Sea Serpents and the Hippocampus in Abominable Science

July 20, 2014

Abominable ScienceDaniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids is an admirable book. I admire it immensely. I have used it in my freshman writing classes. If you haven’t bought it already, I encourage you to do so immediately.

However, I have some reservations about Loxton’s chapter on Sea Serpents. In chapter 5, “The Evolution of the Sea Serpent: From Hippocamp to Cadborosaurus,” Loxton argues that the classical hippocampus, hippocamp, or hydrippus is behind legends of sea serpents. The hippocamp is a sea monster that is part horse and part fish (or vaguely fish-like).

According to Loxton,

Developed by the Greeks, embraced by the Romans, and passed from country to country during the Middle Ages, the image of the hippocamp slowly mutated into something more than a decoration for vases. Over time, this fantasy creature became an allegedly real crytpid. In my opinion, the modern  myth of the Great Sea Serpent (including the recent version, Cadborosaurus) is a cultural invention descended from the artistic tradition of the hippocamp (Abominable Science! 187-88)

Loxton says that hippocamps “were not gods. They were not characters in myths. Most important, they were not believed to be real animals” (AS 188). At least not originally. The image of the hippocamp spread throughout the Roman Empire. The image above comes from a mosaic in Bath, England. The hippocamp also appeared in the Physiologus, a didactic text written in the second century that allegorized animals (real and mythological), plants, and stones.The Physiologus was copied, adapted, and translated over and over again. The oldest vernacular version is in Old English. This verse version from the Exeter Book describes only three animals: the panther, the whale, and the partridge.

The Physiologus also influenced medieval bestiaries, lavishly illustrated compendia of mammals, fish, birds, and serpents, both real and imaginary. Many of these also include hippocamps. However, they also include a wide variety of serpents, including dragons. Some of these, such as the critter identified as a hydrus below, resemble sea serpents.

London, BL MS Harley 3244, fol. 62r. From

London, BL MS Harley 3244, fol. 62r. From

In a section subtitled “The Hippocamp in Nordic Culture,” Loxton says that the “modern sea serpent legend was born out of Nordic culture, with its origin in medieval Iceland and its florescence in Enlightenment Norway.” It is with this section that I have serious quibbles.

Loxton begins by discussing “The Icelandic Hrosshvalr.” In this section, only one work–a 2009 stamp–is actually Icelandic. The other works discussed are Norwegian or Dutch. Loxton says that

By the twelfth century, the Norse society of Iceland had adopted a belief in a creature called the hrosshvalr (horse whale), which was depicted as an unmistakable hippocamp. We will see that this innovation–the Nordic reimagining of the Greek hippocamp as a maned, horse-headed “real” marine monster–is a key to solving the modern mystery of the Great Sea Serpent. (AS 193).

Despite its name, the hrosshvalr is not “an unmistakable hippocamp.” Loxton admits that it is “probable that the words hrosshvalr (horse + whale) and ‘walrus’ (whale + horse) are etymologically related,” but does not accept that the word generally describes a walrus. Geir Zoëga’s A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic defines hrosshvalr as “walrus.” Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon’s more thorough An Icelandic-English Dictionary also defines it as “walrus” and mentions its etymological relationship to Old English horshwæl (horse-whale), which also means “walrus.”

Loxton then cites the thirteenth-century Norwegian text Konungs skuggsjá (King’s Mirror). In a section on sea creatures (including the sperm whale, narwhal, and Greenland or basking shark), the anonymous author mentions two ferocious critters, the hrosshvalr and the rauðkembingr (red comb, which Cleasby-Vigfússon describe as “a fabulous whale or sea monster”):

There are certain varieties that are fierce and savage towards men and are constantly seeking to destroy them at every chance…. They are very voracious and malicious and never grow tired of slaying men. They roam about in all the seas looking for ships, and when they find one they leap up, for in that way they are able to sink and destroy it the more quickly . These fishes are unfit for human food; being the natural enemies of mankind, they are, in fact, loathsome. (King’s Mirror qtd. in AS 194)

While Loxton notes that scholars “have tended to identify these creatures as walruses or sea lions” (194), he points out that, according to the description, they are much too large (thirty or forty ells–67 to 90 feet). While the description does not fit real pinnipeds, there’s nothing particularly horsey about the description either, except for the element hross in the animal’s name. And, since we know the word hrosshvalr could mean “walrus,” we can’t leap to the conclusion that it refers here to the hippocamp just because the first element in both compounds means “horse.” The creature’s size could be an exaggeration, along with its willful enmity toward humans.

