Did Ancient Greeks beat Leif Erikson and Vikings to North America by 1,000 years?

The fanciful idea that the Ancient Greeks travelled to the Americas has resurfaced again in a number of Hellenic publications.

Based on some passages from the far later – and Roman – historian Plutarch in his ‘De Facie’, researchers believe Greek sailors made the treacherous transatlantic crossing in their Triremes under sail and oar power, some 1,000 or more years before Leif Erikson’s voyage and nearly 1,500 years before Columbus crossed the ocean.

They cited evidence to show how these unlikely – and recurrent – voyages could have happened.

So, this post will look at that evidence and the historical sources to see how likely it was.

The research, by Ioannis Liritzis, an archaeologist at the University of the Aegean and colleagues, is explained in the paper ‘Does astronomical and geographical information of Plutarch’s De Facie describe a trip beyond the North Atlantic Ocean?’.

It was originally published in the Journal of Coastal Research, in 2018.

The paper’s abstract reads: “In Plutarch’s book On the Apparent Face in the Orb of the Moon, the interlocutors develop a dialogue about a trip to the ‘great continent’ beyond the North Atlantic Ocean. By applying modern scientific data, the present reappraisal of the astronomical and geographical elements within this dialogue has produced a novel interpretation of the date and place of the meeting and a journey to the northern Atlantic Ocean.

“A described solar eclipse is dated to AD 75, making use of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)/Espenak/Meeus list, as well as historical information. The described peculiar, recurrent trips take place every 30 years (when the planet Saturn reaches the Taurus constellation) from the Mediterranean Sea to the Cronian Open Sea, which is identified with northern Atlantic Ocean coasts.

“It has been suggested that the last mission had returned homeland in April AD 56. The information provided concerns, distances between coastal sites and islands, duration of sea paths in days, and the reported setting and size between the destination place and its gulf with regards to Azov (in Crimea) and the Caspian Sea.

“Implications of sea currents and the coastal geomorphology of those lands are given. Following strictly the Gulf Stream current, as well as other known sea currents in the northern Atlantic Ocean, and introducing estimated speed for the ship, the geographical location of destination of the Greek settlers is proposedly identified with St. Lawrence Gulf and Newfoundland island.

“Other unnamed islands mentioned in this dialogue are identified with Norway’s islands, Azores, Iceland, Greenland, and Baffin islands.

“It has been shown that the journey is made with good knowledge of sea currents, but by using bright stars and stellar configurations as astronomical nightscape markers that determine the exact orientation of the sailing toward the Iberian Peninsula and back to the eastern Mediterranean, making the current working hypothesis a plausible event.”

The researchers believe the evidence shows that temporary outposts were set up by Greeks in the New World, where they mined gold.

The source for this hypothesis – Plutarch’s ‘De Facie’ features Socratic style dialogues between a number of characters.

In it they discuss whether the moon is another Earth, whether there is life on the moon, and other philosophical questions.

A character recounts meeting a stranger who had recently returned from a long voyage to a distant “great continent.”

According to the character, new travellers would make the trip to this far off land around every 30 years, when the planet Saturn appeared in the constellation Taurus.

Some were said to have remained behind on the continent and some would have returned.

Based on this and astronomical research, Liritzis and his fellow academics claimed that this mystery great continent was North America.

In the paper, the researchers claimed that the Greeks could have used their intricate knowledge of astronomy to pinpoint the locations of Atlantic currents that could have carried them westwards to the New World.

Hector Williams, a professor of classical archaeology at the University of British Columbia, played down the possibility of Greek sailors reaching the continent – at least on purpose.

He said: “While accidental pre-Columbian crossings are not impossible for Greeks and (more likely) Romans who were caught in a storm while on the coast of western Europe, there is no evidence for regular crossings.

“Even the Vikings gave up their brief settlement in Newfoundland after a few years.”

This was in no small part due to conflict with the Native American inhabitants, whom the Norse settlers referred to as Skraelings.

But these factors appear to have left the research team undeterred.

Let us turn to the father of Greek history, Herodotus, for the more likely extent of Ancient Greek knowledge.

Herodotus (c. 484 to c. 425 BC) wrote of the mythical Hyperborea and of the British Isles, which were referred to as the Tin Islands, in reference to the abundance of the metal in the islands. Tin was of paramount importance to the Greeks in the manufacture of Bronze Age weapons and other items.

In his ‘The Histories’, written in 430 BC, he wrote of the Tin Islands and north-western Europe: ““About the far west of Europe I have no definite information, for I cannot accept the story of a river called by non-Greek peoples the Eridanus, which flows into the northern sea, where amber is supposed to come from; nor do I know anything of the existence of islands called the Tin Islands, whence we get our tin. In the first place, the name Eridanus is obviously not foreign but Greek, and was invented by some poet or other; and, secondly, in spite of my efforts to do so, I have never found anyone who could give me first-hand information of the existence of a sea beyond Europe to the north and west. Yet it cannot be disputed that tin and amber do come to us from what we might call the ends of the earth.

