10 Misconceptions People Had in Ancient Times

What did our ancestors believe to be true when it came to everyday living? What myths and legends did they use to explain and find sense in the world around them?

Many of our long-held beliefs and concepts are a jumble of true facts, misinterpretations, and blatant fabrications, and history, or the things we take for granted, is oftentimes just something that was repeated again and again until people started believing it. It’s all too simple to be duped into accepting something that’s simply not true – and the ancients had very little recourse to verify their long-held beliefs.

10. Ancient Greece’s issues with size


When reading about Ancient Greece it is easy to overlook the fascinating phenomenon of the kynodesmu, which is Greek for “dog tie.” Young people with penises in Ancient Greece used to wrap the glans of their penis securely inside the foreskin, in essence creating a small goodie bag. Their partiality for the foreskin over the majority of the exterior sex organ appears to have stemmed mostly from the time’s societal beliefs around sex and penises. It turns out that in Ancient Greece, size did not matter (at all).

In fact, a smaller penis was thought to indicate exceptional self-control and intelligence, whereas a larger one – especially one lacking a foreskin to be tucked into – was thought to indicate savagery and barbarism. The phenomenon is even depicted in the era’s art. One of the most well-known examples of the particular practice is the ancient bronze sculpture known as “The Boxer,” in which the penis is not only confined beneath the foreskin but also tucked away and tied up. There are so many historical writings and works of art that mention this practice that some academics believe it later came to influence religious circumcision.

9. Earth was the center of the universe


Around the second century CE, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy standardized the geocentric model of the universe in the Almagest. Prior to Ptolemy’s standardization, only partial models created by his predecessors could be found. In the geocentric model, the Earth was imagined to be the immobile center of the galaxy. Ptolemy’s model was not replaced by the modern heliocentric model until the publication of Nicolas Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus in 1543 CE. Meaning that, until the 16th century, the Earth was not recognized as a planet.

However, accepting Earth’s status as a planet still took the Church a very long time, earning Copernicus the title of a heretic as well as several trials and inquisitions. The Church stood by the geocentric model and did not give up its opposition to the heliocentric system until the 18th century, just before Uranus was discovered.

8. Ancient Egyptians had “blessed” eyeliner to protect their eyes


Even though we now know that lead can damage the brain and cause several other health issues, including miscarriages, the ancient Egyptians believed that lead-based products protected them from various ailments. In fact, one of their most recognizable features – their legendary eye-makeup – was worn in the firm belief that it was blessed with healing powers by the deity Horus, the falcon god of kingship and the sky. And it was no easy feat to make. 

When a team of scientists from CNRS and the Louvre Museum in Paris studied the composition of various samples of the Egyptians’ famous thick, black eyeliner in the museum’s collection, they discovered two forms of lead salt that aren’t present in nature. That is to say, ancient Egyptians synthesized them in a long and drawn-out process that began with the synthesis of lead salts and ended with the creation of the perfect black kohl, which they used to treat eye ailments, scars, and discolorations.

7. Ancient Indians put their faith in the healing power of saliva


India is the birthplace of Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions, as well as Buddhism and Jainism. Common beliefs such as reincarnation, emancipation, karma, and achieving nirvana are all based on the shared beliefs and customs of these religions. As a result, ancient Indian wisdom contains a wealth of beliefs, myths, and strange medical treatments that have been passed down through the ages and are trusted to be beneficial to health, treat health problems, and protect us from bad health and evil. 

The use of saliva to treat a number of skin diseases, including wounds, is one of them. However, despite the antibacterial properties of saliva, many scientists advise against wound licking, claiming that it is neither safe nor beneficial to one’s health. Human saliva includes a diverse range of bacteria that are normally healthy in the mouth but can cause serious infection if they are introduced deep into an open lesion. It is common knowledge that a human bite is often more dangerous than an animal bite (unless the animal has rabies).

6. Ancient misconceptions around semen


When early Christians recognized that semen did indeed serve as the “seed,” it was viewed as the individual’s soul. It became recognized as a living thing, the pure spirit of the individual, or, in some religious concepts, as material support for the body and soul. This concept, as well as a few others, is expressed in the Abrahamic traditions, and it wasn’t only a male-centered imagination that made semen sacred.

The ancient Egyptians would also come to play a major role when it came to worldly beliefs on the exact origin point of semen. According to Egyptian lore, one very specific, unique, and divine vertebra was in charge of semen production. In fact, the substance would come to play a major spiritual role in a multitude of Egyptian myths and its point of origin would be considered a fact for many centuries. The great philosopher, Plato, referred to it as  “a soft flow from the spine” and Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest anatomical renderings would continue to portray this misconception for years to come.

