Legendary Places: Real or Fictional?
We look at twelve legendary places that you've heard of, but may not know whether they're real or not.
by Brian Dunning
September 3, 2013
Also available in Russian
Today we're going to go into quiz mode, and test our knowledge of legendary places that you've heard of. Some are from history, some are from legend, and some are from pseudohistory. Your job is to guess whether each of the places I'm going to name are real or fictional. Most people will know most of these, but it's a rare expert indeed that will get all twelve right. Let's get started in ancient Britain:
The island where King Arthur was laid to rest.
Fictional. Avalon comes from the rich tapestry of Arthurian legend. It's an almost heavenly place, said to be the where the sword Excalibur was forged, and where Arthur was borne by ship after the Battle of Camlann where he was fatally wounded. However, there is no such place, as Arthurian legend is a large yet fictional body of work.
That's not to say nobody has claimed to have found Avalon. Most famously, Glastonbury Tor, the hill in Glastonbury, Somerset, used to be an island before the surrounding swamps were drained. In 1190, monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found, in a very deep grave, the coffin of Arthur and Guinevere. Although local tradition seems to support this belief, historians attribute the claim to marketing by the monks who were hoping to rebuild the Abbey after it was heavily damaged in a fire six years before the alleged find.
Colossus of Rhodes
The massive statue guarding the entrance to the harbor at Rhodes.
Real, although it was hardly as usually depicted. This giant statue did not (as commonly believed) straddle the entrance to the harbor on the Greek island of Rhodes. Rather, it simply stood beside the harbor entrance. It featured the Greek god Helios in a heroic pose, and was not too different from the American Statue of Liberty: it was built of bronze plates attached to an iron frame. The proportions of these two figures were also nearly identical, Lady Liberty being taller only because of her raised arm and her much higher base.
The Colossus stood for only 56 years before it toppled in an earthquake in 226 BCE. Its wreckage lay on the ground for 800 years before it was purchased by a merchant for scrap.
The fabulous city of gold that drew explorers to the New World.
Fictional. But since so many of the early explorers to the New World firmly believed in this city laden with immense gold, many came looking for it, and it played no small part in the conquista of the Americas.
All the stories of the day pointed to El Dorado as being associated with Lake Guatavita, a small lake high up in a crater in the green mountains outside of Bogotá, Colombia. Several efforts to drain the lake were made by conquistadores in the 1500s, and some gold was found, mainly bits of jewelry and armor. But in 1898, a serious mining company drilled a tunnel through the mountainside and did completely drain the lake, but found only a few ancient trinkets. The lake has since recovered and it's now illegal to hunt for gold there.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
King Nebuchadnezzar II's incomparable ancient gardens.
Fictional. Although they are listed as one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, there are no actual records of these. There were hanging gardens in other places, and there was a Babylon, but only texts written several centuries later say anything about these in particular. They're attributed to king Nebuchadnezzar II, but from all the documentation that exists about him and his reign, there is no mention of any hanging gardens.
Hanging gardens are usually either plantings that creep up a wall or hang over it from above, and are often terraced. As it's a rather commonplace type of planting, it seems quite likely that Nebuchadnezzar II may well have had some; but since the later historians made up the famous ones, any similarity to what Nebuchadnezzar might have actually had is purely happenstance.
Stronghold of the ancient Greek gods.
Real. Although this is probably a trivial question to anyone who lives in Europe or knows geography, many people in the rest of the world don't really know where Greek mythology ends and real history and geography begin. Mount Olympus is the tallest mountain in Greece, and a pretty decent size at almost 3000 meters.
It's called one mountain but it's really a collection of some 52 peaks, the most popular of which is summited by an average of 300 hikers a day. The highest peak, however, requires some technical scrambling and is much more private — just the way the gods who live there like it.
Pyramid of Djedefre
Claimed to be the long-lost fourth pyramid at Giza, and the tallest of the bunch.
Real; but unsurprisingly, almost everything you hear about it on television is wrong. The popular stories say that this fourth pyramid was taller than the others. Not true. Although the Pyramid of Djedefre was built about the same time, it is not near the other more popular three; it's about 8 kilometers to the northwest, on higher ground. All that's left of it are ruins, but its original height was 67 meters, about the same as the smallest of three pyramids of Giza.
Also, the Pyramid of Djedefre has never been lost or unknown, so there was never a surprising or unexpected discovery. It's believed that Djedefre was encased in polished granite, and was therefore an attractive supply deport for builders in later years. Almost from the time it was completed, people have been carting its stone away by the ton, leaving only the low rubble that remains today.
A beautiful, peaceful community in Himalayas.
Fictional. Shangri-La was the idyllic land in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. This dreamlike valley was free of disease, hatred, poverty, war, and had successfully remained isolated and hidden from the rest of the world.
Hilton based Shangri-La on a similar legendary place that was already deeply entrenched in Buddhism, called Shambhala. It was popular belief in the existence of Shambhala that attracted explorers from all over Europe and Asia. During the New Thought movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, Eastern mysticism was all the rage in wealthy Western countries. Hilton rode this wave to success by including the land where nobody ever grows old in his novel.
Sodom and Gomorrah
The cities destroyed by the Biblical God for their sins.
Fictional, twin cities known only from ancient texts in which they were destroyed by divine judgement for their sinful ways. So far archaeology has failed to turn up any convincing evidence of either city. Various Biblical scholars have pointed to this or that ancient scroll or tablet that they claim constitutes documentary evidence, but the bulk of archaeologists remain unconvinced.
There were plenty of settlements in the region, which was on the Jordan River plain north of the Dead Sea. But so far every town that's been excavated has been otherwise identified — if they were indeed obliterated by wrath from on high, it must have been a very thorough job.
Statue of Zeus at Olympia
The famous giant sculpture inside an ancient Greek temple.
Real. Zeus was not quite as big as the Colossus of Rhodes, being only 13 meters tall, however he was seated. It nearly filled the classic columned Temple of Zeus in Olympia. The sculptor Phidias spent twelve years making it, and finished in 456 BCE. Zeus was constructed of a wooden frame covered in gold, ivory, jewels, and gilded glass. It must have been a staggering sight. Archeological digs have confirmed the site of Phidias' workshop on site, along with all the tools and chips we'd expect to find.
Zeus and his temple probably stood for some 900 years. We don't know the exact circumstances or date of its destruction, but the temple burned down in 425 CE. Whether Zeus was destroyed or taken away at that time, or earlier, remains unknown. It's possible, though unlikely, that parts of the sculpture still exist somewhere in hiding.
The famous site of the Trojan War and the fabled battlefield of Odysseus.
Real. The site of the ancient city of Troy is in what's now Turkey, in the northern Aegean. Although it has an extraordinarily rich history in mythology, Troy exists now only as an archaeological site that confirms little of what's found in Homer's great works.
Various structures in Troy, such as the city wall and a great theater, have been associated with different settlements going as far back as 3000 BCE. This earliest settlement is referred to as Troy I, and they go all the way up to Troy IX as late as 500 CE. Little archaeological evidence indicates that the Trojan War definitely happened, but if it did, it was probably around the 12th century BCE. This era is called Troy VII. It's likely that the city was called Ilios at the time, which is the name given in the Homerian epics; there are even archaeological remains of the Great Tower of Ilios among the city walls.
The city renowned for its perfected society.
Fictional. Utopia was the name of Sir Thomas More's perfect society that he created for his satirical 1516 book of the same name. The word has since entered the popular lexicon to describe a perfect world.
Curiously, the society described by More is hardly what we'd consider ideal, so it's believed by many to be satirical. Utopia featured slavery, communism, forced relocation to maintain economic equilibrium, and papers required for all travel.
The legendary city of amazing beauty.
Real. Although many of us tend to think of Kublai Khan and his etheric Xanadu as literary inventions of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, they were quite real. Kublai Khan was the ruler of the Mongol Empire, and the founder of China's Yuan Dynasty. Xanadu is the Westernized spelling of Shangdu, Kublai's summer palace, before he moved it to where it remains today in Beijing.
Shangdu was a planned community, inside an outer wall about 2 kilometers square enclosing an inner palace with a wall about half a kilometer square. It had a peak population of about 100,000 people living in and around it. The city was abandoned when it was sacked in 1369 and almost nothing remains today.
So how did you do? If you got eight or more right, your Skeptoid credentials are in order, and it means we're going to have to examine more such places in the future.
Correction: An earlier version of this mistakenly identified Troy as the "home of Ulysses". Ulysses/Odysseus attacked Troy with the Trojan Horse; he did not live there.
Also, the description of Utopia as presented in the book has been rewritten to be more accurate. - BD
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Legendary Places: Real or Fictional?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Sep 2013. Web.
16 Dec 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4378>
References & Further Reading
Carey, J. The Finding of Arthur’s Grave: A Story from Clonmacnoise? Andover: Celtic Studies Publications, 1999. 1-14.
International Symposium on History of Machines and Mechanisms. "Engineering Aspects of the Collapse of the Colossus of Rhodes Statue." Ceccarelli, M. 30 Apr. 2004, HMM 2004: 69-85.
Kakissis, J. "Summit of the Gods." The Boston Globe. 17 Jul. 2005, Newspaper.
Man, J. Kublai Khan: From Xanadu to Superpower. London: Bantam Books, 2006. 104-119.
Mee, C. The Trojan War: Its Historicity and Context. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1984. 45-56.
Rippy, J. British Investments in Latin America, 1822-1949. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959. 113.
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