Pseudohistory is a form of pseudoscholarship that attempts to distort or misrepresent the historical record, often by employing methods resembling those used in scholarly historical research. The related term cryptohistory is applied to pseudohistory derived from the superstitions intrinsic to occultism. Pseudohistory is related to pseudoscience and pseudoarchaeology, and usage of the terms may occasionally overlap. Although pseudohistory comes in many forms, scholars have identified many features that tend to be common in pseudohistorical works; one example is that the use of pseudohistory is almost always motivated by a contemporary political, religious, or personal agenda. Pseudohistory also frequently presents sensational claims or a big lie about historical facts which would require unwarranted revision of the historical record.
A common feature of pseudohistory is an underlying premise that there is a conspiracy among scholars to promote so-called "mainstream history" over "true" history, an assertion commonly corroborated by elaborate conspiracy theories. Works of pseudohistory often point exclusively to unreliable sources—including myths and legends, often treated as literal historical truth—to support the thesis being promoted while ignoring valid sources that contradict it. Sometimes a work of pseudohistory will adopt a position of historical relativism, insisting that there is really no such thing as historical truth and that any hypothesis is just as good as any other. Many works of pseudohistory conflate mere possibility with actuality, assuming that if something could have happened, then it did.
Notable examples of pseudohistory include British Israelism, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, the Irish slaves myth, the witch-cult, Armenian genocide denial, Holocaust denial, the clean Wehrmacht myth, the anti-Spanish Black Legend, and the claim that the Katyn massacre was not committed by the Soviet NKVD.
Definition and etymology
The term pseudohistory was coined in the early nineteenth century, which makes the word older than the related terms pseudo-scholarship and pseudoscience. In an attestation from 1815, it is used to refer to the Contest of Homer and Hesiod, a purportedly historical narrative describing an entirely fictional contest between the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod. The pejorative sense of the term, labelling a flawed or disingenuous work of historiography, is found in another 1815 attestation. Pseudohistory is akin to pseudoscience in that both forms of falsification are achieved using the methodology that purports to, but does not, adhere to the established standards of research for the given field of intellectual enquiry of which the pseudoscience claims to be a part, and which offers little or no supporting evidence for its plausibility.: 7–18
Writers Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman define pseudohistory as "the rewriting of the past for present personal or political purposes".: 2 Other writers take a broader definition; Douglas Allchin, a historian of science, contends that when the history of scientific discovery is presented in a simplified way, with drama exaggerated and scientists romanticized, this creates wrong stereotypes about how science works, and in fact constitutes pseudohistory, despite being based on real facts.
Robert Todd Carroll has developed a list of criteria to identify pseudo-historic works. He states that:
Pseudohistory is purported history which:
- Treats myths, legends, sagas and similar literature as literal truth
- Is neither critical nor skeptical in its reading of ancient historians, taking their claims at face value and ignoring empirical or logical evidence contrary to the claims of the ancients
- Is on a mission, not a quest, seeking to support some contemporary political or religious agenda rather than find out the truth about the past
- Often denies that there is such a thing as historical truth, clinging to the extreme skeptical notion that only what is absolutely certain can be called 'true' and nothing is absolutely certain, so nothing is true
- Often maintains that history is nothing but mythmaking and that different histories are not to be compared on such traditional academic standards as accuracy, empirical probability, logical consistency, relevancy, completeness, fairness or honesty, but on moral or political grounds
- Is selective in its use of ancient documents, citing favorably those that fit with its agenda, and ignoring or interpreting away those documents which do not fit
- Considers the possibility of something being true as sufficient to believe it is true if it fits with one's agenda
- Often maintains that there is a conspiracy to suppress its claims because of racism, atheism or ethnocentrism, or because of opposition to its political or religious agenda
Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke prefers the term "cryptohistory". He identifies two necessary elements as "a complete ignorance of the primary sources" and the repetition of "inaccuracies and wild claims".
Other common characteristics of pseudohistory are:
- The arbitrary linking of disparate events so as to form – in the theorist's opinion – a pattern. This is typically then developed into a conspiracy theory postulating a hidden agent responsible for creating and maintaining the pattern. For example, the pseudohistorical The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail links the Knights Templar, the medieval Grail Romances, the Merovingian Frankish dynasty and the artist Nicolas Poussin in an attempt to identify lineal descendants of Jesus.
- Hypothesising the consequences of unlikely events that "could" have happened, thereby assuming tacitly that they did.
- Sensationalism, or shock value
- Cherry picking evidence that helps the historical argument being made and suppressing evidence that hurts it.
Categories and examples
The following are some common categories of pseudohistorical theory, with examples. Note that not all theories in a listed category are necessarily pseudohistorical; they are rather categories that seem to attract pseudohistorians.