“It is clear that it is the northern parts of Europe which are richest in gold, but how it is procured I cannot say exactly. The story goes that the one-eyed Arimaspians steal it from the griffins who guard it; personally, however, I refuse to believe in one-eyed men who in other respects are like the rest of men. In any case it does seem to be true that the countries which lie on the circumference of the inhabited world produce the things which we believe to be most rare and beautiful.”

Further considering the lands to the north of the Hellenic world, he recalled a poem by Aristeas and wrote of the mythical Hyperborea: “Beyond the Issedones live the one-eyed Arimaspians, and beyond them the griffins which guard the gold, and beyond the griffins the Hyperboreans, whose land comes down to the sea.

“All these, except the Hyperboreans, were continually encroaching upon one another’s territory, beginning with the Arimaspians, so that the Issedones were expelled by the Arimaspians, the Scythians by the Issedones, and the Cimmerians by the Scythians, who forced them from their homes along the shores of the Black Sea.”

Later, in the same source, he added: “Of the Hyperboreans we get no information from the Scythians or anyone else in that part of the world, except, perhaps, from the Issedones.

“Not that the Issedones really tell us anything, in my opinion; for if they did, we should have it from the Scythians too, like the story of the one-eyed men.”

He also recounted a story about an alleged Hyperborean traveller called Abaris.

John Wood the elder, an eighteenth century architect based in the ancient city of Bath, in England, suggested that Abaris, who was a healer, could have been Bladud, mythical Celtic king of the Britons.

The outlandish theory is light on evidence, but raises the prospect of Britain being the fabled Hyperborea of Classical Greek legend.

Despite ‘The Histories’ being very much a product of its time and, therefore, featuring outlandish mythological entities, it would make sense for Herodotus to include reference to a great continent to the west.

But no such mention is made – even among descriptions of one-eyed warriors, griffins and other odd creatures throughout the text.

Oddly enough the association of griffins with Scythia May have a ring of truth.

This is despite the fact that griffins are fantastical and mythological beasts, albeit ones that have persisted across the western world in heraldic iconography and dating back thousands of years in Classical stories.

Legends of griffins were borne out, to some degree, by the discovery of fossilised remains of protoceratops dinosaurs in what was Scythia.

These extinct reptiles were smaller and non-horned relatives of the perhaps better-known triceratops.

Folklorist Adrienne Mayor, of Stanford University, pointed to highly preserved fossil skeletons of protoceratops dinosaurs, which were discovered by ancient nomadic Scythians.

These startling beaked skeletons would rightly have left the finders unable to explain their discovery and reaching, inevitably, for monsters to understand them.

They could easily have appeared as having a bird-like head, and hindquarters of a lion, as the classic griffin form is presented.

The presence of Hyperborea being close to Scythia could also be seen as an allusion, or folk memory, to the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the Steppe, near Scythia.

So, Herodotus writes at length about what lies to the north and the east of the Greek world, but is very scant on detail of what may be to the west.

So, do you think ancient Greeks made it to North America?

The Northman: a riot of Viking ritual and brutality

I managed to see the wonderful film ‘The Northman’ the other day.

Having been looking forward to the spectacle after witnessing the vivid and ritual-heavy trailer the other week, I can attest the film did not disappoint.

On an objective level this is a very well-made film; artistically beautiful and cleverly shot, albeit in a slightly odd aspect ratio.

This has to be the most realistic portrayal of Norse Pagan practice ever committed to the screen.

There was, for example, an extended, fire-lit Úlfhéðnar berzerker ritual with a living rendition of the Odinic spear dancer from the Torslunda plates.

The avenging protagonist, Amleth, was referred to as a “beast wearing man flesh” at one point, alluding to the wolf or dog shapeshifting of the ancient Indo-European Koryos tradition, that continued into Norse society and the Germanic Mannerbund warbands.

There was Valkyrie iconography, the presence of Hugin and Munin or Thought and Memory – Odin’s ravens – who act as spies for the one-eyed god.

The importance of oaths, especially blood oaths and blood feuds punctuated this morality tale, for a morality that no longer exists in our Abrahamic-influenced world.

There was a vision of the terrifying undead Draugr as well as the always excellent Willem Dafoe chewing up the scenery, as a mischievous Loki-like trickster, with a deep religious purpose.

Dafoe’s embalmed skull appears later, in echoes of the beheaded Aesir god Mimir, who advised Odin.

