Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Finding Beowulf: Is Some of the Famous Anglo-Saxon Heroic Epic Based on Truth?

Ancient Origins


Beowulf is possibly the most famous example of Anglo-Saxon literature. The heroic epic was created between the 8th-11th century and is set in Scandinavia. In the tale, Beowulf helps the king of the Danes, Hroðgar, by defeating a monstrous being called Grendel. Until Beowulf showed up, Grendel had been wreaking havoc on the mead hall and the rest of the kingdom. Just a piece of fiction? Maybe not. The 6th century dining hall at the center of this epic has been found in Denmark.

 In the Beowulf story, Hroðgar had a ‘great and splendid hall’ created to share the gifts of God. The legend says craftsmen came from distant lands to build the hall and their skilled hands completed the construction quickly. This hall was called Heorot and it was the site of grand feasts, the gifting of gold rings, and the sounds of songs and poetry around a harp. But all the merrymaking annoyed Grendel, who snuck into the hall while Hroðgar and his warriors were resting…he devoured many of them.


Hroðgar receives wine from the Queen. (Public Domain)

Heorot has now been named a real location. It was discovered in the old royal capital of Denmark, Lejre, 23 miles (37 km) west of modern Copenhagen by Tom Christensen and his team. The archaeologists found, excavated, and dated the building to the late 5th or early 6th century. They also managed to name the foods that were probably consumed at the grand feasts held in Lejre’s first royal hall.


A representation of Heorot. (An Historian Goes to the Movies)

By analyzing the bones of hundreds of animals discovered at the site, the researchers showed that suckling pig, beef, mutton, goat meat, venison, goose, duck, chicken, and fish were all feasted on. They also found fragments of glass drinking vessels, pottery from England and Rhineland, and 40 pieces of bronze, gold, and silver jewelry.

 Reflecting on the discovery, project director Dr. Christensen, curator of Denmark’s Roskilde Museum, said, “For the first time, archaeology has given us a glimpse of life in the key royal Danish site associated with the Beowulf legend.”


Beowulf fighting Grendel’s mother beside Grendel’s body. (ndhill/Deviant Art)

The find raises the question as to how much of the Beowulf story is legend and what may be truth. Historical records also state that the grand hall was abandoned due to Grendel’s attacks. If Grendel (literarily ‘the destroyer’) existed as a malevolent spirit causing disease and death, or was a fierce human enemy, is still unknown.


Another depiction of what Grendel may have looked like. (Public Domain)

Top image: Beowulf against the dragon. Source: Andimayer/Deviant Art

By April Holloway

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Buckingham Palace’s balcony: a focal point for national celebration

History Extra


On the weekend of 10–12 June, members of the British public, the media and the royal family will partake in a series of spectacular events to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. The grandest celebrations will be enacted in the ceremonial spaces in the heart of central London. For more than 150 years these places have functioned as the sites where crown and people have come together to dramatise a vision of British national life resplendent and historic in character. The official programme for this year’s celebrations includes a special service of thanksgiving in honour of the queen at St Paul’s Cathedral, the annual trooping the colour on Horse Guards Parade, and a street party for 10,000 guests on the Mall – the ceremonial road linking Buckingham Palace to that other arena of Britishness, Trafalgar Square.

 Those unable to line London’s streets will be able to join in the fanfare and festivities from their living rooms as the weekend’s events play out on television. One of the climactic scenes orchestrated as part of the schedule will be the queen’s balcony appearance – that theatrical set-piece where the monarch and the masses appear to greet one another – that has been inscribed on the nation’s imagination through the power of live broadcasting. But even before radio and television, Buckingham Palace’s East Front balcony functioned as a focal point for public displays of unity centred on the sovereign and the royal family. What has changed over time are the meanings associated with this platform, and the symbolic salutation between crown and people enacted from it. 

Historians have identified how the balcony was redesigned as part of a wider palace-backed campaign to remodel London’s ceremonial centre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an age dominated by imperial ambition and international competition, European nations vied to construct grandiose capital cities that symbolised their wealth and overseas power.

