ByKarly Rayner, writer at
Movie Pilot's celebrity savant
Karly Rayner

Disney movies seem so embedded in the land of whimsy that it seems almost impossible that some the characters could have been based on real life people.

Amazingly, some of our favorite characters are thought to have been based on historical figures who actually lived hundreds of years ago and inspired the fairy tales Disney borrowed from.

So, come with me for a history lesson you'll actually enjoy and learn which of our beloved childhood figures were once actually flesh and blood.

Mulan: Based on Fa Hao, an Ancient Female Chinese Warrior

Disney's Mulan was based on an ancient Chinese poem entitled Ballad of Mulan (木蘭辭) dating back to the 6th century AD.

Although the adventures of Mulan are mostly a work of myth and legend, it's thought they are based on a real life female warrior from ancient China, Lady Fa Hao.

Fa Hao died in 1200 BC, but despite women's lowly position in society at the time, she was a military general and, an absolutely fantastic one at that.

The tomb of Fa Hao
The tomb of Fa Hao

Fa Hao orchestrated the earliest recorded large-scale ambush in Chinese history, had 13,000 soldiers and two hugely respected generals under her command, and is historically documented as the most powerful military leader of her time.

The tomb of Fa Hao was rediscovered in 1976 and the collection of weapons surrounding her burial chamber confirmed her exulted military prowess.


Cinderella: Based on Rhodopis, an Ancient Greek Slave

The 'Cinderella story' heralds back to Ancient Greece and pre-dates the fairytale version we are all familiar with by over a thousand years.

As with anything that happened in the distant past, the details of this one are a bit confusing and hazy, but a highly simplified tale of the real life Rhodopis goes a little something like this...

According to the 6th-century BC historian Herodotus, Rhodopis was a slave who was also serving as a hetaira, a kind of well respected courtesan. Needless to say, her social status was as low as Cinderella's. Eventually, a wealthy man named Charaxus fell in love with her and purchased Rhodopis' freedom.

An 1868 depiction of Rhodopis by George Frederick Watts
An 1868 depiction of Rhodopis by George Frederick Watts

While the life of the real life Rhodopis has certain Cinderella qualities, it is the 1st century retelling by the Greek historian, Strabo that transforms her into the Egyptian Cinderella.

In his tale, Rhodopis is living in Naucratis, Egypt, the same place her real life counterpart was bought out of slavery by Charaxus. One day, a falcon swoops down and steals her sandal only to drop it into the lap of the Pharaoh of Egypt.

The Pharaoh sees this as the beginning of a fated union and travels far and wide to discover the sandal's owner before finding Rhodopis and marrying her.


Pocahontas: Based on Matoak, a Virginian Native American

Disney's Pocahontas is essentially an incredibly sanitized retelling of the life of a Native American woman who was originally named Matoak.

Pocahontas was born in 1595 and was the daughter of Powhatan, the paramount chief of the Tidewater region of Virginia where the Jamestown colonial settlement sprang up.

It is a well known historical anecdote that Pocahontas saved the life of the British settler, John Smith, by placing her head above his own to prevent him being executed by her father, but what happened afterward was a whole lot darker.

The settlers clearly didn't value Pocahontas saving a settlers life because afterward she was captured by the English and held ransom. During this time she converted to Christianity and she took on the name Rebecca.

A 1616 depiction of Pocahontas
A 1616 depiction of Pocahontas

When she was released, Pocahontas chose to remain with the English and she was married off to a much older man named John Rolfe. Although their marriage was the first interracial union recorded in America, it wasn't all too progressive.

In fact, Rolfe married Pocahontas in an attempt save her soul because he perceived her as a savage and didn't want her to burn in hell. That's romance for you!

After the pair had a son named Thomas together, it was decided they should return to England. When they reached London, Pocahontas was put on display as a curiosity and an example of a civilized savage.

Although she earned considerable celebrity, Pocahontus died in England aged just 22-years-old of suspected tuberculosis, although some people believe she might have been poisoned.


Snow White: Based on Maria Sophia von Erthal, a German Landowner's Daughter

A fabulist study group in Bavaria, Germany, claim that their research has revealed the true fairest of them all. According to the specialist fable researchers, the tale of Snow White was inspired by Maria Sophia von Erthal.

Maria's mother died when she was a child, but when her father got remarried life became much less idyllic. Her father's new wife was said to be domineering when it came to her stepchildren, and legend has it that she had particular ire for Maria.

Maria Sophia von Erthal
Maria Sophia von Erthal

Although this sounds like it could be any old family, the main supporting evidence for the fabulists' claim is the existence of a so called 'magic mirror.'

A company near to Maria's home town of Lohr constructed "talking mirrors:" acoustical toys that seemed to speak, and the castle that Maria was born in just happened to be home to one.

The real life magic mirror
The real life magic mirror

The fabulists suspect that local gossips made up tales about Maria's domineering stepmother to spite her because, like Snow White, Maria was universally adored. These tales are believed to have eventually have been adapted by the Brothers Grimm in their collection of ancient German folk tales.

But, what about the dwarves? The town that Maria lived in was home to large mining community and it's believed they were inspired by the children or very short men who worked in the smallest tunnels of the mines.

Snow White's castle
Snow White's castle

Maria's former home in Lohr is now known as 'Snow White's Castle' and you can still look upon a certain magic mirror if you go to visit.


Do you believe that these Disney princesses might actually be based on real people?

(Source: io9)


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