The disembodied head also called to mind that of Yorrick, from Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Hamlet’, upon which this blood and mud-drenched epic is loosely based.

Also echoing the Bard’s play there is a frisson of Oedipus complex exhibited in Amleth’s reunion with his faithless mother, in the desolate wastes of Iceland.

The violent ancient pre-Christian sport of hurling, from Ireland, is represented. This is interesting as it alludes to the genetic makeup of Icelanders, who trace their ancestry to Norse males and British and Irish females taken as slaves even to this day.

The overall plot and pay-off, which I won’t spoil here, is a callback to the brutal playfulness of the Poetic Edda.

This rich assault on the senses also includes the sexual abandon of Slavic and Norse folklore and mythology, with all of its animistic or shamanistic religious practices, which are possibly of Sami origin. This is complete with the use of mind-altering fly agaric mushrooms and the mead of poetry.

There was throat singing, which would impress the Sardaukar of the Dune film, and may have been present in Norse ritual – especially if one believes the attestations of Abraham Ben Jacob, a Muslim chronicler of Sephardi Jewish descent, from Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain.

Ben Jacob travelled to Hedeby, which is now part of the historically-contested territory of Schleswig-Holstein, on the now German-Danish, border in the year 961.

His original account is lost but a few translations, which may or may not be accurate, paint a fascinating and slightly comic picture.

One read: “Never did I hear singing fouler than that of these people, it is a rumbling emanating from their throats, similar to that of a dog but even more bestial.”

The realism of the grimly dark mead halls and fiery boat burials and human and horse sacrifice is a bloody feast for the eyes.

There is also higher prophesy in the form of visions of Yggdrasil and hanging sacrifice on the world tree.

In short, it was a pulsating tour de force. A visual and audible nightmare of a brutish and short lifetime of duty, revenge, violence and longed-for ascent to Valhalla.

If you want to witness what Norse society and religion was (probably) like then this film is a must.

‘The Northman’ trailer and Viking accuracy

I went to the cinema earlier (I was seeing ‘Morbius’ – we can’t be intellectual all the time!) and, as is not often the case, was early enough to see the trailers.

One stood out – that of ‘The Northman’.

I was instantly struck by the gritty realism of the struggle for survival and precarious maintenance of political power in Medieval Iceland.

This is despite the fact that the film, written by Robert Eggers, is only loosely based on Norse Sagas and took some inspiration from Shakespeare’s “incestuous, murderous damned Dane” Hamlet.

What I can glean if the plot is that this is a brutal, gutsy revenge thriller.

A young boy witnesses the murder of his father, a king, at the hands of his uncle and swears an oath – no small undertaking in Norse traditions – to avenge the killing.

Presumably the revenge would restore him to his rightful place as king also.

But one scene in particular stood out and that featured the now grown up protagonist and his retinue clad in wolf skins as they prepare to storm a fortress.

This speaks to deep traditions in the Nordic and it’s ancestor Indo-European Koryos mythology.

It was a detail which may have been done simply for aesthetic purposes, but I think not because of the context.

This son has clearly existed outside of the civilisation of his birth as he built up his strength and fighting abilities beyond the walls of normal society.

His only human contact seems to have been as part of a mannerbund warband.

This is echoed in history and mythology.

The Norse had a warrior class known as Berzerkers, who were sometimes referred to as úlfheðnar or ‘wolf-skinned’.

Warriors donned animal pelts, used mind-altering drugs and danced themselves into a frenzy to imbue them with the natural ferocity of wolves or bears.

And the wolf aspect goes even further back to the Proto-Indo-European Koryos.

These were male war bands, which consisted of allegedly shape-shifting warriors, wearing animal skins to assume the nature of wolves or dogs.

They were said to have been ostracised by society as the undertook a right of passage, dwelling outside of civilisation for a period of time.

Evidence shows that they may have performed ritual dog sacrifice and eaten animals they raised from birth in a symbolic transition into adulthood.

Eating dog meat was a taboo in these societies as there were other food sources available for the Steppe herders, who ate meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, and soups made from seeds and wild vegetables.

This callback to the culture of the Yamnaya and similar cultures affords The Northman a greater depth than other Viking-based fiction around today.

And all this is evidenced from a short trailer – I’m very much looking forward to seeing the whole film.

When it is released I’m sure to cover it in some way, looking at these themes and other ritual elements in due course.

What is the Hidden History channel?

Paul Christian set up Hidden History, in a meaningful sense, at the start of the lockdown as something to do in some very dull times. With the present and future looking a bit bleak he looked to inspiration from the past.

It is a channel dedicated to bringing history to light and to life. The channel covers anything of interest with history news and new discoveries featuring as shorter videos and longer documentary type uploads, often with a particular focus on folklore and comparative mythology.

