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Mylings: Who you gonna call?

A particularly interesting story from Scandinavia relates to apparitions called Mylings. They seem to be the manifestation of social history, superstition and twinging collective consciences.

Life in northern Scandinavia was hard, there isn’t much in the way of fertile land, the winters are long and cold with very short growing periods for crops. Starvation and illness were commonplace. As such when a family had a new baby it wasn’t unheard of to take the baby out to the woods and either slay it or let it succumb to the elements rather than watch the infant die of starvation. The bodies of these children needed to be buried in secret, away from consecrated ground. The spirits of these children would haunt the woods and accost lone travellers. If walking through the woods of a night, you heard the sound of a child crying or laughing you had likely been spotted by a Myling and were unlikely to escape.

Side Note: Whilst not exactly ghostbuster standard issue I do wonder how these phantasmic little bastards would stand up against a SPAS-12, a combat shotgun I trained with a number of years ago that I saw blow through a tree. Failing that has anyone ever tried to tackle a ghost with a flamethrower?

The Myling would climb on your back and insist you take them to be buried in consecrated ground. You would then have to carry them to the nearest graveyard for burial. The further you have to walk the heavier the Myling gets, if the graveyard is too far away the person may be crushed to death by it and the Myling returns to the place of its burial to accost other travellers. If you refuse to take the Myling to consecrated ground they will break your neck.

Side Note: These are not subtle critters.

When times are hard and there is another mouth to feed its not unusual for the children of a society to be informally sacrificed. Fortunately this isn’t as big a problem in the modern western world but it was a shared human experience globally only a couple of centuries ago. I cant imagine anything harder than making the decision, if you don’t eat you will die and then the child will die with no one to look after it, if you drop the child off in the woods you will survive and maybe have more children when times are better. Whilst I wont comment on the ghosts of these children walking around and snapping necks, I absolutely believe the parents would be haunted emotionally, especially in a culture full of zeal in its new found Christianity.

None the less if a spirit comes at me, child-ghost or any other ghost, I have no concerns about blowing its fucking head off.

Side Note: Child ghosts freak me out!

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The Three: King Hereafter.

The triple goddess is not a new or unique concept. The grouping of three women, typically represented as the Maid, the Mother and the Crone appear to have independently sprung up in folklore any mythology all around the world. The idea that concepts like this emerge independently seems unlikely until you realise that its far less likely the ancient Greeks were in communication with the emerging native tribes in the Americas. The independent development of similar ideas is referred to as Convergent Evolution and it has a great many manifestations. Its an area of theology in particular I find fascinating. It indicates a shared human experience despite being worlds apart.

Side Note: Whilst not a new concept it has been hijacked by unwashed, vegan, hippy women and driven in a direction totally unrecognisable. In this post I am referring to the historical cultural concepts, not the unhealthy new-age tool for dealing with a break-up. This may seem a little unfair but in my entire life I have met hundreds of “neo-pagans”, but I can count on one hand people who were committed practitioners and not just in it for the arts and crafts. I have only ever met one legitimate male neo-pagan.

So what about the maid, the mother and the crone is a shared experience? thematically they can indicate the passing of time, the past, the present and the future. Its also worth remembering that despite being marginalised in most societies women embody a particular primal power. Whilst I wont comment on the validity of this sentiment, women have often been seen as the creators, as only a woman can give life. Whereas men are often seen as the destroyers, or the takers of life. So the triple goddess is a concept that may represent the cycle of life. We clearly think about women in modern, western society, a bit differently to our ancestors. A number of articles I read published by professors of anthropology indicate that a lot of Celtic and Gaelic tribes were matriarchal. Guy Halsall is a strong proponent of this theory but I cant seem to find its academic origins. The matriarch being an elderly woman or Crone embodied wisdom. Most of the men in the tribe died violently and young so if you are looking for accrued experience you should be looking to the women. The Boudican revolt is often cited as evidence of this theory. I am unconvinced but would love to see further research to look into this.

Side Note: I have written the term “Triple Goddess” too many times now and its starting to bother me. Whilst other phrases are likely far more offensive I am going to start switching up the terminology mainly before I become a vegan. Don’t worry I will stay clear of phrases like “the holy ovarian trinity”.

I have selected four of the best known representations of the X-chromosome triad for comparison. This is not anything close to being an exhaustive list. Unfortunately very little legitimate historical research has been done on this topic as most of the people who have a great deal of knowledge about it are too busy strapping themselves to trees and weaving clothes from hemp to write comparative academic papers. Whilst my descriptions of the examples are extensively researched, my conclusion is my opinion entirely with very little credible work by other people to back it up.

The Norn’s

The Norn’s are described first in one of the earliest surviving written sources for Norse Mythology. The Voluspa, found in the Codex Regius is probably one of most studied works of literature offering insight into Norse myths. As such I have probably lost any pagan theology scholars who have been undoubtedly forced to read it ad nauseum. It relates largely to the creation of the universe. Whilst I could speak endlessly about stuff getting licked into creation by a magical cosmic cow the area of the Voluspa relevant to us right now relates to three sisters, The sit by Uroarbrunnr, the well of fate, found at the base of the great ash tree Yggdrassil. Every morning they tend to the great tree with water from the well and then set about their task of weaving the fate of all things into a tapestry. The sisters were Urdr, Veroandi and Skuld representing past, present and future. The implication particularly from stanza twenty of the Voluspa is that they can see the fates of men and what they weave is what will come to pass. They are much revered in Norse culture and are often mentioned in passages with Odin, Thor, Tyr and the Einherjar. To me at least this indicates their status and importance.

There are sources which describe the appearance of the Norn’s which are believed to be contemporary to the primary Eddas which should be read with significant scepticism as they were written by Christian observers. The Norn’s are described in the typical maiden, mother and crone format. Whilst less explicit, direct oral histories later written down heavily infer all three were elderly. In one story however a handsome prince was so captivated by Urdr’s beauty that he, distracted, fell to his death. This would be a very atypical story if Urdr appeared as an elderly lady however I am unwilling to presume anything at this point.

