around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (7) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 18)

June 25, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for comments as ever! I turn now to the final set of cases of this kind. Some of these involve East Asia.

Dubious claims have been made regarding artefacts and written texts from a sunken civilization off the coast of Taiwan associated with the aboriginal Ketagalan group. Also in the Chinese world, Nu Shu (or Nü Shu) is a script and supposedly a language confined to women in one specific area within China. Unlike the standard logographic Chinese script, Nu Shu is syllabic (and hence phonological); each of its characters represents a syllable in the local ‘dialect’. It possesses considerably too small an inventory to represent all the syllables, including tonal distinctions; digraphs are used for the remainder. Zhou Shuoyi, reportedly the only male to have mastered the language, compiled a dictionary listing 1,800 characters, many of which are variant forms of Chinese characters. The origin of Nu Shu is unknown, but it has been suggested that it may date back as far as the third century CE.

Bruria Bergman claims in connection with her theory that a Japanese temple chant is in distorted Hebrew (mentioned earlier) that in 1935 one Kiyomaro Takeuchi discovered an actual document in the area in question (Herai) which dates from around 100 CE and is written in the kana syllabary (several hundred years before kana are known to have been used); this text allegedly shows that Jesus is buried in Herai, and contains his will. However, the document is probably a nineteenth-twentieth-century forgery.

Some cases of this general type are not closely associated with a particular region, because they involve portable manuscripts rather than inscriptions and are not linked with any identifiable language. The best known of these is the Voynich Manuscript, a genuinely mysterious medieval book-length work in an unfamiliar script, including illustrations; the topic may be botanical. Many decipherments have been advanced (some of them themselves book-length). The case arguably involves cryptography rather than linguistics, but either way the issue is my no means settled. Another such case involves the Rohonc Codex, which is of unknown date and may well be a hoax; there have been various attempts at translations (into Hungarian, an unidentified form of early Romance, Hindi etc.), mostly transparently non-mainstream in character.

A few non-mainstream theories involve written numerals. One such proposal, by Jason King, deals with the origins of the shapes of the ‘Arabic’ (apparently ultimately Indian) characters used to represent numbers (integers). Some such number-symbols, notably ‘Arabic’ 1, appear motivated: the symbol 1 is a single stroke. Most of the ‘Arabic’ symbols, however, appear arbitrary: for example, the character 9 does not obviously express the meaning ‘nine’. However, King holds that the ‘Arabic’ numerals 1-9 and also the zero sign (0) are not in fact arbitrary. The basic claim is that each symbol was invented so as to have angles corresponding in number with the meaning of the symbol. Thus, 0 has no angles, 1 (written as now usually printed) has one, 2 (written here as Z) has two, etc. King has to make various dubious assumptions in arriving at this view. For instance, he assumes that 1 was originally written as now printed; but in older versions it is typically a single vertical stroke with no angles. King does not offer any actual evidence that his forms are original ones; and he claims that they were invented by the Phoenicians rather than in India (although the usual Phoenician number-symbols were not in fact similar to the ‘Arabic’ symbols). In sum, it does not appear that King is correct here. The best that can be said is that he has drawn attention to a somewhat neglected matter.

I have now completed this summary survey of non-mainstream historical-linguistic and epigraphic claims. On request I will comment on claims regarding any particular language not so far discussed (especially linguistic rather than epigraphic claims). Apart from this, I now propose to look at non-historical aspects of ‘fringe’ linguistics. I may take a short break from blogging before embarking upon this. But thanks again for your support, and see you soon!


Eve’s Swift Blog article is totally…warranted

June 22, 2012

Oh, I’m such a delight!

Eve has a new post up at the Swift blog, where we are collecting writings by educators who use extraordinary claims in their classes to teach critical thinking. This one is about warrants.


This Week in Conspiracy (12 June 2012)

June 22, 2012

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

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

Or how about Mark Dice’s reaction?

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

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

Twits of the Week

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

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

Here’s joy:

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

Here’s some unintentional irony, in tweet form:

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

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


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.

