A Very Good History of the Vikings

It’s an academic truism that historians and archaeologists do not play well together. Historians like texts. Archaeologists like artifacts. Each profession favors its own methodology.

But there are execeptions. An archaeologist friend wrote to me last year recommending Neil Price’s Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Price, who teaches at Uppsala University in Sweden, blends the strands masterfully, along with some climatology, religious studies, and geography.

Why did the “Viking Age,” roughly the 8th through 11th centuries happen as it did? I have seen some people blame population growth – Scandinavia had excess people, and they had to go somewhere.

Wrong. The volcanic “Finbul Winter” — I wrote about it here — cut the Scandinavian population in half in the 530s. It was a terrible time for the Norse, the End of Civilization as They Knew It. An Iron Age version of Mad Max. Whatever the earlier cultures had been — and they included Bronze Age boat trips to Western Europe — this was literally the post-apocalypic version.

The ones who survived probably did so by forming warbands for mutual defense. There is no way that by the mid-700s there were too many people for the land.

So what grew up next were many small chieftaindoms. Pirate kings, you might say. And there was also a shortage of marriagable women, something like we see in China today after decades of the One-Child Policy and selective abortion in favor of boys.

The Big Men could have more than one wife; the poor boys were out of luck. So what is a poor boy to do? Join the jarl’s raiding crew and if lucky come back with lots of loot to impress the girl next door — and meantime, bring back a sex slave too. (So what if she only speaks Old Irish; she is not there for her conversational skills.)

Coupled with [conflict between petty kingdoms] were social pressures—the effects of polygyny creating an underclass of young men disenfranchised by the laws of inheritance and with minimal marriage prospects. A summer or two of maritime violence offered the potential for life-altering change in many directions. Lastly, there was the traditional Scandinavian worldview itself, and its weaponised expression in an assault on the Christian cultures that really were bent on its destruction (274–75).

Although it was left out of the History Channel Vikings series, the slave trade was big for them in both Western and Eastern Europe. So was fighting as mercenaries.

But there is more to Price’s big book that that. With chapters like “The Performance of Power,” “Meeting the Others,” and “Dealing with the Dead,” readers get more than raiders, kings, long ships and mead halls.

It was through the medium of sorcery, not cult, the most of the conversations with the powers were conducted. . . . At its simplest, sorcery was a means, or a method, a set of mechanisms by which people tried to influence or compel the Others to do their biding. In the Viking Age, this was a field of behaviour that lay within the real of ordinary communities rather than any kind of priestly or royal officialdom (221).

There are fascinating calculations, such as it would have taken three to four person-years to prepare the woolen yard and weave the main sail for one Vikig ship. “We might realistically speak of a year’s constant work for about thirty people to fully equip a ship and crew (387).” (Slaves probably did a lot of it, Price suggests.)  Or the wool of two million sheep annually for the sailcloth of the warships, cargo vessels, and fishing boats of Norway and Denmark.

A coin of the Viking-founded city of Kyiv (urkraine.ua).

He gives the East equal space with Western Europe (and North America) and the Mediterranean. I started this book in late February and, trying to take my mind off the news, flipped it open only to read, “According to the Primary Chronicle [Kyiv] was founded by one Oleg (Helgi), a Scandinavian relative of Rurik, who expanded the Rus’ territories along the [Dniepr] river and needed a more southerly base (426).”

That trident (tryzub) insignia you see on Ukrainian aircraft, etc. comes from the Rurik dynasty. In other words, it’s Viking.

The Viking Age, Price writes, “was a time of horrifying violence and equally awful structures of institutionalised, patriarchal oppression. . . . also a period of social innovation, a vivid and multi-cultural time, with considerable tolerance of radical ideas and foreign fairths.”

Their most respected values were ot only those forged in war but also — stated outright in poetry — a depth of wisdom, generosity, and flection. Above all, a subtlety, a certain play of mind, combined with a resilient refusal to give up.

There are worse ways to be remembered (504).

Who Benefited from the Vinland Map?

Part of the Vinland Map, supposedly from the mid-1400s, before Columbus (Wikimedia Commons).

The Vinland Map has been controversial since the 1960s when it popped into public view. Did it really record a Norse partial-mapping of North America? Its modern history is viewed as scandalous. Most scholars who examined it leaned toward its being a forgery.

