Myths that kinda-sorta aren't

Or, well, that are. But not exactly. More like surprisingly reasonable misconceptions, that are often passed off as silly myths.

Actually, I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, so bear with me for a minute. What got me thinking was a thread, now apparently sent to the cornfield, that mentioned slaves and the pyramids. I was thinking about posting a comment in there, but maybe there’s a thread idea in it. Or maybe not. I guess we’ll see how it goes.

Someone in that thread mentioned the misconception that slaves built the pyramids, prompting the inevitable response that the pyramids weren’t built by slaves at all, but by paid workers, and that the slave thing is a myth.

Which is correct, but myth doesn’t seem exactly the right word for it. The way you see this point brought up, it often makes it seem that it’s a myth that slave labor was even a thing in those days, and we’re silly for not giving the ancients more credit. But slavery was absolutely rampant through all of ancient history. Thinking that slaves built the pyramids isn’t silly at all. Herodotus, in his day, assumed that slaves had built them. The discovery that they were probably built by paid Egyptian workers is a modern one, puzzled out from relatively recent discoveries of inscriptions and cemeteries.

Having always heard the “slaves built the pyramids” thing described as “myth”, the surprise to me, then, was how reasonable the idea actually is, and how much work slaves did do in ancient times, generally speaking. Just often not construction work in particular.

Any other examples of this sort of thing?

Not to mention that the distinction between slaves and paid workers can get a little fuzzy even today. The foreign “guest workers” who do all the construction in Dubai are working for pay, but a lot of people see them as pseudo-slaves due to the reputedly exploitative labor practices there. So what kind of rights did paid workers really have in ancient Egypt?

It seems like the usual myth being dispelled is that Hebrew slaves built the pyramids, which is something that requires a major misunderstanding of both scholarly history and the Old Testament.

I also don’t think the discovery you see in articles “dispelling” the myth that slaves built the pyramids is all that definitive. It simply shows that the workers lived (or at least ate) relatively well, but doesn’t really speak to the labor arrangements. The general belief is that the monumental projects were built with a form of corvée, which maybe isn’t quite slavery but is definitely involuntary servitude. Most of the grunt work is thought to have been done by farm workers who couldn’t work during the flood season, although it’s not entirely clear whether those were more like chattel slaves or something closer to medieval serfs or otherwise free peasants who had the labor obligation during the flood seasons.