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Friday, December 1, 2017

+10 Famous people who may never have existed

King Arthur



Unless you've been living under a rock — a heavy one — you're probably familiar with the Arthurian legend. Even if you haven't read the stories, you likely saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least once in college, or maybe you heard the bad reviews about the 2017 King Arthur movie, pictured above. In any case, the British king is said to have claimed the sword, Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake and found the aforementioned Cup of Christ. These fantastical stories are clearly a mishmash of folklore, but was the Arthur of legend based on a real man? The first tales of Arthur appeared in the ninth century and chronicle his battle against the invading Saxon armies, so it's likely that the individuals — if they existed — who served as the basis for Arthur lived sometime before then.

Some historians suggest the Roman military commander Lucius Artorius Castus as a possible candidate. The King Arthur movie from 2004, starring Clive Owen, follows this line of reasoning and depicts him as a Roman soldier. Others suggest Riothamus, king of the Britons during the fifth century. In any case, we're reasonably confident that the historical Arthur — whoever he was — didn't have easy access to two hollowed-out coconuts.

Famous people who may never have existed



In our present age of ubiquitous information, it's easy to search for the biography of a celebrity or politician, since history is better preserved now than ever before. Alas, it was not always this way. The facts about many historical figures weren't written down until years — sometimes decades or even centuries — after they allegedly lived. Given this amount of time, the evidence of the individual's existence itself may have completely deteriorated, aside from the stories themselves. Here are some famous people whose names you will recognize but who may never have existed at all, at least in their popular form.

Mulan 



Disney introduced movie buffs to the legend of Mulan, though she was already a big deal in Chinese literature. The tale of a warrior's daughter dressing as a man and fighting in her ailing father's place is a timeless bit of badassery and girl power, and it's commonly accepted that Mulan was a real person who actually did all these things. But the evidence is scarce to say the least.

The book Chinese Shadow Theatre: History, Popular Religion, and Women Warriors mentions Mulan might've been a made-up figure, based in part on Wei Huahu, an actual female warrior from ancient China. It's unknown, however, if Huahu ever fought in men's clothing. As for Mulan herself, the earliest known reference to Mushu's big buddy was in an ancient ballad appropriately titled "The Battle of Mulan." But the song doesn't specify when she lived, gives few details of the actual battles she fought, and didn't give a full name for her outside of "Mulan." It's that kind of vagueness that makes you go hmmmm.

Then there's a text called LienĂ¼ zhuan translated as Exemplary Women of Early China, written by Liu Xiang around 18 BC, and packed with over 120 biographies of famous women from ancient China. Mulan, despite supposedly being a major deal, has no biography. Granted, she supposedly lived several hundred years after Xiang first published his book, but there's a section at the end for "supplemental biographies." No one has ever added Mulan, even though what she did was quite exemplary indeed.

Shakespeare



Surely the great William Shakespeare was real, right? He has writings — lots of them — and we have portraits of the man. How could that equal a phony? Amazingly, quite easily; many people are convinced "William Shakespeare" was a pen name, and whoever wrote those stories might be lost to history.

As recapped by PBS, there was a guy named William Shakespeare, but we know little about him. We don't know where he learned to write, how he learned so much about law, politics, and history, and his will mentioned no plays or sonnets, which you'd think would be foremost on his mind. It sounds like the real Shakespeare didn't write much more than a grocery list. If true, we're unsure about who the "real" Shakespeare is. Plenty of candidates have emerged over the years, like Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, and Christopher Marlowe, but these possibilities haven't stuck.

There's another legitimate possibility in the obscure Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. According to J. Thomas Looney, a schoolteacher who uncovered a great deal about the man, Vere wrote poetry that reads much like what the Bard wrote. According to this theory, Vere used an assumed name because, as nobility, he didn't want to be associated with a low-brow art like playwriting. Then, when he died, his followers published his plays under the pen name of some random commoner named William Shakespeare, who died years back. That's good, because most aspiring writers would much rather be called "Shakespeare" than "Vere."

Robin Hood



The legendary English folk hero Robin Hood is well-known for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, residing in Sherwood Forest with his gang of outlaws, and wooing Maid Marian. The stories are certainly fictitious, but was Robin Hood a real person or simply based on one? It's impossible to say if any one individual inspired the legend's creation. The stories are either totally invented, or are a combination of elements taken from different historical sources.

Identifying a single person as the basis for the famous outlaw becomes even more difficult given that, as the stories began to grow in popularity in the 13th and 14th centuries, random English outlaws began to call themselves Robin Hood. Nevertheless, some historians speculate that Robin Hood was based, in part anyway, on nobleman Fulk FitzWarin, who rebelled against King John (one of Robin Hood's foes). FitzWarin's life was later turned into its own medieval tale, Fouke le Fitz Waryn, which holds some similarities to the Robin Hood stories. If he was the basis, then a name change was a good decision. The name Fulk FitzWarin doesn't exactly strike fear into the hearts of villains.

Confucius



To quote Confucius: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success." That's deep … and deeply problematic. Research suggests that dishonest children become successful adults and that highly successful adults lie. That's a whole lot of wrong there, Confucius.

Of course, if Confucius never existed, then the quote's been misattributed, meaning the words can't accord with the truth. Thus, in being wrong, the quote would be right, which sounds super wrong. And the Confucian confusion doesn't end there. Experts believe he was born in Lu, China, and created the Ru School of Chinese thought. But depending on which document you read, Confucius comes off as an unflinching idealist, an ambitious politician, or a fifth-century B.C. superhero. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cautioned that even The Analects, academia's go-to resource for info on Confucius, suffers from striking inconsistencies and improbabilities.

