So already it's pretty clear that if we don't have photos laying around of the historical period in question, we're basically just guessing. And that's interesting considering how many figures from the distant past we think we have a perfectly clear image of. For instance, ninjas looked like this:
Vikings looked like this:
And as anyone who's ever attended a Thanksgiving event at an American grade school knows, pilgrims looked like this:
The ninja outfit is ridiculous, if you think about it. If you're an assassin and your job is to blend in, you don't do that by dressing in a black bodysuit that screams "ninja" from a mile away. So, they dressed like normal people--workers, monks, merchants, basically anything that looked as un-ninja as humanly possible was the perfect disguise. This way, they could sneak around unnoticed, day or night.
Hidden inside those bushels are like a million katanas.
On rare occasions when they needed to move through the dark undetected, they still didn't wear black. Dark blue is the color you want if you want to blend in at night; someone in all black would stand out like a silhouette.
As for the Vikings, the one single thing we know them for--wearing huge horns on their helmets--isn't true. They just wore regular helmets, not anything fancy. Here's some advice: If you want a career in something that requires a lot of hand-to-hand combat, don't wear anything that's easy for people to grab onto. This is why when cops wear ties, they wear clip-ons. It's also why you don't want something on your hat that is essentially a giant set of handlebars.
Viking helmets: built for sensible pillaging.
As for the pilgrims, they were simple, farming folk, and as such wore clothes that made sense for the job. Do you really think someone would toil in the field or chop wood for hours on end dressed in a heavy coat and shiny shoes? If you're gonna have a long, hard day of stealing Indian land, you gotta at least have a shirt that breathes.
Therefore, it was more common to see guys in baggy shirts and pants, and gals in simple dresses. Hats were floppy and buckle-free, and boots were made of beat up leather and tied with bows. On top of that, the image of the demure, black and white puritan is also a myth, as people owned clothes in a range of colors including bright yellows, blues, reds and greens.
Why We Picture it Wrong:
The ninjas can thank the theater. In Edo period theater (which came about one hundred years after ninjas were around), playwrights needed a trick to show how sneaky ninjas were on stage, as well as a way to make them into "invisible" assassins. The stage hands already dressed in all black, so the audience had long been used to ignoring them since they weren't "part of the play." So, actors playing ninjas started dressing up in all black, too. Then the whole audience would jump when one of them would leap out of nowhere and kill a dude. Also, it looks totally badass.
As for the Vikings, Greek and Roman historians wrote about warriors from the North with horned helmets, which in and of itself was just an exaggeration used to make them sound like scarier bad guys for their stories. Also, it looks totally badass.
And the pilgrims, with their black hats and brass buckles on everything? Well, in the early 1600s, there were people who dressed that way, but those were the urban puritans back in England --precisely the people who decided not to become pilgrims and instead stay home in the first place. The reason we have the image of pilgrims dressing the same is because all the existing portraits of people from the era come from England. Also, it looks totally badass.
Occasionally someone will come forward having seen the face of Christ in, say, a hunk of wood, or a toasted sandwich.
And always you can immediately recognize the face because of the trademark long hair and beard. It's maybe the most recognizable face in the world.
White guy, usually even with light hair and eyes. It's not just some pop culture invention; check out this image of Jesus found in the Room of The Segnatura at the Vatican:
Please, no jokes about the naked little boys at the bottom.
As you can probably guess, Yeshua of Nazareth, the man Christians think of as "Jesus Christ" today, actually looked a lot more Middle Eastern seeing as he was... well... actually Middle Eastern.
That's just an artist rendering based on what the average person of the time and place Jesus actually came from looked like, but you get the idea.
Why We Picture it Wrong:
For the dominant image of Jesus as a whitey, we have artists like Leonardo and Michelangelo to thank. A lot of the paintings of Jesus they made during the Renaissance became the "definitive" versions of his image, and they were just portraying him as a handsome Italian man, like everyone else in their paintings.
But the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aren't the only ones to blame; European paintings from the Medieval ages did the same whitewashing, most likely because, in the age of the Crusades, the Church was better off not reminding people they were praying to a little, brown Jew.
"Wait is that the guy we're supposed to Kill or worship? We might need to change our mascot..."
Of course, this racial artistic license isn't exclusive to white people, either--Jesus has been portrayed as Black, Hispanic and Asian, depending on who painted the picture.
You don't need an extensive education in astrophysics to guess what the Big Bang looked like. It's called the freaking Big Bang. It must have been some kind of big ass explosion, right? Hell, even Carl Sagan agrees--after all, that's how he shows it in one of his highly respected documentaries.
"Our Universe began with the mightiest explosion of all time."
- Actual quote from actual Documentary
Since nobody was around to observe it, there is still debate surrounding the exact details of the origins of the cosmos, but it most certainly did not look like an explosion as presented in the above freeze-frame. There are some who say the origin of the universe came in a moment of extremely rapid matter expansion, aka the "Big Bang Theory." But the other, most common, camp is the "steady state" theory, wherein the universe has been expanding at the same rate since day one, and continues to expand at the same pace even now. Either way, though, both sides agree there was no "explosion." Instead the universe expanded like a balloon full of dark matter and other cool sci-fi sounding sciencey stuff.
The main argument between the groups of physicists is basically how fast the balloon inflated, not whether the balloon inflated or exploded in a ball of fire.
Why We Picture it Wrong:
The whole problem comes back to that really misleading name. So, what kind of jerk would come up with the name "Big Bang" if they were a smart enough scientist to know it was more of a "gradual swelling"?
Turns out it was one more opposed to the idea of a Big Bang than most. Fred Hoyle was an astrophysicist firmly on the "steady state" side of the great debate of the birth of life, the universe, and everything. He came up with the phrase "Big Bang" as a way to simply explain the viewpoint he disagreed with, intending people to hear the name and think the idea of a giant explosion giving birth to existence was ridiculous.
This was a gross misjudgment of human nature. As soon as he suggested there was a huge explosion at the birth of the universe, we latched onto that idea and never let it go. Hoyle simply failed to grasp how profoundly our species loves big-ass explosions.
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