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


“Is It Possible?” No. The Vikings Meet Ancient Aliens

July 28, 2013

On April 12, 2013, just a little bit too late for April Fool’s Day, Ancient Aliens aired “The Viking Gods” as episode 11 of season 5. It was a sober and compelling examination of the evidence.

Just kidding. It’s nonsense.

The show features a smattering of real Norse scholars. I don’t know why they are willing to appear on such a show; perhaps they’ve never seen it. I suspect, though, that Timothy R. Tangherlini, Professor and Chair of the Scandinavian Section at UCLA, and Kirsten Wolf, Professor and Chair of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wanted to dispel certain misconceptions about the Viking-Age Norse. Wolf says that, contrary to popular opinion, the Norse “were enormously sophisticated in terms of technology: ship-building, bridge-building, fortress-building….”

Her point is completely valid, of course, but it’s not one you want to make on Ancient Aliens because they are going to seize on any such statements and snatch those accomplishments from the hands of whatever group of humans is being discussed and place them in the freaky, attenuated fingers of little green men. And sure enough, the narrator jumps in to say,

But many researchers remain baffled at how the Vikings became so socially, politically and technologically advanced, especially while living in the cold, harsh environment of the North.

Ancient Aliens has taught me that researchers and scholars exist in a permanent state of bafflement. Still, I suppose it’s better than a state of permanent but unfounded certainty.

Just how were the Norse Vikings able to manage such technological and geographical feats? Are their fortresses and journeys to unknown continents evidence that the Vikings had access to extraterrestrial knowledge? Ancient astronaut theorists say yes, and believe the proof can be found by examining the religious beliefs of this mysterious people.

I’d like to pause briefly to discuss nomenclature: Norse Vikings? As opposed to what? Chinese Vikings? I also noticed that, although the program mentions some dates, the terms “medieval” and “Middle Ages” are never used. The Vikings are at times referred to as “ancient.” I realize the show is called Ancient Aliens, but do they think we don’t know the difference between ancient and medieval?

Regardless, while I would never diminish the accomplishments of medieval Scandinavians, there’s nothing completely baffling or inexplicable about their technological advancements. Consider their ships: they were superb, but, basically, they were boats. Humans have been building boats since someone first said, “you know, it would be quicker to cross that body of water than to go around it.” Viking ships were built by skilled craftsmen without any input from aliens. Why would aliens need ocean-going ships anyway?

Gokstad ship: built by humans. From Wikipedia

Gokstad ship: built by humans. Source: Wikipedia

But wait, there’s more proof of alien intervention:

An account of the attack on Lindisfarne says the assault coincided with extraordinary whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons crisscrossing the skies. Could these strange events be coincidence?

Well, not the dragons. I imagine they were made up, misinterpreted and/or were exaggerations of some natural phenomenon. The rest of it? That’s just weather. Sometimes weather happens. But you never know. After all, the Vikings were a mysterious people.

The Vikings…flourished from the late 8th century to the 11th century in what is today Norway, Sweden and Denmark, but unlike other ancient civilizations, like Greece, Rome or Egypt, relatively little is known about this mysterious people, as few written records or hieroglyphs have survived.

Okay, there aren’t many hieroglyphs, since the Norse didn’t use hieroglyphs (runes are not hieroglyphs), but as the narrator is saying this, we see on the screen a picture from Flateyjarbók, which, as its name implies, is a book–a huge book, filled with letters and words and even sentences. So important and precious is this book that it was one of the first two manuscripts (along with the main manuscript of the so-called Poetic Edda) that Denmark repatriated to Iceland. A significant proportion of the population went to the shore to greet the ship bearing the two books.

The corpus of Old Norse literature is vast. The Icelanders took to literacy with wild abandon. Admittedly, this material was written down later than the events described–in some cases much later–but quite a lot is known about Viking-Age Norse culture, from their own writings and from the writings of others. They really aren’t that mysterious.

It is true that there are questions when it comes to the mythology. We have limited sources. Some of those sources are difficult, confusing and contradictory. Some of the sources (especially Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum) were written by Christians long after Norse mythology had ceased to be an active religion. They euhemerized, synthesized, interpreted and probably misinterpreted. Consequently, we have limited knowledge about how the religion was actually practiced, and we are probably mistaken in trying to force consistency and coherency onto Norse mythology: beliefs change over time and differ regionally. Ancient Aliens recognizes this problem:

Because little information has survived related to the origin of Norse or Viking gods, modern scholars depend on a pair of Icelandic books written several hundred years after the Viking Age, called the Eddas.

Well, the Poetic Edda isn’t really a book. It is a collection of poems written by different poets at different times. It is called Edda for convenience and in association with the Prose Edda, which quotes Eddic poems extensively. The Poetic Edda was written down after the Viking Age, but probably contains much earlier material.

