10 of the World's Most Famous Legends
History is full of legends that have mystified and entertained people for millennia. Legends hail from different cultures around the world—some are still held as strong beliefs; however, some of them have faded away with time.
Here are some of the legends we share:
The 10 Most Famous Legends of All Time
- Lady Godiva
- Robin Hood
- The Fountain of Youth
- Bloody Mary
- El Dorado
- King Arthur
- The Gordian Knot
- Yamashita's Treasure
- Prester John
1. The Legend of Lady Godiva
Lady Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon woman and wife of the ruler of Coventry, England. She loved her husband dearly, but always opposed the way he treated his people.
When her husband issued a heavy tax on the local people, Lady Godiva begged him to stop this oppressive tax, called a "Heregeld". According to the legend, Godiva's husband retorted that he would only stop the tax if she rode through the streets of Coventry naked.
And so she did, covering herself only with her hair. Later versions of the legend claim that Lady Godiva sent messengers through the city beforehand, warning the townspeople to stay inside and shut their windows, during this act.
The woman was so highly respected that the entire city shut down their windows while she rode through it naked. The only exception was a tailor, who watched through a hole in his shutter as the naked woman roamed the city. Legend says he was struck blind for not obeying Lady Godiva's request.
The tailor, who was allegedly named Tom, thus originated the term "Peeping Tom".
Godiva’s husband abolished the law immediately after her protest.
Lady Godiva, or Godgifu, was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia. She was born around 980 and died between 1066 and 1086. Godiva was mentioned by 12th-century chronicler Florence of Worcester, but there is no evidence connecting her to the famous naked rider of Coventry.
Lady Godiva in Pop Culture
- Godiva Chocolatier named their company after Lady Godiva, inspired by her generosity and boldness.
- Lady Godiva, an 1897 painting by John Collier, is one of the most recognizable visual representations of the legend.
- "Godiva" (1840), a poem written by poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson
- The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History's Barest Family (1939), a novel by Dr. Seuss
- Godiva (2008), a novel by Nerys Jones
- The Ghost Talks (1949)
- Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955)
- Lady Godiva: Back in the Saddle (2007)
- "I'm a racing car passing by like Lady Godiva" – "Don't Stop Me Now" by Queen
- "My girl's a Lady Godiva" – "My Girl" by Aerosmith
- "For Lady Godiva I came incognito" – "Modern Love" by Peter Gabriel
2. The Legend of Robin Hood
Robin Hood is one of the most famous legendary characters of all time. Although his existence is not clearly verified, he is believed to be an Englishman from medieval times.
It wasn't until 1589 that the first claims of Robin Hood as a thief who stole from the rich to give to the poor began to arise. Robin Hood then became a noble symbol of resistance to tyranny.
The legendary Robin Hood was known to be enemies with the Sherriff of Nottingham, and later ballads paired him with a companion, Maid Marian. It is believed that he had a group of men working for him whom he called his “Merry Men”.
The historical figure behind the legend of Robin Hood remains a mystery, but scholars have several theories:
- Robert Hod was an outlaw who failed to appear in court in the summer of 1225. Royal judges in York failed to pay the ordered penalty and his name appeared as "Robbehod" in the following year's ledger.
- William Robehod was another outlaw mentioned in court records from 1261.
Robin Hood in Pop Culture
- Countless novels and poems have been written about Robin Hood.
- In archery, when an archer shoots an arrow into the bullseye and then shoots another arrow perfectly into the first, it's known as a "Robin Hood".
- Robin Hood (2010)
- "Robot of Sherwood", 2014 episode of Doctor Who
- Disney's classic Robin Hood (1973)
3. The Legend of the Fountain of Youth
The legend of the Fountain of Youth tells about a special fountain that contains water with special powers. It is believed that by drinking this water, a person gains eternal youth. Nobody knows where this fountain is. American legends claim that it is somewhere in Florida, while European legends claim it is in Spain.
Whispers of bodies of water with special powers granting eternal youth have been circulating the world for millennia. The story of the Fountain of Youth itself, however, is connected to the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, who, the legend says, struck out in search of it.
In truth, experts say that de León had no intention of searching for the Fountain of Youth and merely sought to gain wealth by discovering new lands. The story of the Fountain of Youth originates from the Arabic lands of the Middle East and has been recycled throughout the centuries throughout many different cultures' legends and literature.
The Fountain of Youth in Pop Culture
- In 2013, David Copperfield claimed to have discovered the Fountain of Youth—at least, a body of water with miraculous restorative powers—on one of the 11 islands he purchased in the Bahamas.
4. The Legend of Atlantis
It is believed that about 9,600 years ago there was an island called Atlantis. The Ancient Greeks called this place a holy city and believed that it used to lie beyond the Pillars of Hercules. The island was said to have sunk because it was defeated by Athens.
The logical explanation of the matter, however, is that the island sunk due to submarine convulsions or volcanic eruption. The location of Atlantis is alternatively given as somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean. According to much research, however, there was never any such island. The matter has been under debate for centuries, as some still believe that the island did exist.
