Women of the Viking Age Kicked Ass, But That Doesn’t Mean They Were Vikings

September 7, 2014

In the last week, a number of websites have informed their readers that recent scientific evidence shows that roughly half of Viking warriors were female. Tor.com proclaims, “Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female,” while Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing declares that “Half the Remains of Slain Vikings in England Are Female.” Wow, cool! How is it possible that we didn’t know this before? Well, according to Emma Cueto of Bustle, it’s because of evil sexist scholars. Her post boasts the level-headed title, “Women Viking Warriors Existed, Confounding Sexist Scientists Everywhere.” She claims that sexist archaeologists have used sexist assumptions to come to sexist conclusions rather than looking at the actual data:

After all, if archeologists [sic] are letting their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past, that has some pretty troubling implications. For instance, when people argue in favor of “traditional” gender roles, they often cite history, saying that since this is how things have always been, clearly it’s natural and therefore right.

I’d like to see an example of a modern archaeologist saying that something is natural and right because it was common in the past: “Well, human sacrifice is traditional. It’s been practiced for millennia. So I’ve slaughtered a couple of the slower diggers to appease the gods. What? Stop looking at me like that!”

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Human Sacrifice: Traditional, Therefore Required*

Cueto continues:

And if we are imposing our own ideas about gender back onto the past, that’s not only bad for the modern fight for gender equality, but it’s also just bad science.

So if archeologists could stop making sexist assumptions and maybe start being thorough researchers, that would great. Sound good, guys?

She’s right: doing thorough research is important; looking at as many types of evidence as possible is important. Scholars in all fields should stop imposing their own ideas about gender onto the past, and they should look at the actual data.

It is especially ironic, then, that she appears to be imposing her ideas about gender roles and gender equality onto the Viking Age and that she hasn’t looked at the data. That is to say, neither she nor many of the other writers seem actually to have read the scholarly article that inspired them.

They seem not, for instance, to have noticed its date of publication: 2011. Even the USA Today and Jezebel articles that actually get cited and quoted are from 2011. It’s not entirely clear why this story has been resurrected, although it may have something to do with the popularity of the History Channel’s series Vikings, which features a shield-maiden named Lagertha.

Photo: Jonathan Hession, The History Channel

Photo: Jonathan Hession,
The History Channel
NOT A REAL VIKING WOMAN!

The actual scholarly article, “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ratio of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD” by Shane McLeod has nothing to do with female Viking warriors. It only tangentially relates to warriors at all. He’s talking about migrants, early Norse settlers. His focus is very narrow: Norse burials in eastern England from the latter half of the ninth century. Specifically, he discusses Scandinavian burials contemporary with the incursions of the Great Heathen Army (865-878) and a second army that rampaged in the 890s. Considering the narrow focus, it’s dangerous to extrapolate the data to the entire Viking world.

Extrapolation is even more dangerous when we consider that he is discussing fourteen burials. Fourteen. According to osteological examination, seven of the skeletons** were male, six were female, and one couldn’t be sexed because it was a juvenile. This data suggests that there may have been a higher percentage of female settlers during this period than has previously been assumed. It was commonly believed that males–warriors–came first. After they claimed land and began to settle, Norse women began to join them in larger numbers, while many Norsemen married Anglo-Saxon women. McLeod isn’t the first to suggest that more women arrived earlier than was previously thought, although he provides some data to support his contention.

The sample size is, however, tiny. And his findings don’t necessarily contradict the idea that there were many intermarriages between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons or that more Norse women arrived later.

Here are some things the article doesn’t say: McLeod never says that any of the remains belong to “the slain.” He never claims the female migrants were warriors. Indeed, he refers on several occasions to women and children who accompanied the armies. So where does this whole “warrior woman” thing come from, and what’s up with the sexist archaeologists?

Well, he points out that the sex of Viking Age human remains is often determined by looking at grave goods (this is true of other pagan burials as well). He believes that grave goods may not always be a reliable indication of sex, and he focuses instead on remains that have been sexed by an examination of the bones. And this is fair enough. All data should be taken into account: both grave goods and osteological examination.

Of the fourteen burials he discusses, most of the male remains were found with items traditionally associated with male burials, and most of the female remains were found with items traditionally associated with female burials. There are two exceptions. One is a double burial, a female with the juvenile of undetermined sex. These two were buried with “sword hilt grip, shield clamps, knife” (Table 2, p. 345). Of course, we don’t know which of the grave’s occupants was the proud owner of these items. Another woman was buried with “axe, seaxes, sword pieces in mortuary” (Table 2, p. 345).