But from when? And for whose benefit?

A team at Yale University places it in the 1920s:

Acquired by Yale in the mid-1960s, the purported 15th-century map depicts a pre-Columbian “Vinlanda Insula,” a section of North America’s coastline southwest of Greenland. While earlier studies had detected evidence of modern inks at various points on the map, the new Yale analysis examined the entire document’s elemental composition using state-of-the-art tools and techniques that were previously unavailable.

The analysis revealed that a titanium compound used in inks first produced in the 1920s pervades the map’s lines and text.

It looks like another case of a forger using paper — or in this case, parchment — from the appropriate historical era but not taking the time to re-create the inks of the time. The ink, the Yale researchers say, is 20th-century.

In a follow-up article Smithsonian sees the map as playing a part in American struggles over identity, although leaving open the question of when it was actually forged. After the 1920s is the nearest that can be said.

In the modern era, the European discovery of North America became a proxy for conflicts between American Protestants and Catholics, as well as northern Europeans who claimed the pagan Vikings as their ancestors and southern Europeans who touted links to Columbus and the monarchs of Spain. Feted on the front page of the New York Times, the map’s discovery appeared to solidify the idea of a pre-Columbian Norse arrival in the American mindset.

As it turns out, the map was indeed too good to be true.

 

Happy Lammas, Slaves, Now Get to Work

Lammas season[1]Northern Hemisphere has come, which means bloggers and social media users posting their photos of amber waves of grain. But there is dark side to our love of grain. It lies at the root of many evils: deforestation, environmental damage, slavery around the world, top-down imperial bureaucracies, epidemics, poor nutrition . . . pretty much everything that makes us human, right?

Located in what is now Syria, Ebla was an important city-state of the Bronze Age Middle East. [2]Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.

The photo shows 15 grinding stones — “querns” is an old medieval term. Maybe there were more. A woman knelt in front of every one. Maybe she was a palace slave — or an orphan, a foundling, or a widow with no family —someone of low status, however you look at it.

Back and forth she worked the upper stone, turning wheat into flour to make the bread. Bread for the king, bread for the royal court, bread for the temple priests and priestesses, bread for the royal guardsmen.

Archaeologists today can look at her toe bones, how they were shaped by kneeling for long hours at the grindstone.

Woman at a quern, drawing by J. Sylvia. [3]Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

This is not a blog post about the Paleo diet; in fact, before there were towns, people were harvesting wild grasses along with many other things.

There is a version of human prehistory what “most of us (I include myself here) have unreflexively inherited,” writes Yale political scientist James Scott in his recent book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. In this “narrative of progress, “agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-crops, on the other hand, were the origin and generator of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws.”

Doesn’t this remind you of another “narrative of progress,” in which anarchic animism and shamanism were replaced by polytheism and then by a more pure monotheism — and then by atheism, particularly if you are a Marxist.

In chapters covering domesticaion, epidemics, slavery, war, barbarian-city rellationships, environmental destruction, and the fragility of city-states, Scott draws on examples from Bronze Age Egypt, Mespotamia, China, and other areas to contend that “the standard narrative” is wrong to suggest that people chose sedentary town life voluntarily.  Yet archaeologists and historians pay more attention to the sites with stone ruins and writing than to those without, even though the early city-states represented only a tiny fraction of the Earth’s population.

I can’t help but see a parallel to the way that the study of religion focuses on large, text-oriented religious organizations and on the interplay of specialists within them rather than on the “lived religion” and the personal spiritual experiences of average people.

The “standard narrative,” Scott writes, holds that it is “nconceivable that the ‘civilized’ could ever revert to primitivism “— yet it happpened again and again. People often fled rather than be forcibly incorporated into city-states: “Fixed settlement and plough agriculture were necessary to state-making, but they were just part of a large array of livelihood options not be taken up or abandoned as conditions changed.”

Maybe being “spiritual but not religious” is like slipping past the royal guardsmen to take up a life of hunting, gathering, and easy feral agriculture once again.

Notes

Notes
1 Northern Hemisphere
2 Reproduced in James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 163.
3 Elizabeth Lang, “Maids at the Grindstone,” Journal of Lithic Studies 3, no. 3 (2016): 282.

