Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 2

April 28, 2014

Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

In my previous post about Shakespeare’s Beehive, the book in which antiquarian booksellers George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler argue that they have found a dictionary owned and annotated by Shakespeare, I focused on some of the problems with the assumptions that underlie their arguments. In this post, I will examine the evidence that they present.

Their evidence is made up of correspondences or verbal parallels they see between the annotations and Shakespeare’s works. Many of these rely on what they call mute annotations: underlinings, slashes by major entries, circles by subsidiary entries. This is problematic for several reasons. For one thing, they can pick out any word or words from a flagged entry (whether underlined or not) to match with a passage in Shakespeare. Sometimes they pick words scattered in various distantly separated parts of the Alvearie that appear close together in Shakespeare.

I haven’t looked at every page of the Alvearie in detail, but I have browsed through it quite a bit. I have yet to see a single page that has no mute annotations. This seems to be a case where computational stylistics would be useful. It is not enough to say, “the annotator flags this word, and Shakespeare uses this word.” We need to know how many flagged words appear in Shakespeare, how many don’t, and how many appear in the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library point out some of the questions that need to be answered:

2) Rare and peculiar words. How many of the words underlined or added in the margins of this copy of the Alvearie are used by Shakespeare and Shakespeare alone, as opposed to other early modern writers? Further, how many of the words that are not marked or underlined in this copy of Baret are nevertheless present in Shakespeare’s works? Are these proportions different, and to what degree?

3) Associations. K[oppelman] & W[echsler] write of “textual proximity in Baret mirroring textual proximity in Shakespeare” (107). As we know from studies of other resources used by early modern writers, it is in the nature of a dictionary to list commonly associated words (including synonyms and words that co-occur in proverbs or adages). How likely is it that Baret’s Alvearie–as opposed to proverbial wisdom and common association–is the only possible source for Shakespearean associations? Again, following the line of questioning above, how often do spatially proximate combinations of words that are not underlined in Baret nevertheless co-occur in Shakespeare’s works? How often do the proximate marked words in Baret occur near one another in writers other than Shakespeare?

Until the necessary statistical analysis is performed, we can only assess the strength of the parallels Koppelman and Wechsler offer as evidence.

They are weak. Incredibly weak. So weak that many do not deserve to be called verbal parallels at all.

And some of the parallels are indeed closer to writers other than Shakespeare. For instance, by “cawdle” (caudle, a spiced gruel mixed with wine or ale and used medicinally), the annotator adds, “a cawdle vide felon.” Under “felon,” Baret includes a figurative use of caudle: “with a cawdle of hempseede chopt halter wise, and so at the least to vomit them out, to cut them off from the quiet societie of Citizens, or honest Christians” (“cawdle” is underlined by the annotator). The annotator also adds a cross reference under “hemp:” “hempseed chopt halter vide felon.” Koppelman and Wechsler admit that Shakespeare never uses “felon” and “caudle” together, but note that Jack Cade uses both words in Act 4 of 2 Henry VI. In the second speech, Cade says, “Ye shall haue a hempen Caudle* then, & the help of a hatchet” (4.7.88, quoted from First Folio, which mistakenly prints “Candle”).

Koppelman and Wechsler quote the main definition of “caudle” from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); however, they don’t note that definition b. specifically refers to a caudle made of hemp. Two passages are quoted, Cade’s speech and a passage from the Martin Marprelate tracts of 1588: “He hath prooued you to have deserued a cawdell of Hempseed, and a playster of neckweed.” This wording is closer to Baret than is Shakespeare’s, and it is earlier. Did the tract author own this copy of the Alvearie? I have no reason to think that he did. Did Shakespeare borrow from Baret or Marprelate? Or was a hempen caudle a well-known idea?

This supposed verbal parallel is actually stronger than many of the ones Koppelman and Wechsler note, and it more closely resembles someone else’s writing.

Another (comparatively) strong verbal echo appears in Richard III. The Duke of Clarence says he thought he saw “a thousand fearefull wracks” (First Quarto, 1.4.24). Among the horrors and treasures of those wracks, he saw “Wedges of gold” (1.4.26). The same phrase appears in Baret. As Koppelman and Wechsler note, “Twice the annotator’s eye and pen have fallen on the link between wedges and gold, as is demonstrated in the underlined text: wedges of gold - a precise recording of which we see in the extracted speech of the Duke of Clarence.”

