Does ‘Viking DNA’ stoke division and excuse violence?

Fascinating new research into the increasing use of home DNA testing kits has revealed that those claiming Viking DNA could foster unhealthy ideas of genetic pre-determinism.

The study, called ‘I am a Viking! DNA, popular culture and the construction of geneticized identity’, published in the journal ‘New Genetics and Society: Critical Studies of Contemporary Biosciences’, was conducted by Sweden-based academics Anna Källén, of Stockholm University and Daniel Strand, of Uppsala University.

The paper’s abstract read: “In this article, we analyse how genetic genealogy reshapes popular notions of historical identity, as it facilitates a genetically informed understanding of ethnicity and ancestry.

“Drawing on interviews with Swedish, British and American individuals who have employed genetic ancestry tests (GATs) to prove ancestral connections to Vikings, we explore how the desire to ‘be a Viking’ is articulated through a convergence of pre-existing discourses around Vikings and DNA.

“By combining signs from genetic science and popular depictions of Vikings, our interviewees create a new discourse of geneticised Viking identity.

“In this new discourse, socio-historically constructed ideas about Vikings are naturalised as the innate qualities of individuals who possess a certain genetic composition.

“Images of ‘the Viking’ once created for political, cultural or commercial purposes are revived in new embodied forms and can start to circulate in new social contexts, where they, by association, appear to be confirmed by genetical science.”

Anna Källén expanded on the theme, in an article in The Conversation, where she mentioned the unhealthy obsession with so-called ‘Viking DNA’ and it’s social consequences.

She wrote: “In our new study, we carried out interviews with people from the US, the UK and Sweden who had purchased genetic ancestry tests to see if they were related to Vikings.

“Since the test results did not include the term ‘Viking’, most of them pointed to the category ‘Scandinavia’ in their ethnic charts as proof of having Viking ancestry.

“Almost all of the people in our study saw their results as scientific confirmation of either ‘being related to Vikings’ or of actually ‘being a Viking’.

“As a man from the US put it, the results ‘began to confirm or at least lay the basis for the person that I am.’

“In a similar way, a woman from Sweden said that her test allowed her to ‘know who I am and what my origins are’.

“However, what the tests actually proved was based on creative interpretation. In this sense, several of our interviewees took images of ‘the Viking’ fostered in popular culture and political propaganda, and used them to make sense of their own lives.”

She added: “For example, people with experiences of violence and abuse used their ‘Viking genes’ as explanation – describing Vikings as warriors and berserkers. ‘Knowing that I am descended from Vikings,’ a man from the US said, ‘has made it clearer to me why there might be a genetic preponderance of violence and explosive anger in my family.’

“In a similar way, interviewees who considered themselves to be restless described the Vikings as explorers and naval engineers.

“A woman from the US said: ‘I have to see new lands,’ adding that it was due to ‘the Viking’ in her.”

The academic said that it seemed that the use of genetic ancestry tests can facilitate a kind of “genetic determinism”, in which a person’s life is the natural result of their genome.

She said: “From this perspective, humans appear to not have much control over their lives.

“By dividing people into racial or national categories, genetic ancestry tests might be used to trigger tensions between different groups.

“Even if a person’s ‘Viking DNA’ only amounts to a small amount, it can still provide an allegedly scientific basis for racial division.”

She concluded: “In an era marked by increasing xenophobia and ethnic chauvinism, it is important to be aware of the interplay between genetics and ideas about race.”

On a personal note I know I was pleased to find a reasonable amount of Scandinavian DNA in my own Ancestry DNA results and I did automatically assume Viking lineage.

So, is this just harmless fun and general historical interest, or could it have a darker side?

Stonehenge Mesolithic landscape BEFORE the stone circle revealed

A new study has revealed the incredibly ancient pre-stone circle landscape, upon which Stonehenge now stands.

New research by the University of Southampton has plotted the Mesolithic environment of the now Salisbury Plain, 4,000 years prior to the construction of the world famous sarsen and bluestone monument.