A stronger link between the hrosshvalr and the hippocamp comes from Abraham Ortelius’s map of Iceland.

The sea surrounding Iceland is positively teeming with monsters. Just below Snæfelsness is a very horsey looking hrosshvalr.

The problem is that Ortelius was a Flemish cartographer working in the late sixteenth century. He is not a medieval Icelander depicting a native beastie; he is a Renaissance artist representing another culture’s folkloric monster. He has made the Icelandic hrosshvalr into a classical hippocamp. Renaissance artists classicized everything. Loxton fails to provide convincing evidence that medieval Scandinavians interpreted or depicted the hrosshvalr as “an unmistakable hippocamp.” This is problematic as this association is crucial to his argument. For instance, in his discussion of Olaus Magnus’s A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), he says the book “provided the final stage set for the modern sea serpent (although the curtain would not fully open for a further 200 years). By then, the Scandinavian reimagining of the Greek hippocamp as a ‘real’ sea monster was itself a centuries-old tradition,” but the evidence for this centuries-old tradition is extremely weak.

In the next section, Loxton discusses Jörmungandr or Midgarðsormr, the World Serpent, a mythological Norse sea serpent that in no way resembles a hippocamp. An offspring of Loki and the giantess Angrboða, the World Serpent lies in the ocean and encircles the earth.

Loxton admits that “[i]t is certainly plausible, even likely, that the Jörmungandr myth could be among the roots of the Norwegian sea serpent legend. In turn, the Midgard Serpent can be plausibly interpreted as a regional iteration of primordial dragon myths, such as the Babylonian Tiamat and the biblical Leviathan” (197), but he minimizes its importance, mentioning it only briefly before returning to the hippocamp.

He also makes a strange statement about the World Serpent:

It’s worth noting that our sources for the Midgard Serpent and other Norse myths date from well into the Christianization of the Nordic countries. Written by a Christian, The Prose Edda begins with the words, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth and all those things which are in them; and last of all, two of human kind, Adam and Eve, from whom the races are descended” (197)

I’m not sure why it is important to note this. Is the Prose Edda’s description of the World Serpent untrustworthy because it has been tainted by Christianity? Even if this were the case, how is that different from the alleged influence of the classical hippocamp on the native hrosshvalr?

In any case, the statement is incomplete to the point of inaccuracy. It’s true that Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, was a Christian. It is also true that he began his work with a concise summary of Genesis and that he euhemerized Norse mythology as part of the framework of the Edda; however, once he began recounting the mythological stories, he just got on with the job, without constantly moralizing and euhemerizing (unlike Saxo Grammaticus, another major source for Norse mythology).

It is also true that Snorri may have misunderstood some elements of the mythology he was recounting; he certainly conflated and interpreted the material he gathered from his various sources. Consequently, our concepts about Norse mythology may be somewhat skewed and may not match the beliefs and rituals as they were actually practiced by pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

But not the World Serpent. The World Serpent is well attested in works earlier than the Prose Edda. One of the most famous stories about the World Serpent concerns Thor’s attempt to catch it during a fishing expedition. This story is told in Hymiskviða from the Poetic Edda. The exact age of the poems in the Poetic Edda is a matter of dispute. There are also questions about how much they were altered in transmission, but Thor’s fishing expedition is mentioned in earlier skaldic poems, such as Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa (ninth century) and Úlfr Uggason’s Húsdrápa (tenth century). Both these poems were composed before the conversion to Christianity. Of course, they are preserved in later, post-conversion works (Snorri quotes them), but there are also several early carvings which depict the World Serpent and Thor’s fishing expedition.


The World Serpent clearly goes back to pre-conversion Germanic traditions, and it seems to have been the source for some later sea serpent tales, such as that of the Stoorworm.

In the next installment, I will discuss other Germanic sea serpent tales.






“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.


