Monday, December 18, 2017

A Tradition Revived? Inverted Christmas Trees May Have Pagan Roots

Ancient Origins

Hanging a Christmas tree from the ceiling makes some sense – it can keep your floor space clear and may protect your pets or young children from harm – but it is not common. The costly trend of hanging a tree upside-down is a whole other matter. As with many things that go against the norm, there is a lot of controversy and confusion about the practice of hanging an inverted tree from the ceiling. But it seems the idea is not a new one; in fact, the unconventional decorating idea may trace its roots, at least loosely, to pagan traditions.

 CBC News reports that inverted hanging Christmas trees can be found “dangling from the ceilings of exclusive hotel lobbies and public atriums from London to Vancouver.” It is certainly an eye-catching way to decorate for the holidays, but are the people who practice this method of tree-trimming really following a tradition from the Medieval period, or is the idea purely commercial?

An upside-down Christmas tree. Galeries Lafayette. (Laika ac/CC BY SA 2.0)

Followers of the upside-down Christmas tree practice say that it was a popular way of doing things in in the 12th century in Eastern Europe. Yet it is important to note here, the hanging element was generally just the top of a fir tree – not a huge, heavily decorated tree like you may find in a shopping center or luxury hotel today. In Poland, the top of the tree, or a branch from a fir tree, was hung pointing down from the rafters, usually facing the dinner table, in preparation for the holiday of Wigilia or Wilia. These decorative features were adorned with fruit, nuts, shiny sweets, straw, ribbons, golden pine cones, and other ornaments. An article by The Spruce says that the treats and sweets on the tree could not be eaten until the day after the festivities.

There is a legend that may explain the peculiar practice. The traditional story says Saint Boniface was the first to hang a “Christmas tree” upside-down, in the 8th century. Apparently, Boniface saw pagans preparing to celebrate the winter solstice by sacrificing a young man under an oak tree – a sacred tree in their beliefs. He was angered by their actions and cut the tree down. A fir tree grew in its place and Boniface supposedly decided to hang the inverted tree and use the triangular shape as a tool to explain the Holy Trinity to the pagans while trying to convert them to his religion.

Boniface chops down a cult tree in Hessen, engraving by Bernhard Rode, 1781. (Public Domain)

Some historians say that the tradition of hanging a Christmas tree was still popular in certain European countries as recently as 100 years ago. But the reason had changed by then. Bernd Brunner wrote in his book, Inventing the Christmas Tree, that people living in the 19th century needed the floor space. However, it’s worth mentioning that the tree was right-side up.

It seems the modern tree-hanging practice is meant to essentially serve the same purpose in stores. Dan Loughman, vice president of product development at Roman Incorporated, told NPR in 2005, “By having a tree upside down, you're taking a very small footprint on the floor, and you're placing all the ornaments at eye level. And then the retailers can move their store products around the bottom of the tree or on shelves, you know, just behind it.”

An upside-down Christmas tree is suspended from the ceiling at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel in Richmond, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The tradition of putting up Christmas trees may be tied to the German reformer Martin Luther, who popularized the use of the Christmas tree in 1605 after being inspired by the beauty of the stars on Christmas Eve night. Pine trees also used to have a place in ‘miracle plays’ that were performed in front of cathedrals at Christmas time –the Church eventually banned the practice, but the tradition of having a decorated Christmas tree has continued.

Top Image: An upside-down Christmas tree. Source: This is Why I’m Broke

By Alicia McDermott

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Did the Viking Age Really Start on 8 June 793 AD?

Ancient Origins


 “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race (…). The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.

With these words, Alcuin of York, a Northumbrian scholar serving King Charlemagne of the Franks and Lombards described the surprising and brutal attack in June 793 on the church of St Cuthbert on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

The brutal Viking raid sent a shockwave through England and the rest of Christian Europe.

The 8th of June is according to the Annals of Lindisfarne the exact date when Vikings raided the Holy Island. Consequently, the Viking Age is defined to have started on this date, maybe at sunrise so that the raiders could sneak into the Northumbrian island under cover of dusk.

But is this really the exact date when Vikings became Vikings? Of course not, but the date marks a deep sword stab into the midst of the heart of the Christian Anglo-Saxon England. They came from the fjords of Western Norway, and when they left, only silence could be heard. 1

 These men from the fjords represented a new and uncontrollable threat, and the attack clearly demonstrated that the English kings (and other European kings) were more or less unable to protect their own people, even priests and monks, facing these brutal raiders.

Year 805 AD, Yorkshire, England: Imagine, you wake up in the morning and you see this Norseman waiting outside your door. (Illustration by: Stian Dahlslett)

The Vikings did not start to be Vikings in the year 793. The Viking Age started long before and followed the development of keels and sails until their longships easily could cross the North Sea and other open waters.

The Oseberg ship (built around 820-834) is the first proof of sailing ships in Scandinavia, but it is likely that this type of vessels were built as early as the mid 700’s.

Three Ships of Northmen
The attack on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just off the Northumbrian coast in northeast England, was not the first on the British Isles. In the year 789, three ships of Northmen who had landed on the coast of Wessex, killed the king’s reeve (chief magistrate) sent out to bring the strangers to the West Saxon court.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports:

During the reign of King Beorhtric 789 – 802], there came for the first time three ships of Northmen and then the reeve rode to them and wished to force them to the king’s residence, for he did not know what they were; and they slew him .

The Vikings did not leave their written version of events. Nor do the later sagas tell anything about their eight century raids.

However, the assault on the Holy Island was something new and represented a great threat because the pagans attacked the sacred heart of the Northumbrian kingdom and dishonored the very place where the Christian religion started on the British Isles.

This was the holy island where Cuthbert (c. 634 – 687) had been bishop, the man who after his death became one of the most important medieval saints of Northern England.

A carved stone found on the island, known as the “Doomsday Stone”, could represent the Viking attack on Lindisfarne. (Photo:

As soon as the shocking news reached Alcuin serving at the Charlemagne’s court, he wrote to Higbald, bishop of Lindisfarne:

The church of St Cuthbert is spattered with the blood of the priests of God, stripped of all its furnishing, exposed to the plundering of pagans, a place more sacred than any in Britain .

The raid on Lindisfarne made the Englishmen understand that their lives would never be the same again, and the start of the Viking Age is therefore set to the “dark date” of the attack, i.e. 8 June 793.

However, if the Vikings had got the opportunity to describe themselves, they probably would have said something like: “We come from the north and honor Odin, Thor, Freyr, and our ancestors. Feel free to call us heathens or Vikings, but we have always been, and always will be free men from the north”.

 Furthermore, the Viking Age did not come to an end at the Battle of Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066, a date determined by today’s historians and archaeologists.

But, this is quite a different story.

Top image: They came from the fjords of Western Norway, and when they left, only silence could be heard. (Illustrating photo from “Trace” Viking movie, by Markus Dahlslett).

The article ‘ Did the Viking Age Really Start on 8 June 793 AD? ’ by Thor Lanesskog was originally published on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars: why did the film make history?

History Extra

This article was first published in December 2015

 Peter Mayhew, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness and Mark Hamill, on-set of the film Star Wars, 1977. (© Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

Professor Nicholas John Cull explores the history of the Star Wars franchise, and explains why in 1977 thousands of people flocked to cinemas to be taken to a galaxy far, far away…

 There is a moment in the first Star Wars film when the mystic Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) detects across at great distance of space the destruction of a planet and remarks: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force… as if as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

 The release of the seventh installment of the Star Wars saga today therefore prompts the question of exactly what the particular “disturbance in the Force” associated with the release of the first film in the series back in May 1977 might mean historically. What does it say about the time in which it was made and the people who so took it to their hearts? And what does the ongoing success of the franchise say about us?

 At one level, Star Wars was – and is – a commercial commodity: a milestone in the evolution of the film industry. Its creator, George Lucas, demonstrated that films could be made for families; that spectacular effects could help film to claw back some territory from the small-screen entertainment; and profits could be swollen to astonishing proportions though tie-in merchandise.

 Other films of the era attempted similar synergies, but there was plainly something about Star Wars that struck a particular chord. Reports of initial audiences in the US stressed how hungry they seemed for what Star Wars offered: the film was fundamentally not like so many other elements of the culture in which it landed – a world that was only too happy to embrace the film’s escapism because it had so much that it wished to escape from.

 For the initial audiences in America and beyond, the experience of viewing Star Wars was a curious mixture of watching something completely new and something incredibly familiar. It was a paradox, illustrated in the film’s opening declaration that it was set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”.

