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.



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 Lienü 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.


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.


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 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.

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.

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.


Pythagoras' influence on mathematics can't be overstated, though high school students stumped by the Pythagorean Theorem might argue otherwise. But there's a growing movement of people who don't see Pythagoras as a mere bane of freshman geometry class — they see him as a work of fiction.

As explained in the book Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1, Pythagoras never wrote anything that we know of. Everything we know about the man comes from outside sources like his followers, known as Pythagoreans (like Hulkamaniacs, only way dorkier). There's even doubt that his mathematical breakthroughs came from him or his followers. As told by M.F Burnyeat, he didn't discover his own theorem, and celestial spheres weren't thought about until decades after he died, despite his reputation for being among the first to point to the sky and ask, "what are thooooosssse?"

Then there's the poetically-named Book Of Dead Philosophers, which states even classical scholars think Pythagoras is a made-up person. This isn't just due to his lack of writings, but also due to knowing about an ancient Italian cult, also called Pythagoreans. They might well have invented Pythagoras as a figurehead "leader" to justify wacky, fanatical beliefs like "A-squared + B-squared = C-squared." Also, that odd numbers are male and even ones are female. And that beans are evil. If Pythagoras was real, he was clearly an odd duck.

John Henry

John Henry has been immortalized in folk music since the 1800s. His "Ballad of John Henry" tells the story of an ex-slave working on the railroad, one who could wield a hammer with the best of them. He challenged a steam drill to see who could work faster, and he won, though he died soon afterwards from sheer exhaustion. The greatest heroes die in the end, and Henry's story has ascended to near-myth because of it.

Thing is, though, he might actually be a myth. As NPR explains, John Henry is almost certainly a "tall tale," though one based on "historical circumstance." There were obviously men working on railroads back in the 1800s, and steam drills were eventually introduced as a way to speed up labor and reduce costs. More than likely, the rail workers disapproved of a machine taking their jobs, though it's unproven if anybody actually attempted to work faster than one. Likely nobody did, but the idea was an inviting one, which explains why a song about it has proven so popular.

As country music star Merle Travis said, "There's been dozens and dozens of different tales about where John Henry comes from." That's pretty good evidence that Henry was born in our imaginations, not in any physical place.

St. Christopher

St. Christopher is one of those jack-of-all-trades saints. He's the patron saint of travelers, fruit dealers, epileptics, surfers, and presumably epileptic surfers. Followers adore him, and his talisman is a popular item among believers and tourists alike. There's just one issue: he may not have been a real saint, or even a real person.

As explained by the LA Times, many scholars are convinced he wasn't real, and they've thought that for awhile. At the least, they feel that were he real, everything saintly about him is based off pure myth. Instead of an evil giant who accepted Christ and converted 40,000 pagans to Christianity before being martyred, he might have been just a regular guy who, after being captured by the Romans and drafted into their military, converted to Christianity and was murdered for it. Those from the local church called him Christopher since they didn't know his real name, and Christopher meant "bearer of Christ" so it worked.

The issue of his existence is so controversial that, in 1969, the Vatican "kicked [him] off the universal calendar," meaning his feast day was no longer required, and you only had to worship him if you really wanted to. But he was never de-sanctified because, according to Professor David Woods of University College Cork, Christopher "has a genuine historical core." He probably wasn't a giant though, and 40,000 converts is likely one of those exaggerated "give or take" numbers.

Kunta Kinte

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Roots, Alex Haley poignantly wrote: "In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage." His own ancestral hunger led him to Juffureh, Gambia, where his great-great-great-great grandfather Kunta Kinte (depicted above) was purportedly born. Per Haley's own description, Kinte lost his freedom in 1767 when he was enslaved by British captors. Bondage didn't break his spirit, however. After arriving in America, Kinte repeatedly defied his oppressors, escaping multiple times.

Two hundred ten years after Kinte's kidnapping, Roots the TV miniseries became an instant classic. According to CNN, the broadcast marked a watershed moment in American perceptions of slavery. It also deeply impacted Gambia, where an island was named after Kinte and his birthplace became a tourist attraction. These are effects are real, but there's a really strong chance that Kinte isn't.