So, that’s it–that’s the big sexist scandal. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one thing, osteological examination isn’t always possible. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough bone evidence. And osteological evidence can also be problematic. In fact, McLeod does a good job of showing exactly how difficult it is to make many determinations when dealing with very old human remains. Not only is the sex of the remains a problem, so is determining date, establishing whether the remains are really Norse, etc. So, yes, consider the bone evidence, but don’t ignore the evidence of grave goods. The article does not reveal some sort of nefarious sexist scandal in the field of archaeology.

So are the few women who were buried with weapons warriors? Possibly, but it’s difficult to say for sure. We don’t really know why they were buried with these items. Were there female Vikings? Well, the Vikings Wiki certainly things so:

Shield-maidens were women who chose to fight as warriors alongside the other Viking men in the pagan Scandinavia.

They took part in warfare, and they played vital strategic roles in the battlefield, where the shield-maidens were either part of the front-lines in their shield-wall formation, or were the ones who helped close the gaps in their defense by picking up the shields of the fallen and holding them up themselves. Scholars like Britt-Mari Näsström suggest that sheild-maidens [sic] where transsexual women who where adapted as warriors to fit in.

Wow, that’s super-specific. And there’s absolutely no evidence for it. Shield-maidens are often associated with valkyries, who were mythological semi-divine women–not real, historical warrior women. Lagertha, the shield-maiden from Vikings, may have started out as a goddess or giantess. Lagertha, along with several other warrior women, also appears in Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, but these are all within the realm of legend rather than history. Saxo also disapprovingly presents them as transgressing normal female behavior, and they are ultimately defeated. Also in the realm of legend is Hervör of Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks.

In semi-historical works, there are a few women who take up weapons. Freydis, the daughter of Eirik the Red and sister or half-sister of Leif Eiriksson, has a great warrior moment in the Saga of Eirik the Red. She has accompanied Thorfinn Karlsefni to Vinland. When the Norse retreat after an assault by the Skraelings (Native Americans), Freydis derides them for cowardice. Because she is heavily pregnant, she falls behind. When confronted by Skraelings, she picks up a sword from a dead man and slaps it against her breasts. This action scares off the Skraelings. She is not, however, a Viking warrior.

Scandinavian women of the Viking era (particularly Icelandic women) had more rights than many other European women, and Old Norse literature is filled with strong, interesting, powerful, influential, respected, and occasionally villainous women, but most of them are not warriors. Judith Jesch, Professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, argues that women who took up weapons were rare in medieval Scandinavia:

Like most periods of human history, the Viking Age was not free from conflict, and war always impacts on all members of a society. It is likely that there were occasions when women had to defend themselves and their families as best they could, with whatever weapons were to hand. But there is absolutely no hard evidence that women trained or served as regular warriors in the Viking Age. Valkyries were an object of the imagination, creatures of fantasy rooted in the experience of male warriors. War was certainly a part of Viking life, but women warriors must be classed as Viking legend.

Swedish archaeologist and skeptic Martin Rundkvist agrees that warrior women were very rare during the Viking Age, and he argues that osteological sexing tends to support the evidence of grave goods:

[F]urnished burial is strongly gendered and this correlates with osteological sexing. Looking at richly furnished graves, you get weapon burials and jewellery burials, so dissimilar that you have to seriate them separately when you build chronology. The stuff they tend to share are things like pots and table knives. Almost always the weapon graves contain male-sex bones and the jewellery graves contain female-sex bones.

Every once in a very long while you get a jewellery grave with a single piece of weaponry in it, or vice versa. But in most cases those are cremation graves where it is impossible to know if (to pick a 6th century case from my dissertation about the Barshalder cemetery) the heavily armed cavalry man was buried with a dainty bead necklace around his neck or if his wife just put it on the pyre next to his feet as a parting gift. So it seems that if a few women were buried as warriors, their grave goods would be likely to be 100% weapon-gendered, not mixed.

Like Jesch, he agrees that women in rare circumstances may have fought to protect themselves, but that these were not Viking women:

Did any women ever fight? Yes, I’m sure some did, particularly when threatened by male warriors, as would have been an unfortunate fact of life in that barbaric age. But the ones who joined an armed retinue, lived the ideal warrior life and went to Valhalla must have been vanishingly few.

Finally, he argues that whether there were women warriors in the Viking world has no effect on gender issues today. He does not believe that tradition should guide contemporary actions. Clearly Dr. Rundkvist is not the sexist straw archaeologist that Cueto set up. He ends by saying,

The past is not our mirror and archaeology must resist attempts to use its results or bend its interpretations for political purposes today.

He clearly agrees with Cueto that archaeologists should follow the evidence and that they should not let “their sexist assumptions affect the way they collect and classify data about the past.” Unlike Cueto, however, he seems to believe archaeologists should follow the evidence even when it suggests that Viking warrior women were largely a myth.

