Archive for March, 2007|Monthly archive page

20 Historical Myths

From Humanities Talks

20. Eve ate a bad apple

An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but they have still had bad
publicity as the “forbidden fruit” that Eve tasted in the Garden of
Eden, thereby making life difficult for all of us. Yet nowhere in the
biblical story of Adam and Eve is an apple mentioned. It is simply
called “the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden”
(Genesis 3:3). OK, it COULD have been an apple, but it might just as
well have been an apricot, a mango, or any other sort of fruit.

19. Newton was hit by an apple

Apples continued to get bad press with the famous story that scientist Sir
Isaac Newton was under a tree, minding his own business, when an apple
fell on his head. Just as well it provided him the inspiration for the
laws of gravity, or the poor apple would never be forgiven! But while
the falling apple is a good story, it probably never happened. The
story was first published in an essay by Voltaire, long after Newton’s
death. Before that, Newton’s niece, Catherine Conduitt, was the only
person who ever told the story. It was almost certainly an invention.

18. Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse

One of the world’s most famous fictitious characters, Mickey Mouse, is
credited to Walt Disney. However, Mickey was the vision of Disney’s
number one animator, Ub Iwerks. Disney, never a great artist, would
always have trouble drawing the character who made him famous.
Fortunately for him, Iwerks was known as the fastest animator in the
business. He single-handedly animated Mickey’s first short film, Plane
Crazy (1928), in only two weeks. (That’s 700 drawings a day.) But give
some credit to Disney – when sound films began later that year, he
played Mickey’s voice.

17. Marie Antoinette said “Let them each cake”

In 1766, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote of an incident he recalled from some
25 years earlier, in which “a great princess” (name unknown) was told
that the country people had no bread. “Then let them eat cake,” she
replied. When Rousseau wrote of this, Marie Antoinette was an
11-year-old child in Austria. The French Revolution would not begin for
another 23 years. The myth that she spoke these infamous words was
probably spread by revolutionary propagandists, to illustrate her cold
indifference to the plight of the French people.

In the next chapter of this list, we uncover a tall tale about Napoleon, and find out how witches did NOT die, whatever you might have heard…

16. The Great Train Robbery was the first feature film

When it was released in 1903, “The Great Train Robbery” pioneered several
techniques, includes jump cuts, medium close-ups and a complex
storyline. But the first feature film? It was only ten minutes long!
Even most short films are longer than that. The first feature-length
film was a 100-minute Australian film, “The Story of the Kelly Gang”,
released three years later. Even if you think of a feature film as the
“feature” of a cinema program, the title would go to one of a number of
French films made during the 1890s (but I won’t name one, as that could
cause any number of arguments).

15. Van Gogh sliced off his ear

Van Gogh is known as the archetypal starving artist, only selling one
painting in his lifetime, and – in a quarrel with Gauguin – slicing off
his ear, not long before committing suicide. Though he did face a
tragic end, and his own paintings sold poorly, it is worth noting that
he spent most of his life teaching and dealing art. He only spent eight
years of his life painting, which helps to explain why he didn’t starve
to death. Also, he didn’t slice off his entire ear, just a portion of
his left lobe. Painful, but not nearly as bad as you might have thought.

14. Witches were burned at stake in Salem

The Salem (Massachusetts) witch trials of 1692 led to the arrests of 150
people, of whom 31 were tried and 20 were executed. But just as these
trials were based on ignorance, there are many misconceptions about
them. For starters, the 31 condemned “witches” were not all women. Six
of them were men. Also, they were not burned at stake. As any
witch-hunter would know, a true witch could never be killed by this
method. Hanging was the usual method – though one was crushed to death
under heavy stones.

13. Napoleon was a little corporal

Some people believe that Napoleon’s domineering ambitions were to compensate for being so physically small. Not so. True, Napoleon was called Le Petit Corporal (“The Little Corporal”), but he was 5 feet, 7 inches
tall – taller than the average eighteenth-century Frenchman. So why the
nickname? Early in his military career, soldiers used it to mock his
relatively low rank. The name stuck, even as he became ruler of France.

12. King John signed the Magna Carta

The Magna Carta (Great Charter) is known as a landmark in history, limiting
the power of the King of England and sowing the seeds of democracy.
Paintings show King John reluctantly signing the Magna Carta in a
meadow at Runnymede in 1215. Fair enough, except for one thing. As well
as being a rogue, John was probably illiterate. As anyone could see
from looking at one of the four original Magna Cartas in existence, he
simply provided the royal seal. No signature required.

11. Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes and tobacco to England

Sir Walter Raleigh – explorer, courtier, privateer – Is one of greatest
myth figures ever to come from England. Virtually every reason for his
fame is untrue. Was he handsome? According to written accounts, he was
no oil painting – though somehow he charmed Queen Elizabeth I, and had
a reputation as a ladies’ man. Did he lay his cloak across a puddle so
that the Queen could step on it? No, that was pure fiction. Most
importantly, he didn’t return from his visit to the New World (America)
with England’s first potatoes and tobacco. Though Raleigh is said to
have introduced potatoes in 1586, they were first grown in Italy in
1585, and quickly spread throughout Europe (even across the English
Channel). Also, though people all over Europe blame Sir Walter for
their cigarette addictions, Jean Nicot (for whom nicotine is named)
introduced tobacco to France in 1560. Tobacco spread to England from
France, not the New World.

10. Magellan circumnavigated the world

Everyone knows two things about Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. One, he was the first man to circumnavigate the world; and two, during this
historic trip, he was killed by natives in the Philippines. Of course,
those two things tend to contradict each other. Magellan only made it
half-way around the world, leaving it to his second-in-command, Juan
Sebastian Elcano, to complete the circumnavigation.