This does seem like an unusual phrase, and the exact wording does appear in both Shakespeare and Baret, although the annotator only underlines the first word. However, the phrase was not unusual in the Renaissance. In the OED, definition 3a under “wedge” reads: “An ingot of gold, silver, etc.? Obs.” “Wedge” was first used to mean an ingot of metal in the Old English period. The phrase also appears in some early modern translations of the bible. In the Coverdale Bible (1535) and the Great Bible (1539), Job 28:16 contains the phrase, “No wedges of gold of Ophir,” while Joshua 7:21 of the Geneva Bible (1560) includes the phrase, “Two hundredth shekels of siluer and a wedge of gold of fyftie shekels weight.” Considering how common the phrase was, it seems rash to assume Shakespeare found the phrase in Baret.

The same is true of “yield the ghost,” uttered a few lines later, again by Clarence. This phrase is “printed in Baret with a simple slash and variant spelling addition provided by the annotator.” This again is quite a common phrase, a variant of “give up the ghost.” The earliest quotation in the OED comes from the late 13th-century South English Legendary. It is also used in the last verse of Genesis (49:33) in the King James Bible.

In discussing Hamlet, Koppelman and Wechsler say, “Baret receives a citation in many critical editions of Hamlet for the peculiar use of ‘stithy.’” To indicate the “many” critical editions that refer to Baret, they cite one edition from 1819 (Thomas Caldecott, ed., Hamlet and As You Like It: A Specimen of a New Edition of Shakespeare, London: John Murray). They fail to explain what is “peculiar” about Shakespeare’s use of the word. Although it may be unfamiliar to many people today, it was common enough in Shakespeare’s day. Shakespeare’s use is slightly unusual in that he uses it to mean forge or smithy rather than an anvil. The OED includes only five quotations for this usage. Shakespeare’s is the earliest. Baret, however, defines “stithy” as “anvil.” The annotator adds “enclume,” French for anvil. In other words, if Shakespeare’s use of the word is peculiar, he did not get that association from Baret, and the annotator didn’t record the meaning Shakespeare uses.

In discussing Shakespeare’s love of unusual words, Koppelman and Wechsler mention “cudgel:”

[In Baret, a]t B98, bang or beate with a cudgell, the annotator underlines cudgell  and puts a slash in the margin next to bang. Shakespeare was the first to use cudgel as a verb (the noun existed, in archaic forms, since the ninth century of earlier). Cudgel in 1 Henry IV has the literal meaning “to beat with a cudgel,” but in Hamlet it takes the figurative meaning of “racking one’s brain”: “Cudgell thy braines no more about it.”

This might be significant if Baret or the annotator mirrored Shakespeare’s unusual use of the word, but they don’t: neither uses it as a verb, and neither uses it figuratively. Instead, Baret uses and the annotator underlines a rather ordinary word used in a rather ordinary way (and cudgel, though it has a long history, was not “archaic” in Shakespeare’s day).

In their discussion of the sonnets, Koppelman and Wechsler mention what they think “may elicit the biggest ‘wow’ of all.” The annotator has marked the following entry with a circle: “Let, impediment: hinderaunce.” No words are underlined. We are supposed to be amazed by the similarity to the opening of Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments….” The problem is, of course, that Shakespeare’s “let” and Baret’s “let” have quite different meanings and functions. Baret’s “let” is a noun. It means impediment. He is defining it as an impediment. The OED defines it in a similar manner. Shakespeare uses the verb, meaning “to allow.” When Shakespeare was composing his sonnet, did he perhaps consider the other meaning of “let”? Was he playing with that meaning? I don’t know. It’s possible, but if he did, there is no reason to think he took the association from Baret. The two words are synonyms. Shakespeare didn’t have to read Baret to know that.

Koppelman and Wechsler believe that the best evidence that Shakespeare was the annotator comes from the trailing blank, a blank page at the end of the book on which the annotator has written extensively, mostly English words with French equivalents. They believe this page relates to the Falstaff plays (1 & 2 Henry IV, Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, in which Falstaff’s death is announced and in which Shakespeare includes a significant amount of rudimentary French). They claim that almost all of the (English) words appear in one of these three plays. Not all appear exactly, however. For instance, the annotator has included “pallecotte,” which he defines as “habillement de femme.” Shakespeare does not use the word “pallecotte,” but he does use “coat” and “woman’s gown.” These do not seem extraordinary matches.

