The Virtual Skeptics, Episode 12 (31 Oct 2012)

October 31, 2012

A very special, extra scary Virtual Skeptics this week! The few of us who survived the zombie apocalypse (more or less) teamed up with another band of survivors and we are now making our way toward Fort Benning.


Another patient who trusted Stanislaw Burzynski has died

October 31, 2012

I have started a storify page that is devoted solely to the people who have gone to Burzynski’s clinic. Earlier this week, Rachael Mackey, a truly vibrant person died at the age of 28 of a brain tumor. In her last month, she banked on Burzynski. I am heartbroken. Here is Rachael’s story.

channelled languages and similar phenomena 4 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 13)

October 29, 2012

Hi again, everybody!

The most spectacular case of alleged channelling is an older case involving the Elizabethan mystic John Dee. A supposedly angelic language and an otherwise unknown script, both labelled ‘Enochian’, were allegedly channelled to an associate of Dee and were recorded in writing (in roman script). Don Laycock (who died tragically young) investigated this case in partnership with Stephen Skinner, and it is reported in one of the few ‘classics’ of skeptical linguistics (Donald C. Laycock (2nd edn completed by Stephen Skinner with two prefaces), The Complete Enochian Dictionary (London, 1978 and York Beach, ME, 1994)). Laycock was a brilliant Australian linguist, skeptic and polymath and remains a model for genuine ‘skeptical linguists’.

‘Enochian’ involves the Old Testament patriarch Enoch (discussed in Genesis and the apocryphal Book Of Enoch). After an initial set of many novel words in Roman letters presented in a series of squares, the corpus consists of apparently linguistic data involving two languages or systems, chiefly the second. Both were allegedly channelled to Edward Kelley, a ‘skryer’, and dictated to Dee, over the period 1581-89; Dee may have been actively questioning Kelley during this process. The overall system was regarded as an ‘angelic’ language. Nineteen ‘Calls’ or ‘Keys’ providing the bulk of the data are supplied with English translations; the content is that of religious/mystical invocations (narrative, exhortative, etc.).

Laycock and Skinner discuss earlier interpretive works from 1662 (when the texts were re-discovered) and after (up to the twentieth century), each influenced by contemporary ideas. They are highly critical, but are also open minded despite the nature of the material; they are inclined to consider Enochian largely non-paranormal (although Skinner is obviously convinced of the reality of Dee’s angels, at least). Laycock and Skinner concluded that ‘Enochian’, unusually in this context, patterns rather like a genuine but altogether unknown language, albeit with some most uncommon features including unprecedently heavy, wide-ranging suppletion (unrelated stems) in the verb-tense paradigms (see below).

The material itself emerges as having the following characteristics:

First System: words written in an alphabet of 21 named characters

It is unclear whether the words were actually received as words or as series of letter-names; in any event, they are mostly pronounceable (not always easily but with few genuinely phonetically awkward sequences) but ‘exotic’-looking. However, the strong patterns of alliteration, vowel and syllabic-structure contrasts, etc. suggest magical charms or glossolalia rather than genuine language. The grammar of the system is unclear, as translations are generally not available; the translations offered for individual words suggest anomalous lexical systems but most of the words are themselves unfamiliar, although occasionally etymologies (Hebrew etc.) are suggested by Laycock.

Second System: grammatically-structured sequences featuring many words, some pronounceable as English, some as if ‘exotic’; there is a highly suspicious one-to-one correspondence with the Roman alphabet with English spelling rules

The grammar manifests considerable detail. Sentence/clause and phrase-level word order is again suspiciously close to that of English; but there are often several Enochian words in sequence corresponding with one English word, with no analysis offered. Some of the variation in noun terminations suggests inconsistent systems of inflection as in Latin (‘declensions’), but there is too little data to be confident. Verbs show inflectional systems, but, very strikingly, there are anomalously high levels of suppletion (totally unrelated forms in different tenses of the same verb, as in English go/went). There is also some unusual ‘polyallomorphy;’ for instance, there are multiple items for negation. The rest of the grammar does not emerge fully but (again suspiciously) displays nothing highly non-Indo-European in character and is often close to English idiom.

Most of the vocabulary is again unfamiliar, though some words appear to have Latin, Greek or Hebrew etymologies. There is a highly anomalous numeral system. Interpretation is difficult because of the high percentage of ‘hapaxes’ (words occurring only once in the corpus of data).

