Jeff Williams is a professional historical consultant, a published author and copywriter, an award-winning photographer, a certified genealogist, creative designer, prop master, project manager, linguist, and adventure traveler. He has done work for Disney, Universal, Hasbro, Warner Bros., National Geographic, the Port Authority of Jamaica, and the Central Intelligence Agency.
“What gives you the right to write a history blog?” “Why do you even want to write a history blog?” “Who are you again? “What are you doing in my house?” “How does the defendant plead?” These are all very valid questions, and ones that I hear more often than I care to admit. Let me begin by saying that I am not, “technically”, an historian… or at least not by some people’s measure. That is, I have not yet received a doctorate in history from an accredited university, and by “not yet”, I mean I never will… mostly because I don’t have any plans to do so. Okay, entirely because I don’t have any plans to do so. I’ve already got a business degree I don’t use, and I’d rather collect books and passport stamps; they’re cheaper and more rewarding.
That said, Merriam-Webster defines an historian (Yes, I say “an historian”; you can say it however you like… I can’t hear you.) as “a student or writer of history, especially one who produces a scholarly synthesis”. They say nothing about sitting through mind-numbingly boring lectures, cramming for exams, or writing proposals for research funding. So, in my defense, I am obviously a writer of history (or will be once I finish this), and I will make every effort to ensure that this so-called synthesis is at least reasonably scholarly. I’m not a big fan of footnotes; in fact, I find them rather distracting, but I will try make sure I at least mention my sources within the text, so you can see how I arrived at some of the conclusions that I’ll be presenting. All that to say, I guess, “technically” I am an historian, so I’m sorry for lying to you a moment ago. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve intentionally avoided calling myself an historian for a long time. I tend to lean toward the safer “professional historical consultant”, because that’s what my job actually is… at least some of the time.
“What, exactly, does a ‘professional historical consultant’ do?”
I’m so glad you asked. The clients I work with typically own or manage historical sites or themed entertainment venues of some sort, and, with any luck, they also have the money and desire to accurately recreate a specific time period associated with their property. My job is to research the bejeezus out of the time and place they hope to emulate, do their interior/exterior and prop design, costumes, music, scripts and copy… everything it takes to convince a visitor that they have just stepped out of the present and into the past.
It is not at all unheard of for me to get into the occasional little squabble with a client over some of my design suggestions. This usually occurs when the actual history doesn’t jive with how they thought things were, or worse, how they wanted things to have been.
Like it or not, the history we are all taught in school is almost entirely fictional. The victors of war, the successors of government, the wealthy, and the powerful rewrite events to suit their own biases and agendas. The meek and the defeated are typically demonized, labelled as “the enemy”, or simply forgotten. Unfortunately, most people are either content to accept the propaganda as fact without a second thought, or don’t possess the skills necessary to recognize the logical fallacies being shoveled at them. To make matters worse, allegory and fantasy (in the form of entertainment) often creep into the popular consciousness, too, and this is what comes to be regarded as history, but, as Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
In The True History of the World, I will present you with facts. That’s all. I’ll take what I perceive to be a popular misconception, attempt to provide sufficient evidence to debunk it inasmuch as sufficient evidence exists, and then explain how the erroneous belief originated in the first place. Sometimes evidence comes in the form of something that proves an event didn’t happen how we thought (if at all). Sometimes it proves something entirely different happened. Sometimes it does both. Sometimes it does neither. If evidence doesn’t exist, I can’t provide it, but I’ll admit as much, and do my best to avoid filling in the gaps with speculation and conjecture. My hope is that this blog might shed a little light on some commonly held misunderstandings, expose the reality behind some enduring falsehoods, and offer you a more accurate depiction of the people and places that helped to shape our world, and paint a picture of what their world was really like.
So, what is history?
That’s a very good question.
It’s actually not a very good question. It’s merely a “deepity”… an extremely simplified and lazy sort of question or comment that’s intended to sound deep and meaningful. Instead of asking “What is the etymology of the English word ‘history’; is it appropriate to use it in this context; what are some alternative terms we could use in other contexts?”, the student slumped down in his seat at the back of the class lackadaisically raises his hand and mumbles, “But, like, what even is history, bro?” hoping he can just get in a nap while the professor rambles on for hours about the significance of… blah, blah, blah, blah, blah… but I digress.
