Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

These historical figures rose to fame despite possibly not existing

A depiction of when King Arthur (supposedly) obtained the sword Excalibur (Image: Undated woodcut/Bettmann/Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: People whose existence is disputed

What it’s about: Sure, we’ve all heard stories about the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny or moderate Republicans. But do they really exist? If you’re not sure, then they’re in good company, as Wikipedia has a long list of personages—famous, obscure, and legendary—who may or may not have been real. Whether any of these figure actually existed, they’re real enough to have their own Wikipedia page.


Biggest controversy: Someone read a book that opens by saying man was made out of dirt and woman was made out of one of his ribs and—believe it or not—thought there might be a few holes in the story. Even secular historians have formed a consensus that Jesus Christ was a real, historical person, though many submit that “many legendary elements” were added to his story in the Gospels. But a minority believe there was no real Jesus and that the Gospels simply took the abstract notion of a messiah and solidified those ideas into one mythical figure. True disbelievers point to the fact that the Bible contains no firsthand accounts of Jesus, as the Gospels were written long after his death. But most historians agree that “a wide range of [secular] sources” confirm, at the very least, that a man named Jesus was baptized by John The Baptist and crucified on the order of Pontius Pilate.

Strangest fact: Some of history’s most important authors may have themselves been fiction. Although there were many stories in antiquity of the life of Homer, the blind Ionian bard who recited his masterworks The Odyssey and The Iliad from memory, there are modern scholars who dispute that the two works came from the same hand, citing stylistic differences. Some question whether Homer was in fact a single individual, and not simply a name that got attached to an oral tradition that included many contributors.

Likewise, Aesop, the Greek writer behind immortal tales like “The Lion And The Mouse” and “The Tortoise And The Hare,” may not have been a real person. As the story goes, he was a “strikingly ugly” slave in ancient Greece who was given the gift of clever storytelling, which he used to trick his master. But that itself is probably as much of a fable as it sounds, and it’s likelier that a number of folk tales from various unknown sources were attributed to a mythical Aesop.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Nineteenth-century New York may have had a female river pirate. It’s clear why Sadie Farrell’s existence is disputed, as her entire life story reads like folklore. She was nicknamed Sadie The Goat for her practice of head-butting unsuspecting men so a male accomplice could rob them, and she had an ear bitten off by a six-foot female bouncer named Gallus Mag. According to legend, she witnessed the Charlton Street Gang try and fail to board a sloop anchored in the river. After the crew fought off the gang, Farrell joined the gang, became its leader, and hijacked a bigger ship. She flew the Jolly Roger and raided villages along the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, sometimes taking prisoners, ransoming women and children while making men walk the plank. Mag eventually returned her ear, pickled in a jar.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Being royalty still isn’t enough to convince people you really existed. King Arthur’s legend looms largest, as the mythical king who united Britain against Saxon invaders while leading a Round Table of brave knights may in fact be based on a hero of the Battle Of Badon, though sources that mention him are considered unreliable (one has Arthur killing nearly a thousand men in battle).

Helena Kantakouzene, the last Empress of Trebizond—a small kingdom in modern-day Turkey that existed for roughly 250 years in between the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires—makes the list, though her own page doesn’t make it clear why. There’s no question there of her existence, though the historical record isn’t clear on which of her husband David’s children were hers and which were his first wife’s. Eric The Victorious was the first Swedish king who is known to be a real person, but it’s not known whether his second wife, Aud Haakonsdottir, was the queen, a mistress, or a fable-like figure concocted to balance out Eric’s first wife, Sigrid The Haughty.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: If you can’t stand the ambiguity of People Whose Existence Is Disputed, Wikipedia also has a category for definitively nonexistent people, including pseudonyms, legends, hoaxes, and the Halifax Slasher, who was believed to be behind numerous attacks in the English town before Scotland Yard discovered his reign of terror was in fact a case of mass hysteria.

Further down the Wormhole: A little more than three years ago, we covered High Kings Of Ireland, a list that fades from history into myth as you follow it backwards through time. One of the kings caught in the middle was Cormac Mac Airt, listed here as a possibly real figure. Part of his story is mythical—he was supposedly raised by wolves after his father was killed in battle, and his family was kidnapped (and returned) by a sea god—but the part where Mac Airt unites the nobles against the previous High King and defeats him in battle may be based in fact.


Cormac’s rule, if it did exist, is believed to be roughly contemporary with that of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher king whose death is considered the end of the Pax Romana. As in the movies, Aurelius was succeeded by his son Commodus (though they co-ruled for a few years first), an increasingly petty tyrant who enjoyed gladiatorial combat (so much so that rumors abounded that he was the product of an illicit affair between Empress Faustina and a gladiator). He was strangled in the bath, with the assassin operating with the approval of the Senate, whose members were fed up with Commodus’ dictatorial misrule. That misrule marks a period of decline that culminated decades later in the Crisis Of The Third Century, a 50-year span in which 26 different men claimed the title of emperor and Rome nearly collapsed as a result. We’ll take a closer look next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.