A team of academics explored Blick Mead, a Mesolithic archaeological site within a chalkland spring area about a mile from Stonehenge.

They discovered evidence that the landscape was not covered in dense, closed canopy forests during the later Mesolithic period, as was previously theorised.

Instead, it was only partially wooded and was a grazing ground for huge bovine aurochs, red deer, elk and wild boar.

This would have made it an attractive hunting ground for ancient human hunter-gatherers, before the arrival of the Neolithic farmers, who would go in to build Stonehenge and a host of similar monuments.

Lead researcher, Samuel Hudson, of Geography and Environmental Science at Southampton said: “There has been intensive study of the Bronze Age and Neolithic history of the Stonehenge landscape, but less is known about earlier periods.

“The integration of evidence recovered from previous excavations at Blick Mead, coupled with our own fieldwork, allowed us to understand more about the flora and fauna of the landscape prior to construction of the later world-famous monument complex.”

He added: “Past theories suggest the area was thickly wooded and cleared in later periods for farming and monument building.

“However, our research points to pre-Neolithic, hunting-gatherer inhabitants, living in open woodland, which supported aurochs and other grazing herbivores.”

The researchers studied pollen, fungal spores and traces of DNA preserved in ancient sediment, alongside optically stimulated luminescence and radiocarbon dating to map an environmental history of the site. 

Their findings enabled them to produce a picture of the habitat in the area from the later Mesolithic (5500 BC) to the Neolithic (from 4,000 BC).

The research indicates that later Mesolithic populations at Blick Mead used the open and expansive conditions to repeatedly exploit groups of large ungulates (hoofed mammals), until a transition to an agrarian and monument-building society took place.

These practices over the centuries made the site perfect for the construction of the breathtaking megalithic site and other large-scale monument building, as the land was pre-cleared.

The team suggested there was continuity between the inhabitants of the two eras, who used the land in different ways, but understood it to be a favourable location.

I would note that the lingering presence of the hunter-gatherer caste, which was revered in similar and broadly contemporary Neolithic sites, like Newgrange, in Ireland, may have also rendered the location one of ritual or spiritual significance.

The hunt was of supreme importance, not just for survival, but for religion, with Mesolithic societies donning horned headgear as part of shamanic-style worship.

The conclusions of the team from Southampton, working with colleagues at the universities of Buckingham, Tromsø and Salzburg, are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The team is now planning further exploration of the Mesolithic history of the area, which they hope to begin at the end of this year.

Are Vikings really ‘winning the culture war’?

An interesting article appeared in the British magazine The Spectator this week, which made the claim that Vikings were “winning the culture war”.

For those unfamiliar with the publication, The Spectator is the oldest English-language magazine in the world and is often at the leading edge of national and international political and cultural conversations. So this article is meaningful in terms of where the Norse raiders currently are in the cultural zeitgeist.

In it author Ed West reproduced one of his Substack posts where he looked at the modern obsession with the Northmen and sought to explain why this was happening.

(Links to the Spectator article and original Substack post are in this paragraph.)

So, what did the article say?

Well Mr West begins by recounting the horrific treatment of a sacrifice victim, as reported to his masters at the Abbasid Caliphate, in Baghdad, by the Arabic diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlan from the year 922.

This is to, presumably, demonstrate the brutality and backwardness of this Northern European pagans in contrast with the monotheistic Muslims of the Arab world at the time.

This theme continues throughout, when the Norse are contrasted with Anglo-Saxon and Frankish Christians – although the author does allow himself to criticise Charlemagne for his promiscuity and brutality in converting the Germanic peoples at the point of a sword.

There is no mention of the outrage of the destruction of the continental Saxons’ sacred Irminsul tree, by the Holy Roman Emperor’s forces during the Saxon Wars, though.

He cites the new Robert Eggers film They Northman’ as an example of the gratuitous violence and ritual murder of the Scandinavians at this time, which reflects the account ibn Fadlan made.

