It is really hard for me to believe that I can sit around and talk about the “early days of the internet.” I’ve been using it for over twenty years now. Last year marked the twentieth year since I signed up for the now, almost dead, Yahoo. It’s passing has certainly marked a by gone era as social media has developed into something else entirely. I can remember the days when I thought Yahoo was something new, when most people were still using internet relay chat, which was still new to me because I was used to using Telnet in it’s more raw form.
The one thing that has not changed is that the people who have an axe to grind have followed the migrating herds of cyber users from one platform to the next. I suppose that is why I will eventually see the same urban legends finally catch up with me no matter where I try and go to get away from them. I thought many of these were gone for good, only to be eventually disappointed by watching new versions pop up on social media.
The other day I saw one that I thought had really died away so, I decided to write this. Now I have to qualify something here, I am not a Christian and, in fact, I do not have any religion at all. I do not even spend much of any time wondering about it beyond a few social aspects that question who we are and not if there are any supernatural beings. If I had a religion it would be history and, ultimately, that’s why I’ve written this. To me, getting the story straight is important, no matter what it says. Here are a few of the more common myths that I’ve seen over the past two decades that are dubious at best.
1. THE GREAT LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA
Considered one of the wonders of the ancient world, the Great Library was a repository of writings located in the city of Alexandria. It is one of the first known attempts to collect as many writings as possible, in one place, and considering how long it lasted, it was obviously successful. There are many legends surrounding it and, ironically, they are doing exactly what the library was built to combat, the act of making things up as you go. This is where the library has more in common with Area 51 than your local public library. Not for any lost knowledge of Atlantis but, it’s a case of, “what’s in the box.” There is nothing like a vacuum of information to draw speculation.
The most common myth surrounding the library is that it was destroyed by Christianity with fire. While riots by Coptic Christians did cause fires that burned some of the library, as far as we know, they were not deliberately targeting it. The library lasted for several centuries after. The fact is that the library had caught fire many times over the centuries that it stood, and this was but one. Just for the record, Julius Caesar also set fire to it when he laid siege to the city. So, who did destroy it? The Caliphate of Baghdad eventually captured the city and ordered it’s books used to fuel the Turkish bath houses.
This legend, of being destroyed by Christians, gained traction back in the 90’s and I even talked with people who believed the loss of the library, at the hands of the Christians, brought about the dark ages. It’s complete garbage since the Western Roman Empire had long since collapsed when the library was finally destroyed. The Eastern Empire would outlive it for centuries and was eventually destroyed by the very same forces that burned all those scrolls, Islam.
There are also those who claim that great, ancient, knowledge that was vastly superior to our own was lost. This seems rather unlikely. While the library at Alexandria was a novel idea, put to good use, and was likely one of the first attempts to build a database, the hype surrounding it meant that most people over looked the fact that success breeds copycats. By the time the library was gone, it had long since ceased to being unique. Most cities had their own at this point and all of them had copies of each others works. The human quest of knowledge is not a straight forward process. We gain and loose information all the time but, ultimately, it all comes to light. Do you really think the Caliph would have destroyed it if it had any value to him at all? He already had that information which is why he had no qualms about destroying what he found there!
2. HITLER WAS A CHRISTIAN
This little gem gets tossed around the net like a pre-school student trying to start a food fight with the kid across the table from him. In fact, that is pretty much what it is. The reality of Adolf Hitler’s religious beliefs are a lot more complicated than some would have you believe and, it is also a case of the most common of human failings, called, missing the point entirely.
Adolf Hitler’s mother, by all accounts, seems to have been a very devout Christian. She also seems to have used this to shelter her son from an overly abusive father. She sent young Adolf to a religious school, and had him involved in all of the usual kinds of programs that one would expect from a mother like that. What Adolf thought of all this was anyone’s guess because, nobody ever bothered to ask him. Judging by his behavior as a young man, none of it seemed to take. Adolf ran off to the big city to be an architect and any involvement he had in organized religion appears to have ended when he left home.