 David Cannadine was one of the first historians to argue that the European building projects of this period were also intended to convey to new urban publics the enduring power of the social elite. In London, these imperial and hierarchical messages were communicated through new commemorative statues, and through an architectural plan that encompassed the widening of the Mall, the building of Admiralty Arch, the construction of the Victoria Memorial, and the re-fronting of Buckingham Palace.



Admiralty Arch, c1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The building work was completed by 1913 to create London’s first triumphal, ceremonial route, the culminating point of which was Buckingham Palace’s East Front. Although royalty had appeared on the palace veranda since 1851 with the opening of the Great Exhibition [the first international exhibition of manufactured products], the new ‘public face’ of Buckingham Palace was much grander and enabled a greater number of people to assemble in front of the gates. So it was on the evening of 4 August 1914 when, having convened a special council to declare war on Germany, George V was called out onto the balcony three times by a crowd who wanted their sovereign to signal his approval of the impending conflict. The king, in turn, interpreted the cheers of the thousands who had gathered around the Victoria Memorial as vindication of his government’s decision to join the fray, recording in his diary that “now everyone is for war and for helping our friends”. Queen Mary, who had joined him on the balcony, similarly noted how “we have the feeling of being supported by the people which is the great & glorious thing”.

 The popularisation of the palace balcony as the altar where crown and people communed at times of national importance was secured with the Allied defeat of Germany and the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Night after night, crowds called the king and queen to the balcony to cheer and wave to them, elevating the monarchs as symbols of the nation’s victory. But now this was a ritual that members of the public outside of London could join in as well. Advances in film technologies meant that newsreel cameras captured the scenes of jubilation along the Mall and outside Buckingham Palace. And so, for the first time, Britain’s cinema audiences could partake in the moments when George V and his consort stepped out onto the balcony to acknowledge the crowds’ cheers.




11 November 1918: a jubilant crowd outside Buckingham Palace celebrates the end of the First World War. The royal family appears on the balcony. (Photo by Spencer Arnold/Getty Images)

This pattern continued through the interwar years with four of George V’s children marrying in a succession of spectacular royal weddings. In a period beset by social and political unrest, the royal marriages of 1922, 1923, 1934 and 1935 were staged by the monarchy and media as national events in order to generate unity and cohesion among the British public. With their emphasis on love and family, the interwar weddings also intensified the personal character of monarchy.

 Princess Mary and her husband became the first royal newlyweds to acknowledge the crowd’s cheers from Buckingham Palace’s balcony in 1922, and in 1934, Prince George, Duke of Kent, and his bride, Princess Marina of Greece, added a further personal touch when they became the first members of the royal family to wave from the balcony to those massed below. This new intimate form of communication contrasted with the bowing that royalty had traditionally used to signal appreciation of a crowd’s ovation, and it immediately took off: at George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935, the nine-year-old Elizabeth II could be seen waving to the people gathered outside the palace gates, and she did so again alongside her younger sister, Princess Margaret Rose, at their father’s coronation in 1937.


George V and Queen Mary present their daughter, Princess Mary, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with her new husband, Viscount Lascelles, 28 February 1922. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

In the newsreel coverage of these events, special attention was devoted to the huge crowds that gathered to acclaim the royal family. The arrival of sound newsreels and BBC radio in the mid-1920s also enabled the media to convey the audial atmosphere that characterised these symbolic manifestations of national unity.

 Britain’s victory in the Second World War further enhanced the function of the palace balcony as a focal point for national celebration with the prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously joining the royal family there during the VE Day celebrations. The monarchy’s close association with the armed forces was similarly strengthened with the introduction of the RAF fly-past in these years. Initially popularised during the reigns of George V and George VI, it was as part of the televised balcony appearance following Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation that the fly-past was immortalised as a new ritual in the royal repertoire.