*WickerManIllustration” by Unknown Original uploader was Midnightblueowl at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transfer was stated to be made by User:Midnightblueowl.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

*The remains were not necessarily complete skeletons. Some came from cremation burials.

ES

Sources:

Foss, Arild S. “Don’t Underestimate Viking Women.” ScienceNordic.

Jesch, Judith. “Viking Women, Warriors, and Valkyries.” British Museum Blog.

McLeod, Shane. “Warriors and Women: The Sex Ration of Norse Migrants to Eastern England up to 900 AD.” Early Medieval Europe 19.3 (2011): 332-353.

Rundkvist, Martin. “Shield Maidens! True or False?Aardvarchaeology. ScienceBlogs.com.


Shilling for Big History

March 11, 2014

Note: This essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

Last December, a metal detectorist named Bruce Campbell was plying his retirement hobby in a tidal mud flat on Vancouver Island, when he came across a rare Edward VI shilling. The silver coin was minted between 1551 and 1553, the span of Edward’s brief reign. You’ll remember that Edward was the son of Henry VIII and the half brother of Elizabeth I. The date of the coin has recently fueled speculation about the earliest date that Westerners explored the northern Pacific and the west coast of Canada. If the deposit of the coin is roughly contemporary with the date stamped on it, say within 30 years or so, it would push back the earliest visitation of the coast by the English some 200 years.

The metal detectorist shared his find with an online hobbyist community, and when they recognized the coin, one of them contacted an independent scholar named Samuel Bawlf, who had written about the idea that perhaps Sir Francis Drake had visited the region, and perhaps even made it as far as south Alaska, in 1579, during his eventual circumnavigation of the globe. Bawlf is excited because other 2 other old coins have been found in the area, a 1571 sixpence dug up in 1930 and another coin with a similar date unearthed on Quadra Island, which is nearby. This it seems supports Bawlf’s idea.

To Bawlf.

I honestly don’t know where to begin, so let’s start with who Drake was.

Sir Francis Drake is best known for being a pirate, harassing Spanish galleons in the years before the Spanish Armada. He was extremely successful, seizing the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars worth of cargo from the Spanish. It is generally accepted that in the summer 1579, Drake was along the Pacific coast of what is now the United States, and there is much speculation about how far up the coast he made it. There are some fairly good indicators of the extent of his travel; he certainly made it as far as mid-California and might have even made it as far as Oregon (which seems to be about the farthest north that mainstream scholars are reasonably comfortable placing him). The method of placing him comes from ethnographic work deriving from detailed descriptions of the natives, their dress and culture stemming from the trip. During this summer sojourn, he apparently encountered flows of ice. Drake completed this journey by circumnavigating the globe.

The idea that Bawlf puts forward is that Drake was looking for a Northwest Passage on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, an endeavor which would have economic and military implications that the rival Spain could not know about. Therefore, at her order, it was a completely secret mission. While on this secret mission, however Drake deposited coins along the way to the natives in the region to show that they had been there in case some other European power showed up. On the face of, this seems incompatible with the idea that it was a super-secret mission that nobody could know about.

Also, there is the matter of how countries staked claims of new territories. While I may not have examined enough, I don’t see examples of Brits claiming territory through depositing coins in the literature–and the idea seems problematic to me as there are other ways that coins could make it to unexplored territory, such as trade. As such, coins alone would not establish a presence. As best I can tell claiming territory during this time is a messy process. It starts with discovery and landing with the intention of making claims of land. The strength of new claims is improved by establishing settlements and colonial government, extensively mapping an area and waterways, setting up commercial ties with natives, initiating exploration of the region, fortification, and active defense. Matters of territorial ownership might also be clarified through negotiation and treaties. Nothing remotely like any of these patterns appears in the historical record until the late 18th century, when Spain and England vied for control of the region and almost went to war over it. If the British staked a claim…they did absolutely nothing with it for 200 years, and they seem to not have invoked Drake’s prior claim to it in the later squabble with Spain.

So, what does the discovery of this shilling tell us? The coin by itself tells us very little. Interpreting finds like this is all about determining context. Without context, the coin tells us only that at some point a coin ended up in the tidal mud. The only hint of context that we have is that on the same outing, according to the Tribune-Review, Campbell found the shilling: “along with a rare 1891 Canadian nickel, a 1960s dime and penny from 1900.” Now, it doesn’t say that they were physically clustered together. That’s frustrating, because if so, we’d be able to say that the deposit was dropped no sooner than the 1960s, which would not require us to rewrite our understanding of the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless, it was a grand day out for a new metal detectorist.