Side Note: I have found dozens of translations of the names of the Norn’s, the most popular appear to be Urdr (Fate), Veroandi (Happening) and Skuld (Debt). There is an amazing line in the movie Thirteenth Warrior “The All-Father wove the skein of your life a long time ago, run and hide in a hole if you wish, you wont live one instant longer”. Whilst there is no evidence in any of the surviving texts that Odin has ever woven anything, the quote does accurately represent the belief in pre-destiny that is rich in everything we know about the Norse.

Moirai

Anglicised as The Fates, three sisters recorded in the earliest works of Hellenistic literature. Their names were Clotho (the Spinner), Lachesis (the Alotter) and Atropos (the unturnable). Again we have the association with weaving, they each hold the “prime thread of life” for every mortal, they work them together into a tapestry of fate. Even the Gods had to submit to the will and power of the Moirai. Fortunately these three sisters appeared to have no agenda but to ensure fate followed its allotted course.

Interestingly the Greeks and most of the other Hellenic cultures had some pretty Nihilistic ideas about death. It was thought that immortality of body or soul was reserved for very special occasions and as a rule the only way to obtain any kind of immortality was through Immortal Memory. In the doing of great deeds you may remain in the minds of man long after your corporeal death. Thus the Moirai, as maintainers of the cosmic balance were in many ways more powerful than the Gods. However depending on whether you are reading the Odyssey by Homer or Hesiods Theogony this is more a spectrum than a fixed rule.

Side Note: “Unturnable” an awesome classical great euphemism for Death.

The Morrigu

The Morrigu has many names, including my favourite the Morrigan which is used interchangeably between an individual Goddess and a Triple Goddess made up of Anu (The Maid), Badb (The Mother) and Macha (The Crone). They pop up a lot in Irish Gaelic mythology as symbols of life, death and rebirth. In particular the Morrigan is associated with death in battle, sometimes seen as a raven flying over the battlefield. The interchangeable singular or trio seems to depend entirely on where in Ireland you happen to be. This triple Goddess is particularly associated with foreshadowing death in battle. They consort to reveal the past, present and future of men who are lucky … or unlucky enough to pique their interest. Irish folklore is incredibly challenging to unpick at the best of times however in relation to this trio they have been the focus of an incredible amount of reflection and embellishment over the years and after several hours of reading I realised that most of the work I was looking at referenced a single source written in 1870.

Many of the stories involve sightings of the aspects of the Morrigan. If you saw Anu by a stream washing your armour, you were certain to die in battle that day. If Badb was seen the day you were born, your life is sure to become legend. Macha has a much broader divine portfolio however most stories see her as a psychopomp, she herds spirits into the next life. When Cu Cullain, the mightiest of men who had felled entire armies and Gods himself, Swiped left on The Morrigan (probably Anu). The Morrigan did not take this well and she fucked him up, a slow process of torture in which he saw his friend and then his horse die before he himself perished. He tied himself to a rock using his own entrails in order to die standing. Anu achieved this with relative ease, demonstrating her status and power amongst men and Gods.

Side Note: There are a couple of particularly shapely hills near Killarny in Ireland which are referred to as Anus breasts, The first record of this name comes from the eighth century. Its good to know men are consistent throughout time.

Shakespeare -Macbeth

It may seen a bit odd to bring the bard into this however his works are rich with witchcraft and folklore. He also lived in a time when there was a massive resurgence in belief in the supernatural. I am going to focus on the obvious first scenes of Macbeth.

Side Note: I say he lived ina time of massive resurgence in belief in the supernatural. I am pretty confident Bill was driving that resurgence and capitalising heavily from it.

One of Shakespeare’s better known plays opens with lightning briefly illuminating a Scottish moor, Three old and haggered women suddenly appear with a shriek and cackle. They arrange their next meeting at a time and place where they will be found by Macbeth. From the first scene of the first act we get a sense of the prophetic powers of the three. With our previous examples each of the triumvirate appear as a separate aspect of the same concept. With Shakespeare’s three we don’t differentiate, they are all elderly, they are only seen in darkened moors or healthland with lightning punctuating their primal powers. Shakespeare’s three casually discuss the future with absolute certainty. So far they are sounding more and more like representations of the Norn’s. Shakespeare referenced Norse mythology quite heavily in A Midsummer Nights Dream so its not an area unfamiliar to him. For me the final evidence comes with his use of the term “Wyrd Sisters”, a pun, admittedly a bad one, indicating they are strange in their nature (wierd) but also a reference to the old norse word for fate, and a name used interchangeably with Urdr, the first of the Norn’s. Their age and form are the embodiment of some cosmic wisdom.

Whether by design or luck Macbeth is a fairly good exploration of fate and prophecy. The Wyrd sisters tell Macbeth his fate but appear to have no direct influence over it. Arguably with knowledge of human nature simply telling Macbeth a story which they could have fabricated entirely would have been sure to direct the events of the play. This is in no way supernatural and one would question their motives beyond mischief. I will leave you do decide if Macbeth truly had any power in his story.

My Thoughts

Hopefully you will be able to draw more conclusions from this post. My thoughts are that our combined folklore indicates that women held a great deal of power and wisdom. A perspective that seems to have been erroded by the never ending march of Christianity. Misogyny thy name is papacy. Whether they were spirits or witches or deities, responsibility for the cosmic order has only ever been trusted to wise women rather than men or Gods. The fixation on the number three is considered to be a particularly Celtic thing however the Triple Goddess appears all over the world at different times.

In researching this I got a lot of remarks along the lines of “You cant write about this stuff, you’re a man!” all of this came from women. I am unsure why men are considered unable or not permitted to write about comparative mythology involving women.

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Saxons: Ages of Darkness

I have completed a number of posts to be released over the Christmas and New Year period. This was largely because I had planned this post and it took a truly epic amount of research and led me down a myriad of fascinating rabbit holes. You will not be surprised to year that I am easily distracted by tangantal fascinations. I decided to capitalise on this by writing a series of posts.

