Ulysses, perhaps the greatest of the Greek heroes, was proud to a fatal degree. When he defeated the Cyclops, he boasted of his identity, angering the sea god Poseidon so much that Ulysses suffered many misfortunes, eventually losing his ship and his crew. Still, while he caused their deaths, he himself survived the consequences of his foolishness. Eventually he returned home, 19 years later. His wife, reasonably assuming that he was dead, was happily considering new, young suitors. However, proving that he was still untouched by humility, he killed the suitors and forced his way back into her life. After all, he was the all-conquering hero though the main accomplishment of his voyage home had been causing the destruction of his vessel and the deaths of his crew.
The Ancient Greeks gave us some of the first superheroes. Herakles, Theseus, Jason, Ulysses
These heroes might not have been real, but as always, they represented the aspiration and the idealism of the people. Did the average Grecian truly aspire to be like Ulysses a conniving trickster, an arrogant fool, a violent thug? Modern fantasy heroes from Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen to Spider-Man and Mr Spock are blessed with far more nobility, humanity and dignity than Ulysses and his ilk. Again, they are not real, but they represent the ideals of modern society, with qualities that inspire their readers.
A true reflection of society lies in the people they choose to celebrate both the fictitious icons and the real-life heroes. In many ways, the legend is more important than the icons themselves. The name of Christopher Columbus, who made a journey every bit as famous as Ulysses', is synonymous with courage, vision, historical importance, and the discovery of America. Schoolchildren know the rhyme about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. Most children aren't told, however, that he only made it to the Bahamas. He never ventured into North America, and didn't even believe that he'd discovered the New World.
Children are less likely to know about 1497 five years after Columbus - when John Cabot, another Italian navigator, became the first European to visit North America since the Vikings. Still, as his map and his records are now lost, he is basically a footnote. The first European explorer whose visit to the U.S. made much difference was Juan Ponce de Leon, who discovered Florida in 1513. Of course, this Spanish explorer was looking for the Fountain of Youth at the time, so he's better known for living a fantasy (while Columbus, who somehow thought that he'd found India in the Western Hemisphere, has a reputation as some kind of great visionary). Still, as Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain, perhaps 1513 is the year that American schoolchildren should learn to recite.
Elsewhere, Mahatma Gandhi is revered as the founder of the Indian nation. However, while Gandhi's ahimsa (non-violence) philosophy inspired by the Buddha might be the way of the future, the more aggressive techniques of freedom fighters like Subhas Chandra Bose did far more to bring independence to India. As leader of the Indian National Congress, Bose sought full, immediate independence from India, which was at odds with Gandhi's gentler approach. In dealing with his allies, Bose behaved with decorum and respect, calling Gandhi the "father of our nation". As well as a statesman and rebel leader, however, Bose was one of the world's more exciting freedom fighters, being jailed and wearing various disguises as he traveled India and beyond to bolster support for the cause. Even his death in 1945 has been disputed, followed by a series of rumored sightings that Elvis fans would appreciate. In India today, both Gandhi and Bose are controversial figures, but Bose is esteemed by many. Sure, he wasn't perfect his courting of the Axis powers, in his quest for Indian independence, definitely takes a few marks off his status but even more than Gandhi, he might deserve the "father of the nation" title.
Perhaps the patron saint of unsung heroes is Nikola Tesla, who is perhaps the anti-celebrity. While some celebrities are "famous for being famous", he has a peculiar claim: famous for NOT being famous. The highlights of Tesla's impressive body of work are credited to two men who according to legend are among history's greatest men of invention: Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi. Tesla made major inroads into X-rays, remote control, radar, robotics, nuclear physics and computers. Note that this was back in the 19th and early 20th century. Along the way, he was employed by Edison, but quit because he was underpaid and overworked.
In reality, Edison was not the great inventor of legend. He was a visionary who employed several fine technicians. Bill Gates without the charity. Steven Jobs without the business acumen. If Tesla was ever famous for anything, it was his feud with Edison. Edison adapted an electrical system based on direct current (DC), a steady flow of electricity in one direction; Tesla discovered the far stronger alternating current (AC), which is regularly reversed in direction. It was considerably more economical for long-distance transmission, which was where the future of electricity lay. Nonetheless, Edison scoffed at Tesla's discovery. George Westinghouse, one of Edison's business rivals, was more open-minded, putting Tesla on his considerably more generous payroll. Edison put a lot of energy into his scheme to discredit his former employee, but years later, he would admit that he had been wrong.
Tesla also deserves the most credit for inventing radio, but the wealthy Marconi used his influence to get the patents and the profits. Tesla died poor, and over 60 years later, is gradually winning the acclaim that is owed to him. There are many unsung heroes in this world, and in many cases, the plaudits have been diverted to others.
Legends help to inspire us, to let us know who we are. Where possible, however, they should offer us something else: credit where credit is due. The best legends are the true ones.