Throughout human history, people have believed in all sorts of strange and bizarre things. This is partly because humans are inherently curious and imaginative creatures. We’ve always loved to weave stories and myths to explain the world around us. However, this can sometimes lead to people holding unfounded beliefs and superstitions. One example of this is the practice of bloodletting. It was once thought to be a cure for a variety of ailments, including fever, inflammation, and even mental illness. We know that’s wrong now, but they didn’t know that then—as you’ll read more about in a minute.
No matter the beliefs, humans have always had a deep desire to understand the world around us. Thankfully, over time, we have developed new technologies and scientific methods to help us separate fact from fiction. But in this list, you’ll learn all about what we used to know and believe. Here are ten very strange, very bizarre beliefs people in the ancient past used to regard as true! And it ought to make you wonder: what do we believe now that will be seen as crazy and wrong in another few hundred years?
Related: 10 Surprising Sexual Beliefs in the Bible
10 Lambs Grew… Where?
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During the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief that cotton imported from India came from a plant that produced a vegetable lamb. Yes, you read that right—and the vegetable was supposedly attached to it by the umbilical cord. This belief was initially propagated by Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century. According to his account, a plant found in Tartary (which is now known as Russia and Mongolia) produced gourds that contained tiny lambs.
Mandeville’s travel writings were largely based on hearsay, though. Much of what he wrote about his world travels was either false or exaggerated. And yet this myth of the vegetable lamb also had another version too. The second edit suggested the lambs would die after consuming all the food surrounding their pod. Alternatively, wolves would prey on them. Other writers picked up on this and would later claim to have seen these vegetable lambs for themselves. They didn’t, of course, but the belief persisted until the 1600s.
Thankfully, it is now widely understood that the vegetable lamb was nothing more than a medieval myth. Now, we know there is no scientific evidence to support its existence. Scholars believe the myth may have arisen due to a lack of understanding of the origins of cotton and wool. The fact that cotton was imported from distant lands and wool from sheep may have contributed to the belief in a plant that produced a lamb-like creature.
9 Forget to Wash…
In the past, medical professionals had no concept of germ theory. That led to poor hygiene practices and high mortality rates among patients. Doctors would conduct autopsies on corpses and then proceed to deliver live births immediately afterward. Unsurprisingly, it created massive infections and serious complications for the mothers.
This continued until the 1840s when a Hungarian physician named Ignaz Semmelweis made an observation. One of his colleagues died after cutting his finger during an autopsy that year. The tragedy led Semmelweis to conclude that the doctors’ lack of hygiene was responsible for the high death rates.
Semmelweis implemented a policy that all doctors should wash their hands between patients. Literally overnight, it resulted in a dramatic decrease in the mortality rate in his hospital. But despite his efforts to spread this knowledge to the rest of the medical world, there was significant resistance to the idea. Semmelweis’s publication on the subject was poorly written, for one. Thus, it wasn’t until famous nurse Florence Nightingale strongly advocated for handwashing in 1860 that it became accepted practice worldwide.
The discovery of germ theory further solidified the importance of handwashing not long after that. Soon, it eventually became a staple in hospitals worldwide. Today, this simple yet crucial practice has saved countless lives. It remains an essential aspect of medical hygiene in the modern era. And it’s all thanks to Ignaz Semmelweis’ observations and dedication to going against what had long been common knowledge throughout most of his lifetime.
8 Let There Be Blood!
Bloodletting is the practice of using leeches or cutting open parts of the body to remove blood. It was a common medical treatment up until the late 1800s. This act was rooted in the false belief that many illnesses were caused by an excess of blood in the body. Thus, removing that blood would cure the illness. However, this practice was not effective. And sadly, it could often be harmful to patients.
Despite its ineffectiveness, bloodletting became increasingly popular through the 1800s. In France alone, it is estimated that 42 million leeches were imported each year for that work. Barbers and other caregivers were often responsible for the application of leeches to patients. In the most extreme cases, some patients received up to 100 leeches in a session. The caregivers would use sugar water, milk, or even blood to entice the leeches to start sucking on the patient’s skin.
The high demand for leeches led to a scarcity of the creatures worldwide. It also pushed a significant increase in their cost. This prompted caregivers to find creative ways to extend the life of a leech, such as feeding them raw meat or using brandy to keep them alive.
