10 History Myths You Probably Believe Part III

10 History Myths You Probably Believe Part III

History Revisited…Again

1. Mussolini Made the Trains Run on Time

Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10234 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wiki Commons

Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10234 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wiki Commons

Say what you want about Mussolini, but at least he made the trains run on time, right? That makes fascism ok, right? Well, no to both questions. Nowadays the expression is more of an excuse for an oppressive leadership, claiming that at least it gets the job done, but originally it was meant to be far more literal. When Mussolini came to power, he really wanted to make it clear that fascism was the new pink so the people would embrace it. He wanted to stress the idea of efficiency and the railway system became the symbol.

It’s true that the railroads in Italy were in pretty bad shape back then, mostly due to WWI. However, the system had been improved somewhat in the 1920s, but it had nothing to do with Mussolini. In fact, most of the work was done before the fascists even came to power. Mussolini just took the credit.

2. Knights in Armor Had to Use Cranes to Get on Horses

Photo Bernard Gagnon via Wiki Commons

Photo Bernard Gagnon via Wiki Commons

This one is so silly that I am surprised it is still prevalent today. Why would knights wear something that made them completely immobile so that, if they fell off, they’d become the equivalent of an overturned turtle? That would make no sense, but there are a few reasons why we are inclined to find this idea believable: first of all, real weapons and armor from that time were not as heavy as we think they were. There is a difference between ceremonial gear which was flashy and pretty heavy and the actual equipment they used in combat.

There is also that scene from Henry V (the movie) where Laurence Olivier, for some reason, insisted on being craned onto the horse despite protests from his historical advisors. That is mostly the scene responsible for cementing this idea into our heads. In reality, though, armor was heavy(ish) but it was also flexible to ensure the knight is capable of normal movements. At most, a knight would have used the help of a squire or a stool to get onto a horse, but a crane would have been unnecessary.

3. The Definition of a Third World Country

Map Third World Countries

This one isn’t really a myth. It’s more of a misconception that is worth including. Nowadays, the term “third world country” is typically used to refer to a country with a poor economy and unstable infrastructure (although the term “developing nation” is the new way of saying that). However, originally, a third world country had absolutely nothing to do with that. The term appeared during the Cold War and it was simply meant to represent neutral countries that were not aligned with either NATO or the communists. In the image above, blue represents first world countries: the U.S. and their allies. Red represents communist countries: USSR, China and their allies and everyone in green were neutral third world countries.

4. Ancient Statues Were Colorless

Photo: Magnus Manske via Wiki Commons

Photo: Magnus Manske via Wiki Commons

We’ve all seen statues or pictures of statues from antiquity. Some of them are a little worse for wear while others are in tip top shape, but they all have something in common – they’re all colorless. Well, they weren’t always like that. Turns out that ancient civilizations liked to paint their statues just like they did with paintings, mosaics, glass, engravings etc. The only problem is that the paint has faded away over time so now all statues look like white or gray marble. However, traces of the natural compounds used for the pigments are still present on the statues and can be detected using UV light. This can give us a pretty good idea of what the statutes looked like originally. And, of course, sometimes we simply get lucky like with the pictured bust of Nefertiti which is 3,300 years old and still has its original paint despite recent claims (that have proven false) which stated that it was a fake.

5. German Almost Became the Official Language of the United States


This one is known as the Muhlenberg legend so, obviously, it has been disproven for quite some time but it still makes for a great story, one which is still brought up both in America and in Germany. The story goes that the newly-formed American government was deciding on the official language of the country and German lost by just one vote belonging to Frederick Muhlenberg, first ever U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives and himself of German descent.

On the one hand, it kind of makes sense. After all, English was the language of the people they’ve just been fighting with. It wouldn’t be that surprising for them to want to speak a different language. However, there simply is no historical evidence to support that such a vote ever took place. It is possible (and even this is murky) that a vote occurred to have laws translated into German at the behest of German immigrants and it was rejected by one vote. Muhlenberg supposedly said that “the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be” although there is nothing to suggest that he cast the deciding vote.

