Virtual Skeptics, Episode 11 (24 Oct 2011)

October 25, 2012

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

See? I told you!


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.



Crypto-Creationism 2: Return of the Killer Crapgasm

February 16, 2012

A couple of days ago, I gave you all a big, steaming Valentine in the form of an overview of Claws, Jaws & Dinsaws Dinosaurs by William J. Gibbons and famous felon “Dr.” Kent Hovind. “Dr.” Crypto and “Dr.” Dino. I’d like to assure everyone I didn’t in any way enrich the authors by my purchase of the book. I bought it used for about a buck.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to some of the highlights of the book, if “highlights” is the right word (it isn’t). The first chapter concerns the Loch Ness Monster. The Scottish Gibbons finds it necessary to add the word “lake” in parentheses after “loch.” Again, I wonder who their intended audience is. The account itself is fairly typical. It begins with St. Columba in the 6th century. They don’t mention that the account was written a hundred years later or that the creature in the account appeared in the River Ness, not the loch (lake). Indeed, they say specifically that “the saint decided to cross the loch (lake).” Oh, well.

The story then jumps to the 1930s, “[a]lthough the local people often discussed the giant creature that many of them had seen in the lake [loch].” Naturally, they offer no evidence for this. What follows is a string of anecdotes (which could be a description of the whole book). They also mention the famous photograph taken in 1934 by Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson. Gibbons and Hovind describe him as a dentist. According to Wikipedia, however, he was a gynecologist. Take it from me, you don’t want to get those two confused. Anyway, you know the photo we’re talking about: the big fat hoax. Or is it?

Some people claim that the dentist’s nephew (on his death bed) said that the photos were faked, but there is no one alive today who was there at the time the photographs were taken. It is not possible to know who is lying now. Even if Dr. Wilson’s picture were fake, there are many thousands of other witnesses who say they have seen Nessie. (13)

For starters, they’ve gotten the details of the hoax wrong (see Wiki article linked above). Second they use the ever popular argument “You weren’t there man–you don’t know!” Of course, they weren’t there when St. Columba allegedly banished a monster on the River Ness either. They follow this up by arguing that the plural of “anecdote” is, indeed, “data.” And that pretty much sums up the methodology of the book (“Sadly, most scientists will not accept eyewitness accounts, photographs, or even film as evidence that large unidentified animals inhabit the depths of Loch Ness” 16. A sentence similar to this appears in pretty much every chapter).  Of course, the photo is a pretty obvious hoax. The object is quite small and doesn’t even resemble most of the accounts of Nessie. So, it’s very bad evidence, but apparently, the plural of “bad evidence” is “good evidence.”

So, let’s say there are plesiosaurs hanging around in lakes (lochs) the world over. What is the significance? “Perhaps, one day the Lord will allow some intrepid monster hunter to capture one of these amazing creatures as testimony of His awesome presence and power!” (17). Well, the Lord has been allowing the damn things to roam about unmolested in the River Ness, Loch Ness and environs (sometimes it walks around on land) since the 6th century, so we may have a bit a wait until we’re able to see His awesome presence and power.

The next chapter is my favorite. It’s called “Sailors, Sea Serpents and Dragons,” and it features Beowulf. It seems obvious really, what with “dragons” in the title and everything. Yeah, they don’t mention the dragon in Beowulf. Which is odd when you think about it, because dragons are meat and drink to creationists with a cryptozoological bent. They’re big reptiles that in a number of ways resemble dinosaurs. Of course, in a number of ways, they don’t resemble dinosaurs, but that’s okay because–hey! look over there! Is that the Holy Spirit?!

Uh, no, I guess it was just an albino pigeon. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh, yeah. They don’t mention the dragon in Beowulf in either the dragon chapter or the pterosaur chapter (“Those Terrible Pterosaurs.” I can’t imagine how they resisted the urge to call it “Those Pterrible Pterosaurs”). So, if you eliminate the dragon, where are the dinosaurs in Beowulf? Well, there’s the creature known as “The Grendel.” Yup, they added a definite article and italicized it. No, I don’t know why.

“Grendel a dinosaur,” I hear you scoff, “Surely not.” I sympathize with your scoffing. They seem to have cribbed much of the “information” about Beowulf from Bill Cooper’s magnificent octopus, After the Flood: The Early Post-Flood History of Europe Traced back to Noah. Now, I’ve got 20+ pages of well-researched rant about Cooper and Beowulf, so allow me to summarize:

How does he come to this brilliant conclusion? Again, I shall summarize: dude’s an idiot. I should note that Hovind and Gibbons nowhere credit Cooper although it’s clear they are influenced by him, but–hey–what’s a little plagiarism between zealous loons? Gibbons and Hovind, perhaps realizing that the T. Rex was a North American creature, actually suggest that “the Grendel” was a “fearsome Megalosaurus, a dinosaur found in Britain and similar to Tyrannosaurus-Rex” (19). Still dumb, but very slightly less dumb.

But they’re not through with Beowulf yet because Beowulf also slew some sea serpents. After Grendel’s mother attacks,* the Geats and Danes go to the mere (loch [lake]) where they see these creatures which “were said to surface at dawn and attack sailing ships” (19. This is only slightly garbled). For some reason they don’t mention that one of the Geats killed one of the critters. Pffft, details.

But this, apparently, was only the beginning of Beowulf’s career in the sea-serpent slaying business:

After his victory over Grendel [apparently Beowulf ripped off Grendel's "the"], Beowulf turned his attention to the dragons and serpents that continued to menace ships in the sea. Using large spears that were normally reserved for killing boars, Beowulf and his men began clearing the shipping lanes between Denmark and Sweden. He managed to kill at least nine of the monsters. As a reward for his courage as a monster-hunter, Beowulf was later crowned king of the Geats… (19-21. For anyone  wondering how this passage can span three pages, most of p. 20 is taken up with a long caption explaining a picture of a kronosaur and an elasmosaur apparently kissing in the shadow of the Ark).

At first I was wondering if Gibbons and Hovind had gotten hold of some copy of Beowulf with which I was not familiar. Perhaps an old manuscript of Beowulf II: The Lost Years. But the number nine rang a bell. Could they somehow be talking about Beowulf’s swimming match with Breca? It seems unlikely, but it’s all I can come up with.

The swimming match with Breca happens before the events of the poem take place, not after Beowulf’s fight with Grendel (and his mother, whom Gibbons and Hovind don’t mention). In fact Beowulf tells the story before the fight with Grendel. According to Beowulf, he spent five days in the water swimming (with his sword in his hand). Then the seas became rough, he and Breca were separated and a sea monster dragged him down to the bottom but he was able to kill it and eight other monsters with his sword (no idea where the boar-hunting spear comes from, sorry). There is no mention of shipping lanes that I can see, and it certainly wasn’t because of this feat that Beowulf became king–the swimming match occurred when he was very young. How did he become king? Hygelac, the king, was killed in battle. His widow Hygd offered Beowulf the throne because her son was a child. Beowulf refused. Years later after Hygelac’s son, Heardred, was also killed in battle, Beowulf, Hygelac’s nephew, became king.

So Gibbons and Hovind get the plot wrong, make a bunch of stuff up, ignore two-thirds of the major monsters in the poem and say silly things about the other monsters. Great. Let’s see how they do with Norse sagas:

In 1001 AD, Leif Erikson, a Viking commander, stepped ashore on a rich wooded land which lay far west of his native Iceland. He called the new land Markland (Woodland). Today, we this call this area [sic], Newfoundland, situated on Canada’s east coast. (41)

Where to start? Well, there’s the garbled sentence and unfortunate punctuation. Then there’s a sort of geographical imprecision. They make Newfoundland sound like Labrador, rather than an island off the coast of Canada. And I suppose this is nitpicky, and Iceland and Norway do both claim Leif, but he had settled in Greenland at this time, not Iceland.

And then there’s Markland. The Norse explorers** certainly did see a forested land they called Markland (as well as a place they named Helluland–Flat Rock Land), but their main settlement, the one in Newfoundland, was called Vinland. Oh, well, it’s all Canada. Anyway while in Canadaland, guess what Leif saw:

Erikson and his men encountered hairy, ugly giants that uttered harsh cries. This is the earliest recorded encounter with Bigfoot, or Sasquatch…. (41)

I’ve read the Vinland sagas. I don’t remember any Bigfeet (Bigfoots?). I’ve just skimmed them again. Guess what I haven’t found. In particular, Leif himself encountered nothing especially odd, though during a later voyage, one of his brothers was killed by a Uniped:

[I]t came bounding down towards where the ship lay. Thorvald, Eirik the Red’s son, was sitting at the helm. The Uniped shot an arrow into his groin. Thorvald pulled out the arrow and said, “This is a rich country we have found; there is plenty of fat around my entrails.” Soon afterwards he died of the wound. (Eirik’s Saga 102)

But that’s just one foot of indeterminate size. Bigfoots are traditionally described as bipeds. The only large, loud hairy beasts in the Vinland sagas are the livestock brought to Vinland by the Scandinavians. That seems to leave the Skraelings, a word that, according to everyone–everyone–refers to Native peoples.

They were small and evil-looking, and their hair was coarse; they had large eyes and broad cheekbones. (Eirik’s Saga 98)

So, kind of insulting and offensive, but not very Bigfooty.

So what’s the creationist point of all this Bigfoot stuff? Damned if I know. After discussing the Russian Alma, however, Gibbons and Hovind say,

Some scientists think that the alma might actually be a surviving race of “primitive” humans–such as the Neanderthal Man. This could be another nail in the coffin for evolution proving that Neanderthals were just odd-shaped humans who lived in the same time frame as the rest of society in the rural areas of Europe. (48)

I don’t even understand that. Does the alma “prove” that Neanderthals were just odd-shaped humans, or is evolution trying to prove that Neanderthals were just odd-shaped humans, and somehow the Alma proves that they weren’t? This shows why it’s so important to be clear when you’re being idiotic.

People tend to maintain that modern man knows all there is to know about this world. (49)

Who are these mysterious people made of straw?

This type of proud and haughty attitude is ungodly and unhealthy. God made a great and beautiful world full of marvels and surprises. Science is the study of God’s creation and should draw us closer to the Creator. Until a Bigfoot is captured and closely examined, the creatures will continue to be one of the Creator’s mysteries. (49)

Okay, first, you might want to look up “science” in a dictionary (different from a creationary). Second, yeah, I’m sure a Bigfoot will be captured any day now.

*Gibbons and Hovind say Beowulf and his men track “the Grendel back to its lair” (19), placing the encounter with the sea monsters directly after Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and before Grendel’s mother’s mission of vengeance. They are mistaken.

**In The Saga of Eirik the Red, Helluland and Markland are actually named during Thorfinn Karsefni’s expedition, not Leif’s.



Cooper, Bill. After the Flood: The Early Post-Flood History of Europe Traced back to Noah. Chichester: New Wine, 1995. This book is available online. Reading this book may cause delirium and extreme stupidity. If you choose not to heed my warning, you can find it for yourself.

Gibbons, William J. and “Dr.” Kent Hovind. Claws, Jaws and Dinosaurs. Pensacola: CSE Publications, 1999. Also potentially dangerous to your sanity and well-being.

Magnusson, Magnus and Hermann Pálsson, tr. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða). Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 1965. This book is safe to read.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,165 other followers