So why does Mr West believe Vikings are winning the culture war?

Two main themes are at the root of his contention: modern-day attitudes to sex and TV and movie audiences’ seemingly voracious appetite for Viking-based content.

West wrote of the allure of Christianity and the Viking defeat in the original, Medieval, culture war: “… being linked to a wider European civilisation and far more literate, had immense advantages and would win, despite their belief in peace and male sexual restraint being so weirdly counter-intuitive.

“The losing polytheists had their worldview confined to history as Christianity swept across Scandinavia.

“Yet today the Norsemen, or Vikings (a historically imperfect but impossibly attractive term) are themselves embroiled in a new culture war. And this time they might win, from beyond the grave.

“The Northman is part of a wider Viking cultural renaissance of recent years, with The Last Kingdom, the adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s book series; the Netflix show Vikings, as well as three Thor films, a fourth coming out this summer.”

Where West believes sex has a role in this new phenomenon is in the apparently free and easy attitude the Norse had in this regard.

He contrasted this with traditional Victorian values, which harked back to the alleged morality of Alfred the Great of Wessex.

He wrote: “The fact that Alfred was tormented by sexual desires, which he prayed to God to free him from, made him all the more virtuous and relatable to Victorians. He was a hero for a pre-ironic age.

“Today such an internal sexual struggle is looked down upon, seen as unhealthy and hypocritical, positively weird. English nationalism is worthy only of thralls.”

To prove the Norse we’re comfortable being promiscuous he wrote: “The behaviour of Freyja, the goddess who represented womanhood in Norse mythology, is illustrative; she took many lovers, and is said to have slept with every elf in Asgard, without any sense of shame.

“To many post-Christians there is huge attraction to such a society. Sympathetic historians point out the prejudices of sexually-frustrated Medieval monks whose lack of a healthy outlet resulted in lurid fantasies about pagan behaviour, as well as misogyny.”

Is Freyja really the benchmark upon which Norse women should be judged – I think not and there is little real substance to the notion of the freewheeling, bed-hopping, town-raiding shield maiden.

On occasions when women did accompany men on raids, they were unlikely to be involved in any of the fighting, and would have been restricted to provisioning the warriors or, potentially, performing rituals and magic to aid the menfolk.

And does ubiquity really represent victory?

The Northman faced a barrage of criticism from those on the left for it’s realistic portrayal of gender roles in Norse society, and its historically-accurate casting choices, which only featured white actors.

The same cannot be said of TV shows like ‘Vikings’, the spin-off ‘Vikings: Valhalla’ and ‘The Last Kingdom’, which have featured a number of female warrior characters and more diverse casting.

So are Vikings really winning a culture war – or have they been subsumed and conquered by it?

Furthermore, it is bizarre to use the Marvel franchise’s ‘Thor’ films as evidence of a Viking victory in the so called culture war.

There are many things one can say about these, but that they are a fair and accurate portrayal of Norse history is not one of them.

Yes, nominally Viking-connected content is currently popular, but if these shows and films are inaccurate caricatures of the real history, often with the addition of plot themes based on modern day social issues, is this really a win for them?

I suppose there is a chance that, after watching these shows, people may seek out the Eddas or study the history of the Vikings and their precursor Bronze Age traditions.

And it is certainly true that books on Vikings are also popular, but these are sometimes fairly revisionist efforts, aiming to amp up controversial new theories to ensure often sensationalist media coverage and generate book sales.

I think in reality Norse history and mythology is a rich source of story and intrigue for unimaginative TV and movie execs to plunder. It is the Vikings who are now being raided – and that doesn’t sound like a victory to me.

Noah’s Great Flood: Does mountain in Bulgaria prove it happened?

The story the great flood, which in the Judeo-Christian sphere, is associated with Noah’s Ark, is an almost universal archetype.

Tales exist not just in the Bible, but in Hindu, Sumerian and Chinese folklore. The story also appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in Native American folklore.

