Keeping it real with fake history

Jul 18, 2023 | Interview

Sebastian MajorFrom the outset I should say that interviewing Sebastian Major was the absolute pleasure that I expected it to be. He is certainly one of the most affable history podcasters on the scene.

For those of you unlucky enough not to have yet listened to Our Fake History, and I urge you to remedy that situation promptly, this is the podcast that looks at historical myths and tries to “determine what’s fact, what’s fiction and what is such a good story that it simply must be told”. As a long-term listener and fan of the show, your correspondent did very much enjoy hearing Sebastian speak the tagline live and up close.

Including extras, Our Fake History boasts over 200 episodes and is now into its eighth season. The fake history approach allows Sebastian to delve into the great stories of history, right from the outset in Season 1, we had The Trojan War, Joan of Arc and Napoleon. As it became obvious that this podcast was going to run for a while, Sebastian has rationed his menu of biggies, so he managed to avoid The Knights Templar until Season 7, Galileo until Season 8 and he is only just got to Christopher Columbus and he very much enjoyed it even though he has had to research some fairly grim events.

The inception of Our Fake History has a legend of its own. At the time, Sebastian was a high-school history teacher in Toronto. As any good history teacher does he wanted to hook his students into the period that they were studying and thought that he would tell them the tale of Rasputin in all its salacious detail. He told them the well-known tale of how the mad monk survived poisoning, shooting and being thrown into a frozen Russian river wrapped in a blanket only to die from exposure. But on finishing, hoping to have inculcated these young minds with a life-long love of learning, he saw that one student had a hand up and said, “That’s not true. That’s a total myth. That didn’t really happen. Why are you lying to us in our history class?”

And sure enough, Sebastian went back to do his research and found that this tale though fantastical was widely believed but when he looked into it further he found that it was essentially based on one man’s account. And this man, Felix Yusupov, had skin in the game, he was the classic unreliable narrator, and unreliable narrators who would go on to become a stock character of the podcast.

So, Sebastian went back to the class with an entirely different Rasputin-based lesson, where the focus was reading multiple sources and questioning all of them. “What should we believe? How do we use these different sources? How do we weight them? How would we come to trust one over another?” And thus was born Our Fake History.

What became of that student who stood up and questioned his teacher, like so much of the historical record, is lost to the mists of time. But you can find the answer to his protests in the Who Killed Rasputin series as Season 2, Episodes 28-29.

Sebastian loves fake history because it tells us so much about real history. All myths are constructs of their time. Sebastian cites the example of the Titanic myth (Season 7, Episodes 151-153) as being a window on the British Edwardian cultural perspective and the expectation that the captain had been heroic, had shown the stiff upper-lip and had gone down with his ship as he should have done. Whether this is true or not is less interesting to Sebastian than what the belief in this myth tells us about those British Edwardians. Sebastian’s recent series on Christopher Columbus is worth checking out if you want to delve further into how myths evolve over time and what they tell us about the tellers of those myths.

As for those who actually invent the myths, those unreliable narrators, over the years Sebastian has built up a bit of Rogue’s Gallery who keep popping up that would include Geoffrey of Monmouth, Heinrich Schliemann and Graham Hancock. Schliemann even has his own guitar sting when he crops up yet again committing one more crime against archaeology. But for all his wanton destruction of the ruins of Troy, undoubtedly his greatest discovery, Sebastian confesses to a certain fondness for Schliemann… Hancock not so much. I sense that Sebastian has slogged through the collected works of Graham Hancock as an act of true altruism. He has done it so that we don’t have to – taken one for the team if you will.

Sebastian might be a lover the fakers and fakery, but he does believe that there is such a thing as real history. He says, “And so real history is when you look at all of the sources that you that you have in front of you and you go, okay, all of these sources agree on a certain number of things and where there is consensus and where there is agreement and where the things that are written match up with what’s in the archaeological record. Those are the things we can say are true. Those are the things we can say really happened or those are the places we can say there is no disagreement on this.”