Free Download on Historians of Witchcraft

To be clear, The War on Witchcraft treats historical writing about the late medieval and early modern witchtrials, seen as an outbreak of “unreason.”

From the publisher :

Historians of the early modern witch-hunt often begin histories of their field with the theories propounded by Margaret Murray and Montague Summers in the 1920s. They overlook the lasting impact of nineteenth-century scholarship, in particular the contributions by two American historians, Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) and George Lincoln Burr (1857–1938). Study of their work and scholarly personae contributes to our understanding of the deeply embedded popular understanding of the witch-hunt as representing an irrational past in opposition to an enlightened present. Yet the men’s relationship with each other, and with witchcraft sceptics – the heroes of their studies – also demonstrates how their writings were part of a larger war against ‘unreason’. This Element thus lays bare the ways scholarly masculinity helped shape witchcraft historiography, a field of study often seen as dominated by feminist scholarship. Such meditation on past practice may foster reflection on contemporary models of history writing.

Free PDF download here.

Invoking Gods and Elves

I am thinking of starting a series called “What You Can Do with a Master’s Degree,” such as be a lecturer or start your own online school. There was a time, pre-television, when well-known authors went on lecture tours, city to city, speaking to local literary societies, school groups, and the like. John Cowper Powys, author of A Glastonbury Romance, was one of many.[1]“Powys had success as an itinerant lecturer, in England, and in 1905–1930 in the US, where he wrote many of his novels and had several first published. He moved to Dorset, England, in 1934 … Continue reading

And I can think of one very popular Pagan-studies YouTuber who just completed a PhD, so there goes my titl — (except she started her YouTube channel first.

Maybe I should call it, “Start Your Own College,” in the orginal sense of “college” as an “organized association of persons invested with certain powers and rights or engaged in some common duty or pursuit.” You would need some collaborators. Or maybe all such people are part of the Invisible College of Pagan Studies and just don’t know it.

This is part one of a two-part video on Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Tom Rowsell of Survive the Jive, a former journalist, also filmmaker and scholar of medieval history, in which he received a master’s degree in 2021. He writes,

I continue to take an interest in polytheistic religions. The most recent direction of the StJ project since 2016 has been population genetics, with focus on the culture, identity and religion of the Indo-Europeans. My videos are based on thorough interdisciplinary research, drawing from archaeology, linguistics, historical sources, comparative mythology and population genetics — particularly archaeogenetics.

You can find Rowsell in the usual places: his “Survive the Jive” blog, YouTube channel, Tumblr, Instagram, and probably others.

I will return to this topic. Meanwhile, your suggestions are welcome.

Notes

Notes
1 “Powys had success as an itinerant lecturer, in England, and in 1905–1930 in the US, where he wrote many of his novels and had several first published. He moved to Dorset, England, in 1934 with his American partner, Phyllis Playter.’ [Wikipedia]. No master’s degree though.

Lucifer, Women, Witches, Freedom

Here Caroline Tully offers a detailed review of Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Women in Nineteenth-Century Culture by Per Faxneld.

This is more a literary than a religious Satanism, although any story of Satan has its religious underpinnings:

Although they attributed positive qualities to the figure of Satan, the subjects examined in this book were not satanists as commonly imagined; that is, they were not believers in a supernatural being called Satan and did not perform rituals dedicated to him. Rather, as Faxneld explains, they were satanists sensu lato (in the broad sense); they used Satan as a symbol to critique Christianity, its accompanying conservative social mores, and patriarchy. Theistic and ritualizing satanism, on the other hand, is termed here sensu stricto (in the strict sense). Thus, the book is not about satanism as a religious practice but as a “discursive strategy”

There is a chapter on “Satanic” witchcraft:

One of the most prominent examples of the negative association between women and Satan was the figure of the witch. In chapter 6, Faxneld investigates works such as Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière (E. Dentu Libraire-Editeur, 1862), arguably “the single most influential text presenting a sort of feminist version of witches” (198). Relevant to new religious movements today, Michelet’s ideas about witches influenced authors who in turn were used as sources in the construction of modern pagan witchcraft. Feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage interpreted witches as satanic rebels against the injustices of patriarchy; and amateur folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland’s work Aradia; or, the Gospel of the Witches (1899), which presented witches as proto-feminist rebels against social oppression, continues to hold an authoritative position within the contemporary pagan witchcraft movement.