New Conspiracy Guy post up at CSI site

June 21, 2012

My most recent “Conspiracy Guy” column is up at CSI. It’s called, “Tim McVeigh’s Must-Read List: The Turner Diaries.” As always, I encourage comments here, as the CSI site does not offer that option. It’s a pretty goddamned awful book I’m discussing with a pretty goddamned good scholar, Tom Lolis.

RJB (codename: Defiant Taco)

around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (6) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 17)

June 18, 2012

Hi again, everybody! Thanks for comments as ever! I turn now to issues of this kind involving Pacific territories.

The mainstream view of Pacific linguistic history is that the Polynesian languages as they spread eastwards from East Asia across the ocean, and the other Pacific languages, were unwritten until the beginning of European colonization. The only exception is the now small corpus written in the Rongorongo script of outlying Easter Island (Rapa Nui). Rongorongo lacks an accepted decipherment but is generally presumed (in the absence of other candidate languages) to encode an earlier stage of Rapa Nui, the contemporary Polynesian language of the island (settled around 400 CE); it is possible that it represents an independent invention of writing.

Hundreds of tablets written in Rongorongo existed as late as 1864, but most were lost or destroyed in that period and only twenty-six remain today; almost all of these are inscribed in wood. Each text has between two and over two thousand simple glyphs (some feature what appear to be compound glyphs). The longest surviving text is that on the ‘Santiago Staff’: around 2,500 glyphs, depending upon how the characters are divided. The glyph-types are a mixture of geometric figures and standardized representations of living organisms; each glyph is around one centimetre in height. Thomas Barthel provides a standard list.

Only Tablet Q has been carbon-dated, but the results limit the date only to after 1680 (in any event, some carbon-dates for Rongorongo are demonstrably inaccurate). Texts A, P, and V can be dated to the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries by virtue of being inscribed on European oars.

Some ‘decipherers’ themselves regard Rongorongo as local in origin. Sergei Rjabchikov (unusually ‘mainstream’ in this case) interprets the texts as in an early form of Rapa Nui. Barry Fell (see earlier) ‘deciphers’ the script with the aid of cave ‘inscriptions’ and other texts from New Zealand (see below); he treats the language as an artificial (priestly) Polynesian language closely related to Maori.

On the other hand, various non-mainstream writers have linked Rongorongo with scripts and languages from remote areas. A common choice is Indus Valley Script, itself currently undeciphered (see earlier); some Rongorongo characters superficially resemble those of IVS.
Stephen Fischer (one of the ‘decipherers’ of the Phaistos Disk) has argued that Rongorongo is in fact a modern invention and is logographic and ‘semasiographic’ in character (and thus, in part, not strictly linguistic). He reads the text on the Santiago Staff as a series of creation chants. Konstantin Pozdniakov notes that the Staff shares short phrases with a very few other texts but nothing with the rest of the Rongorongo corpus; and Jacques Guy argues that Fischer’s reading is untenable (and that if it were correct the text on the Staff would consist almost entirely of personal names). Paul Bahn and John Flenley support the Fischer ‘decipherment’, but without displaying linguistic expertise.

The prevailing mainstream opinion is that Rongorongo is not true writing but ‘proto-writing’, or even a limited system of mnemonics. This view was foreshadowed by some earlier writers, notably Katherine Routledge, who interpreted Rongorongo as an idiosyncratic mnemonic system in which the meanings of the glyphs varied from scribe to scribe

Another regional focus of non-mainstream theorizing involving scripts in the Pacific proper is New Zealand, which was settled from Eastern Polynesia around 1000 CE. The mainstream position is that here too the languages (Moriori and Maori) were unwritten until the colonial period. However, some non-mainstream authors offer hyper-diffusionist theories (similar to those applied to the Americas) involving unrecognized early visits to New Zealand on the part of voyagers from Asia, Europe, Africa etc. – some involving unrecognized early contact with the New Zealand Polynesians, who are themselves sometimes held to have settled the islands earlier than the given date (see for instance the works of Barry Brailsford).