Dee later allegedly received still other messages, including some words hardly pronounceable at all, such as alhctga. Skinner has published further analyses of Enochian. This altogether fascinating case obviously remains open.

There are other, less skeptical (although not always naïve) works on Enochian. These works do not always make sufficient use of the work of Laycock & Skinner, citing it only in places and not discussing its conclusions.

New sub-topics next time!


Eve’s appearance on MonsterTalk

October 26, 2012

Blake, Karen, and Ben interviewed Eve for MonsterTalk. That episode is up now. Go there. Go there now. They are talking about creationist interpretations of Beowulf.


This Week in Conspiracy…uh, I’ve lost count of the days. We’ll call it 25 Oct 2012

October 26, 2012

The hectic pace of a youngish professional on the way to… ever having permanent employment… remains, uh, hectic.

You just try to come up with an opening sentence so devastatingly painful, I dare you.

Anyway, I’ve been remiss in my duties as a crusader for truth (small t), justice, and critical thinking, and as we close in on the election, everyone is clearly getting dumber. I apologize for this and will try to set things right.

  • This week Donald Trump made yet more of a fool of himself. I didn’t think it was possible. He offered $5,000,000 to a charity if Obama released his college applications. This is part of the Birther conspiracy theory, that the President’s application materials will reveal something about the President’s citizenship. The theory is that they are “being kept secret,” when in reality FERPA keeps Columbia from releasing them. Some things you can’t buy, Donald, like respectability. For everything else, there’s gobs and gobs of inherited money.
  • Mark Dice is unfathomably unpleasant. Here’s his take on the upcoming (and delayed) Cleveland Show episode about the “Rap Illuminati,” and he seems to not understand that the show is basically mocking people like Mark and Vigilant Citizen who fail to perceive that marketing is driving the continued references to the Illuminati in rap and pop culture.
  • Occasionally, Mark Dice goes out and lies to people and then mocks them for believing him (because he is just that pleasant). He sent out this tweet: “Hope you are enjoying my retweets of the ZOMBIES who believe the SATIRE about Romney ‘banning tampons.’ #Idiots.” As long as he doesn’t ban douches, Mark, you’ll be just fine.
  • Veterans Today‘s Gordon Duff appeared on Coast to Coast AM talking about UFO disclosure.
  • In related news, this week I met George Noory:


Twit of the Week:

A new player is in town. Here are two tweets in order. I want to know what class this was and where it was at!

Molly Williams (@LookItsMolly) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Thu, Oct 25, 2012:
Professor: “The character says she called 911 instead of saying she called the police. We can assume that this is a reference to 9/11.”

Molly Williams (@LookItsMolly) tweeted at 11:08 AM on Thu, Oct 25, 2012:
… and then I realized that literary theorists and conspiracy theorists are uncomfortably similar.

Well played, Molly. Well played. I elaborated on a similar theme back in the day in my NeMLA presentation, “The Topography of Ignorance: Science and Literary Theory,” of which I am quite proud.

The least helpful, least insightful, most pathetic debate commentary came from Mark Dice:

Mark Dice @MarkDice
Both of these men think they are God. #Debates #Illuminati #SatanicScumbags

Just end it, man. You just aren’t cut out for…anything.

That’s all. Last week I was at the Paradigm Symposium on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer, and I will be writing that up over the next week or so. It was a hell of a time. Stay tuned!


Virtual Skeptics, Episode 11 (24 Oct 2011)

October 25, 2012

Gais! Gais! OMGOMGOMG! A new episode of the Virtual Skeptics is up and you HAVE to see it!

See? I told you!


channelled languages and similar phenomena 3 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 12)

October 22, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Yet more on linguistic aspects of (allegedly) channelled communications and similar cases. Next: written channelling/ ‘automatic writing’

Analogously to oral channelling, written channelling or ‘automatic writing’ (also known as ‘inspired writing’, ‘trance writing’, ‘spirit writing’, ‘autonography’, etc.) is regarded by ‘believers’ as generated by spirits or other paraphysical entities rather than by the physical writer, who is often in a trance-like state at the time of production. Automatic writers (or typists) typically claim to receive communication from the spirit world by way of involuntary handwriting or typing, allegedly guided by spirits of the deceased. Again, these phenomena may involve languages known to the writer, identifiable languages (modern or other) not known to the writer (again, very interesting, if genuine) or unidentified languages or ‘languages’. Writers often claim no understanding of the material produced where it is not in a language which they themselves know. Some such cases are again interpreted by believers as communication with deceased persons, including long-dead individuals as well as now-dead acquaintances; but there are also cases involving ‘spirit guides’ (who sometimes are quoted as wrongly identifying the language in question).

