Monday, February 19, 2018

The Confusing Horned Helmets Depicted in the Oseberg Viking Age Tapestries

Ancient Origins

By ThorNews

If you claim that Vikings did not use horned helmets, you are right. If you claim that Vikings used horned helmets, you may also be right. However, horned helmets were probably only used on very special occasions if we are to interpret images depicted on textiles found in the Oseberg Viking ship grave.

Historians and archaeologists do agree that Vikings did not use horned helmets, and that this is a myth created, among others, by Richard Wagner’s opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of Nibelung) that premiered in 1876.

 Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler got his inspiration from Germanic artworks, and in the opera he equipped the evil characters with horned helmets while the heroes got helmets decorated with wings made of feathers.

This is a monochrome photograph taken of Hoffman's 14 set designs (unknown number) for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen opera in 1876. (Public Domain)

Thanks to Wagner’s opera, horned helmets still are a powerful symbol representing Vikings and the Viking Age.

From Richard Wagner’s opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, 1876 (Source: ThorNews)

Religious Motifs
In the autumn of 834 AD, two elderly women were buried inside a Viking ship in Vestfold, Southeast Norway. They were placed next to each other in a made bed inside a burial chamber placed right at the mast.

Ever since the excavation in 1904-1905, there have been put forward many theories about who these women were.

One dominating theory is that the oldest of the women was a powerful völva sorceress, while others believe she was a priestess of the Norse goddess Freyja – the goddess associated with love and fertility, but also with seiðr sorcery and death.

Inside the Oseberg ship grave there were, in addition to the beautifully decorated Viking ship itself, hundreds of objects for both everyday use and solemn occasions, including one richly decorated wooden cart probably used in religious ceremonies.

Wooden cart found at the Oseberg burial mound, Norway. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The grave also contained the largest collection of textiles and textile tools ever discovered in a single Viking Age grave, and all the beautiful and colorful fabrics are uniquely well-preserved due to the surprisingly good storage conditions inside the burial mound.

The hoard includes the famous tapestry showing a religious procession, the so-called Oseberg Tapestry, many other textiles such as exotic silk thread embroideries imported from Central Asia were found. There were also discovered several narrow tapestries thought to have lined the grave chamber.

They portray a variety of people, some obviously wearing a costume, along with wagons, animals and buildings, most likely representing different religious scenes.

The Oseberg Tapestry
The Oseberg Tapestry consists of two parts: a left and a right side, and the scene on the left side most likely represents a religious procession of three horse-drawn wagons followed by people on foot.

The Oseberg Tapestry – Left Side. (Watercolor Reconstruction: Mary Storm / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

The front panel of the ceremonial cart found in the Viking ship grave is decorated with intertwined animals, including cats, implying that the older woman may have been a priestess of Freyja.

 It is tempting to draw the conclusion that one of the two persons in the wagon depicted in the Oseberg Tapestry, could represent the priestess herself.

It seems like the figure with the horned helmet is leading the procession. He is somewhat larger than the others, something that may indicate his high status. The figure is possibly portraying the god Odin.

The Oseberg Tapestry – Right Side. (Watercolor Reconstruction: Mary Storm / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

The right side of the Oseberg Tapestry can also be interpreted in many different ways, but it is clear that the horse riders and the people walking with spears all are a part of the procession, and the building depicted to the left could possibly be a Norse temple.

The horned figure also appears in another textile fragment discovered inside the burial chamber. He is holding a pair of crossed spears in one hand facing a man wearing something resembling a bear skin.

Oseberg textile fragment: Horned figure (left) with crossed spears facing a person wearing bear skin. (Drawing / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)

It is tempting to interpret the scene as Odin and a Norse berserker warrior (Old Norse: ber-serkir, meaning “bear-shirt”) who was said to be Odin’s special warriors.

The fragment also portrays a group of women bearing shields interpreted to be “shieldmaidens” (Old Norse: skjaldmær), women who had chosen to fight as warriors.

Confusing Horns
So far, there has been found only one complete helmet dating back to the Viking Age (c. 793 – c. 1066 AD), the Gjermundbu helmet, and it did not have any animal horns mounted. Neither the sagas nor other written sources from the time tell anything about Vikings wearing horned helmets.

Gjermundbu helmet, the only helmet found that dates to the Viking Age. (CC BY 2.0)

Besides, fighting with long horns on top of the head would be very impractical even for a highly skilled Viking warrior.

Nevertheless, depictions in fragments found in the Oseberg ship grave document that horned helmets were known in the Norse culture.

