5 historical misinterpretations that had quite the impact

From biblical personalities sprouting horns to life on Mars, here’s five instances that historical misinterpretations and translations have impacted history

A few months ago, we wrote a blog post about unicorns (yes, we’re adults!) and how a mistranslation of the old Hebrew text, even led to unicorns being mentioned in some versions of the bible (resulting from a supposed error when translating the Hebrew word for ‘ox’. You can read more about this in our ‘Unicorns – a brief history’ blog!)

With this fresh in our minds, we thought we’d write a follow-up piece on how other historical misinterpretations have had quite the impact…

Section of stained glass window in church of St Neot, Cornwall, depicting miracles performed by the Saint.

The small matter of St Neot

Starting off close to home… If you read about St Neot, the chances are you’ll come across references to him as the dwarf or pygmy saint (something which infuriates our curator!) Though St Neot may well have been short in stature, the legend quickly escalated, exaggerating rumours of his height until he became just 15 inches tall! The tradition seems to originate from a particular ‘miracle’ associated with the saint, known as the miracle of the ‘high door lock’ (we know, sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?) What the miracle boils down to is that once, during the monks’ rest time at church, St Neot was roused from his sleep by a banging at the church door. When he arrived to answer the door, he found that due to the door being situated on a step, he was too short to reach the lock. At this point, the lock on the door miraculously lowered itself to the level of his monastic sash, enabling him to open the door. We’re told that the lock remained that way for a long time afterwards… Not the most exciting of miracles we grant you!

From this legend, the references to St Neot’s extreme short stature may well have stemmed. Disregarding the fact that the door was set above ground level, or the notion that the lock may have been particularly high, the tale has instead been interpreted and retold time and again to present St Neot as abnormally short. There’s even a suggestion by Rev. John Whittaker in his ‘Life of St Neot’ of 1809, that the lock was actually lowered by church devotees to help give strength to the legend. The trick obviously worked, as his extreme shortness is still the popular belief to this day!

Moses by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tomb (1505-1545) for Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome)

Moses the ‘horned one’

If you’re familiar with your art history, you’ll know that for a period of time Moses was depicted with horns growing out of his head! Most famously in Michelangelo’s Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. As with many things, this was due to mistranslation of the original Hebrew text into Latin.  The Hebrew word karan or qaran for ‘radiant’ or ‘shining’ bears a close resemblance to keren or qeren, which, you guessed it, means ‘horns’. According to the Torah, when Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, his face was glowing with radiance. One slip in the translation meant that poor old Moses sprouted horns instead…

Giving up the ghost

Sticking with the bible, another slightly sloppy translation that appears in the King James Bible in the early 17thC, is the term ‘Holy Ghost’ rather than the more accurate ‘Holy Spirit’. The Greek word pneuma that it’s translated from, is closer to ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ in meaning, and less a supernatural entity. The use of ‘ghost’ in the King James Bible led to the origin of the phrase to “give up the ghost”, meaning to expire or die, and therefore adds an unfortunate touch of comedy to passages like Acts 12:23: “And he was eaten up of worms, and gave up the ghost” and Mark 15:37: “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.”

The (accidental) father of Sci-Fi

Mars twin canals by Schiaparelli

When Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli began mapping Mars in 1877, he labelled what he thought were natural channels in the planet’s surface with the Italian word canali. Understandably, this was later interpreted as ‘canals’, the meaning of which suggests a purposeful, manufactured origin. This sparked the theory that there could be intelligent life forms on Mars. In 1894, Percival Lowel, a Boston based astronomer, concluded that the canals were indeed artificial, and dedicated much of his career to mapping them. He believed the canals were created to carry water from the polar caps to the equatorial regions of the planet, supporting the life forms that lived there. The idea that there could be life on Mars, has preoccupied humanity ever since!

The Abominable Snowman film – 1957

Not quite the ‘Abominable Snowman’

According to the OED, the phrase ‘abominable snowman’ dates back to 1921, translated into English from the Tibetan term metoh-kangmi by a journalist named Henry Newman. Newman was stationed as a reporter for The Times newspaper in Darjeeling, India, where he had the opportunity to interview members of an expedition to Mount Everest, led by explorer C. K. Howard-Bury. Whilst on the mountain, the expedition team had apparently spotted enormous humanlike footprints in the snow. The local Sherpa guides recognized these as belonging to a legendary creature they called the ‘wild man of the snows’. However, Newman mistook the word metoh, meaning ‘wild’ for a similar word metch meaning ‘dirty’ or ‘dishevelled’, and in his report, single-handedly turned the ‘wild-man’ into a snowman in real need of a bath! The legend of the ‘abominable’ (as Newman named it) snowman became hugely popular, launching an obsession with the creature (also known as the Yeti) that continues on to this day.

If you enjoyed this blog, why not try our ‘Unicorns – a brief history’ or ‘Unfortunate royal epithets‘ blogs.