6 Famous Things From History That Didn't Actually Exist
We have an entire section of our website devoted to the fact that history is way more insane than what we learned in school. But perhaps nothing more perfectly demonstrates how history is one long, tortured game of telephone like finding out that parts of it just plain didn't happen. Among the things that never existed (or at least not in the way we were taught), you find ...
The Word "Ye"
You've seen this on the signs of little shops that are trying to be quaint and old-fashioned, usually phrased as "Ye Olde _____ Shoppe":
"People couldn't spell for shit before they invented dictionaries."
So that's the way people talked back then, right? Sentences were full of "thou"s and "thee"s and "ye"s. Go to any Renaissance Fair and you'll find as many "ye"s as leather corsets.
The Y at the beginning of "Ye" isn't actually a Y at all. It's an Old English -- excuse us, Olde English -- letter called thorn:
Oh, and it's pronounced "th." So when you read "Ye Olde Dildo Shoppe," you're really reading "The Old Dildo Shop." Now don't you feel stupid for buying old dildos?
So how did we get duped into putting "ye" in front of our 20th century American English pubs? When the printing press first took off in the 15th century, German typesetters were the ones making the letters, and they didn't have a symbol for thorn because, well, they were German, not English. So the first English printers had to improvise with the letters they were given. This included the letter Y, which in the handwritten form looked a lot like thorn.
"Fuck it, I'm not figuring out how to carve that on a block."
This was fine, since readers of the time knew to pronounce "ye" as "the" because they recognized the intention. But that context got lost over time, for the same reason future historians are going to have no idea why people in our era kept substituting the number 4 in place of "for." And they'll have no idea what to do with something like "Ke$ha."
Here's a fun game: Look up "dinosaurs" on Google Images. Now look up stills from The Land Before Time. OK, now look at dinosaur coloring books. Toys. Garanimals outfits. Bed sheets. Bandaids from the pediatrician's office. Tattoos. Fantasia. Oh, we forgot to tell you to count up how many brontosauruses you saw. Trust us when we say "dozens."
Some of whom died tragically.
We've got terrible, terrible news for you: The brontosaurus as you know it never existed. We're so sorry.
Here's what happened: Back in the 1870s there was a massive rush to find and assemble dinosaur bones. The first person to find a new dinosaur fossil would get to name it, after all, and who wants to miss their chance to find history's first Orgasmosaurus? There were two bone hunters in particular who had a kind of Sosa/McGwire thing going on, minus the juicing (we assume). In 1877, Othniel C. Marsh found the skeleton of a leaf-eating, long-necked, long-tailed dinosaur. He was just missing the head, so he substituted a different dinosaur's head to complete the picture. He named his find "apatosaurus" -- Greek for "deceptive lizard" -- apparently implying that the lying bastard had intentionally fossilized itself with the wrong head.
"In a few million years, this is gonna be hilarious."
Meanwhile, Marsh's fellow paleontologist Edward Cope was making his own discoveries. But instead of encouraging one another with a gentle but friendly rivalry, the two used spies and thugs to sabotage each other. When Marsh found another long-necked specimen two years later, he was so paranoid that Cope would get to it first that he hurried up and named it "brontosaurus." This one had more bones and actually got mounted, but not in a sexual way, in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
What Marsh didn't understand was that he hadn't found a new species at all -- he had found another apatosaurus, just one with the correct head (it also had extra pelvic vertebrae, but that was because it was younger than the specimen the last guy had found). So there never was a separate dinosaur called brontosaurus: It was just a screwup by a paleontologist. Even stranger, scientists figured this out as early as 1903, but the "brontosaurus" made it to a museum first, so we've been calling it that ever since.
Paleontologists weren't as diligent back then, but they were way more heavily armed.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
On the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World you have things like the Pyramids at Giza, which are still around, and the massive Lighthouse of Alexandria, which is long gone. But then you have the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which apparently never existed at all.
Ah, the ancient lynx-and-wine orgies that could have been.
If you're not familiar with the Hanging Gardens or why they were a big deal, just imagine if a section of Central Park was 80 feet above ground. We're not just talking about the riding paths and urine-soaked vagrants, but every tree you can imagine, flower beds, and statues -- all of it up in the air, supported by stone columns.