His later life is another story entirely. What people seem to be missing here is that his political party was a religion in it’s own right. It had everything that fit’s the definition including, patron saints and prophets, a holy text, customs and ceremonies, dogma, and finally predictions that either call for a grand future or an apocalyptic fall. The Nazi’s, despite having many Christians in their ranks, also had no use for Christianity. The older Hitler, the guy who led the Third Reich, believed in a fairy tale past that was in complete contradiction to the Christian mythology. Hitler’s beliefs had become quite new age and aligned more with modern neo-pagan’s than with anything that came out of the middle east.
Don’t believe it? Look up what Hitler’s number two guy, Heinrich Himmler, was doing. Himmler had plans on doing away with Christianity. These were not just passing thoughts, the guy was actively pursuing them for most of his Nazi career. He had turned the SS into a Nazi church, had bizarre rituals in a creepy old castle, and it was enough so that, once word got out, the Nazi’s started having problems with some of the clergy in Germany, who would later help in the plot to try and kill Hitler. Much ado is made of the Nazi’s negotiating with the Vatican but, you have to remember, they also negotiated with everybody else, usually right before they attacked them.
Still don’t think that this non sense on the net is nothing more than a childish attack? Joseph Stalin was far more religious than Hitler ever thought of being. He was actually set to be a priest, had spent years studying for it, and then finally dropped out for no other reason than he did not want to take the final exams. For some strange reason nobody ever bothers to mention that.
3. THE HOLY CRUSADES
This subject gets rapped up in any number of disconnected events and, at it’s heart, the misconceptions lay in several myths that are common to us. The most prominent is war propaganda and, I have found, what usually happens here is that someone finds out that some bit of info they believed is not true, automatically assumes that the opposite must be, and never bothers to find out the truth. I am certain it will not come as a great shock to anyone that governments lie. What you have to remember about lies is that first you have to consider what the motivation for it is and, even more important, who that lie was meant for because most often it will not be you.
There are no shortages of wars that have been called crusades so, that alone, makes this subject a very complicated one. Most people who create propaganda tend to choose and pick various facts that suit their cause. The longer period of time you are dealing with and the frequency of certain events can make it easy to take such things and turn facts into outright lies. When you’re lying about a liar, it makes it even easier and that is what has happened with the crusades. It’s easy to pick apart war propaganda because, ultimately, such rhetoric is a straw man anyway. What these arguments never address are the real causes of wars.
Usually the crusade myth revolves around some holy warriors marching off to conquer and convert infidels. The reality of most wars is something else entirely. When historians use the term “Holy Crusades,” most are talking about a series of wars between the Christian West and the Muslim Near East. In other words, it was a continuation of wars that had been going on between the Greco-Roman world and the Sumerian since before recorded history.
What caused this particular round had nothing to do with converting anyone. The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was in danger of being conquered by upstart Muslim forces who had already overrun most of their holdings in the middle east. Using the long standing Byzantine policy of playing their enemies off on each other, the Emperor in Constantinople got Western Europe (who had already been attacked by the Muslims) to do their fighting for them. The result was largely a disaster for the west and it would not be until the early 19th century that this round of fighting would finally die down, only to be reborn again in the early 21st.
This is where your boisterous net pundits like to play with facts. What they like to twist really depends greatly on which modern cause they support. One of the more common myths is that the crusades were a series of wars to stamp out non Christian religions in Europe. Sometimes they blame the Romans for this, even if the Roman Empire had long since reached it’s peak before the Christians even existed. Often the pundits will call it the “Holy Roman Empire” which was not Roman, not an Empire, and not very holy. That particular nation was a German confederation that existed at a much later date and never converted anyone to anything.