Karen Stollznow discusses (in the wider context of ‘New Age’ thought) several well-known older cases of automatic writing in ‘the West’, including a case featuring the highly skeptical Harry Houdini (involving a private sitting with automatic writer Lady Doyle, mother of Arthur Conan Doyle) and the Borley Rectory haunting case in the UK (where the automatic writing supposedly occurred without a living medium, being generated by ghosts), as well as recent cases in Australia involving ‘Lisa’, who reports that she receives messages from spirits as ‘thoughts’ in her head; the spirits then guide her handwriting. Other skeptical work on the issue includes that of Joe Nickell, who refers particularly to a case supposedly involving the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, and that of Robert Carroll.

One very salient set of cases of automatic writing involves Geraldine Cumnmins, who channelled writings (in contemporary English; see earlier on this issue) supposedly generated by spirits associated with the events reported in the New Testament and expanding on these reports; she also channelled more recent spirits. Much of her work was done in partnership with another medium, Winifred Coombe-Tennant, known as ‘Mrs Willett’.

Nik Douglas reports a complex case involving a male channeller coming to terms with the ‘female archetype’; some elements and motifs relate to Asian and earlier European cultures. The channelling was rapid, forming an unbroken sequence; some sections were in ‘mirror writing’. In contrast, Grace Rosher channelled a recently deceased friend. Shelley Stockwell presents a systematic but rather naïvely conceptualized account of her own automatic writing and ‘hieroscripting’ (the latter often involves access to the channeller’s own unconscious thought and normally consists of artworks and non-linguistic symbols). Stockwell’s presentation is in decidedly ‘New Age’ terms. She also reports on other cases by way of example, including other cases involving ‘mirror writing’ (Jean Sheik). H.F. Saltmarsh offers a positive but not wholly uncritical survey of various cases involving ‘cross-correspondences’ between independent automatic-writers.

One case of channelled written material featuring a spirit guide involves Ann Walker, who claims to be in contact with a Native American spirit entity called White Arrow and another entity called Zipper. Zipper and other spirits spoke to each other in a language which Walker did not know; but they also sent her messages allegedly written in various ancient scripts and languages, notably Greek, Coptic (late Egyptian) and scripts which Walker identifies as the demotic and hieratic Egyptian scripts. (These are the names given to the simplified scripts that were used in Egypt for everyday purposes, as opposed to the more formal hieroglyphic system.) However, the characters given by Walker bear very little resemblance to genuine demotic or hieratic. And, although Walker’s versions of Greek words are in genuine Greek script, they do not correspond with Greek expressions carrying the relevant meanings; indeed, the sequences are meaningless as Greek, and some are phonologically impossible. In fact, virtually all of Walker’s comments about linguistic matters are naïve, confused and wrong, and her conceptualization is often faulty; for example, she confuses languages with scripts.

Anita Mühl provides a now dated but still very interesting survey of various cases of automatic writing, including analysis from a psychological perspective; she herself worked with some channellers.

One very interesting older case, reported by John Ashton, involves an alleged sample of handwriting by the Devil (Satan), who was allegedly summoned up by Ludovico Spoletano and induced to write a short passage in answer to a question. The resulting text was given to Theseo Ambrogio degli Albanesi and discussed in his Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam (‘Introduction to the Chaldean Language’) (Pavia, 1532). It is in an unidentified script; despite the reference in the book-title to Chaldaea (Mesopotamia), some of the characters have been compared to characters found in the Ethiopic abugida, a script often regarded as especially ancient and significant. Boundaries between characters are not always clear, but there are around 175 character-tokens in all. The language represented and the intended meaning are unknown.

More next time!


The Last Couple of Weeks in Conspiracy (11 Oct 2012)

October 16, 2012

Been away. Very busy. Grading. Job hunt. I apologize. Still really busy. But also feeling guilty.

But you know I’ve been on the prowl for the latest and greatest in conspiracy, right? Because I have some sort of masochistic compulsive disorder!

@GoAngelo Truth. RT @KuraFire: @emokidsloveme @AriMelber @GoAngelo What a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars.

