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9 Powerful Snakes from History and Mythology

February 18, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Around the globe, the serpent carries potent symbolism.

Ever since Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden, snakes in Christian tradition have been associated with lies, evil and temptation. But in other cultures, as far-flung as ancient Greece and Egypt and indigenous North America, snakes symbolize fertility, rebirth, renewal and even immortality. The ouroboros, the ancient symbol of eternity that was famously depicted on King Tut’s tomb in the 14th century B.C., is a serpent devouring its own tail.

From the Aztec god of wind, rain and creation to the semi-divine human-snake creatures that guarded the Buddha, here are nine snakes or serpents that have emerged, through history or myth, to play important roles in the cultures they represent.

Snake in the Garden of Eden

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

A man. A woman. A snake. And a fateful apple. In the Old Testament Book of Genesis, a serpent memorably appears in the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise God created for the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. The cunning snake convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit of the “tree of knowledge,” telling her that “when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When God learned of Adam and Eve’s transgression, he banished both of them from Eden and cursed the snake for its role, saying “You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.” Debate has long raged over whether the serpent in Genesis was a literal reptile, an allegory for sexual desire or temptation or even Satan himself.

Snakes that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland

St. Patrick depicted with a snake under his foot.

Irish culture is brimming with myths and legends, perhaps none so prevalent as that of St. Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, banishing every last snake from the Emerald Isle. As the story goes, St. Patrick, a fifth-century Christian missionary, was fasting for 40 days atop a hill when he was attacked by snakes. He waved his staff, driving all Ireland’s snakes into the sea. Though Ireland—like New Zealand, Hawaii, Greenland, Iceland and Antarctica—is in fact devoid of snakes, that has less to do with St. Patrick than with the fact that since the post-glacial age it’s been surrounded by water, and before …read more


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11 Little-Known Facts About George Washington

February 17, 2020 in History

By Editors

He’s America’s first president. The icon we all think we know. But in reality, he was a complicated human being.

1. Washington had only a grade-school education.

A young George Washington with his mother, Mary Ball Washington.

The first president’s formal schooling ended when he was 11 years old, after his father died. That event cut young George off from the opportunity to be educated abroad in England, a privilege that had been afforded to his older half-brothers. Washington’s mother never remarried, forcing the adolescent to shoulder weighty burdens at a young age, as the oldest child of six from his father’s second family. She taught him how to run a tobacco farm, and at the age of 16 he took his first job as a land surveyor. For the rest of his life, Washington would be embarrassed by his stunted schooling.

READ MORE: How George Washington’s Iron-Willed Single Mother Taught Him Honor

2. At age 22, Washington led a disastrous military skirmish that sparked a world war.

George Washington receiving a message from chief Half-King at the start of the French and Indian War.

As France and Britain fought for territory at the edges of the North American colonies, Virginia sided with the British. As an officer in the Virginia militia, Washington was sent to the Ohio Valley (now western Pennsylvania) with some 150 troops, to help repel any attacks by the French. Warned by local Native American allies that a small French force has set up camp within several miles of his position, he led an attack with 40 of his soldiers, along with a dozen native warriors.

Who fired the first shot remains in dispute, but at the end of the 15-minute skirmish, at least 10 French soldiers and one Virginian were dead—including, most notably, a minor French noble, Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, who the French later said was on a diplomatic mission. Jumonville’s death enraged the French, who called Washington an assassin. The conflict between the French and the British escalated into the French and Indian War, and soon spread worldwide in what became known as the Seven Years’ War.

READ MORE: How 22-Year-Old George Washington Inadvertently Sparked a World War

3. Washington’s first love was the wife of one of his best friends.

George Washington dancing the minuet with Sally Fairfax at the Carlyle House, 1755.

“The world has …read more


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George Washington Gave America This Advice the First Time He Tried to Retire

February 14, 2020 in History

By Andrew Cannizzaro

As he stepped down as commander of the Continental Army, he wrote a ‘circular letter’ that outlined four essentials for the new nation’s success.

The American Revolution had just come to an end. George Washington, 51 years old and then the commander in chief of the Continental Army, had resigned his duties and wanted nothing more than to retire to his estate at Mount Vernon and study his crops.

Before he stepped back, though, he had some hard-earned wisdom he felt compelled to share with the country. So in the summer of 1783, he drafted his “Circular Letter to the States,” in which he detailed what he believed it would take for this American experiment to succeed. In many ways, it was a precursor to his famed Farewell Address 13 years later, a prescient warning to the country of the most likely political pitfalls.

WATCH: Hear the future president’s powerful words in the animation ‘George Washington’s Vision for America’

Not that he was angling for the job of leading the transitional new nation. After seven years in the battlefield, Washington wanted nothing more than a respite from public service. “Notwithstanding my advanced season of life,” he wrote in a letter to Colonel Henry Lee, “my increasing fondness for agricultural amusements, and my growing love of retirement, augment and confirm my decided predilection for the character of a private citizen.”

READ MORE: George Washington Warned of Political Infighting in His Farewell Address

‘With our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved’

But Washington knew that America had arrived at a momentous crossroads—a place of both great promise and great peril. While the colonists had won the Revolution, a formal peace treaty had not yet been signed with Great Britain. The state governors were wary of handing over any power to Congress, and a wartime army had the daunting task of transitioning back to civilian life. Not to mention, the war had saddled the fledgling nation with massive debt.

With those hardships in mind, General Washington drafted his “Circular Letter,” in which he detailed what he believed it would take for this American experiment to succeed. By June 21, 1783, the letter had been sent to all state governors, but Washington was speaking directly to the people of America through his words.

“It appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America. …read more


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Harlem Renaissance: Photos From the African American Cultural Explosion

February 14, 2020 in History

By Madison Horne

From jazz and blues to poetry and prose to dance and theater, the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century was electric with creative expression by African American artists. See photos.

The New York City neighborhood of Harlem was the center of a cultural explosion from late 1910s through the mid-1930s. During the

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8 Momentous Kisses in History

February 13, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

From Judas to V-J Day to an interracial Star Trek encounter, see what kisses left their mark in history.

Despite , when Al Pacino’s character gives his brother Fredo the kiss of death for betraying him.

First Kiss on Film (1896)

May Irwin and John C. Rice, stars of the short film, “May Irwin kiss,” by Thomas Edison’s studio.

The first people to smooch on film were May Irwin and John C. Rice, who appeared in a short film known variously as May Irwin kiss, Kiss or The Kiss. In 1896, the two performers went to Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey and reenacted their final kiss scene from a play they were putting on in New York City.

On stage, no one thought the kiss was that sensational. But many felt the close-up footage of them kissing was too risqué.

First Black Kiss on Film (1898)

Video courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts, Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive

In 1898, black performers Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown starred in a short film titled Something Good-Negro Kiss, the first film to show black Americans kissing. In 2017, film historians rediscovered the footage, which was filmed by a white man named William Selig in Chicago.

“There’s a performance there because they’re dancing with one another, but their kissing has an unmistakable sense of naturalness, pleasure and amusement as well,” Allyson Nadia Field, a professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Chicago who helped identify the film, said in a university press release. “It is really striking to me, as a historian who works on race and cinema, to think that this kind of artifact could have existed in 1898.”

V-J Day Kiss (1945)

An American sailor clutching a white-uniformed woman in a back-bending, passionate kiss in Times Square to celebrate the long awaited-victory over Japan.

On the morning of August 14, 1945, patients burst into Greta Zimmer’s Manhattan office claiming the war in Japan was over. The Austrian immigrant wasn’t sure what to think, so on her lunch break, she went to Times Square in her white dental assistant’s uniform to see what the news ticker said. The atmosphere there was celebratory, and the ticker confirmed that it was indeed V-J Day, and World War II was over.

As Zimmer looked away from the ticker, a Navy sailor …read more


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How America Struggled to Bury the Dead During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

February 12, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

Undertakers, gravediggers and casket makers couldn’t keep up with history’s deadliest pandemic.

As a terrifyingly lethal influenza virus swept across the globe between 1918 and 1920, history’s deadliest pandemic claimed the lives of approximately 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. Nearly 200,000 Americans died from the “Spanish Flu” in October 1918 alone, making it the deadliest month in the country’s history.

With cremation an uncommon practice at the time, the sheer number of bodies overwhelmed the capacity of undertakers, gravediggers and casket makers to keep pace with the arduous task of burying the dead. At the same time, a prohibition on public gatherings that included funerals and wakes compounded the pain of many grief-stricken families who could not properly mourn the loss of their loved ones.

America Was Unprepared for the Flu’s Mass Mortality

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

Nancy K. Bristow, a University of Puget Sound history professor and author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, says the United States had been caught unprepared for the outbreak partly because advances in bacteriology made many Americans believe they could control infectious diseases.

“This is not what Americans in 1918 expected to occur,” she says. “An enormous number of people died very quickly, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard where the flu struck first, and they didn’t have an opportunity to prepare in any way.”

The mass mortality led to macabre scenes. Red Cross nurses in Baltimore reported instances of visiting flu-ravaged homes to discover sick patients in bed beside dead bodies. In other cases, corpses were covered in ice and shoved into bedroom corners where they festered for days.

Inundated undertakers stacked caskets in funeral home hallways and even in their living quarters. In New Haven, Connecticut, six-year-old John Delano and his friends played outside of a mortuary, scaling a mountain of caskets piled on a sidewalk, unaware of the contents inside. “We thought—boy, this is great. It’s like climbing the pyramids,” he recalled.

Photos: Innovative Ways People Tried to Protect Themselves From the Flu

Boys wear bags of camphor around their necks around the time of the 1918-19 Spanish flu—an “old-wives’ method of flue-prevention,” according to a December 1946 issue of Life magazine.

View the 9 images of this gallery on the original article

Cemeteries struggled to handle the soaring death toll. With gravediggers absent …read more


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Why Was Dresden So Heavily Bombed?

February 12, 2020 in History

By Volker Janssen

By the end of the three-day Allied bombing attack of World War II, the German city had been leveled and tens of thousands were dead.

They had heard the “whump a whump” of distant aerial bombings many times before. But on February 13, 1945, the American prisoners of war heard Dresden’s fire sirens howl right above their heads. German guards moved them two stories down into a meat locker. When they came back to the surface, “the city was gone,” remembered writer and social critic Kurt Vonnegut—one of the American POWs who witnessed the bombing of Dresden.

The punishing, three-day Allied bombing attack on Dresden from February 13 to 15 in the final months of World War II became among the most controversial Allied actions of the war. The 800-bomber raid dropped some 2,700 tons of explosives and incendiaries and decimated the German city.

As a major center for Nazi Germany’s rail and road network, Dresden’s destruction was intended to overwhelm German authorities and services and clog all transportation routes with throngs of refugees. The Allied assault came a less than a month after some 19,000 U.S. troops were killed in Germany’s last-ditch offensive at the Battle of the Bulge, and three weeks after the grim discovery of the atrocities committed by Nazi forces at Auschwitz.

In an effort to force a surrender, the Dresden bombing was intended to terrorize the civilian population locally and nationwide. It certainly had that effect.

Dresden Bombing: A Barrage of Explosives and Incendiaries

A photograph shot by German WWII photographer Richard Peter shows a street cleared out after the February 13-15, 1945 Allied bombing attack on Dresden. In the background is a damaged high school.

View the 8 images of this gallery on the original article

In the time that Vonnegut and others hid underground, the British Bomber Command’s Blind Illuminator aircraft had rained explosives and incendiaries over the city. Then, “visual marker” aircraft swooped low to drop thousands of flares and fire-target markers. The main attack formation followed: over 500 heavy “Lancaster” bombers loaded with explosives and incendiaries. The U.S. Eighth Air Force attacked the next day with another 400 tons of bombs and launched yet another raid with 210 bombers on February 15.

With the German Luftwaffe destroyed and anti-aircraft defenses in shambles, the Royal Air Force lost only six planes. On the ground, however, thousands of small fires …read more


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7 Black Heroes of the American Revolution

February 11, 2020 in History

By Colette Coleman

They include a spy, a poet, a guerrilla fighter—and foot soldiers who fought on both sides of the war.

During the American Revolution, thousands of black Americans jumped into the war, on both sides of the conflict. But unlike their white counterparts, they weren’t just fighting for independence—or to maintain British control. In a time when the vast majority of African Americans lived in bondage—their forced labor fueling the economy of the fledgling nation—most took up arms hoping to be freed from the literal shackles of chattel slavery. In fact, when enslaved people had choice in the matter, according to historian Edward Ayres of the American Revolution Museum in Yorktown, Virginia, they signed on with whichever side seemed most likely to grant them personal freedom.

Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution, a documentary from executive producers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Deborah Morales, premieres Feb 19 at 10/9c on HISTORY.

For some slaves-turned-soldiers, the Revolution’s promise of liberty became a reality. But despite the patriots’ lofty rhetoric about liberty and justice for all, America’s war for independence didn’t herald widespread emancipation for enslaved people of color. America’s northern states didn’t pass laws to abolish slavery until 1804—and even then, some areas phased it out slowly. Southern states would cling to the brutal practice for more than a half-century longer.

Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African-descended people participated in the Revolution on the Patriot side, and that upward of 20,000 served the crown. Many fought with extraordinary bravery and skill, their exploits lost to our collective memory. Below are the stories of several exceptional African American figures—a martyr, a poet and a double agent among them—whose crucial contributions to the conflict have been remembered to history.

READ MORE: He Fought for His Freedom in the Revolution. Then His Sons Were Sold into Slavery

Crispus Attucks, Martyr

Crispus Attucks, whom many historians credit as the first man to die for the rebellion, became a symbol of black American patriotism and sacrifice. In 1770, as tension mounted between British and colonial sailors in Massachusetts ports, distrust and competition among them grew. These pressures came to a head on March 5th, when an angry confrontation turned into a slaughter known as the Boston Massacre.

Witnesses say that Attucks, a middle-aged runaway slave of African and native American descent, who worked as a sailor and a rope maker, played an active role …read more


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How Coffee Fueled Revolutions—And Revolutionary Ideas

February 11, 2020 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

From the Ottoman Empire to the American and French Revolutions, coffeehouses have offered a place for (sober) people to discuss new waves of thought.

Sultan Murad IV decreed death to coffee drinkers in the Ottoman Empire. King Charles II dispatched spies to infiltrate London’s coffeehouses, which he saw as the original source of “false news.” During the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau and Isaac Newton could all be found talking philosophy over coffee. The cafés of Paris sheltered revolutionaries plotting the storming of the Bastille and later, served as the place authors like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre plotted their latest books.

History is steeped in ideas sparked over cups of coffee. Here’s a rundown of the revolutionary power of the commonplace café.

The First Coffee House Opens in the Ottoman Empire

An 18th-century Turkish coffee house.

Coffee houses began in the Ottoman Empire. Since liquor and bars were off-limits to most practicing. The defining feature of English coffee houses were communal tables covered with newspapers and pamphlets where guests would gather to consume, discuss and even write the news. “Coffeehouses were the motor of the news industry in 18th-century London,” Ellis explains.

King Charles II’s father, Charles I, had been decapitated during the English Civil War, so he was understandably paranoid about his subjects gathering to talk politics. On June 12, 1672, Charles II issued a proclamation to “Restrain the Spreading of False News, and Licentious Talking of Matters of State and Government,” which read in part: “men have assumed to themselves a liberty, not onely in Coffee-houses, but in other Places and Meetings, both public and private, to censure and defame the proceedings of State by speaking evil of things they understand not.”

To combat this “evil,” Secretary of State Sir Joseph Williamson embedded a network of spies in London coffee houses and in December of 1675, Charles II went as far as ordering the closure of all coffee houses in London. The ban lasted just 11 days. The people had spoken: Coffee was here to stay.

Coffee Houses Become Known as ‘Penny Universities’

The ban’s failure was history’s gain: The very type of open discussion Charles II feared led to the explosion of new ideas during the Enlightenment. In Oxford, locals had begun calling coffee houses “penny universities” because for the cost of a cup of coffee, you could gain access to intellectual discussions and, critically, sober debate. At a …read more


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Victorian-Era 'Vinegar' Valentines Could Be Mean and Hostile

February 10, 2020 in History

By Crystal Ponti

Rather than expressing love and affection, these mean-spirited cards were designed to offend.

In the Victorian era, and into the 20th century, lovers exchanged elaborate lace-trimmed cards on Valentine’s Day, expressing their undying love and devotion with sentiments and poems. For those not on good terms, or who wanted to fend off an enemy or unwanted suitor, “vinegar valentines” offered a stinging alternative.

“To My Valentine / ‘Tis a lemon that I hand you and bid you now ‘skidoo,’ Because I love another—there is no chance for you,” reads one card. Another depicts a woman dousing an unsuspecting man with a bucket of water. “Here’s a cool reception,” it warns, telling the “old fellow” that he “best stop away.”

Although Valentine’s Day can be traced to ancient Rome, it’s the Victorians who originally put a romantic spin on the holiday. Valentine’s Day became so popular that postal carriers received special meal allowances to keep themselves running during the frenzy leading up February 14th. Of the millions of cards sent, some estimate that nearly half were of the vinegar variety.

“What are now known as ‘vinegar’ valentines by 21st century dealers and collectors seem to have their origin in the 1830s and 1840s,” says Annebella Pollen, an art and design historian who authored a paper on vinegar valentines. “This coincides with the growth of valentines as a popular form of communication, assisted by the development of a range of wider phenomena, such as cheap printing and fancy paper production, technologies for the mass circulation of pictorial imagery and the development of advanced postal systems.”

Vinegar Valentines Ranged From Sassy to Cruel

“Pshaw! All womankind now want their rights,
The female world have suffered long enough.
I for one am ready for to strike,
To make a man my slave is what I like.”

View the 12 images of this gallery on the original article

Before they were dubbed vinegar valentines, these sassy cards were known as mocking or comic valentines. Their tone ranged from a gentle jab to downright aggressiveness. There was an insulting card for just about every person someone might dislike—from annoying salespeople and landlords to overbearing employers and adversaries of all kinds. Cards could be sent to liars and cheats and flirts and alcoholics, while some cards mocked specific professions. Their grotesque drawings caricatured common stereotypes and insulted a recipient’s physical attributes, lack of a marriage partner or character …read more