The hobbyist who contacted Bawlf (named Herbst) about the find speculated about the context:

“You don’t find things like that in Victoria,” Herbst told the Times Colonist. “The fact that it was found in a layer of mud on the foreshore, to me, I recognized that that was probably an ancient aboriginal village down there. … I knew it was possibly significant.”

So, it was probably an aboriginal village, said some guy on the Internet. I spent a little time looking for aboriginal archaeological sites in the region and haven’t had much luck–I know that’s because I am researching outside my area, since Canadian authorities have well established protocols for documenting and reporting finds of archaeological materials including human remains. According to the rough description of the site given in the Times Colonist, that Campbell was poking around at low tide “on the mud flats on the Gorge, just down by Curtis Point.” That seems to place him in the Victoria Harbor region, and that entire promontory of land is the aboriginal home of the Songhee people. There’s comparatively little written about this tribe, though their later history is intertwined with the growth of Victoria. This would likely have been the tribe that Drake would have encountered. I have been able to find no tradition of stories of contact with European sailors in the Songhee tradition before 1790, at which time the Spanish reached the region. The Herbst hypothesis at this point it looks like speculation that is not bolstered by anything, and certainly no evidence is offered. As best I can tell, the coin is being used to argue for the existence of an aboriginal settlement and the aboriginal settlement is being used as an argument for why the coin was there in the first place. This seems shaky.

So the coin is apparently completely out of any independent or meaningful context, at least as far as news reports are concerned. For that reason it does not clarify anything, only become fuel for speculation. An interesting side note about this part of the shore. The area that the coin was found in was a popular area for swimmers at least up until the 1930s. There might be no end to the cultural contamination of the site that might influence what one might find in the area. We should perhaps not be especially surprised if anything that a swimmer or tourist could possibly bring out there ended up there. Coins are small, portable, and completely losable. We are being asked to accept that the true context of these coins are other old coins throughout the region, occasionally on other islands, without convergent supporting evidence that that should be the case.

Another problem that the Drake hypothesis faces (or, in a turn of classic conspiracy theory benefits from) is that the original records of Drake’s travels were destroyed in a fire. But some contemporary accounts remain. None of them indicate travel to areas recognizable as Canada or Alaska. But what about the ice that appears in those early accounts? Does that not suggest that Drake was summering far further north than historians have given him credit for? Well, probably not.  Apparently, the dendrochronology of giant redwoods from the years surrounding Drake’s travels suggest that there was little growth in the trees that year, suggesting that the weather was unusually dry or cold. There is therefore apparently no pressing reason to extrapolate from the observation of ice that Drake had to be so far north.

The takeaway of all this, I think, is that the breathless reporting of a single find that overturns the entire known history of a region is to be taken with a grain of salt in much the same way we should avoid concluding that a single observation should completely overturn decades of established science. Of course, it is tempting for a journalist to report the bigger, slightly more sensational story, though it beggars belief how someone could not think that the exploits of Drake and his crew were not sensational enough to hold our interest.

 RJB


And That’s Why They’re Going to Hell: Teaching Literature in Bobby Jindal’s Louisana

April 21, 2013

In an interview with NBC’s Hoda Kotb on April 12, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal defended two anti-education elements of Louisiana’s education system: the Louisiana Science Education Act and the Louisiana voucher program. Asked if he thought it was acceptable to teach creationism in public schools, Jindal responded:

We have what’s called the Science Education Act that says that if a teacher wants to supplement those materials, if the school board is okay with that, if the state school board is okay with that, they can supplement those materials. … Let’s teach them — I’ve got no problem if a school board, a local school board, says we want to teach our kids about creationism, that people, some people, have these beliefs as well, let’s teach them about “intelligent design”…. What are we scared of?”

The Louisiana Science Education Act allows teachers to bring in supplemental reading materials to critique controversial scientific theories, such as evolution, the origins of life and global warming. In practice, this act allows teachers in public schools to counter approved science textbooks with anti-science and to present creationism as a viable alternative to evolution by natural selection.

The voucher program allows funds set aside for public education to pay for students to attend private, religiously-based schools. In November a state judge ruled the voucher program unconstitutional, but did not end or suspend the program. This issue is now before the state Supreme Court.

Last year, Mother Jones compiled a list of “facts” included in textbooks that are used by some of the schools receiving public funds from the voucher program. Among those facts: dinosaurs and humans co-existed; fire-breathing dragons may have been real; slavery and the KKK weren’t that bad.