The familiar components in the film were the incorporation of multiple elements of beloved genres that were out of step with the cynical post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War, energy crisis world of the mid-1970s. Star Wars’ abstract and distant location with absolutely no point of reference to humanity or earth culture enabled favourite tropes of the screen to be revisited without the necessity of apology or self-examination or of any danger of alienating a nationality or ethnic group at home or abroad. 

Star Wars was the product of and for an American society yearning to be free of its own bonds of history and be good again. It was the perfect transferable product in which everyone could find themselves, not just within the US, but worldwide. It helped that the film’s heroic structure was borrowed from the myths common to all human cultures: Star Wars recovered the energy and zest of the old Flash Gordon serials; it borrowed characters and settings from the classic western, which by the 1970s was burdened in its explicit form by America’s awareness of the moral ugliness of the historical reality.

 Star Wars’ location allowed much play and humour at the expense of ethnic and racial differences that would have been impossible (and tasteless) in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Various characters seemed to fill the role of the ethnic ‘other’: the droids experience segregation in the bar scene, and Chewbacca is cast as a noble, ethnic side-kick, providing heroic support and comic relief.

Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and Harrison Ford as Han Solo in Star Wars, 1977. (© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

 Two genres had particular significance within Star Wars: the war film and the religious epic. Star Wars enabled the representation of a war without having to worry about that war’s consequences; the merits of its antagonists; or that any participant might be offended. Much of it channelled the Second World War with Imperial uniforms and the terminology of Storm Troopers borrowed from the Third Reich; however, it was also swiftly noticed that in Star Wars a country that had just been defeated by an army of guerillas was able to happily identify with a rebel alliance. So, much of the film’s look could be borrowed from Asia, in particular the Vietnam War, without audiences having to recall who firebombed Tokyo or dropped Agent Orange on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

 The elements of Star Wars lifted from religious epics functioned in much the same way: the film recovered a genre that had been an immense part of 20th-century cinema, reaching its apogee in the late fifties with wildly successful films like The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur (its chariot race scene was the model for the pod-race in Episode I: The Phantom Menace). By creating its universe of right and wrong, and its religion of The Force, George Lucas was able to tell an essentially religious story of awakening, sacrifice, temptation and redemption, and it so doing he could touch his viewers’ sense of wonder and the infinite. The setting in space enabled maximum engagement with minimal alienation, and enabled visual wonders every bit as impressive as the parting of the Red Sea.

 Overall, then, in 1977 Star Wars was a mechanism to culturally have your cake and eat it at a time of great uncertainty in America and the west. It allowed its viewer to luxuriate in the triumphalism, ethnic voyeurism and religiosity without apology.

 Of course, it didn’t take long for people in America and many other parts of the world to outgrow the uncertainty of mid 1970s; to trade Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan or James Callaghan for Margaret Thatcher, and reconnect with the self-confidence that allowed triumphalism, ethnocentrism and religiosity to flourish openly.

 It turned out that audiences weren’t too alienated anyway. The Rambo cycle had the political sensitivity of a sledgehammer and did well around the world. By the time the original trilogy was re-released in the late 1990s (with up-dated effects), the Second World War’s Allied victory was a cause for celebration again, and did not have to be evoked by proxy.

 In the meantime, Star Wars itself had become a cultural reference point: Ronald Reagan could tap into its language when he called Russia an ‘evil empire’; Ted Kennedy did the same when he dubbed Reagan’s pet strategic defense initiative the ‘Star Wars program’; and the Oklahoma City bomber, Tim McVeigh, compared himself to Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star. In the end, the cultural phenomenon struck back. Comments on the decline of democracy and evils of “with us or against us” language in the script for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, were unmistakable barbs from the liberal Lucas aimed at the George W Bush administration.

 Looking back, it is plain that in its nearly 40-year (and counting) career, the Star Wars franchise has evolved. The films still turn on a twin drive to escape and to remember, but the direction of the remembrance has changed. In the beginning, audiences were remembering a film culture that had become unfashionable or untenable. Today we watch Star Wars to remember Star Wars. Given that the need for both remembrance and escapism remains undiminished, the new films should do very well indeed.