Twit of the Week:

Jonathan Kay @jonkay
WND is now combining islamophobic paranoia with something resembling Aspergers… Ring collage = unintentionally hilarious.

The American Muslim site does a little debunkery of this claim.

Bill Corbett, however, made me laugh:

Rabid anti-Semites are gonna have a hard time explaining the bacon shortage.

That’s all. I’m trying to keep up, folks! This week, I am going to be attending the Paradigm Conference on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer. Follow me as live tweet on #paradigm!

channelled languages and similar phenomena 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 11)

October 15, 2012

Hi again, everybody! More on linguistic aspects of (allegedly) channelled communications and similar cases: first, oral ‘channelling’ and written ‘channelling’ or ‘automatic writing’. (I will provide (a) reference(s) to/for any specific source on request.)

Oral channelling is regarded by ‘believers’ as generated by spirits or other paraphysical entities rather than by the physical channeller or medium, who is often in a trance-like state at the time of production. These phenomena may involve languages known to the channeller (not of especial relevance here; the main point of skeptical interest in such cases involves information to which the channeller supposedly had no other access), identifiable languages (modern or other) not known to the channeller (again, very interesting, if genuine) or unidentified languages or ‘languages’ (as in glossolalia). Channellers often claim no understanding of the material produced where it is not in a language with which they themselves are familiar. For example, I met an Australian man who channelled large amounts of material in a ‘language’ which he himself could not interpret (and which – following information supposedly obtained from a ‘spirit guide’ – he wrongly identified as Seneca). In a few cases (see later on Flournoy for an example), unknown scripts are provided to accompany the oral material (see also below on written channelling and automatic writing).

Many cases of channelling are interpreted by believers as communication with deceased persons, including long-dead individuals as well as now-dead acquaintances. Examples include the works of Arthur Guirdham (reporting the channelling of a thirteenth-century French-speaker) and Margaret and Maurine Moon (reporting the channelling of ‘Wedge’, a seventeenth-century English-speaker).

In some cases involving deceased individuals from remote time-periods, and indeed in most cases involving languages not known to the channeller (contemporary or ancient), appropriate usage is not attempted. The channeller uses a contemporary form of her own first language; this is arguably both anomalous and ‘convenient’ (for channellers unschooled in language matters), but some such channellers adduce arguably specious reasons for this, such as the spirit’s desire to assist current listeners. One such case is that of the ‘Starseed Transmissions’; the channeller Ken Carey reports that these messages were transmitted in non-verbal form as ‘waves’ linking his ‘biogravitational field’ and neurology with those of the extraterrestrial/angelic communicators. Approximately synonymous English expressions were then ‘assigned’ to these ‘waves’ (apparently by the communicators).

However, such cases are obviously more convincing if linguistic forms appropriate to the period can be used. Unfortunately, where this is attempted the usage itself is seldom at all convincing to linguists. There are frequently errors and/or anomalies, for instance the mixing of usage from different periods. This suggests that the material has been fraudulently hoaxed and that the unconvincing features are errors which have intruded because the faker lacks the specialization required if utterances containing accurate forms in pre-modern usage are to be invented. One case which appears slightly less dubious is one in which a young Londoner allegedly lost his local accent when channelling.

The skeptical linguist Sarah Thomason reviewed some such cases and specifically investigated the cases of Marjorie Turcott (American, channelling ‘Matthew’, a seventeenth-century Scot), Jack Purcel (channelling ‘Lazaris’) and Julie Winter (channelling a ‘high-energy being’ called ‘Mika’). None appear convincing, especially where the supposed language variety is actually known; for example, Matthew’s dialect is mixed and often inaccurate for the period. Mika’s voice too displays an unconvincingly inconsistent ‘foreign’ accent. (The channellers/entities also make factual errors; for example, Turcott/Matthew makes various factual errors about Scotland.) Other such studies have been carried out by anthropological linguists, with similar results. In some other such cases there is a mixture of contemporary usage and an attempt at archaic forms, usually in the same language (that of the channeller); see for instance the case of Pearl Curran, who gained notoriety in 1913 for allegedly channelling a seventeenth-century character named Patience Worth, through an Ouija board; she and the spirit supposedly developed a powerful ‘mental linkage’. Skeptics such as Karen Stollznow and Joe Nickell hold that Curran herself was behind the creations.

