The line between truth and fiction can be blurred. People who we believed were real because they have such a large influence in our modern world, could be nothing more than a clever lie. Here is a list of five historical people who turned out to be fictional characters.
1) Uncle Sam & Betty Crocker
Both of these American heroes existed to inspire moral and patriotism. Unfortunately both of these American heroes never existed.
Uncle Sam has become a (some would say ridiculed) cult icon that represents America. The first reference to a character called Uncle Sam can be found in the song Yankee Doodle in 1775:
Old Uncle Sam come there to change
Some pancakes and some onions,
For ‘lasses cakes, to carry home
To give his wife and young ones.
Yankee Doodle – 1775
The legend behind Uncle Sam is that he was based off a New York meat packer called Samuel Wilson who aided in the War of 1812. At the height of his popularity Uncle Sam was given his own book in 1816 called Adventures of Uncle Sam in Search After His Lost Honor. It is interesting to note that although Uncle Sam represents the United States in our culture, he was only meant to represent the United States Government. The goddess Columbia is used to represent America as a nation, as a land united and the Lady Liberty icon (most well known as the Statue of Liberty) is suppose to personify justice. All three figures are separate entities. Perhaps Uncle Sam’s most famous appearance is in the World War Two poster below, advising young men to join the American military.
(Left) The Goddess Columbia. (Middle) Uncle Sam’s most iconic image. (Right) Lady Liberty in her most famous incarnation, the Statue of Liberty.
Unfortunately for all of Uncle Sam’s fans, there is no evidence that he was a real person. As I stated above Uncle Sam predates Samuel Wilson who could not have been the inspiration. Although Uncle Sam’s popularity rose during the War of 1812 he was a well known character before this event. Even the iconic Uncle Sam Needs You poster is heavily inspired from the Lord Kitchener poster used by the British during World War One.
Although not as powerful a figure of Uncle Sam, Betty Crocker is still a well known American icon. First appearing in 1921 Betty Crocker became the face of the Betty Crocker company, who sold kitchen supplies and recipes across America. Although the face of Betty has changed over time, she has always remained similar in appearance. Younger generations who have grown up with Betty believe that she is a real person, the CEO of her own company.
Betty Crocker is nothing more than a marketing strategy. Betty was created by the Washburn-Crosby Company who took the first name Betty because they thought it sounded American and the last name Crocker from a board member. Betty’s face was crafted on what the typical American woman should look like (please keep in mind she was designed in the 1920’s) and plastered on as many products as possible, enforcing her image and status among the American people. In 1924, Betty became the star of “The Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” a radio show. Since then she has been portrayed by actresses on TV, film, adverts and in many other different mediums.
2) King Arthur and Robin Hood
From American heroes to British legends. You may not know the full story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table but you should be aware with some of the keys elements such as Camelot, The Holy Grail and Excalibur. In short, King Arthur, the once and future King of Britain was born to unite England under one banner and repel the Saxon invaders. After King Arthur’s death it is said that he will reappear in England’s greatest time of need. Many of the locations in King Arthur’s saga such as Glastonbury and Tintagel are real places in England and he is so deeply entwined with English culture that real Kings and Queens such as King Henry the Eighth and Queen Victoria have mentioned him, leading many to believe that he was once a real monarch.
The problem is that if King Arthur did exist he would have died over one thousand years ago meaning there is little to no evidence about his life. The first mention of Arthur is from a Welsh poet called Nennius, who would have lived several hundred years after Arthur’s supposed death. He claims that Arthur fought in twelve great battles with the British kings but he doesn’t say that Arthur was a British King. Nennius stories expanded in each retelling until Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote Arthur’s recorded life story in his book History of the Kings of Britain. Monmouth added several well-known elements such as Merlin, Lancelot and Gwenevier. Monmouth was allowed to study a Celtic manuscript which ,conveniently, only he had access to. Centuries after Monmouth, a French poet called Chrétien de Troyes added religious elements such as the Holy Grail. Despite some people dedicating their lives to finding King’s Arthur’s tomb we have no concrete evidence that he was a real man.
Robin Hood is another English folk hero whose existence is unproven. According to the legend, which like Arthur has changed in various retellings, Robin, Earl of Loxley returned from the Crusade in the Holy Lands to find the local Sheriff had stolen his land. Robin turned outlaw, hid in Sherwood forest and used his skills as an archer to rob from the rich noblemen and feed the poor people. Robin assembled a fellow band of outlaws, called the Merry Men, to assist him. Famous members of Robin’s band included Little John, Allan-A-Dale and Friar Tuck.
During the May Day festivals in Medieval England Robin Hood was reportedly worshipped almost to a God like status. We know from historians that King Henry VIII was aware of the legend and even pranked his wife by invading her bedchamber while dressed as Robin with his noblemen playing the Merry Men. Even today we are fascinated by Robin Hood, there is a statue of him in Nottingham (pictured above) despite there being no evidence that the man existed. If anything, there is more evidence against his existence than for it. There is the point to be made that Robin sounds similar to “Rob-him” which is too close a coincidence for me to ignore. Although we have records of “Robin Hood” being arrested in Nottingham during the time frame Robin was suppose to be active the records are so numerous that it seems a “Robin Hood” was captured or killed each day. This has led historians and theorists to the idea that Robin Hood was a common nick name among criminals at the time, similar to how we would use the name Jo Blogs or John Smith. Robin Hood was never a man, although the idea that there was an inciting incident can’t be completely written off, but instead Robin Hood an idea that inspired others, similar to a modern day Superheroes.