Away from the channel Paul has written a number of books about subjects that have piqued his interest, including Jack the Ripper, the Dyatlov Pass mystery and a historical travelogue called ‘Dark Secrets of Central Europe: A Tale of Three Cities’.

Social media:

Twitter: @H1ddenH1story

Instagram: @H1ddenH1story

Blog: https://paulchristianauthor.wordpress.com/

Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/hidden-history/id1525564448

SUBSCRIBE TO THE CHANNEL HERE.

The Lord of the Rings and the REAL ‘Rings of Power’

“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,

One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them,

In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

The verse written by JRR Tolkien, supposedly while he was in the bath, to describe the dominion of the One Ring and the other Rings of Power has come into sharp focus recently, with the first teaser trailer for Amazon’s new Lord of the Rings TV show being revealed.

There has been some controversy over the trailer, which I am not going to add to here but, instead, I’m going to look at the real Rings of Power from history and how they directly and indirectly influenced Tolkien’s epic story.

On a general note to begin with the shape of rings holds an ethereal innate power in and of itself.

From ring-shaped settlements like the mystical isle of Avalon, thought by some to have been at Glastonbury Tor, to the concentric rings of the harbour at the mythical island of Atlantis, the shape has occupied prime positions in some of the most perplexing and intriguing mysteries of history and mythology.

There is too King Arthur’s round table and the sacred geometry of rings as demonstrated at Glastonbury Abbey’s octagon and circle-based design.

Then there are stone circles like Avebury, Stonehenge and the Rollright Stones.

An ancient pagan practice in England, called passing through and under, made use of holes in trees and stones – either natural or man-made – as a healing ritual.

Even looking through holes was a ritual for the Norse, with descriptions and art showing that the forming of a ring shape, by bending the arm and placing a hand at the hip, formed a portal which could be gazed through to see another world or a god, such as Odin.

The circular and spiritually-significant torques of the ancient Celts and arm rings of Norse warriors see the motif appear again.

Sticking with Vikings, the cyclical nature of Norse mythology, from the beginning of time to Ragnarök and then the birth of a new world sees a more abstract cosmological ring brought into being.

The Midgard serpent Jormungandr – a great snake that encircles the world was one of the chief protagonists in this mythology.

Then there are rings in their actual jewellery form.

These include Draupnir (Dripper) – a magical ring possessed by Odin that can multiply itself. Every ninth night, eight new rings ‘drip’ from Draupnir, each one of the same size and weight as the original.

And the ring called Andvaranaut, which the chaotic and mischievous god Loki stole from Andvari.

In revenge, Andvari cursed the ring to bring misery and suffering to whoever possessed it.

Loki offloaded Andvaranaut to Hreidmar, King of the Dwarves as recompense for having inadvertently killing his son Ótr.

Ótr’s brother, Fafnir, murdered Hreidmar and took the ring, turning into a dragon to guard it.

This formed the basis of the gold-obsessed Smaug in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’.

The great hero Sigurd, or Siegfried, later killed Fafnir and gave Andvaranaut to Brünnehilde.

Following a complex web of ownership echoed by Tolkien’s One Ring, Queen Grimhild of the Nibelungs then manipulated Sigurd and Brünnehilde into marrying her children, bringing the Andvaranaut curse into her family.

This tale was originally told in Volsunga Saga and later adapted by Richard Wagner into his operatic epic Der Ring des Nibelungen, or Ring Cycle.

One can also look to the Norse sun wheel, a transplanted version of far older Indo-European mythology, linked to the power of the cosmos and the might of the thunder god Thor.

In the sixth century Saint Kentigern, who was associated with a series of miracles, is reported to have found a powerful ring in a salmon.

The story is referenced on the seal of the City of Glasgow, of which Kentigern, also known as Mungo, is a patron.

The motif of a ring in water being swallowed by a salmon is a common one.

It is included in the Aarne-Thompson international catalogue, which records common tropes and tale types in folklore.

This means the story is found in other traditional literatures from other regions or countries, lending weight to it having a very ancient origin.

In an Irish variant Ailill casts a ring into a stream for it to be swallowed by a salmon.

A long time later the ring is discovered by the hero Fráech, son of Béḃinn, a goddess associated with birth and the sister of the river goddess Boann.

Irish and Welsh myths also describe Béḃinn as an underworld goddess.

Enchanted rings are a popular feature of European folk magic, with many objects said to be imbued with a celestial power to ward off demons or illnesses.

One such object is the Bramham Moor Ring, which was found in Yorkshire and dates from the ninth century. It bears a mysterious runic inscription that has yet to be deciphered, but is thought, by some, to be magical.