5. The many misconceptions around the Northern Lights

northern lights

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis have captivated mankind for thousands of years. Today, we understand that the breathtakingly beautiful light display is caused by the interaction of bouncing particles in the earth’s atmosphere, but what did our ancient forefathers think as they stared intently at the dazzling night sky? It goes without saying that the Northern Lights play a significant role in the mythology and folklore of most native groups living within and beyond the Auroral Oval.

In Sweden, the ancients believed that the Northern Lights were caused by massive shoals of fish in the northern seas and that a brilliant display promised abundant catches in the near future. The Northern Lights were also thought to ease the pains associated with childbirth in traditional Icelandic folklore. (Mothers were however not supposed to look at them until after their babies were born). North American Indians, on the other hand, used to whistle at the Northern Lights to coax them closer in order to whisper messages that would swiftly be delivered to the dead.

4. Mesopotamians feared crying babies would be eaten by the gods

crying baby

A crying baby can bring out the best or worst in us, depending on how much time we have left in the airplane. The ancient Mesopotamians, however, were particularly concerned when it came to crying babies. The ancient society believed that if they didn’t silence them, the terrible disturbance would “provoke” the gods and bring their full fury down on all the humans (and babies) alike. Babies, and young children, in particular, were thought to be especially vulnerable to the goddess Lamashtu, who they believed preyed on children until the time they finished breastfeeding – around the age of three.

Ancient depictions of Lamashtu look like something straight out of a nightmare. The terrifying goddess sported a lion’s head, an eagle’s talons, a serpent for a penis and she delighted in eating newborns and toddlers, especially their bones. During archaeological excavations, a  prayer to Lamashtu was discovered that details an intricate ceremony to safeguard a sick kid from her vengeance. The ritual included food sacrifices to appease the goddess’s appetite. Most pregnant Mesopotamian mothers and women also wore amulets in an attempt to frighten her off.

3. Ancient Greeks believed children were wet, hot, animals


Aside from our sarcastic remark in the previous item, people appear to have been angered by the folly and destruction perpetrated by rowdy children for a really long period of time. According to the Ancient Greek view (which we can deduce from the philosophers Plato and Aristotle) children were by nature wetter and hotter than their adult counterparts. They also believed that children had extra roiling tempers, “indistinct” soft bodies (that would eventually harden as they become adults), and were irrational, greedy, and loud.

In fact, Plato himself said it best: “Of wild animals, a child is most difficult to take in hand; for insofar as he most of all has a spring of reasoning that has not yet been channeled, he becomes cunning, shrewd and the most hubristic of all wild animals.”

Ancient Greek children’s souls were definitely considered as overly active, in need of instruction and education to quiet them down and help them be less horrible. The goddess Artemis was in charge of both children and wild animals for a reason: they were essentially seen as the same thing.

2. Disconcerting misconceptions on female roles in the Han Dynasty

han dynasty

Some of the most significant sources of information pertaining to gender roles in ancient China’s Han Dynasty came from Ban Zhao, a distinguished scholar whose book “Lessons For Women” was defined by one major fact: she was a woman herself. Ban Zhao is among the most well-known Chinese scholars and historians in history, which makes her point of view on female roles in Han society rather unsettling.

In her book, she praised the three practices her ancient civilization observed within three days of a baby girl’s birth. The infant girl would first be placed beneath the bed, which was done to show that she was “lowly and weak.” Second, the infant girl would be given a fractured piece of pottery to play with, implying that she would have to work hard, and third, her birth would be reported to the gods by an offering, concluding that “she should think of her main duty as performing the sacrifices in her home.”

1. Trials and tribulations of Aztec children

aztec children

Many people might immediately associate Aztec childhood with child sacrifice, and they would be correct; it was recently discovered that 42 children were regularly sacrificed to the rain god, Tlaloc – and these poor children had to be crying beforehand because Tlaloc needed the tears of children in order to wet the earth. Human sacrifice was most likely invented by the Olmec civilization, not the Aztecs, but it was continued by other civilizations such as the Maya and Toltecs. But credit must go to the Aztecs, who took human sacrifice to a whole new level in their mistaken belief that they needed to feed the gods to secure the world’s survival.

Even if you weren’t a sacrifice, growing up as an Aztec child wasn’t easy. Infants were taken to be consecrated to the temple or school where they would be educated around 20 days after being born. The dedication was a solemn affair, as evidenced by the fact that little children were given a multitude of tiny incisions. Girls received ritual incisions along their hips and breasts, while boys received holes in their lips which were filled with jewels – making our childhood seem positively perfect in comparison.

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