Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Spirits

August 19, 2014

Note: The following essay is based on a segment from Skepticality.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is known for many things: the creation of Sherlock Holmes, a spectacular mustache, and his belief in spirits and fairies.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hairy Friend

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hairy Friend

M’colleague, Bob Blaskiewicz, has discussed Doyle’s* seemingly ludicrous belief in the Cottingley fairies, but spiritualism was Doyle’s burning passion. He possessed a religious, missionary, perhaps even messianic zeal to promote belief in discarnate spirits and life after death. He lectured and wrote voluminously on the subject, including a two volume History of Spiritualism.

It’s easy to make fun of Doyle’s beliefs. Really easy. Stunningly easy. In fact it’s quite hard to refrain from making fun of them. In his writings on spiritualism, he displayed the same degree of levelheadedness and perspicacity that led him to conclude that this is an actual picture of a fairy:

"And his mustache is THIS big!"

“And his mustache is THIS big!”

His credulity seems almost infinite. By the time he published The History of Spiritualism, most of the mediums he discusses had been exposed resorting to fraud, in some cases repeatedly. Some of the mediums had even confessed. None of this deters him. He is able to defend the supernatural abilities of anyone who seems to display gifts that in some way bolster his religious beliefs:

In the light of our later, fuller knowledge we know that much that bears the appearance of fraud is not necessarily fraud at all.–The History of Spiritualism, Vol. I

How can an apparent fraud not be a fraud? Oh, so easily. For instance, he defends medium Eusapia Palladino although everyone–including Doyle and Palladino–admits that she sometimes did cheat. He, like Palladino, blames her trickery on skeptics who were looking for trickery. In other cases, the fraud wasn’t really fraud. On more than one occasion, an investigator grasped the foot Palladino was using to produce effects. Doyle doesn’t deny that a foot was grasped or that it was attached to Palladino’s body; however, he suggests it may have been a pseudopod, an ectoplasmic limb extruded from her body. This explanation assumes that skeptics are incapable of counting up to three.

Doyle even believed that magicians, like his erstwhile friend Harry Houdini, possessed real supernatural abilities but refused to admit it. Doyle genuinely believed that when Houdini appeared to walk through a wall that he was actually dematerializing and walking through a wall (Brandon 168).

Doyle’s credulity, rationalizations, and cognitive biases are not particularly unusual. They were shared by many contemporaries and are still common today. Doyle, however, combined credulity with arrogance, condescension, and an unswerving belief in his own rightness. He railed against scientists for not taking spiritualism seriously. He claimed that

[T]he attitude of organized science during these thirty years was as unreasonable and unscientific as that of Galileo’s cardinals, and that if there had been a Scientific Inquisition, it would have brought its terrors to bear upon the new knowledge. No serious attempt of any sort, up to the formation of the S[ociety for] P[sychical] R[esearch] was made to understand or explain a matter which was engaging the attention of millions of minds.–The History of Spiritualism, vol. I


When scientists did take spiritualism seriously, he railed against them for being too skeptical. In discussing the work of the Society for Psychical Research he says,

In an exaggerated striving after what was considered to be an impartial, scientific attitude, a certain little group within the society has continued for many years to maintain a position, if not of hostility to, yet of persistent denial of, the reality of physical manifestations observed with particular mediums. It has mattered not what weight of testimony was forthcoming from trustworthy men whose qualifications and experience made them worthy of credence.–History of Spiritualism, Vol. II

While dismissing many scientists and sciences, he praises to the high heavens those scientists who shared his credulity and biases, such as Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection. He is inordinately fond of the argument from authority, frequently citing the testimony of eminent men.

He can be both snobbish and anti-intellectual. He even quibbles with other spiritualists and many mediums who don’t understand the true significance of spiritualism–that is to say, they do not interpret it the way he does.

Worst, he can be uncharitable. Inevitably, he spends a considerable amount of time discussing Katie and Maggie Fox, who sparked the craze for spiritualism when they heard (or produced) knocks and raps in 1848.  They were eleven and fifteen years old at the time. They were relentlessly exploited by their much older sister Leah. Leah ended up wealthy and secure and lived to a ripe old age. Kate and Maggie both descended into poverty and alcoholism, and Leah abandoned them when they became scandalous.

