Most Famous Legends of the World and How to Explore Them
Legends, as opposed to fictional myths, contain a seed of truth. They are born from historical events, people or real-life moments that become part of our collective cultural context. But as these stories evolve and pass from generation to generation, they pick up details that can twist and color the truth, making legends even more memorable, relatable and entertaining.
What would the legend of Greenland be without Erik, the Viking murderer? How much would we care about the legend of Lady Godiva if she hadn't appeared naked on the old streets of Coventry? What would the legend of Romulus and Remus be without a little fratricide?
The world is full of famous legends. Today, you can visit the modern-day places where they originated and explore their fascinating history.
The Legend of William Tell
Where the Legend Originated: Altdorf, Burglen and Brunnen in Switzerland
The legend of William Tell dates back to 14th-century Switzerland in the town of Altdorf. Albrecht Gessler, a brutal bailiff representing the Hapsburg Empire, placed his hat on top of a pole in the town square and demanded that all passersby bow before it. But William Tell, an expert arbalist, refused. For punishment, Gessler ordered Tell to shoot an apple, with his crossbow from the top of his own son's head. If Tell succeeded, their lives would be spared.
After acing the task, Tell pulled out a second arrow and threatened to kill Gessler, who then ordered his henchman to lock Tell away in a dungeon located in the castle of Küssnacht. En route to the castle on Lake Lucerne, Tell's boat was rocked by a vicious storm, and amid the chaos, he was able to escape his captors. Enraged, Gessler set out to find Tell. And when the two met, Tell shot Gessler dead with his trusty crossbow. From there, Tell, along with other freedom-loving locals, vowed to fight back against the Hapsburg Empire, which, thanks to Tell, marked Switzerland's first step towards independence.
How to Explore the William Tell Legend
Start at Altdorf Square to see the bronze statue of William Tell, and then head to the chapel built on the site of Tell’s home in Burglen before heading to the famous waters of Lake Lucerne.
The Legend of Lady Godiva
Where the Legend Originated: Coventry, England
Lady Godiva hated the oppressive taxes her husband Leofric, the Earl of Merica, forced on the people of Coventry, a town in central England. Fed up, Lady Godiva pleaded with Leofric to nix the taxes, but he refused, allegedly saying she'd have to ride a horse through the streets of Coventry naked before he'd consider changing his mind.
Leofric underestimated his wife, who indeed rode through the cobbled streets of Coventry in her skin suit. But not before she warned the townspeople to shutter their windows and stay inside. The only casualty of the day was a man we know in modern times as Peeping Tom. He couldn't resist seeing a naked Godiva, and when poor Tom sneaked a peek through his window, he was sadly blinded.
How to Explore the Lady Godiva Legend
Visit the famous Lady Godiva Statue in Coventry, or opt to attend the Coventry Godiva Festival, an annual music festival named after the city’s famous inhabitant.
The Legend of the Bow and Arrow War
Where the Legend Originated: Quinhagak, Alaska
For centuries, the Yupik, a group of native Alaskans, have shared the legend of the bow and arrow war. The conflict kicked off during an innocent game of darts when a boy accidentally struck his competitor in the eye with one. An all-out brawl between the two families ensued, resulting in a series of wars that spread from Alaska to parts of northwestern Canada.
Interestingly, archaeologists recently discovered the remains of 28 people and other artifacts at the Nunalleq, Alaska, (“old village”) site, where they believe the dart game massacre began.
How to Explore the Bow and Arrow War Legend
More than 60,000 artifacts, the largest collection of pre-contact Yupik artifacts, are now on display at the Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center in Quinhagak.
The Legend of Yamashita’s Gold
Where the Legend Originated: The Philippines
After retreating to the Sierra Madre mountains in the Philippines at the height of World War II, Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita was given orders to construct an underground tunnel to house the looted gold that the occupying Japanese forces amassed from China and Southeast Asia.
Upon completion, to ensure the location of the tunnel remained secret, Yamashita trapped the project's construction crew, comprised of slaves and soldiers, inside the tunnel where they eventually died. After surrendering to Allied forces in September 1945, Yamashita was convicted of war crimes and hanged, taking the location of his supposed treasure-stuffed hideaway to the grave.