Maybe they were used during special religious ceremonies and as part of a costume portraying Odin?

Or, are the tapestries only telling tales with roots in Norse mythology where Odin the Allfather is depicted as the most powerful among gods and humans – highlighted by his increased size and horns?

Hopefully, future research will give us more answers about the exciting and still undiscovered Norse culture.

Top image: Section of tapestry discovered in the Oseberg ship burial mound showing a figure wearing a horned helmet. (Watercolor reconstruction: Mary Storm, 1940 / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo) (Source: Thornews)

The article ‘The Confusing Horned Helmets Depicted in the Oseberg Viking Age Tapestries’ originally appeared on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Becoming Beast: Marvel’s New Black Panther Movie Has a Surprising Medieval Connection

Ancient Origins

Lydia Zeldenrust /The Conversation

Black Panther looks to be another hit for Marvel. The film has been highly anticipated, not least because it is a milestone in cinema with a black lead superhero starring alongside a majority black cast.

 The film tells the story of T'Challa, who grapples with his new role as king of the technologically advanced, fictional African nation of Wakanda. He also happens to be a badass warrior who runs around in a bulletproof catsuit with retractable claws.

 Humans with the heightened senses and enhanced strength and agility of animals, have become a staple feature of the comic book genre. But what makes Black Panther different from Spiderman or Wolverine is that his abilities are not the result of genetic mutation or technological augmentation. Though his suit is advanced technology, T'Challa’s abilities come from a magical herb and his mystical connection with a Panther god.

Considering these supernatural origins, Black Panther has interesting echoes with medieval tales of humans who take on the appearance and characteristics of beasts. And just like Black Panther, in these tales, getting closer to the animal doesn’t make someone less than human – but superhuman.

These are not the usual stories of fear that the animal inside will overwhelm the human, but of humans still in control of their faculties when they become the beast.

Medieval Werewolves
 Surely the most famous example of humans with the skins of beasts is the werewolf. Medieval werewolves differ from later versions, as they are often sympathetic heroes rather than dangerous adversaries.

Take Melion, one of King Arthur’s knights. His transformation, with the help of an enchanted ring, is portrayed not as problematic, but as a loving gesture. Melion becomes a werewolf because he believes this will save his wife. Only in wolf form is he able to hunt down the stag she claims she must eat or she will die. The real foe in this story is the wife, as she takes her husband’s becoming a wolf as the perfect excuse to elope with another man.

Engravings of wolves and wolf-men. (Public Domain)

Another heroic werewolf appears in the romance Guillaume de Palerne. This wolf saves the four-year-old prince Guillaume from his uncle’s plot to poison him and take the throne. The werewolf continues to take care of Guillaume well into adulthood, probably because the two have much in common. The beast is also a prince, Alfonso, whose enchantment is the result of another family struggle over the throne.

Both tales show how there remains a human inside the beast. Melion continues to think rationally and feel human emotions while in wolf form. When at court, the wolf shows civilised behaviour, even drinking wine instead of water.

Alfonso might look like a dangerous animal, but he is highly intelligent and has self-control. His civilised, human nature shines through, for instance, when he feeds Guillaume processed food like bread and wine instead of raw meat. And when Alfonso does hunt, it is a sign of his intelligence, as he gets deer skins they can use as a disguise while they are on the run.

An illustration from ‘Topographia Hiberniae’ depicting the story of a traveling priest who meets and communes a pair of good werewolves from the kingdom of Ossory. (Public Domain)

Humans in Animal Skins
Melion and Alfonso have enhanced abilities, too – they are stronger, faster, and often more intelligent than humans – but the beast never takes over. Though their bodies change, their identity remains stable.

T'Challa is the Black Panther – a righteous king, noble Avenger, and fearsome warrior. (Art by Gabriele Dell'Otto)

Even when the wolves threaten to lose control and act violently against humans, these acts are presented as reasonable and understandable. This is because the main victim of such violence is someone who hurt them. Alfonso growls at the stepmother who enchanted him, and Melion attacks the man his wife left him for.

We are meant to see this not as a loss of control, but the only way someone stuck in a wolf skin can let others know of their plight, since they can no longer speak. Alfonso in particular finds out that when he gestures with his paws, the humans only give him a puzzled look – an interesting comment on the limits of communication across species.

Enhanced Humans?
In both tales, it is this uncharacteristic beastly behaviour that leads to the discovery that the wolves are enchanted humans, and their return to human form. But not all medieval stories end with a fairy tale like resolve where the animal becomes human again.