It is one of a number of Anglo-Saxon runic rings, with the Bramham Moor Ring and the Kingmoor Ring both bearing a near identical magical runic formula.

On the former, this undeciphered inscription read: “ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpontol”.

Despite the messages’ meaning remaining uncertain, the ærkriu portion of the inscription has been claimed by some to be a charm to staunch the flow of blood.

Remaining with the Anglo-Saxons, Old English kennings – literary devices that were extended metaphors – included references to ring-givers, which were taken to mean overlords or rulers.

In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘Beowulf’, King Hrothgar is described as a “guardian of ring hordes”, alluding to his wealth and power. The power, in particular, of patronage.

The giving of a ring as the bestowing of a slice of that power.

That these references appear in ‘Beowulf’ is significant as the poem was one of the main influences for Tolkien in his crafting of the Lord of the Rings.

The world he brought to life was supposed to be a lost mythology of England, both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic. Stripped away by the ceaseless cycle of invasions by, ironically, the Norse, whom he used as strong influences in his writing, and later by the Norman French, who sought to diminish Englishness and its ancient traditions and impose the rigid Norman culture.

The Normans can be seen as the embodiment of power, brutally demonstrated by their construction of vast castles to subdue their new English subjects.

It has to be noted also that, despite Tolkien’s stated dislike of allegory, The Shire was a representation of a rural idyll of a lost England. This vanished land was robbed, at first by the Normans, and later by the ceaseless march of industry and the jarring modernity of the First World War.

Magic rings were also a part of medieval Jewish esoteric tradition. They are mentioned in the Talmud and Midrash.

One such example is Solomon’s magical ring, which had a number of legendary powers.

This included making him a master of animals, able to speak with beasts and giving him the ability of being all-knowing.

The ring was said to have bore a special sigil that sealed genies into bottles.

In Kabbalah the ilan, or tree of life, is represented as a series of rings, called sephiroth, connected by lines that that represent different aspects of God.

Practitioners used these images to connect with the almighty and some believed this union could help them to influence the material world.

Ouroboros, from Greek magical tradition and associated with alchemy, is represented as a snake eating its own tail.

It symbolises life, death and rebirth, with the potent symbol also linked with transmigration of the soul.

The significance of rings is present in Christian practices too.

For Catholics the sacrament of marriage is a public sign that an individual is giving themselves totally to another person.

The rings used in weddings are a visual representation of this relinquishment of self.

And the Fisherman’s Ring, part of the Pope’s official regalia, is a signet ring used to seal and authorise official Vatican documents.

A custom, that dates from at least the Medieval period, sees Catholics kissing the ring when meeting the Pope to demonstrate their devotion.

These are just some of the real rings of power from history, which Tolkien either drew on directly or would undoubtedly have been aware of when writing the Lord of the Rings.

It is, perhaps, one of the main reasons why the story is so resonant. It is almost innate in the human condition that rings, both real or conceptual, hold a spiritual power in the collective consciousness.

Viking blood eagle ‘was anatomically possible’, study claims

The brutal blood eagle method of ritual execution attributed to the Vikings was actually possible, a new study has found.

The immensely unpleasant process was, according to legend, reserved for worst enemies and involved carving the victim’s back open and hacking their ribs away from the spine and pulling the lungs through wounds to form a twisted and gory bird-like visage.

The lungs’ splaying was said to have looked like wings, which lent this horrific practice its name.

But it has long been a matter of conjecture whether the execution method was real history, or skaldic scuttlebutt.

Questions over the attestations have, perhaps unsurprisingly, not stopped TV and movie producers from portraying the act, with representations appearing in films like folk horror flick ‘Midsommar’ and the History Channel series ‘Vikings’.

One such alleged victim of the blood eagle was the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Aelle.

No solid archaeological evidence of the ritual has ever been found, and the Norse at the time kept no written records, relying on oral traditions.

Their history was only codified much later in poetry and sagas penned long after the Northmen had abandoned their pagan past in favour of Christianity.

In fact this move to a new religion has been posited as the reason for the continued presence of the blood eagle in tales of the Vikings.

Historians have long suggested that it was a figment of Christian writers’ imagination, designed to paint their pagan forebears as bloodthirsty savages before their civilisation and embrace of the Good Book.

But a new study points to it actually being possible.

A team of researchers from the University of Iceland and the UK’s Keele University determined that the practice was at least anatomically achievable.

The team, made up of medical scientists and a historian, bypassed the long-standing question of “did the blood eagle ever really happen?” asking instead: “Could it have been done?”

They said their answer was “a clear yes”.

Previous scholarship on the blood eagle has only ever focused on the details of medieval textual accounts of the torture, with long-running debates concentrating on the exact terms used to describe the “cutting” or “carving” of the eagle into the victim’s back.

