Legends and myths abound. Some have, through repetition, become accepted as fact by subsequent generations, despite clear evidence they are false. For example, there are people who still believe the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes really prowled the streets of Victorian London. Obviously, he did not. Others continue to repeat the disproved story of dozens, if not scores of deaths by suicide on Wall Street during the stock market crash of 1929. In fact, there were very few, but salacious stories sold newspapers. The stories became so widely reported they acquired the sovereignty of the printed word.
The result of such myth-making throughout history created many famous events, reported actions, and even places which exist only in the minds of the people. There is no record of their physical existence, yet argument for their authenticity persists. They range from ancient legends to 20th century events and personages. Here are 10 such famous things which never existed.
10. The War of the World’s radio broadcast panic
On the evening of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles broadcast a radio play based on the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. The play presented the story in the guise of a news broadcast, opening with an announcement of a special interruption due to a breaking story. The story, that aliens were invading the Earth and causing mass panic, is alleged to have convinced thousands of listeners of its being a genuine news broadcast. A real nationwide panic ensued, as people took to the roads to flee, or hid in cellars and barns. Welles was forced to identify his program as fictional while still on the air, though the panic did not alleviate for days. Great story, but it never happened.
CBS, the network broadcasting the story, did receive a few calls from concerned listeners, who were immediately assured that all was well. The same held for local affiliates carrying the broadcast. There simply was too small an audience for Welles’ show, estimated at less than 2% of potential listeners, for it to create a mass panic. Newspapers reported the panic, and through circular reporting and a desire to discredit radio as a news source, it grew through repetition. It simply didn’t happen. The same circular reporting continues to describe the event today, and contributes to the presence of false information online and in writing.
9. The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria
Before Christopher Columbus came under scrutiny as the leader of a genocide in the New World, schoolchildren during the month of October heard the story of his voyage in 1492. They learned many “facts” which weren’t factual. One was that most people of the day believed the world was flat. Most people, and nearly all educated people, harbored no such belief. Another was that Columbus sailed to the west in three ships, to prove the world was round and to reach China. Instead, he discovered the New World. Children memorized the names of the ships, a trio engraved in the collective mind, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.
Nina was not the name of the tiny vessel, the smallest of the three, which sailed on the expedition. It was the Santa Clara, though the sailors may have referred to the ship as Nina (little girl) as a nickname. Pinta, too, served as a sailor’s nickname for the vessel; its real name remains lost to history. Even the Santa Maria is incorrectly attributed to be the name of Columbus’s flagship. The ship’s name was Santa Gallega, according to contemporary records. Likely the nicknames became famous because the tales were so often related by the seamen who made the voyage.
8. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Archaeologists and historians have, to date, established the location of six of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They have yet to find the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to the legends several different notables are attributed with having built the gardens, including King Nebuchadnezzar II during his reign. Another legend describes Semiramis, herself considered mythological, as having constructed what is described as an architectural and horticultural marvel. No writings contemporaneous with their supposed existence have ever been found. In the case of Nebuchadnezzar, despite numerous extant writings describing his works, none mention the gardens.
Likely they existed solely as a poetic or literary device. In recent years, suggestions have emerged that the site of the ancient gardens exists under the bed of the Euphrates River, which over the centuries has shifted many times. The exact location of the site remains undetermined. At least one scholar postulated the Hanging Gardens have never been found in the land once known as Babylon because they were never there. She suggested the myths are based around the Gardens of King Sennacherib, at the ancient city of Nineveh, in today’s Iraq.
The literary device of a lost community, a Utopian region isolated from the modern world, has been used by many writers over time. Often they are sited in the Himalaya Mountains, or its outliers. Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King described one such community as Kafiristan, isolated by the western Himalayas. Shangri-La first appeared in a novel written by James Hilton and published in 1933, Lost Horizon. In 1937 it was made into a film under the same name. Both proved highly popular, and Shangri-La became a term for an idyllic community free from disease and travails of all sorts. It also became a target for scholars, researchers, and explorers anxious to find the region which inspired Hilton.
Ancient Tibetan writings described several places which more or less matched the description of Shangri-La created by Hilton. The author claimed many times that his version of the community came from artifacts held by the British Museum. Nonetheless, explorers, film producers, and even local governments have since claimed to have identified the site of the real Shangri-La, including the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region. While most academic scholars generally agree Shangri-La is entirely fictional, a cottage industry revolving around its true location (and reality) continues to intrigue those convinced the place existed outside the mind of James Hilton.
6. The 95 Theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral
October 31, widely known as Halloween, is also known among Protestant congregations as Reformation Day. It was on that date, according to legend, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses challenging the authority of the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Other versions of the story have him posting the Theses on different church doors. In later years, Luther described his mailing the theses to his Archbishop on October 31, but he did not describe nailing them to any church door.
Nor have any contemporaneous records documenting the event ever been found. Nor have any eyewitness accounts, and Luther, though a fervid self-promoter, did not make claim to such a dramatic act of defiance. The 95 Theses of course did exist, and did challenge the Church and what many considered to be its corruption, a major event of what became the Protestant Reformation. Recent scholarship disputes their appearance as being nailed to a cathedral door, though it remains a widely-held belief.