Sleep Paralysis or Folk-Tale Motif

March 10, 2013

Consider the following hypothetical situation: a young woman is asleep in bed. She awakes but cannot move. She senses a malevolent presence near her. The being comes closer, pressing on her chest with a great weight. Now consider the following “real” account:

…Sarah came every night and sat upon some portion of the body [of her sister], causing great pain and misery. (Sidney S. Rider, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island,” qtd. in Bell)

What was happening to the nameless sister? Was Sarah really a vampire attacking her in the night? Or was the poor girl suffering from sleep paralysis, perhaps exacerbated by sadness over her sister’s death? Or was it something else?

Many skeptics would immediately say that it’s a case of sleep paralysis, perhaps accompanied by hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucination. During sleep paralysis, the brain is conscious or on the verge of wakefulness, but the body remains locked down. In addition to the paralysis, the sufferer may experience vivid and frightening hallucinations. These frequently involve an impression of a presence, often hostile. The dreamer may also feel as if he or she is suffocating.

Sleep paralysis is extremely common. Many people will experience it at least once in their lives. Some people experience if with some regularity. The experience can be terrifying and the hallucinations can seem very real. Many people swear that they are awake, and, in a sense, they are–more or less.

The experience of sleep paralysis varies over time and according to cultural expectation. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, people experienced demon attacks as they slept. The word “incubus” comes from the Latin “incubare,” to lie upon. While this may suggest the sexual nature of incubi, it probably originally referred to the feeling of oppression. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of of “incubus” in English is from Laȝamon’s Brut: there is a very numerous race–

heo beoð ihaten ful iwis

incubii demones.

ne doð heo noht muchel scaðe:

but hokerieð þan folke.

monine mo on sueuene:

ofte heo swencheð. (Brut, Cotton Caligula A 9, ll. 15782-7. Ed. Frederick Madden, 1847)

They are known, indeed, as incubus demons. They don’t do much harm, but they deceive people. They often afflict men in dreams.

It goes on to say the incubi “know” women and lead children astray.

Fuseli, The Nightmare. Wikipedia

Fuseli, The Nightmare. Wikipedia

In eighteenth-century Serbia, vampires visited their victims at night:

In addition, the haiduk Jowiza reports that his stepdaughter, by name of Stanacka, lay down to sleep fifteen days ago, fresh and healthy, but at midnight she started up out of her sleep with a terrible cry, fearful and trembling, and complained that she had been throttled by the son of a haiduk by the name of Milloe, who had died nine weeks earlier, whereupon she had experienced a great pain in the chest and became worse hour by hour, until she finally died on the third day. (Visum et Repertum, tr. and qtd. in Barber 16)

Since the second half of the 20th century, the assailants have often been aliens, bent on abduction and examination.

About 18 years ago I had gone to bed just like any night. I do not take drugs or drink. I went to sleep and some time during the night I felt something crawling up on me. It started at my lower legs and was crawling up to my chest. I could not open my eyes. It felt like it was some kind of hoffed animal. I wanted to move but could not. I was thinking what the heck is this what is happening. It semed to last for a few minutes then the weight of this thing was gone. I then could open my eyes and there was nothing. (

In some cases, sleep paralysis has been suggested to sufferers, but they reject the notion:

A woman named Ruth told me that the crucial event for her had been a nighttime episode in which she’d felt terror, been unable to breathe, and heard footsteps. I asked her if she thought the symptoms could have been related to sleep paralysis. “no–because, see, I wasn’t asleep when it happened. I was on the couch watching David Letterman.” (Clancy)

Are we, as skeptics, justified in dismissing all these stories as sleep paralysis? No doubt we often we are. Many instances almost certainly can be explained by sleep paralysis, and it seems likely that stories of night hags and night demons originated with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, but the stories are so prevalent that they’ve moved from the world of physical phenomenon to the realm of folk tale motif.

A folk motif is a recurring and recognizable element in traditional narratives. For instance, a cruel stepmother is a motif that appears again and again in folk tales. Another is the supernatural being who helps the hero or heroine perform chores. In the 1930s, Stith Thompson published his monumental six volume Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Entry F471 deals with dream demons. F471.1 is the Nightmare or Alp which “presses person in dream.” There follows a long list of sources. F471.1.5 concerns

Persons who at night become nightmare. Those who are born on a Thursday and christened on a Sunday must at certain times (on Thursdays) press someone or something.

