Historical Myths: Common Codes Supposedly Hidden In Statues

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons

There are statues all over the place, all over the world, but a set of myths have developed regarding some in Europe, in particular, statues of people on horseback, and statues of medieval knights and monarchs. So what are these myths pretending to be rules?

1. On a statue of a horse and rider, the number of legs in the air reveals information about how the rider died: both legs in the air means they died during a battle, one leg in the air means they died later of wounds inflicted during a battle.

All legs on the ground, and they died unconnected to any battles they might have been in.

2. On a statue or grave covering of a knight, the crossing of the legs (sometimes arms) indicates whether they took part in a crusade: if the crossing is present, they went on crusade. (And if everything is straight, they avoided all that.)

The Truth:

In terms of European history, there is no tradition of indicating on a statue how the individual died, nor how many crusades they went on. You cannot safely infer those things from the stone itself, and will have to refers to biographies of the deceased (assuming there are reliable biographies, and more than a few of those are untrustworthy). This statement only to European history, which I cover here. For a look at US history, see the Snopes link below; I cannot speak about the rest of the world.

Myth and Urban Legend

While Snopes.com claims that part one of this legend is partly true with regards to the statues of the Battle of Gettysburg (and even this might not be deliberate), there is no established tradition of doing this in Europe, although the myth is widespread there: I’ve heard it from numerous sources, as recently as a 2007 book I purchased to give as a present and then thought twice about if it was getting that wrong.

The myth of crusading knights is much less widespread, but then again so is knowledge of the crusades.

The supposed logic behind part two is that the crossed legs are another symbol of the Christian cross, a prominent symbol of crusades; crusaders were often said to have ‘taken the cross’ when they went on crusade.

However, there are numerous statues of people known to have gone on crusade with uncrossed legs, and vice versa, just as there are riders on statues with raised legs who died of natural causes. This isn’t to say that there are no statues of either type which fit these myths, but these are just coincidences, or one offs. Of course it would be handy in the myths were true, even if would give people an excuse to bore you on a walk round by pointing it out all the time. The problem is, people (and books) try to do it now anyway, and they're almost always wrong. It's unclear where the horses legs myth came from, and it would be very interesting to know how that developed!