The story goes that, deep in the deserts of what is now Iraq, King Nebuchadnezzar II's wife was homesick for the lush foliage of her homeland, so Neb commissioned an elaborate terraced pleasure garden for her benefit. And while, say, the pyramids were just a one-time deal, the Hanging Gardens would have been a sprawling, ongoing project requiring engineering knowledge that surpassed everything else at the time -- you're trying to keep water flowing to all of these tiers of suspended foliage in the middle of the freaking desert.
"Sand can eat our Mesopotamian dicks."
It's hard to overstate how impressive an achievement it was. Or would have been, had it been true.
There are no records of the Hanging Gardens having existed at Babylon. Experts today believe that the myth of the Hanging Gardens was perpetuated by soldiers returning to Greece from Babylon. They told exaggerated tales of the things they saw -- Babylon did have some sweet buildings, and the land was more fertile back then -- and in turn the ancient historians made those descriptions even more fanciful, until we had a Wonder of the Ancient World on our hands.
"Yeah, this shit'll never do. Needs way more plants.
But surely there must have been something there for the ancients to embellish, right? Well, a tablet was found in the Assyrian city of Nineveh that has a depiction of a garden, which has one Assyriologist raising the possibility that Babylon's gardens were actually an exaggerated, overhyped version of something that existed elsewhere, maybe.
By the way, the tablet looks like this:
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: People could not draw worth a shit back then.
The First "End of the World" Scare
Let's give credit where credit is due. Maybe we spent the turn of the millennium freaking out over our computers and hoarding bottled water and canned goods and mechanical can openers, but at least we didn't go nuts like some people. After all, as the news media tells us, these millennial freakouts happen every thousand years. You may have heard during the Y2K panic that back in the year 999, the Christian faithful were so sure that Jesus was returning that they prayed obsessively, forgave debts, gave all their possessions away, pardoned criminals, and stopped tending their fields. Some even flocked to Jerusalem in anticipation of the return of Christ.
With all this hype, we'll be lucky if it isn't a bigger disappointment than the Star Wars prequels.
So while a few crazies today obsessively prepare for the apocalypse, we're not exactly shutting everything down in a blind panic as a society. Not like those dipshits back then.
European Christians were too busy with the day-to-day business of not starving to death to get caught up in an apocalypse-prepping panic. For one thing, they could barely agree on which year it was, so it's kind of hard to get worked up over the next round number on the calendar when you thought the fatal day had already passed a few years ago. For another, these people were always anticipating the return of Christ. It was kind of their thing, ever since John scribbled down some incoherent ramblings about horsemen of the apocalypse and a whore of Babylon.
His motivation is lost to time.
Which is why historians have been dismissing the notion of widespread panic at the last turn of the millennium for more than a hundred years now. No one went crazy. No one flocked to Jerusalem. People just went about their ordinary business of being dirty and hungry, maybe with an occasional look to the sky, just in case.
What's really interesting is how the rumors of collective millennial shit-losing got started in the first place. The stories actually began in 1605 when a Catholic cardinal mentioned the panic in his history of the church. Protestants later used the stories as evidence of how unenlightened and superstitious Catholics were. Finally, a politically motivated 19th century French historian embellished the accounts as a final indictment against the church. By the time he was done with the first millennial scare, a retroactive mass hysteria had seized all of religious Europe. We almost wish we could be here in a thousand years to see what our ancestors have to say about our handling of the year 2000.
"It's probably a good thing the robo-syphilis outbreak of 2016 killed most of 'em."
The House of Tudor
Even if you're not the world's biggest Anglophile, you probably know about Henry VIII, aka "That king who kept beheading his wives because they wouldn't give him a son."
"Kings don't pay no alimony."
The story there is that his dad was Henry Tudor when he took over the throne of England, and in order for the Tudor name to continue, Henry VIII needed boys, not girls, to keep the lineage alive. Henry's wife Catherine delivered a daughter and some not-living boys before her womb dried out altogether, so Hank moved heaven and hell to divorce her for a new wife, causing a massive upheaval at the time. Anything to keep the Tudor monarchy going, right?
Eventually, Henry's daughter Queen Elizabeth I died childless and the Stuart era began. Too bad for the legendary family known as the Tudors. The whole drama makes for a pretty good soap opera.
Everyone in this picture looks so fancy, you can almost forget that their lives were one long chain of chronic diarrhea.