6. Marco Polo Brought Pasta to Italy


By this time, it has been established that pasta was originally invented in China. The oldest noodles were found there, dating back to 4,000 years ago. They weren’t actually made from wheat like modern noodles, but rather from millet grass. This helped settle a long argument regarding who invented pasta: the Chinese, the Arabs or the Italians (not actually the Italians, but the Etruscans who lived where modern Italy is).

So does this mean that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy after his famous trip to China in the 13th century? Well, no. The Etruscans might not have been the ones to invent it, but they still had it long before Marco Polo. This means that one of two options is possible: either they invented their own version of pasta completely separate from the Chinese or someone else brought it back during silk/spice trades to China.

7. Cinco de Mayo Is Mexico’s Independence Day

Photo: dbking via Wiki Commons

Photo: dbking via Wiki Commons

The United States has embraced many foreign holidays thanks to its diverse culture and Cinco de Mayo is one of the most famous ones. However, Cinco de Mayo does not celebrate Mexico’s Independence Day. That is called El Grito de la Indepedencia (The Cry of Independence) and it falls on September 16. Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the victory at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 of the Mexican Army against the French forces.

8. Slaves Built the Pyramids

Photo: Ricardo Liberato via Wiki Commons

Photo: Ricardo Liberato via Wiki Commons

It was actually aliens. Moving on, people!

Just kidding… Even so, we still have this idea that Egyptians accomplished everything with slave labor, particularly the pyramids. We can attribute this myth originally to Herodotus who described the builders as slaves and then to Hollywood who furthered the myth in movies. That’s not to say that there weren’t slaves in ancient Egypt (because there were), but the construction of pyramids was mostly handled by laborers. Harvard archaeologists who went to study this issue tracked down a city which was supposedly for the workers. They had comfortable living arrangements and plentiful food to keep their strengths up, further evidence that they weren’t slaves. They were organized into labor units with amusing names like the “Drunkards of Menkaure” which were further divided into divisions. And, as we mentioned before, there is an ancient document that records the first ever official labor strike at Deir el Medina during the time of Ramesses III.

9. The Crash of 1929 Caused a Wave of Suicides

Wall Street Crash

Specifically, we are talking about the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which is, to this day, the biggest stock market crash in history and plunged the United States into the Great Depression. It was so bad that, supposedly, stock brokers, bankers and tycoons who suddenly found themselves penniless were all committing suicide by jumping out of windows. However, this never happened.

That is not to say that people didn’t commit suicide after the crash. In fact, several high profile people of that time including the president of the Country Trust Company killed themselves in the aftermath. He, however, shot himself like many others. Some poisoned themselves and only rarely was there someone jumping out a window. Overall, though, the suicide rates for New York in the months following the crash were lower than normal (which is actually quite common after a tragic event). According to one study in the 1980s, between the crash in October and the end of the year there were only 8 suicides by jumping out a window in New York and only two of them were on Wall Street.

10. King Canute Thought He Could Hold Back the Tide

Canute the Great

Canute (or Cnut) the Great was a Norse King who ruled over Denmark, Norway, England and parts of Sweden. And he was so deluded with power that he claimed he could hold back the waves. And nowadays people get compared to Canute whenever they are considered to be way too arrogant and overconfident with their power (usually politicians).

The problem is that Canute was actually trying to imply exactly the opposite. According to the original 12th century story by Henry of Huntingdon, Canute wanted to show humility. He pointed out how he is unable to stop the tide from coming in despite all his power as a way of symbolizing that his authority was nothing compared to divine power. Somehow, over the centuries, the meaning of the story got completely turned around.


Want more myths? Here you go:

History Myths Part 1. History Myths Part 2Science Myths. Sports Myths. Medical Myths.Food Myths. Police Myths. Animal Myths Part 1. Animal Myths Part 2.