The period between the Roman withdrawal from Britannia and the Norman conquest of England has largely been considered The Dark Ages. This term has a number of connotations, indicating that life was barbaric and short, with no cultural development. Whilst we now know this is, mostly, not the case we can still refer to this period a Dark Age due to how little we know about the period we now broadly refer to as Saxon.

Side Note: This has always fascinated me, we know more about the time before and the time after. Normally this would be due to lack of written evidence but we do have remaining texts from the Saxon period. King Alfred, one of the great kings of West Saxony(Wessex), commissioned the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. We also have a famous history written by a Welshman in the mid ninth century. Nenius (probably not his real name), wrote the Historia Brittonium in which he provides the first written “evidence” of King Arthur.

ex Nihlo

After the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the subsequent collapse of the empire relatively shortly afterwards, most of Europe was one big power vacuum. Whilst many of the cultures were now heavily latinised and upgraded with all the newest kit and tactics, the old cultural divisions very quickly asserted themselves and the political borders drawn across Europe very closely resembled the pre-empire cultural borders.

Side Note: its amazing how no matter who you are, the old enemy will always be the enemy.

Britain was slightly different. They hadn’t been occupied by Rome for as long as the rest of Europe and as a result the Latin influences on their cultures faded away more readily than integrated. With the arrival of the Saxons and the Jutes the native Bretons were pushed back to Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. To this day three three areas have more in common with each other culturally than with England.

Eventually the Saxons took control of England …. sort of. Cornwall, Wales and Scotland remained as separate kingdoms and England was broken up into between three and six Saxon kingdoms. It would be centuries before we find the first Bretwalda emerge. These early kingdoms were still Germanic Pagan. We know a lot about their language primarily from later sources like Beowulf.

Side Note: Saxon or Old English is almost entirely unintelligible to a modern English speaker, Everything from sentence structure to pronunciation differ greatly however it is very definitely the direct ancestor of our current language. The sounds feel familiar and almost pleasing. The names of the kingdoms, West Seaxe, Hwicce and Mercia drip with regal pride.

ad Nihlo

So given when have a sophisticated culture who wrote stuff down, practised large scale agriculture, built great halls and buildings, manufactured weapons, armours and tools, you are probably asking why we still know so little about Saxon life.

There are two key causes for our lack of archaeological evidence to support any hypothesis about Saxon life. The first is the simple biological fact that dead stuff decays, whilst weapons and armour and other rare items indicating extreme wealth may survive, these were not possessed by the lower classes of Saxon society. So a lot of the hard evidence we have only applies to the top 0.01% of a society.

The second reason for the lack of evidence is Christianity. Once England became christianised the people who were educated enough to write the histories tended to be the clergy, and they decided that the factual history of Britain wasn’t nearly as important as doing glory to God. Beliefs in the spirit world which are believed to be a strong central point in Saxon life were written out of the new Christian histories, the Old Gods became demons set forth from hell. Everything suddenly slotted into the biblical narrative including some hilarious re-arrangements of facts to account for the great flood.

Side Note: This may seem a bit disingenuous and whilst I will openly admit I have no great love for the incredibly destructive influence the spread of Christianity had on the historical record, I should stress that the function of recording a history at the time and all the way until the seventeenth century had very little to do with the accurate recording of fact and more about recounting moral laden fables and making a point.

All of this provides us some idea of the political landscape however nothing of how these people, our ancestors, lived. Stories like Beowulf were considered to be high fantasy with no bearing in real life. Then something incredible happened. At a place called Sutton Hoo in Suffolk a great ship burial was found with a staggering volume of grave goods. I have a separate post lined up for Sutton Hoo. This dated back to pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England and told us a lot about how these pagan ancestors regarded their dead. Shortly after this a Saxon settlement (possibly a palace, I am unconvinced) was discovered in the archaeological record only a few miles away dating to roughly the same time. This offered an incredibly contrast in how the same culture practised in life and death.

Things to Come

I hope you enjoy this series of posts, if this is a period of history that interests you I would strongly recommend you look into the works of Professor Guy Halsall. He’s a historian and archaeologist who specialises in this period of European history and has a gift for communicating the nuances of the period. Whilst I’ve read a large number of works and books throughout this series Guy Halsall’s Worlds of Arthur was used as a starting point in every post.

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Legio IX: Did they stay or did they go?

Since the introduction of my contact form I have received a number of questions from people who, for various reasons, didn’t want to ask questions in the comments section of the relevant post. Most of these I answer independently. However one I felt merited a post of its own. “JeffHead” asked in response to my post on Boudicca “What stories are there about the disappearance of the ninth legion, and what do you think happened to them”.

There are a lot of very sensible theories about what happened to Legio IX Hispana. We know prior to the invasion of Britain around 43 AD, they were fighting in Germania. Here they built a fairly impressive reputation even by legionary standards and up until Boudicca beat the living shit out of them in 61 AD they were largely considered to be undefeatible. Five-thousand five-hundred experienced infantry and cavalry, battle hardened and well led felled by a crushing hubris and Celtic iron.

Their commander at the battle of Camulodunum was a chap called Quintus Petillius Cerialis. Given how in Roman society, reputation is all I would imagine his recall to Rome was probably more punitive. We know the ninth were restored to full strength with infantry from Gaul under a new commander. For the next forty years they were bouncing around Britain. In 71 and 72 AD once again under the command of Cerialis they undertook a successful campaign against the Brigantes. In 82 AD they entered Caledonia under Agricola where they experienced a stunning defeat.

Side Note: It is not recorded how Agricola managed to get as far as Caledonia with Tacitus head lodged so far up his arse.

The last record of the ninth was rebuilding the city of Eboracum in 101 AD. After this there is nothing. Which is odd given the Romans wrote everything down in painful detail. So lets look at some popular theories.

They Naturalised

One theory is that given they were not a legion formed from one region they lost unit cohesion and there were mass desertions, bare in mind most of this legion were from Gaul and had never been to Rome, they had far more in common with the Britain’s they were occupying than the commanders who would never endorse them with the rights of a citizen. The native Britons were also running a bit short on men after almost a century of war. I would guess there were some pretty convincing incentives to drop your spear and settle down with a nice Celtic girl. It is however hard to believe all 5500 men naturalised, it was unlikely to be a bloodless mutiny however I would argue Rome would be disinclined to record losing an entire legion to desertion.

