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15 Popular Historical Myths Busted

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15 Popular Historical Myths Busted

Edmund Burke once said that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” and there are some things we certainly wouldn’t want to repeat. However, history as we know it is filled with false myths and personalities that have nothing to do with the facts and records attributed to them. Misconceptions have erroneously influenced people for centuries, if not millenniums. Just as well, Hollywood movies, with all their falsehood, tend to alter the image we have of our past.

There was a time when people believed the Earth was flat. Contrary to popular belief, this happened long before the Middle Ages, and many suspected the Earth was round before the time of Plato and Aristotle. There was also a time when people believed in gods, and their lives were governed by mythology and superstition. Not anymore. Still, history does have a way of repeating itself.

What happened to the old saying “don’t believe everything you hear?” Misconceptions are so easy to spread. When everyone around you says it’s true, you just have to play along. We take so many facts for granted, when they are actually false. Billions have been suckered this way, yet another example that history books are not the most reliable source. These 15 popular myths debunked are a good enough reason to rewrite history.

15. Sir Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes and tobacco to England

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Sir Walter Raleigh was a charming explorer, courtier, and privateer. Hmm… not exactly. He was no oil painting, but he did manage to tickle Queen Elizabeth I’s fancy, and he did have a reputation as a ladies’ man. Did he lay his cloak over a puddle of mud so that the queen could cross? No, that’s yet another myth, a story that never happened. Just as he never came back from the New World (America) with bags of potatoes and tobacco, the first England had ever seen. Legend has it he introduced potatoes and tobacco in 1586. But in 1585, potatoes were already being grown in Italy, and soon spread throughout Europe. Tobacco was introduced to France in 1560 by Jean Nicot, after whom nicotine was named.

14. Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse

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One of the world’s most popular and beloved cartoon characters, Mickey Mouse is credited to Walt Disney. Wrong! It was Disney’s number one animator, Ub Iwerks, who envisioned Mickey. In fact, Walt Disney was never a great artist, but rather a great visionary. He would actually have trouble drawing Mickey. Luckily, Ub Iwerks was the fastest animator in the business, as he single-handedly animated the first Mickey Mouse short film in only two weeks in 1928. That would be translated into 700 drawings a day. Talk about a fast hand!

13. The Pyramids Were Built By Slaves

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Countless movies and stories tell us that the pyramids were built by slaves, all captured during military excursions to neighboring countries, brought to Egypt and forced to build the many temples of the ancient world. However, the truth of the matter is that it was Egyptians, most likely employees of the pharaoh, who built the pyramids. Excavations revealed skeletons of local workers, not slaves. What’s more, inscriptions suggest many of them were quite proud of their job.

12. Albert Einstein Flunked Math

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Rumors that Einstein failed at math and that he could not figure out an equation began with a 1935 issue of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not trivia column. It’s not sure where the author got his information from. Einstein excelled in mathematics from a young age. He was a mathematical prodigy, and by the age of 12 he was already better at arithmetic and calculus than most of us. Throughout his life, failure is perhaps the only concept Einstein was never able to master.

11. Magellan Circumnavigated The World

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Ask anyone and they will tell you that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the world, and that during his journey he was killed by native tribes in the Philippines. It’s in the history books, and yet, it’s false. First of all, there’s something wrong with the story, as these two myths seem to ruffle each other. Magellan only made it halfway through, and his second in command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, completed the navigation.

10. 300 Spartans Fought at Thermopylae

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We all saw 300 and Gerard Butler as Leonidas, leading his 300 Spartans against an extensive Persian army, all but one perishing in the fight. Okay, part of the story is true. There were 300 Spartans defending Greece at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, but there were also at least 4,000 other allies during the first two days of battle, out of which 1,500 were still standing during the fatal collisions. That means at least 4,300 men occupied the pass, King Leonidas as the leader of the Greek defensive.