Barry Fell claimed to have identified Libyan and Numidian script in New Zealand, and also found Polynesian elements on the Phaistos Disk. Ross Wiseman and others believe that they have found Egyptian and Phoenician inscriptions around New Zealand, confirming their hyper-diffusionist views of history. However, some of these are natural markings on rocks, which they are over-interpreting; others are indeed written language but contain errors and are surely fakes. With some other amateurs, Martin Doutré argues for an alternative hyper-diffusionist view of early New Zealand history involving early voyages by ‘Celts’ and members of other Eurasian groups. Doutré’s linguistics is of the usual non-mainstream type. Like Wiseman, he identifies ancient inscriptions in Eurasian languages in New Zealand and endorses the ideas of the ‘Viewzone’ group (who also link the Panaramitee Aboriginal rock-art tradition of Australia with their claims regarding a common world script in very early times).

I turn now to Australia, on the fringe of the Pacific. Many non-mainstream authors have offered and continue to offer hyper-diffusionist theories involving unrecognized early visits to Australia by long-distance voyagers. Some of these theories involve the supposed presence in Australia of inscriptions in Egyptian or Phoenician script, found on rock faces or associated with ruins (typically, in fact, of nineteenth-century origin) and ruin-like rock formations. (For cultural reasons, there are far fewer genuine pre-colonial ‘indigenous’ buildings in Australia than in New Zealand.) Some of these alleged inscriptions again contain errors and are surely fakes; others are over-interpreted natural markings.

One author who has proclaimed the presence in Australia of Egyptian hieroglyphic texts is Paul White, who endorses as genuine a set of rock carvings found in the National Park forest in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. White (claiming support from an Egyptologist) argues that the inscriptions feature early forms of hieroglyphs which ‘correlate’ with archaic Phoenician and Sumerian sources, but this view of early Egyptian script is simply mistaken, and the text in question is now acknowledged as a fake.

Val Osborn claims to have found a Phoenician port in Sarina, Queensland, and other authors report Phoenician or Egyptian inscriptions from that state and from New South Wales, notably the prominent ‘anomalist’ Rex Gilroy. Gilroy and Brett Green have identified ‘texts’ linked with the ‘Gympie Pyramid’ in Queensland (which probably represents ruined nineteenth-century vineyard terracing) as Egyptian or Indian in origin.

More next time on a few additional cases (some of them involving East Asia).


around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (5) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 16)

June 12, 2012

Hi again, everybody! I turn here to claims regarding Indian scripts.

Many of these claims involve the interpretation of the Indus Valley Script (IVS). IVS has been found on tablets in the ruins of Mohenjodaro and Harappa and dated around 4,500-4,000 years BP. The Indus Valley Civilization, if IVS is genuinely a script (see below), is one of the oldest literate civilizations known, and the issues extend well beyond linguistics.

IVS is the subject of a vast scholarly literature but has no accepted decipherment or interpretation. The two most plausible candidates for the unidentified language represented are Indo-European (probably early Sanskrit/pre-Sanskrit) and Dravidian, the main language ‘family’ of Southern India; the best known language in this ‘family’ is Tamil. On the ‘Dravidian IVS’ theory, the later arrival in India of the IE-speakers might have contributed to the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization, or might alternatively have post-dated it altogether. The old mainstream notion of an ‘Aryan Invasion’ of India by users of IE around 3,500 years BP has long been modified; but if IE arose much further west, as is still accepted in the mainstream, the language ‘family’ must have entered India at some date.

Many of those who believe that IVS represents Dravidian invoke Brahui, the isolated Dravidian language of the Indus region, which they interpret as a survivor of early Dravidian domination in the region (but there are other, mainstream accounts of the situation of Brahui suggesting that the language was transplanted to the region at a much later date).