Ancient aliens, ancient technologies, and lost lands
Immanuel Velikovsky's books Worlds in Collision (1950), Ages in Chaos (1952), and Earth in Upheaval (1955), which became "instant bestsellers", demonstrated that pseudohistory based on ancient mythology held potential for tremendous financial success and became models of success for future works in the genre.
In 1968, Erich von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods?, which claims that ancient visitors from outer space constructed the pyramids and other monuments. He has since published other books in which he makes similar claims. These claims have all been categorized as pseudohistory.: 201 Similarly, Zechariah Sitchin has published numerous books claiming that a race of extraterrestrial beings from the Planet Nibiru known as the Anunnaki visited Earth in ancient times in search of gold, and that they genetically engineered humans to serve as their slaves. He claims that memories of these occurrences are recorded in Sumerian mythology, as well as other mythologies all across the globe. These speculations have likewise been categorized as pseudohistory.
The ancient astronaut hypothesis was further popularized in the United States by the History Channel television series Ancient Aliens. History professor Ronald H. Fritze observed that the pseudohistorical claims promoted by von Däniken and the Ancient Aliens program have a periodic popularity in the US: "In a pop culture with a short memory and a voracious appetite, aliens and pyramids and lost civilizations are recycled like fashions.": 201 
The author Graham Hancock has sold over four million copies of books promoting the pseudohistorical thesis that all the major monuments of the ancient world, including Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and the moai of Easter Island, were built by a single ancient supercivilization, which Hancock claims thrived from 15,000 to 10,000 BC and possessed technological and scientific knowledge equal to or surpassing that of modern civilization. He first advanced the full form of this argument in his 1995 bestseller Fingerprints of the Gods, which won popular acclaim, but scholarly disdain. Christopher Knight has published numerous books, including Uriel's Machine (2000), expounding pseudohistorical assertions that ancient civilizations possessed technology far more advanced than the technology of today.
The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is a fraudulent work purporting to show a historical conspiracy for world domination by Jews. The work was conclusively proven to be a forgery in August 1921, when The Times revealed that extensive portions of the document were directly plagiarized from Maurice Joly's 1864 satirical dialogue The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, as well as Hermann Goedsche's 1868 anti-Semitic novel Biarritz.
The Khazar theory is an academic fringe theory that postulates that the bulk of European Jewry are of Central Asian (Turkic) origin. In spite of mainstream academic consensus, this theory has been promoted in Anti-Semitic and Anti-Zionist circles alike, arguing that Jews are an alien element both in Europe and in Palestine.
Holocaust denial and genocide denial in general are widely categorized as pseudohistory.: 237  Major proponents of Holocaust denial include David Irving and others, who argue that the Holocaust, Holodomor, Armenian genocide, and other genocides did not occur, or were exaggerated greatly.
An alternative chronology is a revised sequence of events that deviates from the standard timeline of world history accepted by mainstream scholars. An example of an "alternative chronology" is Anatoly Fomenko's New Chronology, which claims that recorded history actually began around the year 800 AD and all events that allegedly occurred prior to that point either never really happened at all or are simply inaccurate retellings of events that happened later. One of its outgrowths is the Tartary conspiracy theory. Other, less extreme examples, are the phantom time hypothesis, which asserts that the years AD 614–911 never took place; and the New Chronology of David Rohl, which claims that the accepted timelines for ancient Egyptian and Israelite history are wrong.
Most Afrocentric (i.e. Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas contact theories, see Ancient Egyptian race controversy) ideas have been identified as pseudohistorical, alongside the "Indigenous Aryans" theories published by Hindu nationalists during the 1990s and 2000s. The "crypto-history" developed within Germanic mysticism and Nazi occultism has likewise been placed under this categorization. Among leading Nazis, Heinrich Himmler is believed to have been influenced by occultism and according to one theory, developed the SS base at Wewelsburg in accordance with an esoteric plan.
The Sun Language Theory is a pseudohistorical ideology which argues that all languages are descended from a form of proto-Turkish. The theory may have been partially devised in order to legitimize Arabic and Semitic loanwords occurring in the Turkish language by instead asserting that the Arabic and Semitic words were derived from the Turkish ones rather than vice versa.
A large number of nationalist pseudohistorical theories deal with the legendary Ten Lost Tribes of ancient Israel. British-Israelism, also known as Anglo-Israelism, the most famous example of this type, has been conclusively refuted by mainstream historians using evidence from a vast array of different fields of study.
Another form of ethnocentric revisionism is nationalistic pseudohistory. The "Ancient Macedonians continuity theory" is one such pseudohistorical theory, which postulates demographic, cultural and linguistic continuity between Macedonians of antiquity and the main ethnic group in present-day North Macedonia.
