10 Historical Figures You’ve Been Picturing All Wrong
Thanks to Hollywood and generations of misinformation, most people don’t know the truth behind these 10 historical figures.
You’ve likely seen fat, smiling “Buddha” statues in Chinese restaurants, antique stores, or gardens, but did you know that little guy is not actually the “real” Buddha? It’s actually Budai, the “laughing Buddha,” who is a reincarnation of the “real” Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The “real” Buddha was actually thin, because in the Buddhist tradition, once you’ve become “enlightened,” you no longer crave the pleasures of the world. Gautama spent half of his life in wealth and half in poverty, in order to find the ideal balance. His philosophy became the modern Buddhist religion.
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Thanks to Disney, Pocahontas is perhaps the world’s most misunderstood historical figure. She was born in 1596 under the name Ammonite (she also had the more private name Matoaka), and the name Pocahontas was actually her nickname. When the Europeans came to colonize the Powhatan land, Pocahontas did not turn her back on her family to join the European crusade. She occasionally brought food to the settlers to ease tensions between the two peoples, and was later imprisoned by the Europeans and converted to Christianity. Contrary to popular belief, Pocahontas did not marry John Smith––she actually married a tobacco farmer named John Rolfe. She died in 1617 from an illness, but was instrumental in attempting to make peace between the Powhatan people and the Europeans.
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The charismatic Marxist revolutionary, who helped overthrow the Cuban government with the Castro brothers, is often seen as just that. He is seen by some as inspirational and by others insufferable. However, while most people are aware of his rebellion and passion for the counterculture, they don’t know that he was also a ruthless executioner. He oversaw the executions of hundreds of men in Cuba during the early days of Fidel Castro’s government. Feeling like everything you thought you knew has been debunked?
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Cromwell was Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the mid-1600s. In 1653 he declared the Parliament corrupt and got rid of them by force; many saw him as a hero for this. Afterward, he became the Lord Protector. But what many don’t know is that Cromwell actually was involved in Irish massacres in a move to help the English gain control of the country. So, while many have seen him as a hero for destroying the corrupt Parliament, he was actually pretty corrupt himself.
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Cleopatra is widely known for her beauty and sex appeal. However, she was the last Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. She began ruling with her father, but later was the sole ruler… of an entire empire! That’s not a simple feat. Most people reduce her to her looks, especially because of her relations with Caesar and Mark Antony, despite her powerful reign.
Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell. who is recognized as the inventor of the telephone, is actually a phone-y (pun intended!). The actual inventor was an Italian living in New York named Antonio Meucci. He invented a functioning telephone five years before Bell, and filled out a “patent caveat,” which is a precursor to a real patent. As the story goes, Meucci couldn’t afford to file the official patent, and Bell stole it right under his nose.
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Pilate is typically known as the ruler who joyfully ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but that may be a myth. While Pilate was certainly a harsh ruler, some historians suggest that Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus and believed he was innocent.
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Vincent Van Gogh
The “Starry Night” painter we know and love actually fits the “tortured artist” persona, despite many of his bright paintings. Van Gogh suffered from depression and lived in poverty—he was an unknown and unloved artist in his time. Even though he had over 2,000 paintings which now sell for millions of dollars, he only sold one in his lifetime.
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Confucius is typically regarded as a religious figure. The founder of the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism, Confucius actually had nothing to do with religion. The traditions of Confucianism were based on typical Chinese beliefs and morals: family, respect for elders, and the rights of others. While many people associate these morals with religions, Confucianism is known as a philosophy––no deity involved. Confucius was just the teacher and politician that became recognized by the Chinese government for his principles.
In recent years, different activist groups have shed light on the fact that Christopher Columbus should not necessarily be celebrated for “discovering” America. Columbus was an accomplished explorer, traversing the seas multiple times in the 1400s. He was actually looking for South Asia when he stumbled upon the large land mass we now know as North America in 1496. He is falsely credited for discovering America; it’s believed that European explorers had explored Canada several hundred years earlier, and Columbus actually never stepped foot in what is now North America. It is also widely known that Columbus took part in the enslavement and mistreatment of the peaceful Native American tribes he came in contact with in the Caribbean and contributed greatly to destroying native populations.
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Originally published as 10 Historical Figures You’ve Been Picturing All Wrong on ReadersDigest.com.