3) Pope Joan
The story of Pope Joan is bizarre and depending on your point of view controversial. According to the legend a woman called Joan posed as a boy in Medieval Germany in order to gain entrance to a monastery and receive an education. While posing as a monk called John, she met her lover and after revealing her secret to him moved with their fellow monks to Athens and after that Rome. Now posing as a man Joan’s dedication to her studies caught the eye of several high ranking church members who offered her the position of a scribe inside the Vatican. Joan accepted and rose to the rank of Cardinal and after several years was voted by her fellow Cardinals to become the new Pope. It’s unclear how long Pope Joan ruled for but her secret was revealed when she started having contractions during a procession and gave birth. Again, the records vary over what happened next. Some reports say she was murdered by the mob, others suggest she was assassinated by the church while another theory suggests that the traumatic birth of her own child, killed her.
Although the story at first seems ludicrous there is surprisingly a lot of evidence to support the Pope Joan story. The story of Pope Joan was researched by author Donna Woolfolk Cross who found over five hundred chronicle accounts of her existence. Joan wouldn’t be the only woman in history to disguise herself as a man. Joan of Arc was a teenage girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to join the army and fight against the English. Pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read disguised themselves as male sailors to join a ship’s crew and terrorise merchants. Even the church who from the 15th century onwards attempted to disprove the theory had documents from the 13th century mentioning Joan and reportedly had busts and statues of her in her guise of John.
However there is ample evidence against her existence. The said documents are locked away in the Vatican archive so it is difficult to prove that they do mention her. Statues and busts, the church claim, are mislabeled and most modern scholars dismiss the story due to the fact that the first recorded mention of Pope Joan was over one hundred years after her death.
Homer is the supposed author of two of the most famous Greek stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Please see the brief summaries of both below if you are unfamiliar with them:
The Iliad tells us the story of Achilles during the final year of the Trojan war. Achilles’ ally King Agamemnon angers the sun God Apollo by taking two daughters of a priest of Apollo. Apollo curses King Agamemnon’s army with a plague. King Agamemnon lifts the plague by giving back one of the daughters but takes the other daughter, whom he promised to Achilles for himself. This angers Achilles who refuses to fight, resulting in heavy loses for King Agamemnon’s army. Achilles allows his friend, Patroclus to fight in his place but when Patroclus is killed by Hector, the ruler of Troy, Achilles vows revenge. Achilles kills Hector and drags his body behind his chariot for several days until Hector’s Father begs for his son’s body back. Achilles eventually agrees and the story ends.
The Odyssey is set ten years after the end of the Trojan war. Odysseus has yet to return home from the war, he is being held prisoner on an island by a nymph. The gods intervene and give Odysseus the means to escape. Unfortunately, Poseidon the God of the Sea spots Odysseus and summons a storm to kill him. Odysseus survives and when he is discovered by the inhabitants of an island he tells them the story of how he came to be imprisoned by the nymph in the first place. They then assist Odysseus in returning home where he kills the men attempting to marry his wife.
It was believed for centuries that the Iliad and the Odysseus were purely works of fiction. Then in 1870 Troy was discovered, the city that King Agamemnon and Achilles were laying siege to. Scientists later discovered that the herb called Jimson Weed had the same effects to the drug Circe gave to Odysseus and his crew, an event that took place in the Odyssey. In a previous article I spoke about how the skeleton of an elephant could have been mistaken for the skeleton of a cyclops another creature Odysseus and his crew faced. This has raised the question, how many of the events in both epic poems were real and who was their author, Homer? This has become known as the Homeric Question.
We know very little about Homer. Seven ancient cities claim Homer lived there during his youth but historians can not be certain. Some reports suggest Homer was blind and there was a blind bard in the Odyssey called Demodokos, from this character’s description we have busts and statues made of Homer. Other reports suggest Homer took part in the siege of Troy as a solider or maybe lived in the area due to the fact that his details about the city were accurate. It is unlikely that Homer was the author of both texts, archaeologists think the Siege of Troy would have taken place in the 12th century BC where as the Iliad and the Odyssey were written near the 8th century BC. Between these dates the Iliad and the Odyssey were told orally in the form of epic poems where stanzas would have been added, removed and edited. There were lots of different accounts of the Siege of Troy but only Homer’s version survived the burning of the Library of Alexandra. Was Homer a group of authors similar to the Shakespeare conspiracy? We will never know…
5) Sun Tzu – The Art of War
Sun Tzu was a famed military general and tactician who served King Helü of Wu in Ancient China. Sun Tzu’s name translates as Master Sun and, like Alexander the Great, he reportedly never lost a battle. Known for his ruthlessness, Tzu wrote the book The Art of War in his enemies’ blood, describing military strategy and various methods of winning battles. The book is still in print today and has inspired many notable historical figures including Napoleon and Churchill. If you visit the self help section of your Library it is almost guaranteed The Art of War will be there.
Although the Art of War is an influential book, it is widely accepted that Sun Tzu is not the author. Similar to the Shakespeare conspiracy, experts agree that the book was written by a group of people, not one man. The surviving historical records of battles during Sun Tzu lifetime make no mention of him and historians have questioned the method of writing a book in blood. Despite this the book continues to sell and I recommend you buy a copy as it’s a brilliant read. Don’t take the advice about killing your enemies too literally.
That was five historical figures who turned out to be fictional characters. I hope you enjoyed reading this post, I certainly enjoyed researching and writing it.
Stay safe and take care.