An unusual older case involves a medium who supposedly channelled a speaker of Ancient Egyptian despite being untutored in the language. Her performances allegedly impressed some scholars of the language, though the vowels of Egyptian are poorly known (thus the channeller’s own ‘Egyptian’ vowels cannot be reliably checked) and there were in fact sundry errors, which the authors attempted to explain away. The case remains somewhat mysterious, but because of the date of the study it is no longer possible to investigate it thoroughly.

In cases involving languages altogether unknown to mainstream scholarship, such as ‘Atlantean’, it is of course impossible to demonstrate whether or not the usage presented is accurate. However, it is more difficult than most non-linguists imagine to invent a language (as opposed to an unstructured set of vocabulary items) in such a way that a linguist will be convinced, and even unknown ‘languages’ can be assessed for plausibility (this also applies to alleged extraterrestrial languages).

Other cases involve exotic phenomena such as the claimed channelling of a deceased person now living on Mars (as a spirit being) by the medium Hélène Smith, as reported by Théodore Flournoy. The spirit communications were in an unknown ‘Martian’ language, with an accompanying exotic script. This unidentifiable ‘language’ is in fact modelled (consciously or unconsciously) on a language familiar to the channeller, French. The grammatical and phonological structures of ‘Martian’ are clearly based on those of French, and the script is alphabetic and corresponds with the Roman alphabet as used to write French. Only the vocabulary is novel, although even this is partly derived by cipher from French, Hungarian and other languages known to Smith’s polyglot father.

As intimated, some cases of channelling involve ‘Atlantean’ (or ‘Lemurian’) languages emanating from spirit realms, etc. One such case involves some 3,000 ‘Atlantean’ words supposedly channelled to a medium. An Australian group called ‘Liquid Crystals’ claims that it is in touch with survivors of Atlantis (in space/other ‘dimensions’) and has access to ‘11 [Atlantean] languages spoken and written’.

Ramtha, channelled by J.Z. Knight, is said to be a ‘Lemurian’ warrior who lived over 35,000 years ago. His name is supposedly derived from the word Ram and means ‘the God’ in his own language, but the communications are in contemporary English and in a pseudo-British accent. So too are those of Mafu, who is channelled by Penny Torres and claims to be of a similar age and to know Latin. This account was critiqued by Thomason (see above).

More next time!


For the Love of Yeti, Bigfooters, Read a Primary Source!

October 13, 2012

Earlier this year, I wrote (twice) about an outrage to sense, science, history, folklore, grammar, punctuation and all that is good in the world, called Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs by “Dr.” Kent Hovind and William J. Gibson. From this book, I learned that Leif Ericson and his men

encountered hairy, ugly giants that uttered harsh cries. This is the earliest recorded encounter with Bigfoot, or Sasquatch….

Since then, I’ve wondered if this is a common argument among Bigfoot enthusiasts. After some investigating, I have discovered that it is not an uncommon argument. This account from the show “Ancient Mysteries: Bigfoot” is typical:

The oldest account of Bigfoot was recorded in 986 AD by Leif Ericson and his men. During their first landing in the New World, the Norsemen wrote about monsters that were horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy and with great black eyes.

It’s almost always Leif Ericson who is credited with discovering not only North America, but also Bigfoot. It’s never one of the later Norse explorers. The year 986 also recurs, as does the description. There are also often references to Leif writing about or recording his encounter. Almost all these details are impossible.

Two sagas deal with the Norse discovery of America: Greenlanders’ Saga (Grænlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eric the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). In both sagas, Leif’s single voyage to the New World is described rather briefly. In both, the most significant things he finds are the grapes and vines which provide Vinland with its name. In Eric’s Saga, Leif sees no animals at all. In Greenlanders’ Saga, he sees salmon (lax) larger than any he had seen before. While large, the fish are not said to be hairy; there is no mention of feet.

The date 986 is very specific, and I haven’t figured out where it comes from. No one knows exactly when the Norse discovered Vinland, but, based on information from the sagas, the initial sighting seems to have taken place around 1000. Leif hadn’t been born in 986, and his father had not yet settled in Greenland. This is important: there is a logical progression from Iceland to Greenland to Vinland.

If the discovery occurred around 1000, it was more or less contemporary with the Christian conversion of Iceland and Greenland. Eric’s Saga claims that Leif accidentally discovered Vinland when he got blown off course traveling from Norway to Greenland on a mission from God King Olaf Tryggvason to convert the Greenlanders. This story is generally agreed to be untrue, but the general time period is probably right. One of the perks of conversion was a shiny new alphabet. Well, okay, a slightly used alphabet. But not even the Icelanders (who took to writing with wild abandon) started writing within a week or two. The stories weren’t written down for centuries after the events described. It is true, of course, that the Norse had the Runic alphabet, but it seems unlikely that Leif schlepped around a supply of big rocks so that he could record a journal or captain’s log.