One might also consider the scant references, from Plato, of the mythical disappearance of Atlantis beneath the waves.

Was this rendition an allegorical injunction against hubris, or a kernel of truth from a dim and distant past at the dawn of human society?

The only primary sources for Atlantis are Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias.

The dialogues claim to quote the Athenian lawmaker Solon, who visited sacred Egyptian sites between 590 and 580 BC.

The story goes that he translated Egyptian records of Atlantis.

Writing in 360 BC, around 200 years after the death of Solon, Plato introduced Atlantis in Timaeus.

He wrote: “For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot.

“For the ocean there was at that time navigable; for in front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, ‘the pillars of Heracles,’ there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; and it was possible for the travellers of that time to cross from it to the other islands, and from the islands to the whole of the continent over against them which encompasses that veritable ocean.

“For all that we have here, lying within the mouth of which we speak, is evidently a haven having a narrow entrance; but that yonder is a real ocean, and the land surrounding it may most rightly be called, in the fullest and truest sense, a continent.

“Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvellous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.”

It seems the Atlanteans had got too big for their boots in attacking and conquering other lands and were ultimately brought low by a series of natural disasters following a war between the empire of Atlantis and the nations that lay inside the pillars of Hercules, thought by many to refer to the Straight of Gibraltar.

This cataclysmic battle and subsequent disastrous reckoning was said to have taken place 9,000 years before Plato’s Socratic character Critias’ lifetime.

On the destruction and deluge that swallowed the continent, Critias said: “But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.

“For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island.”

In the Biblical sense, the Book of Genesis, chapter 6, verse 17, reads: “And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.”

But what is the truth, if any, of this alleged divine retribution?

Some researchers argue there was an ancient Black Sea flood, which could – with a few millennia of embellishment – match the level of devastation described.

Although doubts remain, as this location is nowhere near Gibraltar.

However it is only a problem in my own conflation of the great flood and the sinking of Atlantis.

So, leaving that aside for a moment, let us look at the evidence for the Black Sea being the location of the great flood.

In Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, just outside the city centre, en route to the airport, is the majestic volcanic Mount Vitosha, which features a number of caves.

It is in this fascinating geological warren, which is the longest subterranean cave complex in Bulgaria, that Professor Yavor Shopov, of Sofia University, found the evidence he claims proves that the great flood was real.

He pointed to ancient residue in one particular cave, in the form of stalagmites and stalactites, to substantiate his theory.

He said: “All these stalagmites and stalactites, they are formed as a result of rainwater passing through the bedrock.”

Like tree rings he says he was able to calculate rainfall levels going back thousands of years. One layer, in the sequence was found to be far thicker than any of the others.

Professor Shopov said: “It has been formed 7,500 years ago. And there was fifty times present day precipitation. We have a special theory about this.”

He demonstrated the theory using a cross section of one of the stone formations. In one of the bands of sediment there was evidence of a massive increase in rainfall.

The academic claims this could be the result of an impact of a heavenly body on the sun.

“If a very large asteroid would fall directly on the surface of the sun,” he said.

The professor argues the impact of an asteroid, measuring around two to three kilometres in radius, caused a huge increase in solar radiation – known as a solar flare.

Professor Shopov says that after the impact there would be a rapid rise in the Earth’s temperature causing huge seawater evaporation and leading to a massive increase in rainfall.

“That’s the kind of event which is described in the historical sources,” he said.

He added: “There are really not so many asteroids so big, so that’s why, hopefully, this kind of event may happen quite rarely.”

Others point to a Black Sea flood at the end of the last Ice Age, with melting ice causing a drastic increase in sea levels.

Mediterranean seawater rapidly flowed through the Bosphorus creating the Black Sea from a previous freshwater lake.

Professor Petko Dimitrov of the Institute of Oceanology – Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, in Varna, said: “The first evidence for the Black Sea flood are the old shorelines found in the Black Sea basin. This ancient shoreline lies at around 90 to 120 metres deep.”

