There's an art to crafting legends. Often the stories are woven invisibly in a way that's not immediately obvious. But once you understand the secret ingredients for crafting one, you'll see them being built everywhere.
We love legends. There's a powerful allure to the myths of great warriors.
We imagine Spartans holding the line, Samurai wielding katana, and Ninjas lurking in the shadows.
We tell tales of their valor and virtue, their indomitable spirits, their impossible feats. But how much of it is true?
Let's take a look.
Hired mercenaries become ceremonial lords
Despite what you may have seen in movies, the original samurai weren't warrior knights with codes of honour. They were hired muscle - mercenaries loyal to the highest bidder.
Samurai served local lords and betrayed them so often that the ones who became well known were only remarkable because they wouldn't stab you in the back.
The iconic ‘samurai ethics’ developed much later during the Tokugawa era, a peaceful time when their skills were more ornamental than practical. Swords became ceremonial, tea ceremonies common, and samurais lived by status, not by fighting.
Stories of legendary Samurai living through brutal wars were mostly constructed in retrospect, imposing idealised virtues on figures of a violent past.
Mountain monks become sneaky assassins
Similarly, the ninja who are now often depicted as shadowy, lethal assassins, can trace their roots back to the yama bushi.
These weren't warriors, they were mountain monks who withdrew from society to worship nature in solitude.
It was unhappy farmers and peasants, fed up with the oppressive samurai class, who took refuge in the mountains, learning survival skills out of necessity, not inherent guile.
Ninjas formed democratic societies long before the Japanese government, but once peace time came, there was no longer a need for them.
From flowers and bees to legendary warriors
Spartans are known for their courage, epitomised in the Battle of Thermopylae, when 300 men stood against Xerxes' colossal army.
But before that, Sparta was a place you could go to relax and engage in idle chit chat. The choral songs of Alkman spoke of pretty girls, flowers and bees not hardened warriors.
Yes, there were 300 Spartans who stood their ground at Thermopylae. But they were a mere fraction of the 1700 Greeks who stayed to fight.
7000 men were deployed to hold a mountain pass. The only ones who remained were the 300 brave men of Sparta... and 400 Thebans... and 700 Thespians, etc.
And they all got absolutely destroyed. But the Spartans had a moral victory because it was their King who gave the order to stand and fight, and morphed the Spartans into overnight legends.
The reputation that sprang from this single battle made the Spartans seem invincible. Their culture evolved to match their growing reputation, and suddenly they were unbeaten in pitched battle for 100 years.