Theodish Thoughts

Musings on Theodism, religion, mythology, history, and contemporary Heathenry

Category: archaeology Page 1 of 2

On Those Muslim Vikings

Last week headlines rocked around the Internet with an amazing discovery by Annika Larsson of Uppsala University. Apparently in a Viking-era grave, there was Islamic writing showing the name of Allah in gold thread. The Independent wrote a very lengthy article describing the news. Even the Drudge Report linked to the story. It was a Big Deal – there were Muslims in Viking-era Scandinavia, and that meant their views of the afterlife – their very religious and cultural identity – was influenced by, and beholden to, Muslims:

“It is a staggering thought that the bands, just like the costumes, [were] made west of the Muslim heartland. Presumably, Viking Age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death.”

Needless to say, there was a certain crowd of the regressive left that absofuckinglutely loved this news. Enter the Pathetic Nonreligious channel, with the blaring clickbaity headline, Some Vikings Were Likely Muslims, and White Supremacists Hate It:

This is welcome news to historians and people who enjoy learning new things. But white supremacists — who have leached on to Vikings and their symbols as representative of pure white power — are not happy.

If learning new information offends you so much that you have to write off archaeological evidence as fake news, you might have a problem.

This isn’t a cut-and-dry declaration that all Vikings were actually Muslims, but it is evidence that some likely were. At the very least, it’s proof that these Vikings appreciated the culture of Islam, and did their best to imitate it and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own. They shared ideas, instead of blindly hating Muslims. And that’s something white supremacists just can’t handle.

Wow, an atheist putting up a straw man argument? Who’dathunkit? Well here we have two, plus an enormous leap of illogic that would make Benny Hinn blush.

First, the idea that the only people who met this news with skepticism are “white supremacists.” As if it were not possible to be a perfectly mainstream academic and find the evidence and/or reasoning questionable.

Second, the idea that those who find fault with the theory think that it means “all Vikings were actually Muslims…”. Nobody said that. That’s not at all the point of the criticisms. It’s a meaningless straw man, and a channel that prides itself on its logic and reasoning should be ashamed to have included that.

Third, and most damning (if I can be permitted to apply that word to an atheist), we have this gem:

“…it’s proof that these Vikings appreciated the culture of Islam, and did their best to imitate it and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own.”

Really? A single scrap of tunic-trim that one person (who has been known to make unwarranted and discredited claims in the past) says something, so that counts as “proof”? The Vikings did their best to imitate … Islam???

Are you out of your mind? 

Now, I’m no expert on medieval Islamic burial customs. But I do claim some familiarity with Norse concepts of the afterlife. I’m trying to think of this “eternal paradise” of which she speaks. It’s not Hel, which is more of a quiet, misty resting place. It’s not Valhalla, since entry is extremely limited (and has a very different set of criteria), and while it possibly comports to a Viking warrior’s view of paradise, with the fighting and the feasting, it doesn’t seem very much like the Muslim Jannah:

“… They will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold, and they will wear green garments of fine silk and heavy brocade.  They will recline therein on raised thrones.  How good [is] the recompense!  How beautiful a couch [is there] to recline on!” (Quran 18:31)

But most of all, because it’s not eternal. Even the afterlife in the Germanic conception has an end. At Ragnarok. Nothing remotely like the Muslim idea.

Nobody is saying the Vikings didn’t have contact with the Muslim world. Of course they did, for centuries, as traders, raiders, and explorers, in both directions. But that’s a far cry from the claim that one scrap of cloth is, in this jackass’s mind, “proof that these Vikings… did their best to imitate [the culture of Islam] and incorporate Islamic beliefs into their own.”

Which beliefs are those, exactly?

The Islamic paranoia about idolatry? That would be odd, considering the Viking penchant for carved idols, graven images, runestones, representational art, and all the rest.

It would also be odd considering the Vikings’ polytheism. (Hint for the moron: Islam tends to frown on that.) The Muslims freaked out at the Christians’ concept of the Trinity. You think that having dozens of gods, and landwights, and giants, and all the rest, counts as “doing their best to imitate the culture of Islam”?