This theory expands into the possibility that a naturalised Roman leader went on to command an army of Celts against the Saxons, thus giving rise to the mythology of King Arthur. This however suggests that the legion was maintained in Britain until the fourth century when the Romans withdrew from Britain. However this would still leave the proposed leader Artorius Aurealis well in his nineties at the battle of Camlynn where the legendary Arthur was mortally wounded.

Side Note: The romanised name for this commander is Ambrosius which evolves linguistically into Ambrose which translates in Welsh into Emrys which is one of the myriad suggested names for Merlin.

They Disbanded

There is a running theme in the military “If you wipe the name, you may wipe the shame”. The two defeats experienced by Legio IX Hispania were crushing and shattered the illusion of immortality Rome had forged since its sacking by Brennus in 387 AD. It is possible that the legion was simply disbanded and its men sent to reinforce other legions. However again we have no surviving written records and I cant imagine any Roman having the discipline to avoid writing anything down.

They Got Slaughtered

The were a highly experienced and trained military unit, their two high profile defeats should have been insignificant against centuries of victories. However as is true today we often only get recognised for our failures and not our victories. However what if one of their defeats was a little more momentous? one theory is that they marched again into Caledonia and were promptly destroyed. However you’d imagine five thousand bodies would leave something in the archaeological record.

My Theory

Of the available theories, the one I feel is most plausible is administrative error. As mundane as it may be perhaps someone just forgot to log the legions departure from the island, after which they continued to serve in Gaul. There is little convincing evidence to support the legions continued existence however I am always willing to presume bureaucratic error.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in my previous post the ghosts ninth legion are reported to march through the old treasure house in York on a moonlight night. I doubt this mystery will ever find a resolution but it does inspire a great deal of romanticism.

Thank you to JeffHead for the question.

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Ghosts: The Hereafter

I was listening to a ghost story several nights ago. The narrator did incredible work of running chills down my spine as he laid the scene. Rarely do ghost stories have an effect on me and as the tale progressed I felt my pulse quicken, I became aware of every little sound around me. Its fair to say I was on the edge of my seat. He then reached the end of the story – “… Gunther turned and stood before him was a man, as he took in the scene he say the appirations head with under his arms!”. I suspect this peak would normally have people screaming given the groundwork that had been laid however my response was to sigh and respond “well that’s just a non standard head placement”.

It was all going so well but I find anatomically inconvenienced ghosts to be very anticlimactic. Frankly given the evidence I would argue the ghost was probably having a worse day than the drunk baker confronted by him.

It did bring into sharp focus however the prevalence of headless ghost stories in British folklore. Beheading was a particularly popular judicial punishment by the English and British monarchy. Queen Elizabeth I was particularly famous for introducing people who had annoyed her to the axe. Beheading as a capital punishment was been around for a lot longer than the later preferred hanging. Arguably if someones head is ten feet from their body, you cant be in much doubt about their vital status. Whereas in the case of William Cragh it was definitely possible to survive a hanging, twice in fact. Additionally whilst you could present a hanged corpse in a gibbet, a head is far more decorative on a pike.

Beheading seems to end as a punishment in the mid-eighteenth century, in favour of hanging. The last hanging in the UK took place in the 1960s however it was still a technical option until the introduction of the Crime and Punishment Act in 1998. Meaning any reference to beheading is likely to be more historic and thus inherently more mystical. Additionally a man walking around with his head under an arm is definitely not alive whereas intact ghosts could just be living men seen in dim light or fog.

Headless Horsemen

There does seem to be some solace for decapitated spectres, many of them seem to have horses. I suspect this is some kind of ethereal compensation. You’re now ten inches shorter but here is a pony. Having spent a week or so researching this post I noted that a huge amount of the stories cluster around Suffolk. Some of the oldest may have their origins during the Roman occupation however translated through the years may have inspired stories like Sleepy Hollow. One refers to a headless Germanic warrior who rode around lopping peoples heads off at night before retiring to his grave under a “great blood oak” at dawn.

Side Note: I’m unsure how they identified the headless, and thus mute, warrior was Germanic. I suppose he could have been Germanic in garb but its quite a specific detail for a time when people observed very little cultural detail, there’s us and everyone else are the savages.

People eventually got a bit pissed off at the ongoing threat of beheading by an angry German jockey and found his grave, exhumed him and did some Christian stuff to it. Thus the killings and sightings of this specific horseman ended. However the lore suggests these killings were happening most nights for at least two generations. I’m unsure why it took them so long to decide to do anything about it.

Headless Monk

Again in Suffolk, on a road between Brantham and Bentley where a priory once stood. There have been accounts of a headless monk. Honestly that’s as much detail as I can reliably ascertain. No one appears to have been harmed by this monk. There are lots of accounts of seeing him but no real explanation or exploration. The priory in question was Dodnash Priory which appears to have been established in the early twelfth century and was abandoned around the time of the reformation n the sixteenth century. There’s a fair amount of administrative documentation that survives from the time, mainly how much they were collecting in rent but none of the day to day records survived Henry VIIIs sexually frustrated rampage against the church. Certainly I wasn’t able to find anything particularly unamusing happening to a monk. However accounts of this chap strolling down the road at night number in the one or two a year for several centuries.

Headless Women (Ghosts)

Interestingly tales of headless female ghosts are fairly scarce in Britain. Notable beheaded figures such as Anne Boleyn has been noted in a lot of places however I am unsure how the identity has been established. In particular she can be seen angrily stomping around the Tower of London.

Phantasmic women do feature quite heavily in British and world folklore, particularly the independent evolution of the Woman in White mythology which seems to have sprung up pretty much everywhere. But as a rule this women are cranially in tact. Whilst its true over the millenia far more men have been beheaded than women its surprising how few headless females inhabit the great beyond.