I purchased copies of two of the books Mother Jones listed: Life Science 3rd ed. by Brad R. Batdorf and Thomas E. Porch, published by Bob Jones University Press, and the teacher’s edition of Elements of Literature for Christian Schools by Ronald A Horton, Ph.D., Donnalynn Hess, M.A. and Steven N. Skaggs, also published by BJU Press.

The life science textbook is as horrible as you would expect, but I am going to focus on the literature textbook. It is intended for high school freshmen and sophomores, and it isn’t really about literature: it’s about the bible. Oh, other literary works are included, but they’re really only there to shed light on the Bible.

In the “To the Teacher” section, the authors state:

The serious study of imaginative literature opens the door to a vast new realm of reading comprehension and pleasure. All artful writing takes on greater richness and breadth of significance. Improved Bible study will be an inevitable benefit of developing these skills. Students will be sensitive and responsive to meanings in the Scriptures…that were beyond them before. Students will be aware of the beauty and power of Biblical expression and understand how artistry clarifies and reinforces meaning. For sheer variety and magnificence of artistic effects and structural finesse, the Bible is incomparable. It supernaturally excels in artistry of form as well in truth of content.

Every section begins with a selection from the Bible which exemplifies whatever literary device is being discussed. Then other selections are introduced. In this way, say the authors, “the students are learning that they may take the Bible as their standard in every area of their experience–that it should, in fact, be the center of their entire mental and emotional world.”

Of course, in juxtaposing the Bible with other works of literature, there is a danger that students might come to see the Bible as being simply literature: a collections of stories using metaphor, allegory, symbolism and other literary devices, little different from the works of Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe.

No fear. As the authors explain:

[T]his book is careful to maintain the distinction between the Bible and other literature. The Christian teacher of literature cannot afford to leave any doubt about his belief in the uniqueness of the divinely inspired writings of Scripture. The study of Biblical metaphors, allegory, irony, allusions, and themes can otherwise be construed to imply that the Bible is only a work of man and differs from other human writings only in degree. Secular courses in “the Bible as literature” raise doubt about the supernatural nature of Scripture simply by ignoring it. If the artistry of Scripture and its divine origin are disregarded, literary analysis can promote unbelief.  Just as it degrades the character of Christ to speak of Him simply as a great man (although He was that), so it degrades the nature of the scriptures to speak of them as simply great literature (although they are that). For this reason, [this book] continually points out the supportiveness of Biblical artistry to the Biblical message and to its intentions concerning the reader or hearer. It also makes frequent reference to the supernatural origin and character of the Scriptures.

Much of this is repeated verbatim in the introduction to the student edition.

The teacher’s edition includes suggestions for class activities and warnings of “potential problems.” These warnings sometimes involve terms or ideas that students may find confusing, but often they are warnings about moral dangers. For instance, in discussion of a passage from Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, the authors warn teachers, “You may wish to caution your students about indiscriminate reading of Twain’s works….Several of Twain’s works would be considered inappropriate for recreational reading.” Because, you know, you wouldn’t want to encourage indiscriminate reading in a literature course.

The text itself included biographies of many of the authors whose works appear in the book. These bios always end with a moral and religious assessment of the author. I find it helps to mentally add the words “and that’s why the author is going to hell” to the end of these bios.

John Ruskin:

“Ruskin’s personal religion emphasized a love for beauty and goodness and a thorough knowledge of the English Bible. However, his writings also show that he espoused empiricism, a philosophy which teaches that knowledge stems directly from man’s experience. According to this dangerous doctrine, we can only trust what is felt or seen.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

James Joyce:

“Although a comprehensive knowledge of Joyce’s writing is not a necessary or even a healthy goal, a general awareness of his literary impact helps us better understand contemporary trends in literature…. [M]ost of [his] works hold little ideological value. Joyce’s use of cryptic allusions and veiled obscenities as well as his inflated sense of self-importance…preview both the style and attitude of many twentieth-century writers.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

John Updike:

[A recurring theme in Updike’s work] “concedes that man must possess the hope of immortality and a cosmic design. Unfortunately, his observations…fail to acknowledge God’s provision of salvation through Christ and man’s individual responsibility to accept what God has graciously provided through His Son.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Walt Whitman:

“Although we can appreciate the literary quality of many Whitman poems, we must, of course, be careful to evaluate their message in light of Scriptural standards. Unlike Whitman, we as Christians recognize that ‘there is a way which seemeth right unto man, but the end thereof are the ways of death’ (Proverbs 14:12).” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

Emily Dickinson:

“Dickinson’s year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary further shaped her ‘religious’ views. During her stay at the school, she learned of Christ but wrote of her inability to make a decision for Him. She could not settle ‘the one thing needful.’ A thorough study of Dickinson’s works indicates that she never did make that needful decision. Several of her poems show a presumptuous attitude concerning her eternal destiny and a veiled disrespect for authority in general. Throughout her life she viewed salvation as a gamble, not a certainty. Although she did view the Bible as a source of poetic inspiration, she never accepted it as an inerrant guide to life.” And that’s why she’s going to hell.

