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When History Becomes Legend
By Hope, 11 April 2007; Revised
Category: General History Articles
History becomes legend and legend becomes myth. As long as humans have told each other stories, truths has been transformed into legends and eventually myths, thus, creating what we, in modern terms, call pseudo history. In addition, we have hoaxes, fairy tales and deceptions. We might think that in our modern days of information and critical thinking, false history no longer is able to deceive the masses, but, we are proven wrong time after time. Humanity has always been easy to fascinate with stories, and this fascination has allowed pseudo history to participate in the development of society. When a lie is repeated often enough, it turns into truth, or rather, it appears true. Consequently, lies become powerful weapons of mass deception and, thus, lies add to the factors of development.
In his 2000 novel, Baudolino, Italian novelist, Umberto Eco, tells the story of an Italian and his friends who search for the Empire of Prester John – or John the Priest, which is his Anglo Saxon name. This fascinating mixture of legends and truth is well worth a read, and it focuses on how a lie can become what people believe is the truth.
The legend of Prester John and his empire of wonders was established at the same time as the first crusade was launched. Islam was considered a ferocious threat to Christian Europe, and, probably, in order to encourage the soldiers of Europe, legends told of a Christian king situated in the Far East with a large army ready to vanquish their Islamic opponents. Hugh of Jabalyah, a Syrian bishop, told about this legend in Rome in 1145, and, some years later, Pope Alexander III received a letter from this king whom, although he was a Nestorian and, thus, a heretic, the Pope cherished so much that he offered John a church in Rome.
Prester John never existed, although there were Nestorian congregations in the Far East, but the legend remained for centuries. The location of his wonderful realm changed, moving from a Mongolian location to India and later to Ethiopia. When the Portuguese reached Ethiopia in 1453, they believed they had entered the Empire of Prester John, but they were sadly disappointed when it turned out that the Portuguese had to help the Ethiopians against Islamic invaders instead of the other way around, as the Portuguese had hoped. Eventually, this legend paled and became accepted as a legend and nothing more, at least among scholars. Yet, even today, we find individuals who support the legend, for instance, novelist Wilbur Smith in his stories River God (1993) and Birds of Prey (1997). If these claims were seriously intended, I do not know.
Legends such as Prester John, the Holy Grail, or the realms of Eldorado and Saguenay are only legends. Some of them had a historical foundation, but soon they evolved into myths. However, these myths and legends ignited exploration through centuries, and led to expeditions through the Americas, Africa, Asia, and, of course, the vast oceans.
A good, yet horrible, example of how pseudo history can influence society in a negative manner is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The protocols were written by Russians in order to justify their pogroms – suppression of Jews. The pogroms started in the late 19th century, but they escalated even more after the Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Someone had to be the scapegoat and the Jews turned out to be an ideal target. The protocols have later been used in Muslim countries to justify Anti-Semitic attitudes. Also, according to Philip Marsden in his On the Edge of the World (1999), there still are Caucasians – Christians – believing that The Protocols tell the truth.
When people do not know, they are often stunned by impressive research regardless of how false it is, and, when the first impression has been made, it can be difficult to change that impression. The book Holy Blood and Holy Grail (1986) by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln is a work of fiction based on a deception, which, in turn, has been based on ancient myths. For people with an agenda against Christianity, this has been very popular and through the fiction novel, The Da Vinci Code, it has become even more popular. But, again, what appears true is only fiction despite what numerous people actually believed after having read these two books. It should be noted, however, that Holy Blood and Holy Grail merely suggests a theory, but they also claim their theory is based on facts, which is not true.
Holy Blood and Holy Grail – and, thus, consequently, the Da Vinci Code – is in many ways a culmination of centuries of pseudo history. Elements such as the legends of the Catholic saints, Black Sarah of the Gypsies, the Holy Grail, the Templar worship of Baphomet, the mystery of Abbè Saunière and so on are all part of an old European tradition of mixed myths, and, when these are connected, the product is a quite astonishing piece of legend. The result, however, is that when presented in a professional manner, people accept it. And when people accept it, they are fooled.
Some legends are based on truth, such as the realms of Eldorado and Saguenay, others are merely hoaxes, like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while others are based on deceptions like Holy Blood and Holy Grail. What it proves, however, is that regardless of age and era, humans are easily deceived and easily impressed.
Bjørn Are Davidsen
Michèle Gavet-Imberg and Perrine Cambournac:
(*) – These books only slightly mention some of the issues mentioned, but they are well worth a read.