9. The Spanish Flu came from Spain

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Initially called the “three day flu,” the sickness killed somewhere from 50 to 100 million people worldwide between March 1918 and June 1920, which equals roughly one third of the population of Europe in those days. The Spanish flu pandemic, the same virus as Swine flu, even spread as far as the Arctic and the Pacific islands. First cases were registered in the US and certain European countries before reaching Spain. The myth that it originated from Spain was most likely fueled by the fact that it was the only country with no censorship when it came to the disease, so the most reliable news came from there, giving the false impression that it was the most affected, or even the only affected country.

8. America Became Independent on July 4, 1776

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All history books tell us America signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, thus gaining its independence. That’s true, as far as the declaration goes, but the war went on for another seven years, and it wasn’t until September 3, 1783 that England finally granted America its independence, when King George III of England and the US leaders signed the Definitive Treaty of Peace.

7. Cleopatra was Egyptian

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Cleopatra was Egyptian and the reincarnation of Isis. Wrong! Cleopatra was one of the descendents of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Greek origins that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great. Her mother tongue was Hellenistic (Greek dialect), and she was the first member of the family to learn Egyptian. The myth that Cleopatra was Egyptian was most likely born from the fact that she presented herself in public as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, and adopted common Egyptian beliefs and manners.

6. Napoleon Bonaparte was Short

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Napoleon is often depicted as a short corporal, “le petit corporal.” They say his megalomaniac ambitions to conquer the world compensated the fact that he was so little. However, he was actually 1.64 m, or about 5 foot 7, which at the time was above the average French male height. Regardless of the facts, we still tend to use the old saying “the Napoleon complex” when referring to a short person.

5. Nero Played The Fiddle While Rome Burned

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There’s a popular myth that in 64 AD, mad emperor Nero started a fire in his palace, climbed on the roof, and began playing the fiddle and singing arias while watching Rome burn. Here are the facts: Nero wasn’t even in Rome at the time the fire burst out, he was at his villa 30 miles away, and the violin (fiddle) was only invented some 1,500 years after the incident. Sure, Nero wasn’t such a nice guy, and not very sane either. After all, he did take his mother as his mistress, then had her put to death. However, he did not start the fire. It was most likely his political enemies, who were right in assuming that it would be blamed on him.

4. Marie Antoinette said “let them eat cake”

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Sure, she may have regretted saying a lot of things, but “let them eat cake” never even came out of her mouth. According to the popular myth, when hunger struck France just before the French Revolution, and the people had no bread to eat, Marie Antoinette suggested they should eat cake. It all started when Jean Jacques Rousseau quoted “a great princess” saying the famous phrase in his Confessions in 1766, which was incorrectly attributed to Marie Antoinette. When we look at the facts more carefully, we see that when Rousseau wrote this in 1766, Antoinette was only 11 years old.

3. Jesus Was Born on December 25

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No one knows for sure the year Jesus was born in, let alone the date. Some clues in the Gospel suggest spring as the season, and yet we celebrate Christmas as the birth date of Jesus. What’s even more interesting is that Christmas was already a celebration in 100 BC among the followers of Mithras, the  central god of a Hellenistic cult. There’s more; they believed that Mithras was the son of a virgin, born on the 25th of December, the birth assisted by a group of shepherds. Sounds familiar?

2. Thomas Edison Invented the Lightbulb

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Not just the light bulb, but many inventions attributed to him. Edison holds a record-breaking number of 1,093 patents, most of which are not his own. He was a businessman with the skills to steal and patent great inventions before their rightful owners had the chance. Thomas Edison holds the patent for the light bulb, issued in 1880, but it was actually a British astronomer and chemist, Warren de la Rue, who invented the world’s first light bulb in 1840, four decades before Edison took credit for it. The first electric light, a device known as “arc lamp,” was invented in 1806 by Sir Humphry Davy, an English scientist.

1. George Washington was America’s First President

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Ask any American student and you will get the same answer: George Washington was America’s first president. Not even close! During the American Revolution, a number of presidents were elected by the Continental Congress, all of which stayed for short periods of time. As a matter of fact, America’s first president was Peyton Randolph, who created the Continental Army, with George Washington in command. One of his successors was John Hancock in 1781. Eight more years passed, and numerous other forgotten presidents, until George Washington became the first American president to be elected by the people, but technically the 15th president.

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