The condemnation of Twain is too lengthy to quote in full, but it concludes:

“Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.” And that’s why he’s going to hell.

To be fair, some authors, such as poet John Greenleaf Whittier, squeak by without condemnation, but all authors and their works must be assessed according to moral and religious worth, and the primary purpose of literature is to better understand the Bible.

The pedagogic material in the book and in the teacher’s section is designed to guide students to a particular interpretation of individual works of literature. It is overtly intended to further inculcate a narrow religious view of the world. This approach is antithetical to what a good literature course should do. There are many valid interpretations of any literary work: students should be encouraged to think for themselves, to provide an interpretation supported by evidence from the text. They should also be encouraged to read great literature as indiscriminately as they wish, not merely those bits that are deemed biblically inoffensive according to a very narrow definition.

ES


Yes, Virginia, There Is a Dragon in Beowulf: Review of When They Severed Earth from Sky

January 3, 2013

In 1988, folklorist Paul Barber published an excellent book about vampire belief, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. In it he posits that historical belief in vampires and revenants depended, at least in part, on ignorance of the ways illness is transmitted and the ways dead bodies can decay. In looking at accounts of vampires, he separates actual observation of the bodies of alleged vampires from interpretations based on observation. For instance, according to the official report on suspected vampire Peter Plogojowitz:

Not without astonishment, I saw some fresh blood in his mouth, which, according to the common observation, he had sucked from the people killed by him. (Barber’s translation, Vampires 6)

The blood–or reddish liquid–is an actual observation. The assumption that the blood comes from the vampire’s victims is an interpretation of the physical evidence. This method works very well when Barber is discussing eye-witness accounts. If there is a weakness to the book, it is a tendency to treat all accounts equally: Barber applies the same method to literary works as he does for official accounts. For example, he makes several references to draugar, the undead of Old Norse sagas, particularly Glámr, an especially nasty draugr who appears in Grettis saga:

[While the appearance of Glam’s corpse resembles that of vampires, his] activities have little in common with the vampire, because he robs people not of their blood but of their consciousness and their sanity, merely by appearing, diurnally as well as nocturnally, in their presence. Note the the disparity between the assertion and the evidence: we are told that “terrible things happened,” but they consist solely of someone walking about or beating his heels against a roof. (Vampires 85)

This is an oddly cherry-picked account of Glam’s activities. He also kills both animals and people, sometimes breaking every bone in their bodies. The battle between Glam and the protagonist Grettir is described at some length and is very similar to the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Before Grettir cuts off Glam’s head and burns his body, Glam makes a speech, cursing Grettir. There is no naturalistic explanation for this corpse’s behavior, and it can’t be dismissed as an interpretation of physical evidence. Glam’s activity is integral to the story and crucial to the formation and understanding of Grettir’s character.

Sadly, this minor flaw has become the foundation of When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, co-written by Barber and his wife, archeologist and linguist Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This book has garnered a certain amount of interest among skeptics: Michael Shermer reviewed it for American Scientist and invited Wayland Barber to speak as part of the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series. According to the blurb on the lecture’s video:

How could anyone think that mortals like Perseus, Beowulf, and St. George actually fought dragons, since dragons don’t exist? Strange though they sound, however, these “myths” did not begin as fiction. Barber shows that myths originally transmitted real information about real events and observations, preserving the information sometimes for millennia within nonliterate societies.

Considering their focus on oral cultures, the very short-shrift the Barbers give to some of the most important scholars of oral tradition is somewhat disturbing. Neither Walter Ong nor his extremely influential book Orality and Literacy merit a mention. Nor do Eric A. Havelock or John Miles Foley. Even Milman Parry and Alfred Lord receive only the briefest of mentions, and Lord’s monumentally important work, The Singer of Tales, is not mentioned at all. On the other hand, they seriously cite other works of a slightly more fringey nature, such as Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend.

In seeking to find explanations for mythological stories in natural phenomena or real events, they seem to give credence to highly questionable tales. Take, for instance, their discussion of the Golden Calf: “What’s that all about? Why a calf?” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3). They gently nudge us toward the correct answer through the Socratic method:

Where had the Children of Israel been living? In Egypt, of course–the country from which they were escaping after centuries of servitude. One can reasonably conjecture that in all that time they had absorbed something of their captors’ culture. (Barber and Barber, chap. 3)

The Golden Calf, they suggest, derives from the Egyptian conception of the sky as a giant cow-goddess, “which could well have been known by folk who had lived in ancient Egypt for centuries. . . . In worshipping [sic] a Golden Calf at dawn, the Children of Israel would simply be reverting to Egyptian sun-worship: they were probably relieved that the sun finally came up, after all that thundering during the night” (Barber and Barber, chap. 3).