A widely-held position is that the whole phenomenon is a misunderstanding of some complicated poetry, not something that could actually have been attempted.

Using modern knowledge of anatomy and physiology, alongside painstaking reassessment of the nine medieval accounts of the ritual, the team investigated what effect a blood eagle would have had on the human body.

What they found was that the procedure itself would be difficult but far from impossible to perform, even with the technology of the time.

They postulated that a particular type of Viking spearhead could have been used as a makeshift tool to “unzip” the rib cage of the unfortunate victim’s quickly from the back.

Such a weapon might even be depicted on a stone monument found on the Swedish island of Gotland, where a scene carved into the stone depicts something that could have been a representation of the ritual.

However, the researchers also realised that even if the act was carefully performed the victim would have died very quickly.

Therefore any attempts to reshape the ribs into the fabled “wings”, or remove the lungs would have been performed on a corpse.

That last “fluttering” would not have happened.

The report read: “While that might make the blood eagle sound even less likely to modern ears, we also demonstrate that while mutilating corpses and carrying out rituals on dead bodies was unusual, it was not totally out of character for the warrior elite of the Viking Age.”

Drawing on archaeological and historical data, the research showed that the blood eagle ritual fits with what we know about how the Viking-Age warrior elite behaved.

They had no qualms about displaying the dead bodies of humans and animals in special rituals, including during spectacular executions.

The report added: “Our study specifically examined so-called “deviant burials”, like the skeleton of a well-dressed noblewoman who was beheaded in tenth century Birka and subsequently buried with the remains of her head tucked between her arm and her torso, her missing jawbone (possibly destroyed during her decapitation) replaced by a pig’s mandible.

“Warriors from this layer of society were also obsessed with their reputations, and were willing to go to extreme lengths to protect their image.

“The blood eagle seems to have been a more extreme case of this sort of behavior conducted only in exceptional circumstances: on a captured prisoner of war who had earlier subjected the ritual-doer’s father (or other male relative) to a shameful death.”

In medieval sagas, some of these typed of killings include victims being thrown into a pit of snakes, being burned to death in a longhouse without the chance of a fair fight, and even having their guts torn out and nailed to a post.

In the sagas, the blood eagle is shown as a way for the victim’s relatives to reclaim their lost honour.

This is the case with the execution of the character of Jarl Borg in the ‘Vikings’ TV series.

Contrary to established wisdom, the team argued that the blood eagle could very well have taken place in the Viking Age.

It was, they concluded, physically possible, in line with broader social habits regarding execution and the treatment of corpses, and reflected what they called “a cultural obsession with demonstrating your honour and prestige”.

They added: “What’s more, its spectacular brutality would have ensured that everybody who heard about it would be keen to tell the story in all its gory details – just as we’re still telling them today.”

The Wild Hunt: An Anglo-Saxon ghost story

The concept of the Wild Hunt – a ghostly host streaming across the night sky – has ancient roots.

Whilst it is popularised in Northern European folklore, particularly in the Norse, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic traditions, it has representations in other belief systems – particularly those of an Indo-European root.

It’s echoes can be seen in Vedic beliefs from India and even in Abrahamic faiths.

The story of Santa Claus and his flying reindeer-drawn sleigh could even owe its origin to the legend.

The leader of the Wild Hunt has been chopped and changed over the centuries with both the Windsor Forest-dwelling deer-headed spectre Herne the Hunter and Norse god Odin being described as the head huntsman.

The terrifying procession can be seen as a representation of the souls of the dead rampaging across the sky and visible to the living.

As such it has connections to Samhain and, therefore, Halloween as well as Christmas.

After a recent visit to the magnificent Peterborough Cathedral, I was reminded of an account of the legend that centred on the historic site and the surrounding countryside.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells of this fearful gathering of apparitions.

It read: “It was common gossip up and down the countryside that after February 6th many people both saw and heard a whole pack of huntsmen in full cry.

“They straddled black horses and black bucks while their hounds were pitch black with staring hideous eyes.

“This was seen in the very deer park of Peterborough town, and in all the woods stretching from that same spot as far as Stamford.”

The related Peterborough Chronicle details the sighting with further embellishments.

It claims the Wild Hunt materialised after the appointment of a disastrous abbot at the monastery, which is now the cathedral, called Henry d’Angely, in 1127.

It read: “Many men both saw and heard a great number of huntsmen hunting.

“The huntsmen were black, huge, and hideous, and rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers, and horrible.

“This was seen in the very deer park of the town of Peterborough, and in all the woods that stretch from that same town to Stamford, and in the night the monks heard them sounding and winding their horns.”

Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ tells of the Herne-led hunt in Act 4, Scene 4.

