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!




This Week in Conspiracy (3 June 2012)

June 4, 2012

Eve and I are back from a whirlwind tour of Savannah, GA, and the whole time I was there I kept thinking how screwed I would be if a tsunami hit. We did ghost tours (ouch), we kicked around tide pools, and I got my first mild sunburn in years. Meanwhile, the Bilderbergers were meeting in Virginia, attracting every damned nut with a enough coin, or enough chutzpah to beg enough coin, to go and protest. This week in conspiracy was a week in Bilderberg conspiracy theories.

Alex serenades the NWO with “In Your Eyes.”

  • Some of the biggest fake news was that the Bilderbergers were discussing ways to off Ron Paul. (The number of Ron Paul signs in front of that hotel was significant.) The source for this is an “unnamed insider” working for Big Jim Tucker, who is still not dead from heart failure somehow and has been following the Bilderbergers since I was knee-high to a horny-toad:

The one that struck me as the second-dumbest allegation was made by a guy who was arrested and then said that he was forcibly to be vaccinated under penalty of being denied bail. When I first got the tweet, I replied:

@kr3at That was funniest thing I’ve read all day. Ha!
I got a response:
@rjblaskiewicz Actually happened, his arrest is up on YouTube. They told him take a TB vaccine or be held until your trial
My analysis? Well, usually this might be the type of thing that we could verify. We could look at the arrest record. We could draw blood from the guy (who is a veteran) and see if his TB antibody count goes up over the next few weeks. TB vaccine is not routinely given in the US and is not a part of the standard military vaccine schedule. Of course, when you look at the video, the arrest is not there, and the “forced vaccination” is not shown. The guy is being interviewed by Luke Rudkowski, who will believe almost anything.
One of the places that TB thrives is in prisons–Russian jails, for instance, are rife with TB, and the bacteria jumps between all those people in close contact with one another. In fact, some police departments give a Mantoux TB skin test to every single prisoner. This means that they give you a scratch with a protein associated with TB, and if your body reacts, you may have TB. This is completely different from being injected with the vaccine, as that is a live, though attenuated, bacterium. I can’t find anything that says that this is standard operating procedure at the Fairfax police station, but it may well be. The scratch test is administered far more often than the vaccine; the scratch test seems far more likely than the vaccine. So, you know, shut up, Luke.

This Week in Plain Old Conspiracy

A Philadelphia witness reports that he or she saw a UFO on 22 May 2012 according to testimony supplied from UFO Sightings Daily.

The kind of UFO which the witness showed is consistent with the “lights” described in the “Book of Revelation” which the ancient Pagan Gnostics linked to an alien orchestrated “false flag” scenario designed to lead into the New World Order.

Headline of the Week

It comes from The Guardian, and is more of a subtitle:

“Protesters at Bilderberg up their game: ‘What do they want? Hegelian dialectics! When do they want it? Now!'”

It was closely followed by a headline from the Weekly World News:

“Zombies vs. Cannibals: The War is On!”

Twit of the week:

A lot of goofy things were flying this week. Very quotable. Take Steve Martin’s comment:

When you see a White Supremacist interviewed, you are immediately impressed at how they are so…so…supreme. — Steve Martin (@SteveMartinToGo)

Jon Ronson (who was on the DisinfoCast this week) tweeted about a conversation he had with a cab driver:

3m jonronson ‏@jonronson Taxi driver last night. Used to be a whale hunter in the Antarctic…now he writes about “the history nobody knows about”…

3m jonronson ‏@jonronson …like how “Bilderberg and the Trilateral commission are the secret world government” I said, “EVERYONE has heard of that.”

2m jonronson ‏@jonronson He looked annoyed that I’d heard of the thing nobody has heard about. He said “in 100 years the Jews will rise up and take over. Yes? YES?”

jonronson ‏@jonronson I shrugged and said, “well I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.”

There was this nugget from Bilderberg, which is so true, since Luke Rudkowski is not a reporter:

Truth Excavator ‏@TruthExcavator FAIL: Mediaite calls @Lukewearechange “a reporter working for Alex Jones” #OccupyBilderberg #MSM #Media #Bilderberg

The Center for Inquiry had a good one this week too:

CFI On Campus (@CFIOnCampus)
6/3/12 1:05 PM
“Skeptics Censor Skepticism of Paul Offit’s Book” Apparently, we at CFI are puppets of big pharma.

The Truth Excavator needs a derivative hashtag timeout, I think:

9/11 Truth Spring And Bilderberg Spring #OccupyBilderberg #Bilderberg #BilderbergSpring #TruthSpring #September11 — Truth Excavator(@TruthExcavator)

Sean Carroll found something unpleasant in his hotel:

The hotel I’m staying at is hosting an Oath Keepers meeting. The gun-toting wing of Ron Paul Nation. — Sean Carroll (@seanmcarroll)

This one made me happy:

Illinois rep EXPLODES on the House floor! IT’s ALL FALLING… — 911truth (@911Truth)

But legislators aren’t the only things exploding this week:

B4IN Featured (@B4INFeatured)
5/30/12 4:03 PM
2012 Firearms & Ammunition Sales Exploding

Conspiracy Theory of the Week

I like this one because I’m a U2 nut. Bono is the frontman for global genocide:

That’s it, people. More is coming. More is always coming.