Doyle believes in the Fox sisters’ gifts and has great respect for Leah, but he says of her sisters,

[T]hey misused their gift in the direction of giving worldly advice, receiving promiscuous sitters, and answering comic or frivolous questions. If in such circumstances both their powers and their character were to deteriorate, it would not surprise any experienced Spiritualist. They deserved no better, though their age and ignorance furnished an excuse.–History of Spiritualism, vol. I

Despite all his flaws, though, I find myself getting angry on Doyle’s behalf. He became a fervent, evangelizing proponent of spiritualism in the wake of World War I. His eldest son was seriously wounded in the war. After he had largely recovered, he died of Spanish flu. Doyle’s brother and two brothers-in-law died during the war and two nephews shortly after. Doyle’s devotion to spiritualism sprang from deep grief. He needed to know that his loved ones were all right, that they still existed in some form, that he would see them again, that he could still communicate with them.

People who claimed they could communicate with his loved ones took advantage of his grief and betrayed his trust, just as psychics continue to take advantage of grieving people today. A wise man has asked “What’s the Harm?” Doyle provides an answer.



Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism. Vol. I (1926):; Vol. II:

Ruth Brandon, The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, New York: Knopf, 1983.

*There is some confusion about Doyle’s name, specifically, whether “Conan” was a middle name or part of a compound surname. It seems to have been a middle name, but Doyle sometimes used it as a compound surname. For instance, his second wife was known as “Jean Conan Doyle” rather than Jean Doyle. Strictly speaking, however, his surname was simply “Doyle.”

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.

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.



Article about my work…

August 26, 2012

Hey, ho!

I thought I’d let you know that my work was profiled in an article in Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. It’s “The Article They Don’t Want You to Read.”


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.

Are Ghost Stories History?

April 25, 2012

I like ghost stories. I like the fictional variety, and I like the non-fictional variety, within reason. That is to say, I enjoy collections of ghost stories that don’t try too hard to convince me that they’re true: “No, really, it was a real ghost. We got photos of orbs and EVPs and everything!” I like the folkloric and historic aspect of ghost stories: an interesting story about an interesting place. Walter Raleigh bopping around the Tower of London, yes; “footsteps” in a 60s ranch house in Indiana, not so much.

I recently found The World’s Most Haunted Places: From the Secret Files of by Jeff Belanger on a discount shelf at Barnes and Noble. Yay, ghost stories. Sadly, the ghost stories are pretty dull: full of clichés and footsteps when no one was there and doors opening when there was no wind. For example, one of the world’s most haunted places is, apparently, the catacombs of Paris. Belanger spends most of his time describing how creepy the place is. Fair enough–the place is full of countless skulls and bones. And the ghosts? The place is “as haunted as it is macabre,” Belanger assures us. Here is the evidence of haunting:

“Avez-vous vu un fantôme?” I asked the man at the ticket counter in my best French if he has seen a ghost. “Je ne sais pas,” was his reply. The man smiled and shrugged his shoulders” (p. 71)

“It’s a little overwhelming with all of the bones,” said Julie Hardman of Tempe, Arizona. I spoke with Hardman after she visited the museum with her daughter, Megan.

A security guard who asked not to be identified told me, “Some people go down and they are very afraid after seeing the bones. Some people say they hear things. Voices” (p. 75)

I was interested, though, in something Belanger says in his introduction:

To study these spirits is to study history. The spirit world and our past are intertwined–there’s a lot we can learn by studying both. (p. 11)

Now, I wouldn’t have put it like that, but to some extent I agree. For one thing, when ghost stories become attached to a place, such as the Tower of London, for instance, they become a part of that place’s history, even if they don’t accurately reflect the events that actually occurred. Like it or not, they become part of the folk history. More importantly, researching ghost stories certainly does involve studying history. In the first place, you are looking at the history of a location and the people associated with it. Secondly, in studying ghost stories in general, you will see how the stories change as the world changes. Belanger, of course, doesn’t look at ghost stories from this point of view–such a study might shake his belief in ghosts–so let’s look at how well he handles the history of the locations he discusses.

First up is Ballygally Castle, now greatly expanded into a hotel in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. According to Belanger,

Ballygally was originally built by James Shaw, a Greenock, Scotland native who came to Northern Ireland in 1613. Shaw built the castle in 1625 in a French chateau style….

Shortly after the completion of the castle’s construction, James Shaw took a wife named Lady Isobel Shaw. The current legend says that  during the first few years of their marriage, Lady Shaw had a daughter. James Shaw became angry that his wife didn’t produce a male heir, and so he locked her in the tiny turret of the castle facing the sea. It’s unclear whether Lady Shaw leapt to her death from the small window while desperately trying to get to her daughter, or whether James Shaw had some henchmen throw her down the steep staircase, killing her.

The first time I heard this bit of folklore, it didn’t sit right with me. (pp. 15-16)

Oh, good, because it doesn’t sit right with me, either. First of all, I’m highly suspicious of that title, which varies between Lady Isobel, indicating that her father was an earl or above, and Lady Shaw, indicating that her husband had a title (which Belanger doesn’t use). Secondly, what a Gothic cliché: evil husband confines wife to turret room for some crappy reason. She jumps or is pushed to her death. What do the records tell us?

