Some reflections on giving tours, ghost tours, and how the Philip experiment is kind of like Dungeons and Dragons.
Some reflections on giving tours, ghost tours, and how the Philip experiment is kind of like Dungeons and Dragons.
The disappearance of the Roanoke colony is one of America’s oldest mysteries. However, the story of the Roanoke colony was only a major pillar of American historiography after the 1830s, and later on in the 1800s Virginia Dare, the granddaughter of colonial governor and artist John White, became a symbol of the American South and white supremacy.
For more on the Roanoke colony check out Andrew Lawler’s excellent new book The Secret Token, which I heartily endorse.
The Pacific Northwest was one of the last areas to be accurately mapped by European and American cartographers. At various times mapmakers thought that it was near a Asian region called Ania, that California was an Island, or that a great inland sea took up much of the American west. When Lewis and Clark ventured westward, they had a clearer idea of the coastline, yet they were still taken by surprise when they encountered the Rocky anc Cascade mountain ranges.
Visuals to accompany this live event are here.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a bad time for North Korea. The DPRK had to endure South Korea hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country sunk billions of dollars into wasteful infrastructure projects, and the Cold War ended, depriving them of Soviet aid. After that, North Korea suffered a symbolic blow in 1994 when Kim Il Sung, the Great Leader, died at the age of eighty two.
Japanese occupation changed North Korea, with various citizens either collaborating with or actively resisting it. One of those resistors was a guerrilla fighter named Kim Song Ju, who would later be known as Kim Il Sung. If you believe North Korean propaganda (which you shouldn’t) Kim Il Sung was born of humble farmers and formed a secret Korean resistance during the occupation. In fact, his grandfather was a Protestant minister, he spent most of his youth in China, and the units he fought with were organized either by the Chinese or Russians.
Dracula, anymore, is as much of a character type and a trope as he is a single character. Different takes on Dracula abound, from Bela Lugosi to Sesame Street’s Count to numerous other media. There was also, though, a historical Dracula. Vlad the Impaler was a prince of Wallachia in the 1400s, and is often cited as the inspiration for Stoker’s Vampire. But, was he? Was the real Dracula anything like the character type we know now?
Confederate statues have been in the news lately. Memorials always reflect the time they were built in moreso than the time they commemorate, and the vast majority of confederate statues were built in the Jim Crow era, in the early 1900s as part of a neo-Confederate propaganda campaign to bolster the South’s reputation. Most of the statues were built quickly and cheaply by the Monumental Bronze Company, which mass-produced both Union and Confederate monuments.
Aside from glorifying white supremacy and slavery, the statues (in this podcaster’s opinion) are bad history. Eastern bloc memorials such as Budapest’s Memmento Park could offer some guidance about what to do with monumental propaganda to an oppressive regime.
Popular legend holds that Isaac Newton invented not only calculus, but also the cat door. Unfortunately, this colorful legend is not supported by good evidence. Cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, with the oldest known domestic cat possibly dating back to Cyprus 9,500 years ago. Textual evidence for cat doors can be found Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale, centuries before Newton, and there’s no evidence that the natural philosopher even owned a cat. Nevertheless, the myth has been persistent and varied, initially being used to cut the scholar down to size, and later on used to demonstrate his brilliance.
There’s no shortage of things on old maps that turned out to be fictional. Regions such as the Mountains of Kong or the continent of Lemuria dot antiquated maps, and the obviousness of their fictional nature seems quaint today. However, some fictional features of old maps were more subtle. Benjamin Morrell was an American sailor in the early 1800s who, in his memoirs, A Narrative of Four Voyages, invented islands out of whole cloth, most prominently Byers Island in the Pacific, and New South Greenland, a nonexistent region he placed off the coast of Antarctica.
One of the most dramatic (and dumbest) conspiracy theories of all time is the Phantom Time Hypothesis, put forward by the conspiracy theorist Heriber Illig. They hypothesis states that almost three centurires of the Middle Ages, AD 614 to 911, never happened, and it was all because of Otto III (pictured below) and Pope Sylvester II.
Like the legend of Polybius, though, this is a conspiracy theory with some fascinating truth behind it. There are indeed chunks of missing time in the calendar, a result of the switch from the Julian to the Gregorian systems.
Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany certainly influenced the adoption of racist and anti-Semitic policies by Mussolini’s government. In a 1938 document called the Manifesto of Race, the fascist regime declared Italians to be Aryans, and that Jews and other minorities would be expelled from civil life. However, even prior to the alliance with Germany fascist Italy was quite capable of being racist on its own. Laws in conquered Ethiopia banned marriages between blacks and whites, and the best available land in Ethiopia was redistributed to Italian immigrants. In the end, Italy became a willing partner in spreading Nazi racism, and thousands of Italian Jews would eventually die in the Holocaust.
Italy’s fascist regime sought legitimacy by packaging itself as an extension of past Italian glory. Under Mussolini Italy “restored” numerous Roman, Renaissance, and medieval sites, and sought to tie in the glories of the present with those of the past. Unfortunately, most of these “restorations” had little to no basis in evidence-based history, and the fascists often ignored historical periods (such as the Baroque era) that did not suit there needs.
Below: Fascist party headquarters in the 1930s, featuring Mussolini’s giant head.
For about 250 years, Europeans thought that giants lived in Patagonia. The inventor of this myth was Antonio Pigafetta, a member of the Magellan expedition who, in his memoir of the circumnavigation, reported seeing a huge man approximately ten feet tall. Later European accounts of Patagonia repeated tales of immense people living there, and Patagonian giants were a common illustration on maps from the 1500s until the late 1700s. There are (obviously) no giants in Patagonia, but the native Tehuelche population are some of the tallest people on Earth. However, they average only about six feet, not a towering ten.
Kara Helgren has previously worked for the city of Salem, Massachusetts as a tour guide, leading visitors through the ominously-named Witch House. According to Helgren tourist expectations veered toward the lurid and macabre. Visitors expected tales of ghosts, black magic, and torture. Helgren (whose thesis was about the witch trials) gave them none of that. Instead, she crushed their dreams and broke their hearts with a bunch of historical accuracy.
Belief that one’s blood type affects personality is common in Japan. Dating sites, celebrity profiles, and vital statistics for fictional characters often include blood type, and belief that it affects personal attitude or character is somewhat akin to belief in astrology in the United States. The beliefs have their roots in pseudoscience from before World War Two. In the 1970s a series of Japanese self-help books claimed that understanding blood type was the key to understanding personality, and a phenomenon was born.
It’s easy for an outsider to mock beliefs in pseudoscience like this, but humans do have a persistent desire to put themselves into boxes and groups, and to assign themselves certain group characteristics. This can take the form of astrological sign or blood type, but it also shows up in online quizzes, debates about which Ninja Turtle you are, or deciding which house you’d be sorted into if you went to Hogwarts.
Today PT Barnum is remembered as one of the founders of modern advertising and one of America’s greatest hucksters. His first successful hoax was to successfully promote a taxidermy monkey sewn to a fish as the corpse of a mermaid. To do this, Barnum wrote fake letters from different regions of the country to various New York newspapers, and hired an associate of his to pose as an English scientist who had the mermaid in his possession. Using deceit, fake names, and fraudulent correspondence, Barnum successfully stoked interest in the so-called “mermaid.”
The fate of the mermaid is unknown. It was possibly destroyed in a fire, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has a specimen that is, possibly, Barnum’s original. After Barnum several other sideshows, museums, and curiosity shops copied the mermaid, and today many is the tourist trap cabinet of curiosities sports the horrific corpse of a monkey glued to a fish.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
As far as your humble podcaster is concerned, pasta is a wonder of the world right up there with the Pyramids and the Internet. We don’t exactly know where it came from, though. In the United States Pasta is often erroneously identified with Marco Polo. Supposedly, Polo brought back a variation on Chinese noodles from his travels, and introduced it to Italy. This story originates, though, in the United States. In 1929 a publication called the Macaroni Journal invented the Polo story, and ever since then that myth has refused to die.
Some Italian sources claim that pasta originated with the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization on the Italian peninsula, but evidence for this is spotty. It is more likely that pasta originated in the Middle East and traveled to the Italian Peninsula via the Emirate of Sicily.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
No one knows who wrote The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There is no record of an English knight alive at the right time with that name who could have written it. One oft-repeated theory is that Mandeville retired to Belgium, lived under a pseudonym, and only confessed his authorship of the Travels on his deathbed. Other than the uncorroborated word of a Liege notrary, though, we have nothing to substantiate this theory.