Are you really that stupid, or just so blinded by your reflexive “white supremacists oppose it, so I have to support it” ideology?

Which is especially dunderheaded, considering that the people who have come out to criticize this theory aren’t white supremacists at all. They’re experts and mainstream academics.

First we have A String Geek’s Stash, whose author knows a lot more about the technical aspects of weaving than I do, apparently from personal experience. This is what we call experimental archaeology, and she completely destroys the notion that this is what Larsson claims it is:

Larsson’s “discovery” is predicated on unfounded extensions of pattern, not on existing pattern. 

She then goes into (very technical ) detail why this is significant, and why the underside of the weaving pretty much makes this a non-issue. At the same time, she goes out of her way to say she has no problem with the idea that the design is kufic (a form of Islamic writing), because that’s not her specialty.
Well, guess what? It is the specialty of others.
Stephanie Mulder, who is indeed a specialist in medieval Islamic writing, makes the case quite definitively that the kufic writing that Larsson claims to see in the cloth is, in fact, 500 years later than the cloth itself.
Ouch.
So the weaving itself undermines the claim, the pattern she bases her idea on is her own invention, and the script itself cannot possibly be what Larsson says it is without re-writing pretty much all of Islamic script history. But it’s not like she’s ever come out with some radical crackpot theory that’s been discredited before, right?
Well, yes, she has.
About ten years ago, she tried to make the claim that the brooches that are well-known adornments for woman’s clothing in the Viking Era were, in fact, worn way lower than anyone previously thought, and dresses were worn differently than everyone else ever thought, all in a feminist “lookit me I’m sexy” thing. Groundbreaking! Exciting! But, unfortunately, dead wrong. Her theory was laughed out of academia for lack of any evidence other than her own desire to be in the news.
And that, I think is the heart of this. We have someone desperate to have a Big Insight attached to her name in the field of Norse clothing. If nipple-brooches didn’t do it, maybe Muslim Vikings would. 
And of course the regressive left loves the idea because of the well-documented problems in Scandinavia because of Muslim integration. If the ancient Vikings had a place for Islam, and even based their whole religious beliefs on Islam, well, then, it makes sense that the modern-day Scandinavians should, too.
Except it’s all horseshit.

Does the Valknut Exist?

The three-triangle symbol

It’s probably not a question very many Asatruar ever ask themselves, but Eirik Storesund, writing at Brute Norse (great name for a blog, btw), says no, The “Valknútr” Does Not Exist. It’s worth reading the whole thing over there; I’m not going to respond to everything he says, at least not verbatim. It’s a very interesting article, though, and worth the time (it’s not too long).

Basically, his article lays out several different arguments:

  • The word valknútr (“slain knot”) doesn’t exist in Old Norse; it is a modern invention using ON words
  • The Norwegian word valknute refers to a completely different symbol in Norwegian
  • Although the symbol appears on picture-stones in many situations that could be described as related to Odinic sacrifice, it appears in many more in non-Odinic contexts
  • It is possible that the three-triangle symbol is actually the ON hrungnishjarta (“Hrungnir’s Heart”) after a suggestive passage in Snorri’s Edda, which would make it associated with Thor, not Odin
  • It is possible that the three-triangle symbol is associated with a horse-cult, based on pictural inscription evidence, which would make it associated with Freyr, not Odin
His conclusion is thus:

From a source-critical viewpoint there can be no doubt that the term *valknútr/valknutis dubious and unhelpful. Evidence suggests that the symbol’s original contents go far beyond the common themes of interpretation, which are none the less fossilized in both scholarly and neopagan discussion. There seems to be more to the symbol than death and sacrifice. 

I can’t offer a good alternative name. Gungnishjarta is too tentative, but maybe I am overplaying the harm a misnomer can do. Nevertheless, I think that the terminology has done more to cloud the symbol, rather than clearing it up. This should concern anybody invested in shedding light on pre-Christian Scandinavia.

