Well-Known Historical Figures That May Or May Not Have Existed
History is full of unanswered questions. How do we know that famous historical figures existed? There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that these people did indeed come before, but there’s also plenty of room for doubt. Many people have questioned the legitimacy of figures from the past—from Shakespeare to Moses. Did they really exist, or are they the product or stories?
Many historical figures who are considered real today may just have been useful characters for explaining away the mysteries of the world to our ancestors, who lacked the same kind of record-keeping technology that we have today. Was Robin Hood real, or was he a symbol of equality winning over an oppressive force? Let’s look back in time and examine these famous names.
The Real Mulan
Most of you will know this warrior legend from Disney’s Mulan. In the movie, a Chinese princess had to go to war in her father’s place. Much of the tension in the film surrounds Mulan’s fear of being found out as a woman by her superior officer.
According to one source, Chinese Shadow Theatre: History, Popular Religion, and Warrior Women, Mulan may not have existed and may have been based on another Chinese woman-warrior, Wei Huahu, who had many of the same characteristics of everyone’s favorite lady warrior.
The Legendary King Arthur
Everyone knows the legend of King Arthur. As a boy, he pulled out Excalibur and, with the help of Merlin, established himself as a great ruler. But was he a real person, or just the product of myth? The facts, at least according to researchers, are unreliable at best.
But Arthur may not have been entirely fictional. Some sources suggest that a Roman commander, Lucius Artorius Castus, may have been the inspiration behind the character. There’s also Riothamus, the 5th-century king of the Britons, to consider. Both fit the deeds and archetype well.
The Bard’s Bard: Shakespeare
Surely this great playwright couldn’t himself be fictional, right? A few historians and conspiracy theorists have questioned that a man named William Shakespeare existed. Some have suggested that someone else may have been writing all those plays with a pen name.
It’s a wild assertion, but due to the lack of information about his background, it’s not an idea totally without merit. But who could the man (or woman) behind the pen name be? One schoolteacher named J. Loony posited that the real writer’s name was Edward De Vere and that his work was published under a different name following his death.
Men In Tights: Robin Hood
Back in the 143h and 14th centuries, the name “Robin Hood” became incredibly popular among the smallfolk and noble folk. Many bandits fashioned themself after this figure, even taking his name for themselves during their plunderous activities.
Historians have never confirmed his existence. Robin Hood may not have been real, or at least one person, but he may have been inspired by a nobleman named Fulk Fitzwarin, whose (supposedly) real-life exploits were documented in Fouke le Fitz Waryn.
The Tutor Of Gentlemen: Confucius
It’s hard to overstate how important and influential this Chinese philosopher has been in Eastern thinking. His instructions on how to be the perfect “gentleman” have endured through the ages. However, just as many philosophical writings come in the form of a story, Confucius too may have been fictional.
The director of Chinese studies at the University of Colorado in Denver, L.M. Jensen, believes that Jesuit missionaries around 500 years ago fabricated Confucius to better convey their message to (and therefore convert) those they met on the road.
Mighty Sun Tzu
If you know war, you will probably know Sun Tzu. This legendary commander of soldiers wrote a book on the subject. However, all the lessons captured in The Art Of War may not have come from Sun Tzu, or at least not from a single mind.
The famous book may have been compiled by generations of warriors, whose lessons were collected and bound in a single work. Sun Tzu may have made use of all of the techniques written within, but there’s not much evidence to suggest that they were all his original ideas or if a man named Sun Tzu really existed at all.
The Great Teller Of Tales: Homer
Humanity’s oldest tales were not recorded in books or scrolls. Rather, through oral tradition, stories would pass on from one generation to the next. Because this reproduction method is imperfect, there’s always room for certain details in a story to change. Here’s one of history’s oldest storytellers, Homer.
He’s known as the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but it’s possible that Homer did not himself invent these stories—instead, he may have simply been the first to write them down. Others have theorized that Homer was, in fact, a group of people or that he was actually she—a blind woman—as women were viewed as second-class citizens by ancient Greeks.
The Steel-Driving John Henry
Here’s an example of a story brought down the generations by oral tradition, albeit a more modern story than most told this way. It’s since been codified into books, plays, and of course, music records. It’s the story of John Henry, an ex-slave who beat the steam rock-breaking machine with his brawn alone.
It’s easy to see how this story became popular. The disruptive technology of the day, steam power, was taking people’s jobs. Henry, who died shortly after outperforming the machine, would have resonated with workers who were competing with these new means of production. The man could have been real, but the race was probably not.
Beautiful Enough To Spark A War: Helen Of Troy
Wife of the ancient Greek King, Menelaus, her capture and death started one of history’s most famous conflicts. But there is a lack of evidence that Helen the person really existed at all, other than her appearance in Homer’s The Iliad (even if Homer was indeed its original writer).
It’s entirely possible that this beautiful woman, whose capture led to the Trojan war, was simply a mythological figure and nothing more. Because her appearance in history was so long ago, and there’s such little concrete evidence to go on, it’s difficult to disprove.
Jesus Of Nazareth
This one is bound to be controversial. While some historians might tell you that there is more evidence of his existence than Julius Caesar, some have argued that he was simply a Roman political vehicle or a fable from past times.
The magical element present in stories about Jesus (turning water into wine, walking on water, resurrection) simply don’t go over in a secular world as they used to, but many historians argue that a lack of eye-witness accounts put his existence into question.