In the eighth century, a forged document known as Donation of Constantine, which supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope, became widely circulated. In the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth published the History of the Kings of Britain, a pseudohistorical work purporting to describe the ancient history and origins of the British people. The book synthesises earlier Celtic mythical traditions to inflate the deeds of the mythical King Arthur. The contemporary historian William of Newburgh wrote around 1190 that "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others".
The Shakespeare authorship question is a fringe theory that claims that the works attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Another example of historical revisionism is the thesis, found in the writings of David Barton and others, asserting that the United States was founded as an exclusively Christian nation. Mainstream historians instead support the traditional position, which holds that the American founding fathers intended for church and state to be kept separate.
Confederate revisionists (a.k.a. Civil War revisionists), "Lost Cause" advocates, and Neo-Confederates argue that the Confederate States of America's prime motivation was the maintenance of states' rights and limited government, rather than the preservation and expansion of slavery.
Connected to the Lost Cause is the Irish slaves myth, a pseudo-historical narrative which conflates the experiences of Irish indentured servants and enslaved Africans in the Americas. This myth, which was historically promoted by Irish nationalists such as John Mitchel, has in the modern-day been promoted by white supremacists in the United States to minimize the mistreatment experienced by African Americans (such as racism and segregation) and oppose demands for slavery reparations. The myth has also been used to obscure and downplay Irish involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
The consensus among academics is that no strictly matriarchal society is known to have existed. Anthropologist Donald Brown's list of human cultural universals (viz., features shared by nearly all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs, which is the contemporary opinion of mainstream anthropology. Some societies are matrilineal or matrifocal but in fact have patriarchal power structures, which may be misidentified as matriarchal. The idea that matriarchal societies existed and they preceded patriarchal societies was first raised in the 19th-century among Western academics, but it has since been discredited.
Despite this however, some second-wave feminists assert that a matriarchy preceded the patriarchy. The Goddess Movement and Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade cite Venus figurines as evidence that societies of paleolithic and neolithic Europe were matriarchies that worshipped a goddess. This belief is not supported by mainstream academics.
Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories
Excluding the Norse colonization of the Americas and other reputable scholarship, most theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact have been classified as pseudohistory, including claims that the Americas were actually discovered by Arabs or Muslims. Gavin Menzies' book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which argues for the idea that Chinese sailors discovered America, has also been categorized as a work of pseudohistory.: 11
Mainstream historians have categorized psychohistory as pseudohistory. Psychohistory is an amalgam of psychology, history, and related social sciences and the humanities. Its stated goal is to examine the "why" of history, especially the difference between stated intention and actual behavior. It also states as its goal the combination of the insights of psychology, especially psychoanalysis, with the research methodology of the social sciences and humanities to understand the emotional origin of the behavior of individuals, groups and nations, past and present.
Josiah Priest and other nineteenth-century American writers wrote pseudohistorical narratives that portrayed African Americans and Native Americans in an extremely negative light. Priest's first book was The Wonders of Nature and Providence, Displayed (1826). The book is regarded by modern critics as one of the earliest works of modern American pseudohistory. Priest attacked Native Americans in American Antiquities and Discoveries of the West (1833) and African-Americans in Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro (1843). Other nineteenth-century writers, such as Thomas Gold Appleton, in his A Sheaf of Papers (1875), and George Perkins Marsh, in his The Goths in New England, seized upon false notions of Viking history to promote the superiority of white people (as well as to oppose the Catholic Church). Such misuse of Viking history and imagery reemerged in the twentieth century among some groups promoting white supremacy.
The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln is a book that purports to show that certain historical figures, such as Godfrey of Bouillon, and contemporary aristocrats are the lineal descendants of Jesus. Mainstream historians have widely panned the book, categorizing it as pseudohistory, and pointing out that the genealogical tables used in it are now known to be spurious. Nonetheless, the book was an international best-seller and inspired Dan Brown's bestselling mystery thriller novel The Da Vinci Code.: 2–3
Although historians and archaeologists consider the Book of Mormon to be an anachronistic invention of Joseph Smith, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) believe that it describes ancient historical events in the Americas.
In her books, starting with The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), English author Margaret Murray claimed that the witch trials in the early modern period were actually an attempt by chauvinistic Christians to annihilate a secret, pagan religion, which she claimed worshipped a Horned God. Murray's claims have now been widely rejected by respected historians. Nonetheless, her ideas have become the foundation myth for modern Wicca, a contemporary Neopagan religion. Belief in Murray's alleged witch-cult is still prevalent among Wiccans, but is gradually declining.
The Christ myth theory claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a historical figure and that his existence was invented by early Christians. This argument currently finds very little support among scholars and historians of all faiths and has been described as pseudohistorical.
