingley Fairies and illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book. Wikimedia

Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Supercharges the Cottingley Fairies Myth

In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the Cottingley Fairies photos. He was skeptical at first, and went to the trouble of asking Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before receiving a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle concluded on his own that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’ author was vouching for the photos’ authenticity, en route to becoming a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life. In December of 1920, Doyle published a cringe-worthy article urging the public to accept that fairies existed. The article opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the respected author. However, the ridicule did not dissuade Doyle, who followed the first article with a second in 1921, describing even more fairy sightings.

The Fairy Story Gets Out of Hand

A year later, Doyle capped it off by publishing his 1922 book, The Coming of the Fairies. As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical. Decades later, in 1983, the cousins published an article in which they confessed that the whole thing had been a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had initially kicked off the prank in order to get back at adults who had teased them for “playing with fairies”. However, the joke snowballed, and eventually got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, the girls could not think of a graceful way to back out, so they just kept the hoax going, until they finally came clean, six decades later.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Patagonian Giants. Science Source

Sailor Tall Tales Led to the Myths of South American Giants

During his sixteenth-century expedition to circumnavigate the world, explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s ships dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America. There, the explorer and his men came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. Magellan ordered a sailor to make contact with the big native, by singing and dancing in turn, as a means of demonstrating friendliness. The strategy 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”.

Capturing the Patagonians for a Voyage

The explorers proceeded to make contact with the rest of his tribe, and in subsequent weeks, they hunted with them, and built a house ashore to store their provisions. When Magellan was ready to 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 sobered up, 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 completed the trip and returned to Spain brought back with them tales of a land inhabited by giants. Tales that grew into the myth of Patagonian Giants. With the passage of time, the tall people encountered by Magellan’s ships kept growing taller – at least in the telling.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Patagonian Giants. Princeton University

The Patagonian Giants

Later voyages described encounters with Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. As if in a race of one upsmanship, others reported that they had contacted Patagonians 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 South American giants would grip European imaginations for over 250 years. The first challenge to the tall tales 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:

The Description:

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, as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British ship had encountered a tribe of 9-foot-tall natives. However, when the ship’s account was finally published, the natives were recorded as being 6 and a half feet tall – tall, but not incredibly so, and certainly not giants. In reality, the tribe in question, the Tehuelche, were statuesque and bigger than average. But they stood in the 6-foot range.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
The legendary El Dorado, the City of Gold. Ancient Origins

The Native American Chief Who Became a City of Gold

The myth of El Dorado, the City of Gold, seems to have changed like a message in a game of telephone, gradually getting altered with each retelling, until the final recipient ends up with something completely different than the original message. It began with the first Spaniards who came in contact with the native Muisca people, in today’s Colombia. They heard stories about chiefs who coated themselves in gold dust, before rowing 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”.

The City of Gold is Born

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. The story 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 they reasoned that there must be a huge source of gold somewhere in the interior.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Sir Walter Raleigh’s disastrous trip up the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado. Pinterest

The City of Gold Myth Takes Hold

As the years went by, many Spanish Conquistadors and other European adventurers who heard the El Dorado story version describing a city of gold, came to believe in its existence. Wishful thinking took hold and ran with them, and the lust for gold and fabulous riches said to be found in the mythical city ended up fueling various expeditions and searches in the 1500s and 1600s. None of them managed to discover the nonexistent city of gold. However, seekers who stuck to the original version of the story, about tribal chiefs dropping golden gifts into a lake, had some success. They set out to drain Lake Guatavita, and lowered its level enough to recover hundreds of golden artifacts from around the lake’s edges. However, whatever treasures had been tossed into the deeper waters remained beyond their reach.

The Search for El Dorado

Other than the partial success at Lake Guatavita, the only results of the search for 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 expedition, in 1617, an aging 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 El Dorado. The attempt 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, its king, James I, ordered him beheaded for defying his orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Bluebeard, a fairy tale inspired by the real-life crimes of Gilles de Rais. Wikimedia

The French Hero Who Gave Rise to the Story of Bluebeard

The legend of Bluebeard, about the serial wife killer, can be traced back to Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440). A nobleman from Brittany, Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families of France. From an early age, Rais lived up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age 15, he had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. Rais distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427. He eventually became a national hero, as Joan of Arc‘s chief lieutenant and right-hand man. Then Rais’ true nature emerged, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was a monster.

The Rise

When Joan of Arc rose to prominence in 1429 to challenge the English, who had been rampaging throughout France for decades, Gilles de Rais was already a celebrated military man, notwithstanding his youth. He was assigned to Joan of Arc as one of her guards, and fought in several battles at her side. Rais 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.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
‘Gilles de Rais, Marechal de France’, by Eloi Firmin Feron. Wikimedia

The Beginning of the Fall

Gilles de Rais had inherited huge landholdings and estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He then married a rich heiress, and that fortunate match brought him even more extensive holdings and made him one of France’s greatest landowners. With so much wealth and property at his disposal, Rais hung up his spurs, sword, and shield, and retired from the military in 1434. However, it soon became clear that while Rais had been extremely good at fighting and managing fighting men in combat, he was simply nowhere near as good at managing money. It did not take him long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king who, unlike Rais, had an entire country that he could tax in order to refill his coffers.

Alchemy, Satanism and True Nature

Within just one year of Rais’ retirement, he had managed to lose most of his lands. Indeed, he was so inept at managing money and his estates, that his family secured a decree from the French king, forbidding Rais from mortgaging what was left of his property. So to raise more cash, Rais fell in with some charlatans, who got him hooked on alchemy – the medieval version of the Nigerian Prince scam. Rais began sinking both his time and whatever money he could get a hold of, to invest in “research” that he was promised would lead to the discovery of a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil. That was not the worst of it, however: another thing that Rais turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children.

This is the Truth Behind All of the Famous Myths We Hear About
Gilles de Rais murdering victims. Pinterest

Becoming the Origin of Bluebeard

In 1440, an increasingly erratic Rais de Gilles got into a dispute with local church figures. A hot-headed aristocrat, hopped up on machismo and unused to having his wishes denied, Rais escalated things, until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation, that unearthed some pretty horrific stuff. It turned out that the once celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the dozens. His standard operating procedure had been to lure children from peasant or lower-class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, before leading them to a bedroom where Rais and his accomplices would seize their victims.

A Grisly Truth

As he confessed in his subsequent trial, Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching his victims’ fear, when he explained just what it was that he had in store for them. What was in store for them was nothing good – but we can skip the gory details. 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 in a moat. After Gilles confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Semiramis

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

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

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

Encyclopedia Britannica – Semiramis

In Santorini – Atlantis and Santorini

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

Museum of Hoaxes – Patagonian Giants

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

Quartz, February 17th, 2012 – The Cottingley Fairy Hoax of 1917 is a Case Study of How Smart People Lose Control of the Truth

Ranker – 12 Characters From Ancient Mythology That Might Have Actually Existed in History

Saint Mary’s University History Media – From Prestigious Noble to Child Serial Killer: Gilles de Rais

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

Wikipedia – Midas