November 11, 2013

Myths in History: Why Do Myths Prevail?

Last week, I wrote a post entitled "Legends Never Die," which discussed the various lies or myths that I hear on a regular basis at the Colonial era site I work at. If you didn't read that one head on over to that post.

As someone who spends most of her time researching and reading the latest research in my field, I thought that visitors would be happy to be receiving the most up-to-date research. I was very wrong.

I've spent a lot of time wondering why history myths prevail. There are many myths in history that captivate the minds of many and they are terribly hard to kill. We typically learn these myths as children: "George Washington had wooden teeth."

 In music, they call a song that prevails, regardless of it's quality, an "earworm." Some common earworms include the I Dream of Jeanie theme song or anything by pop sensation, Ke$ha. Likewise history's "yesteryear worms" are wriggly, little buggers that stick in minds and are  a terrible thing to try and get rid of.

Reasons Myths Prevail:

- Habit: Some of these things are told just as a force of habit and we all know how hard it is to change habits. Also many of these myths are passed around from person to person.

- Good Stories: Myths typically make interesting stories or answer the pesky question "why" when it would otherwise go unanswered. People love a good story and myths give it to them.

- Confirmation: People like to hear reaffirmation for their beliefs about a time period and many myths cater to this. People like to hear just how horrible it was in the past because it fits with their view of the past. There are many myths that center around poor living conditions in the past.

- Superiority: Some myths make the teller feel more intelligent. Many myths make the teller feel intelligent because they know something clever that their peers don't know. Likewise, people also like to hear about how "backwards" people were in the past.

As history lovers, it's our job to dispel these false impressions of the past.  When confronted with a person asking about or telling a myth, the best course of action is typically to correct them in a polite manner such as "Some people theorize that this is true, but here is a reason it is probably not true," or " Historians believed that previously but new research has suggested that 'X' is not the case."

What myths have you been hearing lately in history?


  1. Here's a couple for you:
    1. That most women didn't know how to read during the Civil War era.
    2. Santa Claus wasn't called Santa Claus until sometime after the Civil War - he was known as St. Nicholas. (He was known quite popularly as Santa Claus beginning in the later 1840's - plus I have a January 1863 Harper's Weekly to prove that he was called Santa during the CW)
    3. (And my biggest pet peeve) People only lived to around 50 years old in the mid-19th century. Here - a posting I wrote explains it better:

    1. #3 People proclaim this on my tours all the time. :) That is a good post on it.

      The others are interesting too.

  2. It's funny to think of what myths will be told about us in a few hundred years. We tend to record a lot of what goes on in our lives, so it would be really neat to see what survives, and what the average person "knows" (or even cares to know) about us. Will things be exaggerated, or forgotten?

    I love the fact that you know the difference between many of these myths and the truth. One reason so many "history buffs" are so mistaken is that they don't do research for themselves. The closest they get is another's interpretation of research they have done, or even their interpretation of research yet another person has done!

    I love to hear about period sources, such as journals, books, and articles, that you have read, that brings us closer to the way the past really was. Having you share what you have read in actual period writing has helped to dispel some of the many misconceptions that are held about the way society was.

    1. Every time I am at the grocery store I think of all of the primary sources that future historians will use. Civil War enthusiasts love to study the popular ladies magazine Godey's. What will the historians deduce from the cover of Cosmo?

    2. Wow....I don't think I really want to know. :P


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