Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Interesting Facts About 10 National Anthems

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

If you listen to a bunch of national anthems one after the other, they all start to sound pretty much alike. The typical anthem is in the musical style of a march or a hymn and the lyrics have to do with struggles for freedom and independence, beautiful landscapes, and symbols of unity and pride. But every anthem has a story—not just of its nation's history, but of itself and how it came to be. The fascinatingly comprehensive site has the full background, lyrics, and music on "over 400 anthems, past and present." Here are some interesting facts about 10 of them.

1. Malaysia: an on-the-spot decision

The national anthem of Malaysia originated in a moment of panic for an aide to the Sultan of Perak. When the Sultan arrived in London at the invitation of Queen Victoria in 1888, the aide was asked for the music to the anthem so that it could be played during the welcome ceremony. He thought it would look bad to admit they had no anthem, so he hummed the melody of a popular tune from the Seychelles. He then told the Sultan what he had done, and reminded him to stand when the tune was played. It remained the official anthem of the state of Perak, and when Malaysia became an independent nation in 1957, it was chosen as the national anthem and new lyrics were written for it. 

2. Mexico: written under duress

In 1853, Mexico held a contest to see who could write the most inspiring poem to serve as the lyrics of an official national anthem. The girlfriend of the poet Francicso González Bocanegra tried to convince him to write something, but he wasn't interested, so she locked in him a room in her parents' house filled with pictures of scenes from Mexican history until he came up with something. She let him out after he slipped a ten verse poem under the door. The poem went on to become the national anthem, and the girlfriend went on to become the poet's wife.

3. St. Helena: never been there but it sounds nice

The tiny South Atlantic island of St. Helena is under British rule, but they have an anthem that is played when the RMS St. Helena (above) leaves port. It was written by an American named David Mitchell who had never been to St. Helena. He was working on the nearby island of Ascension (only 800 miles away) when a friend who had been to St. Helena suggested he write an anthem. Inspired by looking at some postcards of the island, he came up with "My St. Helena Island," the only country-western style national anthem in the world.

4. Netherlands: fun with word games

The anthem of the Netherlands did not become official until 1932, but the song had been around for at least 300 years before that. The lyrics consist of 15 verses and makes up an acrostic for Willem van Nassov, a hero of the Dutch revolt against Spain. Taken together, the first letter of each verse spells out his name (though in modern orthography it comes out as "Willem of Nazzov").

5. Andorra: a first-person narrator

Many national anthems tell a story about the nation's founding or history. Only Andorra's anthem tells its story in the first person, with the nation referred to as "I." The "I" of Andorra is imagined as a princess being protected by her princes (the people):

The great Charlemagne, my Father, liberated me from the Saracens,
And from heaven he gave me life of Meritxell the great Mother.
I was born a Princess, a Maiden neutral between two nations.
I am the only remaining daughter of the Carolingian empire 

6. Cook Islands: making beautiful music together

The national anthem of the Cook Islands, officially adopted in the early 1980s, was written by a husband and wife team. The music was composed by Sir Thomas Davis, the Prime Minister at the time, and the lyrics, in Maori, were written by his wife, Pa Tepaeru Terito Ariki, a tribal high chief.

7. Czech Republic and Slovakia: a 50-50 divorce

When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, it created an anthem by combining one verse from a Czech opera (Fidlovačka) and one from a Slovak folk song ("Kopala studienku"). When Czechoslovakia split up in 1993, the anthem was simply split up too, with the first verse going to the Czech Republic (above) and the second going to Slovakia (below).

8. France: parental discretion advised

Lots of national anthems are about the violent battles that gave rise to nationhood or liberation, but they usually focus on the glory more than the blood. France's anthem, "La Marseillaise," doesn't sugar-coat, keeping things incredibly gory, especially in its full version, which refers to blood-soaked flags, soldiers slitting throats, fields being fertilized with the blood of enemies, and metaphorical tigers tearing apart the breasts of their mothers.

9. South Africa: bringing it all together

Until the end of apartheid in South Africa, the official national anthem was the Afrikaans "Die Stem van Suid-Afrika," but a different song, "Nikosi Sikolei' iAfrika," served as the anthem for the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement. In 1997, both melodies were united (resulting in an anthem that begins and ends in different keys) and new lyrics were written, incorporating five languages. The song begins with two lines of Xhosa, followed by Zulu, Sethotho, Afrikaans, and English.

10. United States: not declared until 1931

"The Star Spangled Banner" was a popular choice for official state occasions in the 19th century, but it wasn't the only one. "Hail, Columbia" and "My Country 'Tis of Thee," among others, also served as anthems until 1931, when congress declared "The Star Spangled Banner" official. The tradition of playing it before every baseball game didn't start until WWII.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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