The Norwegian valknute
Now, I hadn’t given the matter of the valknut* much thought. Like 99% of the Asatruar out there, I just figured the term and the interpretation were so ubiquitous that it was a given. That’ll teach me to not check primary sources on anything I read, even in a scholarly source. Turns out that Storesund is entirely correct when he says that the term is completely made up, and especially the association of the term with the three-triangles symbol. 
I’m going to go out of order and address the Hrungnir hypothesis next, because I think it’s an easy one. Unfortunately for those who espouse the idea that the hrungnishjarta mentioned by Snorri refers to the three-triangles symbol (such as Rudolf Simek**), the notion is contradicted by a very fundamental fact. Snorri mentions that the symbol known as hrungnishjarta has three points, like the giant’s heart:

Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir’s Heart.

The problem is, the three-triangles symbol commonly (and now we know mistakenly) known as a valknut has six points, not three. Geometry is not a friend to this hypothesis. Although it’s certainly possible that Snorri was being somewhat less than literal in his description, the only thing I can think of that would really fulfill the three spiked corners criteria is what is commonly known as the triquetra:
That brings us to what would seem to be the most interesting, if difficult to prove, element of the argument; that the three-triangles symbol (TTS) is found more often in a context that is not suggestive of Odinic sacrifice, but something else, possibly related to a horse-cult (which itself is suggestive of Freyr). This is really where it all comes to fruition, because even if the word valknut isn’t the correct ON term for the TTS, that doesn’t mean the symbol itself isn’t associated with Odinic sacrifice. A survey of the inscription evidence is needed to make that determination.
I confess I don’t know of any sources in English that really give a truly comprehensive study of three-triangle symbols on Norse picture-stones. There’s a book in German on the subject of the valknut, which I don’t have (and I’m not sure my German skills would be up to the task of reading), but I’m not even sure it would have the sort of comprehensive survey I’m thinking of.
That said, I will rely on the next best source available, and turn to Google image search, recognizing it is not necessarily comprehensive, and certainly not systematic. We do, however, come up with a number of examples:
Stora Hammar Stone sacrifice scene
This is perhaps the most Odinic context of a valknut on any picture-stone. We’ve got a clear sacrifice, we’ve got ravens, and we’ve got what looks like a spear. It screams “Odin” and is the chief source of the association of the three-triangles symbol with Odin. Odin is even seen in another frame of the stone, riding Sleipnir and being offered a horn of drink by a female:
Note that there’s no valknut here, but there doesn’t need to be. The identification of Odin is certain due to the eight legged horse he is riding. The identity of the figure offering drink is somewhat less certain, however; it could be a valkyrie, it could be Frigg, it could be a mortal noblewoman offering drink to a traveler whose true identity is unknown to her. I tend to think it’s one of the first two choices, however, although it’s very possible this refers to some other myth involving a cave, a dog/wolf, Odin, and the other figures in the panel. 
Tängelgårda stone from Gotland, Sweden
This one is probably a big source of Storesund’s and Hellers’ association of the TTS. There are three of them under the legs of the horse, after all, and another one behind the riding figure’s head. But look at the whole stone, and you’ll see something interesting:
Yes, that’s Odin’s horse sleipnir on the row above the horse with the valknuts between its legs. You can tell because it has eight legs, of course. And it’s worth noting the warriors that are following the figure on the horse; see what they’re carrying? Rings. And what’s a kenning for a King? “Giver of rings” (i.e., one who distributes wealth to his retainers). So here we have context for something Odinic, even if we don’t see a sacrifice per se. Odin is the god of kings, and his horse is right above the image of the leader handing out rings. 
Unless you think the stone is showing a bunch of Viking warriors wielding chakrams, of course…
Ahem
Lillbjars stone
The Lillbjars stone is an interesting one, and is doubtless also related to the possible identification of the valknut with horses. Here we see a figure on a horse. There’s nothing to really identify him as Odin, other than the presence of the TTS and what seems to be three interlocking horns (possibly representing the three droughts of mead Odin stole). As we saw above, a female figure offers the figure on the horse a drink. There’s really nothing particularly Odinic about this figure.
Broa stone
What I find interesting about this image is the fact that it is very, very close to the image we see on the Lillbjars stone, with a ship below and a female figure offering drink to a man on horseback. But here there’s no TTS. The image of a woman offering a horn as a sort of welcome to an incoming warrior, or leader, is a relatively common one. We see it possibly most famously in Beowulf, as Wealtheow offers drink to the guests in the hall. This could easily be a representation of that scene, as a matter of fact; Beowulf with his warriors arrive in Denmark by ship, and he is welcomed with drink. 
There are (many) other images of the TTS, but all the ones I’ve found are out of context; just inscriptions on box lids and the like.
So where does this leave us? 
I think there’s definitely room to question the significance of the TTS, although I think Storesund overstates his case. It’s only seen in one overtly sacrificial context (and that context pretty much can’t be questioned; it looms over the death, there are ravens and a spear, and Odin appears on the same stone in a different panel). But the other instances don’t necessarily map to anything Odinic; one is a “giver of rings” on horseback, and another is a leader of some sort, also on horseback. 
I might argue that the fact that they’re on horseback is incidental; what matters is that they are leaders. Indeed, that seems to be the only element of commonality in the picture-stones that I can tell. We have a sacrifice (which could be a jarl or other leader), we have a giver-of-rings (which is a leader), we have a figure being welcomed by a woman with drink (which is most probably a leader). 
I see a pattern here, but it’s not necessarily Odinic, and it’s not necessarily horse-related. 
Could what we today call a valknut really have been a symbol of leadership/jarldom/etc. to our ancestors? Now that Storesund (rightly) opens up the question, I think it’s worth exploring, although I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions. It’s consistent with the examples I cited above (although it would imply that the scene on the Stora Hammar stone is a leader being sacrificed to Odin, that’s perfectly possible), but I’m not drawing any firm conclusions, and at this point it would be a hard row to hoe to change the popular conception of what the TTS means, but I think it’s worth a more detailed and comprehensive look than I’ve been able to give here.
_____
* Most of the time I’m going to refer to this as the “three-triangle symbol” or TTS for purposes of this article
** Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, “Hrungnir’s Heart” entry