So Our Fake History focuses on the historical events where these criteria are not met, where things are contested, where there are multiple perspectives that we cannot, from our distance in time say for certain which is correct. Over the years Sebastian has learnt to smell out fishiness, “I’m always suspicious of something that comes up in a historical source that that sounds a little too much like a fairy tale. Or sounds to a little too much like a story trope that we’ve heard before.”

That said, this does not mean that there is no truth in fairy tales. In fact, when asked to recommend a single episode for new listeners, he proposes the Was There A Real Pied Piper?(Season 4, Episode 77). He feels that it is a nice, concise introduction to what he does.

When it comes to recommending a whole series, he goes for something more personal to him as a Canadian, namely The War of 1812 (Series 6, Episodes 133-135). And he can’t help himself steering people towards the various episodes he has done on music, including Who Invented Rock ‘n Roll? (Series 3, Episodes 53-54).

Music is very important to Sebastian, and Our Fake History always opens with a fine, and supremely rock and roll, “1, 2, 3, 4” intro from a band called Dirty Church. But it was only after a few years that we found out that Dirty Church is one of a number of bands that Sebastian has been part of over time. He plays all the melodic interludes between sections of the podcast too.

And with his band background, Sebastian really enjoys suggesting concepts from history as potential band names, undoubtedly the best of these being the Boudiccan Destruction Horizon (a line in the substrata of London that marks the time that Boudicca burnt the city to the ground). He got into a bit of hot water with this recently when he thought there should be a Scandinavian band called The Ultimate Thule, after the mythic northern island, but it turns there is already a Swedish band of this name, unfortunately they turn out to be neo-Nazis.

Behind the scenes

Luke_PlagueDoctorAs ever at Intelligent Speech, we do like to find out a little about the whole business of podcasting, this is particularly true of independent podcasters like Sebastian, who have taken the plunge and gone full time. Sebastian has given up his regular teaching work, though he is keeping his hand in with some supply teaching and envisages himself going back into it at some point.

It might not be the most profitable, but the Our Fake History merch really is exceptional and this is thanks to the input from Frank Fiorentino, an artist friend of Sebastian’s. Frank designs unique artwork for each episode of OFH. Originally Frank volunteered his services but Sebastian is now able to reward for his work, which he does diligently by insisting that Sebastian shares the topics and focuses beforehand, so that he can create a piece of art that really does reflect the episode in question. Your correspondent is the proud owner of a Plague Doctor covid mask, which felt all too apposite at the time.

Our Fake History also has a Patreon page with various rewards for different tiers, including bonus episodes, and the opportunity to vote on future episodes.

Sebastian is also now exploring the wilder shores of social media, well YouTube and something called TikTok, in order to bring the gospel of Fake History to the younger generations.

Then there is the advertising, Sebastian does sound a little sheepish about this, like so many podcasters but he recognises that this income helps him feed his family and to be a full-time podcaster, so he is actually quite comfortable with it. And if listeners are rabidly anti-advertising, they can join the ranks of the “beautiful people” on a tier of Patreon and get the ad-free versions. Seems very much fair enough!

Coming up…

  • Hellfire Clubs
  • Professional wrestling
  • Buffalo Bill and the Wild West Shows (For the non-fake history of Sitting Bull’s involvement with Buffalo Bill, see History on Fire, episodes 55-56 from fellow Intelligent Speech Keynote, Daniele Bolelli)
  • Lope de Aguirre (of Klaus Kinski’s Wrath of God fame)

Intelligent Speech

We are very glad to be able to include Sebastian as one of our Keynotes at Intelligent Speech 2023.

He’s working on a contingencies-based topic around the idea of No Contingencies, i.e. when there was no back-up plan. He’ll be exploring questions along the lines of:

  • Did Cortes really burn his boats?
  • What to do when you are Columbus and you’ve told everyone, including two very bellicose monarchs, that you were going to be coming back from Asia laden with gold and you are clearly not in Asia?
  • Did Tesla really deliver what he said he had?

Sebastian and Daniele Bolelli of History of Fire will be appearing together on one of Intelligent Speech’s Roundtables. Details are still to be firmed up but they are looking into discussing storytelling and history, which promises to be a great session.

So roll up to Intelligent Speech in November to hear a truly beautiful person speak and in the meantime feast yourselves on the riches that are available at Our Fake History.