18 Historical Figures Who May Have Never Existed

These historical figures have famous legends surrounding them of heroic deeds, the founding of ancient cities, and revered literature. But whether or not they existed is disputed, with conflicting historical accounts and proven myths. Here are 18 historical figures who may be fictional.

King Arthur

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King Arthur is the leader of the Round Table, a knightly fellowship that appears in a series of medieval stories. According to Historic UK, King Arthur’s “historical legitimacy has been widely disputed by historians over the centuries,” but the results are still “inconclusive.” Some historians speculate that Arthur was a real warrior during the 6th century who led British armies against Saxon invaders.


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The Abilene Public Library describes Mulan as “a fictional folk heroine from the Northern and Southern dynasties era (4th to 6th century AD) of Chinese history,” internally famous for her depiction in Disney animated films. The legend tells of Mulan taking her elderly father’s place in the army by posing as a man, later revealing herself as a woman when she retires. Most historians agree that Mulan is a fictional character.

William Tell

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William Tell is a Swiss folk hero, an expert marksman who killed the tyrannical Albrecht Gessler, the bailiff who brutally ruled Altdorf. Britannica notes that “the historical existence of Tell is disputed,” and he was likely a fictional figure who “symbolized the struggle for political and individual freedom.”

Pope Joan

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According to legend, Pope Joan is a fictional figure who reigned as the only female Pope for 25 months after St. Leo IV (847–855). Records prove that there was a gap of just a few weeks after Leo’s reign before Benedict III succeeded him, proving Joan was a fictional figure.

John Henry

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This African American folk hero was a freedman and a skilled steel driver. The legend describes Henry’s contest with a steam drill, which he won by crushing more rock than the machines and dying with his hammer in his hand. Historians believe Henry is a fictional figure, and his story is told through the song The Ballad of John Henry.

Lycurgus of Sparta

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Britannica writes that Lycurgus was the legendary “lawgiver who founded most of the institutions of ancient Sparta.” Lycurgus’s status as a real person or a fictional figure is undetermined. He is mentioned in ancient Greek sources, which give conflicting reports about him, leading some historians to believe he was not a real person.

Sun Tzu

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Sun Tzu is known as the author of The Art of War, an early work of military strategy that has influenced militaries, business, and sports. History writes that many historians believe Sun Tzu is a fictional figure, and “the book is a compilation of generations of Chinese theories and teachings on military strategy.”


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Homer is the alleged author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems of ancient Greece and classical antiquity. Scholars are uncertain if the influential author existed. He was described as a native of Ionia in the 8th or 9th century BCE, portrayed as blind, and occasionally as an illiterate oral poet.

Sappho of Lesbos

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Britannica describes Sappho as a “Greek lyric poet greatly admired in all ages for the beauty of her writing style.” Many legends surround Sappho, but historians generally agree that she was a real person who came from a wealthy family in Lesbos.

Lycaon of Arcadia

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Lycaon of Arcadia is a mythical Greek figure, a cruel king who attempted to trick Zeus, the king of the gods, into consuming human flesh. Zeus didn’t fall for the trick, and he punished Lycaon by transforming him into a wolf. Lycaon is understood to be the mythical king of Arcadia, not a real figure.


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This ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician is famous for his contributions to these fields. The Pythagorean Theorem, named after him, was likely discovered by his followers after his death. Despite the myths surrounding Pythagoras and disputed details about his life, historians believe he was a real figure.

Prester John

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British historian Miranda Kaufman explains that “Prester John was a mythical figure, who from the twelfth to seventeenth centuries, was thought by Europeans to be a real personage, ruling over a distant Christian empire.” Medieval Europeans hoped that Prester John was residing over a Christian power in Africa or Asia, but he was a fictional creation.

Robin Hood

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Britannica describes Robin Hood as a “legendary outlaw hero of a series of English ballads” dating back to the 14th century. Robin Hood and his companions robbed and killed wealthy landowners and government officials and gave their stolen goods and money to the poor. Today, most scholars and historians believe that no single person inspired the stories, as there were many recorded Robin Hoods of the time.

El Dorado

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El Dorado is a mythical, golden city located in the Americas. According to the legend, an Indigenous Muisca tribal chief or king covered himself in gold dust before submerging in Lake Guatavita to wash off while his subjects threw golden jewelry into the lake. Spanish searches for the city in the 1500s were unsuccessful but allowed them to map northern South America.

Lady Godiva

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Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. She is remembered today for her nude horseback ride through Coventry, Warwickshire, to end the taxes her husband imposed on the local citizens. History notes, “While most historians consider her nude horseback ride a myth, Lady Godiva was indeed a real person from the 11th century.”

Queen of Sheba

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The Queen of Sheba is a biblical figure who visited King Solomon’s court bearing gold, jewels, and spices and tested his wisdom by asking him to solve several riddles. She later appeared in the Quran and Ethiopian literature, but there is no proof she actually existed.


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Hiawatha was a pre-colonial Native American chief of the Onondaga tribe and co-founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. While he was a real person, he is more famous for his portrayal in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem published in 1855.


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In ancient Mesopotamian mythology, Gilgamesh is a heroic figure, the protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian epic poem from the 2nd millennium BC. Historians believe that Gilgamesh was the king of Uruk, a Sumerian city-state, during the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period.

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