Confucius's whole shtick was setting guidelines for righteous living, but historians debate his basic precepts. In The Human Record: To 1700, Alfred Andrea and James Hoverfield discussed filial piety (respect for elders and ancestors), a principle often regarded as Confucianism's core. According to the authors, it wasn't really a big deal to him. In fact, many claims attributed to Confucius are arguably apocryphal. Fittingly, the guy described as China's Socrates raises more questions than he answers.

William Tell



William Tell is a Swiss folk hero best known for child endangerment. Tell allegedly lived in Switzerland during the early 14th century, when the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria ruled the land. As the story goes, an Austrian official placed a hat on a pole in city of Altdorf and commanded every Swiss subject to remove their caps as they passed by it. One day, Tell, a local peasant who was accompanied by his son, refused to do so. In response, the Austrians forced Tell to shoot an apple off his son's head at 120 paces or face execution. Tell loaded his crossbow and skillfully shot the apple. He then went on to lead a small revolt against the Austrians — presumably after buying his son some new pants.

Tell is essentially the Swiss version of Robin Hood and, much like the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, he probably never existed. The apple story is extremely similar to a Viking folktale, which most likely was imported to Switzerland at some point and used by Swiss patriots as a rallying cry against their Austrian rulers.

Sun Tzu


Sun Tzu's The Art of War has long been revered as the preeminent guidebook on how to properly wage war. So who better to advise than someone like Tzu, an ancient Chinese military leader and warrior who knew how to fight and win? He also knew how to motivate his charges, reportedly beheading two men popular with the king, just to show the other courtesans nobody was safe from punishment and discipline.

But now, people wonder if Sun Tzu was real at all. As History.com explains, scholars currently know nothing about where The Art of War came from, only that it would randomly appear — usually on sewn-together bamboo slabs — for whatever military person or scholar needed it. There's no record of "Sun Tzu" promoting himself as the author, going on book tours, or anything of that sort, and even the story of him beheading those poor courtesans is unsourced and quite possibly a myth.

It stands to reason "Sun Tzu" is a pen name, and Art of War's contents are cobbled together from generations of Chinese military lessons, theories, and strategies. Considering how people worldwide are still reading and learning from it, thousands of years after it first appeared, it's clearly solid advice. It just probably didn't come from the mind of one cruel military genius.

Sybil Ludington



Sybil Ludington is remembered for having been forgotten, an unsung heroine from the Revolutionary War eclipsed by a lesser contemporary. Known by many as the female Paul Revere, Ludington legendarily rode 40 miles alone in the rain over difficult terrain to warn Connecticut Yankees that the British were coming for more than crumpets. At just 16 years old, she braved the dangers of tea-swilling troops and lurking lawbreakers, sounding the alarm in Putnam County, Mahopac, and Stormville. And it was 1777, so there was no 7-Eleven to save her from a snack attack.

According to that account, history should laud Ludington more than it reveres Revere because she traveled double the distance he did under dismal conditions. But tell that to history and it might call you a filthy liar due to lack of reliable sources. As per Smithsonian Magazine, the first mention of Ludington's ride didn't appear until 1880, more than a century after it supposedly happened. Not one previous account of women in the Revolutionary War or record from a place Ludington reportedly warned references her heroics. That's no small oversight, considering that women of the age (understandably) wanted to vaunt their own contributions to American independence.

Nowadays Ludington's face features on stamps and in coloring books. She has become a mascot for feminists and anti-Communists as well as a bogey-woman for certain political factions. She's as real or fake as people need her to be to make a point, much like history itself.

Homer



Homer is the Greek poet who wrote two of the books that your English teacher forced you to read in high school — the mythological epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Despite the popularity and importance of these epics, their author remains shrouded in mystery. For one thing, Homer almost certainly wasn't the originator of these tales, which likely preceded him by about 1,000 years. He was simply the first to write them down. As for the poet himself, some say Homer was blind, while at least one author argues that Homer was actually a woman.

Some historians believe that Homer was not a single person, but rather a group of Greek scholars. In the end, we will probably never know the answer, but the legacy of Homer's works will continue, both in the nuclear plant and beyond.

Pope Joan



Pope Joan supposedly became Pope in 855 AD, a time when most women did, well, nothing at all. But then, two years later, she got pregnant — a solid clue that the leader of the Catholic Church is no dude — and was either murdered or banished that day, depending on what account you read. It's an amazing story, both from a feminist and historical perspective.

Except that may be all it is: a story. According to ABC News, there's tons of debate about whether Pope Joan ever existed. Believers point to hundreds of documents detailing her life, art and architecture bearing clues about her, and Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio placing her #51 in his book 100 Famous Women. Plus, St. Peter's Square sports carvings by the artist Bernini of a woman sporting a Papal crown while giving birth. That sounds very Joan.

The Catholic Church's official stance is that she's an urban legend, and legitimate scholars back them up. Professor Valerie Hotchkiss, of Southern Methodist University, believes Joan's story comes largely from a single book: History of Emperors and Popes, by a monk named Martin Polonus. However, Polonus might not have added Joan — somebody else possibly edited her in after his death. From there, other monks blindly added the story into their manuscripts, because it sounded good and they didn't think enough to fact-check it. True or not, all we truly know is that, were Joan real, she would've at least been a better pope than the one from The Borgias.

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