Our Fake History
Our Fake History
Om Our Fake History
A podcast about myths we think are history and history that might be hidden in myths! Awesome stories that really (maybe) happened!
A Columbus biographer once wrote that the famous navigator had an "an imperfect understanding of the line between truth and falsity." The Genoese mariner had a habit of lying, exaggerating, or revising history in service of what he believed were his "higher ends." The fact that Columbus is such an unreliable narrator makes retracing his voyages particularly challenging. The first voyage across the Atlantic would nearly disintegrate as Columbus lost control of his subordinates and lost his flagship to the sea. But despite these near-disasters, the man styling himself Admiral of the Ocean Sea was intent on spinning the entire voyage as a roaring success. If nothing else he had found lands filled with people, who he felt confident he could conquer. Tune-in and find out how a false log, hawk's bells, and the world's most unlucky cabin boy all play a role in the story.
There are few historical figures whose reputation has swung in as many extreme directions as Christopher Columbus. The Genoese mariner once credited with "discovering America" has in recent years been called out as genocidal conqueror and slave trader. In 2020 many statues of Columbus across the United States were toppled by protestors, quite literally taking the man off of his pedestal. Why does the figure of Christopher Columbus continue to inspire so much passion from both his detractors and defenders? Despite the fact that Columbus may be one of the most famous names in history, many of us remain hazy on the specific details of his life and voyages. How well do the facts of his life align with his myth? Tune-in and find out how atomic bombs, bad math, and tales of "Cipango" all play a role in the story.
On today's show Sebastian has the opportunity to talk to one of his favourite film critics, podcasters, and cultural observers, the great Amy Nicholson. Amy writes about film for the New York Times and is featured regularly in Variety, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. She is also the co-host of the wonderful movie podcast Unspooled, that she makes with actor and comedian Paul Sheer. Amy and Sebastian explore the importance of accuracy in historically themed movies, the most irresponsible history films, and movies that capture something true about the past while indulging in historical myths. Tune-in and find out how Elvis' mesh shirts, Hitler's lunch order, and Sebastian's middle name all play role in the story.
If you managed to get through elementary school math then you have almost certainly heard the name Pythagoras. The ancient Greek thinker has been celebrated as the man who first discovered the mathematical relationship between the sides of a right triangle. This has been known for centuries as the Pythagorean Theorem. But, if you poke your nose a little deeper into his story you will discover that he was also worshipped by some as a nearly divine figure who could communicate with animals, recall his past lives, and even had a thigh made out of pure gold. However, there were some who thought that Pythagoras was little more than a clever charlatan with a thirst for power. Who really was this strange character? Should he even be given credit for the famous triangle equation? Tune in and find out how Babylonian math homework, a prank drinking cup, and a taboo on beans all play a role in the story.
The myth of Mata Hari would have us believe that she was a turn-of-the-century super-spy. She has been celebrated as a master of the "honey trap" tactic, where a beautiful spy seduces her mark and extracts sensitive information over pillow talk. But, in reality Mata Hari was a remarkably ineffective spy. In short time dabbling in the world of espionage, she did very little that could be considered "spying." Her career as a "secret agent" lasted just over a year. There is very little evidence that in that time she managed to learn any information that was useful to either the German or French intelligence services. Despite this Mata Hari still managed to get collared by the French, who were convinced she had betrayed secrets to their enemies. Did Mata Hari deserve her fate in front of French firing squad? Tune-in and find out how smokescreens, broken codes, and a secret base inside the Eiffel Tower all play a role in the story.
Between 1905 and 1908 the dancer professionally known as Mata Hari was one of the best known entertainers in Europe. Her nearly-nude dances were given an air of respectability thanks to her presentation as Javanese temple dancer performing sacred religious rites. But by the outbreak of WWI her star had started to fade. To maintain her lavish lifestyle she began to rely heavily on her wealthy lovers. These lovers were often military men who fought on opposing sides of the war. This made Mata Hari of interest to a number of different intelligence services. Both the Germans and the French may have tried to recruit her as a spy. But did she ever do any real spying? Tune-in and find out how exotic dancer rip-offs, confiscated furs, and grey-area sex work, all play a role in the story.
In 1905 a woman claiming to be a Javanese temple dancer rocketed to fame in Europe. Her name was Mata Hari and her nearly-nude dances were presented as profound religious experiences. But, Mata Hari was selling a fantasy. She was actually a Dutch woman born Margaretha Zelle. Her real origins were considerably less glamorous than the fiction she presented on stage. If there is anything more surprising than Mata Hari's meteoric rise, it's her tragic fall. In 1917 Margaretha Zelle would be executed by a firing squad after being found guilty of espionage against France. How was this exotic dancer roped into the high stakes world of wartime espionage? Was she really guilty of the crimes they accused her of? Tune-in and find out how a goat wagon, a trick rider, and yet another fake Asian all play a role in the story.