What’s weird is that, although what they say about the Eddas isn’t entirely accurate, they are correct in their assumption that the Eddas are not a completely reliable source for Viking Age belief. Having sort of acknowledged this, what do they do? They take these stories as absolutely true and accurate accounts of real events because Odin, Thor, Frey and the gang were all aliens. Duh.

Odin, you see, had two ravens named Huginn and Muninn (thought and mind). Every day they flew through the world and then returned and reported to Odin. Or were they ravens? Let’s ask David Hatcher Childress:

Whenever he wanted to observe other worlds, find out what they were doing, he would send these two ravens out, and they would be…like…spy drones or something, and they would go to to these other countries and come back to Odin and report to him what was going on, and it would seem like what Odin had was some kind of spy planes or spy drones that he was sending out, much as we do today.

Or they could be magic birds. Actually, ravens are very intelligent and can be taught to speak. Can they do what Huginn and Muninn were supposed to do? Well, no. They’re special, a god’s magic birds. There is nothing to suggest that there is anything non-organic about them, that they are mechanical or technological.

Given their names, it is also possible to consider them as Odin’s thought and mind (or memory) externalized, perhaps as part of a magical or shamanistic ritual. There is some precedence for this. In the Prose Edda, Snorri tells the story of Thor and Loki’s visit to a giant called Utgarda-Loki. Thor and his retinue face several challenges which they fail miserably. For instance Utgarda-Loki asks Thor to lift a cat. Thor can only get one paw off the ground. Eventually, though, Utgarda-Loki reveals that it was only through magic and tricks of perception that he was able to best Thor. The cat was actually the World Serpent, which circles the world at the bottom of the ocean. Thor had managed to pull it part of the way out.

Thor and the others also directly compete with some apparently humanoid opponents whose names reveal their true natures. Thor wrestles an old woman named Elli, who brings him to one knee. She is actually old age personified. Loki loses an eating match against Logi, who eats the wooden trenchers as well as the meat. Logi means “flame,” which consumes everything in its path. Thor’s servant Thialfi loses a footrace to Hugi. Hugi, like Huginn, means “thought.” As Utgarda-Loki says, “And when Thialfi competed at running with the one called Hugi, that was my thought, and Thialfi was not likely to be able to compete with its speed” (Edda, tr. Anthony Faulkes, Everyman ed.).

But imaginary spy drones aren’t Odin’s only spy technology. He also has his high seat (hliðskjálf) from which he can observe what is going on in the world. According to Jason Martell, author of Knowledge Apocalypse: Ancient Astronauts and the Search for Planet X,

It sounds to me as if Odin was sitting in some type of a captain’s chair in a space ship above the earth, which allowed him to have this view.

To have a captain’s chair in a spaceship, don’t you need to have a spaceship? When the high seat is mentioned, there is nothing remotely spaceship-like associated with it, and again, it isn’t described in a way that makes it sound like anything technological.

But Odin isn’t the only god with pretend alien tech. Thor has a belt of strength. Or is it a bionic exoskeleton? You see, the Norse would have no way to describe a bionic exoskeleton, so the best they could come up with was “magic belt.” If they’d seen the damned thing, and the show suggests that they did, surely they could have come closer than “belt.”

Frey has a magical, foldable ship, Skíðblaðnir. Or is it a spaceship? Well, perhaps, if the Vikings couldn’t tell the difference between something that sails on the ocean and something that flies. It’s not as if they were a sea-going people or anything. Well, perhaps they had no verbs that mean “fly.” Oh wait, they totally did. For instance, they were not forced to say that the ravens (spy drones) sailed on the ocean.

Odin’s spear, Gungnir, is so well-balanced that it will always hit its target. Or as Childress raves,

Gungnir was some kind of high-tech weapon. No matter who he threw it at, it would hit it, like some laser-guided missile or something like that, that just simply could not miss its mark once it had been sent to its target.

This time they have evidence of such amazing high-tech weaponry: the Böksta Runestone, which shows a spear-wielding man on a horse, accompanied by two dogs and two birds. The man might be Odin. And he has a spear. Okay, it doesn’t look like a missile, and you can’t tell that it’s laser-guided, and it looks a lot like a spear. Also, he’s hunting an elk or a moose. I suppose it could be some sort of space-ungulate.

Odin hunts a Space-Moose. Source: Wikipedia

Odin hunts a Space-Moose. Source: Wikipedia

The late Philip Coppens explains the true nature of Thor’s hammer:

It is actually said that this weapon is able to crush mountains. Now imagine a weapon which is able to destroy an entire mountain–the hammer does not cause explosions; it is really the physical force which destroys the object. That is something that today we describe as kinetic weapons.