A case in point is Melusine, a woman cursed to turn into a half serpent once a week. After discovering her part-animal form, Melusine’s husband chooses to see his wife as a beast rather than a fellow human being, condemning her to become a serpent for all time. But as with the werewolves, Melusine remains human inside her dragon-like suit – though with the added bonus of being able to fly.

Melusine takes care of her children while in half-animal form. (Public Domain)

What all this shows is that humans with the abilities of animals are certainly not an idea first invented in comic books. But like Black Panther, these medieval stories are about a fusion of human and animal characteristics rather than strict hybridity – highlighting the potential advantages of becoming beast. As a reader or viewer, we are invited to imagine what it may be like to be an animal – but while the human inside remains unchanged.

Top Image: Marvel Hi-Res Black Panther Image Revealed. Source: FLYGUY/CC BY NC ND 2.0

The article ‘Becoming Beast: Marvel’s New Black Panther Movie Has a Surprising Medieval Connection’ by Lydia Zeldenrust was originally published on The Conversation and has republished under a Creative Commons license

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Discovered: Thor's Shattered Viking Army and their Sacred Hammer of the Gods

Ancient Origins

The mysterious origins of almost 300 violently broken bodies discovered in a mass grave in Derbyshire, England, are “the Viking Great Army!”, announced archeologist Cat Jarman this week.

 Jarman is Head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the The University of Bristol and she explained that the initial dating of the skeletons discovered in the 80s found them to “span several centuries”. However, Jarman doubted this dating because “the previous radiocarbon dates from this site were all affected by something called marine reservoir effects, which is what made them seem too old.” Basically, the carbon in fish is much older than in terrestrial foods and this confused the radiocarbon dating tests. When this error was accounted for, says Jarman, the bodies all date to the 9th century.

Land-Hungry Warriors
Known to the Anglo-Saxons as ‘The Great Heathen Army’, these land-hungry warriors formed a united army from Norway, Denmark and Sweden. They invaded the four kingdoms of England in 865AD and according to Historian Thomas Charles-Edwards in his bestselling 2013 book Wales and the Britons 350–1064 “having taken East Anglia and then York the following year, they were paid to leave Wessex by Alfred the Great and marched on Northumbria and London.” They reached Mercia by 873AD and spent winter at Repton, where they dethroned King Burgred and installed Cleowulf as ruler of the kingdom.

Viking army in battle (public domain)

This Was No Ordinary Burial
This week’s University of Bristol report informs that “80 percent of the remains were men, mostly aged 18 to 45, with several showing signs of violent injury.” Strewn among the Viking skeletons were “axes, knives and five silver pennies dating to the period 872-875 AD.” And, among the bodies four children aged between eight and 18 years old were discovered “in a single grave with traumatic injuries.” Archaeologist Cat Jarman said of these burial irregularities “The grave is very unusual…they are also placed in unusual positions - two of them back-to-back - and they have a sheep jaw placed at their feet. All these obscurities suggest human sacrifice formed part of Viking funeral rites

One of the female skulls excavated from the Repton burial site. Credit: Cat Jarman / University of Bristol

A National Geographic article this week detailed the contents of another double grave containing two men, the older of whom was buried with a “Thor’s hammer pendant and a Viking sword and had received numerous fatal injuries including a large cut to his left femur.” Furthermore, a boar’s tusk had been “placed between his legs, and it has been suggested that the injury may have severed his penis or testicles, and the tusk positioned to replace what he had lost in preparation for the afterworld.”

Thor’s Hammer Pendant May Settle Long-Standing Debate
Rightly, this week’s headlines are focusing on the discovery of one of the most successful forces to have ever invaded Britain. However, to me, the presence of a “Thor’s Hammer pendant” stands sentinel above all other discoveries. Outshines the lot! This truly is a Norse cultural treasure and its discovery, among Norse warriors, settles a long-standing archeological debate.

Example of a Viking Thor’s hammer pendant (Swedish History Museum / flickr)

Fist-size stone tools resembling the Norse god Thor's Hammer are known as “thunderstones” and are found in Viking graves in Norway. While one faction of specialists hold that Viking warriors worshiped Thor with grave deposits, others argue that thunderstones actually belonged to earlier, lower burials, and get accidentally unearthed in Viking graves. To settle this debate, Archaeologist Eva Thäte of the University of Chester in the U.K., with fellow archaeologist Olle Hemdorff excavated hundreds of Viking graves in Scandinavia and trawled through thousands of grave deposits. They found “ten Viking burials containing thunderstones up to 5,000 years older than the graves themselves” indicating Vikings reused prehistoric stone hammers as talismans and good luck charms to assist them in the afterlife.