It wasn’t until the late 1820s that the first physicians began to speak out against bloodletting. This was a significant turning point in medical history, as it marked the beginning of the end of a practice that had been used for centuries but ultimately proved to be ineffective and harmful. Thank goodness we don’t do it today…
7 Newton Backs the Bible
Even today, Isaac Newton is one of the most prominent figures in the history of the scientific community. During his life, he had a profound fascination with alchemy. It extended beyond his well-known accomplishments in physics and mathematics. Newton was so deeply engrossed in alchemy that he actually built his own furnaces to conduct alchemical experiments.
Newton wrote extensively on the subject, too, while firmly believing any substance could be transformed into another. He used codes to conceal his theories from outsiders to preserve his opinions. Of course, that idea has since been disproven. Modern readers would likely view some of his writings as occult or religious treatises rather than scientific texts.
But that’s not the only strange belief Newton held! To him, the philosopher’s stone was a genuine item that he actively sought out. However, he was also a devoutly religious individual who believed in interpreting the Bible—literally. He devoted much of his time to uncovering a secret code that he believed was embedded in the Bible. The code, he claimed, would serve as a means of redeeming humanity before God’s inevitable return.
After poring over biblical texts, he concluded that the world as we know it would end in 2060. He believed a massive apocalypse would precede it. And since it’s not yet 2060, hey, perhaps his theory could still come true. But many, many people have predicted religious apocalypses down through history—and they’ve all been dead wrong so far.
6 Orgasms for… the Universe?
Wilhelm Reich was a psychoanalyst who became an advocate for sexual liberation in the West. He believed that orgasms were caused by a mysterious energy in the atmosphere called “orgone.” That energy supposedly permeated and moved throughout the entire universe. Reich argued that a good orgasm could liberate a person. But beware! A bad one could make them a prisoner or their own mind.
But in Hitler’s Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, sexual liberation was not popular. That forced Reich to flee to New York, where his ideas were embraced by the disenfranchised left. Reich even invented a device called an “Orgone Energy Accumulator” that claimed to energize a person with orgone. Left-leaning individuals revered this device, while conservatives feared it. Amazingly, some people still believe in its power today—even if Reich’s orgasmic universe beliefs have been scrapped.
Then, in the 1950s, the winds changed. Reich’s ideas earned him the label of a communist sympathizer. The FDA came after him for selling his Orgone Accumulators. They demanded that all literature and devices relating to them be destroyed. Reich violated that order, and soon enough, he was arrested. He was sent to federal prison for those crimes, where he died unexpectedly and totally alone in 1957.
Reich’s transformation from being the enemy of Fascist Europe to the enemy of the U.S. government was quite a speed-run of controversy. And it was all due to his radical ideas on sexual liberation and orgone energy. And yet, despite his controversial ideas and imprisonment, his legacy remains significant. Even today, his influence on sexual liberation in the West continues to be hotly debated.
5 Orgasms for… the Insane?
In the early 20th century, a common belief among physicians was that women did not experience sexual desire. This meant that female orgasms were viewed as problematic. When it happened, doctors felt it was something that needed to be solved. At the time, “experts” believed a woman’s sexuality was not important to her mental and physical health. One of the most famous physicians who espoused this belief was Sigmund Freud. He suggested clitoral stimulation could lead to psychosis in women. That view led to many women being institutionalized.
Women who were unable to have vaginal orgasms were viewed as imbalanced and masculine. Some were even labeled as lesbians—which was also considered a mental illness. This negative perception of the female orgasm and female sexuality was prevalent in many Western cultures at the time.
To deal with the supposed problem of female “hysteria” or sexual frustration, the vibrator was invented. Physicians used it to “treat” women and relieve their “hysteria.” This belief reinforced the idea that women were merely receptacles for male anatomy. Doctors assured the world that women were incapable of experiencing true sexual desire.
Thankfully, today, we know that orgasms are very beneficial for a woman’s mental health and physical well-being. This understanding helped to dispel myths and stigmas that were once attached to female sexuality. Now, women are able to enjoy and embrace their sexuality in the way they deserve—Freud be damned!
4 Train Troubles for the Fairer Sex
Throughout history, new technological advancements have been met with fear and resistance. In the modern age, the rise of things like artificial intelligence and 5G is no exception. This fear is not a recent development, though. In fact, it is as old as the Industrial Revolution.
