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5 Characters From Legends and Fairy Tales: Real People Behind the Myths

Updated on November 4, 2017
Frances Metcalfe profile image

Frances Metcalfe lives in rural France. In between house renovation she writes about all types of observations.

Poster For a Production of Jack and the Beanstalk


Why Do We Have Legends, Fairy Tales and Myths?

Ever wondered where the basis for those ancient scary or tragic tales come from? Do the types of people in them really exist or are they purely imaginative?

Rarely does anything spring into the storyteller's imagination without a source of inspiration. And as human nature would have it, anyone who is physically different in some way tends to be treated with suspicion and ridicule and may be ostracised from society and used as foundations for the stories that have come down to us today.

When people aren't the same as what is considered 'normal' it may be frightening, partly as it is a perhaps rather an ignorant reaction to say, 'thank goodness it's not me!' And to reinforce this intolerant trait we these co-opt people with differences into our legends, fairy tales and myths.

Here are five legendary characters inspired by real life people.

'The Vampire'. Painting by Burne-Jones


1: Vampires

A one time vampires were perceived as originating out of the Transylvania of Bram Stoker's nineteenth century novel Dracula.

Nowadays the thinking comes down on the side of Serbia and Crotia as the likely region the word, and therefore the notion of vampires, came from. The word upir or similar crops up in many Slavic languages and can be traced back to old Christian Slav.

Vampires in these eastern European countries was heavily embodied in their culture. Buried bodies that were dug up might have become bloated, a natural process of decomposition when the stomach fills up with gas. The obvious remedy was to puncture the distended body with a stake, made either of wood or metal, through the chest. This practice has been linked to Vlad the Impaler.

Another sign that the body had turned into a vampire was the face appeared purplish, as if having consumed blood, unlike the later, white sun-starved character that is Bram Stoker's Dracula.

If you have ever gone to the funeral parlour to see a relative after they've died you may have detected some unexpected changes in the way your loved one looked after death. I'd never seen a dead body before I saw my father's, and was curious that his nose had become really thin because the blood had drained out of it. He looked just a little altered, not quite the same in death as he had been in when alive.

As the body starts to dehydrate, the skin shrinks so teeth and nails look as if they've extended and the eyes bulge. All of a sudden you have the basis for a scary individual complete with clawed hands and fangs, hunting down a victim for blood and it was these very characteristics that inspired the Dracula 'look'. But why are they active in the wee small hours?

Well, let me introduce you to the syndrome, hypohidrotic ectodermal displasia, or HED, which is also referred to as the 'vampire disease'. You would not wish to have it. Along with the nervous system being affected, people with the syndrome cannot sweat meaning daytime living can be very uncomfortable. On top of that the skin lacks pigmentation and is very sensitive to daylight and may well burn in a very short time, leaving them in danger of developing cancer. Teeth are prominent and often pointy or cone -shaped and stomach cramps and mental imbalance are common.

So there we have it - fangs, a preference for the dark and furthermore an aversion to garlic because it causes an adverse reaction in this syndrome, completing the list of requirements for today's expectations of what constitutes a mythical vampire. Except for the person having to live with the disease where the symptoms are all too real.

Vampires Go Back a Long Way

The oldest known written reference to a vampire is from a Russian manuscript from 1047, referring to a Novgorod prince as "upir lychyj", translated as 'wicked vampire'.

Simon and George Talk About Their Vampirism Condition

Dracula: The Complete Legacy Collection

Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]

If you are in to your vampire movies this classic film starring Bela Lugosi will be just up your street, or should I say graveyard! He was chosen to be the star of this 1931 movie after appearing on Broadway in the lead role. He has come to be the early benchmark actor playing Dracula in this classic horror and has a real place for aficionados of the genre.

Note that the de rigeur cloak came about when the novel of Dracula was first transferred to the stage as an aid to the actor's ability to mysteriously disappear and transferred to celluloid.


