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10 Fictional Places Once Believed to Be Real
Exploring the world around us is a neverending adventure. From the depths of the ocean to the impenetrable jungles of the rainforest to the ancient ruins buried under tons of earth, there are still many things left to discover, even today, with the added technological advantages of radar, drones, and satellite imagery. So it’s understandable why people in the past were much more uncertain about the lands and kingdoms supposedly located far, far away.
This list explores ten fictional places that people once believed were real.
10 The Kingdom of Prester John
Around the 12th century, Europeans started hearing rumors that there was a Christian king somewhere in Asia who ruled over an unnamed kingdom and fought against the ever-expanding threat of Islam. His name was Prester John, and supposedly, he was even descended from one of the Three Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus.
Unsurprisingly, the European powers looked at Prester John as a possible ally, especially since this was around the time of the first Crusades. But alas, attempts to find him or his kingdom proved fruitless. Sometime around 1165, a letter purported to be from Prester John started circulating throughout Europe. Although now we know it was a forgery, who created it and why remain unanswered questions. The most plausible explanation suggested that it was intended as propaganda to boost support for the Third Crusade.
In one way or another, the legend of Prester John continued for almost half a millennium. At one point, the pope thought that Genghis Khan might be the man he knew as Prester John. Then, when this turned out to obviously not be the case, the alleged location of John’s mythical kingdom moved from Asia to Africa, possibly in Ethiopia.
9 The Isle of Demons
It is said that around 1542, a French noblewoman named Marguerite de La Roque joined a voyage led by her uncle, Jean-Francois de La Roque de Roberval, traveling from France to the New World. During the journey, she began a romantic affair with one of the sailors and became pregnant with his child, something which her uncle found shameful and appalling.
To punish her, Roberval marooned Marguerite, her lover, and her handmaid Damienne on an island known as the Isle of Demons. Most other ships steered clear of this landmass as they believed it was inhabited by evil spirits. Many sailors reported hearing strange noises whenever they ventured too close.
Then, the baby was born but died soon after. The lover and the handmaid also perished, leaving Marguerite to survive on her own by hunting wild animals. She lived alone on the island for about two years before being rescued by a passing ship and brought back to France.
As for the Isle of Demons, it simply disappeared off the maps around the mid-17th century after it was there for over a hundred years. There’s definitely no island where it is located on older maps. Still, at the same time, Marguerite didn’t live on an invisible island for a couple of years. Nowadays, it has been proposed that she was stranded either on Quirpon Island or Harrington Harbour off the northeastern coast of Canada.
8 Bermeja Island
Here we have another phantom island with a similar premise—for hundreds of years, people thought it was real and appeared on many 16th and 17th-century maps of the Gulf of Mexico. Then, during the 18th century, cartographers stopped drawing it, so either something happened to Bermeja Island, or it never existed in the first place. But while most other phantom islands are simply deemed curiosities of the past, Mexico is still on an ongoing effort to find Bermeja. Why? Because it is worth a lot of money.
In 2009, the existence of the island (or lack thereof) played a crucial role in the negotiations over oil drilling rights between Mexico and the United States in the Gulf of Mexico. If the island was real, it would have expanded Mexico’s zone significantly, with an area believed to contain around 22.5 billion barrels of oil. With that kind of money on the line, it’s no wonder that a conspiracy theory suggests that the United States purposely destroyed the island to get the drilling rights.
Today, Land’s End in Cornwall is England’s most westerly point on the mainland. But that was not always the case, according to legend. There was a time when a kingdom called Lyonesse existed, built atop a stretch of land that connected Land’s End to what is now the Isles of Scilly in the Celtic Sea.
The kingdom was said to contain 140 churches, as well as a giant cathedral that stood atop what is now the Seven Stones Reef. But alas, it is said that the people of Lyonnese committed an unspeakable sin against God that was so wicked that the entire kingdom was swallowed by a flood in a single night.
The English Heritage charity decided to put the myth to the test and, in 2009, funded a study called the Lyonesse Project. Researchers did discover that, thousands of years ago, the Isles of Scilly were a single landmass. No lost kingdom, though.
6 Crocker Land
Crocker Land was an island reported to exist north of Canada’s Ellesmere Island during the early 20th century. Its existence was accepted based on the testimony of a single man—Arctic explorer Robert Peary, who claimed to have spotted it during a failed expedition to reach the North Pole in 1906. He named it Crocker Land after one of his principal backers, George Crocker. It’s possible that Peary was genuinely mistaken, falling victim to a mirage known as a Fata Morgana, or it could be that he understood who buttered his bread and was simply angling for more money.
Either way, the existence of Crocker Land did have actual real-life stakes, as it could be the deciding factor in determining who was the first to reach the North Pole. In 1909, Peary claimed he was the man who achieved this feat, but, at the same time, so did another guy named Frederick Cook.
Cook asserted that he traveled where Crocker Land was supposed to be and saw no such island. This meant that one of them was lying, and one could surmise that whoever was lying about Crocker Land was also lying about reaching the North Pole.
An independent expedition set off in 1913 to prove or disprove the existence of the island. Ultimately, they disproved it, although everyone still tended to believe Peary over Cook. For a while, at least, because later, people concluded that they were probably both lying.
5 The Lost City of Z
Is there an ancient city waiting to be discovered somewhere in the Amazonian jungle? One of Britain’s greatest explorers, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, certainly thought so. Based on some old documents and testimony from indigenous people, Fawcett became convinced that the ruins of an unknown civilization lay hidden in the Brazilian jungles of the Mato Grosso state. He called it the Lost City of Z.
Unfortunately for Fawcett, the outbreak of World War I put all his plans on hold as he went to fight on the Western Front. But once peace was declared, he began organizing an expedition that launched in 1920 and was a dismal failure. The explorer had to give up because he fell ill with a fever, so for the time being, the Lost City of Z stayed lost.
In 1925, Fawcett was ready for a second expedition, taking with him his son Jack and a family friend named Raleigh Rimell. The three of them disappeared into the jungle, never to be seen again. In the decades that followed, multiple expeditions tried to find out what happened to them. Still, the fate of the explorers and the location of the Lost City of Z remain a mystery.
4 Sandy Island
Like Crocker Land, the existence of Sandy Island in French territorial waters in the South Pacific was initially accepted because it was reported by a credible source. In this case, it was Captain James Cook, who charted it in 1776 off the tip of New Caledonia. Then, a hundred years later, its discovery was officially confirmed by a whaling ship called Velocity. After that, there was little reason to doubt its existence anymore, and Sandy Island stuck around for almost a century and a half, even making its way to Google Earth.
It wasn’t until 2012 that an Australian research ship proved conclusively that Sandy Island does not exist. But what is really strange is that the French knew the island wasn’t real for decades. They first listed it as ED, meaning “existence doubtful,” and then removed it from all their hydrographic maps all the way in 1974. But it seems that others didn’t get the memo.
This one is the granddaddy of mythical locations, first mentioned by the ancient Greeks, just like Atlantis. Unlike its more famous cousin, though, Thule doesn’t really have an accompanying story of flooding and destruction brought on by the wrath of the gods. According to the Greeks and Romans, it was simply the most northern location they were aware of after first being described by explorer Pytheas during the late 4th century BC.
Pytheas set sail from Marseille and traveled north past the British Isles into uncharted territory until he reached Thule, a land “in which the earth and the sea and all things together are suspended, and this mixture is… impassable by foot or ship.” Once he returned home, Pytheas wrote On the Ocean, one of the most significant travel journals of the ancient world. He might have even provided accurate directions to reach Thule.
However, we don’t know because his work was lost when the Library of Alexandria burned down, and all we were left with were a few scraps of information referenced in other books.
It is said that when the Spanish conquistadors plundered the Incan capital of Cusco, they found very little of the giant treasure that the Incas were supposed to have. That’s because the Incas had time to transport their massive hoards of gold and silver out of the capital and into the secret city of Paititi, hidden deep in the jungles east of the Andes. But the Incan Empire fell to the Spanish soon after, and the location of Paititi, along with the boundless riches contained inside it, were lost forever.
Since then, countless archaeologists, explorers, and treasure hunters have risked and even sacrificed their lives in pursuit of this lost city. And it doesn’t look like it is going to stop anytime soon. One of the most recent expeditions in search of Paititi took place only a decade ago.
In 1843, British Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson wrote: “Five or six days west of the road to Farafreh is another Oasis, called Wadee Zerzoora [Zerzura], about the size of the Oasis Perva, abounding in palms, with springs, and some ruins of uncertain date. It was discovered about twenty years ago by an Arab while in search of a stray camel, and from seeing the footsteps of men and sheep, he supposed it to be inhabited.” And just like that, the hunt began for the lost oasis of Zerzura.
Unlike many entries on this list, both the alleged existence and the search for Zerzura occurred in modern times. Although there were older references to the oasis, it was Wilkinson’s account that spurred on the explorers who came after him to go deep into the Sahara, looking for the mythical city. The most famous expedition was the one from 1929 led by László Almásy, the Hungarian aviator who served as the protagonist in The English Patient.
Almásy led an expedition in 1932 and discovered Wadi Talh, supposedly one of the three valleys of Zerzura. The other two valleys were discovered by another expedition led by a husband and wife team, the Claytons, as well as an aerial exploration conducted by colleagues of Almásy. Whether these findings were actually the lost city of Zerzuza is uncertain.