This review and many others can be found at Reading Religion, an ongoing collection of book reviews provided by the American Academy of Religion. You do not have to be an AAR member to read them, although a member login is required to comment on reviews.

 

A New Graphic Timeline of American Wicca

One of the non-Californians on the timeline, Grey Cat (Manya M.) lived in Tennessee and was a friend of mine.

The Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) “TImeline” is now available for free download online. Anyone interested in the history of contemporary Paganism in America ought to give it a look.

The CoG Timeline was compiled and designed by Andrea Joy Kendall with contributions from Anne Agard, Angie Buchanan, Jo Carson, Andras Corban-Arthen, Phyllis Curott, Amber K, Anna Korn, Rowan Fairgrove, Donald Frew, J. Hildebrand, M. Macha NightMare, and Starhawk. This timeline includes events of interest to anyone that wants to understand what the Covenant of the Goddess (CoG) and its members do.

The Timeline is presented in two PDF files: Part 1 and Part 2. Do understand that since CoG started in northern California, the Timeline reflects that geographical slant. The San Francisco Bay Area is somewhat over-represented. New Yorkers may wail and lament.

CoG itself was started in the 1970s:

In the Spring of 1975, a number of Wiccan elders from diverse traditions, all sharing the idea of forming a religious organization for all practitioners of Witchcraft, gathered to draft a covenant among themselves.  These representatives also drafted bylaws to administer this new organization now known as the Covenant of the Goddess

It chief purpose, beyond fellowship, was to provide ministerial credentials to Witches who wished to perform weddings and fill other public roles.

“Childish and Credulous Fantasy”: How the BBC Viewed Witchcraft in 1962

Cecil Williamson, left, and BBC interviewer Alan Whicker (BBC).

Pop over to the BBC archive to watch presenter llan Whicker pontificate about witchcraft in a short television segment from Hallowee 1962.

Among other non-information, Whicker trots out the bogus “nine million witches executed” figure from the Renaissance and Early Modern witch trials.

He also interviews Cecil Williamson, Gerald Gardner’s original business partner in the Isle of Man witchcraft museum, whose opening, I suspect, had much to do with the formal creation of Wicca.

William, meanwhile, announces his official “witch ratio”: 1 witch to 53,000 population. Now you know.

The Witch’s Hat: Where Did It Come From?

Abby Cox tracks the history of the black, conical, flat-brimmed hat with a deteour into eighteenth-century dressmaking and other things: “Swedish witches are defnitely cottagecore witches, and I’m here for that.” If you are in a hurry and wish to skip patriarchy, etc., start at the 11-minute mark.

Not discussed: handfuls of the “witchy aesthetic” derive from the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). It’s amazing how many people think that its costuming and makeup (green skin, striped socks) represent some kind of Historical Truth.

The “eighteenth-century” part is because she spent years as a dressmaker and interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. She is not a historian of witchcraft, but she does make an interesting argument from a fashion viewpoint, Written as an article, this video could have fit into the last issue of The Pomegranate, which was devoted to Pagan art and fashion.

She is not saying that Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends, founded as a radical religious group in the late 1600s ) were seriously mistaken for satanic witches.[1]Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times. She is saying that the Quakers’ “look,” one that emphasized out-of-date fashions for women in particular — “fifty years out of date” — might have influenced the way that witches were portrayed in 18th, 19th, and 20th century popular art. (She dates the first graphic appearance to 1720 — see 27:40 in the video.)

There is no particular dress style associated with the actual women (and men) who were persecuated as witches in the 1400s–1600s. They wore whatever people wore in their time and place.

Notes

Notes
1 Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times.

I Am Interviewed about “My Magical Thing”

Julian Vayne, author of a number of books on articles on psychedelia, esoteric matters, and occulture, has a series on YouTube called “My Magical Thing,” These are short interviews with other occulture-types to discuss some object that has a special meaning to them, either of its own nature or the story of how they came to have it.

Julian interviewed me in June, and I wanted to be outside so that I could have a supporting cast of broad-tailed hummingbirds. They don’t show up too well though, and there was glare in a face. . . oh well.