Conclusion

Whilst tales of headless spirits seem widespread there are very few connecting themes. I do wonder how many of these tales had been more dynamic in oral tradition before we started writing stuff down. What we believe to be a tale of Saxon or Roman origin may have been kicking around for centuries as a celtic fable.

A very cool project, if someone hasn’t already done this, would be to colour code a map of the UK by folkloric tale type so you could see the clusters for different categories like I noted with Suffolk.

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Winter Spirits: Berchta

Gods and Goddesses governing the repeating cycles of nature are pretty universal and certainly predate recorded history. Humans naturally attribute things beyond their comprehension to deities of some sort. There are very few world cultures that don’t have a winter deity.

One of my favourites is Frau Berchta from the Alpine Germanic tribes of Europe. My interpretation of her stories spins around the idea shes fundamentally insane. She has incarnations and counterparts in most Pre-Christian European mythology. and is often considered the third part of a Goddess Trinity, a common theme where a group of three women – The Maiden, The Mother and the Crone collectively control portions of natures cycles.

Side Note: My absolute favourite divine trinity are the Morigu of Irish Celtic Folklore, in particular the Morrigan who utterly fucked up the hero Cú Chulainn. Both will be appearing in a future post. I really have a think for capricious Goddesses.

Berchta has been subject to a great deal of academic speculation. Jakob Grimm (yes that one) recorded her as a Pre-Christian Goddess who goes by different names around the Alps. She is at the height of her power around the winter solstice and would enter peoples houses about this time. If the children there had kept up with their chores and been good throughout the year she would place a silver coin under their pillow as they slept. If however they had been naughty she would eviscerate them, replacing their entrails with straw and stones.

Side Note: …. What the fuck!? If Father Christmas was presented as doing this I would be arming my kids and teaching them to blow his fucking head off.

I would imagine this was a more effective mechanism of control than threatening children with a lump of coal. One of her attributes is the Goddess of spinning and she is often seen in the woods on a winters night spinning cloth. As such she had a particularly interest in girls who had maintained their allotment of spinning for the year.

Side Note: I would explore this in more detail but I’m pretty sure the answer to any questions about her focus on young girls and normalised childhood servitude will be “because the patriarchy”.

She is mostly depicted as a veiled woman in a glittering white dress. Often with one eye and carrying a staff.

Side Note: Yes dear reader, what we have here is Odin in drag.

The Berchta would also take her knife to the abdomen of anyone who deviated from her specific menu on her feast night. If you ate anything but fish and gruel you would find yourself full of straw and stones which frankly isn’t dissimilar to how I have felt on boxing day most years.

She did also serve as a protector. Occasionally being presented as the leader of the Wild Hunt. Her portfolio seems to have increased rather after the invasion of Christianity and includes protecting –

The Unbaptised Dead,
The dead who have no one to remember them,
Those who commit suicide due to a broken heart,
Stillbirth, Miscarriage and Abortion.
Those who lacked a respectful burial.

She would gather up these souls and they would walk with her, under her protection.

Modern Academics question whether the Berchta is a Pre-Christian deity and suspect she was dreamt into being around the tenth century. However she fills a niche created by many deities and spirits and whilst the name may be newer it’s likely the character is extremely ancient.


Side Note: I’m aware I have just applied the word “extremely” to ancient, something I would chastise anyone else for doing however in context I want to emphasise something so old its almost primordial.

Some Final Thoughts

Terry Pratchett commented on pagan mythologies beautifully in his book The Hogfather. He observed that “the very oldest stories of the beginning are sooner or later about blood” and that all other stories came from these origins. In the same book there is an amazing dialogue between the protagonists when one asked what would have happened had they not saved the Hogfather the other states that the sun would have not risen tomorrow. When prompted for more detail he expands “a mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the sky”. I know I have recommended this book before but when it comes to myths and human nature this is a must read.

Another of my favourite interpretations on the nature of Gods comes from a book by David Gemmell, The king beyond the gate, in which he speculates that in the beginning the Gods were all powerful creators of the universe however they have grown senile with age and spend their days playing tricks on mankind with cosmic bad taste.

Whatever your beliefs or backgrounds I think its irrefutable that stories as a way of shaping the world around us are important, they connect us with something ancient in a way that nothing else can.

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DNA: Four Letters

Since my mid-teens I have been fascinated by genetics. There are a numbers of reasons for this. When I was seventeen the human genome project was completed. The worlds media was abuzz with science and pseudoscience. On a more personal level I have a genetic condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa(RP) caused my a single nucleotide mutation on my X-Chromosome.

Some Science

Almost every cell of your body contains your DNA. A complete blueprint of how you are built. Its popularly presented as a colourful winding ladder. Each rung on that ladder represents a Nucleotide Base Pair. This means two nucleotides are joined together. Each complete set of your DNA contains three billion nucleotides, that’s 1,500,000,000 rungs on that ladder. There are four types of nucleotide represented by four letters – T, A, C and G. T will only bind with A and C will only bind with G. So by looking at one half of your DNA you can infer the other half relatively reliably. Lengths of those base pairs are grouped together in what we call Genes. Genes tell a cell how to produce proteins which express different traits; skin colour, eye colour, various medical predispositions, etc. A genes are then grouped together into what we call Chromosomes half of these come from your mother and half from your father, with a bit of shuffling. The last chromosome pair are your sex chromosomes which are inherited in tact from your parents with no shuffling. I’ll get into why this specifically is so cool in a bit.

Side Note: This is an extremely simplified explanation where I haven’t gone into transcription and translation or the fifth nucleotide. I’ve tried to keep it simple as I recognise not everyone has the same patient for unnecessary detail in this as me.

Mutations occur in every generation where a gene its copied incorrectly. Mutations can either be deletions where a nucleotide isn’t copied across at all or substitutions where for example a T might be swapped for a G. This may sound a bit scary but mutations are necessary for life and evolution. These seemingly accidental changes in gene expression result in new traits which, if providing an advantage will result in increased procreation and the trait will become dominant in a species.