If IVS instead represents very early Sanskrit or the like, IE was in India much earlier than orthodox scholarship maintains, too early to permit any Aryan incursion in the second millennium BCE. The arrival of IE in India might, indeed, have been the event which triggered the development of the Indus Valley Civilization. Edwin Bryant has proposed a moderate version of the view that IE entered India at an early date, but (as I noted earlier) there are also stronger, clearly non-mainstream views, proposed by K. D. Sethna and others, according to which IE actually had its origins in India. An authoritative and generally accepted decipherment of IVS would be a very important factor in the solution to this historical problem.

There have been over 100 ‘decipherments’ of IVS, many by non-mainstream writers and those with political, cultural and linguistic biases. Predictably, most ‘decipherers’ favour either IE or Dravidian (or languages which may be related to Dravidian, such as Elamite), depending upon their own linguistic background or interests. IE interpretations of IVS include those of Barry Fell (see earlier), who believed that he had deciphered the script as representing early Sanskrit/pre-Sanskrit, George Feuerstein and his associates, David Frawley, Daniel Salas, Rama Sarker, etc. Dravidian interpretations include those of Tariq Rahman and Anand Sharan, who believes that IVS is still in use in Bihar State, India (not close to the IVS sites). Sharan therefore accepts a version of the ‘Aryan Invasion’, but (as a ‘Dravidian supporter’) he also denies that the Dravidian-speakers were culturally and technologically inferior to these invaders. His account of how in that case Dravidian came to be ‘pushed’ south is not entirely convincing. Of course, it is not agreed by mainstream Indologists that IVS is indeed still in use, in Bihar or anywhere else.

Clyde Winters and other Afrocentrists ‘decipher’ the script as Dravidian; they go on to link Dravidian generally, Sumerian and even Chinese with African languages held to have been widely diffused by an early African diaspora. Ivan van Sertima and his associates present a range of other Afrocentrist views. Most of the material in this work is non-linguistic in character, involving artefacts, ‘racial’ characteristics and such; but Walter A. Fairservis claimed that the language represented by the Indus Valley Script was Dravidian – which is hardly supported by his editor’s claim that the IVS-users were black Africans rather than Dravidians akin to dark-skinned contemporary Southern Indians (endorsed by Wayne B. Chandler, who believes that Dravidians later ‘inherited’ what was originally an African civilization).

Indologists Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat and Michael Witzel have proposed that IVS is in fact a non-linguistic symbolic system (see above) which was used by an elite in a multilingual situation and does not encode any particular language. They support this view with many arguments, including the total absence of long texts in IVS (the longest known text has only seventeen characters, and very few have more than ten); this would make IVS unique as a true script, if it were a script. Richard Sproat has also commented on some academic approaches to such issues which in the view of these three authors have not led in the direction of what they hold to be reliable solutions. Michael Witzel offers extended critiques of non-mainstream proposals in this area. William Bright also concludes that none of the ‘decipherments’ offered to date can be substantiated and that the methods adopted are often dubious).

There are also claims regarding mysterious artefacts, some of them bearing markings interpreted by some as short inscriptions in an otherwise unknown script, found submerged in Indian waters off Cambay.

There is a body of markedly non-mainstream work regarding an ancient civilization and language known as Naacal, allegedly carried to Mesopotamia, Egypt, India etc. in very remote ages by Mayan adepts. The first recorded use of the term is by the maverick archaeologist Augustus le Plongeon. Le Plongeon believed in a late-pre-historic world civilization centred on a Pacific continent known as ‘Mu’ or ‘Lemuria’ (later submerged, giving rise to pre-Polynesian cultures in places such as New Zealand) and massive early diffusion more generally. His ideas were linked with those of H.P. Blavatsky and were developed further by James Churchward , Wishar Cervé and others. Churchward claimed to have learned from a priest in India to read the Naacal language, written on ancient tablets which are said to represent fragments of a larger text. He also claimed to have verified the material from the records of other ancient peoples, although his references to ancient sources are typically ludicrously vague. (Le Plongeon also asserted that Jesus spoke Mayan on the Cross, and Churchward further claimed that the Greek alphabet, as normally recited, is really a poem in Mayan.)

