Are They Real, or Are They Fictional?
Another round of famous names from the past: Can you guess whether each is real or fictional?
by Brian Dunning
April 10, 2018
Consistently cited as favorite episodes are those in which we looked at famous names from history and challenged you to guess whether each was real or fictional. We've done it with famous men, famous women, famous names from food and fashion brands, and even famous places. Today we have a mishmash of names that didn't get included in the previous shows but were requested afterwards by listeners. So let's dive right into the history books, and see how solid is your knowledge of famous characters.
Apostle to Jesus
Real. Paul is, in fact, perhaps the most reliable of all characters who are known only from the Bible and not from any other sources. He's the author of most of the New Testament, certainly of at least six books and probably seven, as evidenced from our best literary fingerprinting of these texts. Paul was a Jew who was also a Roman citizen, and was a staunch opponent of Jesus for years until he was converted. It's not evidence that anything that happened in these books was true, but we can be pretty certain that Paul was an actual person.
Founder of Buddhism
Real, although the biographies we have of "the Buddha", meaning the one who has attained enlightenment, are contradictory and all of varying reliability. His name was Siddhārtha Gautama and he lived sometime during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE in Nepal and India. There's little reason to doubt that he actually lived, but virtually all we know of his life has been hopelessly lost in all the imaginative storytelling by authors who were creating religious mythology.
Catherine the Great
Empress of Russia
Real. Although some assume she's a character out of literature, Catherine the Great was indeed the empress of Russia toward the end of the 18th century. She was a strong ruler and elevated Russia into a great European power. She assumed the crown only six months after her husband, the estranged, abrasive, and weak Peter III, by having him arrested for supporting King Frederick II of Prussia, with whom Russia was currently at war. She forced him to abdicate, and stayed in the throne until her death 34 years later.
Real. Although it's not uncommon for Confucius to be regarded as a school of philosophers more so than an individual person, he was indeed an actual individual. He was a government official and the records of his service are still extant, as well as that of his family lineage. Although many great Chinese thinkers have followed Confucianism, they kept such excellent records that we really don't have much confusion over whether Confucius himself was the originator of any particular piece of wisdom.
Empress Wu Zetian
Female Chinese emperor
Real — though who would guess a society as patriarchal as China's would have a female emperor? She'd been a concubine of a previous emperor, and had caught the eye of his son, who married her once he took the throne. Unfortunately he had a debilitating stroke and left his wife in charge as Empress Consort. Turns out she was quite the badass, and was able to retain power as Empress Regnant even after her husband died and her son assumed the throne. She ruled until her death for more than 20 years, appointing several of her sons Emperor in succession. At her death her title was immortalized as Empress Consort.
Inspiration for the story of Noah
Real. He's best known for the Epic of Gilgamesh, a tale containing a virtual scene-for-scene clone of the story of Noah's Flood, written more than a thousand years before the Bible — but also about half a millennium after the death of the actual king whose identity was borrowed for the story. Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk, in Sumer, who reigned in the 26th century BCE, nearly 5000 years ago. Sufficient ancient documentary evidence exists (albeit in cuneiform) to justify that Gilgamesh was a real person and a real king — but as far as the story depicting him as a superhero demigod who hears a story about a man who survived a great flood by building a giant ark, not so much.
Correction: An earlier version of this squished Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim into the same person. In the actual story, Gilgamesh learns the tale of how Utnapishtim built an ark to survive the flood; Gilgamesh didn't do it himself. - BD
The Irish "Pirate Queen"
Real. Clan O'Malley was a great seafaring family in 14th century Ireland, whose business was equal parts piracy and trade with the continent. Young Grace received a noble education as a girl, and by the time she took to sea aboard one of her father's ships she was a force to be reckoned with, ultimately becoming chieftain of the entire clan. Not only was she a feared pirate captain, she was also a skilled diplomat and even personally negotiated with England's Queen Elizabeth I.
Fictional. The great books The Iliad and The Odyssey were certainly written by someone, but by whom? They are officially anonymous, coming from a tradition that included many authors and poets. Since ancient times, the name Homer was attached to them, but there was never any serious belief that such an individual existed. Nevertheless, biographies have been written about the fictional bard, usually depicting him as a blind wanderer; but these stories are just as mythical as the epics he supposedly composed himself.
Man with the Golden Touch
Fictional. Though, I'll admit I struggled with this one a bit, because there was a real King Mita of Phrygia in the late 8th and early 7th century BCE. A tomb tentatively associated with Mita has even been found in Greece. But the fact is that nothing known about Mita applies to Midas, and nothing in the two myths about King Midas applies to Mita. Midas is known for two run-ins with the gods: one in which he was cursed to have everything he touch turn to gold, and the other in which he was given a jackass' ears.
Famous Biblical king
Real. We talked about this in greater depth in the episode about the Ark of the Covenant. There is no archaeological evidence of King Solomon of Israel or of his reign, nor is there archaeological evidence of Solomon's Temple (despite a number of competing claims to the contrary). However the documentary evidence from historians, including Romans and Greeks, and even excluding the Bible, is sufficiently robust that King Solomon's existence should be taken as the default assumption.
