Thanks to technology, and our ever shrinking world, it seems ridiculous that people could ever mistake a fictional character for a real person – well, except for any of the Kardashians, who can’t possibly be real, right? However, back in the day things weren’t so easy. You never saw anyone who lived outside your own village and so hearsay and rumor was enough to convince a lot of people that all manner of ridiculous legends were true. And then once legend became accepted truth, it was passed down through the years to today, where believe it or not, there are still a handful of notable fictional figures who many people are convinced were actually real, live people. Sure, most people understand that there was never a giant named Paul Bunyon who hung around with a massive blue ox – at least if they’re not flying high on acid – but they might be surprised that none of the following seven famous people ever existed either.
7. William Tell
William Tell is a Swiss folk hero, most famous for shooting an apple off his son’s head in order to get his freedom because I guess that’s just how fucked up the criminal justice system was back in the day. The story has inspired the Swiss people for centuries, but there’s just one problem: ol’ Willie never actually existed. Don’t tell that to the Swiss, though, who have tried in vain for hundreds of years to prove his historical existence, only to be foiled by historians at every turn. In 1760, a historian even claimed in writing that the story was based on an old Danish tale, which was so unpopular that it led the Swiss people to stage a good ol’ fashioned book burning. But can you really blame them? I mean, in 100 years people in New Mexico will probably go crazy and burn their meth labs if you try to tell them that Walter White was never real. We all need heroes.
6. St. Christopher
St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, which is why you’ll find his statue on the dashboard of some creepy old lady’s car that smells like mothballs and regret. Historically, he was supposedly a martyr killed by the Roman emperor Decius in the third century AD. Unfortunately, several years ago, the church decided that they could find no evidence supporting that this dude ever existed and so they quietly kicked him off their calendar of saints. Look, when you’re shunned by a church that wholeheartedly believes a dude lived inside of a whale in olden times, or that a dude built a big-ass boat which doubled as a massive zoo while Earth went all Waterworld, then chances are good that you really, really never existed. But don’t worry, Chrissy, that weird old lady with the smelly car still loves you, bro.
5. Pope Joan
Speaking of fictional religious characters, Pope Joan was supposedly a female Pope who lived sometime in the middle ages. Let’s face it, as soon as the words “female Pope” were uttered, this one should have lost all credulity. I mean, come on, this is an institution which still bugs out about ladies in the 21st century. Somehow, I doubt they would have been chill with a female boss of bosses way back in a time when most women were considered little more than personal property to be traded for a few goats and a bottle of nice wine, and the rest were considered witches. I’m sure the priests back then would have been totally cool with a lady putting that giant hat on and cruising around town in the horse-drawn Popemobile. Sure, she could have worn a disguise like Hilary Swank, but still, I can’t believe this one ever caught on, and yet it did, surviving as a widely-believed fact, even amongst reputable church scholars for hundreds of years.
4. Robin Hood
This one is kind of stretching it since a lot of people probably realize that Robin Hood is as real as Batman, but there are still a lot of people who try to argue for the existence of a historical Robin Hood. Honestly, that kind of makes you worry for society a few hundred years for now, when they’re all arguing for the historical existence of Bruce Wayne. The truth is, though, is that no one has ever been conclusively able to link Robin Hood with a real dude. Sure, they have pointed to noted outlaws of the time, or men with similar names, but the tales are so vastly different from those dudes’ real lives that it just seems like way too much of a reach. It would be like people arguing in that far off future that the historical Bruce Wayne/Batman was Bill Gates because they were both billionaires, which… oh my god, you guys, is Bill Gates Batman?
3. Prester John
Prester John was a legendary Christian king who Europeans swore for centuries was the leader of a kingdom somewhere in the Orient. Because they were unbelievably gullible, they clung to this myth so hard that people forged fake letters to try to prove his existence, even though it required them all to ignore basic math and biology. After all, the legend was believed to be real for over 500 years, meaning Prester John must have had a damn good healthcare system in his kingdom. Of course, people were insane back then, and probably believed he was immortal since his kingdom was supposedly also the home of the Fountain of Youth amongst other wonders. The story was so widespread and got so out of control that it even helped to inspire many of the famous explorers of the day, including Christopher Columbus. Basically, they were all searching for Prester John and his hidden paradise, and instead all they found was the future home of Snooki, who, to be fair, probably has parasites that are capable of living for 500 years, and she might have gotten them from a dude named John, so maybe they were onto something after all.
2. Sir Lancelot
The entire Arthurian Camelot story is shrouded in confused myth, and while there may be some basis for a historical King Arthur – albeit, one a lot like the Robin Hood “historical” character – the rest of the famous characters from his story are all fanciful bullshit. Most people can accept that to some degree since a lot of the characters are simply too unbelievable – Merlin is basically a slightly cooler Gandalf (and no, Gandalf isn’t real either, sorry nerds) – but Lancelot has always seemed just solid enough to maybe be real. I mean, after all, he isn’t slinging spells or hanging out with the Lady of the Lake, he’s just a dude who’s good with a sword. But sadly, Lancelot is just the invention of medieval poets, which means that just like the chivalry he’s so famously tied to, he doesn’t really exist.
1. Sun Tzu
This one remains controversial, as there are some historians who argue that Sun Tzu did indeed exist and that he wrote that infamous book that your one sociopathic friend quotes like it’s the Bible. But just as many historians think that Sun Tzu’s existence is probably bullshit. They note that certain terms and tactics described in The Art of War wouldn’t have been known to Sun Tzu when he supposedly lived. There are also several other discrepancies and “come on, now, that’s ridiculous” moments that jump out to historians, and the most likely explanation is that “Sun Tzu” was actually an amalgam of several historical figures, and that his teachings were actually more of a compendium of information and tactics added to over the years by teachers and their students, sort of like a book of wisdom handed down from one frat boy generation to the next, only instead of tips on keggers and how to sex the ladies, it was a book about how to handle your enemies like a boss. But that’s not very much fun, and it’s cooler to imagine that some maniacal badass Chinese general actually did exist because it inspires the imagination, which is the real reason why these legends linger. People want to believe.
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