In the 1580's Japan was a on the precipice of a massive transformation. For over a century the country had been embroiled in war, but by 1581 the end seemed to be in sight. The powerful Lord Oda Nobunaga was on the path to unifying the fractured nation. It was at this time that a remarkable man from East Africa, known as Yasuke, came into his service. Nobunaga would take a shine to this foreigner and would eventually honour him with a ceremonial sword and a monthly stipend. For many historians this makes Yasuke the first ever foreigner born Samurai. Legend has it that he played a pivotal role in Oda Nobunaga's final living moments. Should we trust these stories of Samurai derring-do? Tune-in and find out how a loosely tied top knot, a public scrubbing, and the slippery definition of "samurai" all play a role in the story.
Near the end of Japan's "Warring States" period a remarkable visitor arrived in the country with a group of European Jesuit missionaries. He was a soldier originally from East Africa acting as a bodyguard for the ranking Jesuit in Japan. The Japanese would come to know this man as Yasuke and through a surprising series of events he would go on to become the first non-Japanese person to be recognized as a Samurai. Unfortunately, sources concerning the life of Yasuke are few. With only a handful of primary sources and a few colorful legends how much can we know for sure about the African Samurai? Tune-in and find out how Indian slave-soldiers, brawling saints, and the Wu-Tang Clan all play a role in the story.
Houdini had a truly impressive run as an entertainer. In the decade between 1904 and 1913 he developed a number of escapes and illusions that are still considered the gold-standard for stage magicians. Houdini's "Milk Can" and "Chinese Water Torture" escapes are still inspiring magicians to this day. Houdini's stock and trade was deception and yet by the early 1920's he became tireless campaigner against people he considered frauds. He became convinced that "spiritualist mediums" were using magicians tricks to con grieving families into believing that they could communicate with the dead. He believed that his quest to expose the spiritualists would become his greatest legacy. Sadly, Houdini's life was cut short after a strange incident in Montreal. Is there more to the story of Houdini's death? Tune-in and find out how Orson Wells, Sherlock Holms, and ectoplasmic goo all play a role in the story.
Over the course of 1899 Harry Houdini went from being an obscure circus performer to being one of the best known entertainers in America. He became known as the "Handcuff King" and made headlines challenging police departments to lock him in a pair of cuffs that could hold him. His rise to fame was aided by his savvy understanding of the media and an ability manipulate the papers. These manipulations would overtime become part of the Houdini myth. Houdini lived a life filled with misdirections. Is it possible he was secretly living a double life as a spy? Tune-in and find out how provincial "lunatic asylums", mouth needles, and remarkably timed deaths all play role in the story.
The word "iconic" gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but there are some figures who truly earn the descriptor. Micheal Jordan and Mohammed Ali are icons because they truly transcended their sport. In the same way Harry Houdini is bigger than magic. Houdini is easily the best remembered performer in the history of stage magic. Despite his enduring fame his life story remains clouded by myth. Houdini was a professional liar, but he also considered himself to be deeply moral. He took other performers to task for their deceptions, while also cultivating a rich tapestry of legend around his life and career. Was Houdini a hypocrite or is there such a thing as a "moral lie"? Tune-in and find out how raw meat injuries, bullet-catch catastrophes, and a rabbi-for-hire all play a role in the story.
In 1703 a curious character arrived in London claiming to be a native of the island of Formosa. These days Formosa is better known as Taiwan, but in early 18th century it was a place barely understood by most Europeans. The Formosan visitor, George Psalmanazar, was eager to teach his English hosts everything there was no to know about his home island. The only problem was that Psalmanazar was a fraud. He was a European who had never travelled east of Germany. He concocted elaborate tales about Formosa's history, politics, and religion. Psalmanazar even invented his own language, that was complex enough to pass as authentic. The oddest thing about this case was that Psalmanazar in no way disguised his appearance.He was a light-skinned, blond haired, European who was able to convince most people he encountered he was from East Asia. How did he get away with this? Tune-in and find out how naughty priests, Halley's comet, and the hearts of 20,000 sacrificed children all play a role in the story.