It read: “There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter (sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest)

“Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;

“And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,

“And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain

“In a most hideous and dreadful manner.

You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know

“The superstitious idle-headed eld

Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age

“This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.”

Was the Peterborough tale a folkish wish for revenge against the new Norman orthodoxy?

Or was this a retelling if a truly ancient myth with contemporary details added?

Either way it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset and traditions of the people of 12th century England.

The Beast of Bodmin Moor: Real or historic folk memory?

The unexplained large predator known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor is – or was – said to prowl the expansive moorland in this rugged and picturesque part of Cornwall.

The purported feline was first allegedly sighted around 1978 but, as we shall see, phantom felines and, more notably, canines are an enduring feature of Indo-European-descended folklore.

Bodmin Moor, which is a desolate but beautiful landscape fits perfectly as a location for myths and legends and is home to plenty going back many centuries.

But this particular tale focussed reports of mutilated livestock by something that was described as being potentially a panther or leopard.

Numerous reports of supposed big cats sighted at large throughout Britain have been submitted over the years.

The apocrypha goes that these beasts have been illegally released from exotic collections held by wealthy individuals or have escaped from zoos and have survived in the wild by hunting native fauna.

However, the UK’s Ministry of Agriculture carried out an investigation, in 1995, headed up by Simon Baker and Charles Wilson, which found “no verifiable evidence” of any such big cats on the loose in Britain.

In reference to the alleged Beast of Bodmin Moor, the investigation found there was “no significant threat to livestock from a ‘big cat’ in Bodmin Moor”.

But the case got curiouser.

Less than a week after the report, on July 24, 1995, a boy, who was walking by the River Fowey, discovered a large cat skull.

The cranium measured four inches long by seven inches wide.

It was lacking the lower jaw but had three sharp, prominent canines that pointed to it possibly belonging to a leopard.

The find caused a media sensation, but a team from the Natural History Museum found it was a genuine skull, but was from an imported leopard skin rug.

This was determined because of the way the skull had been scraped and that it contained an egg case that had been laid by a tropical cockroach, that could not possibly be found in Britain.

Another investigation was launched in December 1997 after a spate of attacks on farm animals, as well as sightings and photographs.

There have been around 60 sightings of a black panther-like cat between three and five feet in length with, white or yellow eyes. There have also been a number of reports of mutilated livestock.

As well as the theory that the Beast could be an escaped zoo animal, or from an illicit collection, it could also be part of a species of wild cat previously thought to be extinct.

There have also, perhaps inevitably, been those who have postulated paranormal explanations.

There was another report as recently as last year where a man found alleged paw prints and said he heard a “lion’s roar”.

He said: “I was with a friend and we both heard this roar. It was like a lion’s roar and it was terrifying.

“On the way back we saw these fresh paw prints. They were deep down in the tractor prints.

“They were not there when we went in and were very fresh. You can tell it was no domestic animal just by the weight needed to push into the tractor marks.

“We had never seen anything like it. We just thought ‘oh my god’. The stories have been around about the beast before, but this was clear evidence of it.”

Reports of large, particularly dark-coloured, beasts have been a feature of folklore and legend in the British Isles for centuries.

These have often take the form of wolves, or what we might now term werewolves.

These include Black Shuck from East Anglia and Old Stinker the Hull Werewolf.

It is theories these could be folkloric hangovers of Norse Pagan beliefs and allude to Fenrir the giant wolf that, in Norse mythology, killed Odin during Ragnarok.

The Norse also had a warrior class known as Berzerkers, who were sometimes referred to as úlfheðnar or ‘wolf-skinned’.

Warriors donned animal pelts, used mind-altering drugs and danced themselves into frenzy to imbue them with the creatures’ natural ferocity.

And the wolf aspect goes even further back to the Proto-Indo-European Koryos.

These were male war bands, which consisted of allegedly shape-shifting warriors, wearing animal skins to assume the nature of wolves or dogs.

So how do you account for the Beast of Bodmin Moor?

Genuine sightings of an escaped big cat?

An elusive indigenous species previously thought to be extinct?

Or is it part of an age old tradition borne out of a fear of the wild, a folk memory of the earliest part of western civilisation?

Ancient horse riding spurred military technology revolution, finds study

Ancient civilisations harnessing horsepower was a primary spark in military technological evolution, a new study has found.

Writing for the journal PLOS ONE, Peter Turchin and his team of researchers found that: “Effective horse-riding had far-reaching consequences for the evolution of military technologies, and specifically armour, projectiles such as crossbows, and fortifications.”

Researchers, who were drawn from a number of academic institutions, charted the evolution of military technologies from the Neolithic period to the Industrial Revolution.