Illustration of Galligantus by Arthur Rackham

Galligantus is a giant who captures knights and the fairer sex to keep in his castle, turning them into animals.
Galligantus is a giant who captures knights and the fairer sex to keep in his castle, turning them into animals. | Source

2: Giants

"Fee fie foe fum I smell the blood of an Englishman! Be alive, or be he dead I'll grind his bones to make my bread."

This is the familiar refrain from the giant in the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk, embodying the bad-tempered and cruel traits we have come to expect from this outsized man.

We know real-life giants exist, but how much do we actually know about them, and is there any reason for casting them in an unfavourable light?

Well, sadly, there is. Giants suffer from a condition called acromegaly, also known as giantism or gigantism. The majority of cases are triggered by a tumour on the pituatary gland. Nowadays most can be treated by surgically removing the growth, but in days of yore no-one had any idea that a tumour was behind the abnormal height.

But it wasn't only the immense tallness that giants were contending with. The tumour caused excrutiating headaches. Bones also thickened resulting in the lower jaw protruding - a common peculiarity of legendary giants. Teeth become spaced out as the jaw continues to grow, and the tongue thickens along with the epiglotis and noses tend to become flattened.

Besides these complaints, liver and heart problems ensue and hands and feet enlarge. Because the epiglotis and tongue become swollen, breathing is laboured which in turn makes sleep difficult. Just the lack of sleep on its own can ruin your day. Is it any wonder giants aren't exactly the life and soul of the party?

So next time you read a Jack and the Beanstalk spare a thought for the giant. Perhaps there was a good reason he wasn't in a good mood!

Actor Ted Cassidy Featured as Lurch the Butler in the TV Series 'The Addams Family'.

Ted Cassidy, who played the butler Lurch in the highly successful television series The Addams Family is standing at the back in this photograph. he stood at 6'9".
Ted Cassidy, who played the butler Lurch in the highly successful television series The Addams Family is standing at the back in this photograph. he stood at 6'9".

Woodcut of a Werewolf Attacking a Child, Circa 1512


3: Werewolves

Another persona from folklore coming out at night. As a full moon rises in the sky the cursed human form transforms into a werewolf, throws back its head and howls. It then carries out heinous acts, terrorising the neighbourhood, turning back into a human as the sun comes up.

Accounts record werewolves having ears set low on the head, long claws and eyebrows that meet over the bridge of the nose, along with of course, a dense covering of fur. Mostly the frightening crimes a werewolf might perform are the killing of animals, often sheep, and of children - so folklore would have it.

Werewolf mythology has been around a long time - the ancient Greek Ovid wrote about King Lycaon and the god Zeus.The king served up human flesh to the god as a trick to catch him out believing he wouldn't recognise the taste over animal meat. Zeus wasn't fooled and turned Lycaon into a werewolf.

The Brothers Grimm too had tales of werewolves in their anthology, one of them relating how a werewolf steals a lamb, and is pursued by the sheep farmer who beats the werewolf to death with his crook.

Is there a bona fide medical condition to account for the existence of werewolves? As a matter of fact there is and its name is hypertrichosis. As with so many syndromes, the degree to which it affects the patient varies. Hair growth can vary enormously, from just isolated parts of the body to everywhere apart from palms and the soles of feet, and can include heavy facial growth, and it may affect anyone from the youngest - babies - to adult men and women.

There are also divergent causalities. The type congenital hypertrichosis lanuginosa is genetic. Hypertrichosis universalis is brought on as the result of medication or steroids. Certain medical conditions may activate hypertrichosis, for instance HIV aids or hormone imbalance. All foetuses are covered in laguna hair and is shed shortly before birth or shortly after, but in some hypertrichosis sufferers laguna hair can grow to three to five centimeters long.

When considering the genetic element of the syndrome - which is very rare - teeth can develop abnormally and hearing may be impaired. IQ may also be low.

People with hypertrichosis can use hair removal creams, undergo electrolysis or shave to maintain a conventional appearance.

Conveniently in Europe, at least to those with an agenda, people could be accused of being a werewolf as a politically motivated manner of dispatching enemies,and were lumped together with witches, put on trial and executed. The werewolf phenomenum was also put forward as an explanation for the acts of serial murderers since wolves were notorious as voracious killers of livestock.