What we do know is that the work was not wholly original, and combined elements of several pre-existing fantasies and romances into a single narrative. And, despite or maybe because of the fantasy elements, it did so well. It remains a fascinating look at what it means to encounter the unfamiliar, to travel, and to see the world that lies just beyond the lands you know.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
As the Travels of Sire John Mandeville move away from the familiar and the Holy Land, they get progressively more bizarre. The laws of convention and even reality seem to break down as Mandeville encounters cannibals, dog people, weaponized elephants, and headless humans who have faces on their chest. In one particularly striking passage Mandeville says that not only is the world round, but that one can circumnavigate it, and he also characterizes the Kingdom of the Great Khan as perhaps the most advanced nation in the entire world. The book ends with description of the Earthly Paradise, the one spot on the globe that Mandeville, despite all of his experience, cannot reach.
Theme music: Cowboy Surfer by the Vivisectors
The origins of coffee are encircled by myth and legend, sometimes involving goats. It’s one of the most popular beverages on Earth, and for many people (including your humble podcaster) one of the most important. Drinking coffee is a daily ritual enjoyed by millions, and there are myriad stories about coffee’s history that seem to buttress its importance and mystique.
Dancing livestock, beverages on trial, self-sacrificing Frenchman, a sexy Portuguese guy, and a totally wired philosopher all figure into coffee’s mythology. In all probability none of these events ever happened, but their very existence says something about humanity’s reverence and need for the fortifying beverage.
You can be forgiven for thinking that L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is all about monetary policy and populism. More than a few scholars, critics, academics, and teachers, have reiterated that line, and found parallels in the narrative between Baum’s fairy tale and the state of American politics at the end of the 1800s. The Scarecrow (the theory goes) is the agrarian worker, the Tin Man (or Tin Woodman, if you’re going by the book’s terminology) is the industrial laborer, and the Cowardly Lion is… Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. For some reason. Other perceived equivalencies include the Yellow Brick Road as the gold standard, and Dorothy’s silver slippers (they were changed to ruby in the Judy Garland film) as silver coinage.
This theory began in 1964 with an article titled The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism by high school history teacher Henry Littlefield. It has since taken on a life of its own, to the point where this podcaster first heard this theory from his freshman history teacher. However, there is no real basis for The Wizard of Oz being a satire, parody, fable, or any other kind of tale about populism. Baum’s own biography and a closer reading of the text do not support that oft-repeated theory.
You’ve probably heard to Atlantis, but that’s not the hypothetical lost continent out there. There’s a whole subgenre of supposed submerged continents, with Atlantis being only the most prominent example. Other mythical lands include Mu and Lemuria.
Anymore, Lemuria is now associated with new age pseudohistory, but as an idea it was first posited by an actual scientist. In 1864 Philip Sclater was trying to puzzle out why there were lemurs in both Madagascar and India, but not in Africa or the Middle East. If the animals had migrated from one of those regions to the next, then it stood to reason that there would also be lemur populations between them. To solve this problem, Sclater proposed that there was once a large mass of land in the India Ocean he called “Lemuria” that would have allowed lemurs (and, presumably, other fauna) to migrate from India to Madagascar and back again.
Sclater’s idea was eventually rendered obsolete by plate tectonics, but the idea of a lost continent was seized upon by occultists such as Helena Blavatsky. Charlatans such as Blavatsky claimed to have received special knowledge of humanity’s origin from the lost continent, and a whole subgenre of fake history was born.
The Wicker Man is one of the most creative and fearsome execution devices of all time. A figure of a giant, made of bent wood and reeds, looms up over a desolate Celtic moor, and hapless captives write inside of its cage-like form. A horde of barbaric and bloodthirsty Celts chant in the distance, eager to see the sacrifice, and a Druid, clad in fur and leather, ignites the massive statue and the captives within, sending them as a burnt offering to the insatiable gods who are forever thirsty for human blood.
Like the iron maiden though, there’s scant evidence that the iconic wicker man ever existed. The only evidence that we have to go on is Julius Caesar’s propagandistic memoir The Gallic Wars. Despite that, though, burning effigy festivals are still popular throughout the world today. Guy Fawkes Night, the Burning of Judas, Zozobra, and, of course, Burning Man all remain immensely popular, despite the oldest known effigy probably being more folklore than fact.