5. King Arthur’s Round Table
The earliest tales of Britain’s legendary King Arthur made no mention of a Round Table. It first appeared in a work by a Norman poet named Wace (sometimes referred to as Robert Wace). In a work which presented British history in verse form, Wace became the first to present the Arthurian legends in a commonly understood language. He introduced the Round Table, as well as the name of Arthur’s sword and how the king acquired it. Excalibur and the Round Table both entered the Arthurian lexicon through Wace, and later writers expanded upon his works.
Wace based his work on the earlier works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which in turn were based on Welsh oral traditions. Both described the number of distinguished warriors who became part of Arthur’s entourage after the establishment of peace across Britain. Neither, however, described an order of chivalry as the Knights of the Round Table, nor the table itself, nor its location. Arthur’s Round Table appears as a piece of poetic license, rather than as a real piece of furniture. Its significance to the legends is from its shape, with the people seated at table being equals, rather than ranked in relation to their distance from the monarch.
4. Snakes in Ireland
St. Patrick is often depicted in iconography with his foot on the head of a snake. Part of his legend includes his using his own faith to drive all snakes from Ireland. According to legend, when Patrick stood on a knoll and commanded their departure, all the snakes in Ireland crawled into the sea. The legend uses the depiction of the snake in Eden, Satan in disguise, to present Patrick as driving evil out of Ireland. On St. Patrick’s Day, it is one of the many legends about the Patron Saint of Ireland which is repeated among the faithful.
According to science, there were never any snakes in Ireland for Patrick to evict. The fossil record carries no evidence of snakes ever inhabiting the island, at least not indigenously. There are snakes in Ireland today. Unlike other islands, such as in Hawaii and New Zealand, the ownership of pet snakes is allowed in Ireland, and they have been considered a status symbol among some pet owners, due to their rarity. Some have escaped into the wild, or been released by owners no longer able or willing to care for them. How far they have managed to spread in the wild remains unknown, but believers may have to recall St. Patrick sometime in the future.
3. The Holy Grail
Legends of the Holy Grail originally centered upon a dish or even a stone in early oral traditions. Around the end of the 12th century CE it merged with another legend, that of the Holy Chalice, which centered upon the cup used by Jesus of Nazareth at the Last Supper. The combined Grail-Chalice legend became the subject of the tales of Lancelot, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. Stories about the Grail, in which it appears as a serving dish, a platter, a bowl, a salver, and a cup, as well as a simple stone, existed for centuries before it became the chalice used by Jesus.
Grail stories existed among the Celts, in Welsh mythology, in Eastern Christianity, and even in Persian myths. At least one scholar has argued the Grail actually refers to the Shroud of Turin. Numerous objects have been identified as the Grail or associated with it, and locations across Europe and the Middle East are linked to it by stories and legends. Fake Grails have appeared, presented by con artists, throughout most of recorded European history. A real one has not. It continues to inspire conspiracy theorists, cults, and researchers, though evidence of its existence beyond myths remains scarce.
2. The Tower of Babel
In the story of the Tower of Babel as recorded in Genesis, Chapter 11, the reader learns that the descendants of the survivors of the Great Flood all spoke a common language. This contradicts the story in Genesis 10, in which it is recorded that the families of Noah’s descendants, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, started different nations and spoke different languages. At any rate, in the Tower of Babel story the people decide to build a tower to heaven, from whence they could see and face God. God, declining to entertain visitors, stops the project by having them suddenly speak different languages. No longer able to communicate, they wander off in different directions, to establish different tribes. According to the Genesis account, God left the tower alone where it stood.
Similar stories exist in a wide variety of ancient civilizations, from the Cherokee in what is now the eastern United States, to the Tharu people of Nepal. Greek and Roman mythology held similar stories to explain the differing languages of the world. So did the Assyrians, Sumerians, Aztecs, and in the tribes and settlements of the Polynesians. Those who believe the Bible is historically accurate and word-for-word literally true accept the story of the Tower of Babel without question. Few scientists or historians agree.
1. El Dorado
The myth of El Dorado originally referred to a man, a Muisca chieftain in today’s Colombia. The Spanish Conquistadors referred to him as El Hombre Dorado. According to the legend he had ritually covered himself in gold dust before entering Lake Guatavita to washi it off. The gold was accompanied with emeralds and silver, as well as other precious stones. Eventually, El Dorado referred to a lost city, so rich with gold the streets were paved with it. The city grew to become an empire, lost to the Spanish Conquistadors and others seeking it out for the fabulous wealth it would bestow upon its conquerors.
Juan Pizarro is often described in the search for El Dorado, though it was actually some of his lieutenants who set off for the site following the conquest of the Incas. Sir Walter Raleigh accompanied an expedition in the late 16th century. He tried again in 1617, though his party fought with Spaniards, an incident which led to Raleigh’s beheading the following year. Raleigh had been under orders to avoid conflict with the Spanish. Expeditions continued well into the 19th century, and though much gold was found, no city of gold ever was. The International Space Station did detect large gold deposits along the Amazon in the 21st century, though a city paved with gold remains elusive.