Some History

A great example of this is skin colour. Darker skin is a survival requirement for our stone age ancestors inhabiting equatorial regions. The darker skin allowed just the right amount of melanin to be produced whilst protecting the body from the extremes of UV radiation. However as early modern humans migrated north to where the sun was far less intense they would have found that obtaining enough vitamin D from sunlight exposure was difficult, resulting in what is likely to be more disease amongst those with darker skins, slowly as mutations occurred for lighter skin these became dominant as they offered a strong advantage in the higher latitudes.

The ability to test ancient remains for genetic traits has proven fascinating. Its extremely likely Cheddar Man and all those early modern humans who came before him had “very dark” or “black” skin. This didn’t prevent him procreating as recent testing has shown 10% of the population of Britain today can probably trace their ancestry back to Cheddar Man. Whilst this 10% sadly does not include myself it does include my wife who is roughly as Caucasian as it is possible to be.

Side Note: It is a source of great sadness to me that my wife isn’t nearly as excited about her likely genetic link to Cheddar Man as I am.

My Genes – Geography

As you can probably guess I submitted my self for genetic analysis by a leading company in the field. I am really impressed with them and would happily recommend the company to anyone who wants to either leave a comment below or submit a contact form.

Before I get into the details of my report I will look back to Retinitis Pigmentosa. In my case it is the result of a single nucleotide deletion in a gene on my X-Chromosome. One nucleotide in three billion was deleted at some point in my families genetic past and it has resulted in deteriorating vision to blindness, prior to that poor colour vision, no peripheral vision and night blindness. Whilst in all likelihood I am missing a lot more nucleotides a lot of them have either been compensated for by the process of mixing my parents genes or the mutations occurred in areas that don’t appear to code for anything. This is the astounding power of these incredible little molecules.

So my genetic reports include ancestry percentages –
59.6% British and Irish,
35.7% French and German,
2.9% Other Western European,
1.1% Western Asian and North African,
0.4% Cypriot.
0.3% Other.

The company that process my genome use an algorithm that compare it to all of the other users. These databases tend to be proprietary so if I were to submit my sample to another company I may get slightly different results. They look for single nucleotide polymorphisms, which are mutations that occur and are prevalent in specific geographical areas. I would imagine globalisation complicates this process as people move around a lot more today. So these results are more about probabilities. Using this with the family tree I have put together through physical genealogical research I can say this report appears to be very accurate. The results get more detailed and show almost 45% of my genome is recently common in Cornwall, which isn’t surprising as my paternal lineage is Cornish with no real deviation or movement.

So the ancestry demographic report is, as far as I can prove completely accurate. What else did this company tell me about my genetic profile?

My Genes – Prehistoric DNA

Thanks to extraction of DNA from a growing number of prehistoric finds, particularly well preserved remains of Neanderthals we can see around seven thousand segments of DNA (not necessarily whole genes) which have been inherited by modern humans from Neanderthals. Of this possible seven thousand I have 261 which is roughly average for a caucasian British male today. I’m going to go into what this tells us about the relationship between Anatomically Modern Humans(AMH) and Neanderthals in another post.

According to my report the areas of DNA that show my Neanderthal ancestry predispose me to –
1. Prefer salty foods to sweet foods – True,
2. Have an apple body shape rather than a pear – True,
3. Be a better sprinter than long distance runner – True,
4. Prefer dark chocolate to milk chocolate – True,
5. Have detached earlobes – False.

All in all given the genes tested are only indicators or predispositions this is all fairly accurate too. The Neanderthal genome was only mapped in 2010 and there are still a huge number of ongoing projects to determine how this extinct cousin has impacted our lives.

Side Note: As previously noted I come from Cornish stock so the fact my ancestors mated with their cousins isn’t a surprise. Also I have no idea what chemical in dark chocolate is preferable to Neanderthals.

Who am I?

The reports go into a huge amount more detail however it begs the question why do I, like so many people find this so interesting?

Humans innately seek connection, our relationships kept us safe even before we were a distinct species, it allowed us to protect ourselves, to hunt and to travel. Because of this its not at all surprising we look to the past as readily as we look to the present and future to find our connections.

When answering the question Who am I? the answer is – I am a husband, a father, a nurse, a blogger, and at times a bit of a dick. My software is who I am, software coded through millions of experiences and thoughts and feelings.
My DNA gives you some idea of the specifications of my hardware out of the box, my hardware now can only be explained clinically with numbers and observation.

This doesn’t diminish the value of looking to our past but its important to put that information in the right context and use it to answer the right question.

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Harii: Ghosts or Guerrillas

I have mentioned before how painful I found studying Tacitus in my formative years. Despite this I do seem to keep coming back to him. In this instance he is literally the only source I could find so its possible I am about to recount, in the minimal detail available to me, a two thousand year old fiction created due to Tacitus being hypoxic because his head was lodged too far up his father in laws arse.

Whilst watching a video by one of my favourite youtubers recently she passingly mentioned the Harii, given the pace of the video and the irrelevance of the Harii to the core theme it probably would have passed unnoticed had it not sounded familiar to me. In his Germania Tacitus offers us one paragraph on the Harii.

“As for the Harii, they are superior in strength to the others listed here; Savage as they are, they enhance their innate furiosity with trickery and timing. They blacken their shields and stain their bodies, and choose pitch-dark nights for battles. The shadowy horror of this ghostly army inspires a mortal panic. No enemy can stand so strange and devilish a sight. Defeat in battle always begins with the eye.”

That’s it. That’s all Tacitus gave us directly on the Harii. He appears to be relaying his knowledge of this particular teutonic tribe with a certain amount of respect which I don’t feel he offers to any of the other “Savages”.

Side Note: Across time and geography the universal definition of “savage” is “not us”.

Most prominently he describes their tactics in battle which isn’t surprising as he seems to struggle with the concept of these tribes having a culture. However hellenistic cultures like Greece and Rome have always placed a high value on cunning in battle. The great hero Odysseus from Homers Illiad and Odyssey holds the epithet “Master of Stratagems” above any other. Whilst the level of strategy he describes in the Harii seems far advanced of its time particularly for Germanic and Northern European cultures its important to note that these cultures didn’t keep written records, at least not records like chronicles that were meant ot be archived as such we don’t have any first person accounts and we are forced to rely on a paragraph in a heavily biased work by a man who saw anything not Roman as innately savage.