Absurd as they are, these details appear over and over, sometimes with extra absurdities added on. Rick Emmer, in his book Bigfoot: Fact or Fiction, says:

Vikings led by Leif Ericson made their way to the East Coast of North America in 986 CE. It was there that they reported seeing an “horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy and with big black eyes” (Ericson, Leif. 986 CE) creature. They called the creature “Skellring”. People believe that the creature “Skellring” is what we know today as Bigfoot. But it is possible that the Aboriginals were playing a prank on the vikings by wearing large animal hides. This Bigfoot sighting was the first to be recorded in North America.

I love the way he cites Leif parenthetically as his source, in (almost) proper APA style. One website suggests that Bigfoot were an aboriginal tribe:

[Leif described] encounters with huge hairy men, with a horrible odor and  piercing shrieks. L’Anse aux Meadows…is the only known village settlement by the Vikings in this area around 1000 AD. That region was inhabited by Native people from back to 6000 BP. Native people who surely had dealt with the local Bigfoot. Is it possible that the Vikings landed on a continent that had two tribes? One Native American and one being Bigfoot? If and [sic] upright human-like being can manage to stay well hidden from man, showing a good degree of intelligence, then when we refer to Bigfoot, are we not referring to the “other” tribe of the Americas?

A similar account was recorded by the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization:

It is a little known historical fact that the first Sasquatch encounter was perhaps observed by the vikings who settled on the island of Newfoundland in Eastern Canada….Leif kept a record of his journey across the Atlantic, from Iceland to Greenland, and of his experiences whilst in Newfoundland, the last point of land on his voyage. Among his accounts, Leif told of seeing huge hairy men who towered over him and his Berzerker crew (and the vikings are known to have been large men). The “huge hairy men”, according to Leif, lived in the Woods and had a rank odour and a deafening shriek. Apparently, Leif had several sightings of the “huge hairy men” before departing the island.

DESCRIPTION OF CREATURE:  Towering height, hairy, man-like, rank smell, deafening verbal tones., The natives of Newfoundland, the Beothuck (now extinct), most likely had similar relations to the Sasquatch like other native bands, especially those of Western Canada (ie Bella Coola). Leif’s accounts spoke of his meeting of a race of men (seperate [sic] from the “huge hairy men”), which were almost certainly the Beothuck.

It should be noted that neither Leif nor the later Norse explorers of Vinland were Vikings: properly speaking, “Viking” refers specifically to raiders. They certainly weren’t Berserkers. While the Norse explorers have become insane, frothing warriors in this account, Bigfoot has become huge, loud, foul-smelling and clearly distinct from native peoples.

So where does the story of Leif and Bigfoot come from? I believe it comes from Peter Byrne’s The Search for Big Foot: Monster, Myth or Man? and he drew on Samuel Eliot Morison’s The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600, though Morison did not mention Bigfoot. Byrne, who appears on the “Ancient Mysteries” program, refers to Morison’s account of the Norse discoveries, particularly:

an encounter by Leif Erikson and his men, during their first landing in the New World, with creatures that were pictured as “horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy and with great black eyes. (Byrne 7)

While Byrne admits that this case is “borderline” and that the “creatures” were probably “simply Indians,” he still thinks it may have been Bigfoot. Why? Because they were hairy:

The Norse word “skellring” is a term of contempt. It means, roughly, a “babarian.” But what caught my eye . . . was the word “hairy.” The Norse were a hairy people themselves, big men with matted hair and beards. Why did they remark on the “skellring” being hairy? Was it because they were very much hairier than the Norsemen, even covered with hair, perhaps? If the encounter had been between, say, Tibetans, who are not a hirsute people, and the “skellring,” one could understand the reference to hairiness. But why the Norse mention? (7)

And what of Samuel Eliot Morison? Morison held a Ph.D. from Harvard University and taught history there for forty years. In his account of the Vinland voyages, Morison essentially retells the two sagas, sometimes conflating them. Although he lists the manuscripts and some editions and translations in his bibliography, it is not clear what translation he is using when he quotes, or if he is using his own translation. It is not always clear what saga he’s quoting from. He includes some information that is definitely false. He says, for instance, that Eric the Red “left Norway for Iceland to escape punishment for manslaughter” (39). Eric’s Saga does say that Eric and his father left Norway “because of some killings,” but in reality Eric would have been a child when his family moved to Iceland, too young to have been involved in the killings. Morison also interprets and embellishes some parts of the sagas. He says that Leif considered Helluland (Flat-Rock Land, here identified as Baffin Island) worthless “after finding no gold in the rocks” (41). As far as I know, neither saga in any manuscript mentions gold or the lack of it in Helluland.