He analysed core samples from the seabed and found the remains of shells and plankton that could not have lived in saltwater.

It was suggested that Neolithic settlements on the original banks of the body of water were submerged and destroyed by the rising water levels.

In 2011, researcher Konstantin Chterev led a team that carried out surveys in the Black Sea.

One probe was dredged up and contained pieces of wood that Chterev claims were from a drowned Neolithic settlement.

He said: “There’s no way these pieces of wood could be from a ship or something there’s no way [for them] to be there, except [if] there’s an ancient village or something at that depth.”

Professor Dimitrov and colleagues even claim to be confident of one day finding Noah’s Ark in the Black Sea.

In a 2006 paper called ‘The Flood in the Black Sea – Science and Mythology’ the team wrote: “Juxtaposing the data from the Black Sea’s natural events and archaeo-mythology, as well as the legend of Noah’s ark, we can claim with a high degree of reliability that the remains of the ark are located within the Black Sea bottom.

“They are situated at contemporary depths of about 40m, where Noah’s ship anchored after the flood.

“During the last 8,000 years, the remains of the ship and Noah’s grave have been covered with alluvial and marine silts.

“The discovery of the remains is a task of high priority for modern marine archaeology. The restoration of deepwater geo-archaeological exploration is not only a matter of prestige for marine science, but also an important criterion for clarifying a key page of the most ancient human history that transpired in our lands.”

Archaeology could also point to an advanced Black Sea civilisation.

The intricate and mathematically detailed objects in the horde, known as the Varna Necropolis Gold, is more than 6,000 years old and could represent evidence of the oldest European civilisation.

It is theorised that the civilisation was devastated by the flood, but refugees migrated to other places taking their knowledge and stories of the flood with them, leading to ancient Egyptian, Greek and Sumerian civilisations more than one thousand years later.

This could be the genesis of the legend of Atlantis or, at least, the central truth of the far-reaching great flood myth.

May Day, Robin Hood, Maid Marian… and Merlin

Robin Hood and his legendary wife Maid Marian began as separate folkloric entities and were strongly associated with May Day customs.

May Day itself has pagan origins and centres around abundance and vegetation as the start of the summer. With the Beltane festival seen as a fire blessing of cattle and other livestock.

This, in turn, had similarities to the Roman festival of Floralia, a celebration of the goddess of flowers, and Maiouma, which hailed Dionysus and Aphrodite.

This highlights that these ceremonies and rituals, such as the Queen of the May and dancing around the, clearly phallic, maypole have echoes of fertility rites that are truly ancient and inextricably wedded to nature.

There are many tellings, re-tellings and embellishments of the Robin legend. But his woodland dwelling after a fall from grace of some kind mirrors the tale of Merlin, or Myrddin Wilt, and his retreat to the forest.

The ‘Vita Merlini’, or ‘Life of Merlin’, strongly thought to have been penned by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1150, details how this occurred.

His hermit-like existence in the wilderness was as a result of what we might now call post-traumatic stress disorder where he struggled to come to terms with a brutal battle.

This conflict has been suggested to have been the Battle if Afderydd, where the King of Alt Clut, otherwise known as Strathclyde, inflicted a crushing defeat on the forces of Gwenddolau.

Myrddin was said to have been driven mad after witnessing the slaughter which, according to the Annals of Wales, took place in the year 573 AD.

Whether this tale contributed to the Robin Hood legend is not certain, but the parallels are there.

Whatever the connection, or lack thereof, happy May Day to all.

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.

Is this the home of King Arthur’s Lady of the Lake?

Is this body of water in Cornwall the home of the mythical Lady if the Lake?

The lake is Dozmary Pool, on Bodmin Moor, one of the sources of the River Fowey.

The lake has been significant to people since prehistory, with the antiquarian and folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould saying it was abundant in fish and surrounded by numerous remains of Stone Age flint working.