E281.2 tells of a “Ghostly horse [that] enters house and puts hoof on breast of sleeper.”

According to Carl Lindahl, John McNamara and John Lindow in Medieval Folklore, the assaults of the mara, nightmare or night hag

were always connected with a feeling of anxiety and suffocation. The mara was believed to oppress and weigh her victim down when tormenting and riding it. There is also an undercurrent of latent sexuality more or less manifest in the mara traditions.

Jan Louis Perkowski, professor of Slavic languages, has published extensively on Slavic folklore. He has collected numerous tales of suffocating demons. For instance, Canadian Kashubs speak of the mwəra or succuba. He describes it as “a night spirit which suffocates its sleeping victims” (34). Among the accounts he records:

The succuba chokes. They said that it was a child who was not baptized properly. This person walks at night and chokes others.

They said that when people went to sleep it choked them.

Succuba–They are unbaptized children who died before they were baptized. They come to a person and they choke a person in the night….

A succuba is that which chokes people. She could crawl through a keyhole. Someone said that, while a succuba was choking them and then they grabbed, sometimes it was like a ball of wool and then it disappeared.

My brother Frank also caught one. A succuba, nightmare, also choked him. He had to sit up and not go to sleep on the pillow, so that it would come to him. He said that a man all matted with hair came to him, and he caught it.

The succuba had to be a person. It would come and choke you at night. Sometimes it was a neighbor. (Perkowski 35-6)

Demons, night hags, witches, ghosts, vampires and now aliens. All have attacked and suffocated victims in the night. It seems odd that we label all of these cases “sleep paralysis.” The Wikipedia entry on sleep paralysis has a section on “Folklore,” listing folktales from all over the world. A New York Times article attributes all sorts of folklore to sleep paralysis, as does a Skeptical Inquirer article by Susan Blackmore. Were all the victims suffering from sleep paralysis? Probably not. I have no doubt that sleep paralysis served as the origin of the motif, but the motif has grown beyond the physical phenomenon. It’s become a part of the story of beings that attack in the night, and it’s been a part of the story for a very long time.

This is not to say that people who tell stories of a great weight on their chests are lying or adding that element to the story because they think they should; however, the experience has become an expected element. We know that cultural expectations shape perception and memory. For instance, it has been suggested that some of the elements of Betty and Barney Hill’s alien abduction accounts were subconsciously based on science fiction television programs and movies. Certainly, the Hills’ story has influenced other accounts of alien abduction.

The very fact that experiences that would have once been perceived as demon attacks are now interpreted as alien visitations suggests just how much cultural expectations influence perception.

To return to the case of Sarah the vampire and her sister: this story is one of the earliest of the New England vampire cases. It concerns Stukeley “Snuffy” Tillinghast and his fourteen children. His daughter Sarah died of consumption, followed by several other family members. The bodies were exhumed. Only Sarah’s was found to be undecayed. Her heart was removed and burned. The deaths ceased (after one more).

The story of the Tillinghast family was recorded nearly a hundred years after the events described, in Sidney S. Rider’s 1888 article, “The Belief in Vampires in Rhode Island.” Folklorist Michael Bell researched the stories and found some information that corroborated Rider’s story: Tillinghast did have fourteen children, and several, including Sarah, died of consumption in 1799. There were also discrepancies: Rider says half the Tillinghast children died, but, in fact, only four or five died. Rider also says Sarah was the oldest child; she was actually the tenth. Enough of the story was corroborated that it is plausible the bodies were exhumed and that Sarah’s heart was burned.

However, there are elements of Rider’s story that are pure folklore and cannot be true. Some of these folkloric elements involve dreams. At the beginning of the story, paterfamilias Snuffy dreams that he has an apple orchard (which he did) and that exactly half of it died. This dream is presented as an omen of the death of exactly half of his children. Aside from problems of interpreting a dream as an allegorical prediction–or postdiction–the dream simply isn’t accurate: Snuffy lost plenty of children, but not half.

And then there are the sleep paralysis dreams. We’ve seen that an unnamed sister dreamed of Sarah sitting on her body. This was a “continual complaint” that occurred every night until the sister died.