 Nicholas John Cull is Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. He is the author (with James Chapman) of Projecting Tomorrow: Science Fiction and Popular Cinema (I B Tauris, 2012) which includes an extended discussion of the making and reception of Star Wars.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Puzzling Medieval Runes Found on Stone in Norway

Ancient Origins

A rare find of a stone bearing engravings of runes that date back to the Middle Ages has been unearthed recently at an excavation near Oslo. The relic is a whetstone which was a tool used for sharpening knives. Oddly, this one has some symbols cut into it which have been recognized as being runic.

Medieval Symbols Are From Runic Writing
The whetstone, which was found during earthworks ahead of a railway-construction project in Oslo, Norway, is of polished slate and has been carved with ancient runes, reports LiveScience. It is only the second object of its type to be found anywhere in Norway, the other being found in Bergen on the west coast. Uncovering any items with runic inscriptions is a rare occurrence according to a statement by the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), where the keen eyed archaeologist who picked out the special stone is based.

The spot where the runic whetstone appeared. Image: Khalil Olsen Holmen, NIKU.

 It was recovered from an area of the excavation dating from between AD 1050-1500, a time when Vikings were still dominant in Norway, as LiveScience reports. The runic writing system was used widely in Europe by Germanic language speakers as early as AD 150 and even up to AD 1100, although throughout this time Europe was gradually adopting the Latin alphabet due to the spread of Christianity in the region. After this time use of runes continued but was limited to certain purposes.

Text known as Codex runicus, a vellum manuscript from c. 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian law (Skånske lov), written entirely in runes. (Public Domain)

The three best-known runic alphabets are the Elder Futhark (around 150–800 AD), the Anglo-Saxon Futhorc (400–1100 AD), and the Younger Futhark (800–1100 AD). These related runic writing systems were used not only to record or communicate but were thought to be used to cast spells too, due to the link to the Old Norse word rún meaning ‘secret’.

It is not known who might have engraved the runes on this stone or for what purpose. Runes have been found on cliffs and large rocks, gravestone inscriptions, religious or magic inscriptions, trade communications such as stock orders or excuses for late payment of bills and even personal or love letters. They have also been used as simple graffiti or to sign craftwork.

Deciphering the Script
The runes on this whetstone are believed to date to about 1000 years ago. Shortly after this time, pretty much all everyday use of the script was lost to the Latin replacement.

In a similar fashion to the Latin system, the individual runes were like letters and could be combined to spell words. These words were often not well separated and so interpretation was necessary. The words were sometimes separated by dots, but this rule was not always followed. With this find, the archaeologists are uncertain of the translation but have make some steps towards an interpretation.

"On the whetstone, the runes 'æ, r, k, n, a' appear. But it is not easy to tell what they mean," the archaeologists with the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU) said in their statement regarding the find. The runes could be an attempt to spell a person's name, or they could spell the word "scared," "ugly" or "pain," the archaeologists said.

This figure illustrates the runes. The meaning in this sequence is unknown. Credit: NIKU

“This is probably an unsuccessful attempt to write a name or another rather trivial inscription, but we can see that this is hardly a trained rune carver”, says Karen Holmqvist, a Ph.D. fellow at NIKU and a specialist in runes. It is evident that the standard of proficiency of the writing of the runes here is low. It is thought that the number of people who could use the system was limited ie. runic literacy levels generally were pretty low.

"The findings contribute to the perception that the art of runic writing was relatively widespread in medieval Norway. But many writers would probably find themselves [with a level of knowledge] where they knew about writing, but were not literate," the archaeologists said in the statement. The crude depiction of the runes and possible wrong ordering of the symbols has led to speculation that the rock could have been a learning tool upon which writing was being practiced.

“It is perhaps not that strange that we find some strange spellings and some mirrored runes.” commented Holmqvist about the standard of runic writing generally, “Just think how you yourself wrote when you were learning to write,” she proposed in the statement from NIKU.

 In an attempt derive clarification on the meaning from the enigmatic though seemingly amateur inscription, the team wrote a blog post, in Norwegian, which shares their own finding of the discovery and asks members of the public to contribute their thoughts on what the runes on this stone mean.

Top image: The engraved whetstone found in Oslo, Norway. Credit: Karen Langsholt Holmqvist/NIKU

By Gary Manners

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Jason and the Legendary Golden Fleece

Ancient Origins

One of the most fascinating stories of ancient Greek mythology is the story of the Argonauts and the Quest for the Golden Fleece. The story takes place in the era before the Trojan War, when Hercules and Theseus were alive and active in ancient Greece. Jason was the son of Aeson, descendant of god Aeolus, and rightful heir of the throne of Iolcus. His wife would later on be the famous sorceress Medea, daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis – where the Golden Fleece resided.

The story begins like this: Pelias, half-brother of Aeson (Jason’s father), son of Poseidon, took the throne of Iolcus, bypassing his brother Aeson and locking him in the dungeons of Iolcus. Because of his wrongful actions, he received a warning from an Oracle that a descendant of Aeson would seek revenge. Aeson, while still in the dungeon, got married and had children, Jason was one of them. Pelias believed that Jason was the one the Oracle spoke about who would seek revenge against him, so he commanded Jason to undertake an impossible mission on which he believed and hoped that Jason would be slain. The mission was to bring back the Golden Fleece from the land of Colchis.

The Golden Fleece, was the skin of a winged ram, a holy ram of the God Zeus, on which the children of King Athamas, Phrixus and Helle, were saved thanks to Zeus’ intervention. According to the story, the two children were to be sacrificed after their step-mother convinced their father it was necessary. But seeing this injustice, Zeus intervened and before the sacrifice took place his holy ram flew down and took the children away, travelling a long distance through the air. However, unfortunately Helle fell from the ram during the flight and was killed. The ocean where she was said to have dropped still bears her name today – Hellespontus.

 Phrixus continued his journey and arrived in Colchis, an area in the southern Caucasus on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, and the boy was welcomed by the King Aeetes of Colchis. The ram was sacrificed to Zeus and the Golden Fleece was kept at the temple of the God of War Ares (Mars) and a dragon was put to guard it at all times. The dragon was so large that it could surround a ship with its body. The Golden Fleece and Jason

So Jason, following the commands of King Pelias, began his voyage, known as Argonautica. For the voyage to be successful, Jason had to recruit the best warriors of the time, and so he did. Fifty of the most important heroes of Greece, including Hercules and Orpheus, accompanied Jason on the Argonautica.

A special boat was made called Argos, which was named after the creator, Argus, son of Phrixus. The boat had 50 oars and on the bow of the ship Goddess Athena had placed a branch from her holy ‘speaking’ oak tree from the city of Dodoni, where another famous Oracle resided. Jason had the support of Goddess Hera who wanted revenge for King Pelias not worshipping her.

 After an adventurous journey they arrived at Colchis where Jason asked King Aeetes to give him the Golden Fleece, explaining how this was also the wish of the Goddess Hera. Aeetes on the surface agreed but he set a trial that he was sure Jason would fail. He asked Jason to plough the land by using two bulls with metallic legs which threw flames from their nostrils, and then sow the teeth of the dragon that the king gave to him. Aeetes did not tell Jason that by sowing the teeth a large army of warriors would come out of the soil to attack him.

Fortunately, Medea, daughter of Aeetes, gave Jason an ointment that would make him invincible to fire and iron for one day and she also told him about her father’s plan. Medea instructed Jason to throw a stone at the warriors, telling him that by doing so, the warriors would turn on each other, launch into battle, and eventually kill each other.

With the help of Medea, Jason succeeded in the task, so King Aeetes told Jason he could retrieve the Golden Fleece, believing that the dragon would kill him. At the same time, he ordered his army to burn his ship, Argos, and kill the Argonauts. However, Medea again helped Jason and, as a sorceress, she put a spell on the dragon so that Jason could get the Golden Fleece from the tree were it was hanging. Jason retrieved the Golden Fleece and both Jason and Medea left together with Argos and the Argonauts. Knowing her father and that he would follow them, Medea captured her brother and killed him, spreading his pieces across the ocean so that her father would have to search for all the pieces of his son, providing them with the necessary time to escape.

The journey back wasn’t easy, Zeus was angry with the killing of Medea’s brother and so he threw many challenges at Jason and the Argonauts. These included the Sirens – beautiful but dangerous mythological beings that would lure the sailors with their enchanting music so that their ship would become destroyed on the rocky coast of their island, the Skylla and Charybdis – mythical sea monsters that would attack and destroy ships, the giant metallic ‘robot’ Talos in Crete, and many more. By overcoming the challenges and obstacles they faced on their journey, Jason and the Argonauts were redeemed for their sin of killing Medea’s brother and finally, with the help of the God Apollo, they arrived back home, where Jason gave the Golden Fleece to King Pelias.

Most people believe that the story of Jason and the Argonauts is a work of fiction born out of the imagination of the ancient people. However, the word ‘myth’ originates from the Greek word mythos, meaning ‘word’ or ‘tale’ or ‘true narrative’, referring not only to the means by which it was transmitted but also to it being rooted in truth. Mythos was also closely related to the word myo, meaning ‘to teach’, or ‘to initiate into the mysteries’.

Based on this background, some scholars believe that the ancient Greek myths have their root in reality. A famous example is the city Troy, which is central to Homer’s The Iliad. Long considered to be a city of Myth, Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the actual site in 1868 elevated it to a place in history. Likewise, Dr Marcus Vaxevanopoulos of the Geology department of the University of Thessaloniki in Greece believes that there is some reality behind the story of Jason and the Argonauts. He suggests that that ‘myth’ describes a quest of the Greeks to bring gold from the area of Colchis, an area rich in gold and other metals. This is not to say that ‘sea monsters’ and enchanting Sirens really existed, but that these descriptions were, in fact, a way for people to explain real—and perhaps perplexing—events using the knowledge and beliefs of their time. After all, research and historical records have shown that stories of sea monsters were simply a way for people to describe whales, walruses, and giant squid, which were rarely seen in ancient times and which were quite terrifying to the people that saw them.

If Dr Vaxevanopoulos is right, and the story of Jason and the Argonauts has its basis in reality, the next logical question is – how much of the story is real? Who were the ‘gods’ that intervened in the lives of the mortals? What did the dragon represent? And was the golden fleece merely a symbol for real gold?

By John Black

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Where did King Arthur Acquire Excalibur, the Stone or the Lake?

Ancient Origins

Excalibur is a legendary sword found in Arthurian legends, and is arguably one of the most renowned swords in history. This sword was wielded by the legendary King Arthur, and magical properties were often ascribed to it. In some versions of the story of King Arthur, Excalibur is regarded to be the same sword as the Sword in the Stone. In most versions, however, these are in fact two separate weapons. The fascination with this sword is visible in modern pop culture, as Excalibur can be found in various films, television series and video games.

Excalibur the Sword, by Howard Pyle. (Public Domain)

 Origins of Excalibur
The story of Excalibur may be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which was written around 1136. In this piece of work, Excalibur is known by its Latinised name, Caliburnus or Caliburn. Excalibur is described as “an excellent sword made in the isle of Avallon”. It may be pointed out that in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, Excalibur does not possess any magical powers. Instead, the author focuses on Arthur’s prowess as a warrior. Thus, for instance, “…

Arthur, provoked to see the little advantage he had yet gained, and that victory still continued in suspense, drew out his Caliburn, and calling upon the name of the blessed Virgin, rushed forward with great fury into the thickest of the enemy’s ranks; … neither did he give over the fury of his assault until he had, with his Caliburn alone, killed four hundred and seventy men.”

Bronze Excalibur and King Arthur Sculpture, Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, UK (Public Domain)

One or Two Swords of the Legends of Arthur
As was stated, it may be noted that Excalibur is sometimes equated with the Sword in the Stone, for example of this is how the story is dealt with in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, first published in 1485. Other versions of the legend claim that King Arthur obtained this magical sword from another source. In most versions of the story, however, these were two separate weapons. The Sword in the Stone first appears in Robert de Boron’s Merlin, in which Arthur pulls out the sword that was set by the wizard in an anvil (which was changed by later writers into a stone).

‘Then last of all Arthur tried. He took the sword by the hilt and drew it from the stone quite easily’ An island story; a child's history of England (Public Domain)

In another version, King Arthur is said to have received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. The sword was given to Arthur after he broke his sword during a fight with Pellinore, the king of Listenoise, famous for his hunt of the Questing Beast.

Arthur meets the Lady of the Lake and gets the sword Excalibur. Tales of romance, 1906 (Public Domain)

The Powers of Excalibur
Whilst Geoffrey of Monmouth’s early description of Excalibur is not of a magical sword, later authors decided to make it so. Excalibur’s best known magical property is the ability of its scabbard to heal wounds. This meant that whenever King Arthur had Excalibur’s scabbard with him, he could not be hurt. In the Arthurian legends, this magical scabbard was stolen by the king’s evil half-sister, Morgan le Fay, who then threw it into a lake.