Germany: Externsteine defaced

Out of Germany comes very disturbing news. Apparently on New Year’s Eve some enterprising but misguided people broke into the nature reserve at Westphalia that contains the historic Externsteine rock formations, scaled a 180′ pillar of stone, and erected a 20′ tall wooden Irminsul painted red, white, and black. It was removed almost immediately.

Links to the news (in German):

Let us be blunt. This is a defacement of an historic site. As such, it is an abominable act, and the people responsible need to be caught and punished to the fullest extend of the law, period. There’s no telling the damage that could have been done in hauling a 20′ Irminsul up a 180′ rock face, which could have rock carvings, artifacts, etc. that could have been damaged in the attempt.

Naturally, the Norse Neopagans here in America and some German media are predictably focusing on potential connections with right-wing pagans in Germany. While this is a connection which, it must be conceded, quite likely given the colors of the pillar, which echo those of the Nazi and Imperial flags of pre-1946 Germany, it’s not at all the point, and those who are using it as a political club to hit their political opponents should be ashamed. This sort of thing transcends politics, and should be something that everyone can agree is wrong.

Personally I don’t care about the politics of the idiots who did this. I care about the stupidity of defacing an historical landmark to make some sort of statement. It would be just as wrong if a Norse Neopagan took a pick-axe to one of the mounds at Uppsala because Loki told him to. Politics is no excuse for stupidity.

And this stupidity is compounded by the fact that the connection between the historical Irminsul and the site at Exernsteine is completely spurious. The image found there is a palm tree, bent over to represent nature weeping over the death of Christ. It is not the Irminsul, which was described in the sources as a pillar. Not a pillar with wings. Hel, for that matter, the sources say that there were many Irminsuls, each the center of worship for a particular local group. Not one at some great pan-Germanic cult center that is otherwise completely unattested, and especially not one at Externsteine.

That makes this act all the more tragic. These idiots broke the law and endangered an historical archaeological site to haul a 20′ palm tree painted in the colors of two failed states to the top of a mountain. All that effort and risk for an unintentional joke. Morons.

Update: here’s a photo showing where the Irminsul was planted.

 (© Torben Gocke)

Kennewick Man Update

No, this is not a repost from 2005.
ScienceNordic has an update on the two-decade-old Kennewick Man case:

A 2004 court ruling decided that no one had ownership over the remains of Kennewick Man, but that his remains should be safeguarded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who owns the land where the remains were excavated. It also granted scientists the rights to study the remains.

Native Americans nonetheless took him to be an ancestor and called him the Ancient One. But initial investigations suggested Kennewick Man was not a Native American, and scientists believed he was more similar to an ancient group of people who went on to populate Polynesia. In fact, the Ainu people in Japan are thought to be the closest living relatives to this ancient group of people.

So was Kennewick man more closely related to the Ainu people or Native Americans? The debate continued for 19 years, until today.

Now an international team of scientists have sequenced Kennewick Man’s genome and found that Native Americans have the strongest ancestral claim.
The study is published this week in Nature.

The Asatru Folk Assembly also had a stake in the Kennewick Man case, claiming that the physiological features of the skeleton marked him as being related to ancient Europeans. That claim seems to be put to rest definitively, with the DNA sequencing results.

This is why checking primary sources matters

Yesterday I ran across a perfect example of why it’s always dangerous to rely on what people say about historical sources, rather than going back and fact-checking. Sometimes, the sources don’t say what the modern scholar says they say. (In fact, I wrote a whole paper on the subject, debunking a claim about Augustines City of God in a modern scholarly book on pagan Europe, as part of my work in the Troth Loremaster program.)

But the example I have in mind is much simpler than having to slog through hundreds of pages of Augustine to prove a negative. This involves a paper written by T. C. Lethbridge in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 83, No. 2 (Jul. – Dec., 1953), pp. 175-181, available via JSTOR (readable with a free account), entitled Christian Saints or Pagan Gods? The Lough Erne Figures. I’m doing some research on Christian saints that had their origin in Heathen deities, so this seemed interesting.

Now, the author makes the following statement about one of the figures:

One of them, that of a male (a), is claimed to have a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing. He is therefore Saint Patrick. The bell, however, on inspection appears to be a typical Irish short-sword; the crozier may be a scepter or some other wand of office and the man appears to be stroking his chin in thought. There is nothing about him to suggest that he is a saint.

Fine. Fair enough. And the author has also included some illustrations to make his point clear:

In Fig. 1 I have drawn five of the figures (a-e) after a study of various photographs, omitting such signs of weathering as seem to obscure the details of the carving. I have not included the carving of a single isolated head on a flat stone slab, because it does not appear to belong to the same series as the others and may not even be of the same date. Two other fragments may be architectural.

Great! Now we can see exactly what he’s talking about in his Figure a:

Copyright (c) JSTOR
And his Figure a does indeed look the way he described it; sword, wand, hand on chin. But here’s where the problem comes in. Not having heard of the Lough Erne Figures (also known as the White Island Figures), I checked to see if there were any photographs of them to be found. And indeed there are. Here’s a great one:
Photo by Jim Dempsey
Off to the right we see the disembodied head and an unfinished figure that could be the “architectural feature” the author mentions. But do you see a figure that “has a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing”? Yes; the third figure from the left (the largest one, in fact). But that’s not the one the author was discussing!! His Figure a is the one next to the one with the crozier and the bell!
All of his analysis in that section I quoted was based on looking at the wrong figure.
My best guess (and it’s only a guess) is that, since the author was working off of photographs, he simply didn’t have a complete selection of photographs, and was trying to make the best sense he could of a written description that didn’t jive with the visual evidence. Because he was missing the crucial photograph that would have let everything fall into place.
The moral of the story being, when you’re reading a scholarly article or a book, never take for granted that what the author tells you something means, is accurate. Dig into the footnotes. Read the quotes in context. And if the primary sources don’t agree with what the modern author says they mean, don’t assume he knows better than you do, even if he’s published in the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and you’re not.