Side Note: Whilst I have no doubt several hundred men Oliviering up and charging you in the dead of night would be terrifying I do wonder how effective and safe a battle strategy it is to run around in the dark with a load of your mates and start swinging a sword around.

Tacitus refers to the Harii as the most power of the peoples he lists. In terms of context for the rest of his work I suspect he means wealthiest and in control of the most land. Which is why it is surprising neither he nor apparently any one else contemporary had anything to say about them. There are some works written hundreds of years after Germania which are either directly copied from Tacitus work or complete fictions, full of anachronistic impossibilities. Tacitus does however offer us one last clue about these mysterious people. In following his list of tribes in a line around Europe we can place the Harii between the rivers Vistula and Oder, squarely in modern day Poland.

Archaeology in Poland

Archaeological research in Poland isn’t as well resourced or funded as in places like the United Kingdom or France. Particularly in post-war Europe archaeological preservation and research would not have been high on the list of priorities for a country that had been occupied and exploited with its population decimated. That being said some work has been done around Poland’s bronze and iron ages leading into the classical antiquity described by Tacitus. However given the sheer volume of tribes that occupied the area both at the same time and consecutively its impossible to attribute any one find to a particular tribe. Whilst there were almost certainly cultural nuances they were all broadly speaking Germanic and due to trade and conquest the acquisition of technologies that worked from one tribe to another happened far to rapidly for us to distinguish through the murky lens of two thousand years.

Side Note: I should stress a lot of the above sits a bit uncomfortably because it relies on the homogenising perspective of rampant racists like Tacitus.

We know broadly that these people all seemed to worship the same Gods, in the same ways. They buried their dead with reverence in the same ways. The seem to use the same tools for the same jobs. So what can we infer about the Harii from what we know about the Germanic tibes as a whole?

When trying to understand a culture with no remaining written records there is always one reliable source of information. As with Homer and his contemporaries the oral tradition has been used to share intimate details of a culture for millenia and whilst we don’t have directly surviving tales from the period We do have The Brothers Grimm, in particular Jakob Grimm who was a folkloric anthropologist of totally unappreciated skill. He dedicated his life to collecting and codifying the oral folklore of the Germanic people. In doing so he managed to, for the first time, identify themes in the fables and folklore covering the geography of mainland Europe. He even managed to track the spread of some Gods, Goddesses and Spirits across the land and time, showing how the names and stories subtly shifted to suit the needs of their adopted cultures. From his work we can suggest that the Harii would have likely been pantheistic, which is supported by the archaeology, with heavy focus on spirits of nature and the elements. The tribes around the Harii are likely to be some of the earliest identified to celebrate a warrior class in death, ultimately evolving in the later lore of Odin, Valhalla and the Valkyrie. Many of the names of their Gods are lost to us however Jakob noted a link between three winter Goddesses suggesting a much older, darker and more primal ancestry with origins in these bronze age Germanic tribes (and possibly earlier).

Some Final Thoughts

I still cant decide if the Harii even existed as a specific and distinct people. I am always sceptical where only one primary source exists. Whilst I don’t like Tacitus, if the Harii did exist he provided them and their name its only real memorial.

Also whilst I am aware that I have referred to Tacitus as a sycophant and a racist in this post, that is due to significant editing. Originally this post was just a venomous rant about how Tacitus ruined my adolescence. Two well evidence insults is an improvement (and frankly evidence of personal growth on my part).

In researching this I became aware of a lot of work suggesting a link between the Harii as described by Tacitus and the Einherjar, dead warriors who follow and fight beside Odin in much later Norse mythology. Others may disagree but I think this link to be incredibly weak. “Odin has ghost soldiers and these guys might have looked a bit like ghosts when they were fighting several hundred years before”. If you believe that I’ve got a three legged horse to sell you that’s a sure thing in the next grand national.

I’ve not really gone into much detail about the cultural destruction caused by empire and how had the Romans not expanded in the manner they did we would probably know a lot more about the peoples of Europe at the time. I do have a good rant about the dangers of empire in previous posts though so feel free to check my back catalogue.

Finally, I think all of this emphasises the importance of oral tradition in the preservation of culture. Whilst its not as neat as having exact facts written down for you in context when read these stories can share a lot about a culture. I am unsure if they are the originators of this but the youtube channel Extra Credit often state –

“Myths are not stories that are untrue, instead they’re tales that don’t fit in the historical record, which serve as a foundation of a culture.”

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Dante: A bone to pick

I’ve often make my feelings about Dante Alighieri known. After being forced to study the Devine Comedy …. repeatedly I have no great love for the man. Its not just the post-traumatic stress that having my classics teacher bellow “but what did he REALLY mean” a hundred times a lecture for two years has induced. I genuinely found the trilogy extremely politically driven, with name dropping enemies of the current power and describing at length the punishment for their sins. Whilst this almost certainly gives us an insight into the author and the social and political environment in which he was writing. I don’t see how it qualifies as the “the most important work of medieval literature”. I found La Vita Nuova, another work by Alighieri, to have far more depth and tone. The themes feel more sincere and as an exploration of courtly love it feels far more personal.

However giving me a reason to amateurishly critique his epic poetry wasn’t the only thing Dante did with his life. He was a statesman in what, for the time period, is my favourite city(-state) on earth, Florence. There were conflicts between ruling houses, as well as ideological divides between those supporting the pope and those who wanted religious independence from Rome. This was two hundred years before Henry VIII was even born. Florence was described as a “festering pit, removed from the light of God and run by bankers”. However what we can see with hindsight is, walking those streets at roughly the same time were Lorenzo ‘il Magnifico’ de Medici, Niccolo Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci, so it clearly had something going on. The Mediterranean’s greatest minds converged in one place and flourished, likely due to its “hedonistic” liberalism. You could do pretty much anything you liked with anyone you like as long as you paid your taxes. In a Europe getting deeper and deeper into control by the medieval catholic church this concept was huge and liberating.