Dozmary Pool is one site that is claimed to be the watery residence of the Lady of the Lake.

According to legend Arthur, King of the Britons, rowed out to the Lady of the Lake, sometimes called Nimue, and received the magical sword Excalibur at Dozmary Pool.

After Arthur was mortally wounded, at the Battle of Camlann, the blade was said to have been returned to the water by Bedivere.

The act of deposition of sacred or valuable objects – particularly arms – alluded to in the legend recalls very real religious and cultural practices.

At the time Arthur is supposed to have lived there were still practitioners of Druidic belief or at least knowledge of them.

Added to this there is also the possibility that Merlin described, perhaps colloquially or cryptically, as a ‘bard’, was a Druid.

Druids, known to the Classical World from the 4th century BC, could have continued traditions and practices from as far back as the second and third millennia BC.

In this context deposition to the Chthonic deities took place in the earth, or bodies of water.

Examples of earth deposition include pits at Woodhenge or Durrington Walls, near Stonehenge, or the stone circle and henge at Avebury.

The concept can be seen as being continued into the Bronze and Iron Ages in the form of grave goods deposited in burial mounds.

Objects deliberately placed in water include the ornate Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Bridge Helmet, as well as the far older Dagenham Idol.

The deposition of votive objects and also defixiones, or requests for divine damnation of enemies, also took place at the sacred waters of Bath.

These were offerings or appeals to the deity Sulis, later amalgamated with the Roman goddess Minerva, to form the compound deity Sulis-Minerva, via the process of ‘interpretatio Romana’.

A rich earth deposition was discovered in Folly Lane, St Albans, Hertfordshire, in 1991-92, which was part of the burial rites of a late Iron Age Catevellauni chieftain.

The complexity of the funerary chamber, burial mound and enclosure at the site pointed to complicated rituals having taken place. It was determined the site was the tomb of a client king who died in the years immediately following the Rome’s invasion of Britain, in AD 43.

Treasures discovered with the cremated body included enamelled horse equipment, a chariot, a tunic of iron mail armour and at least 15lbs of silver. 

It was said that all the grave goods were burned on the funeral pyre with the body.

David Thorold, Curator, Pre-historic to Medieval at Verulamium Museum, said of the discovery: “The whole site is exceptional; the evidence of an elaborate ritual, the imposing character of the enclosure and its position overlooking the Roman town, the wealth of the grave goods and the fact that a Romano-Celtic temple was subsequently built on the site of the funeral pyre, are all proof that the rites and ceremonies performed here were of overwhelming significance to the local population.”

Returning to Dozmary Pool, it is clear this atmospheric location within the ruggedly beautiful Bodmin Moor is the kind of place that should attract association with legends.

And, so it is, that the lake is also linked to a sinister deal with the Devil.

The tall tale goes that Jan Treageagle, a 17th century steward and cruel magistrate under the Duchy of Cornwall, was on the trail of deviant activities and made a so-called Faustian pact with Satan to gain wealth and influence.

The deal dictated that on his death Treageagle would be damned to forever attempt to empty the allegedly bottomless Dozmary Pool with a leaky limpet shell.

But in death, as in life, Treageagle was not a man to discharge his duties faithfully.

He was said to have escaped from his endless task fleeing to Roche Rock with demons giving chase, before being set another impossible task.

This time he had to weave ropes from sand. Tales abound that Treageagle’s tormented ghost still wails across Bodmin Moor.

Whatever the truth or allegory of these tales their very existence proves a spiritual and potentially historical significance for this eerie place.

Is it the home to the Lady of the Lake? Who knows, but it’s as good as any.

Exploring ancient Roman ‘vampire’ graves and an abandoned church

Welcome to Fleet Marston.

This small dwelling close to Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire has come to prominence recently after it was revealed to hold a dark secret.

Previously I made a post on an incredible Roman-era discovery at the site, which included a number of decapitated skeletons and other artefacts.

