Day 533: Lies! History Is Teeming With Lies!

originally published June 16, 2013

It should come as no surprise that much of the trivial minutiae with which people pepper their conversations is either completely false or so deeply steeped in bullshit, the smell will linger for weeks. Sometimes the misconception becomes so widely proliferated it evolves into the understood truth. But truth is not a beverage meant to be shot back with haste; it should be savored and swooshed around the mind’s mouth for a little bit, its essence questioned and reaffirmed.

To that end, I hope to clear up some shit today. While the list of misconceptions is long and convoluted, I want to start with the trappings of false history to which so many of us adhere.

Be warned – I’m busting out some serious truths here. That said, they are truths broadcast by Wikipedia, a site whose veracity is often questioned (though in my experience, its facts generally hold up). Let’s begin in the vomitorium.

When the Romans would have their fill of wine and dead animal carcass, they would stroll over to the vomitorium, a room set up for purging in the middle of a meal so as to make room for tiramisu. Were the Romans so steeped in gustatory self-indulgence that they built a room just so they could cram two meals into one dining experience?

No, not even close. You know those tunnels either below or behind a tier of seats in a stadium through which large numbers of spectators can enter or exit? Those are vomitoria. Taken from the Latin root ‘vomeo’, meaning to spew forth, the vomitorium is a passageway designed for crowds to move in and out of the bleachers en masse. Vomiting in the vomitorium is not an appropriate thing to do.

Gotta love the Minnesota Vikings helmets: a vicious horn on each side, off-setting with a little bad-assery the fact that their purple uniforms are probably the least intimidating color scheme in the NFL, apart from the turquoise Jacksonville Jaguars and the 1970s-1990s Creamsicle-orange Tampa Bay Bucs. Except the horns are a lie. There is literally no evidence that Vikings ever wore horns upon their helmets.

The original image of the horn-touting Norseman comes not from unearthed anthropological relics, but from the set of a Richard Wagner opera called Der Ring des Nibelungen, produced in 1876. Before that, no one ever thought to stick a pair of horns on a Viking’s head.

When Christopher Columbus was looking for a few gazillion lira to make his voyage west from Italy to India, the story I learned in grade school was that people weren’t eager to pony up because they felt he’d sail off the edge of the obviously flat earth. While it’s true that many people believed that the earth was a tabletop, around which a wayward sailor was certain to plummet into an unknown abyss, most of the educated folks in 1492 – the ones Chris would have been hitting up for cash – knew the world was round.

Plato had known it, so had Aristotle. In 240BC, Eratosthenes even made an accurate estimation of the planet’s diameter. No, people were more concerned that Chris’s estimate of the distance of the voyage was way off. Which it was. Had North America not existed, and had Chris and his fleet actually continued cruising toward the east coast of Asia, they would have exhausted their supplies long before spotting land. It’s a good thing our little continent got in his way.

Well, sort of. Remember, Columbus landed on San Salvador, an island in the Caribbean Sea. Even had he dropped in on the continent proper, Leif Ericson (depicted above – note the lack of horns) had already ‘discovered’ the place first. European folks were already using the water up near Newfoundland as a place to catch some great fish.

Not to take away from Columbus. It took cajones to pack an inadequate amount of supplies into a trio of rickety boats and set sail on an uncharted course.

And while I’m on the topic of faultily referenced cranial accoutrements, can we please do away with the damn pilgrim buckle-hats? Pilgrims weren’t walking around dressed in all-black like some teen emo mope-fiends, feeling morose, moody and rejected by their native country, nor did they wear hats with curiously useless buckles on the front. The visuals of buckle-laden Pilgrims come from the 19th century, in an effort to evoke a more quaint, cutesy picture of history.

Oh, and that ‘first Thanksgiving’… not quite. The Spanish colony in St. Augustine, Florida was being thankful for what they’d been given back in 1565. The early settlers in Frobisher Bay (up in what is now Nunavut) held Thanksgiving in 1578. Even in Jamestown, Virginia, Thanksgiving was held in 1607. The myth of the 1621 turkey-fest at Plymouth Rock was the work of Sara Josepha Hale, a 19th century writer who spent years pushing for Thanksgiving to be an official American holiday.

You see? This is why I doubt history. A political lobbying campaign based on a myth becomes a widely-accepted fact.

And because I’m getting a little hungry, I’m going to finish up with a  smudged portion of food history. Again, I distinctly remember learning about this myth in school, the one about how Marco Polo trekked all the way to China and returned with a bucket of pasta upon which the Italians subsequently built their entire cuisine. It turns out that isn’t exactly true.

Marco did describe something similar to lasagna in his travels, but he described it using a term that he already knew. Durum wheat, the basis of the pasta we know and love today, showed up in the boot known as Italy when the Libyan Arabs conquered the island of Sicily way back in the late 7th century, roughly six hundred years before Marco wandered off to the far east.

Why do we believe the Polo-pasta myth? Salesmanship, of course. The Macaroni Journal, a publication put out by a conglomeration of food industries in an attempt to normalize pasta as a dish in the United States, first spread this lie. And because no one really knew enough to dispute it – except those who were specifically educated in Marco’s journeys, which wasn’t many people – it just became absorbed as truth among the masses.

History is full of lies. Kind of like the present. The moral here… don’t believe anything.

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