The story of Atlantis was originally told by Plato in 360 B.C. 9,000 years before his time, Atlantis stood as a great island populated by technologically advanced and prosperous people. The island was swept away after being defeated by Athens.
Aristotle later said that Plato's tale of Atlantis was meant to serve as a metaphor to serve his narrative and that it was entirely fictional. However, others have taken Plato's story literally and there have been many hypotheses about the potential location of Atlantis.
Scientists generally concur that there is no evidence Atlantis ever existed but there are countless theories about it, including that the island was swallowed up by the Bermuda Triangle.
Some believe that Atlantis was a metaphorical retelling of the story of the Minoans, who were believed to be Europe's first great civilization more than 4,000 years ago.
Atlantis in Popular Culture
- Several DC Comics characters are said to have come from Atlantis.
- Atlantis is featured in the 2002 video game Age of Mythology.
- Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961)
- Warlords of Atlantis (1978)
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
5. The Legend of Bloody Mary
Bloody Mary is one of the most popular ghosts in the world. But who was she, really? No one actually knows. There are hundreds of legends about this famous legendary character.
Some say she was a widow who killed her children, while some say she was a young child who was murdered and is wandering around her grave. Other tales say the ghost is Mary Worth, a woman said to be a witch who was burned at the stake.
One legend about Bloody Mary says that if a person says "Bloody Mary" three times in front of the mirror after midnight, Mary's ghost will appear and kill them.
Some legends also portray her as a good ghost, but she is most often seen as an evil spirit.
Bloody Mary Ritual
The most important aspect of the legend of Bloody Mary is not the story of Mary herself but the ritual of summoning her. Folklorists have written about Bloody Mary rituals in American culture since the 1980s, describing them as seance-like events that usually involved candles, mirrors, and chanting an incantation to summon Bloody Mary. It is uncertain whether the legend derives from the myth or vice versa.
Bloody Mary in Pop Culture
- Summoning Bloody Mary is a popular rite of passage for many teenagers.
- The Wolf Among Us is a popular video game that features Bloody Mary as one of the key antagonists.
- Urban Legends: Bloody Mary (2005)
- "Syzygy", The X-Files (1996)
- The Legend of Bloody Mary (2008)
6. The Legend of El Dorado
Early European expeditions in South America were driven in part by the search for gold. The legend of El Dorado originated in modern-day Colombia and was first mentioned in writing by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo in 1541, who referred to "El Hombre Dorado", a mythical tribal chief who covered his body in gold dust daily. Over time, the lake became a city of gold, then, an entire province.
The legend evolved throughout the centuries, with others claiming that this mythical chief dipped his body in the lake—thought to be Lake Guatavita in Colombia—every day due to the ample supply of gold in his "kingdom", fueling explorers' desire for further gold-seeking expeditions in search of the mysterious "El Dorado".
Whispers of another possible location for El Dorado mentioned the mysterious city Manõa on the shores of the mythological Lake Parime.
In reality, any "El Dorado" in existence had been conquered prior to Columbus' arrival in the new world in 1492. Indian memory and legend led to the centuries-long search for El Dorado, the final of which was in 1775.
El Dorado in Pop Culture
- "Eldorado" (1849), one of Edgar Allan Poe's final poems
- El Dorado (1988)
- The Mask of Zorro (1998)
- The Road to El Dorado (2000)
- "El Dorado" by Iron Maiden
- "El Dorado" by Death Cab for Cutie
- El Dorado, 2017 Shakira album
Did You Know?
Multiple unsuccessful attempts were made in the 16th century to drain Lake Guatavita—thought to be the location of the legendary El Dorado—in search of gold.
7. The Legend of King Arthur
King Arthur was a legendary British character thought to have existed during medieval times and is believed to have led the defense of Britain against the Saxon invaders during the early 6th century. Many theories about his identity have been proposed by scholars over the centuries, while others say he never existed. The legends surrounding King Arthur varied greatly throughout the centuries.
The legend goes that Arthur was conceived by Uther Pendragon who, with the assistance of the wizard Merlin, had used magic to deceive his enemy's wife, whom he later married. A young Arthur succeeded his father to the throne, Excalibur in hand, and married Guinevere. 12th-century texts include tales of the chivalrous Knights of the Round Table and their adventures. Later French texts indicate that one of Arthur's most beloved knights, Lancelot, was Queen Guinevere's lover.
Mordred was another well-known character in Arthurian legend. He is commonly believed to be Arthur's illegitimate son with Morgaine, his half-sister. After being dealt a fatal blow by Mordred, Arthur was taken to Avalon, where he died.
Avalon was a mystical island, which is said to be where Glastonbury is located now. Monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found the bones of Arthur and Guinevere in the 12th century.
Who Was King Arthur?
Very little is known about the Dark Ages when King Arthur was said to have won numerous battles against the Saxons. Throughout the centuries, the tale of Arthur has expanded and remained timeless, but experts haven't been able to confirm that he actually existed. The first mention of Arthur was in a 9th-century text written by a Welsch historian who said Arthur was a warrior king and winner of 12 battles.