You know how no one who lived in the Dark Ages actually thought of themselves as living through the Dark Ages? The phrase was invented by later historians as a nice way to break up that bit of history from the years before and the years after. It's the same thing with the idea of a "House of Tudor" or "Tudor England."
For one thing, the first Tudor king wasn't too crazy about throwing his last name around because he came from humble origins. Apparently, "Tudor" was like the "Jim Bob" of the day. After scouring contemporary documents, one historian found one single lonely mention of the word "Tudor," and that was in a poem written after Elizabeth's death.
She was mistakenly killed by a vampire hunter.
The point being, subjects living under Elizabeth's or Mary's or Henry's reign wouldn't have been nearly as concerned about whose house was named what -- they were probably more concerned about whether or not Bloody Mary was going to execute them for Protestantism. In fact, when Elizabeth died, the country was relieved that there was a quick succession that didn't involve an invasion or revolt. If they were lamenting the end of the Tudor era, they didn't let it show. Unfortunately, all of this means that we're not going to get to take reruns of The Tudors very seriously anymore.
The Female Pope
If you've never heard the story of "Pope Joan," we feel sorry for you, because it's awesome. For instance, if your initial reaction to hearing the name was "I didn't know they let women be pope at all," well, that's the point -- they don't. This is the story of a woman who pulled off the con of a millennium.
Despite the handicap of a right arm that started well below her waistline.
In the ninth century, a German woman named Joan started studying at a monastery, claiming to be a man. Covered from head to toe in junk-hiding monk clothes like everyone else, no one suspected that she wasn't a dude. Then she made her way to Rome, where she became a secretary to a cardinal. And when the pope died, according to one 12th century chronicler, Joan was deemed the best person for the job.
For two whole years she pulled off the charade, until the day came when she gave birth in the street during a procession.
To a toddler, apparently.
The story gets fuzzy from there. While still trailing afterbirth, Joan died or was stoned by the crowd or was dragged from the tail of a horse, a worthy punishment for being a religious leader with a vagina.
For centuries after, papal processions avoided the street where Joan plopped out a Pope Jr. A statue was erected to commemorate the story. Her face showed up on ancient Roman tarot cards and statues in cathedrals. For years, each papal candidate was forced to sit on the sedes stercoraria, a special throne with a hole cut in the seat ... so cardinals could reach up underneath to confirm there were balls a-danglin'. Like this:
"While I'm down here, how about the ol' stroke-and-wiggle?"
Someone even made a whole movie about Pope Joan's story, shockingly not starring Tilda Swindon or Glenn Close.
Aaaaand, it's bullshit.
Unfortunately, Pope Joan's story has some birth-canal-sized plot holes. Like the year of Pope Joan's coronation, 855. That can't be right, because Leo IV was immediately replaced by Benedict III in 855. Unless she was actually John VIII, who reigned from 872 until 882, except that fully penised guy had his own backstory and sad demise. There really are no empty spots in the church's history where a theoretical mystery pope could have stepped in.
Or squatted down.
The most damaging evidence against Pope Joan is the fact that there are no contemporary references or relics that support her existence -- no commissioned paintings of a suspiciously feminine pope or papal panties or anything.
As for the reason the church avoided that street where she allegedly gave birth, it was because it was too narrow for the pope's entourage. And the statue erected on the spot had actually always been there -- it was a pagan goddess later attributed to Pope Joan. And as for the part everyone wishes were true -- that every pope has to go through a laborious scrotum-groping ritual -- we have to disappoint you once again. It was a conclusion people came to when they saw the hole in the sedes stercoraria, which is really a ceremonial toilet.
His Holy Taco Poops are too good for regular porcelain.
Maybe that's the real story here -- that somebody who at one time was considered an expert looked at a chair with a hole in it and instead of thinking "toilet" thought "This must be the pope's nut-grabbing chair." We've got to say, we kind of like how that guy's mind worked.
When Paige Turner isn't writing about dicks on the Internet, she's ... writing about dicks elsewhere. Matt Martin is currently in training to become a novel editor. Send him a PM if you're interested in hiring him for some cheap freelance work.
For more ways your school is full of a bunch of liars, check out 6 Ridiculous History Myths (You Probably Think Are True) and 5 Fictional Stories You Were Taught in History Class.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 5 'Are You Afraid of the Dark?' Shows With Adult Messages.
And stop by LinkSTORM to watch some sweet, sweet brontosaurus sex.
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