9. Nero fiddled while Rome burned

We all know the story of mad Emperor Nero starting the Great Fire of Rome
in 64 AD, then fiddling while the city burned. However, this would have
been impossible. For one thing, the violin wouldn’t be invented for
another 1,600 years. OK, some versions of the story suggest that he
played a lute or a lyre – but then, scholars place the emperor in his
villa at Antium, 30 miles away, when the fire began. Though he was
innocent of this disaster, however, there is much evidence to show that
he was ruthless and depraved.

8. Captain Cook discovered Australia

Many Australians will agree that this isn’t so – but for the wrong reasons.
They will point out that, many years before Cook arrived in Sydney in
1770, Australia had already been visited by Dutchmen Abel Tasman and
Dirk Hartog, and an English buccaneer, William Dampier. Of course, it
had been previously been discovered some 50,000 years earlier by the
indigenous Australians.

But in fairness to Cook, he did discover a new part of the country – and more importantly, this led to the first white settlers (an opportunity that Tasman, Hartog and Dampier didn’t take). So let’s say that Cook DID discover Australia! Fine, but Cook was actually a Lieutenant when he sailed to the Great South Land. The “captain” rank might be a minor point, but it’s certainly inaccurate – and as he is called “Captain Cook” so often that it might as well be his name, it’s one worth correcting.

7. Shakespeare wrote the story of Hamlet

William Shakespeare is generally known as the greatest playwright who ever
lived, even though most of his plays were not original, but adaptations
of earlier stories. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (1603),
probably his most famous play, was based on an ancient Scandinavian
story. But while it might not have been the original version of the
story, we can safely assume it was the best.

6. America became independent on July 4, 1776

Hold the fireworks! As most American school children (and many non-American ones) are aware, America’s founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. However, the war raged for another seven years before independence from England was finally granted on September 3, 1783. On that day, Britain’s George III and US leaders signed the Definitive Treaty of Peace.

5. Edison invented the electric light

Thomas Edison is known as the world’s greatest inventor. His record output –
1,093 patents – still amazes us, over a century later. Astonishing,
except for one thing: he didn’t invent most of them. Most Edison
inventions were the work of his unsung technicians – and his most
famous invention, the electric light, didn’t even belong to his
laboratory. Four decades before Edison was born, English scientist Sir
Humphry Davy invented arc lighting (using a carbon filament). For many
years, numerous innovators would improve on Davy’s model. The only
problem: none could glow for more than twelve hours before the filament
broke. The achievement of Edison’s lab was to find the right filament
that would burn for days on end. A major achievement, but not the first.

4. Columbus proved that the Earth was round

It was American author Washington Irving, some 500 years after Columbus
sailed to America, who first portrayed the Italian explorer as
launching on his voyage to prove that the Earth was round, defying the
common, flat-earther belief of the time. In fact, most educated
Europeans in Columbus’s day knew that the world was round. Since the
fourth century BC, almost nobody has believed that the Earth is flat.
Even if that wasn’t the case, Columbus would never have set out to
prove that the Earth was round… simply because he didn’t believe it
himself! Columbus thought that the Earth was pear-shaped. He set sail
to prove something else: that Asia was much closer than anyone thought.
Even in this, he was wrong. To further besmirch his memory, it should
also be noted that he never set foot on mainland America. The closest
he came was the Bahamas. Pear-shaped, indeed!

3. Gandhi liberated India

To westerners, Mahatma Gandhi is easily the most famous leader of India’s
independence movement. He deserves credit for promoting the ancient
ideals of ahimsa (non-violence). However, most historians agree that
Indian independence was inevitable. Gandhi was just one of several
independence leaders. The Indian National Congress was founded as early
as 1885, when he was only 16. Gandhi’s much-publicised civil
disobedience was only a small part in the movement, and some historians
even suggest that India would have achieved independence sooner if they
had focused on the more forceful methods that they had used 50 years
earlier, and which were still advocated by other independence leaders,
such as Gandhi’s rival Netaji Chandra Bose (who is also revered in
India).

2. Jesus was born on December 25

Christmas is meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but there is no evidence
whatsoever, biblical or otherwise, that He was actually born on that
day. Nor is there anything to suggest that He was born in a manger, or
that there were three wise men (although, as any nativity play will
remind you, three gifts were mentioned). There are differing views as
to why December 25 was chosen as Christmas day, but one of the most
interesting is that the day was already celebrated by followers of
Mithras, the central god of a Hellenistic cult that developed in the
Eastern Mediterranean around 100 BC. The followers of this faith
believed that Mithras was born of a virgin on 25 December, and that his
birth was attended by shepherds…

Which brings us to the number
one historical myth – something that is drilled into the heads of
nearly all American schoolchildren…

1. George Washington was America’s first President

Everyone “knows” that Washington was the first of the (so far) 43 Presidents of the US. However, this isn’t strictly the case. During the American
Revolution, the Continental Congress (or the ‘United States in Congress
Assembled’) chose Peyton Randolph as the first President. Under
Randolph, one of their first moves was to create the Continental Army
(in defence against Britain), appointing General Washington as its
commander. Randolph was succeeded in 1781 by John Hancock, who presided
over independence from Great Britain (see myth #6). After Washington
defeated the British at the Battle of Yorktown, Hancock sent him a note
of congratulations. Washington’s reply was addressed to “The President
of the United States”. Eight years later, as a revered war hero,
Washington himself became America’s first popularly elected President –
but strictly speaking, the FIFTEENTH President!

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