My contention is that these unfortunate bodies may have belonged to suspected vampires.

The Romans and other classical civilisations, like the Ancient Greeks, believed in entities known as strix or strigoi.

These mythological beings continued into Slavic folklore as the strzyga.

Archaeologists working alongside railway workers , building the new HS2 high-speed rail link in England, have unearthed a number of intriguing finds recently.

At or close to Fleet Marston 425 burials were unearthed at a Roman cemetery.

But it was the manner in which 40 skeletons were discovered that made me consider a dark possibility.

To the Romans Britannia was a mystical and terrifying place. A land of strange people and rituals and maybe even giants.

Therefore it is not inconceivable that, in the superstitious mind of the Roman conquerors, there were otherworldly entities abound in this far-flung peripheral part of the Empire.

And it is with that in mind that the bizarre nature of the burials administered to those 40 skeletons comes into sharp focus.

Burial was even more significant in the bronze and iron ages, with grave goods attesting the idea that the dead were going on a journey.

It is clear that the people who buried the 40 bodies were keen to ensure that this would not be a return journey.

They were found interred with their heads removed and placed between their legs.

Anyone with an understanding of folklore will know that this method of burial is one of the methods by which the vampiric strix are allegedly prevented from coming back to the land of the living.

Obviously the HS2 archaeologists, perhaps keen to avoid a sensation in their work on the controversial and hugely expensive new rail link, did not allude to the possibility that this was an effective vampire burial.

They merely mooted the likelihood that these skeletons belonged to “criminals” or “a type of outcast”.

It is interesting to note that the use of bells, which were also discovered, was another method of stopping reanimated corpses from returning. As was placing small items near the vampire to make them count them and so keep them occupied. A number of these were found at the site.

Other examples of preventative measures against strix predations include putting rocks to the mouths of the deceased, reburial outside of the village, pinning bodies down with large rocks and hammering nails or stakes into corpses.

A press release issued by HS2 said of the strange burials: “There are several instances of the head being placed between the legs or next to the feet.

“One interpretation of this burial practice is that it could be the burial of criminals or a type of outcast, although decapitation is well-known elsewhere and appears to have been a normal, albeit marginal, burial rite during the late Roman period.”

I visited the site recently to see how close I could get to the graves. Unfortunately I could view and photograph the suspected area through binoculars, but could not get any closer than the surrounding farmland and entrance to the railway works.

What I did discover nearby was an abandoned church – the Church of St Mary, which is said to date back to Anglo-Saxon times.

However it lies on a circular, raised area which lends weight to the possibility that this is a very ancient religious site, with a newer church placed on top.

Once inside the fairly inaccessible church I found a font, which is around 700 years old, placed in the small vestry. The rest of the interior was sparse and beset with cobwebs.

There were a few scattered gravestones outside the building, which lent the place a rather spooky air.

The nearby town of Aylesbury has a long history, once being an Anglo-Saxon site called Æglesburgh.

There is some dispute over the etymology of the Æglesburgh, with some claiming it derived from the Old English for church-burgh.

Was this focus on religion and consecration a folk memory of a darkness that needed to be guarded against?

Intriguingly, the Fleet Marston discovery is not the only brush Buckinghamshire has had with alleged vampires.

The curious 12th century case of the Buckinghamshire Vampire was recorded by William of Newburgh, following an oral account by Stephen, the archdeacon of the diocese of Buckinghamshire.

The vampire was said to be the restless ghost of a dead man who acted in a vampire-like manner.

The entity was not referred to as a “vampire”, because the term was not known in the English language until the 18th century.

The story goes that the unnamed man died in 1192, somewhere in the county and was properly buried on the eve of Ascension Day.

But the night after burial, the corpse left his grave and visited his wife, leaping upon her while she slept and nearly killing her with the press of his weight.

The following night he did the same thing.

On the third night the wife had made preparations and recruited friends to keep a vigil for her.