The truth is that Christianity’s spread was a long and complicated process that took many turns. Most average Europeans converted when their leaders decided to do it because they saw political benefits in joining the club. That did not happen over night either. Another favorite of the Church was to send in missionaries who would slowly adopt the local culture and then merge it with their own. This is how Ireland wound up militantly catholic. Briton converted not only by choice but, did so before the collapse of the empire and they became quite snooty about their status as Christian. What we call today, England, was considered something of a backwater in that day and they had what we call, Second City Syndrome. They were out to prove that they were more Roman than the Romans. That was why, when the pagan Angles and Saxons invaded their lands, they fought with tenacity and even with no help from Rome. They eventually lost and that’s why today we call these people the Welsh, and not Britons.
That is not to say that there was no violence involved. Germany probably got the most of that when Charlemagne was expanding his empire. You have to remember something about this though, there was nothing uncommon about it. It was very typical, for most of human history, to expect the conquered to convert. Charlemagne was not doing it because he wanted more Christians, he was really just out for what most kings truly want, more tax money. Ironically, it would be these regions where most of the pre-Christian cultural taboos would survive. They would eventually rear their head again in the 20th century with organizations like the Nazi’s.
When the “Holy Crusades” began (what historians call the crusades) there were no pre Christian cultures left in Europe. You did find a few along the fringes, mostly on the steppes, but in Europe proper there were none. When you point this out then people like to ask, “but what about the witch burnings.” Well besides being stupid hysteria, usually caused by war, the simple fact is that until the late 19th century, no one ever called themselves a witch or pagan. Those were words always used to describe others who, obviously, did not consider themselves as such.
Burning someone at the stake was a common form of execution that predated Christianity. It was very popular with the tribes of Gaul. When you look at the records of who was getting burned, most often it was not for witchcraft, although, there are a few. Most of the time it was for heresy. Most of the victims were men and not women and, if you translate what heresy really meant, it was Catholics killing Protestants, or vice versa, or Christians killing Jews or Muslims.
The Spanish Inquisition is a good example of what pop culture has labeled an act of religious intolerance when, in fact, it was one of the first signs of nationalism. Spain had been occupied, by Muslims, for 800 years. When they finally freed themselves they turned their vengeance on the Muslims, and their Jewish allies, who were left behind. Contrary to pop culture, the early stages of this particular inquisition, was quite bloodless. Having been the occupiers, the Muslims and Jews held most of the money. The new Spanish Crown was broke and they wanted that wealth back in Christian hands so, the Inquisition was the mechanism they used to take it. Most of the victims were deported to North Africa where their answer to being robbed was to eventually become the Barbary Pirates.
The mass burnings did not happen until later and, when it did, it was Catholics burning Protestants. In this, the Spanish spared no mercy at all, they burned entire families to stomp out Protestantism for good. As we can see, it obviously worked. Oh yes, and contrary to popular opinion, no one was burned at the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts. English Common Law had outlawed the practice by then and, as far as we know, only one person was ever executed, in that manner, by the English, in North America. The victim was a guy who killed his pregnant wife and ate their unborn baby in Jamestown. I kind of think he deserved it.
These are but a few examples and it would be too lengthy to go into all of them. These are some of the more popular historical myths that are perpetuated on the internet. Strangely, there is one that is not, and is most applicable to our situation. We have come to know the word ‘Trivia’ as meaning bits of information that might be interesting, but are, mostly useless. The modern word comes to us from a Latin slang term ‘Tri Via’ quite literally meaning three way. This is what the Romans called a fork in the road. It was a common practice to leave bits of information on a nearby tree, about the news from where you came. At the same time you could read news about where you were going. This information eventually came to be called by the place where it was found.
It is relevant here because the Roman road system opened up communications like never before. It was a literal information super highway but, what the Romans found out was that for every good idea that came down the pike, there were a thousand bad ones. It has been suggested that this was greatly responsible for the social upheaval that eventually led to the Empire’s collapse. While I do not subscribe completely to that point of view, as it is obvious there were many causes, I still believe that it is worth noting. We’ve already seen the first major real world issues caused by the internet. There are going to be more and we will not always realize this is the source. We have to remember that just because we have the ability to shout something, it does not come without responsibility. Passing something along on your wall, just because you like how it sounds, is not always the smartest thing to do.