But even with this data, many archeologists still maintain Thor’s Hammers are accidental finds. This Thor’s Hammer debate was highlighted in a 2010 in a National Geographic feature which claimed it was generally “accepted that they (thunderstones) were actually purposely placed by Vikings in graves as good-luck talismans,” but there are still skeptics out there. This week’s announcement, that the skeletons belong to the “Great Viking Army” married with the fact that a “Thor’s Hammer pendant” was discovered, is the smoking gun - the hard evidence that Viking warriors did indeed worship Thor, and “Thor’s Hammers” were used in burial rites.

There are two things skeptics have to accept here. Neolithic people in England were not wearing Thor’s Hammer pendants, so it did not belong to an earlier, lower grave, and did not get “accidentally” dug up. And finally, deceased Viking warriors were stripped naked and buried with carefully chosen items, to help them in the afterlife, so the pendant was a deliberate placement within the Viking warrior grave. The pendant suggests that 9th century England was taken by a band of merciless warriors under the command of their ancient god of thunder and war - Thor. That accepted, I wonder what the battle cry of Thor’s Army sounded like? Thunderous I’d imagine.

Top image: Battered and broken bodies of Viking warriors unearthed in Derbyshire, England, now identified as soldiers of the Viking Great Army. Credit: Martin Biddle / University of Bristol

By Ashley Cowie

Wales and the Britons, 350-1064 (History of Wales) Hardcover – 1 Feb 2013 by T. M. Charles-Edwards. OUP Oxford (1 Feb. 2013)

Friday, February 16, 2018

What is gaol fever and how was it caused and spread?

Gaol fever is epidemic typhus (not typhoid), and can be prevented by vaccination...

Patients can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but it was once a major killer. The first scientifically reliable accounts of the disease come from 15th-century Europe, though it has probably been around much longer.

Symptoms include severe headache and muscle pain, fever, delirium and a characteristic rash. Several major outbreaks described as ‘plagues’ by chroniclers were, in fact, typhus.

The cause of epidemic typhus is Rickettsia prowazekii, bacteria usually transmitted by body lice. It thrives in overcrowded places where sanitation is poor and immune systems are weakened by hunger. Outbreaks were common in armies well into the 20th century, and it often killed more soldiers than combat, as in Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow. The last outbreaks of gaol fever to kill significant numbers of Europeans were in Hitler’s concentration camps.

It commonly occurred in the appalling conditions of Britain’s prisons before Victorian reformers cleaned them up, hence the name ‘gaol fever’. Being held in prison before trial could be tantamount to a sentence of death, and more died of goal fever in the 1700s than were executed. In a particularly notorious case, prisoners from Ilchester gaol brought to Taunton assizes in 1730 caused an outbreak that killed the judge, several court officials and hundreds of others.

Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Prehistoric treasures featured on latest Royal Mail stamps

History Extra

Royal Mail has released eight stamps featuring objects and sites of British prehistory, celebrating Britain's “incredibly rich heritage of prehistoric sites and exceptional artefacts”

 A number of sites and treasures of prehistoric Britain have been featured in a new set of eight stamps from Royal Mail. Sites included on the stamps are Skara Brae village, where fierce storms in 1850 stripped away sand dunes on Orkney’s west coast to reveal traces of Neolithic stone-walled houses, and Avebury stone circles, Britain’s largest prehistoric ceremonial monument.

Illustrated by London-based artist Rebecca Strickson, the stamps have been designed as overlay illustrations, detailing how people lived and worked at these sites and used the objects. Strickson said: “This period in time has long been a fascination to me, and stamp collecting was something my late father adored in his youth. That these stamps are coming out on what would have been his 68th birthday makes me really smile.”

Philip Parker explained that the collection aims to “explore some of these treasures and give us a glimpse of everyday life in prehistoric Great Britain and Northern Ireland, from the culture of ancient ritual and music making to sophisticated metalworking and the building of huge hill forts”.

For each of the stamps, Royal Mail will provide a special postmark on all mail posted in a postbox close to where the site is located or the artefact found. It will be applied for five days from 17-21 January 2017, and stamps are available from 17 January 2017, at 7,000 Post Office branches across the UK and at

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book Launch - Planetary Wars: Rise of an Empire by Mary Ann Bernal now available

Caught up in a whirlwind romance, Anastasia Dennison, M.D., does not realize her husband is the terrifying dictator, Jayden Henry Shaw, who rules the galaxy with an iron fist while pretending to defend the vulnerable against the Imperial Forces of the Empire.