Viking Winter Camps

From  the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Western Michigan University on May 8, 2014.

 

(h/t to Medievalists.net)

Arctic Encounters Between Norse and Natives

Today Medievalists.net brings us a nice little article and video clip about archaeological proof of a much larger degree of interaction between the Norse and Dorset Eskimos in the Arctic, as well as more extensive Norse settlement in North America:

Historians have already made use of Icelandic sagas and archaeological evidence to show that the Norse established a settlement of up to 2000 people in Greenland, and explored into Newfoundland and the Gulf of St.Lawrence region. In Greenland itself, the people survived by raising livestock and hunting walrus. The ivory from walruses was the main trading good for Greenlanders with the rest of Europe.

Sutherland, who helped established the Helluland Archaeology Project, has found evidence of a Norse presence on Baffin Island and in northern Labrador, an area that the Norse called Helluland for its barren and bleak appearance. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Norse established trading outposts with the Dorset Eskimos, a people that lived in the western part of Canada’s arctic.

Furthermore this contact existed seems to have existed prior to the Norse settlement of Greenland around the year 1000. This relationship continued on until the 13th and perhaps 14th centuries, when the Dorset peoples died out. It was also around this time that another native group, the Inuit moved into the Baffin Island area – they seemed to have had a more antagonistic relationship with the Norse, using piracy to capture Norse boats.

(Much more at the link, including the afore-mentioned video)

Rare Viking brooch found in Lincolnshire

From the Sleaford Standard (more at the link):

Among the artefacts, a rare complete Viking brooch, dating back to 850-950 AD, was found near Sleaford.

Most objects found copy Viking styles, but this one is likely to have originated from Scandinavia. It is feasible that the brooch arrived via the ancient port of Saltfleetby, near Louth. It is decorated with ring and dot markings and on each wing is a leaf motif, which may symbolise the tree of 
life.

More than 5,000 artefacts were discovered in the county in 2012, a figure just revealed under the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, supported by Lincolnshire County Council, to help build an understanding of the past.

Well preserved Iron Age village uncovered in Denmark

From Past Horizons:

During evaluation of land prior to the construction of a new hospital in Aalborg, Northern Denmark, archaeologists uncovered an Iron Age village dating back around 2000 years. The settlement differs from other sites of this period because of its well preserved condition, including a number of houses complete with fireplaces, chalk floors and cobbled paving. … A surprise discovery was the skeletal remains of a cat – which has caused some excitement – as this domestic variety was first introduced to Denmark from the Roman Empire during the Iron Age – making this a very early example. Previously, the earliest known domestic cat came from a cremation grave in Kastrup, Jutland dating to c. AD 200.

Much more at the link.

Major exhibit on the Vikings comes to the British Museum in 2014

From Medievalists.net:

In March 2014 the British Museum will be unveiling a new exhibition on The Vikings: Life and Legend. Created with the help of the National Museum of Denmark and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, it focuses on the core period of the Viking Age from the late 8th century to the early 11th century. … The exhibition will capitalise on new research and thousands of recent discoveries by both archaeologists and metal-detectorists, to set the developments of the Viking Age in context. These new finds have changed our understanding of the nature of Viking identity, trade, magic and belief and the role of the warrior in Viking society. Above all, it was the maritime character of Viking society and their extraordinary shipbuilding skills that were key to their achievements.

I really hope this exhibition makes it to the United States at some point. I like the way it seems to emphasize how all those swords and cups were relevant to culture and beliefs.

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