Whatever explanation mankind has spun to account for these unusual people, it hasn't been a happy accident to be born with hypertrichosis, maligned and misunderstood.

Adrian and Fedor Jefftichew

Fedor Jeffichew was known by the stage name JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy and performed with his father who also suffered from hypertrichosis as a curiosity in circuses.
Fedor Jeffichew was known by the stage name JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy and performed with his father who also suffered from hypertrichosis as a curiosity in circuses. | Source

lllustration of The Erl-King by Alfred Sterner

In Goethe's story, the Erl-King is a menacing figure preying on children. As a father rides through the night on horseback with his son, the Erl-King appears but only the young boy can feel his malevolent presence and dies before reaching safety.
In Goethe's story, the Erl-King is a menacing figure preying on children. As a father rides through the night on horseback with his son, the Erl-King appears but only the young boy can feel his malevolent presence and dies before reaching safety. | Source

4: Elves

Traditionally elves are minute creatures and divided into light elves and dark elves according to their hair colour and are usually described as having pointy ears. They are closely aligned with fairies and able to perform magic.

In the main they are at best mischievous, or downright malicious and may be responsible for swapping a deformed elf or fairy for a human baby, called a changeling. In fact up to the end of the 1700s in Scotland, newborns were carefully watched over to prevent the theft of the baby for fear of substitution by a wicked elf. Once christened, the danger was deemed to be over and the child was safe from abduction.

If you look at people with Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome (HGPS) it's not difficult to make a connection between elves and the condition. This rare and distressing illness, caused by a faulty gene, means a child ages prematurely and dies young. They develop a large head with low set ears which look pointed together with a pointed nose and lose their hair. People with the syndrome put on very little weight and look emaciated.

If, in days of yore, you spied one of these little people playing in a wood when belief in the supernatural and magical beings were rife, it's easy to see how they may be regarded as an elf.

Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome (HGPS).

The word 'progeria' comes from the Greek meaning 'premature aging'.

A Child Suffering From Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome


Goblins From The Book of Knowledge


5: Goblins

Supposedly clattering around noisily at night, goblins have often been used as a way to frighten children into doing parents' bidding. We have all heard the phrase 'the bogeyman will get you!', the bogey being a type of goblin.

Goblins are gathered under the same umbrella as gnomes, imps and dwarves, and have been around, mythologically speaking, since the middle ages. They are diminutive and ugly, with a greedy disposition, and often perform evil deeds in order to get their hands on gold, their most coveted possession.

Not only are they abnormally small, but facially they are judged not to be a pretty sight and so in the eyes of most people, they are not the most beautiful to behold. For some reason ugliness equates to a horrible nature, and sadly humanity does tend to kick a person when they're down.

And for some the reality was that their faces may have been covered in warts. As warts are infectious it's hardly a wonder those affected, particularly by those on the face which are difficult to hide, have in the past been given more than the cold shoulder.

Or they may be suffering from dwarfism or achondroplasia. With a normal sized trunk, arms and legs are shorter than usual and the head is disproportionately large, with a flat nose and bulging forehead. Dwarves walk with a swaying gait on bowed legs, awkward for the person with the syndrome, but might be regarded to be somewhat on the comical side to those of us lucky to be of average height.

Not for the true dwarf is it a laughing matter to be regarded as a goblin. Gold bars are hardly likely to be hoarded from ill gotten gains in any cave of theirs.

Ethan Crouch, a Man With Dwarfism


© 2017 Frances Metcalfe

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    • Frances Metcalfe profile image

      Frances Metcalfe 5 months ago from The Limousin, France

      I'm glad you liked it, Flourish. So many of these people were put into shows and paraded before the public and I think that is intensely sad.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 5 months ago from USA

      What a thoroughly fascinating article that mixes folklore and medical conditions. This was very well done and I enjoyed reading it. I feel badly for those who were ostracized and misunderstood over the centuries. The pain in the werewolf man’s face is palpable.