They seem to be suggesting that the story of the Exodus is historically true to some significant degree: the Children of Israel were kept enslaved in Egypt; they escaped during a time of dark portents; they wandered in the desert, and, in difficult times, they began to worship the deities of their captors.

There’s just one teeny-tiny problem with this: the stunning lack of documentary, historical or archeological evidence that a large number of Israelites were enslaved in Egypt or that they wandered through the desert for forty years.

The Barbers make a number of dubious arguments (flood stories are really about the precession of the equinoxes), and, even when there may be some truth to their theories, their interpretations are monolithic and reductive, suggesting that there is a single source for a given myth, a single answer to a complex question.

In the last chapter, they discuss fire-breathing dragons, including the one in Beowulf. According to the Barbers, there is no dragon in Beowulf. I imagine that this would come as rather a shock to the poet, who went to such great pains to tell us about the dragon. The Barbers summarize the story and then use “the stripping procedure,” isolating actual “observations” and removing the “explanations,” as Paul Barber does in his vampire book. But how do you decide which are actual observations and which are added explanations in a poem? Apparently, you remove anything that doesn’t agree with your theory. Here are the “observations” that are left after they’ve stripped away the “explanations”:

(1) Someone steals a cup from an old barrow.
(2)  Fire erupts from the barrow and spreads.
(3) Near the stone entrance, our hero stabs blindly at the source of flames while shielding himself (ineffectively) from them.
(4) It smells bad.
(5) People stab deeper, and eventually the flame goes out.
(6) Inside the barrow is treasure but no trace of a dragon’s body. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

One might argue that the Barbers themselves are adding “explanations” when they say that Beowulf stabbed “blindly,” and they have certainly left out a whole lot of detail. Why, they’ve left out an entire dragon.

They argue that the “dragon” is merely ignited gases produced by decomposition in a tomb that had been sealed until broken into by a thief:

We don’t know the dragon’s appearance, however, because while it’s alive all you can see is flame and once the fire is out there is nothing left. No one ever saw it–they saw only flames and smelled a bad smell. The dragon must be a figment of Explanation: a Willer invisible except for its fiery exhalations, postulated to explain the presence of that barrier of flames. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

Except that’s not exactly true. The dragon is not visually described in detail, but it is described. It is referred to several times as coiled (hringbogan, l. 2561, coiled creature; ða se wyrm gebeah/snude tosomne, ll. 2567b-2568a, then the worm quickly coiled itself together; Gewat ða byrnende gebogen scriðan,/to geschipe scyndan, ll. 2569-2570, then, coiled in burning, it went gliding, rushed to its fate).

The Barbers’ argument rests, to a large degree, on the argument that the dragon’s body seems to disappear–that it is nowhere to be seen when Wiglaf, Beowulf’s young kinsmen who came to Beowulf’s assistance in the battle, inspects the hoard:

                        Næs ðæs wyrmes þær

onsyn ænig,     ac hyne ecg fornam. (ll. 2771b-2772)

As they translate it, “not of the Worm was there any sign, for him the [blade’s] edge had destroyed.” In slightly simpler language: “There was no sight of the worm there, for the sword had carried him off.” Does this mean the corpse had disappeared? Does it mean there never was a dragon. Well, according to the Barbers,

The storykeepers are so sure that a tangible creature must have existed that, four hundred lines later, the poet hedges his bets by explaining the lack of dragon bones a second and contradictory way. When the frightened retainers returned, he says, they pillaged the mound, “shoved the dragon, the Worm, over the cliff, let the wave take–the flood enfold–the guardian of the treasure” [ll. 3131-3133] then carried the dead king to his pyre. (Barber and Barber, chap. 18)

So, that would be a “no.” The poem mentions the corpse and what happens to it. Okay, so we have two passages: one says there’s no dragon body; the other says there is. The Barbers identify this as a contradiction and explain the latter passage as “explanation,” an interpretation rather than an observation. And, of course, they are the arbiters of which is which. Now no one claims that Beowulf is free of inconsistencies or contradictions, but I’m not really sure this is a good example. Let’s look at another passage:

                        Bona swylce læg,

egeslic eorðdraca     ealdre bereafod,

bealwe gebæded.     Beahhordum leng

wyrm wohbogen     wealdan ne moste,

ac him irenna     ecga fornamon,

hearde heaðoscerpe     homera lafe,

þæt se widfloga     wundum stille

hreas on hrusan     hordærne neah.