If James Shaw was so upset about not getting a male heir, wouldn’t the couple just try for another child? After some digging, I heard another version of the legend that seemed to make more sense. Apparently, Lady Shaw may have been having an affair with a seaman. One could also speculate that her daughter may have been the love-child of this mysterious man. (p. 16)

Oh dear. Apparently, historical research involves looking for unsubstantiated anecdotal legends and choosing the one you like best. Well, I did a bit of extremely superficial historical research myself. That is to say, I asked my friend Google. It was difficult to find information that wasn’t ghost related. Even the Wikipedia entry on Ballygally was infested by legend. I found that Isobel’s name is variously spelled and that she is sometimes called Elizabeth. She didn’t have a title, and her maiden name was Brisbane. The information is confusing, but the following is a typical nugget, which comes from the Brisbane family genealogy. Among the offspring of John Brisbane was

 f-III. Elizabeth, m. to James Shaw, of Bailliegellie, in Ireland, of the family of Shaw of Greenock, and was mother of JAMES SHAW, who is mentioned hereafter, as the husband of his cousin, ELIZABETH BRISBANE, and continuator of the family.

Elsewhere, I did find James Shaw’s wife referred to as Isabella Brisbane Shaw, and they apparently had a daughter named Margaret. I think it’s possible that Isabella got confused with the Elizabeth Brisbane who married the second James Shaw. Regardless, she seems to have had a son, and there is no record of a mysterious death outside the ghostie books.  Nothing I found definitively contradicts Belanger’s legends (except for the erroneous title), but the genealogical information certainly calls certain aspects of the stories into question. And that’s after maybe a half an hour of Googling. Belanger didn’t try to find the truth behind the legends. He didn’t look at historical records–official documents recording births and deaths or genealogical research–he just listened to people telling stories. That is not history. But maybe he’ll improve as he warms to his subject.

The chapter on Ordsall Hall in Salford, England begins,

Here lies Lord have mercy upon her;
One of Elizabeth’s maids of honour.
Margaret Radclyffe fair and witty;
She died a maid, the more the pity.

Margaret Radclyffe’s gravestone is inscribed with the preceding epitaph. Radclyffe died November 10, 1599 at the age of 25. She was one of Queen Elizabeth’s maids of honor, one of the top six ladies in the royal court. The young maiden died in the building she grew up and lived in: Ordsall Hall. Because of her royal connections, she would receive a semi-state funeral and be interred in Westminster Abbey in London, but her spirit will always be at Ordsall Hall. (p. 87)

Margaret Radclyffe was one of Elizabeth I’s ladies in waiting. She did die young. She was not, however, buried in the Abbey, but at St. Margaret’s church on the Abbey’s grounds. As for the epitaph: there are several variants of it. Some do mention Margaret Radclyffe, but not all. I certainly can find no evidence that the passage is on her gravestone: it seems wholly inappropriate. Most of the variants do not name the lady. Here is the most common version. Some sources attribute the poem to John Hoskyns or Hoskins.

Don’t feel too bad for Margaret, though. One poet did write an epigram on her death:


M arble, weep, for thou dost cover
A dead beauty underneath thee,
R ich as nature could bequeath thee :
G rant then, no rude hand remove her.
A ll the gazers on the skies
R ead not in fair heaven’s story,
E xpresser truth, or truer glory,
T han they might in her bright eyes.

R are as wonder was her wit ;
A nd, like nectar, ever flowing :
T ill time, strong by her bestowing,
C onquer’d hath both life and it ;
L ife, whose grief was out of fashion
I n these times.  Few so have rued
F ate in a brother.  To conclude,
F or wit, feature, and true passion,
E arth, thou hast not such another. (source)

Oh, I know–it’s not as dignified as a bit of doggerel about how it’s a shame that such a pretty girl died a virgin, and the poet’s no John Hoskins. It’s only Ben Jonson.

I’m beginning to suspect that Belanger and I have a different understanding of the word “history.”



Belanger, Jeff. The World’s Most Haunted Places: From the Secret Files of New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004.

Finucane, Ronald C. Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation. New York: Prometheus, 1996. A book that genuinely combines ghost stories and historical research.

Masala Skeptic Reviews Twilight, Readers Make Funnies

November 22, 2011

Yeah, I’m just going to let you read this one by Maria Walters, who specializes in searing critiques of Twilight. This one is “Twilight: Breaking Wind.” And please be sure to pay attention to the comments and the guy who really pierces the heart of literature. Repeatedly. With a machete.

Also, enjoy Buffy vs. Sparkle Tits: