National Geographic History September/October 2020

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United States
National Geographic Society
6 Issues

in this issue

1 min
from the editor

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the tale of William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings over King Harold II of England. The story unfurls like a giant comic strip as dozens of scenes portray the events leading up to the battle and then the conflict itself. The first time I saw the Bayeux Tapestry was not in a book or a museum. It was thanks to two students at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, Germany. In 2002 they designed the Historic Tale Construction Kit, a computer application that allowed users to create stand-alone images of the people and beasts from the tapestry and add their own text. Their popular site spawned thousands of medieval memes that spread across the internet. I was a fan: Not only did…

3 min
ancient greeks threw curses down the well

Curses are often associated with fairy tales and witches, but archaeologists have discovered evidence of them in ancient Greece. Scratched onto pieces of lead, entreaties to the gods of the underworld were buried in tombs, but archaeologists have discovered 35 tablets from the fourth century B.C. at the bottom of a well, a rare example of an already unusual practice. Researchers at the Kerameikos cemetery in Athens have unearthed 6,500 burials, finding only 60 curse tablets, said Jutta Stroszeck, head of the Kerameikos excavation for the German Archaeological Institute. Although uncommon, curse tablets dating between the sixth century B.C. and sixth century A.D. have been found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. To make a curse effective, such objects had to be buried in a tomb, which was risky business: The sender had…

1 min
the case of the tongue-tied politician

CURSES sometimes spilled into public life in classical Greece. In his play The Wasps, Aristophanes alluded to the real-life feud between an aristocrat, Thucydides, and Pericles, leader of the democratic party. An incident in the Athenian Assembly in 444 B.C. led to the belief a judicial curse was at work. Thucydides decried Pericles’ building plans in Athens, calling him a spendthrift. When Pericles said he would pay for the construction himself, Thucydides, a veteran orator, froze in mid-retort. His paralysis may have been caused by a stroke, but in the ancient world, suspicions could quickly turn to the supernatural. “Everyone must have thought, I want a sorcerer like that,” said the German Archaeological Institute’s Jutta Stroszeck. The number of curses found in Kerameikos that involve court battles increased in the…

1 min
rebel queen of jhansi

circa 1827 Manikarnika is born to a Brahman family in a city on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. 1842 She marries the maharaja of Jhansi and changes her name to Lakshmi Bai. The two will have a son, who survives only a few months. 1853 The maharaja dies, and Lakshmi Bai becomes regent for her adopted son. The East India Company rejects their claim to the throne of Jhansi. 1857 The Indian Rebellion breaks out against British rule and begins to spread across the nation. 1858 Lakshmi Bai joins the fight and leads troops against the British. She dies in combat on June 17.…

7 min
lakshmi bai, freedom fighter of india

There is something of the Cinderella story to Lakshmi Bai, a commoner who rose to become rani (queen) of Jhansi, a princely state in mid-19th century India. Most fairy tales would end there, but in Lakshmi Bai’s case it was just the beginning of a remarkable life as a warrior queen. After becoming regent at the age of 25 in 1853, she would find herself at the heart of the Indian Rebellion that broke out in 1857, now known by many historians as India’s First War of Independence. Ultimately, she would lead thousands of infantry and cavalry troops into battle against the British, reportedly fighting with a sword in each hand and her horse’s reins between her teeth. History and myth are inseparable in her story. In the end, Lakshmi Bai, the…

1 min
face of the queen

JOHN LANG, an Australian lawyer, represented Lakshmi Bai in her legal battle against the East India Company to stop the annexation of Jhansi. In his memoir, Wanderings in India, he describes seeing the rani for the first time: “She was a woman of about the middle size—rather stout, but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger, and even now it had many charms … The expression was also very good, and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black … Her dress was a plain white muslin, so fine in texture … that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible—and a remarkably fine figure she had.”…