You might already know that Haley's Roots had a strained relationship with the truth and got pretty chummy with plagiarism, but it's worse than you might think. As the Washington Post reported, journalist Mark Ottoway ripped Roots' avowed historicity to shreds, dismissing Kinte's backstory as highly implausible. Haley's single source of information was a demonstrably unreliable villager. And at the time Kinte was supposedly enslaved, his village was already a British trading post where Gambians worked alongside, not against, slavers. Unless Haley's chronology was way off, a real-life Kinte would have likely remained free. Whatever Haley hungered for, it wasn't accuracy.


Lycurgus is famous as the lawgiver who shaped much of ancient Sparta's legal policy. Someone had to come up with these laws, so why not Lycurgus, a guy well-versed in doing so? As it turns out, somebody else might have done just that, and Lycurgus was just a mascot.

According to Britannica, several writers and historians from the 4th century BC and prior wrote of Lycurgus, though rarely did they agree on specifics. Herodotus, for example, wrote that his policies were shaped by what Crete did. He also said Lycurgus belonged to the Agiad house, one of two Spartan houses that controlled the nation's royalty. Meanwhile, an historian named Xenophon believed his ideas came from the Dorians after they invaded Laconia and turned the Achaean people there into serfs. By Xenophon's time, many people believed Lycurgus was part of Sparta's other ruling house, Eurypontid, and was king regent there. Basically, his origin story's more muddled than Wolverine's.

It gets even more confusing because some scholars believe a guy named Lycurgus did in fact exist, and he did play a role in introducing sweeping reform that helped quell a major serf revolt in the 7th century BC. But the famous Lycurgus who basically shaped Spartan law by himself, many believe, wasn't real, he was just used as a catch-all figure for ancient Greeks to refer to when discussing political policies, as they were apparently wont to do. It's certainly easier than rattling off the many hundreds of names who played an actual role.

Lao Dan

The founder of Taoism, ancient Chinese philosopher Lao "Laozi" Dan is a revered figure indeed. Those who do so, however, may be looking up to a made-up master.

According to GB Times, there's a ton of confusion regarding Lao Dan, including his name. Some believe Lao Dan was his real name, while others think scholar Sima Qian — among the first to write of Dan — confused stories he heard about Laozi with that of another philosopher, Li Er.  According to this theory, he mistakenly combined the names to come up with Laozi, or Lao Dan. But Laozi was also a term of respect for Laoist teachers, complicating the matter even further.

Then there's his writings. Supposedly, Dan wrote the Tao Te Ching, but reading it's like reading the same book by several different authors. There are many shifts in tone, style, and content, and we currently have little proof the book's language was even used when the book was supposedly published. Likely, then, Laozi's writings were written long after Lao Dan supposedly lived and died, and probably several people cobbled "his" life-affirming teachings together into one semi-coherent package. It's like if all the stories in Chicken Soup For The Soul were credited to one guy named Bill.

Mary Magdalene

For seemingly forever, much of mankind has celebrated three major Marys: the Virgin, the Poppins, and the Magdalene.  The first birthed a divine baby. The second brandished a magical umbrella. And the third knew men biblically for pay. Or did she? Most people know Mary Magdalene as the penitent prostitute who came to Jesus and atoned for her fleshly indiscretions. But as the BBC observed, there is zero scriptural justification for that belief.

The Bible never described Magdalene as a sinner, let alone a play-for-pay pal. As far as the Good Book is concerned, she was a good woman who did Christ a solid by washing his feet. Plus, she saw his resurrection, which sounds pretty important. The Independent, on the other hand, raised a more radical possibility: that Magdalene married Jesus. A 1,500-year-old text called "The Lost Gospel" claimed that Jesus and his favorite foot-cleanser actually became Mr. and Mrs. Christ and had a kid together. In this alternate history, the Virgin Mary is Mary Magdalene and not Jesus's mom. (Wait, the Madonna might have been the Mary that was labeled a prostitute? What a complex idea.)

So how did the apparent mix-up happen? The BBC posited that Magdalene got conflated with a different biblical Mary (the sister of Martha) and an unnamed prostitute. Smithsonian Magazine similarly postulated that the Bible's five different Marys and three carnally wayward women (who are all nameless) caused confusion. Mary Poppins thankfully doesn't have that problem.

Famous places that may never have existed

You know those days when nothing is going right and you wish you could just escape to a magical land where everything is unicorns and rainbows? Throughout history, people have actually believed in elusive places like these, but they've taken on very different mythologies. Here are some too-good-to-be-true fantasy worlds people really wanted to exist.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

When you're king, you can get your wife a seriously nice wedding present. According to History.com, Nebuchadnezzar II supposedly built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his homesick wife, Amytis. She was from a place in present-day Iran called Media and missed the lush vegetation found there. The sands of Babylon just weren't cutting it.