So Morison’s account is eccentric or at least dated. Is there any justification for thinking Leif might have met Bigfoot based on Morison’s book? No. First, Morison mentions no encounters between Leif and any sort of animal or native person. Second, the often-quoted description of what Morison calls the Skrellings (not Skellrings, as Byrne calls them) as “horribly ugly, hairy, swarthy, with great black eyes” (55) is not actually in quotation marks. More importantly, he applies this description to “the natives.” It would take a huge amount of determination and delusion to find Bigfoot in Morison’s account. The Skrælings (the word actually used in the sagas) speak, use weapons (arrows and some sort of catapult), row and presumably build boats made out of animal skin. They also bring a variety of animal pelts to trade. All this is clear from Morison’s account.

As for the description of the Skrælings which inspired Byrne to think of Bigfoot, it’s a pretty close paraphrase of a description in Eric’s Saga:

Þeir váru svartir menn ok illiligir ok höfðu illt hár á höfði. Þeir váru mjök eygðir ok breiðir í kinnum. (chap. 10)

This can be translated as, “They were dark men and ill-looking and had bad hair on their heads. They were large-eyed and broad-cheeked” (my translation). “Illt,” used to describe the Skrælings’ hair, can mean “ill, evil, bad; hard, difficult; close, mean, stingy.” Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson translate it as “coarse.” So the excessive hairiness that so fascinated Byrne is just hair that the Norse considered ugly. And it’s not body hair: the description says they had bad hair on their heads. This description comes from the manuscript Hauksbók. The other manuscript, Skálholtsbók, describes the Skrælings as smáir, small, rather than svartir, black or dark. So the huge, hairy, bigfooty Skrælings were neither large nor particularly hairy.

So how did humans become Bigfoot? Well, first Morison retold the sagas in a slightly odd way. Byrne seized on one word and ignored everything else Morison said, while making several mistakes. Others have dismissed Byrne’s reservations but repeated his mistakes, while adding their own (anyone who uses the word “Skellring” has clearly gotten their information from Byrne, either directly or indirectly). The same mistakes get repeated religiously until they become established fact. And no one, not even Byrne, bothers to look at the actual sagas.

Well, almost no one. One poster at Bigfoot Forums has almost restored my faith in humans. In a thread called “Best Bigfoot Documentaries,” spasticskeptic warns,

["Ancient Mysteries"] repeats the arguably mistaken claim that the earliest known alleged sightings of hairy manlike beasts in the New World go back to 900-something A.D., with “Leif Erickson and his men.” The textual evidence that they quote is just one English translation, and it differs markedly from nearly all other English translations of this material with respect to the issue at hand. Consult the myriad English translations of the early Norse explorations/settlements of North America and this notion that the Norse encountered “hair-covered manlike beasts” pretty much disappears. I looked into to this at length some years ago because to my mind the quotes in the A&E special were especially promising in terms of establishing a historical record of alleged sightings. Thus, I learned the hard way (through old school research) that the translation quoted by A&E is aberrant.

See, Bigfooters, there are books that aren’t about Bigfoot. Some of them are instructive and entertaining. It is possible to read primary sources and, you know, learn stuff.



“Ancient Mysteries: Bigfoot.” A&E. Originally aired as season 1, episode 1 on 7 Jan. 1994, narrated by John Swanson. Version narrated by Leonard Nimoy aired as season 4, episode 18 on 15 May 1997.

Byrne, Peter. The Search for Big Foot: Monster, Myth or Man? New York: Pocket, 1975.

Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. (Hauksbók); (Skálholtsbók)

Emmer, Rick. Bigfoot: Fact or Fiction. Infobase Publishing, 2010. Qtd. in

Grænlendinga saga. Ed. Guðni Jónsson.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, A.D. 500-1600. New York: Oxford UP, 1971.

The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. London: Penguin, 1965.




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