Human history is rife with myths and legends that have become cultural touchstones — gods and goddesses, fantastical creatures, and surreal places that might’ve never existed but occupy space on our bookshelves, in our minds, and in the collective imagination. These five fantastical places have become a part of the popular mystique. Here’s where they might’ve been located or inspired by.
The legend of Shangri-La begins with a 1933 novel by James Hilton called Lost Horizon. In it, a group of Westerners crash land their airplane in Shangri-La — a renamed and reframed version of the legendary Tibetan paradise of Shambala. An icon of ancient Tibetan mythology, Shambala is a lost valley cut off from the rest of the world. A place of sacred wisdom and striking beauty, the mystical oasis is said to be located in the remotest part of Himalayas on a high plateau surrounded by mountains. The people of Shambala, who live among white crystal mountaintops, a lake, and a palace, practice Buddhist principles and work toward a world of peace and wisdom.
The book was adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster by Frank Capra in 1937; a musical, a pop girl group, and a hotel chain followed — with the name Shangri-La coming to represent a lost paradise in pop culture. But the myth of Shambala reached Europeans back in the 1580s, when travelers to the court of Moghul Emperor Akbar heard stories of this remote Himalayan world derived from ancient Buddhist and Indian texts.
Alas, Shambala is probably just a myth — no one knows where it is or was. There are folks who believe it exists in another world — as an ideal or a place of the imagination. But, in alignment with the Buddhist ideals of Shambala, the journey to this mythical land can be spiritual rather than geographical.
El Dorado (Lake Guatavita, Colombia)
The story of El Dorado is — like many tall tales and legends — one that revolves around a lust for gold and prosperity. Some believe El Dorado is a city of gold or a valley rich with gold, while other legends involve a gold-clad ruler. Either way, the legend was born deep in the jungles of South America and became popular in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, inspiring countless explorers and conquistadors to seek their fortunes in the New World.
Some stories of El Dorado derived from a tribal society living in the Andes Mountains in present-day Colombia. When a new chieftain rose to power, he was covered in turpentine and gold dust for a ceremony at Lake Guatavita. Gold and jewels were tossed into the water to appease a god that lived in the lake. Spanish explorers began calling this golden chief El Dorado, which translates to "the Gilded One."
Though these ceremonies ended in the late 15th century and were never witnessed by Europeans, explorers had found so much gold among Indigenous tribes on the coast that they believed more must be waiting for them inland. In 1545, they even found and attempted to drain Lake Guatavita. While gold was found along the lake’s edges, any treasures in the deepest parts of the lake remained out of reach. Later, explorers searched present-day Guyana, Trinidad, and Ecuador for El Dorado, to no avail. The mythical golden city was just that — a myth.
Atlantis (Greece or Spain)
All evidence suggests the lost island of Atlantis — a utopian civilization in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean near the Strait of Gibraltar — was an invention of ancient Greek philosopher Plato. He wanted to warn against the dangers of aggressive imperialism, and Atlantis — mentioned in his famous book The Republic — was a stand-in and a foil for a past version of Athens: smaller, more equitable, and a rejection of ostentation.
The legend of Atlantis got a second life in 1882, when Ignatius Donnelly, a former U.S. congressman, published a book called Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. It centered on the existence of Atlantis, how it was a beacon of peace and happiness, and how other ancient civilizations derived from the island and its residents. Donnelly’s writing was inspired by an amateur archaeologist who, in the 1870s, had used Homer’s The Iliad to identify the ancient city of Troy. Certainly, if Troy were real, couldn’t Atlantis also exist?
Plato’s Atlantis was huge — comparable in size to northern Africa and most of Turkey combined. A sunken island of that size would be visible or detectable using sonar. Nonetheless, the search continues with recent theories pointing to Atlantis’ location being near the Greek Islands or off the coast of Spain.
Thule (Smøla, Norway)
The legend of Thule was born in the fourth century BCE. The Greek explorer Pytheas returned to Athens with stories of an icy island in the far north where the sun doesn’t set in the summer. Called Thule, the island was inhabited by a society of farmers with fair complexions and light hair that Pytheas deemed barbaric.
Pytheas was no fake — his observations linked the moon to the tides and he was a renowned cartographer. So, his stories struck a chord — philosophers and poets began referencing Thule and the island began showing up on ancient maps north of Great Britain and west of Scandinavia. By the sixth century, the historian Procopius wrote about the sheer size of Thule and described the 25 different tribes who called it home.
While Iceland was referred to as Thule in medieval times, it isn’t believed that Iceland is the mythical island. Unlike Iceland, the Thule of legend was reportedly fertile and home to an agrarian society. In 2010, scientists who compared a series of maps by Pytheas and Ptolemy pinpointed the Norwegian island of Smøla as the actual Thule of legend. But it’s also possible that Thule became a catchall term for various northern territories as the Greeks explored them. Either way, the name lives on, especially in Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic — where research bases and other landmarks share the name.
Camelot (Wales or England)
King Arthur appears in stories dating from the ninth century and earlier. But Camelot — his mythical castle and city where he held court over his round table and 150 knights — wasn’t mentioned until later in French poetry and a series of monumental romantic texts called the Vulgate and Post-Vulgate cycles that date to the 12th and 13th centuries. The writings described a small but wealthy city in Great Britain populated by giants, magicians, dragons, and nobility that converted to Christianity over time. The city was surrounded by forests and open spaces where knightly tournaments were held and visitors would set up pavilions and tents.
In the 15th century, these tales inspired a series of stories published by Sir Thomas Malory called Le Morte d’Arthur. The works brought the stories of Camelot and King Arthur to a broader audience and influenced a who’s-who of writers and creators across centuries, including Alfred Tennyson, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, and countless others. Today, the legend has become a part of popular imagination, spinning off into a number of movies and cartoons.
Experts agree these stories are fictional, but the characters and locations might be inspired by reality. Possible locations of Camelot include a Roman legionary fort called Caerleon in South Wales; Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort near Somerset; Tintagel Castle, a site dating to the Romano-British period in Cornwall; Camulodunum, a Romano-British city now called Colchester; and the 11th-century Winchester Castle in Hampshire. At Winchester Castle, a round tabletop from the 13th or 14th century is displayed. It has the names of King Arthur and 24 of his knights painted on it.