Getting back on track, the word “history” is often thrown around kinda willy-nilly without any regard for what it actually means, but what does it actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines the word “history” a few different ways: as merely a tale or story, as a chronological record of significant events, as well as simply the events of the past. That’s not really very helpful, though, is it? We can’t just go around saying that everything that ever happened, and everything that never actually happened, is history. Can we? I mean, that’s what people do, so…
According to Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon, the Ancient Greeks used the word “ἱστορία” (historía), which they defined as inquiry in and of itself, or the knowledge obtained from inquiry. Of course, this word evolved from the earlier “ἵστωρ” (hístōr), which was a knowledgeable person. ἵστωρ was used in reference to both people who witnessed things, and people who knew things, and can be found in the writings of Homer and Heraclitus. Boeotian inscriptions also use “ἵστωρ” in a legal sense to refer specifically to judges and witnesses.
As they were often known to do, the Romans borrowed the Greek “ἱστορία” into Classical Latin as “historia”, and used it to mean “an investigation, inquiry, research, account, description, written account of past events, writing of history, historical narrative, recorded knowledge of past events, story, narrative,”4 and so on. It’s out of this usage that we get our modern English word “history” in the sense that it represents a written account of the past. Following understandably from this position, historians and “antiquarians” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries posited that anything that happened before the introduction of writing, then, was logically “prehistory”, and the word “prehistoric” gradually came to replace the word “primitive”, at least in this context.
The distinction between “history” and “prehistory” notwithstanding, this series will still take a stab at a few modern misconceptions related to prehistoric events in the sense that the misconceptions themselves are associated with events of the past that modern people frequently confuse. Does that make sense? Basically, I’m gonna throw the word “history” around willy-nilly, and just talk about whatever. So, there.
Before I do that, though, I guess we ought to try to nail down exactly when this so-called history we’re talking about actually happened, because different systems of writing developed independently in different parts of the world at different times, so whereas the 32nd century BCE might have been an historic period in Egypt, it would still have been prehistoric in Mesoamerica for roughly another 2,200 years. That’s partly why I want to include some prehistory in this here history blog. My intent is to try to structure this series in a way that is as close as possible to the chronological order in which the described events occurred. In the interest of grouping similar subjects together, though, I may have to jump ahead a bit in some places, but I will always circle back around, and try to tie up any loose ends before moving on. In the event that I do feel the need to jump ahead, I’ll do my best to let you know, because understanding the order in which things happened is important.
Is it, though?
Yeah… it definitely is. Take the Aztec Empire, for example. Don’t literally take the Aztec Empire; that’s what Hernán Cortés did. I mean consider the Aztec Empire. When did it exist, and for how long?
Well, there were certainly lots of people in and around what is now modern Mexico for a couple of hundred years before the alliance that created the Aztec Empire, but those people weren’t called Aztecs. In reality, nobody ever actually referred to themselves as ethnically Aztec. That wasn’t a thing. They were the Nahua people, they spoke Nahuatl, and their word “Aztecatl” (from where we get the modern word “Aztec”) referred to the people from Aztlan, their mythical place of origin. It’s basically like calling the Ancient Greeks Olympians or the Norse Asgardians. Long story short: the alliance that formed the now famous Aztec Empire occurred in 1428.
Really? That seems pretty recent. I thought they were more ancient.
Yeah, really. Oxford University in merry ol’ England had already been conferring degrees on students for over three hundred years by the time the Aztec Empire was founded, and what’s worse is that Spanish conquistadores brought that empire to its bloody end on 13 August 1521, just a short ninety-three years after its inception.
Less than a hundred years? Then why do we know so much about them?
Do we really know that much about them? Off the top of your head, can you name any two of their emperors or their capital city or their chief means of production or who they traded with or any of their gods? What is now thought to be “common knowledge” about the Aztec Empire is what was written about them, not by them. To learn more, we’ve got to dig deeper, sometimes literally in the dirt. And it’s important to put these people and events into a context. The Nahua people didn’t exist in isolation… and they aren’t gone. There are still Nahuas today. In fact, they make up the single largest indigenous ethnic group in Mexico. So, yeah, I definitely think it’s important to know when things happened, because it gives people context. It gives us context.
The most famous pirate ever? Blackbeard’s entire career as a pirate only lasted two years.
The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra lived closer in time to you reading this blogpost than to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza… And she wasn’t Egyptian; she was Greek.
T-Rex and Stegosaurus never fought, because the last Stegos died out 82 million years before the first T-Rexes hatched.
More people have died from drowning in molasses than from coyote attacks. That’s not really an historical context issue; it’s just crazy!
There were still wooly mammoths living when the pyramids were built.
So, to answer your question… yes, history is a written account of the events of the past, but it’s so much more than that, too. History is people’s lives. History is the ‘why’ behind everything that’s ever happened. And, yes… it’s important that we have our facts straight. If we misunderstand where we came from, we won’t have a clear picture of where we are, which could lead us to make misinformed decisions about where we’re going.
Anyway… enough of all that deepity talk.
Next up: Aliens!