More next time, heading still further east!


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.

The Week in Woo…A New Webseries

June 7, 2012

About a week ago, Eve and I recorded an episode of “The Week in Woo,” a newsy web series about….odd things. We are producing it in conjunction with IIG-Atlanta, of which I am the outgoing chair and Eve is secretary, and Doubtful News. Here is the first episode. Enjoy!


around the world in ‘mysterious’ scripts & texts (4) (‘fringe’ historical linguistics 15)

June 5, 2012

Hi again, everybody!  More on European scripts and ‘scripts’!

The feminist archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (who made major contributions to the study of the cultures regarded as the early speakers of Indo-European), and her followers such as Richard Rudgley, identify an ‘Old European Script’ in the Vinča symbols (Balkans), which they associate with a ‘lost’ Stone Age civilization, possibly a matriarchy.  In fact, it is not even clear that these markings really represent a script as such; and the discussions of ‘meta-language’, ‘alphabets of the metaphysical’, ‘feminine’ versus ‘masculine’ scripts, etc. appear obscure and tendentious.  Much of Rudgley’s specific ‘evidence’ is linguistic (or at least involves what are claimed to be early manifestations of written language), but this is discussed only within the framework of these highly controversial ideas.  Rudgley devotes much space to his interpretation of the rather scanty and equivocal evidence surrounding a) the nature of ‘pre-writing’ (often apparently overinterpreted; he refers to controversial writers such as Alexander Marschack) and the origins of written language and b) linguistic pre-history and the ‘deep-time’ relationships between language families.  He cites Gimbutas, Harald Haarmann and others on the supposedly apparent parallelisms between the various syllabic scripts of the Mediterranean and ‘Old European Script’.  Rudgley also engages in loose philology of the usual type.

More markedly non-mainstream analyses of the Vinča symbols include Toby Griffen’s claim to have deciphered three of the symbols as logographs, and the theory of a historical link with Etruscan script (see above) proposed by Radivoje Pešić.  Vasil Ilyov argues (tendentiously and implausibly) that carved symbols found in the territory which now constitutes (Slavic) Macedonia represent a pre-historic Macedonian ‘phonetic alphabet’ which is to be regarded as the ancestor of early Indian scripts and as one of the earliest written languages.  Those with other loyalties cite other pre-historic texts such as the Tartaria Tablets, found in Romania, or the Dispilio Tablet, found in Greece.

The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Roman alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter.  The variants of the system displayed different numbers of runes: Teutonic (24 letters), Anglo-Saxon (32), and Scandinavian (sixteen).  The Scandinavian variant is known as futhark (a term derived from the first six letters of the system: F, U, Þ, A, R and K).  The earliest runic inscriptions date from around 150 CE.  Most adherents of ‘rune lore’ identify the runes as of Germanic origin, while differing as to the precise area of origin.  However, many runes resemble characters from the Roman alphabet, often featuring straight lines in place of curves; other possible direct sources include the related Northern Italic alphabets.  As Germanic developed and diversified, the words assigned to the runes and the sounds represented by the runes themselves diverged somewhat; new runes were created and existing runes and groups of runes were renamed or rearranged, or even abandoned, to accommodate these changes.  The characters were generally replaced by the Roman alphabet as the cultures which had used runes underwent Christianization.  There has been and still is a great deal of non-mainstream thought associated with runes, involving theories to the effect that they are very ancient indeed and/or possess magical powers.