How to Explore the Yamashita’s Gold Legend
While the gold’s existence has been dismissed by many experts, that hasn’t stopped treasure hunters from around the world to visit The Philippines in search of buried gold.
Aren’t you just a tad curious?
The Legend of King Arthur
Where the Legend Originated: The United Kingdom
So little is known about King Arthur, and yet his legend has lasted centuries and inspired one of the most famous literary characters of all time.
However, most historians agree that if King Arthur, the head of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table, was ever a man of flesh and bone, he was likely a Roman military leader who saved Britain from invading Saxon forces between the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.
How to Explore the King Arthur Legend
Whether or not King Arthur was real, you can take a tour of the literary character’s United Kingdom, visiting King Arthur’s Labyrinth and Snowdonia National Park in Wales as well as King Arthur’s Great Halls in Tintagel, England, to name a few.
The Legend of the Fountain of Youth
Where the Legend Originated: St. Augustine, Florida
Spoiler alert: The fountain of youth does not exist. But, that didn't stop Juan Ponce de León, the famed 16th-century Spanish explorer from allegedly spearheading an expedition to find it.
According to this sadly-not-true legend, Ponce de León believed that a magical fountain, flowing with age-reversing waters, existed in what we know today as St. Augustine, Florida. Regrettably, Ponce de León never found the famed fountain, and today, many historians believe it's unlikely the explorer was ever seriously looking for one.
The Legend of Romulus and Remus
Where the Legend Originated: Rome
Shortly after they were born in 770 B.C., twins Romulus and Remus were tossed in a basket and left to drift away in the Tiber river. Luckily, the infant boys were rescued by a she-wolf who nursed them until a local shepherd took them in and raised the boys as his own.
Years later, Romulus and Remus agreed to establish a city in the exact spot where they met the she-wolf. However, the brothers, unable to decide on the city's location, (or the city's name depending on which version of the legend you believe) duked it out, and Romulus, in one of the world's most famous tales of fratricide, killed Remus. And with his brother out of the way, Romulus established the city of Rome.
How to Explore the Romulus and Remus Legend
Because this legend essentially tells the story of how Rome was built, you can visit the entire city to find artworks, sculptures and literature devoted to the two brothers.
The Legend of El Dorado
Where the Legend Originated: Present-day Sesquilé, Colombia
Upon arriving in South America, 16th-century Spanish explorers headed for the Andes Mountains in search of Lake Guatavita. Located in present-day Colombia, they believed the lake was chock-full of gold thanks to an ancient induction ceremony performed by the Muisca tribe.
When a new chief rose to power, the tribe covered him in gold, and treasures of all sorts were dumped into Lake Guatavita to commemorate his first day on the job. Hoping to find the lake, the Spaniards began referring to the Muisca chief as El Dorado or “the gilded one." Sadly, the explorers never met El Dorado, but in 1545, they found Guatavita. After draining the lake, they pocketed some gold, but the treasures alas were nowhere to be found.
How to Explore the El Dorado Legend
Travelers can visit Lake Guatavita and its many surrounding hiking trails.
The Legend of the Miraculous Monk
Where the Legend Originated: Thailand
Unlike King Arthur, the man behind the legend of the miraculous monk, Phra Luang Phor Tuad (also spelled Luang Pu Thuad or Luang Pu Thuat), existed in the flesh. Today, he reigns as one of Buddhism's most revered figures. Born in 1582 in Thailand, Phra Luang Phor Tuad's parents realized their son's powers when they found him soundly sleeping while wrapped in the tight grip of a deadly snake. To their surprise and relief, the snake never bit the child but instead left a glowing pearl on his chest.
Throughout his long life, he supposedly lived to be 120 years old, Phra Luang Phor Tuad stunned the world by performing all sorts of miracles. Some of which included curing his people of a deadly plague and turning seawater into fresh, drinking water.
How to Explore the Miraculous Monk Legend
Several statues of Phra Luang Phor Tuad are on display throughout Thailand, but the largest is located at Wat Huay Mongkol, a Buddhist temple in Thap Thai, Hua Hin District, Prachuap Khiri Khan.