So the king built a huge, multilayered garden that came complete with a giant waterfall. In order to grow all the plants and keep them alive, scientists believe it would have taken one heck of an engineering process to get water to all the different stories. The end result was so cool that it made the list of one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, right up there with the Giant Pyramid at Giza. Kinda puts your backyard to shame. Maybe try some weeding?

The problem is, the hanging gardens probably never existed. That doesn't mean the ancient world didn't have any sweet gardens, just that archaeological evidence says there was never one in Babylon. We don't even have any first-hand accounts of them, just second-hand ones that would have been written hundreds of years after the gardens were destroyed.

That hasn't stopped people from looking for them. One group of German archaeologists searched for a whole 20 years and has nothing to show for it.

The Kingdom of Saguenay

French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived in what is now Canada in 1534. He was hoping to find a passage to China as well as gold. Instead he met some friendly Indians, and one chief even let him take two of his young sons back to France. In The Forced Removal of American Indians from the Northeast, David Miller says that the boys, possibly as a prank, told him about the Kingdom of Saguenay, supposedly located somewhere in Canada, and filled with as much silver and gold as the Spanish found in South America. Cartier was thrilled and returned in 1535 hoping to find this amazing place.

Instead the boys' father Donnaconna warned Cartier that Saguenay was filled with a race of people who were armed to the teeth. He also told him that while the place was drowning in gold, spices, and oranges, the people there had only one leg, flew like bats, and didn't need to eat so presumably didn't have anuses. You'd think Cartier's joke sensor would have started going off, but all he heard was "gold." So he went looking for the place. He led expeditions until 1542 when the natives finally turned on the settlers and ran them off their land.

The French eventually gave up — the search for the people with no buttholes was over. Canada was great for fishing, less so for shiny stuff.


About 30 miles off the very southwestern tip of England are the Isles of Scilly. Legend has it that long ago those islands were connected to the mainland by the kingdom of Lyonesse. It, like Atlantis, is now supposedly submerged under the sea. And according to Cornish Guide, its people did something to really piss God off so it was destroyed (like Sodom and Gomorrah), even though we don't know what exactly they did wrong.

Lyonesse was meant to be filled with a bunch of really strong, handsome people. And the residents put their superior strength to good use by building churches. Just, so many churches. There were 140 in total, which seems a bit like overkill for such a small place. But if God got angry at them maybe he'd ask for more, say a nice round 150.

Whatever the reason, one night a storm whipped up a huge wave that swallowed the whole place in one go. But according to legend, one guy made it out alive. He was able to outrun the wave on his horse when he saw it coming. He ran so hard that his horse lost a shoe. These days, numerous families claim to be descended from this last of the hotties, and have a crest with three horseshoes. Another family also makes this claim and has a crest with a white horse. Odd, right? Wouldn't you want a picture of the big strong guy so people don't think you're descended from the animal?

The Kingdom of Prester John

During the Middle Ages, Prester John was Christianity's greatest hope. As Europeans went off on Crusades to fight the infidels in the Middle East, rumors arose that they could be helped by the only Christian kingdom near there, ruled by a man named Prester John. According to Black Past, he was supposedly descended from one of the Magi who visited Jesus and gave him some sweet presents, only now Christian rulers were hoping for gifts of the more jeweled variety. The problem was, no one knew exactly where this God-fearing kingdom was. Theories ranged from the Far East to India to Africa. In the 12th century, Pope Alexander III was so sure of its existence that he sent an envoy to find it. Sadly, the messenger never came back.

But then, suddenly, hope! According to Big Think, in 1165 Emperor Manuel I Comnenus received a letter from Prester John. It outlined just how amazing this kingdom was: it had vampires and people with dogs' heads. It housed the fountain of youth fed by a river from heaven. There were precious gems everywhere and everyone was a perfect Christian, with no theft, lies, or poverty. You know what they say, if something sounds too good to be true…

In the 1400s, Portuguese explorers went to Africa looking to get rich and hoping to find this mythical kingdom. Despite not finding anything, cartographers were still including a vague area for Prester John's realm on maps as late as the 1570s.