So it went on. One after another sickened and died until six were dead, and the seventh, a son, was taken ill. The mother also now complained of these nightly visits of Sarah. These same characteristics were present in every case after the first one. (Rider qtd. in Bell)

Seven people, six siblings and their mother, dreamed every single night that Sarah visited them and pressed on them. Each of them had these dreams until they died or, in the case of the mother, recovered. These dreams, though they sound like sleep paralysis, cannot be explained by any real physical phenomena. It is not plausible that the family could have shared so many hypnopompic hallucinations. Like the prophetic dream, these dreams belong to the realm of folklore, not neurology.

This case is extreme and was no doubt intentionally embellished by a professional writer. Nonetheless, we should keep in mind when we hear tales of alien abduction that folklore may be at play as well as sleep paralysis.



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

Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001. Kindle ed. N.p.

Blackmore, Susan. “Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis?” Skeptical Inquirer May/June 1998.

Clancy, Susan A. Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005. Kindle ed. N.p.

Kristov, Nicholas D. “Alien Abduction? Science Calls It Sleep Paralysis.” New York Times 6 Jul. 1999.

Lindahl, Carl, John McNamara, and John Lindow. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs and Customs. Oxford UP, 2002.

Perkowski, Jan Louis. Vampire Lore: From the Writings of Jan Louis Perkowski. Bloomington, IN: Slavica, 2006.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955.

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.

Viking-Age Psychic: Some Hits and One Big Miss

June 21, 2012

Old Norse literature is filled with supernatural beings and occurrences. Obviously, the mythological works refer to gods, elves, dwarfs, giants, enormous serpents, etc., while the sagas feature the returning dead (lots of them), trolls, shape-shifting berserks and the occasional giant. There’s also quite a lot of magic. There is active magic: spells and curses, but, since the sagas were written by Christians and the Icelandic family sagas (Íslandingasögur) often take place after the conversion (at least in part), this kind of magic is often viewed negatively. In addition, since seiðr magic was particularly associated with women, male practitioners (including Odin) were often viewed with suspicion and contempt. Even though magic sometimes has a bad reputation in the sagas, it is generally taken for granted and therefore often works (in the saga accounts–not in real life).

Along with active magic, there is also prophetic or divinatory magic. Sometimes active and prophetic magic go hand and hand, but they could also be separate, and I’m going to focus on prophetic magic in this post. Prophecy can come in many forms in the sagas: sometimes people have prophetic dreams; sometimes a member of one of the overlapping groups of female deities associated with human fate will turn up (dísirfylgjurnornir). Since the sagas’ original audience would often have been familiar with the general plots of the stories, saga writers don’t build suspense in quite the same way modern novelists do. Instead they often use a lot of prophetic foreshadowing. This is particularly noticeable in Laxdæla saga, in which the author applies prophetic foreshadowing with a trowel: there are dreams, cursed weapons and predictions out the wazoo.

Some saga characters are particularly gifted at foretelling the future. They “see further into things than other people.” Some of these people are men, and they don’t bear the same stigma as men who practice seiðr. Indeed, they are often considered wise counselors. For instance, in Laxdæla saga, a man named Gest Oddleifsson

was an important chieftain and especially wise man, who could foretell many events of the future. Most of the foremost men of the country were on good terms with him and many sought his advice. (ch. 33, p. 328)

On one occasion, he and Olaf Hoskuldsson observe a group of young men swimming. He is able to identify Olaf’s sons and nephew. After Olaf leaves, Gest begins to weep and predicts that one day Olaf’s nephew Bolli will

stoop over [his cousin/fosterbrother/best friend] Kjartan’s corpse and in slaying him bring about his own death, a vision all the more saddening because of the excellence of these young men. (ch. 33, p. 331)

Earlier, he had interpreted a series of dreams for Gudrun Osvifsdottir. These dreams also relate to the central tragedy, as Gudrun gets engaged to Kjartan, but marries Bolli.

The sagas also feature professional seers, the völur (singular völva). The völur were female and often practiced seiðr as well as divination. The title of the mythological poem Völuspá means “The Prophecy of the völva.” The völur were respected and well-compensated (the Wikipedia article gives some examples of very rich völur graves).

Eirik the Red’s Saga gives one of the most detailed descriptions of a völva’s appearance and performance. Thorbjorg lives in Greenland and is known as the Little Sybil (lítilvölva). She and her nine sisters were all völur, but she is only one still alive. The saga makes it clear the kind of respect the völur commanded:

It was her custom in winter to attend feasts; she was always invited, in particular, by those who were most curious about their own fortunes or the season’s prospects…. Thorkel invited the prophetess to his house and prepared a good reception for her, as was the custom when such women were being received. A high-seat was made ready for her with a cushion on it, which had to be stuffed with hens’ feathers…. When she entered the room everyone felt obliged to proffer respectful greetings, to which she responded according to her opinion of each person. (ch. 4, pp. 81-82)

Her clothing and her meal are described in very great detail. This is what she ate:

[S]he was given a gruel made from goat’s milk, and a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there [during a time of famine]. She used a brass spoon, and a knife with a walrus-tusk handle bound with two rings of copper; the blade had a broken point. (ch. 4, p. 82)

The clothing, food, hen feathers and accouterments all presumably have some sort of magical significance. Unfortunately, she needs one more thing: a bunch of women who will stand in a circle and at least one woman who can sing certain spells. The only woman who knows the spells is Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, a young woman recently arrived from Iceland, who learned the spells from her foster-mother but is hesitant to perform them because she is a Christian and doesn’t want to do something so pagany. Eventually, she is convinced.

If you strip away all the magical trappings, however, the Little Sybil’s performance isn’t too different from that of a modern psychic or a nineteenth-century spiritualist. She doesn’t actually contact the spirits of the dead–when the Norse dead wanted to contact the living, they just got up and did it themselves, using their dead bodies (this occurs in Eirik’s saga, when Thorstein Eiriksson sits up to give a final message to his wife, the aforementioned Gudrid). She does, however, mention spirits (náttúrur):

Many spirits are now present…which were charmed to hear the singing, and which previously had tried to shun us and would grant us no obedience. And now many things stand revealed to me which before were hidden both from me and from others. (ch. 4, p. 83)

And what is her actual prophecy? Well, she’s been invited because there has been a severe famine, and people want to know when it will end:

I can now say that this famine will not last much longer and that conditions will improve with the spring; and the epidemic which has persisted for so long will abate sooner than expected. (ch. 4, p. 83)

Yippee! Exactly what people want to hear. She also has a prediction for Gudrid:

…I can see your whole destiny with great clarity now. You will make a most distinguished marriage here in Greenland, but it will not last for long, for your paths all lead to Iceland; there you will start a great and eminent family line, and over your progeny there shall shine a bright light. (ch. 4, p. 83)

She gives readings to others as well, although the details are not provided. We are told, however, that “there were few things that did not turn out as she prophesied.” And, indeed, her predictions are accurate as far as they go, but, considering she can see Gudrid’s whole destiny, she leaves out a few important details: “During your first marriage, there will be an epidemic, and the dead will rise. Your own husband will rise as a zombie, but don’t worry, he doesn’t want to eat your brains; he just wants a Christian burial.” Missed that one.

Oh, and there’s one more glaring miss: all Gudrid’s paths lead to Iceland, except the one that leads to a new world that hadn’t been discovered at the time of the prophecy. Gudrid will start a great and eminent family line in Iceland, but one important member of that family line will be the first European born in that brand new world. North America–kind of a big thing to leave out, don’t you think?

Actual photo of “The Little Sybil”



Eirik’s SagaThe Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. Tr. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson. Penguin Classics ed. London, Penguin, 1965. All quotations are from this edition.

Eiríks saga rauða. Ed. Guðni Jónsson.

The Saga of the People of Laxardal. Tr. Keneva Kunz. The Sagas of Icelanders. Ed. Örnólfur Thorsson. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2000. All quotations are from this edition.

Stephen Hawking Is Wrong!

June 10, 2012

…about Norse mythology.

Last night I watched an episode of Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design, called “Did God Create the Universe” on Discovery. The series is based on his book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow). At the beginning of the episode, Hawking discusses how people have invented gods to explain natural events they didn’t understand. In particular, he mentions Norse beliefs. We are treated to footage of actors pretending to be scraggly Vikings looking in terror at the sky. Hawking mentions that the Norse feared Thor, who made lightning, and Ægir who brought storms. But the god they feared the most was…Sköll.


Yes, Sköll. Hawking explains that Sköll was a wolf who chased the sun, and when he caught up with her chariot, he ate her, causing an eclipse. He describes it somewhat differently in his book. He begins with a quote from Grimnismál, from the Poetic Edda:

Skoll the wolf who shall scare the Moon
Till he flies to the Wood-of-Woe:
Hati the wolf, Hridvitnir’s kin,
Who shall pursue the sun. (qtd. in The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Nowhere does he give credit to the translator. Most people who quote the passage on the Internet also fail to give the translator credit. The translation is by renowned twentieth-century poet, W. H. Auden, with Paul B. Taylor. You can find the complete translation here. Auden’s translation is lovely, but a bit…poetic. A more literal translation:

Sköll is the name of the wolf who pursues the bright-faced god to the defending wood. The other [is] Hati; he is Hróðvitnir’s son; he shall [be] in front of the bright bride of heaven. (My translation, based on the edition by Guðni Jónsson)

The sun is both the bright-faced god(dess) and the bright bride of heaven. One wolf pursues her, and the other is in front of her, presumably chasing her brother, the moon. Auden seems to have his wolves backwards. Hawking goes on to say:

In Viking mythology, Skoll and Hati chase the sun and the moon. When the wolves catch either one, there is an eclipse. When this happens, the people on earth rush to rescue the sun or moon by making as much noise as they can in hopes of scaring off the wolves. (The Grand Design, ch. 2)

Now, it is absurd to suggest that Sköll was the most feared of Norse gods. Outside this mention in Grimnismál and an elaboration on it in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, he isn’t even named. Also, he’s not a god or a “wolf-god,” as Hawking calls him. The two races of gods, the Æsir and the Vanir, were on one side, and supernatural wolves were in the opposing camp, along with giants. It’s true that Hati is said to be the son of Hróðvitnir (Fenrir)*, and Fenrir is the son of Loki, and Loki lived among the Æsir. But Loki was not quite one of the Æsir: while several gods (including Odin and Thor) had giantess mothers, Loki’s father was a giant (Fárbauti), which seems to be much more problematic. Many of Loki’s offspring were monsters who fought against the gods (one notable exception is Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed, but Loki was Sleipnir’s mother, not his father).

The main problem with Hawking’s discussion of Norse mythology is his claim that the wolves’ attacks on the sun and the moon were used to explain eclipses. They weren’t, no matter what the Internet says. The passage in Grimnismál is a bit obscure, but in paraphrasing it, Snorri says:

There are two wolves, and the one who is chasing her [the sun] is called Skoll. He frightens her, and he eventually will catch her. The other is called Hati Hrodvitnisson. He runs in front of her trying to catch the moon. And, this will happen. (Gylfaginning, Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 20)

Notice the use of the future tense? These are not events that happen regularly: they are extraordinary events that have not occurred yet. Later Snorri says,

First will come the winter called Fimbulvetr [Extreme Winter]. Snow will drive in from all directions; the cold will be severe and the winds will be fierce. The sun will be of no use. Three of these winters will come, one after the other, with no summer in between…. Next will come an event thought to be of much importance. The wolf will swallow the sun, and mankind will think it has suffered a terrible disaster. Then the other wolf will catch the moon, and he too will cause much ruin. The stars will disappear from the heavens. (Gylfaginning, The Prose Edda, tr. Jesse Byock, p. 71).

The disappearance of the sun, the moon and the stars heralds the beginning of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. I don’t know how the Norse interpreted eclipses. I suppose it is possible that they thought, “Oh no, Ragnarok’s coming,” but I tend to doubt it. They were used to the idea of the sun going away for most of the winter, so I wouldn’t think they’d be too worried if it disappeared for a few minutes. Oh, and I have no idea where he got the thing about making noises to scare the wolves away.

Hawking makes the mistake of thinking the mythic future applies to the historical present. This is similar to what ancient alien theorist Graham Hancock does in Fingerprints of the Gods, as I have discussed previously. Both Hancock and Hawking speak of an event that is supposed to happen in the future and apply it to real events that have already happened. This is not company you want to be in, Professor Hawking.

*In Vafþruðnismál, it is Fenrir himself who swallows the sun.



Hawking, Stephen and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam, 2010. Kindle edition.

Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Tr. Jesse L. Byock. Penguin Classics Ed. London: Penguin, 2005.


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