That being said, as a politician in a city run by bankers, our boy Dante appears to have misappropriated some public funds and was sentenced to exile, should he return before paying off an impossible fine then they would be using him for a bonfire. This on top of all of his assets in Florence being seized.

Side Note: This seems like a really good way of managing tax dodgers. Rather than the current system of “we will issue a fine that is only a fraction of the tax you’ve neglected to pay and call it quits”. I like the idea of take all their assets and then issue a fine on top of that which they will have to pay(along with tax) on any future earnings.

So Dante heads to spend the remainder of his exile, and ultimately his life in Ravenna. This is where he starts writing, extraordinarily industriously. In only eleven years he wrote at least four works that are still considered masterpieces (by everyone except me), over seven hundred years later. He developed a fair amount of fame for these works during his life but just like the renaissance-era Kurt Cobain that he had consistently proven to be, his popularity exploded after his death.

This is where my interest in Dantes story begins…. not just because hes dead although it doesn’t considerably improve my disposition towards him. The great poets work was written in a time when most people couldn’t read. This was pretty universal in Europe. However in England this just meant that the majority of published works were written by the church, priests had a secondary role as notaries and scribes given literacy was a necessary part of their role. However in Italy during the renaissance anyone who could afford to be literate was expected to be. This meant that Dante had a very wealthy fanbase. Dantes hometown of Florence suddenly became very interested in where he should be interred.

I have heard a lot of differing stories on what happened next. What I am relaying here has no more or less chance of being the true story as any other that I have heard as it is backed up with some contemporary accounts.

Florence petitioned Ravenna, which it should be noted was a papal state, for the return of Dantes remains so that he could be properly interred in the city he loved. After many requests the Pope himself agreed to the return of Dantes remains to Florence and a sealed casket was delivered. Now it is REALLY bad form to open a casket however a number of Florentine officials were suspicious of the sudden ease with which their request was granted, so they cracked open the box to find a couple of bags of sand. They couldn’t accuse Ravenna of cheating them because that would mean admitting they had opened the casket. At which point one of the more practical minded of Florence’s leaders pointed out something like “we have the Popes guarantee what is in this box is Dante, we could bury it in a nice shiny tomb with that assurance and still get the profit from housing the remains of the great poet, the monks who cheated us will never tell anyone because that would tell the world the pope lied”. At which point, grinning from ear to ear, they buried the box of sand in Dantes tomb in Florence, whilst his remains appear to have been secreted into a false wall in a monastery in Ravenna.

In reading around this I became aware that the City of Florence, in 2008, formally apologised for exiling Dante. This gave me a headache. They obviously didn’t pardon or exonerate him …. because that would likely mean some descendant of Dantes is getting those seized assets back, with interest. But it does feed into the very twenty-first century mentality that its ok to fiddle your taxes as long as you are famous.

I have slammed Dante pretty hard here…. and in every conversation about him for the full thirty-four years of my life. This is unlikely to change however I should probably describe at least my issues with the divine comedy here. I’m only going to describe Inferno here because all of the themes are pretty constant throughout the rest of the comedy.

As described above Dante got kicked out of his hometown and in my opinion the Divine Comedy is just him whining about that. He places himself at the centre of the narrative with one of his heroes, Virgil. If he had written this today we would call it fan fiction. Virgil then takes him on a tour of hell to show him how all the people who were ever mean to him are suffering. This reads like some angsty teenage misery porn. He does name drop a few dozen famous figures from history throughout the three books all of whom are awed to be in the presence of Dante.

Before they get too far they bump into some of histories most famous poets. Titans of the oral and poetic traditions like Homer and Ovid, all of whom know Dante and they spend some time hanging out and talking about how cool Dante is.

I also have no idea what the fuck Dantes issue was with the Greeks but it turns out every Classical Greek hero has been consigned to hell. He has also co-opted a lot of their Chthonic geography. Please bare in mind that Dante is painting himself as the most pious of Catholics he exchanges banter with the stygian ferryman (who is ferrying souls over the Acheron and neglects his fundamental duty given that he gives passage to Dante who is very much not dead. Don’t worry the styx does make an appearance later. However the Greek God Plutus is occupying a comparatively menial position of passport control administrator in the fourth circle.

Later in the seventh circle a load of demons are being mean to Dante so an angel appears to make them stop because Dante is wise and noble and handsome. Again burying the first book in this work in a fan-fiction vibe.

Before leaving the Inferno and into the second book I should stress for a poem called “Inferno” very little we see is on fire. In fact its mostly ice and rain. I am unsure if this is Dantes attempt at irony, if it is then I don’t get it.

Side Note: If it hasn’t been obvious from my complete irreverence I am not a particularly religious person however theology, particularly comparative theology has always fascinated me. In particular the transition from the image of hell being a cold desolate place “bereft of Gods love” to the fire and brimstone image we are all familiar with today. I wonder now how much Dante may have had to do with solidifying the newer flamey construct of hell.

I appreciate this was meant to be a post about how Dantes bones got used as political poker chips post-mortem however I have found airing my issues with what apparently is one of histories greatest works extremely cathartic.

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The Bloody Isle

Due to a recent trip and some Covid-19 related difficulties I decided to take a week off my usual posting schedule (two posts a week). Normal postings should resume next week.

I haven’t been idle with my downtime thought. A huge amount of reading was necessary to release my first entry in The Bloody Isle. Another project I am very excited to have started in which I try and provide an overview of the bloody history of Britain. My opening entry is the oldest ceremonial burial found in Britain – The Paviland Red Lady.

Take a look through the projects menu above and let me know what you think. As well as my two blog posts a week I am hoping to release a Bloody Isle entry every month. This will probably leave my Biographica Incognita entries to ad hoc however not forgotten as I have several gigabytes of research materials I am reading through to get some BI entries out.

As always you can vote for which content you want to see more of using the content poll on my main page.

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