It might seem weird to us today with GPS and Google Street View, but it wasn't that long ago when maps had big gaps in them. People weren't able to travel to places that were too cold or too dry. One of those places was the Sahara Desert. No matter how many camels you took with you, crossing the desert was just too dangerous. That might be why a legend grew up that somewhere out there was a mystical city, surrounded by dunes but full of riches, and presumably water, which after days in the hot sun was probably worth more than gold.

Called Zerzura, it was surrounded by beautiful white walls and had a large gate with a bird on it. Tired travelers could open the gate using a key in the bird's mouth and enter this amazing city. The author Harold Scot says even though the legend is from at least the 1400s, explorers were still looking for this lost oasis in the 1930s. By then they had ditched the camels and were using cars, which kind of takes away from the mysteriousness of it all.

Finally, one expedition found three lush valleys, called wadis, that were supposed to surround the city. But they found absolutely no evidence of walls or riches anywhere. It's possible that the wadis were so helpful to old school caravans that the idea of a town just sprung up organically until the legend stuck.


The island of Hy-Brazil showed up on a map in 1325 and stuck around for 500 years. Located somewhere off the coast of Ireland, according to Stephanie Cyr, assistant curator in the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, it was one of a few legendary islands that showed up on maps at that time. It was supposedly perfectly round with a river running straight through the middle.

The island was originally thought to be visible only once every seven years due to the heavy fogs that surrounded it. (It's similar to the modern-day mythical land of San Francisco.) But if you could get to it, legend said you would find giant black rabbits, a sorcerer, actual gods, some lost civilizations that were possibly immortal, and even UFOs. It's surprising they didn't throw in the Holy Grail. According to Ancient-Origins, at least two expeditions set out from Bristol, England, to try and find it, with no luck despite spending months at sea.

In 1674, Captain John Nisbet supposedly found the island after getting lost in a fog, according to Irish Central. Four of the crew went ashore and spent a day there, returning with bunches of silver and gold that an old man gave them, because people do stuff like that in real life and not scurvy-induced delirium. The tiny round island was included on maps until at least 1768, but by then the cartographer had the logic to label it "imaginary."


Not many people have heard of it today, but at one point the legendary land of Thule was as infamous as Atlantis. According to Humanities and Social Sciences Online, it was supposedly discovered in the fourth century B.C. by a Greek explorer named Pytheas. He returned with amazing stories of a frozen land where it was always dark, yet people still lived there. Obviously, today we know places like this actually exist above the Arctic Circle, but to his contemporaries hanging out down by the warm and sunny Mediterranean, this must have seemed insane.

Still, other adventurers decided they had to see this amazing land. The Romans made it all the way to the Shetland Islands that lie just north of Scotland and assumed they had found Thule. The Victorian Richard Francis Burton went to Iceland and was sure that was actually Thule. Then there were the Nazis.

Yeah, one of these things is not like the other. Times Higher Education explains that the Nazis were pretty obsessed with Thule. After World War I, a Thule Society formed. It counted as members Rudolf Hess and Adolf Hitler himself. But it wasn't just a "wow, Thule sounds like a cool place" club. It took the idea of this icy land and twisted it to white nationalism. For them, Thule was the place the ideal white race came from. Leave it to the Nazis to take a nice fairy story and make it gross.

El Dorado

When Europeans stumbled on the New World, they went a bit gold crazy. Really, what was the point of exploring this new land and killing most of the inhabitants if they weren't going to be able to Scrooge McDuck into piles of gold? So they were only too ready to believe that somewhere in South America was a city made of gold with untold riches.

National Geographic says the rumor started when they heard about a ceremony performed by one tribe when a new chief came to power. He would cover himself in gold dust and throw treasure into a lake to appease the gods. This man became known as "El Dorado." The Spanish managed to find the lake and drained it enough to collect some gold, but it wasn't enough. They knew there must be a city out there.

Looking for El Dorado became a dangerous obsession for some. English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh went looking for the mythical city twice, and his son was killed fighting the Spanish while looking for it the second time. Raleigh blamed another member of the expedition for letting his son die, so the man killed himself. When Raleigh got back to Britain, the king ordered him to be executed because he had ignored his orders not to mess with the Spanish.

These days we've stopped looking for it and instead write songs and movies about the mythical city.