The scene shifts to NASA Ames where Dr. Peter Schultz of Brown University is working on the Ames Vertical Gun Range. Schultz explains that if it’s really ramped up, “you’ll start melting, vaporizing material. In a sense, this is a kinetic weapon, except we’re not pointing at anything except a target inside the tank.” According to the narrator “the destructive power of this gun displays uncanny similarities to Thor’s Hammer.” Well, they are both powerful, and they both destroy things. So do puppies, but that doesn’t make them extraterrestrial technology.

If kinetic energy weapons and laser-guided missiles (or possibly smart bombs) aren’t enough, Bifröst, the Rainbow Bridge, is a wormhole.

Where did the alien Norse gods get their fabulous stuff? In many cases, from dwarfs. Coppens asks,

[A]re they real dwarfs, or…[are they] somehow more mythical, or whether the label “dwarf” actually stuck to them because they were somehow smaller. And of course today, we often describe the gray alien archetype as dwarfish as well, simply because they are smaller.

Childress also suggests that the Norse dwarfs got their name from their (lack of) height, as if mythological dwarfs were named for dwarfism, rather than the other way around. Aside from being small, dwarfs don’t have that much in common with Grays. According to John Lindow’s Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs, dwarfs are “associated with the dead, with battle, with wisdom, with craftsmanship, with the supernatural, and even to some extent with the elves” (100). They are also said to live in the earth, rocks or mountains. Snorri says they were created from the maggots in the flesh of the primordial giant Ymir. They are creatures of the earth, not of the sky. Oh and while the English word “dwarf” has been associated with shortness for a long time, Norse mythological dwarfs don’t necessarily seem to be that small. Or gray. Or large-headed. Or small-bodied.

So where did the Norse gods/aliens go? Well, one might find it suspicious that they seem to have taken their spaceships, spy drones, laser-guided missiles, kinetic weapons, bionic exoskeletons and wormholes and buggered off right around the time the Scandinavians converted to Christianity. Surely there must be another explanation. Let’s look at ship burials. The Oseberg ship burial “revealed for the first time some of the Viking’s burial rituals.” Well, Oseberg was discovered 25 years after Gokstad, but okay.

Is it possible that the Vikings…buried their dead in boats in an effort to help their deceased on their journey to the afterlife?

Yes! Oh my god, YES, that IS possible! They actually asked an “Is it possible” question whose answer is “yes.” Yes, that’s how mythology works.

But wait, there’s more. Martell says “Now this seems very similar to some type of conveyance possibly going into space.” Well, yes, it does seem like that, except that it’s a sea-going ship buried in the ground.

They then describe Valhalla. Like Snorri, they conflate probably separate ideas regarding Valhalla, but they really seize on the description of it as being golden. Giorgio Tsoukalos says,

Valhalla was not a figment of our ancestors’ imaginations, but it might have been some type of an orbiting space station. The reason why I’m saying this is because we have a description of Valhalla: it is an incredible description of a place that has weird attributes.

And Martell just goes ahead and describes it as a “large metallic ship.” How the hell do you go from a “gold-bright” hall of the slain to a “large metallic ship”? It’s not a ship, and it’s not metallic.

Ship burials (and ship cremations), they claim, are supposed to replicate the gods’/aliens’ return to their home world or to the space station Valhalla. But Oseberg also contains sledges. Did the aliens’ return home also involve traversing space-snow? One other thing about Oseberg: its occupants were female. This is never mentioned on Ancient Aliens. In fact, you’d never know that there were Norse goddesses or Norse women based on the program. Anyway, except in unusual circumstances, women didn’t go to Valhalla, so Oseberg doesn’t really fit the weird scenario they’ve created.

Watching this episode, I found myself wondering if these people really believe what they’re saying, or if, in the fifth season, they’ve run out of things to talk about and will just say anything to keep the show going. However, when Bob and I went to the Paradigm Symposium, we both got the idea that these people are true believers, and Coppens did write about a Viking/ancient alien connection.

It’s just so hard to imagine the thought processes that could lead to such beliefs. First, they seem to conclude that human imagination is a comparatively recent invention, and that no one in the past could describe anything they hadn’t seen with their own eyes. Second, they make logical leaps of truly spectacular proportions. And finally, there is the ability to seize on some details, blow them up, and then ignore other details as if they weren’t there. This is particularly noticeable when they discuss the Böksta stone as an example of Odin’s spear. How on earth can they use this to support the laser-guided missile argument? He’s riding a horse (with only four legs; Odin’s steed Sleipnir usually has eight); he’s hunting an elk; he has hunting hounds; one of his birds (spy drones) is attacking the eyes of the elk. He is also accompanied by a human figure on skies, carrying a bow and arrows, possibly Ullr. It’s all sorts of terrestrial. Stunningly ordinary. If the stone does show Odin, it shows him behaving very much like a medieval Scandinavian hunter.

notaliens


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.