There is one phrase that is a truly extraordinary match to something Shakespeare-adjacent. The annotator writes “A lowse un pou lou lou.” This exact phrase appears in an 1827 French translation of Merry Wives.” That is an interesting coincidence, but Koppelman and Wechsler see great significance in it. I don’t understand how a French translator working long after the deaths of Shakespeare and the annotator can have any bearing on the relationship between the two.

Of another word pair, Koppelman and Wechsler say, “Bucke looks to have a hyphen mark at the end of the annotation, connecting it to bacquet (basket), turning it into bucke-bacquetBuck-basket is used four times, all in Merry Wives, including a pair of usages by Falstaff.” Buck-basket is an unusual word: the OED lists only one usage in addition to Merry Wives. However, when I look at the word pair, I don’t see “bucke-bacquet,” I see “bucket bacquet.”

Baret bucke basket

According to the OED, the etymology of “bucket” is uncertain, but it apparently comes from “Old French buket washing tub, milk-pail (Godefroy s.v. buquet).” The Online Etymology Dictionary says “bucket” comes from Anglo-Norman “buquet.” In other words, I suspect this is an English word with its French equivalent. Such word pairings make up the bulk of the page. Koppelman and Wechsler have transformed a glossary-style entry into a bilingual compound word with strong Shakespearean associations. This seems a particularly egregious example of confirmation bias. They concluded long ago that Shakespeare was the annotator, and then they settled down to find evidence. This is not the way one discovers the truth.

It is, I suppose, possible that Shakespeare is the annotator, but until a rigorous analysis (including statistical analysis) is done of the text, all we can say is that Koppelman and Wechsler have provided very weak evidence for their hypothesis.


Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 1

April 26, 2014

George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler. Shakepeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. New York: Axeltree Books, 2014. Kindle ed.


Last week, Shakespeare fans celebrated the Bard’s 450th birthday, and two New York antiquarian booksellers announced that they had discovered a copy of an Elizabethan dictionary annotated by the birthday boy.

In 2008, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler purchased a copy of the second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, containing four sundrie tongues: namelie English, Latine, Greeke and French on Ebay for over $4000. This copy was annotated in what Koppelman and Wechsler believe is a late Elizabethan or early Jacobean hand.


Over the years, several scholars, particularly T. W. Baldwin (in William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke) have suggested that Shakespeare was probably familiar with and may have owned a copy of Baret’s Alvearie*, along with Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus. Koppelman and Wechsler go one step farther: they believe Shakespeare owned their copy of the Alvearie and that the annotations are in his hand. If this were true, the volume would be of immeasurable value to Shakespeare scholars; in a more literal, monetary sense, it would also be of immeasurable value to Koppelman and Wechsler.

Baret defines each word or phrase in English, then provides the equivalents in Latin, French and Greek. He also includes quotations and aphorisms in all languages. The annotator has added two types of annotations. Koppelman and Wechsler call the first type “mute” and the second “spoken.” The mute annotations include underlined words and phrases, slash marks by major headwords, circles by subsidiary headwords, and other marks. The spoken annotations are additions: words and phrases as cross-references to other entries, corrections, or additional quotations and aphorisms, including biblical quotations in English.

On their website, (free registration required), Koppelman and Wechsler have provided a zoomable digitized copy of the Alvearie, as well as a compilation of all the annotations. Regardless of the identity of the annotator, this is of huge value to scholars. A complete digitized copy is useful in itself, and the annotations provide valuable insights about how such a dictionary was used in the Early Modern period.

Why do Koppelman believe the annotator was Shakespeare, and how strong is their evidence? They present their case in their newly published book, also called Shakespeare’s Beehive, which they present as an (extremely) extended catalog description of the their copy of Baret.