The Legend of Paul Bunyan
Where the Legend Originated: Paul Bunyan stories circulated throughout Canada and the U.S. throughout the 1800s, but the legend was first put down in print in 1904 from Minnesota’s Duluth News Tribune.
Credited with creating Arizona's Grand Canyon, Seattle's Puget Sound and the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming, Paul Bunyan is one of North America's most beloved legendary figures.
Together with his trusty sidekicks, Babe the Blue Ox and Johnny Inkslinger, Bunyan, a giant lumberjack, graced the pages of several novels and has been the subject of other popular literary works by Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Richard Wilbur.
How to Explore the Paul Bunyan Legend
There are several statues throughout North America that pay homage to Paul Bunyan. The first-ever statue was built in Bemidji, Minnesota, while one of the largest is on display in Bangor, Maine.
The Legend of the Shipwrecked Sailor
Where the Legend Originated: Egypt
The Legend of the Shipwrecked Sailor dates back to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt between 2040 and 1782 B.C. As the story goes, a nameless sailor got lost at sea and was the only survivor of a 120-manned ship that sank.
Finding himself stranded on the Island of the Soul, he met Lord of Punt, a chatty yet wise serpent who kept the sailor company and told the sailor that he would be rescued in four-months time. When the ship arrived, the serpent gave the sailor spices, incense and other gifts to take to his king and asked the sailor to “make me a good name in your town.”
How to Explore the Shipwrecked Sailor Legend
As one of the oldest stories ever written down, the papyrus that the story was written upon can be found in The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The Legend of the Chinese Zodiac
Where the Legend Originated: China
The origins of the Chinese Zodiac has two versions. In the first tale, the Jade Emperor believed to be the ruler of Heaven named each year of the Chinese lunar calendar's 12-year cycle after an animal. And to determine which animal would be first, the emperor held a race across China's Yangtze River.
In the second tale, Ta Nao, a minister of Emperor Huang Ti, also assigned an animal to each year of the lunar calendar; however, he based his choices off of the 12 temperaments.
How to Explore the Chinese Zodiac Legend
The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia, spanning 3,915 miles long. You can visit it in several places throughout China, but its source is in Qinghai province.
The Legend of the Lizard Man
Where the Legend Originated: Australia
Australian Aboriginals credit the creation of the sacred Uluru, a 600 million-year-old sandstone monolith located in Australia's Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, to a Lizard Man named Alinga. As the tale goes, Alinga roamed the Earth long before the beginning of time and was well respected for his unparalleled boomerang skills. No matter how hard or far Alinga threw his gigantic boomerang, it always returned. But, of course, one day it didn’t.
Alinga traveled hundreds of miles over several months to find his trusty boomerang, and when he did, it was wedged deep in the ground. Unable to remove it, Alinga left his boomerang behind. And after many sandstorms, the boomerang morphed into Australia's Uluru rock.
How to Explore the Lizard Man Legend
Visit Australia’s Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to see the famous Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock.
The Legend of the Big Dipper
Where the Legend Originated: American Great Plains
The Cheyenne, a Native American tribe from the American Great Plains, credit the creation of the Big Dipper constellation to seven brothers and their adopted sister, Quillwork Girl.
In this legend, a raucous herd of bison set out to capture Quillwork Girl, but the brothers escaped with their sister by climbing up a tall tree and leaping far into the sky. The Cheyenne believe each sibling is visible in the stars of the Big Dipper. And, of course, Quillwork Girl’s shines the brightest.
How to Explore the Big Dipper Legend
The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., has several exhibits on display that tell the stories of Native American folklore and history.
The Legend of Robin Hood
Where the Legend Originated: Nottingham, England
Robin Hood will forever be known as the outlaw from Nottingham, England, who robbed the rich to give to the poor. Since the 14th century, his legend has inspired creative minds the world over. However, many wonder if Robin Hood, the man of Sherwood Forest, was ever real.
Over the years, obsessed academics have found mention of a "Robehod" or "Rabunhod" in historical records from the 13th century. However, they can't agree on whether the reference points to a real-life Robin Hood or a fictional character.