It wasn't until the 12th century that King Arthur emerged as we know him today in History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Queen Guinevere, Sir Lancelot, and the wizard Merlin emerged as key figures in the legend of King Arthur in this and further renditions of the tale.
Important Locations in King Arthur's Tale
There are many historical locations that are connected with Arthurian legend:
- Tingatel Castle was the supposed location of Arthur's conception.
- Dozmary Pool in Cornwall is said to be bottomless with an underwater tunnel leading directly to the ocean. It is thought to be the home of the Lady of the Lake who, lake that, according to one version of the legend, gave Arthur his sword, Excalibur.
- Cadbury Castle is one of the sites rumored to have been the location of Camelot.
- Glastonbury is thought to be King Arthur's final resting place. Glastonbury Tor would have been surrounded by water during Arthur's lifetime, so it is thought of as the location of the mythical island of Avalon.
King Arthur in Pop Culture
- Henry Purcell wrote an opera entitled King Arthur in 1691.
- The metal bands Cradle of Filth and Grave Digger have released albums related to Arthurian legend.
- The Mists of Avalon, a 1983 novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley, was the untold tale of Arthur's lesser-known half-sister, Morgaine or Morgan le Fay.
- John Steinback published a modern version of King Arthur's tales in 1976 with The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.
- "The Fall of Arthur" was an unfinished poem by J.R.R. Tolkien published posthumously in 2013.
- The Sword in the Stone (1963)
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
- King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
8. The Legend of the Gordian Knot
Gordian was an ancient Phrygian who, according to a prophecy, would become the king of Phrygia. The prophecy foretold that the first man to enter the city with a cart would be the new king. When Gordian entered the city with his cart and became the king, he tied his cart to a tree using a special and complex knot.
It was then prophesized that the first man to undo the knot would be the new king. In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great entered the city. After failing to untie the knot, he sliced it down the middle with his sword and became the king.
The Gordian Knot Metaphor
Because of Alexander's unconventional methods, "cutting the Gordian knot" has now become a metaphor for thinking outside the box when solving a complex or unsolvable problem. The solution used when solving one of these problems is called the "Alexandrian method".
Shakespeare was one of the first to reference "the Gordian knot" as a complex problem in "Henry V".
9. The Legend of Yamashita's Treasure
The legend of Yamashita's treasure, or Yamashita's gold, is new compared to most of the other legends discussed in this article. According to the legend, during World War II the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita hid treasure in caves and other underground locations throughout the Philippines. The treasure was actually stolen loot, consisting of gold items including bars and some antiques.
In 2017, divers allegedly found blocks of gold booby-trapped in an underwater cave. Some hypothesize that this is the missing treasure, but many anthropologists believe that whispers of the hidden loot were only rumors.
Yamashita's Treasure in Pop Culture
- In a 1993 episode of Unsolved Mysteries, the hosts discussed the legendary loot.
- The Mystery of Yamashita's Map is a 2007 novel by James McKenzie, which features treasure hunters who search for the loot.
- The plot of the 2003 video game Medal of Honor: Rising Sun focuses in part on aspects of Yamashita's treasure.
10. The Legend of Prester John
Prester John is believed to have been a king who ruled a nation somewhere in Europe during 12th-13th centuries. According to the legend, he was a righteous man who led a great, wealthy kingdom. His kingdom also consisted of magical objects and creatures. However, somehow his kingdom disappeared. Although today many people call it a mythical story, it was believed for many centuries and inspired adventurers to hunt for the lost kingdom and treasure.
Who Was Prester John?
Prester John was thought to have ruled in either the Far East or Ethiopia as a Christian priest and king. The German chronicler Otto of Freising first wrote of him in the 12th century.
Lady Godiva was said to have ridden a horse naked through the streets of Coventry to convince her husband to lift a burdensome tax on the townspeople.
Robin Hood was thought to have roamed Sherwood Forest, hiding from the Sheriff of Nottingham with his band of merry men.
Juan Ponce de León was said to have landed in St. Augustine when he struck out in search for the Fountain of Youth.
Lake Guatavita in Colombia was rumored to be the location where the legendary "El Hombre Dorado" rinsed the gold dust from his naked body.
Yassıhüyük is the modern location of Gordium, the location where Alexander the Great attempted to untie the Gordian Knot.
Monks in Glastonbury, thought by some to have been Avalon in the Dark Ages, claimed to have discovered the bones of King Arthur in the 12th century.
Yamashita's treasure was World War II loot allegedly scattered throughout the Philippines in underground locations.
- Hemming, J. (2001). The Search for El Dorado. London: Phoenix.
- Jenkins, E. (1996). The Mystery of King Arthur. New York: Barnes & Noble.
- Lacey, R. (2003). Great Tales from English History. Little, Brown.
- Luce, J. V. (1970). Lost Atlantis: New Light on an Old Legend. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Naipaul, V. S. (2010). The Loss of El Dorado: A History. London: Picador.
- Peeples, Scott. (1998). Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers.