Jared Diamond Was Wrong—The Greenland Norse Adapted

Medieval chess pieces carved from Greenlandic walrus ivory (National Museums Scotland).

A new article in the journal Science refutes Jared Diamond’s claim that the 400-year-old Norse colony in Greenland failed because its habitants failed to adapt to the land.

Diamond’s thesis in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was that the Norse made bad ecological decisions. As one reviewer summarizes,

The problem with the settlements . . . was that the Norse thought that Greenland really was green; they treated it as if it were the verdant farmland of southern Norway. They cleared the land to create meadows for their cows, and to grow hay to feed their livestock through the long winter. They chopped down the forests for fuel, and for the construction of wooden objects. To make houses warm enough for the winter, they built their homes out of six-foot-thick slabs of turf, which meant that a typical home consumed about ten acres of grassland.

Diamond, popularizing earlier research, said that the Christian Norse settlers clung to European lifeways of crops and cattle, while the arriving Inuit lived by hunting marine animals. New research shows that it was not that simple:

In 2012, NABO researchers clinched the case that the Greenlanders ate a marine diet by analyzing human bones in Norse graveyards. Animals that live in the sea have ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes that differ from those found in terrestrial animals, and this isotopic signature is passed on to the people who eat them. The Norse bones show that as the settlement developed from the 11th to the 15th century, their diet contained ever more marine protein. Far from clinging to livestock as temperatures fell, the Norse instead managed a successful subsistence system with “flexibility and capacity to adapt,” wrote the author of the 2012 paper, Jette Arneborg from the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.

Nor were the Norse incompetent farmers, as Diamond and others have suggested. Soil geographer Ian Simpson of the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom says previous studies overestimated the Norse contribution to erosion in Greenland. New pollen and soil data show that the Norse allowed fields and what little forest existed to recover after tilling and turf cutting. And in analyses of soil and lake sediment cores, researchers have found chemical and paleoecological clues indicating that Norse farmers skillfully maintained pastures with manure fertilizer and irrigation ditches.

The disappearance of the colony is still a mystery. There is no evidence for war with the Inuit. Climate change — the Little Ice Age — definitely played a part, but politics and trade disruptions were another part. Some historians suggest that too many young adults, seeking better opportunities, returned to Iceland or Norway, leaving the colony to simply dwindle away.

Still, they had a long run, and leaving a mystery behind is paradoxically one way to be remembered.

Trolls through Time

troll.jpg

Storybook troll by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1900.

Translating the Chanson de Roland — the epic poem about Charlemagne’s campaign against the Muslims in Spain in 778 — for a Norse audience,1)In Norse, Karlamagnús saga. the Norse poet describes one Muslim emir thus: “The man was full of magic and sorcery and fraud and would be called a troll if he were to come up here to the northern part of the world” (33).

And you thought trolls lived under bridges? And how did we get from that to ugly-cute plastic dolls and Moomintroll?

“Troll” is an elusive category, but John Lindow does his best to sort it out historically and thematically in Trolls: An Unnatural History (160 pp.)

This short but well-researched book tells how troll in the old sagas overlapped with giant, witch, land-wight (landvaettir) and people — not just fierce warrirors but shape-shifters, Saami shamans, and even Greenland Inuit, whose lifeways seemed so unusual to the Norse settlers there (43).

One 14th-century saga describes trolls encountered in Helluland, usually taken to mean Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (35). Were these indigenous trolls?

To “give someone to the trolls” meant to kill them.

The word’s origin is uncertain. It might have come from verbs meaning “to enchant” or “to tread” or “rush away,” with Lindow himself leaning towards an origin connected with magic.2)In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51). It was “an all-purpose word for supernatural beings” (51).

A troll transformation occurred in the 19th century with the rising interest in folklore-collecting. Still huge, trolls were depicted affectionately by a variety of Scandinavian artists.

Trolls (by that name) entered in the English-speaking world only in the 1850s, notably in George Webbe Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse, published in 1859, which familiarized Anglosphere children with the Three Billy Goats Gruff (100).

The movie Trollhunter (which is a lot of fun) invokes and tweaks all the old images — giants, bridges, goats, hostility to Christianity. In Lindow’s opinion, it is the best modern troll-flick. “Trolls have some way to go before they catch up with zombies, but they are certainly a presence in film and media” (122).

Notes   [ + ]

1. In Norse, Karlamagnús saga.
2. In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51).

New Norse Site in Newfoundland

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak in Newfoundland. (National Geographic).

The discovery of Norse ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in 1960 proved once and for all that the sagas were right: settlers from Iceland and/or Greenland came to North America.

Now a new discovery on the other side of the island suggests even more of a Norse presence.

After studying the area and researching prior land surveys, the archaeologists have identified other characteristics that would have made Point Rosee an optimum site for Norse settlers: The southern coastline of the peninsula has relatively few submerged rocks, allowing for anchoring or even beaching ships; the climate and soil in the region is especially well-suited for growing crops; there’s ample fishing on the coast and game animals inland; and there are lots of useful natural resources, such as chert for making stone tools and turf for building housing.

But the clincher is evidence of iron-working, something no indigenous people did.

A Top Nazi’s Library, “Violent” Heathens, and a Middle Eastern “Old Religion”

himmler and hitler

Heinrich Himmler (front, leather coat) chats with der Führer.

According to the Daily Mail (dial skepticism appropriately) a collection of occult books1)Hans Thomas Hakl probably has more than Himmer did—but no castle. owned by Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler has been found in the Czech Republic.

The bulk of the collection was called the ‘Witches Library’ and concentrated on witches and their persecution in medieval Germany.

One of Himmler’s quack theories was that the Roman Catholic Church tried to destroy the German race through witch hunts.

UPDATE, March 31, 2016: The Wild Hunt reports that the news story quoted above resulted from a misunderstanding, and that there were no “occult books,” just some Masonic books.

• At Religion Dispatches, thoughts on how the History Channel series The Vikings both “subverts and supports the violent heathen trope” (my italics).

In one scene, the Christian Prince Aethelwulf, who earlier in the series said that “it is just not possible to imagine a world in which there is both one god and several,” unleashed genocidal fury on a settlement of unarmed, pagan [sic], Viking2)“Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity. “Norse” would be a better choice. farmers who had been promised protection by the king. Yet,3)No comma needed after an introductory conjunction. So stop it! the show includes vestiges of the violent heathen trope that’s been a staple of how dominant religious groups have portrayed minority religious groups throughout history.

• According to this article, some Kurds, who are various in conflict with Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Iranians, are going back to the Old Religion, that of Zoroaster. (It has hung in some places all these centuries since the Arab Muslims rolled over Persia in the 8th century.)

The small, ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is being revived in northern Iraq. Followers say locals should join because it’s a truly Kurdish belief. Others say the revival is a reaction to extremist Islam.

One of the smallest and oldest religions in the world is experiencing a revival in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. The religion has deep Kurdish roots – it was founded by Zoroaster, also known as Zarathustra, who was born in the Kurdish part of Iran and the religion’s sacred book, the Avesta, was written in an ancient language from which the Kurdish language derives. However this century it is estimated that there are only around 190,000 believers in the world – as Islam became the dominant religion in the region during the 7th century, Zoroastrianism more or less disappeared.

So does this count as a “Native Faith” movement, like Rodnoverie, etc., but not polytheistic?

Notes   [ + ]

1. Hans Thomas Hakl probably has more than Himmer did—but no castle.
2. “Viking” is a job description, not an ethnicity. “Norse” would be a better choice.
3. No comma needed after an introductory conjunction. So stop it!

A Viking is Nothing without his Oar

nydam
The Nydam ship was found in southern Jutland in 1863. It has recently been dated via dendrochronology to 310–320 CE, and the deposition in the bog where it was found is likely to have taken place 340–350 CE. The picture shows a German replica of the ship, built in 1935.1)Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963). (Photograph in Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landsmuseum.)

Norwegian scholar Eidar Heide tracks down the origin of the term “Viking” in an etymological article. Like a lot of people, I had thought it came from a word for “bay” or “inlet,” the first proposed word origin that he examines.

Not so, he argues, it’s all about the rowing — and the word itself actually predates the era of “the Vikings” as we typically think of them (PDF file, in English).

Note to readers: the abstract is at the end of the paper, not the beginning.

Scroll down here for a link to others of his articles on the history and archaeology of Viking ships, some in English and some in Norweigan.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963).

Icelanders Building Formal Pagan Temple

An Icelandic Pagan group will begin construction next month on a temple in the capital of Reykjavík, after beginning the planning process eight years ago.

Plans to begin construction of a pagan temple in Öskjuhlíð hill, Reykjavík, have been set in motion. This will be the first pagan temple to be built in the Nordic countries in nearly a thousand years, said the alsherjargoði Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, head priest of the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélag, in an interview with RÚV [text and video in Icelandic].

The Ásatrúarfélag applied for a plot of land to construct a temple in 2006 and was allotted a piece of land in Öskuhlíð in 2008. The 350 square metres (3767 sq ft) temple will have a vaulted ceiling and seat around 250 people. Its construction will be completed next year.

Interestingly — or oddly — it will sit on top of several tanks built to hold geothermal water, so heating won’t be a problem.

The Viking “Blood Eagle” Never Happened, Says Historian

ageofthevikingsA Swedish archaeologist reviews a new book, Anders Winroth’s The Age of the Vikings, and makes this observation:

Myself, I was intrigued to learn that the infamous, messy and impractical “blood eagle” murder method may just be the fruit of High Medieval writers misunderstanding one of the countless references in Viking Period poetry to carrion birds munching on the slain (p. 37). There is to my knowledge no osteological evidence for it. Also interesting to me, I can’t recall reading about the Spanish Moor Al-Tartushi’s report on life in Hedeby before (p. 197). But that may just be because I’m not an historian.

Funny thing, I had been thinking of that alleged method of torture/execution a couple of days before.

Read the rest at his blog: “New Popular Book on the Viking Period.”

Where Is Your Nile?

After a living room talk to a group of Anchorage Pagans about different types of nature religion, I ended up in the kitchen with a woman who was an Egyptian reconstructionist — or revivalist, as she preferred to say.

Given my concerns, my first thought was that if the ancient Egyptian sacred year was organized around the flood cycle of the Nile, what was the Alaskan equivalent? If ships of ancient Egyptians had somehow sailed into Cook Inlet, how might that landscape have changed them?

Yes, it’s true that one of my religious studies professors called me an “environmental determinist,” and he did not mean it as a compliment. But I am not the only one wondering about how one’s religious practice becomes rooted in a particular place — and how do we get back to that situation?

Dolores LaChapelle in SW Colorado

Here in Colorado, one under-appreciated writer on these topics was the mountaineer and deep ecologist Dolores LaChapelle. Earth Festivals: Seasonal celebrations for Everyone Young and Old was written in the 1970s, while her big book, Sacred Land, Sacred Sex: Rapture of the Deep — Concerning Deep Ecology and Celebrating Life came out in 19972. (Visit her Amazon page to see all her books.) Both might be called “deep green religion,” to borrow a phrase — non-theistic nature religion but still exhibiting an approach to life that I would love to see more of in contemporary Paganism.

spirit of placeAnother writer who wrote a how-to workbook on integrating spirituality with nature is Loren Cruden, whose The Spirit of Place: A Workbook with Sacred Alignment involves study and doings through the cycle of a temperate-climate year.

Neolithic Shamanism: Spirit Work in the Norse Tradition by Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova, also takes a workbook approach. I was impressed by Kaldera’s original approach in his book Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle, while Krasskova has herself written widely on re-creating ancestral cults and on polytheism. neolithic shamanism

The term “Neolithic” might be off-putting for some, especially those who — following some deep ecologists, philosophers like Paul Shepard, or Pagan thinkers like Fred Adams — see it as the “Fall” from the older Paleolithic life, which was dangerous but yet more leisurely.

The “Neolithic Revolution” (agriculture, domesticating livestock) also meant bigger social groups, hierarchies (the Big Man becomes the king, and you better bow down), turning women into full-time baby-makers (More sons, bigger farm!), and an overall decline in health and physique, at least in some archaeological studies, although not everyone agrees.

But perhaps the thought is of robust peasants living in somewhat more egalitarian societies on the margins of Europe.

Rather than organizing by the calendar, Neolithic Shamanism is organized by realm: Earth, Sun, Moon, Plants, Animals, Water, Fire, Craft, Air, Ancestors. Unlike the other books mentioned, this one is very much about spirit work:

We [authors] have many spirit allies; we also have plenty of experiences with spirits who weren’t interested in talking to us, or who took a firm dislike to us from the start. Remember that these are people. They aren’t human people, but they are People. Like all individuals, some will take a shine to you, and some will prefer someone else. Don’t take it personally. (Italics in the original.)

This book is densely packed, and it would take months to work through the exercises, but to do them all would change you permanently.

One question always in my mind, however, is to what extent we can impose a pantheon, so to speak, on the gods of our place. (There are at least two polytheistic theological questions in that sentence.) Do we “summon, stir, and call [them] up” or do we hang out and see who is there?

This is especially a question when in new places — new hemispheres — and there is only one piece of evidence — that I know of — in which a Pagan ancestor dealt with it.

Unfortunately for the story, almost all the Norse who visited North America during the time of the Greenland settlements (roughly 1000–1400 CE) were Christian, from Leif Erikson on down. So the episode from Erik the Red’s Saga about “Thorhall the hunter” has passed through many layers of Christian tellers and redactors, meaning that Thorhall is portrayed as an anachronism at best and a fool at worst.

To me it is a very poignant story:

They [the Norsemen] stayed there [in Vinland] that winter, which turned out to be a very severe one . . . . They ran short of food and the hunting failed . . . .Then they prayed to God to send them something to eat, but the response was not as prompt as they would have liked.

Meanwhile Thorhall the Hunter disappeared and they went out to search for him. They searched for three days; and on the fourth day Karlsefni and Bjarni found him on top of a cliff. He was staring up at the sky with eyes and mouth and nostrils agape, scratching himself and pinching himself and mumbling. They asked him what he was doing there; he replied that it was no concern of theirs, and told them not to be surprised and that he was old enough not to need them to look after him. They urged him to come back home with them, and he did.

A little later a whale was washed up and they rushed to cut it up. No one recognized what kind of a whale it was, not even Karlsefni, who was an expert on whales. The cooks boiled the meat, but when it was eaten it made them all ill.

Then Thorhall the Hunter walked over and said, “Has not Redbeard turned out to be more successful than your Christ? This was my reward for the poem I composed in honor of my patron, Thor; he has seldom failed me.”

When the others realized this they refused to use the whale meat and threw it over a cliff, and committed themselves to God’s mercy. Then a break came in the weather to allow them to go out fishing, and after that there was no scarcity of provisions.

Whether in Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland [?], to Thorhall it was all one realm.

Female Viking Warriors? A New Cinematic Arthur? And the Intern’s Tale

¶ Based on only six skeletons, some people are going crazy on Facebook, etc., about female Norse warriors. It’s not that simple, says someone who read the original archaeology paper. But it’s still interesting.

¶ Peg Aloi is a bit short of breath about a possible new film series on the Arthurian legend.

¶ What is it like to be an intern in a witchcraft museum? At least here is someone who knows who Cecil Williamson (Gerald Gardner’s business partner) was.