7 ridiculous myths about history you probably believe are true

1. Vikings Had Horny Helmets

We all have the image of the Vikings well lodged in our heads. Big beardy Swedes, storming ashore to the strains of Led Zeppelin, wielding battle-axes and wearing crazy helmets with enormous horns. This, however, is a myth. The image originates on an ancient tapestry which depicts a Viking raid. One of the figures has a helmet with bull horns on it. Recent scholarship has identified this figure as a shaman carrying out a ritual, or maybe even a divine figure, included to provide a blessing to the raiders. Most Vikings wore leather or plain metal helmets, like every other warrior of the period. The popularity of the horn myth really comes alive with the epic operas of Richard Wagner in the mid to late 19th century, populated with busty maidens and horn-helmed Nordic god-men.

2. George Washington Carver invented peanut butter

George Washington Carver (c1861 – 1943) was all about the peanuts. He was born into slavery in the early 1860s. As a grown man, he finally found a college in Iowa that would take a black man as a student. His teacher recognised that Carver had a flair for botany. Carver himself became interested in finding alternative crops for the South, to allow the recently freed slaves to grown food on their own land for their own consumption and trade. He did not, however, invent peanut butter. The crunchy buttery goodness had been around in one form or another since about 950 BC, and the first modern patent for it was in 1884 (to John Harvey Kellogg no less) when Carver was in his early twenties. When Carver died after a life dedicated to improving the lot of the small landholder and farmer, his obituary in the NY Times credited him with inventing many product derived from peanuts “including milk, ink, flour, breakfast foods, wood stains, face creams and, latterly, a medicinal peanut oil which was found helpful in the treatment of infantile paralysis.” But no peanut butter. Believing that his inventions were a gift from God, Carver refused to patent them, so that they could be available to all.

3. Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake.”

The story is that with the poor of Paris at the gates of the Louvre threatening revolution, the queen, Marie Antoinette asked a minion what their beef was. ‘They are starving, your majesty’ the factotum responded, ‘they have no bread’. ‘Then let them eat cake’, said the queen. The incident was used to illustrate how out of touch and dismissive the royal family was and was used, after the fact, to justify Maire Antoinette’s execution by guillotine in 1793. Of course, there is no evidence she ever said anything so callous. The story first surfaced when Alphonse Karr claimed he had heard rumors that the queen had said the famous words. The phrase itself, wrongly translated, appears in the earlier Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau where he claims to have remembered a great princess who was told that the peasants had no bread “and who responded: ‘Let them eat brioche.’” The book was published while Marie Antoinette was a small girl, and could not have been referring to her.

4. Stock Brokers Jumped Out of Windows During the 1929 Crash

We have all heard the story that during the stock market crash of 1929, the one that led to the Great Depression, dozens of ruined stock brokers flung themselves out of Wall Street windows, and plummeted to their deaths many storeys below. It makes a sobering image of the downside of capitalism, and perhaps for some, a comforting thought that the greedy good-for-nothings that caused the problem got their just (and messy) desserts. Guess what? Never happened. Between October 1929 when the Crash started and the end of that year, there are only two recorded suicide jumpers in Wall Street. One of them was an elderly clerk called Hulda Borowski – hardly the archetypal wolf of Wall Street ending it all in disgrace.

5. Americans Panicked During Orson Welles War of the Worlds Broadcast

Those rubes back in 1938 were so simple that they believed a radio drama mounted by the boy-wonder Orson Welles, and thousands fled their homes convinced that Martians were invading the Earth. Yeah? No. Welles created his version of the HG Wells story especially for radio, and radio dramas were mass entertainment back in the 30s. Welles decided to frame the story as a news broadcast, a piece of fake reportage, to give the drama some immediacy and to update his near-namesake’s 1897 novel. The broadcast was well received, and only a few poor souls, who doubtless tuned in late, were confused as to what was going on. No mobs of folk roamed the streets with shotguns looking for marauding aliens, and no one committed suicide because they thought all was loss. The story of mass panic was worked up by the press in the weeks following the show, probably to cash in with such a crazy story.

6. Signing the Declaration of Independence

Next year on July 4th think about the mechanics of signing the Declaration of Independence. Although Independence was declared by the Continental Congress on July 2nd 1776, it took two days to agree the text, which was ratified on July 4th. It was then sent to the printers, and an engrossed copy on parchment prepared. This is what was signed by most of the delegates on August 2nd. But it had been nearly a month since ratification, and not everyone was present. Five men added their signatures later, and two delegates did not sign at all. So, what do we celebrate on July 4th? Not the declaring of independence, that had already happened, and not the signing of the declaration by the Congress – that was yet to happen. We celebrate the adoption of the text of the Declaration, and the certification of that adoption by one John Hancock, who, caught up with his pivotal role in proceedings, later almost ruined the final document by signing in it 72-point handwriting.

7. Nero Fiddled while Rome Burned

In the summer of 64AD, the Roman empire had a pretty bad time. Rome burned down. Or a lot of it did. For six days in July that year a fire raged that destroyed nearly a third of the city. Depending on who you listen to, the Emperor Nero either started the fire, or he heroically organised the fighting of that fire. It may have been that he did both. Nero was, undoubtedly, crazy. He executed most of his family, and a lot of his supporters. He was a cruel tyrant and ran the Empire for his personal glorification and benefit. The story we have all heard is that he was so away with the fairies that as his city was destroyed he played the fiddle while watching the flames. Problem with that is that the fiddle, or violin, was not invented until 1,000 years after Nero’s death. Other versions of the story have him playing the lyre, or singing during the conflagration. But according to the historian Tacitus, not only was Nero not in Rome when the fire started, he rushed back when he heard the news, organised the firefighting efforts (for which he paid out of his own pocket), and later opened his palaces (yes, he had several in the city) to shelter the homeless. Tacitus says that he also arranged for extra food to be brought into the city to feed the victims. Following the fire, instead of using the cleared land to build a bigger palace (as was rumoured) Nero directed that the city be rebuilt in a more fire-resistant plan. Only then did he build yet another new palace. Well, he was Nero after all.

Join the discussion.