Various writers argue that runic writing in Hungarian pre-dates Germanic use of the system, in some cases dating from as long ago as 6,500 years BP, (although the earliest clear attestations actually date from the seventh century CE).  They accordingly suggest that Hungarian is the oldest written language and was spoken in the territory which now constitutes Hungary much earlier than mainstream historians would hold. Some link the Hungarian runes with cuneiform as used to write Sumerian (and later Akkadian).  Turgay Kurum instead finds a Turkish source for runes. There are many other non-mainstream theories regarding Hungarian and its written forms.  (See earlier on runic or allegedly runic inscriptions in the Americas.  I will turn later to the ideas of the occultist Von List and other occultists regarding runes. )

Nigel Pennick and others develop mystical notions around scripts formerly used to write Celtic languages, notably Irish Ogam (which I discussed last time) and the quasi-runic Welsh system known as Coelbren or Coelbren y Beirdd (‘the Bardic Alphabet’), which they regard as one of a set of genuinely ancient alphabets and which they believe was employed by bards to communicate secret messages (using a wooden frame with sticks representing letter-strokes) in medieval times when writing in Welsh was suppressed.  Other authors such as Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett also regard Coelbren as authentic and as linked with widely dispersed scripts around the world.  Jim Michael finds links between Coelbren and American ‘inscriptions’ as discussed above, suggesting for example that that the inscription on one stone tablet found in the USA is in Coelbren.  In fact, Coelbren was devised – as were many ‘traditional’ features of contemporary Welsh culture – by the eighteenth-nineteenth-century Welsh antiquarian and mystic Edward Williams (‘Iolo Morganwg’) as the supposed alphabetic system of the ancient Druids (parallel with the genuinely ancient Ogam in Ireland) and promoted after 1840 by his son Taliesin Williams.  It consists of twenty main letters and twenty others used to represent long vowels and the mutated consonants characteristic of Welsh (and of Celtic generally).

Moving further east … the early Mesoptamian culture of Sumer (Sumeria) arises repeatedly in this kind of context, because it is the earliest known genuine ‘civilization’.  In addition, Mesopotamia is a centre of what may well be an immediate pre-script phase of written semiotics; and the full-blown written Sumerian language – which can now be read – is the oldest known written language (and, moreover, is, as far as is known, ‘genetically’ isolated).  The Sumerian ‘cuneiform’ script was later adapted to write other, unrelated Mesopotamian languages such as the Semitic language Akkadian.

Zecharia Sitchin (an advocate of early extraterrestrial contact), John Allegro, David Rohl and others advance novel interpretations of the Sumerian language to suit their theses, but these do not in general involve other than piecemeal reinterpretations of the script per se.  More relevantly here, the early twentieth-century non-mainstream historian L.A. Waddell argues (tendentiously and unconvincingly) that the common ancestor of the Middle-Eastern and European abjads and alphabets – and indeed of Egyptian script – was in fact Sumerian cuneiform.

A very different non-standard interpretation of Sumerian script has been proposed by Peter Linaker.  Linaker proclaims the exaggerated view that twentieth-century synchronic structuralist linguistics requires that all linguistic structures be interpreted as systematic.  In fact, because of prior linguistic changes, any language at any given time is liable to display a varying proportion of unsystematic features.  These may be exemplified by synchronically irregular verb morphology, as manifested for instance in English past tense forms such as rose, for what would be the regular form *rised.  Forms such as rose exemplify older, now superseded morphological systems, often quite systematic in their day, which are no longer productive; no such new forms now develop in English.

Because of Linaker’s general stance on this point, he seeks covert systems which would explain apparently unsystematic features of language in synchronic ways.  He unreasonably regards the (in fact not uncommon) mixture of logographs and phonological spelling which characterizes the Sumerian cuneiform script as unsystematic and therefore mysterious, and goes on to argue that some features of the Sumerian script which are generally interpreted as phonological can be interpreted only by ignoring Sumerian phonology and focusing instead upon hitherto unrecognized semantic properties of the characters.  Linaker thus develops a theory involving the existence of covert, highly coherent systems of cuneiform characters.  Many of these involve alleged ‘double-entendres’, often with references to sexual matters, which Linaker (bizarrely) appears to believe would naturally not be overtly expressed in any culture.  In most cases, no persuasive empirical evidence is adduced in support of these novel readings.

More next time, starting with the Indus Valley Script!