Some of the most legendary figures to emerge from the history of the American West were the rough-and-ready "mountain men". But, the most legendary mountain man of all had to be the cannibal, Liver Eating Johnson. Stories would have us believe that sometime in the mid-1800's Johnson waged a one-man war against the indigenous Crow tribe to avenge the killing of his pregnant wife. Along the way he developed a taste for human flesh and started eating the raw livers of those that he killed. It's a wild story. Could any of it be true? Sebastian is joined by history professor, author, and host of History on Fire, Daniele Bolelli who helps him unpack the strange tale of one of the Old West's most grisly characters. Tune-in and find out how videogame cannon fodder, Wild West shows, and a frozen severed leg, all play a role in the story. Check out History on Fire here: http://historyonfirepodcast.com/
There is a story that as Galileo stood in front of the Inquisition and listened as they declared that the Earth did not revolve around the Sun, he whispered under his breath "and yet, it moves". This moment of defiance has been celebrated as Galileo's true "martyr" moment. But, there is no way that Galileo ever said that. While the official records produced by the Inquisition might make it seem like the "Galileo Affair" had been about the question of the Earth's motion, a closer look at the affair reveals that it was for more complicated (and personal) than that. Galileo did not valiantly defend his beliefs until he was threatened with torture. In fact, he argued to the end that he had been misunderstood and that he had never truly believed that the Earth circled the Sun. So why was Galileo "vehemently suspected of heresy"? Tune-in and find out how Pope poetry, cheeky character names, and the last great wrangle all play a role in the story.
Galileo is often credited with inventing the telescope, but he never made that claim. He simply whipped up his own take on the device and sold it to the Republic of Venice before his Dutch competitors could beat him to the punch. Galileo also gets credit for being the first person to point the telescope at the night sky. This is also untrue, but when he did start observing the moon, stars, and planets, his observations would turn astronomy on its head. In 1610 Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius, a short book outlining what had appeared to him through the lens of his telescope. The myth of Galileo would have us believe that these groundbreaking discoveries immediately put him in the crosshairs of Inquisition, but that wasn't really the case. Galileo's discoveries were celebrated by many clergymen, including the Pope, when they were first published. It would be more than two decades later when he found himself on trial for heresy. What changed? Tune-in and find out how angry Dutchmen, crystal spheres, and the Sages of the Order, all play a role in the story.
The Pisan scientist Galileo Galilei has been remembered as the "father of modern science." The discoveries he made with his telescope led to a completely new understanding of Earth's place in the cosmos. The theory first put forward by the Polish mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus, that the Earth revolved around the Sun, was affirmed by Galileo. The works published by Galileo expounding on these findings eventually led to him accused of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church. Galileo has gone down as a "martyr of science", but is that really accurate? Has the father of modern science become a modern myth? Tune-in and find out how togas at the brothel, swinging lamps, and someone called "the wrangler" all play a role in the story.
Did you know that the Amazons once waged war on Atlantis? According to the ancient historian Diodorus of Sicily, the Amazons conquered Atlantis while carving out an empire in Northern Africa. This may have all been pure legend, but Diodorus, like most ancient historians, believed that the Amazons had been an historical people. Other historians believed that the Amazons eventually interbred with the nomadic Scythians were slowly integrated into their society on the Eurasian steppe. In fact, one modern author believes that archaeological evidence has demonstrated that female warriors were quite common among the Scythians. Could these Scythian warrior-women have been the "Historical Amazons". How seriously should we take this hypothesis? Tune-in and find out lovestruck Greeks, comic book nerds, and a brigade of young hunks all play a role in the story.
When the conquistador Francisco Orellana was attacked by a band of female warriors deep in the heart of South America, he thought immediately of the Amazons of Greek mythology. His encounter with this group would end up inspiring the name for the river he was navigating: the Amazon. The original Amazons were said to be society of ferocious female warriors who lived at the edge of the known world. In myth the Amazons tangled with many of greatest Greek heroes. Their all-female society stood in stark contrast to the deeply patriarchal ancient Greek city states. Were these fearsome women just a product of the ancient Greek imagination, or is there some truth to their story? Tune-in and find out how improvised brigantines, casual kidnappings, and the most slept-on epic battle in Greek myth all play a role in the story.
In this OFH throwback episode Sebastian is throwing you back to Episode #61 - What's the Problem with Socrates? Socrates has been celebrated as the “father of western philosophy”. This is particularly remarkable when you consider the fact that we know almost nothing about him for sure. What we consider “Socratic Philosophy” is what has been reported to us by his students. Should we trust what they are telling us about him? Tune in and find out how ancient fart jokes, free lunch, and a wrestler-turned-playwright-turned-philosopher all play a role in the story.
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