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5 Famous Historical ‘Facts’ That Are Actually Completely False

#1 Witches weren’t burned at the stake

J.J. Pryor
Jun 1 · 6 min read

Who doesn’t like the friendly neighborhood Know-It-All? Okay, probably everyone. But that won’t stop you from wanting to learn the truth behind many of life’s mysteries, right?

Especially when most of us are taught the complete opposite of what really happened. Sure, we can point fingers at movies, culture, or Mr. Smiggles, our wacky high school history teacher for unintentionally (hopefully) misleading us.

But at the end of the day, knowing the reality behind history is something only each one of us can fix — through learning.

Here are 5 of my favorite popular historical stories that are actually false. So go ahead and drop some truth bombs on your friends after reading this.

Because if you want to be an annoying Know-It-All, you should probably actually know it all, first.

Witches Weren’t Burned at the Stake

Accused children of the Salem Witch Trials
The accused witches (Photo by Alfred Fredericks, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

Despite what your ‘favorite’ teen fantasy drama would have you believe, witches weren't actually burned at the stake — in America, at least.

Back in the lovely year of 1692, in the now-infamous town of Salem, Massachusets, Betty Parris and Abigail Williams starting behaving a bit…odd.

They were described as screaming, yelling, throwing things, speaking in tongues, and contorting themselves into what we would probably now call Nouveau Yoga and pay $99 a month for the class.

While nothing was physically wrong with them, the affliction soon started spreading. People were scared sh*tless and did what authorities usually do in America when encountering things they don’t like — they arrested more than 200 people.

Of those, around 25 people were put to death after being accused of being witches. None of them were burned at the stake, though.

19 died from hanging, 5 met their demise while in jail, and 1 unlucky male victim was pressed to death with stones. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather die from being stoned in another kind of way.

The origin of the prevailing myth is very likely to have come from Europe, where a law ratified by the Catholic church — Constitutio Criminalis Carolina — resulted in an estimated 50,000 people being confined to death for witchcraft. Most of them, however, were burned after being executed.

What actually caused the initial fits of craziness? Its usually referred to as one of America’s first incidences of mass hysteria, and certainly one of the most infamous.

King Tut’s Tomb Wasn’t Cursed

Howard Carter examining the tomb of King Tut
Howard Carter examining King Tut (Credit: The New York Times Photo Archive, Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons)

Not to say that you believe in curses, but people do have a propensity to believe in the stuff.

Not me though. I’m a practitioner of logic. Just keep your black cats the hell away from my ladders, please.

As for King Tutankhamun’s place of burial being mystically deadly to those who first broke into his tomb — that’s a complete work of fiction.

The idea there was a curse, to begin with, was based in some reality, though. It was a curse of the pursuit of money.

Newspapers at the time — and still to this day of course — were in a constant battle for more eyeballs and sales. When a prominent figure named George Herbert, an Earl from England, died shortly after helping Howard Carter go graverobbing in Egypt, some enterprising journalists found their next viral piece.

And thus the ‘curse of the pharaohs’ was born. The Earl actually passed away from pneumonia after suffering from poor health for almost 2 decades.

Or maybe King Tut sneezed. Not sure.

Romans Didn’t Have a Special Building to Vomit

An ancient pictorial of a man puking
Not a vomitorium (Credit: Wellcome Library, London, Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons)

You may have heard of the infamous vomitorium, where esteemed Romans would gorge themselves on fine food until the point of vomiting in an ancient all-you-can-eat buffet — sans delicious General Tsao’s chicken.

The reality is much less exciting, especially for food lovers.

Vomitorium comes from Latin — shocker — and is derived from the word ‘vomoand means “to spew out” or “discharge.”

While even the meaning of the word suggests Italian sausages were deep throated to beyond the point of pleasure, it simply meant a passageway behind seats at stadiums where people could quickly traverse to different areas of the building.

So, technically speaking, vomitoriums still exist in most of our cities around the world.

And if you’ve ever tried eating too many $15 day-old hotdogs at a baseball game, you just might be able to bring back the false meaning of the word next time you go.

Christopher Columbus Didn’t ‘Discover’ America

A painting of Christopher Columbus
A possibly shocked Christopher Columbus (Credit: By Sebastiano del Piombo, Public Domain, WikiMedia Commons)

Despite what the national holiday tells us, Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first European to set foot on American soil.

That honor belongs to a man who later became the chief of a lovely little town in Greenland called Eiríksfjǫrð. A man named Leif Erikson, who was born where all drinks are perpetually served on the rocks — Iceland.

Leif is now thought to have created a small settlement on the Canadian province/island of the surely coincidentally named Newfoundland.

In fact, if true, he beat ol’ Chrissy by almost 500 years. Strangely enough, he was also Christian — even though it was still taboo at the time in Viking culture.

While some historians believe a merchant named Bjarni Herjólfsson actually discovered the newfound land first, he was reported to have just sailed by without landfall.

The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site called L’Anse aux Meadows. While my French is a bit rough these days, I’m pretty sure it stands for ‘Christopher Columbus is fake news.’

300 Spartans Didn’t Defend Against 10,000 Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae

A painting of King Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae
A tasteful King Leonidis (Credit: By Jacques-Louis David, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

During the sunny August of 480 BC, the Greek city-state of Sparta was busy celebrating one of their most important festivals of the year. The week-long holiday of ‘Carnea’ was a tribute to Apollo Karneios, the god of flocks and herds.

As part of this homage, the worshippers were forbidden to participate in a war of any kind, lest the bipolar god ruin their source of food for the next year.

This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, except the Persian King Xerxes I was on his way to seek revenge for his father who tried invading Greece 10 years earlier. Hint: he failed.

But because of this festival, King Leonidas of Sparta was only able to muster up his personal guard of 300 soldiers to bring with him to defend. That, and 4,000 other soldiers from different city-states which movies tend to forget.

And while that might’ve been more than enough for the extremely well-positioned Greek soldiers to defend against only 10,000 enemy Persians — this too is a myth.

There were more like 100,000–150,000 soldiers there to face off with little Leonidas.

They did defend themselves for 3 days of battle (7 in total), they did get betrayed by a countryman who led Xerxes down a backroad through the mountains, and they did have a last stand where everyone died — except it was 1,500 people.

Not 300.

But in the end, I suppose painting 6-pack abs on 1,500 actors may have been a tad too far out of budget for Zack Snyder’s cult classic film.

J.J. Pryor

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Delving into the past to understand the world we live in today

J.J. Pryor

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𝗜 𝗹𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗻 • 𝗜 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱 • 𝗜 𝗼𝗯𝘀𝗲𝘀𝘀 • 𝗜 𝘄𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗲 • 𝗕𝗼𝗼𝗸𝘀: amzn.to/3mzdiUg 𝗟𝗲𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘀: jjpryor.substack.com

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

J.J. Pryor

Written by

𝗜 𝗹𝗶𝘀𝘁𝗲𝗻 • 𝗜 𝗿𝗲𝗮𝗱 • 𝗜 𝗼𝗯𝘀𝗲𝘀𝘀 • 𝗜 𝘄𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗲 • 𝗕𝗼𝗼𝗸𝘀: amzn.to/3mzdiUg 𝗟𝗲𝘁𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘀: jjpryor.substack.com

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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