In fact, when the first locomotive was introduced in the late 19th century, people were afraid that the high speed (which was only 50 mph or 80 km/h at the time!) would cause women’s uteruses to fly out of their bodies. Doctors worried that women were too dainty and sensitive for high-speed travel. And at the time, 50 miles per hour was truly cutting-edge, which left society scared of what might happen.
There was also a fear that the human body—regardless of gender—could melt if exposed to those speeds. Train travelers at the time were counseled to be cautious with how often they took their trips. The thought was that traveling too often by train could expose people to unsafe imbalances in their health, even driving them insane.
Of course, we know now that this was an absurd worry. But it suggests that every fear of new technology stems from a “moral panic” that society experiences whenever a new invention threatens to change our perception of time and space. Sound familiar?
3 The Sun Isn’t Hot
The sun is an essential source of life on Earth. It provides heat and light to sustain life. However, the sun’s surface is not hospitable to living organisms. Seems obvious, right? But it wasn’t back in 1795. William Herschel—a renowned astronomer who discovered Uranus—proposed a bizarre theory that held that the sun was not just a star but a gigantic planet.
Herschel argued that if the other planets in our solar system were capable of sustaining life, then the sun could too. He hypothesized that the sun was not hot but rather cold. It was covered, he argued, in a luminous material. Or perhaps it was an extremely reflective ocean that could support life adapted to the bright conditions.
Herschel’s theory was based on newly-found sunspots. He suggested they were possibly points on the planet well beyond the atmosphere. Or, perhaps, they were rocky peaks being exposed by the tides of an ocean. Yet, despite Herschel’s reputation and achievements, his ideas were dismissed by the scientific community. The public followed him for a while, but the experts didn’t. Herschel’s theory never gained acceptance by scientists then—and certainly not now.
Today, we know the sun is not a planet but a star. And it is not cold, but intensely hot. Additionally, sunspots are produced by the sun’s magnetic field and not as the result of oceans or mountain peaks. But in spite of Herschel’s failed theory here, his contributions to astronomy cannot be ignored. Everybody gets it wrong sometimes. Right?
2 The Cosmos Aren’t Hot, Either
In 1912, Hanns Hörbiger and his partner Philip Fauth proposed a theory that shook the scientific community. They posited that the planets, stars, and even humans were all made of ice. The duo claimed the Milky Way galaxy was formed when a massive star collided with a dead star filled with water. That resulted in the creation of ice, they argued, which soon formed the Milky Way and several other solar systems.
At first, the greater scientific community rejected this theory. After all, it lacked mathematical evidence and physical proof. But Hörbiger dismissed these concerns, saying that calculations could mislead people. He also threatened that anyone who opposed his theory would be treated as an enemy. Despite the criticisms, Hörbiger tried to popularize his theory anyway. He hoped that public support would force scientists to accept it.
Although mainstream science did not accept Hörbiger’s ideas, some very problematic thinkers did. They were Nazis who were quickly rising to power in Germany by the late 1920s, and they believed Hörbiger’s theory was superior to those created by Jewish scientists. This ideology gained momentum in Germany after World War I as anti-Semitism was on the rise.
The Nazis soon fully adopted Hörbiger’s ideas—and other horrifying beliefs. Adolf Hitler and other major Nazi leaders believed Hörbiger’s theory had racial implications. Through it, they claimed, the Aryan race was superior because it was made of ice, unlike other races. Uh, sure, Nazis.
1 The Earth Doesn’t Lie at the Center
Before the end of the 2nd century, it was widely believed Earth was the center of the universe. This view persisted among ancient observers who believed that the sun, stars, and the moon all revolved around our home planet. Some of the famous philosophers of that time, such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, supported this idea. The early Christian belief also reinforced this perspective. Historic faith adherents were sure God placed Earth at the center of the universe to make it unique and special. And without high-tech instruments to counter their thoughts, who was there to question this model?
However, with the development of scientific knowledge and understanding, this view was gradually invalidated. After several centuries, the Heliocentric model emerged as a superior alternative. That opinion proposes that all bodies in the solar system revolve around the sun. This model gained widespread acceptance hundreds of years ago. It was greatly pushed forth by monumental achievements like Galileo’s invention of the telescope.
As scientists better understood the world and the solar system, we finally began to understand how they fit together. And, of course, the Heliocentric model continues to be the standard scientific rule to this day.