When the vampire, referred to as a ‘revenant’ arrived, he was driven away by the loud shouts and cries of the wife and the others.

He was said to have turned his ire on his brothers who lived in the same town.

They adopted the same tactic and so the revenant was forced to target other people while they were asleep as well as harassing animals at night.

Eventually the creature began to appear during daytime hours and Archdeacon Stephen was called in.

He convened a synod, and wrote a letter to St. Hugh, the bishop of Lincoln, asking what should be done.

After some theological study it was found that similar incidents had allegedly taken place in other towns.

Learning from the experiences of others, it was said that the corpse had to be dug up and burned.

But the Archdeacon did not have the stomach for this so Hugh wrote out an absolution to be placed on the corpse’s chest.

When the tomb was opened, the body was found to be in surprising state of preservation. The absolution was laid on the cadaver’s chest and the grave was closed. This apparently worked as the vampire never returned.

The part of Buckinghamshire that this incident referred to has not been determined, but one can’t help but wonder if this is some oral tale passed down through the ages and embellished through the centuries, but ultimately refers to Fleet Marston in the first century.

We will probably never know.

Marvel’s Moon Knight and its portrayal of Ancient Egyptian mythology

Marvel’s latest on-screen superhero is a bit different than its usual fodder.

Rather than Iron Man or Captain America the rather obscure figure of Moon Knight is the subject of a new show now streaming on Disney+.

And viewers of this channel, who have watched it, would undoubtedly by pleased to see several shots of the British Museum in the first episode. Although, bizarrely, the central character, played by Oscar Isaac, appears to walk straight out of the Russel Square landmark and into Trafalgar Square. Good luck trying to do that if you’re ever in the capital.

Anyway the point of this preamble is to introduce the theme of this video – that of the Ancient Egyptian mythology that has a central role in the show and how fa7r that tallies with the real pantheon.

In the show the central character’s body is inhabited, unhappily, by several entities, with one of these being referred to as the god ‘Khonshu’.

Khonshu affords him supernatural powers to fight evildoers, but the multiple personalities of the character sees him driven incrementally insane.

In the comic books Moon Knight’s abilities are seen as being greater or lesser depending upon the phases of the moon.

Khonshu is a slight misspelling of the actual deity Khonsu, the Ancient Egyptian god of the moon.

His name means ‘traveller’ in reference to the nightly movement of the Moon across the firmament.

The travels of Khonsu across the sky was, along with the god Thoth, a marker of the passage of time.

Khonsu was seen as instrumental in the creation of new life in all living creatures.

His mother was the mother goddesses Mut and his father the chief god Amun.

The name Khonsu reflects the fact that the moon, known as ‘iah’ in Egyptian, travels across the sky.

He was said to also have the names ‘Embracer’, ‘Pathfinder’ and ‘Defender’ and was charged with keeping watch over nighttime travellers.

As the god of night light the deity, who was often depicted as a mummy, was invoked to protect travellers from the predations of wild animals and to conduct healing rituals.

He was said to make the crescent moon shine to create fresh air.

In this phase the god was also associated with fertility in women and livestock.

The god’s appearance included possession of the Pharaonic crook and flail, or heka and nekhakha and sometimes portrayed with a Horus-like falcon’s head adorned with the sun disk and the crescent moon.

The god found his zenith in the New Kingdom when he was revered as the “greatest god of the great gods” and was associated with miracles.

He is seen as a sacred progenitor in the temple complex at Karnak in a creation myth that presents him as the great snake who fertilised the cosmic egg in the creation of the world.

The series also features the female demonic entity Ammit, which is represented fairly accurately in terms of appearance. 

Ammit, a funerary deity, is known as the ‘Devourer of the Dead’ and the ‘Eater of Hearts’ and has the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion and the rear eand of a hippopotamus.

The goddess was not worshipped, but feared as a creature of judgement whicg would determine the purity of hearts by weighing them against an ostrich feather. 

These scales of judgement featured briefly in the first episode.