Nalles æfter lyfte     lacende hwearf

middelnihtum,     maðmæhta wlonc

ansyn ywde,     ac he eorðan gefeoll

for ðæs hildfruman     hondgeweorce. (ll. 2824b-2835)

[Beowulf’s] slayer also lay dead, the terrible earth-dragon, bereft of life, oppressed by evil. The coiled worm could no longer control the ring-hoard, for iron edges had carried him off, hard battle-sharp remnant of hammers, so that the far-flyer, stilled by wounds, fell on the ground near the hoard. Not at all did he go flying through the air in the middle of the night, glorying in treasures, showing his form, but rather, he fell to the earth on account of the handiwork of the war-chief.

For three hundred years, no one could inspect the hoard, in part because no one knew it was there, but also because there was a big old dragon lying on it. Wiglaf, however, is able to examine the hoard and bring back selected items to show the dying Beowulf because the two of them had killed the dragon. The passage above says that the dragon fell dead near the hoard. Near it, not on it. Wiglaf can inspect the hoard because the dragon is lying dead nearby. He is not on the hoard as he had been for the last three hundred years.

The passage above makes it quite clear that there is a dead dragon lying around: bereft of life, it rests in peace. It’s shuffled off this mortal coil. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-dragon!

Is it possible that marsh gases from sealed graves played a role in the evolution of the fire-breathing dragon? Maybe, but I think it’s clear that there is more to the story than this. More importantly though, the Barbers “strip down” Beowulf to a point that it is no longer Beowulf. They are not simply removing interpretation from observation, as Paul Barber did in his examination of official accounts of vampire exhumations. They are stripping away anything that doesn’t fit their theory and overemphasizing anything that they think does support their ideas. They are cherry-picking and, to a large extent, they are telling their own story, not the one the Anglo-Saxon poet told.

I recently wrote about the ways some Young Earth Creationists interpret the monsters in Beowulf to support their worldview. What the Barbers are doing seems precious little better. Unlike the Creationists, though, they are real scholars–they should do better.

ES

References:

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Paul T. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton UP, 2004. Kindle edition. No page numbers.

Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Skeptics Society Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series, California Institute of Technology, Mar. 6, 2005. DVD.

Barber, Paul. Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.

Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight and Finnsburg. 4th ed. ed. R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles. U of Toronto P, 2008. All translations are mine, except where indicated.

Siebert, Eve. “Monsters and Dragons and Dinosaurs, Oh My: Creationist Interpretations of Beowulf.” Skeptical Inquirer Jan./Feb. 2013.


Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!


Virtual Skeptics, Episode 7 (26 Sept 2012)

September 27, 2012

Looky-looky! A new episode of Virtual Skeptics is up! Hooray!

Virtual Skeptics, Episode 7 (26 Sept 2012)

This week on the “Virtual Skeptics”…

  • Bob brings us a pretty corny story;
  • Eve channels Mrs Jesus;
  • Sharon wonders, “What IS it with Siberia?”
  • and Tim…well, we love Tim.

RJB


This Week in Conspiracy (3 Sept 2012)

September 3, 2012

The summer has almost ended. In the morning, I teach my first class in Wisconsin. I’m teaching two different syllabi this semester, the first time I’ve done that in a while. I’m teaching 2 sections of “Conspiracy Theory” and a section of “Extraordinary Claims.” The extraordinary claims course will be for more developmental writers, but it is still a seminar class, which is fun.

As you might imagine, I have been rather busy over the last few days, getting things together for the class and so on. Add to that the fact that my smart phone (where I first pick up most of my leads for this feature) committed suicide this week, and you will see that my offerings are somewhat limited. Nevertheless we persevere!

Is this the end of cover up establishment Warren Commission Puppet Arlen Specter? http://t.co/XACbCEkx — Jason Bermas (@JasonBermas)

Headline of the Week:

That gem was closely followed by this one from the Village Voice blog:

Twits of the Week: 

Not only does Obama’s birth certificate not exist, OBAMA DOESN’T EVEN EXIST. #eastwooding — Paul Fidalgo (@PaulFidalgo)

Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox)
8/30/12 5:33 PM
Uh, the Ron Paul people are putting on black armbands.

(Unfortunately, it was later reported that Ron Paul was in fact still alive and healthy.)

That’s all for now, people! Now, where do I pick up my big government shill check?

FYI, we have another edition of the Virtual Skeptics coming up this Wednesday at 8:00PM Eastern in our Google+ On Air hangout. As far as stories go, we’ve scooped the most popular skeptic podcast two weeks in a row. We’re going for a three-fer!

RJB


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