Their investigation covered almost 10,000 years of history.

They looked at world population size, connectivity between geographical areas of innovation and adoption, and critical enabling of technological advances, such as iron metallurgy and, crucially, horse riding.

They found that all of those factors were strong predictors of change in military technology, whereas state-level factors such as identifiable political populations, territorial size, or governance sophistication played no major role.

Like a rudimentary arms race, the team of researchers discovered that once a military technology had proven advantageous in inter-state competition, increased pressure began to weigh on nearby societies to adopt that technology as well, so as not to be left behind.

This was seen with key technologies such as horse-mounted warfare that spread initially among nomadic confederations and nearby agrarian societies located along the central Eurasian Steppe.

Part of the paper read: “Indeed, the domestication of the horse and its use in the civil and military sphere – including both the material components of horse-mounted archery as well as the tactical and organizational means to wield these weapons – appear to be of particular importance in the evolution of technologies and social complexity during the pre-industrial era.”

The harnessing of the horse led to improvements in transportation, agriculture, and military capacities alike.

The report added: “Further, the creation of new and more lethal weapons in one society could force people in their ‘strike zone’ to invent more sophisticated defences while also often adopting the offensive technology themselves, prompting further technological advances.”

For example, armour-piercing projectiles from bows and crossbows resulted in the rise of scaled armour and plate armour.

According to the Cavalry Revolution theory, the invention of effective horse-riding in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, combined with powerful recurved bows and iron-tipped arrows, triggered a process of military evolution that spread south.

The threat posed by nomadic warriors armed with this advanced military technology spurred the development of counter-measures, while also producing an incentive to adopt horse-riding and effective accompanying combat tactics in areas further and further away from the location of their initial invention within the steppe.

The paper said: “The history of the military use of the horse went through several stages: The use of the chariot, the development of riding, the formation of light auxiliary cavalry, the development of nomadic riding, the appearance of the hard saddle, armored cataphracts, stirrups and, finally, heavy cavalry — a major branch of troops across Afro-Eurasian societies.”

It added: “As a result, effective horse-riding had far-reaching consequences for the evolution of military technologies, and specifically armour, projectiles such as crossbows, and fortifications.”

It was concluded that the combination of iron metallurgy and horse riding had a profound effect on innovation and adoption of military technologies.

By extension, it is evident that the humble horse has literally shaped our way of life for millennia.

Controversial Nebra Sky Disc to star in Stonehenge exhibition

The controversial Nebra Sky Disc will be at the centre of a forthcoming exhibition at the British Museum.

The ancient object, thought to be the world’s oldest map of the stars, will form part of ‘The World Of Stonehenge’ exhibition at the central London site.

The disc is thought by many to be a Bronze Age relic dating back 3,600 years. Its existence came to light in Germany in 1999.

While many see the disc as one of the most significant archaeological finds in history, some experts believe it to be a fake.

The object was discovered near the town of Nebra in Germany along with swords, axes and other items dating from the Bronze Age.

But it is the criminal manner of its discovery that has caused controversy.

It was located using a metal detector by two illegal treasure hunters and later seized by police officers in a sting operation.

Last year a paper was released by two archaeologists who say the disc is actually 1,000 younger than its Bronze Age designation, placing it in the Iron Age.

The Nebra Sky Disc is owned by Germany’s State Museum of Prehistory and this forthcoming new exhibition will be the first time it is being loaned out in 15 years.

Neil Wilkin, curator of The World Of Stonehenge exhibition, said: “The Nebra Sky Disc and the sun pendant are two of the most remarkable surviving objects from Bronze Age Europe.

“Both have only recently been unearthed, literally, after remaining hidden in the ground for over three millennia.

“We’re delighted that they will both be key pieces in our once-in-a-lifetime Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum.

“While both were found hundreds of miles from Stonehenge, we’ll be using them to shine a light on the vast interconnected world that existed around the ancient monument, spanning Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe.”

On the exhibition in general the Museum released a statement, which read: “Shrouded in layers of speculation and folklore, Stonehenge is perhaps the world’s most awe-inspiring ancient stone circle, and its image is famous around the globe.

“This major exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK. It will bring the story of Stonehenge into sharper focus, showing that rather than a shadowy age of mystery, the Britain and Ireland of four millennia ago were places of big ideas, commerce and travel.

“You’ll journey back to the time of its construction around 3000 to 2500 BC and, with the help of objects from across Europe, including stone axes from the North Italian Alps and stunning metalwork from Ireland, the world of Stonehenge will be illuminated like never before.”

Returning to the disc, which is certainly not from the Neolithic unlike Stonehenge, we can assume its presence will be used to demonstrate that knowledge of the stars and their movements across ancient skies were better known than previously believed.