Although I wrote my MA thesis on The Tempest, and Shakespeare was a test area on my Ph.D. written and oral exams, Shakespeare and Renaissance literature are not my primary areas of study. I am not an expert on paleography or textual studies. However, I know enough to be profoundly skeptical of Koppelman and Wechsler’s argument and deeply unimpressed by their evidence. Even before examining the evidence in detail, I noticed some red flags that caused me to question their methodology. In their introductory chapters, they are extremely defensive about arguments that no one, as far as I know, has actually made. Of course, when mounting an argument, it is necessary to anticipate possible objections, but Koppelman and Wechsler’s arguments have a strong whiff of straw about them.

For instance, Wechsler is quoted in several stories as saying that scholars “were extremely helpful giving advice, but it was also clear that they weren’t about to jeopardise their reputations with such a claim.” He and Koppelman make similar comments in their book. They even suggest that they won’t be taken seriously because they are booksellers, not scholars:

For two booksellers in Manhattan to purchase, out of the blue, a heavily annotated book from the library of all libraries, on Ebay… it’s understandable that no one would give that a chance.

Much the same thing is said by proponents of Bigfoot, Young Earth Creationism, psychics, Reiki, or any other fringe belief. Why don’t experts in the relevant field back the fringe-proponent up? Because they wouldn’t get tenure, they wouldn’t get published, they’d be mocked and ostracized, they’re in on it, they’re pawns of Big Whatever, they’re closed-minded, they don’t pay attention to amateurs.

But who are these scholars who won’t support Koppelman and Wechsler? They don’t say. In general, they have gotten sympathetic coverage, and scholars have been cautious but not dismissive. Stephen Greenblatt is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “It would reinforce, in a fascinating way, Shakespeare’s passion for language. We know that Shakespeare had an eye out for unusual words – but we have only limited knowledge of where he went to find them.” He adds, however, that he has “not had time to weigh the evidence.” Shakespeare scholars would love to find a copy of absolutely anything annotated by Shakespeare. Seriously, they would be absolutely giddy with delight over the Elizabethan equivalent of “roflmao” next to a dirty joke.

But just because they want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true. Good scholars are cautious. Good scholars do not accept an extraordinary claim within days of its announcement. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library responded to Koppelman and Wechsler’s announcement:

Even the most skeptical scholar would be thrilled to find a new piece of documentary evidence about William Shakespeare. Scholars, however, will only support the identification of Shakespeare as annotator if they feel it would be unreasonable to doubt that identification. This is a fairly high evidentiary standard, since it requires on to treat skeptically the idea that this handwriting is Shakespeare’s and to seek out counterexamples that might prove it false.

This is exactly how scholars in any field should respond to an extraordinary claim. They go on to explain the research methods that will likely be used to assess Koppelman and Wechlser’s claims. These are rigorous and time-consuming, as they should be. Such a high evidentiary bar diminishes the possibility of confirmation bias and cherry picking.

Koppelman and Wechsler also use straw man arguments when discussing the the handwriting of the annotator. The only universally accepted genuine examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting are six signatures on legal documents. All of the signatures are in Secretary hand. Other examples of handwriting that are sometimes attributed to Shakespeare–some other signatures, including signatures in books, and Hand D of the manuscript of the collaborative play Sir Thomas More–are also in Secretary hand. Most of the “spoken” annotations in the Alvearie (and almost all of the annotations in English) are in Italic script. As far as paleography is concerned, this is problematic, but not in the way Koppelman and Wechsler suggest. They argue at length against the suggestion that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been capable of writing in Italic script. They don’t, however, quote or cite anyone who has actually made this argument.

They even compare this supposed insistence on Shakespeare’s exclusive use of Secretary hand with those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship:

The overriding question…is whether Shakespeare should forever be categorically denied an ability to use both scripts based principally on his Stratford background. Does this not seem oddly in perverse harmony with someone who argues that a provincial boy from Stratford as author is incompatible with one of the great speeches in, say, Henry V?

I suppose it is possible that scholars have argued that Shakespeare couldn’t have ever used Italic script because of his humble background, but Koppelman and Wechsler provide no evidence that this is so. The association between conventional scholars and Shakespeare-deniers is particularly ironic, since Shakespeare-deniers rely, to a large extent, on confirmation bias and cherry-picked evidence. As we shall see, these are techniques at which Koppelman and Wechsler also excel.