In 1933, writer James Hilton Introduced the world to Shangri-La. He wrote a novel called Lost Horizon, which took place at a monastery full of Buddhist lamas in Tibet. They lived in a valley that, despite being totally cut off from the rest of the world, had somehow managed to store all human wisdom and lots of less ethereal treasures. According to the BBC, the book was incredibly popular, to the point that people even started calling Camp David "Shangri-La."

But the legend of Shangri-La is actually ancient. PBS says it originated in India in 962 A.D. and went on to become a Tibetan myth. (They called it Shambala.) This city was supposed to be located in the Himalayas on a high plateau underneath a mountain made of white crystal. There was a lake and a palace, but it could only be visited if you made it over a ring of peaks. It was populated by people who lived perfect Buddhist lives in harmony with each other. Obviously, any contact with our messed-up world would scar them for life, so they're waiting for the day we manage to solve world peace before showing themselves.

The myth is so popular that even the current Dalai Lama has talked about it, although he thinks it's more a mental journey to a perfect imaginary place than a real location. After all, when you're looking for Shangri-La, aren't you really just looking for yourself, man?

Bermuda Triangle

The legend of the dangerous Bermuda Triangle hasn't been around that long. Live Science tells us the name was coined in 1964 by a writer named Vincent Gaddis. It didn't come into popular use until even later, but once it did, the idea that flying or sailing over a small part of the Atlantic Ocean equaled imminent danger was huge. The first book about it came out in 1974 and was a bestseller. Since then thousands more people have cashed in on the Bermuda Triangle.

There are plenty of theories about what causes all these mysterious disappearances of ships and planes in the area. Some think that the Triangle is located over the lost city of Atlantis, and that it sends out "crystal energies" to disrupt travel. Or people say it could be a rift in space-time that's pulling people in. And when in doubt, blame aliens. Some of the less crazy ideas include pockets of methane exploding and rogue tidal waves. No matter what, people know that something is happening in there.

Or is it? What if the Bermuda Triangle didn't even really exist? The problem with legends like this is it's hard to check your facts. So when someone says an inordinate amount of ships and planes disappear in this area, other people just accept it. But really, not that many go missing. The ones that do often "disappear" in bad storms, making what happened to them a lot less mysterious.

The Island of St. Brendan

St. Brendan got around. No boring life in a monastery for him; he traveled so much that he got the nickname "the Navigator" and was made the patron saint of sailors. Born in Ireland in 484 A.D., St. Brendan spent his life moving around and converting people. But according to History.com, one of his voyages has become legendary.

When another monk told St. Brendan that Paradise existed somewhere beyond the horizon, the saint decided he had to go see it for himself. Of course, he didn't make this decision lightly. First he fasted for 40 days, staring out at the sea, because all good decisions are made when you're super hungry.

According to the legend, he built himself a boat, despite being in his 80s, and got a crew of anywhere from 18 to 150 people. Then they set off and immediately started seeing crazy things. There were crystal pillars just floating on the ocean, sheep that were the size of cows, and talking birds that knew the psalms. It wasn't all smooth sailing. They also ran into giants who threw balls of flames at the ship. But they finally made it, landing on a place they thought was the Garden of Eden, which was full of plants, lots of delicious fruit, and colorful stones. They stayed for 40 days, until an angel appeared and told them to get lost. Then he went home and told everyone about the crazy trip.


Atlantis was the OG lost land, and its legend appeared thousands of years ago. Plato was the first person to mention the missing island in 330 B.C., but his description might sound a little different than the myths you've heard. According to archaeology professor Ken Feder, the ancient philosopher said Atlantis was ahead of the game when it came to technology, but they were "morally bankrupt" and used their power for evil, trying to take over the world. Fortunately, a ragtag group of ancient Athenians were able to defeat the Atlanteans, despite being heavily outnumbered. The whole point of the story was to talk about how great Athens was, not to get people fixated on this mysterious island.

And that worked for a couple thousand years, until 1881, when Ignatius Donnelly said, "Wait a minute, that technologically advanced country sounds pretty cool." He started the conspiracy theories, saying that ideas like metallurgy, agriculture, religion, and even language must have originally come from Atlantis. Other people took the baton and ran with it, and the idea of Atlantis as a mystical utopia emerged.

People have looked for Atlantis for decades, with dozens of possible sites being put forward, despite Plato being very clear that it was in the Atlantic Ocean. But it doesn't matter where he said it was, because Plato totally made Atlantis up. So if you want to explore the ocean floor, you'll be looking for a long time.