Elizabeth Bathory is one of history’s most notorious killers. Supposedly, the Bloody Countess (as she is sometimes called) murdered an unknown number of young girls in a variety of way, ranging from stabbing, to burning, to exposure to cold. One detail of the story is that Bathory also bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and vitality, but that is almost certainly an embellishment added years after the fact. Still, Bathory’s appetite for murder has made her a popular figure of horror, and she has been the inspiration for movies, video games, and at least one metal band.
Nowadays, there is some doubt about whether or not Elizabeth Bathory really was the excessive and cruel killer that she was made out to be. There is no evidence that she ever bathed in the blood of her victims (for instance) and most of the evidence obtained against her was gathered under torture, a notoriously unreliable method for getting to the truth. Nevertheless, even if the stories about Elizabeth Bathory were completely fabricated, her life still has the makings of a chilling horror story.
The Sator Square is a level of palindromic perfection untouched by other palindromes. It reads perfectly backward, forward, up, and down. The inconsequential sentence (something like “The farmer Arepo works the plow”) is not not profound, but the structure of the phrase is a level of balance and perfection untouched by other word squares.
The exact origin of the square is unknown, but it’s been the subject of all manner of speculation and pseudohistory. Multiple (spurious) sources have attempted to link the palindrome to Christian mysticism, but, in all likelihood, it was much more likely to be a meme than mystical. Before human beings obsessively reproduced “Kilroy was here” or LOLcats, they obsessively reproduced this perfect Latin sentence.
I’m serious. Send me your best palindromes, word games, and linguistic weird stuff on Facebook. Do it!
I mentioned that “S” that we used to draw on binders and such. Here’s a video about it.
In September of 1940 an American Explorer named Theodore Morde proclaimed in the Milwaukee Sentinel that he had found “the Lost City of Ancient America’s Monkey God.” Morde described a city of white stone
Is there a ruined city deep in the Honduran jungle dedicated to a mysterious simian god, one who accepted sacrifices of human flesh by fanatical worshippers?
No. Probably not.
But the story behind the myth is entertaining, at least.
Theodore Morde’s account, In the Lost City of Ancient America’s Monkey God.
The El Dorado Machine from the New Yoker.
Rosemary Joyce’s critique of the “discover” of La Ciudad Blanca Good Science, Big Hype, Bad Archaeology.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most compelling villains. Unlike other tragic figures who do terrible things (Macbeth, Othello, Brutus) Richard does not fall. He does not have some kind of tragic flaw that drives him to perform an evil act. Instead, he is a through-and-through villain from the very first scene of the play, and is all the more compelling for it.
As you can imagine, the actual, real Richard III was somewhat different.
Last week I spoke at a Portland performance space, The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, about some differences between the real Richard and the character in Shakespeare’s play. The event was a benefit show for an upcoming performance of Richard III that Steep and Thorny is putting on, and the evening also featured dancing, music, and other performers.
Last week the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. It was an amazing victory for equality and a long time coming. There were, however, dissents. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:
[T]he Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?
Roberts’ dissent is a version of the appeal to authority fallacy, with his authority here being the supposed constancy of monogamous heterosexual marriage throughout time.
On the other side of things, several media outlets began posting articles about how, in fact, gay marriage had been practiced a millennium ago by various sects of Christianity with a rite called adelphopoeisis. Two saints, Sergius and Bacchus (pictured below) were probably the highest-profile pair to undergo the rite which formalized and sanctified their relationship.
The articles on adelphopoeisis as an early gay marriage rite went back to one historian, John Boswell, who claimed that it sanctified homosexual unions. Other historians contest Boswell’s claim, and claimed that adelphopoeisis was more of a brotherhood ritual.
In this episode, I take the position that ultimately it does not matter what the nature of adelphopoeis was, and that it is also perfectly acceptable to contravene the traditions that John Roberts held so dear. The rightness of legalizing gay marriage does not rest upon what our ancestors did or did not do, but the future that modern people choose to make.
Imagine a medieval dungeon. You probably imagine prisoners chained to the wall, a torturer in a black mask tormenting the occupants, several machines of torture such as the rack or the Catherine wheel, and, most imposingly, the dreaded iron maiden, a casket lined with spikes that would slowly bleed a prisoner to death in a grim mockery of an embrace.