As a result of this, Arthur lost his invulnerability, and was mortally wounded when he fought against Modred (best-known as Arthur’s illegitimate son by another of his half-sisters, Morgaine) at the Battle of Camlann. Before he dies, Arthur commands one of his knights, Sir Bedivere (or Sir Griflet in some versions), to throw Excalibur back into the lake. In one version, the knight disobeyed his sovereign twice by pretending to cast the sword into the lake, as he was not willing to throw away such a precious weapon. When the knight finally throws Excalibur into the lake, a hand reaches out of the water to receive the sword, and pulls it under.

How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. Aubrey Beardsley Illustration from: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur. London: Dent, 1894 (Public Domain)

Origins of Excalibur
So, where did Arthur acquire the sword Excalibur? Well, the truth is that the story of King Arthur is generally considered as just that, a story, with his actual existence doubtful, so there is no set truth. If you think oldest is best, then the first scribe of the story was Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century version. He wrote of its origins only, ‘Caliburn, [Excalibur] best of swords, that was forged within the Isle of Avallon’ which removes its mystical origin and states clearly where it was made. The first to speak of its origin from a stone is Robert de Boron in his poem Merlin, later in the 12th century, and in both the Vulgate Cycle and Mallory’s version it is made clear the sword in the stone is not Excalibur as it is broken in battle and is replaced by the Excalibur from the lake.

It should be remembered that all of these writers were transcribing stories which originated in the 6th – 8th centuries and had been passed on from oral to written traditions over hundreds of years before the sword and King Arthur were brought together. Although the version by Geoffrey of Monmouth has some basis in historical record, there is also a lot which is not traceable and his account is generally considered more romance than history with the necessary dramatic embellishments.

It seems then, there is no truth readily available. If the real Excalibur did come from the stone, later stories of the magic sword breaking seem incompatible. If the sword from the stone breaking is thought true, the replacement from the lake is needed. Caliburn was forged in Avallon but how it came to Arthur’s hand is not stated. If you want to believe all the legends, the existence of two swords is a requirement.

Quest for Excalibur
As the magical sword of King Arthur, Excalibur has appeared in a number of modern films, television series and video games. Most of the time, there is a quest in which the protagonist of the film / game has to search for the magical sword. This is an indication that Excalibur still fascinates our imagination, and, like the stories of its wielder, King Arthur, will continue to do so well into the future.

Top image: The taking of Excalibur by John Duncan (Public Domain)

By Wu Mingren

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Wartime Christmas: 5 First World War recipes

History Extra

Christmas was a challenge for the wartime chef on the home front, with food shortages and high prices, even for basic ingredients. So how did Britain feast during the First World War? Hannah Scally, senior historian at, presents five recipes from the wartime Christmas kitchen

Christmas is today the biggest food event of the year, and things were little different in the 1910s, when abundant courses and elaborate French cuisine were de rigeur. But wartime from 1914 made things tricky, and put a new moral emphasis on economy.

Imports were restricted by naval warfare, and food producers were fighting at the front. Shortages soon appeared, and the Ministry of Food Control was set up in 1916. Initially advocating voluntary rationing, it was forced to introduce compulsory rationing in the last year of the war.

From popular magazine The Bystander, here are some of the Christmas recipes Britain enjoyed during the First World War.

Oyster soufflé
Oysters were eaten in astounding quantities during the 19th century: supplies were bountiful, and they were known as a cheap meat alternative for the poor. They were so popular in fact, that by the end of the 19th century oyster stocks had collapsed, and native oyster beds became exhausted.

 By the 20th century oysters had become an expensive delicacy, as this wartime recipe from December 1914 shows. This festive starter, a delicate ‘oyster soufflé’ calls for six oysters:

Put 4 oz. of whiting or sole through a sieve. Make a panada of 1 oz. of butter, 1 oz. of flour, and a quarter of a pint of milk. Stir into this two yolks of eggs and the fish. Beat the whites very lightly, and stir well. Add half a pint of fish stock (made from the bones), one tablespoonful of cream, and six oysters cut up, steam slowly for one and a half hours. Turn over very carefully, pour a rich white sauce round, and decorate the top with a sprinkling of red pepper.

'Panada' was a paste made of flour, breadcrumbs or another starchy ingredient, mixed with liquid.

'White sauce' was defined as a plain sauce based on melted butter, whisked with flour. Milk is slowly added over a low heat until the sauce becomes thick and creamy.