This straw man argument also disguises the real paleographic problem: it is very difficult to compare two different styles of handwriting. With only six rather variable signatures to use as comparison, study of Shakespeare’s handwriting is ridiculously difficult anyway. But Koppelman and Wechsler skirt the issue by focusing on irrelevancies and side issues. They lament, for instance, that people (presumably scholars) will demand scientific proof. They also hint that the general public may be more sympathetic:

Understandably, things bend heavily, even necessarily, under the burden of proof in the quest for any namable [sic] annotator, because we live in an age where an enormous amount of trust is placed in the ability to test and prove something scientifically. In the absence of scientific proof, evidence – no matter the strength – is often deemed unreliable, regardless of how it registers in the court of public opinion. It follows, then, that an inability to precisely test ink from the Elizabethan period will make for a wobbly case in the quest for answers as to the exact age of the annotations in our Baret, let alone to the still more complicated determination of who has added the ink to the pages.

I hardly know where to begin. There is the idea that “scientific proof” is somehow different from–and more definitive than–”evidence.” When a formal distinction is made between “proof” and “evidence,” mathematics and law usually get custody of “proof.” Scientific conclusions–no matter the strength of the evidence–are always provisional. In addition, why would anyone expect “scientific proof” when the relevant field is not a science? One could certainly make the case that the methods and evidence used in the Humanities are often unfairly denigrated in comparison to those used in the sciences, but that is not the issue here.

Scientific testing of the ink would only be relevant if the annotations were suspected forgeries. Again, this does not seem to be the case. Even so, scientific testing would be of limited value–it could show a forger used ink not available during the Renaissance, but precise dating of the ink would be much trickier. There are many non-scientific methods for dating texts, manuscripts, literary works, and handwriting. They have been around for ages and have become refined over time. They do not rely on scientific testing. They are not always 100% reliable, but they work fairly well. In some cases they can provide a narrower date than C14 dating, and they are less destructive. Again, this focus on science is a straw man.

The real issue is the difficulty of comparing Shakespeare’s hand to the annotator’s hand. Because of the different scripts, the comparison may be impossible. More accurately, it may be possible to say with a degree of certainty that Shakespeare did not write the annotations, but the chances are vanishingly small that an examination of the writing will suggest the likelihood that Shakespeare is the annotator.

Let’s consider why the accepted signatures are accepted: they are on official legal documents. That’s pretty much it. It’s the nature of the documents that assures authenticity. They form a pathetically small and poor sample for handwriting comparison. No other alleged example of Shakespeare’s handwriting has been accepted based on a comparison with the signatures. Let us look for a moment at Hand D in Sir Thomas More. For many years, many scholars have suggested that this handwritten passage is the work of Shakespeare: that it matches his style and some of his idiosyncratic spellings, and that it is consistent with his handwriting. The corrections suggest that it is an authorial hand: if Shakespeare is the author, it is his hand; if it is his hand, Shakespeare is the author.

Hand D has been studied and studied and studied. It has been subjected to two computational stylometric studies (that’s sciencey). One, by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney, concluded that it was the work of Shakespeare; the other, by Ward E. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, concluded that it was not.** All that study, and the jury is still out.

That’s how high the evidentiary bar is. That is how high it should be. Koppelman and Wechsler’s straw man arguments attempt to lower the bar, to trump objections that haven’t even been made yet. Bias in favor of science or against amateur booksellers doesn’t matter. Evidence matters. In my next post, we will examine the evidence.

*Latin for beehive. His students, like bees, went off to find the nectar of words and then returned to him with the fruits of their labor.

**For a discussion of the stylometric studies, see MacDonald P. Jackson, “Authorship and the evidence of stylometric,” in Shakespeare beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2013.


Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

“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.


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.


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.



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.

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

October 13, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Grænlendinga saga. Ed. Guðni Jónsson.

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

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



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!

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!



The Week in Conspiracy: Post TAM 2012 edition

July 17, 2012

For the last several weeks, I’ve been teaching, packing, hunting for a house, and preparing for my TAM panel. It turns out that when I’m not writing this feature, I do feel as if something is lacking, so I am making a great lunge at normalcy by coming back and writing another Week in Conspiracy. After TAM, a new project is in the works that is going to take this to the next level. More to come. But we are assembling the super-friends to start this sucker up. Needless to say (a phrase that should not exist) when you get a couple hundred skeptics in a bar together, the ideas come fast and furious (another phrase that shouldn’t exist, but for different reasons). I’ve been meticulously gathering the woo as I always have, so there are no gaps in the coverage, just gaps in publication.