In all probability, though, the iron maiden was never an actual torture device, at least not in the middle ages. There may have been machines that resembled the famed spiked sarcophagus, but in all probability the most famous and feared resident of the medieval dungeon was probably a hoax dating back to the late 1700s.
One of the most persistent myths of the Middle Ages was that of Prester John, a mythical Christian king whose supposed domain was located beyond the eastern Muslim regions. Probably the most vivid portion of the myth is a letter received by the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos in 1165 claiming to be from the monarch. The letter (ostensibly written from one king to another, but with an arrogant, bragging tone that glorifies Prester John’s position relative to that of Byzantium) details a kingdom flowing with milk and honey, populated by fantastical animals such as centaurs and fauns, and featuring such wonders as Mount Olympus and the Fountain of Youth.
Some writers, most notably Marco Polo, identified Prester John with the Mongols, and later versions of the story would move his kingdom to Ethiopia. Below is a 15th century painting depicting Ong Khan, a rival to Genghis Khan, as the legendary king Prester John.
Prester John is profiled in chapter three of S. Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages from 1867.
Prester John and Europe’s Discovery of East Asia from East Asian History, June, 1996.
This YouTube video by a medieval studies grad student nicely illustrates the legend of Prester John with action figures. I have a serious amount of admiration for that kind of thing.
On Sunday, March 15th I had the privilege of introducing one of my favorite movies of all time at the historic Clinton Street Theater, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The organizers of the event asked me to talk about actual Arthurian legend prior to the screening, and I compared the tales of everyone’s favorite mythical monarch with something that I enjoy a great deal: comic books.
The illustration of Camelot below is by Gustave Dore and was made to accompany Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, part of the Arthurian and romantic revival of the 1800s.
Read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England Here.
Read “The Tale of the Fisher King,” the first appearance of the Holy Grail in Arthurian legend here.
And, just for fun, someone made a brilliant modern-style trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
In the late 1800s countless men were exploited by a system that used debt and indentured servitude to keep them tied to the shipping industry. The process of getting sailors into debt was called “crimping,” and it was practiced throughout the US and Britain, but was particularly prominent on the American West Coast. Quite a lot of mythology, folklore, and pseudohistory has grown up around the subject, most of it with no basis in the actual historical record. Nevertheless, Shanghaiing and crimping were very real, and until approximately 1915 the process of acquiring sailors looked almost nothing like how one would expect to hire labor on an open, fair market.
Pictured below are shipping papers from 1786. Possibly the most important part of the text is the following: In case they should, on any account whatsoever, leave or desert the said sloop without the Master’s consent, till the abovesaid voyage is ended, and the said sloop discharged of her loading, be liable to forfeit and lose what wages may at such time of their desertion be due to them, together with every their goods, chattels, &c. on board; renouncing, by these presents, all title, right, demand and pretensions thereunto for ever, for them, their heirs, executors and administrators. And it is further agreed by both parties, that eight and forty hours absence without leave, shall be deemed a total desertion, and render such Seamen and Mariners liable to the penalties abovementioned.
Shanghaiing Days by Richard H Dillion is a comprehensive, albeit dated, book on the subject, covering crimping throughout the US in the 1800s.
The Oregon Shanghaiers by Barney Blalock deals specifically with Portland and Astoria crimps.
Maps used to have blank spots. California used to be drawn as an island. The Mercator projection makes Greenland look fat. One of the biggest and strangest cartographic errors of all time, though, has to be the Mountains of Kong, a nonexistent continent-spanning mountain range that Europeans kept putting on African maps all the way until the late 1800s.
The Olmecs are the oldest known Mesoamerican civilization, and we know little about them compared to, say, the Mayans or Aztec. Several people, though, have made a few outlandish claims about who the Olmecs were, and where they came from.
A famed artifact, the Cyrus Cylinder, has often been cited as an early proclamation of human rights. The Shah of Iran, the UN, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and an American president all hailed Cyrus the Great as an early innovator of liberalism and tolerance. Unfortunately, though, the historical record does not bear those claims out. Cyrus the Great was a monarch, and the world still falls for his ancient propaganda thousands of years later.