Celery a la Parmesan
This would be a side dish on modern tables, but during the First World War it formed its own course, emulating the French style of table service. Creamy baked celery with a cheesy crust was a rich platter, worthy of the Christmas occasion, and the ingredients were still relatively affordable. This recipe from December 1914 reads:

Stew some celery in milk till tender, then make a white sauce, into which grated Parmesan should be stirred, and then place the celery in the dish it is to be served in. Pour the white sauce over then a layer of grated Parmesan, then a thin layer of breadcrumbs, and over all put pieces of butter, brown in the oven, and serve very hot.

A boned Turkey
This December 1914 recipe is from a special feature in The Bystander, ‘Four methods of cooking a turkey’. Turkey was emerging as a popular Christmas dish, but it did not dominate the Christmas table as it does today. Other fowl – particularly goose – were also popular.

The following recipe is for what was a particularly elaborate dish, recommended for a special public occasion like ‘a ball supper’. While many of The Bystander’s recipes were intended to be practical guides, it seems unlikely that the magazine’s readers would have followed this recipe in large numbers. We can think of this as early food entertainment; the equivalent of watching modern cookery shows. In this case, variety and interesting ideas were just as important as practicality.

Bone a turkey and lay it with the inside uppermost, cut the meat from the thick parts, and distribute it equally all over the inside, season with salt and pepper. Make some forcemeat with veal, ham, and truffles, put a layer of this over the meat of the bird, then a layer of sliced tongue, then another layer of turkey, then forcemeat, then tongue and truffles.

 Roll it up, and tie it with tape, and put it in a well-buttered cloth into a stew pan, with two carrots, two onions, a stick of celery, some parsley and peppercorns, and sufficient white stock to cover it. Let it simmer gently for three hours, strain, and let it get cold; remove the cloth, and glaze it all over; if any glaze is left, cut it into various strips and lozenge shapes and garnish the dish with it. This dish is excellent for a ball supper.

 'Forcemeat' was a mixture of uncooked ground or pureéd meat, similar to paté, while 'white stock' was a clear meat stock (as opposed to brown stock). The glaze in this instance would be a sweet jelly, brushed over the meat while warm and liquid. When cooled, the jelly would be firm enough to ‘cut into various strips’.

Novel dessert dish
Chestnuts were a traditional Christmas ingredient by December 1915, being grown in abundance on home soil – particularly handy for the wartime cook. But this recipe's dependence on sugar makes it an extravagant dish all the same.

 Roast three dozen large chestnuts, peel them, and put them into a stewpan; add 4 oz. of castor sugar and half a gill of water; cook slowly till the nuts absorb the sugar; then pile them up on a glass dish, squeeze over with the juice of a lemon, and dust rather thickly with castor sugar.

A 'gill' was an old unit of measure, equivalent to about 120ml.

Another inexpensive pudding
This recipe, which dates from November 1915, is a classic response to wartime shortages and economy. Unlike some of the exciting recipes above, this is a cheap, practical method for cooking Christmas pudding.

Sugar and eggs were both in increasingly short supply, and this recipe uses only one large spoon of sugar, and no eggs. Instead, the inclusion of a mashed carrot brings some essential sweetness and moisture to the recipe – just like in modern carrot cake.

Although fruit, like everything else during the war, has gone up in price, every English household must have a Christmas Pudding, but today, when eggs are so very expensive, it is necessary to be as careful as possible to try and obtain good results with fewer in the pudding. The secret of success is in the boiling, and the longer a Christmas pudding is allowed to boil the richer it will be.

Six spoonfuls of flour, ½ lb. of beef suet, ½ lb. of currants, one large spoonful of sugar, one large carrot to be boiled and mashed finely and mixed with the above ingredients, and the pudding to be boiled five hours. No milk or eggs are to be used in mixing the pudding. Serve with sweet sauce [almond or brandy sauce – popular accompaniments to Christmas pudding].

A 1915 Yuletide menu
The addition of olives with anchovies, and two extra dessert courses, promised to satisfy the most eager Christmas diner. Here is a typical 1915 festive menu:

Clear Ox-tail Soup
Oyster Souffle
Roast Turkey, Chestnut Stuffing
Boiled Ham
Plum Pudding, Mince Pies
Orange Jelly
Olives with Anchovies
Coffee, Liqueurs