This relatively popular question on the Stack Exchange Worldbuilding site claims that legends originate from history:

Given a vaguely European Medieval society free of magic, how long does it take for historic record to devolve into fiction? Rephrased, how long would it take an Arthurian legend to form, where the scholars of the setting don't know how much of it (or if any of it) is based on actual historic events and people?

This idea is a common trope in fantasy -- for example, Galadriel (a character from The Lord of the Rings) famously says that "History became legend. Legend became myth."

Is that accurate? Does history actually "devolve" into oral literature (folklore)? Or is the creation of folklore -- even folklore that features historical figures -- created through another process?

  • 3
    Keyword of interest here: Euhemerism.
    – femtoRgon
    Nov 24 '16 at 5:36
  • @femtoRgon any interest in writing an answer about Euhemerism (for completeness sake)? I would be willing to give a bounty to any decently written answer.
    – user62
    Nov 28 '16 at 17:41

Chinese Mythology is instructive in this regard.

History and Mythology were conflated up until the 20th century, so you have cycles, such as the "Three Kingdoms", which are both historical and mythological. Lord Guan is a hero of the Three Kingdoms period who famously, posthumously became one of the most revered gods in the Chinese pantheon. Even the history of his elevation to godhood is conflated with mythology because the sources related to it are not academic, but folkloric, and the apotheosis took place in stages over about 1500 years.

The Duke of Zhou, one of the great sages of antiquity and a seminal figure in Chinese history and culture, is a similar figure. The Duke of Zhou is credited with the concept of the "Mandate of Heaven" which led to the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty, itself recounted in work such as "The Creation of the Gods". The Duke of Zhou was inadvertently deified as the God of Dreams based on a misunderstanding of a quote by Master Kong.

Contemporary Chinese mythology is particularly interesting because we can see mythology forming in historic times before our eyes. Here I am talking about figures such as Wong Fei-Hung, who was both an historical person, and rose to prominence through the new medium of cinema to occupy a central place in Chinese Heroic Folklore. For context, there have been literally hundreds of films about Fei-Hung--far more than all of the Western superhero movies combined. [I addressed this phenomenon in more detail here]. There is no parallel in the West that I know of. In the case of Fei-Hung, it was about 25 years after his death that he began to be mythologized in film.


American mythology is also useful. We see mythologization of figures like George Washington in the story of the cherry tree. This particular myth seems to have arisen about 6 years after Washington's death.

Outlaws are another type of American hero that have been widely mythologized. The "Wild West" is full of figures and account both accurate, exaggerated, and entirely fabricated, generally beginning during the lifetimes of the figures in question, and often for reasons of economic gain. Calamity Jane and "Wild Bill" Hickok featured recently on the acclaimed series Deadwood, a further mythologization of those personages.

My favorite American example is Bonnie and Clyde. They attained legendary status during their lifetimes, and the legend only grew after their deaths. What makes these two especially interesting to me is the Arthur Penn film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beaty. Beyond the casting, the film is notable both for its accolades and controversy surrounding it. In other words, the film has a place in the literary canon, with an extra footnote on the depiction of violence in film.


The Icelandic Sagas are also worth thinking about. There you have the documentation of history in the form of stories about heroes. Although authorship of the sagas is for the most part anonymous, it's a reasonable assumption that they would have been composed in a time not too distant from the events they recount. I particularly like the Icelandic sagas, not only for their literary quality, but for their concern with settlement and the origin of place-names, which link them to the real world.


In terms of euhemerism, I doubt there's a easy answer.

The above material would seem to indicate that legends do indeed originate from history, but it also seems clear that stories can be shared, either with a literary or syncretic intent. (For instance Cúchulainn's choice of glory over long life is so similar to Achilles', it's hard not to believe they are connected.)

Furthermore, Greek mythology has several phases, such as Archaic (pre-Classical) and Classical. Many of the myths we know originated with Archaic authors such as Homer and Hesiod. These myths were adapted by subsequent authors such as the Greek dramatists to suit their thematic purposes. These later interpolations, many of which are now central to the canon, could not have been based on any historical fact, but are purely literary, even when commenting on contemporary history, such as the atrocities committed at Melos and the infamous Sicilian Expedition.

  • 1
    Another interesting case where oral history corresponds to archaeological history is the island of Roviana in the Solomon Islands (for example, see this article jstor.org/stable/3134418 and jstor.org/stable/530445). So clearly, there are a lot of examples where oral history is historically accurate.
    – user62
    Dec 19 '16 at 21:19
  • @Hamlet Thanks for those links. (PS- I added a section on American mythology that deals with the intersection of history and fiction. It's a great case study for both sides of the equation. Also a note on Archaic vs. Classical mythology in Ancient Greece.)
    – DukeZhou
    Jan 26 '17 at 1:38

That is a great question!!!

And I will give here a description of 3 cases.


The Sumerians myths are closely formed by 2 epics/cycles/matters/stories. The Cycle of Aratta, and the Cycle of Gilgamesh (not to be confused with the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh).
The cycle (I will use cycle here) of Aratta is telling the story of the fight between the City of Ur and the city of Aratta and the defeat of Aratta. It is formed by 4 different stories. In the first one, the conflict is solved by psychological warfare and diplomacy. In the 3 others by traditional war. It involves the legendary king Enmersikar, and the hero Lugalbanda (father of Gilgamesh).

Now let's talk about history. Sumer (and to some extend Mesopotamia) was not a kingdom in modern sense but a bunch of city states with no real cohesion, very similar to the Greek City states. We know for sure they was in constant war status/rivalry between each others. One of the story with Gilgamesh shows us Ur in conflict with another city.
On that the Cycle of Aratta truly reflect the war status in Sumer. It shows us that Sumerians was aware of diplomacy and war as mean to subdue foe. Now, per se, both Sumerians cycles are recent, they date from late Ur dynasty shortly before the end of Sumer. They are obviously propaganda material made by late Urian rulers wanted to show the strength of Ur and their own legitimacy.

To what extend does it reflect an actual conflict? Considering this is late writing, we can't tell, and the diplomatic writing in 3000 B.C. are let's face it inexistent. Gilgamesh was dead from a long time and the fight between Ur and Aratta long finished. But as with later Troy we can safely assume, from our knowledge of the status of Sumer, that a war between Ur and Aratta could have happened. We know also Ur was lacking some resources (stones here) and subduing such a city was of interest. So we can assume for Sumer both their great cycles are based on "related historical events". And also they totally reflect something: the constant war status that will plague Sumer and finally led it to its demise when king Hammurabi of Babylon put an end to Sumer.

Suggested reading:

  • The Matter of Aratta by Leo Oppenheim
  • King Hammurabi by Marc Van de Mieroop, I give this one just because it is one of the first documented king we have and this recent edition includes the recent find of the Mari's archives. It gives you a good idea of the true warfare status during Hammurabi's time as well as how he solved conflict with wars and diplomacy.


I suspect anyone know about Horus, Osiris, Ra and such...
The first thing to see is Egypt is 2500/3000 years of history. Comparing predynastic time, Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom is at best funny. Here is a predynastic document (the Narmer tablet):

enter image description here
Anyone will recognize Horus here as a falcon. The bulls we see are the Goddess Bat. And basically it is known that it depicts the unification of the two Kingdoms of Egypt (Upper and Lower) during Narmer's reign (before the first dynasty, so during dynasty 0).
Is is suspected that the mythological fight between Horus and Set is a representation of the fight between Upper and Lower Egypt (the two kingdoms). Notice the tablet here does no represent Set, when it links Narmer with Horus (see the falcon). So to what extend the fight between Horus and Set could represent that unification. Knowing that it is unclear who conquered what (Upper to Lower or Lower to Upper) this is an uneasy task.
Horus has vastly be a god related to the Pharaoh. It is so old that even in predynastic time He is there. One thing is sure. Most of the legend surrounding Horus (and Set) are post Old Kingdom (post pyramid text). At a time when Egypt is largely two Kingdoms. What could be the chance that Egyptian in Middle Kingdom, who was everything but historians, knew anything about the unification events?

Suggested reading:


Finally let's talk a little bit about Europe. During Middle Age there is the infamous Matters, Italian, French and English. The English one are about King Arthur which probably was an historical figure. Note that on a pure historical way, talking about 'French' and 'English' is quite a mistake. English Arthurian cycle really start with the Plantagenet, Both Henri II Plantagenet (founder) and his wife Alienor of Aquitaine was both French and the main writers Chretien of Troyes is French.
But we don't know a lot about the historical Arthur. Fortunately for us the French Matter is about King Charles. And here we know. Let's give a short summary. The Roman empire is conquered by Germanics Barbarians (Ostrogoth, Wisigoth, Franks, etc.). One of them the Franks (modern France come from them) will give two great dynasties first the Merovingians (cf. The Matrix movies) then the Carolingians. One of the main Carolingian figure is Charlemagne the subject of French Matter.
Charlemagne is well known for 3 features:

  • He became Emperor, de facto becoming the Roman successor
  • He vanquished the Saxons, that neither the Romans nor the Merovingians managed to handle
  • He tried to conquered the Muslim Spain, this one is a subject of the French Matter

On a pure historical fact, the conquest of Spain was a political gesture (toward Rome and the Pope) as well as promise of richness. One of the greatest feature of Charlemagne was to understand this was an horrible mistake and quickly withdraw and concentrate on the Saxons, the goal of his life. This actually shaped Europe between England, France, Spain, and the Germanic Empire. Would he had tried to stay in Spain, history would be vastly different. His withdrawal from Spain is on the same level as the heroic Greek's resistance against the Persians.Greece outshined the world after the Medic Wars. Without the Greeks stopping the Persians, no Socrates, no Plato, no Euclid (No maths, no physics, no philosophy). Considering Charlemagne could not handle both the Saxons and Spain, no one can express how smart a gesture this was.
One of the greatest song of Charlemagne is about his retreat from Spain when his rear army, lead By Roland was attacked and defeated and Roland exploding his throat by blowing his horn. This was an historical event, about a "Frankish defeat" (put that on the same level as the Thermopilae is a Greek defeat). Now the heroic features presented in the Matter are totally unreal (even Roland's death...), but the event is. We have here the chance to track the difference between the Matter presenting a defeat as a final victory and the purely historical "defeat".

We can safely here do so safe comparison between Arthurian Matter which perhaps used an historical figure (A guy named Arthur). And the Charles Matter which used an historical figure that we know. In both case, anyway, the resulting figure appears very different. You do not have an idea of the politics or mind of the people of Arthurian or Charles time. Those are Chivalry novels. On the same way we can assume the Cycle of Gilgamesh/Aratta are far from the preoccupation of Gilgamesh.

Suggested reading


Do myths/legends come from actual historical events? If the song of Roland actually did, if the Iliad and the Odyssey did, The Medic Wars were covered only by Herodotus. Knowing their historical importance vastly outlive the Trojan war. If the Cycle of Aratta or Gilgamesh could cover historical events, we don't know what those events were, and anyway it was written long after those events, and in such a style this makes it questionable.
We know finally something, when Herodotus talked about Egypt he is telling us something important about what the Egyptians knew of their history in 450 BC: They were parroting their not well read books! The Khufhu (Cheops) they are talking about is the one we could read the story in their books.
In case of the Matters written when writings were more common, the actual use of historical material (and such this sliding from history to myth) is obvious.

  • 2
    There's a slight issue with using these examples—they are all examples that we know or think have a tiny historical core. So you bringing them together doesn't really say anything about the castration of Cronus or the adventures of Heracles or the descent of Inana or Marduk slaying Tiamat. It will be difficult to say that it this is just how it's done, rather than them being anomalies.
    – cmw
    Nov 25 '16 at 17:14
  • Yes, I wasn't trying to say you were, but it's important not to read your illuminating post and walk away thinking you were implying that.
    – cmw
    Nov 25 '16 at 22:11
  • @C.M.Weimer any interest in writing an answer that references Euhemerism for the sake of completeness? I would like to try and get as many perspectives on this question as I can.
    – user62
    Dec 4 '16 at 15:39
  • @Hamlet I will try to write up a post for you sometime soon.
    – cmw
    Dec 4 '16 at 18:02
  • I'm awarding the bounty on this question to Gibert, not because of this answer in particular, but as a way to thank Gibert for his contributions to the site over the past several months. (Although this bounty technically was meant for an answer discussing Euhemerism, none of the answers did this, and I wanted to do something with the bounty to avoid wasting the reputation).
    – user62
    Dec 26 '16 at 21:43

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