Denying the existence of widespread suffering, Anastasia ignores her principles as she embraces the spoils of war and takes her rightful place among the upper echelon of Terrenean society.

Will Anastasia continue to support her husband’s quest for complete domination of every world within the cosmos, or will she follow her conscience and fight the evil invading her home?

Purchase links

Amazon US

Amazon UK



Some Top Tips for Valentine’s Day … from Medieval Lovers

Ancient Origins

If you’d asked someone to be your Valentine before the 14th century, they’d probably have looked at you as if you were mad. And checked you weren’t holding an axe.

There were two saints by the name of Valentine who were venerated on February 14 during the Middle Ages. Both Valentines were supposedly Christian priests who fell foul of Roman officials keen on decapitation. But there’s little in the early legends of either saint to suggest a highly successful posthumous career as assistant Cupid. So I wouldn’t go to them for tips.

It was probably Geoffrey Chaucer who got the Valentine’s ball rolling. In his Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer imagined the goddess Nature pairing off all the birds for the year to come on “Seint Valentynes day”

. First up is the queenly eagle. She’s wooed at great length by noble birds-of-prey, much to the annoyance of the ducks and cuckoos and other low-ranking birds (eager to get on with getting it on):

‘Come on!’ they cried, ‘Alas, you us offend! When will your cursed pleading have an end?’

But why on earth did Chaucer pick a date in February for his avian assembly? England’s birds aren’t exactly in full voice at this time of year, even with global warming. Perhaps he was thinking of an obscure St Valentine celebrated in Genoa in the month of May. But the Valentines fêted on February 14 were better-known, and that was the date that stuck. Of course, when it comes to matters of the heart, we can hardly expect reason to triumph.

Fiction to fact
Murky origins didn’t matter for too long, however. By the turn of the 15th century, fictional lovebirds weren’t the only ones singing their hearts out on Valentine’s day.

According to its founding charter, a society known as the “Court of Love” was set up in France in 1400 as a distraction from a particularly nasty bout of plague. This curious document stipulates that every February 14: “when the little birds resume their sweet song” (sure about that, guys?), members should meet in Paris for a splendid supper. Male guests were to bring a love song of their own composition, to be judged by an all-female panel. More effort than Tinder demands, then. But if you want to make an effort…

Detail of a 15th-century miniature depicting an allegorical court of love (Royal 16 F II, f. 1) British Library

There’s no evidence that the Court of Love convened as often as planned (its charter provided for monthly meetings in addition to February 14 festivities). But nor does it seem to have been pure poetic fiction. Eventually totalling 950 or so, participants represented quite a cross-section of society, from the king of France to the petite bourgeoisie. Valentine’s day romance was no longer just for the eagles.

Today’s February 14 love-fest, then, is perhaps the result of a group of medieval men and women making life imitate art. If so, their mimicry wasn’t necessarily naïve. By staging the most poetic of avian courtship rituals, Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls prompts its audiences to ponder the differences between their “artistic” courtship and the birds’ “natural” one. Texts like this one helped medieval audiences understand their identities as the product of cultural artefacts. And in this regard they can still help us today.

 Four medieval tips

On this 14th-century coffret, a man surrenders his heart to Lady Love. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (

On a more practical note, medieval literature can be of assistance if you’re yet to find a gift for a special someone this Valentine’s day. Forget about flashy jewellery; here are some love tokens suitable for every budget:

Looking to reignite that spark in your relationship? In his 12th-century Art of Courtly Love Andreas Capellanus suggests buying your partner a washbasin. Who needs expensive perfume when a good wash may do the trick?

How about personalising some of your beloved’s clothes? Add fasteners only you know how to undo and you’ve got yourself an instant chastity belt. (See the 12th-century tales by Marie de France for examples of suitable garments.)

Alternatively, upcycle one of your lover’s old shirts by sewing strands of your hair into it. To judge by Alexander’s reaction in the 12th-century romance of Cligés by Chrétien de Troyes, they’ll never want to wear anything else. (Hand-wash only.)

And if the above just don’t seem heartfelt enough, you could always take a leaf out of Le Chastelain de Couci’s book, who (according to his 13th-century biography) literally gave his heart to his lover. (Beware unwanted side effects.)

Top tip: provide a little literary and historical context with the above gifts and there’s even a chance your Valentine won’t look at you as if you’re holding an axe.

The article ‘Some top tips for Valentine’s day … from Medieval lovers’ by Huw Grange was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license.

Top image: Lovebirds in the 14th-century Codex Manesse (Cod. Pal. germ. 848, f. 249v).