Real. When the feared Chinese pirate Zheng Yi met her working in a brothel in 1801, he sealed her fate. Together they grew their pirate fleet into one of the largest the world had seen, comprising over 50,000 men on more than 600 ships, called the Red Flag Fleet. After he died, Ching Shih consolidated her power. She issued a strict code of laws that prescribed death penalties for just about everything, but that also provided for division of spoils among the entire fleet that was both fair and generous. After a defeat by the Portuguese Navy, the Red Flag Fleet accepted an Imperial amnesty, and Ching Shih retired to private life.
Fictional. Although there were always self-described prophets running around in those days and any one of them could have inspired the Moses legend, there is no record at all of Moses or any of the events associated with him: the plagues, the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, the forty years in the desert. Most of these events would have left archaeological evidence and would have been recorded in the Egyptians' detailed histories. That they weren't, and that actual historical evidence tells a narrative that is irreconcilable with the Moses stories, we can be sure they are the mythology they are presented as.
Real. Although there is no doubt that Nefertiti was a real person and was the wife of Eighteenth Dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten in the mid-14th century BCE, what's not clear is whether she ruled as Pharaoh. Some evidence suggests that as her husband aged, he promoted her to co-regent and she assumed the Pharaoh name Neferneferuaten. She may have even ruled as sole Pharaoh for a time after his death. Two of Nefertiti's six known daughters are also considered candidates to have been Neferneferuaten. Whoever she was, she did indeed rule until the ascension of Akhenaten's son, Tutankhamen.
Greek philosopher and mathematician
Real. There's no doubt that Pythagoras was a real person, but there's grave doubt over whether he had much to do with most of the mathematics or science attributed to him. During his lifetime, he actually wrote nothing at all, though he was a well-known intellectual. It was those many students who followed in his Pythagorean school who came up with discoveries in his name, all the while casting Pythagoras himself as a semi-mythical figure with supernatural abilities like being in multiple places at once...something not well-supported under the Pythagorean Theorem.
Ancient war strategist
Fictional. Traditionally he was the author of The Art of War, and although historians are split nearly 50/50 over whether he actually existed, the absence of evidence (while not evidence of absence) makes as strong a case that he didn't exist as the missing evidence of Moses makes for his. While tradition tells us that he was a great military leader and government official, no actual records exist that name him, and detailed accounts of the battles attributed to him make no mention of his name. Most likely the book was a compilation of military theories from many men over many centuries — and this conclusion really upsets many of his Western followers.
Founder of Zoroastrianism
Real. Also known as Zoroaster, he was the ancient Persian philosopher who wrote the texts on which Zoroastrianism, an early religion that influenced Islam, was based. Interestingly, we don't have very good facts and figures about Zarathustra, including not even knowing exactly when he lived. But he left us a tremendous amount of written histories about himself, to the point that there is little scholarly doubt that he was an actual person. He probably lived around 1000 BCE, give or take about 500 years, based mainly on linguistic analysis and cultural references.
And that concludes today's list of historical figures. How many did you get right? Many of you will have gotten all of them, but most of you would have gotten most of them. Even though you may have found some to be obvious and questioned whether they needed to be included, sit where I'm sitting, and you'll find that more question marks and misinformation abound in society than you might suspect. But those question marks are a good thing. Embrace yours, and find more of them.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Are They Real, or Are They Fictional?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
10 Apr 2018. Web.
21 Apr 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4618>
References & Further Reading
Allen, J. Nefertiti and Smenkh-ka-re. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994. 7-17.
Barton, G. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1967. 98-101.
Burkert, W. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
Carrier, R. "The Historicity of Paul the Apostle." Blogs. Richard Carrier, 5 Jun. 2015. Web. 2 Apr. 2018. <https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/7643>
Cawthorne, N. Daughter of Heaven: The True Story of the Only Woman to Become Emperor of China. Oxford: One World Publications, 2007.
Dever, W. "What Remains of the House that Albright Built?" The Biblical Archaeologist. 1 Mar. 1993, Volume 56, Numbers 1 & 2: 25-35.
Dixon, S. Catherine the Great. New York: Ecco, 2009.
Editors. "Grace O'Malley the Pirate Queen." Discover Mayo. Mayo Ireland Ltd, 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 3 Apr. 2018. <http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/about-mayo/history/grace-omalley-the-pirate-queen.html>
Murray, D. Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Nilsson, M. The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. 48.
Sandars, N. The Epic of Gilgamesh. New York: Penguin, 1972. Introduction.
Violatti, C. "Siddhārtha Gautama." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited, 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2018. <https://www.ancient.eu/Siddhartha_Gautama/>
Worthington, D. "The Art of War." New Historian. Dalton House, 13 Mar. 2015. Web. 3 Apr. 2018. <http://www.newhistorian.com/the-art-of-war/3232/>
Yao, X. An Introduction to Confucianism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
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