How to Explore the Robin Hood Legend
Visit the Sherwood Forest in England’s Nottinghamshire County as well as Robin Hood’s Well, the Church of St. Mary and the Major Oak (believed to have been used by the Merry Men as a hiding spot).
The Legend of the Queen of Sheba
Where the Legend Originated: Ethiopia
According to the Kebra Nagast, a sacred Ethiopian text, the Queen of Sheba, also known as Makeda, traveled to Jerusalem to learn from King Solomon. On the night before her departure, Makeda asks Solomon to promise he will not try to sleep with her. He promised to do so only if she agreed not to take anything from his house by force.
Unfortunately, later that night, after a dinner of unusually spicy food, Makeda takes a glass of water, breaking her pact with Solomon. Nine months later, Makeda gives birth to King Solomon's son, also called Solomon, and the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia was born.
How to Explore the Queen of Sheba Legend
While you can always travel to explore the lands of Ethiopia, there are several artworks throughout the world that depict this legendary tale.
For instance, the Gothic cathedrals of Chartres, Rehims, Amiens and Wells in France all feature sculptures of the ancient queen.
The Legend of Phnom Penh
Where the Legend Originated: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
In the late 14th century, while gathering firewood, Lady Penh or Phnom Penh noticed a koki tree floating along in a nearby river. After pulling the tree out of the water, she was surprised to find, inside the tree, four Buddha statues. Interpreting the experience as a divine event, Lady Penh, who had loads of disposable income, built a temple on a nearby hill to house the sacred icons.
Soon the area surrounding the temple became Phnom Penh and replaced Angkor as Cambodia's capital city.
How to Explore the Phnom Penh Legend
Visit the Wat Phnom temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which is the temple believed to have been built by Lady Penh.
The Legend of Greenland and Erik the Red
Where the Legend Originated: Greenland
After committing murder, a Viking named Erik the Red, an expert in the arts of robbing and pillaging, was exiled from Iceland and mandated to present-day Greenland.
Although his new home was hardly hospitable when his exile ended, Erik insisted on staying. In fact, he is believed to be the first permanent European settler on the island. To get his fellow Viking friends to join him and to make the brown and barren island appear more welcoming, he named it Kalaallit Nunaat, which in English means Greenland.
How to Explore the Greenland and Erik the Red Legend
Check out where Erik the Red established the chieftain’s seat of power at Brattahlið – now Qassiarsuk – in Southern Greenland, where ruins of several buildings from his time are still visible.
The Legend of the Bell of Huesca
Where the Legend Originated: Huesca, Spain
Ramiro II became King of Aragon, a region located in the northeast corner of Spain in 1134. Shortly after taking power, Ramiro devised a beastly plan to punish 12 wayward nobles who did not obey him.
Under the guise of building a bell that would ring throughout his kingdom, Ramiro invited the nobles in question to Huesca, a province in Aragon. As each one arrived, the king chopped off their heads and displayed them in a circle with the chief noble's head suspended above, acting as the bell's clapper. Let's hope the remaining nobles of the kingdom got the message.
How to Explore the Bell of Huesca Legend
The Huesca Cathedral is a Gothic church in the middle of Huesca that just so happens to have had a bell tower in the works for centuries.
But if you’re looking for a true depiction of the legend, head to The Museo del Prado in Madrid to see the painting that brings the tragic event to life.
The Legend of the Iron Wolf
Where the Legend Originated: Vilnius, Lithuania
Around the year 1323, Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, gathered up his nobles for a hunting trip in the forests of the Sventaragis valley. After a tiring day, Gediminas set up camp atop a mountain that offered glorious, panoramic views of the Neris and Vilnia rivers below.
That night, Gediminas had a dream of an iron wolf proudly perched on top of the mountain, howling at the moon. Later, Gediminas learned that his wolf dream was a mandate for the Duke to establish a capital city. Obeying his orders, Gediminas built a mighty fortress high on a hill, establishing the city of Vilnius, the modern-day capital of Lithuania.
How to Explore the Iron Wolf Legend
Visit Gediminas’ Tower to see the remaining part of the Upper Castle in Vilnius that Gediminas built.