Myth Trivia: Five legends that are bigger than life

Today Myth Trivia looks at five well-known personalities to let you decide if they existed or were legends who managed a life of their own.


CHARLOTTE, NC, May 3, 2017 – Sometimes historical figures become so intertwined with legend, it is almost impossible to know whether they were real people or merely characters who transcended the ages to become bigger than life itself.

Today Myth Trivia looks at five well-known personalities to let you decide if they existed or were legends who managed a life of their own.

King Arthur: We all know the tales of Sir Lancelot, Lady Guinevere, the Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur and Camelot, but did the best known king in history really exist?

Many scholars believe Arthur’s story is a legend based upon a Saxon attack in the 5th or 6th century. Unfortunately, though legend tells us that King Arthur was victorious in 12 battles, he is not mentioned in any of the surviving literature detailing the conflict.

In fact, there was never a full depiction of Arthur until the 9th century. Lady Guinevere and the Knights of the Round Table waited 300 more years to make an appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain” in the 12th century.

That said, while the myths continue to grow, some historians believe that King Arthur did exist and argue that his legend may have been inspired by the exploits of the warrior king Ambrosius Aurelianus, the monarch Riothamus or perhaps even a Roman general named Lucius Artorius Castus.

Richard Harris as King Arthur

Homer: There has long been speculation that “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were not based in fact, but now the debate extends to the author himself.

Homer, who is considered the greatest of all Greek writers, may not have even been a real person. Some experts claim that even if he was, Homer likely did not write all of the epic poems for which he is credited.

Homer lived during the 7th or 8th centuries B.C. but there are no contemporary accounts of his life. It is believed he was blind and grew up on the island of Chios.

The lack of evidence regarding his existence has many authorities theorizing that both poems were the result of the collaboration of several authors or that they were combined from oral traditions handed down over several generations. Thus, Homer, himself, may indeed be the result of a compilation of several people.

Bust of Homer

Robin Hood: Thanks to the magic of motion pictures and the acting talents of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe to name a few, Robin Hood is easily a champion of medieval legend.

As the poems and ballads grew up around the romantic idea of a bandit stealing from the rich and giving to the poor in Sherwood Forest, so too did the adventures of the 14th and 15th-century hero.

There are actual historical accounts of two criminals, one known as Rabunhod and the other as Robehod who made names for themselves earlier. Rather than being an aristocrat-turned-outlaw as Robin Hood is often portrayed, most accounts describe him as a defiant commoner who led raids against the sheriff of Nottingham.

One real life character who aids the Robin Hood legend is Richard the Lionheart, a real life king who spent most of his time in the Holy Land during the Crusades.
Increasingly, historians now believe the Robin Hood tales are medieval myths that became the stuff of folklore built around resisting oppression.

Errol Flynn as Robin Hood

John Henry: The American folktale about John Henry reached the peak of its popularity in the 1960s when folk music was the rage throughout the country. The actual folk song “The Ballad of John Henry” was written in the late 1800s relating the story of a massive former slave and steel-driver who once took on a steam drill in a contest to build a railroad tunnel.

The folksong details how John Henry pushed his body to the limit to ultimately win the battle, before collapsing and dying while still gripping his sledgehammer.

The story is believed to have some basis for being true, though there is little evidence that anyone who fit the description of John Henry ever existed.

Two people have been named as possible candidates. John William Henry drove steel during the construction of the C&O Railway but he was only five feet tall which immediately contradicts the behemoth size of the folksong, and no written evidence verifies the story.

One other possibility was John Henry Dabney who worked on the C&W railroad in Alabama. There were witnesses that Dabney battled a steam drill in 1887, but there is no hard evidence to back up the story. On the other hand, what does it matter if a good tale gets embellished a little?

Statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia – Courtesy Wikipedia

Pythagoras: Given that the Pythagorean Theorem we all studied in high school math, this would appear to be the most important person in our list who needs “proof” of his existence.

Pythagoras is said to have lived during the 5th and 6th century B.C. Though remembered as a philosopher and theologian, he was better known in ancient days as the spiritual leader of a cult that was obsessed with numerology, the transmigration of the human soul and the evils of eating beans.

So much for triangles.

The documentation for Pythagoras’ dislike of beans is well documented, unlike the mathematical formulas he is said to have put forth.

It is known that Pythagoras was deeply involved in the supernatural, and many believe he was simply an exaggerated or fictional personality.

As for the triangular theorems, well there’s always Egypt and those pyramids actually do, in their own way, resemble the “eternal triangle.”


Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

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