Well, it looks sort of unavoidable that I’m going to have to talk about the mass shooting in Colorado. Damn it. But were not 24 hours into the aftermath and I’ve seen the CIA, FBI, MK-Ultra, and Obama targeted as possible culprits. I’m only going to point out a couple of the worst…people in general who have decided to fap furiously to the misery.

Lone Deranger ‏@postielinley
Alex Jones Says Aurora Shooting Was Staged By Obama  // Proof Alex Jones is a complete fucktard
Retweeted by Rhys Morgan

Enough of that. On with the other not news at all:

Twit of the Week

This week’s twit award goes out to the IntelHub, who sent (or “communicated”) this highly ironic tweet:

Obama Seizes Control of All Communications Systems With Executive Order: — IntelHub (@IntelHub)

I would be remiss if I did not mention Josh Bunting’s quip on twitter:

Josh Bunting (@josh_b42)
7/22/12 6:13 PM
Michele Bachmann = M.B. = Muslim Brotherhood. Coincidence?

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

This week’s winner was flagged by Brian Gregory, and it made me very happy: “Earth landing ‘totally faked,’ claim Martian conspiracy theorists.”

That’s all for now, folks! Expect another slight hiatus as I finish up my summer class and move to Wisconsin. I leave in, like, a week and am pretty excited. Got a little house with…gasp! office. No more typing in the living room, no siree! I also have a couple of badass projects in the works, as always. But these are super-badass. For real. MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!


Can Science Rape Nature?

July 16, 2012

I don’t mean metaphorically. I’m not talking about fracking damaging Mother Earth. Can science literally rape nature in the same way a man can rape a woman?


This may seem obvious, but there was a bit of a kerfuffle at the Skepticism and Humanities panel at TAM 2012. Bob was talking about the Sokal Hoax, which is sometimes used to attack the Humanities in general. Of course, dismissing several disciplines on the basis of one data point is a failure in critical thinking. Bob was pointing out that it is only a small but vocal minority of post-modernist/post-structuralist scholars who have made radical and silly pronouncements that fly in the face of logic and common sense. One example he cited was the idea that masculine science rapes feminine nature. I made an off-the-cuff joke about nature asking for it. That may have been unfortunate, but–hey–it just slipped out of my mouth. More importantly, I was trying to highlight the absurdity of the accusation: abstract concepts don’t have sexual identities, and they can’t rape each other. Personification isn’t real.

To be clear, Bob was discussing a specific type of academic feminism. There is a lot of great feminist literary criticism: some discussing female authors, such as Aphra Behn and Lady Mary Wroth, whose work was under appreciated for many years; some discussing the treatment of women in works by male authors. But there is a type of feminist scholarship that sees masculine oppression in science, logic, reason and in writing and language itself. Specifically, Bob had in mind Sandra Harding who, in her 1986 book The Science Question in Feminism, called Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica a “rape manual.”

A number of leading proponents of post-structuralist feminist theory, such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cisoux and Luce Irigaray, also attack the supposed patriarchal, masculine oppression of science and reason. They decry the phallogocentrism of language and call for an écriture féminine in which the female body is inscribed on the text. As far as I can tell, this inscribed female body has been reduced to a womb and lactating breasts. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with nurturing and motherhood, but you know what? Logic’s pretty cool, too. And mothering without critical thinking seems to lead to stupid things, like not vaccinating children. To give an idea of how absurd this variety of feminism can get, Irigaray has characterized E=mc2 as a “sexed equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.”

Rape is a vicious, vile, unforgivable crime, but saying that science, an evil masculine entity, rapes nature, a nurturing feminine entity, trivializes rape, demonizes men and makes women look like illogical idiots.


Further reading:

Dawkins, Richard. “Postmodernism Disrobed.” Review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Imposters. Nov. 1998.

Mandelker, Stephen. “The Radical Feminist Attack on Reason.” Reason Papers, Issue 19. 50-55.


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