ES

References:

“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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCfF-JLpo4I

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

Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. http://www.heimskringla.no/wiki/Eir%C3%ADks_saga_rau%C3%B0a (Hauksbók); http://www.snerpa.is/net/isl/eirik.htm (Skálholtsbók)

Emmer, Rick. Bigfoot: Fact or Fiction. Infobase Publishing, 2010. Qtd. in http://elo11g05a.blogspot.com/2011/11/bigfoot-leif-ericsons-sighting.html

Grænlendinga saga. Ed. Guðni Jónsson. http://www.heimskringla.no/wiki/Gr%C3%A6nlendinga_saga

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.

 

 


This Week in Conspiracy (9 Sept 2012)

September 9, 2012

Apparently, the entire Internet did not appreciate the meaning of last week’s conspiracy-related snark. What I was trying to say was that you should not take conspiracy theories at face value because they are often unreliable. So I’m going to do another week, and I would very much appreciate it if the entire Internet would give me its full attention. Surely that is not too much to ask? Please try to keep up, Internet.

Nope.

Twit of the week:

Alex Jones, who just couldn’t be more of a scam artist:

My gut tells me #Gold is only going up. Call Midas Resources & Ask about the ‘Alex Jones Specials’ 800-fwe-f2w7 — Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones)

As Carl Sagan said in the reading I just assigned my students, “I try not to think with my gut.”

That’s what I have. We’ll have another episode of the Virtual Skeptics live on Wednesday night at 8:00PM Eastern. Keep your eyes here or watch for the #virtualskeptics hashtag.

RJB


This Week in Conspiracy (19 Aug 2012)

August 20, 2012

What ho! The Virtual Skeptics has gotten off to a real whiz-bang of a start. It streams live at 8:00PM Eastern on Wednesday nights. It’s like Meet the Press, but with chupacabras.

But not all of the free, live content in the world could keep me from plucking the ripest lowest-hanging fruit from the tree of conspiracy and hurling it at your head. So, head’s up!

We have mass graves dug all over America for the planned killing of millions of the Middle Class of America. We have had a large number of guillotines that have been shipped to America. Chopping off of heads is the Islamic way of killing off your enemies. We have secret federal concentration camps set up all across America. C.I.A. and other intelligence sources are supposed to help engineer terrible economic conditions in America for October to help stir up the people to mass discontent, rioting in the streets, etc. and this gives Obama the legal excuse to place America under martial law. Foreign soldiers are already arranged to help mass disarm the American people of all their guns. Homeland Security for example has already been notified to prepare for massive uprisings in America in October.

The mocking of conspiracy theories in the American press and Western media is based on the simplistic argument that reason is on the side of the government and officialdom, not on the fringe of society and civilization.

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

My favorite report of the week came from the venerable Weekly World News:

That’s it for this week! Check out the Virtual Skeptics this Wednesday at 8:00PM Eastern! Pip pip!

RJB

 


This Week in Conspiracy (12 June 2012)

June 22, 2012

I’ve been sitting around Atlanta for weeks waiting for classes to start. To keep myself occupied, I’ve been combing through the conspiracy literature, reading for my upcoming class on the Cold War, and generally puttering about contentedly. I also watched a disturbing amount of Deadliest Catch (which is “any Deadliest Catch,” by the way).

Currently, I am up in Minnesota, where I failed to find a house for the next semester. I met members of my new department in Eau Claire, WI, which was delightful, and I have a jump on how to think about my upcoming class. So that was productive. I also hit n00b night at the Minnesota Skeptics and met some of the people who live in my electronic friend box. But not all the squeaky cheese in the world would keep me from bringing you up to speed on the weak that was weak! Perhaps delay me for a week or two, but that’s it.

Or how about Mark Dice’s reaction?

Mark Dice (@MarkDice)
6/8/12 1:27 AM
And Rand Paul announced it on #SeanHannity‘s show!!#ScrewRandPaul.

“So if there was weird stuff going on,” he said, “I actually think it was happening back in his college days because I think he has spent $1.5 or $2 million through attorneys to have all of the college records and all of that stuff sealed. So if you’re spending money to seal something, that’s probably where the hanky panky was going on.”

Twits of the Week

This has become a favorite feature-within-a-feature for me. I get a lot of joy/agony out of the twitterverse. Here’s agony:

#DefineObamaInOneWord Satanist — Kn0Wledge[!] (@An0nKn0wledge)

Here’s joy:

In KENYAN. // RT @UberFacts “Barack Obama has read every Harry Potter book to his daughters.” — BillCorbett (@BillCorbett)

Here’s some unintentional irony, in tweet form:

Dear Occupiers who hate me, just remember I was at the #BilderbergProtest aka #OccupyBilderberg for four straight days. Were you? — Mark Dice (@MarkDice)

Anyway, Eve and I are both going to be appearing at TAM in a few weeks, and my classes have started up again. I will do my best to keep the conspiracy coming!

RJB


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