How long does it take for a myth to be accepted as truth? For a fable to go from the pages of fiction to being taught in elementary schools? Centuries? Thousands of years? I would like to say that it takes a very long time, but all it really seems to take is a very good story.
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain. And he discovered the new world because everyone else thought the world was flat! Everyone knows that Columbus was a daredevil, bucking the flat earth hypothesis. That is how my elementary teachers taught it. It was the Middle Ages after all. People were silly back then. Wearing puffy pantaloons, they had to believe foolish things like that! Right?
Well, humanity knew that the world was a sphere dating back to the Greeks. Around the first century, geographers like Ptolemy and Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth. The trouble was that their math didn’t agree. Ptolemy thought the world was roughly 16,000 miles around. Eratosthenes figured it was closer to 23,000. (The true value is 24,900.) In the Middle Ages it was known thar the world was round and at the time believed in the larger number.
Christopher Columbus argued for an earth smaller than what experts knew it to be. His request for funding was rejected many times because it was thought impossible, not because anyone believed the earth was flat. Christopher Columbus was actually extremely lucky that he hit the Bahamas, or else he would have died wandering at sea.
So, how did we get this modern myth? Well, just ask a great writer! Washington Irving wrote the “Life and Voyagages of Christopher Columbus” in 1828. Although deemed a biography, the book is mostly fiction. Including Columbus confronting the foolish, pantaloons-wearing, flat-world believing Middle Ages. Historians at the time knew the book to be fiction, but it quickly spread through popular culture. Irving is the man that brought us “Rip Van Winkle” and “Sleepy Hollow.” His impact on popular culture gave a nice myth about Christopher Columbus.
Listen, my children and you shall hear | Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere!
Again, another modern myth created by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His famous poem took many liberties with the events of the evening. He took the distance of three riders and gave it all to Revere. Mainly because Israel Bissell and Sybil Ludington didn’t rhyme very well, even those two took much more impressive midnight rides. In total, sixty people helped spread the warning. Revere was not the lone hero the poem portrays. Also, the famous cry, “The British are coming!” probably never existed. All of the colonists considered themselves British. Lastly, the warning was supposed to be secretive and would not have been shouted.
For a long time, historians of the American Revolution and even textbook writers used the poem as historical evidence. And because of this, modern America knows a lot about Paul Revere but little about the truth. It is a celebrated fact in Boston with Paul Revere’s house on the freedom trail.
If text book writers borrow from poems and elementary teachers borrow from fictional biographies, how can we really judge historical truth? Obviously, popular culture may give us a great and harrowing tale of the underdog or the lone wolf, but only by looking at well documented recorded history, like extensive colonial diaries, do we get the more honest picture. Simple text book authors make mistakes, mainly in their pricing. Teachers teach what is in the textbooks and so the myths proliferate.
Modern myths are all around. George Washington and the Cherry Tree. (A politician that can’t lie, that’s a good one!) Johnny Appleseed. John Henry. Molly Pitcher. And although they might be based on a little bit of truth, most of the tale is fanciful exaggeration. Which goes to show that all it really takes for people to believe something is to have a really good story.