The belief that Ancient India was technologically advanced to the extent of being a nuclear power is gaining popularity in India. Emerging extreme nationalist trends and ideologies based on Hinduism in the political arena promote these discussions. Vasudev Devnani, the education minister for the western state of Rajasthan, said in January 2017 that it was important to "understand the scientific significance" of the cow, as it was the only animal in the world to both inhale and exhale oxygen. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a gathering of doctors and medical staff at a Mumbai hospital that the story of the Hindu god Ganesha showed genetic science existed in ancient India. Many new age pseudohistorians who focus on converting mythological stories into history are well received among the crowd. Indian Science Congress ancient aircraft controversy is a related event when Capt. Anand J. Bodas, retired principal of a pilot training facility, claimed that aircraft more advanced than today's versions existed in ancient India at the Indian Science Congress.
As a topic of study
- Big lie – Gross distortion of the truth
- List of pseudohistorians
- Pseudoscientific metrology
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The Iğdır genocide monument is the ultimate caricature of the Turkish government's policy of denying the 1915 genocide by rewriting history and transforming victims into guilty parties.
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- Miller, Laura (22 February 2004). "The Last Word; The Da Vinci Con". The New York Times.
- Laura Miller (2006). Dan Burstein (ed.). Secrets of the Code. Vanguard Press. p. 405. ISBN 978-1-59315-273-4.
- Fagan, Brian M.; Beck, Charlotte (1996). The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507618-4.
- Cline, Eric H. (2009). Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-974107-6.
- Feder, Kenneth L. (2010). Encyclopedia of Dubious Archaeology: From Atlantis to the Walam Olum. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-0-313-37919-2.
- Rickard, Bob; Michell, John (2000). "Arkeology". Unexplained Phenomena: A Rough Guide Special. London, England: Rough Guides. pp. 179–83. ISBN 1-85828-589-5.
- Dietz, Robert S. "Ark-Eology: A Frightening Example of Pseudo-Science" in Geotimes 38:9 (Sept. 1993) p. 4.
- Purkiss, Diane (1996). The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. Abingdon, England: Routledge. p. 62. ISBN 978-0415087629.
- Russell, Jeffrey B.; Alexander, Brooks (2007), A New History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans, London, England: Thames and Hudson, p. 154, ISBN 978-0-500-28634-0
- Simpson, Jacqueline (1994). "Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?". Folklore. Vol. 105. pp. 89–96. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1994.9715877.
- Rabinovitch, Shelley; Lewis, James (2002). The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism. New York City, New York: Kensington Publishing Corporation. pp. 32–35. ISBN 0-8065-2407-3.
- In a 2011 review of the state of modern scholarship, Bart Ehrman (a secular agnostic) wrote: "He certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees" B. Ehrman, 2011 Forged : writing in the name of God ISBN 978-0-06-207863-6. p. 285
- Robert M. Price (an atheist who denies the existence of Jesus) agrees that this perspective runs against the views of the majority of scholars: Robert M. Price "Jesus at the Vanishing Point" in The Historical Jesus: Five Views edited by James K. Beilby & Paul Rhodes Eddy, 2009 InterVarsity, ISBN 028106329X p. 61
- Michael Grant (a classicist) states that "In recent years, 'no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non historicity of Jesus' or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary." in Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels by Michael Grant 2004 ISBN 1898799881 p. 200
- Richard A. Burridge states: "There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that anymore." in Jesus Now and Then by Richard A. Burridge and Graham Gould (Apr 1, 2004) ISBN 0802809774 p. 34
- Did Jesus exist?, Bart Ehrman, 2012, Chapter 1
- Sykes, Stephen W. (2007). "Paul's understanding of the death of Jesus". Sacrifice and Redemption. Cambridge University Press. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-0-521-04460-8.
- Mark Allan Powell (1998). Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-664-25703-3.
- James L. Houlden (2003). Jesus in History, Thought, and Culture: Entries A–J. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-57607-856-3.
- Robert E. Van Voorst (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 14–16. ISBN 978-0-8028-4368-5.
- Dickson, John (24 December 2012). "Best of 2012: The irreligious assault on the historicity of Jesus". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 17 June 2014.
- Kumar, Ruchi (12 October 2018). "The Threat of Pseudoscience in India". Undark. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
- "Cow only animal to inhale and exhale oxygen: Rajasthan minister". Hindustan Times. 16 January 2017. Archived from the original on 27 April 2019.
- Maseeh Rahman (28 October 2014). "Indian prime minister claims genetic science existed in ancient times". The Guardian. Retrieved 26 April 2019.
- Lakshmi, Rama (4 January 2015). "Indians invented planes 7,000 years ago — and other startling claims at the Science Congress". The Washington Post. Retrieved 30 April 2019.
- "Examination of 'pseudohistory' and how to uncover trustworthy accounts focus of next Modern China Lecture | CSUSB News". inside.csusb.edu. Archived from the original on 2019-12-22. Retrieved 2019-04-26.
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