 Now, more than 60 years on, the royal balcony appearance remains an important moment that encapsulates the abiding connection between British people and the crown. The royal protagonists who have stood and greeted their well-wishers from this platform have aged and changed over time, but the continuation of the British dynasty through the Windsor line and the focus on the family group as they smile and wave from the palace balcony helps to remind us of the enduring centrality of monarchy to public life and to the nation’s recent history.

 Ed Owens is a historian and lecturer who is currently writing a new book on the relationship between the British monarchy, media and public in the 20th century.

Monday, August 21, 2017

10 dangers of the medieval period


History Extra


1) Plague
 The plague was one of the biggest killers of the Middle Ages – it had a devastating effect on the population of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Also known as the Black Death, the plague (caused by the bacterium called Yersinia pestis) was carried by fleas most often found on rats. It had arrived in Europe by 1348, and thousands died in places ranging from Italy, France and Germany to Scandinavia, England, Wales, Spain and Russia.

 The deadly bubonic plague caused oozing swellings (buboes) all over the body. With the septicaemic plague, victims suffered from skin that was darkly discoloured (turning black) as a result of toxins in the bloodstream (one reason why the plague has subsequently been called the ‘Black Death’). The extremely contagious pneumonic plague could be contracted by merely sneezing or spitting, and caused victims’ lungs to fill up.

 The Black Death killed between a third and half of the population of Europe. Contemporaries did not know, of course, what caused the plague or how to avoid catching it. They sought explanations for the crisis in God’s anger, human sin, and outsider/marginal groups, especially Jews. If you were infected with the bubonic plague, you had a 70–80 per cent chance of dying within the next week. In England, out of every hundred people, perhaps 35–40 could expect to die from the plague.

 As a result of the plague, life expectancy in late 14th-century Florence was just under 20 years – half of what it had been in 1300. From the mid-14th-century onwards, thousands of people from all across Europe – from London and Paris to Ghent, Mainz and Siena – died. A large number of those were children, who were the most vulnerable to the disease.

 2) Travel
 People in the medieval period faced a host of potential dangers when travelling.

 A safe, clean place to sleep upon demand was difficult to find. Travellers often had to sleep out in the open – when travelling during the winter, they ran the risk of freezing to death. And while travelling in groups provided some safety, one still might be robbed or killed by strangers – or even one’s fellow travellers.

 Nor were food and drink provided unless the traveller had found an inn, monastery, or other lodging. Food poisoning was a risk even then, and if you ran out of food, you had to forage, steal, or go hungry.

 Medieval travellers could also be caught up in local or regional disputes or warfare, and be injured or thrown into prison. Lack of knowledge of foreign tongues could also lead to problems of interpretation.

 Illness and disease could also be dangerous, and even fatal. If one became unwell on the road, there was no guarantee that decent – or indeed any – medical treatment could be received.

 Travellers might also fall victim to accident. For example, there was a risk of drowning when crossing rivers – even the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick I, drowned in 1190 when crossing the Saleph river during the Third Crusade. Accidents might also happen upon arrival: in Rome during the 1450 jubilee, disaster struck when some 200 people in the huge crowd crossing the great bridge of Sant’ Angelo tumbled over the edge and drowned.



While it was faster to travel by sea than land, stepping onto a boat presented substantial risks: a storm could spell disaster, or navigation could go awry, and the medieval wooden ships used were not always equal to the challenges of the sea. However, by the later Middle Ages, sea travel was becoming faster and safer than ever before. An average traveller in the medieval period could expect to cover 15–25 miles a day on foot or 20–30 on a horse, while sailing ships might make 75–125 miles a day.

 3) Famine
 Famine was a very real danger for medieval men and women. Faced with dwindling food supplies due to bad weather and poor harvests, people starved or barely survived on meagre rations like bark, berries and inferior corn and wheat damaged by mildew.

 Those eating so little suffered malnutrition, and were therefore very vulnerable to disease. If they didn’t starve to death, they often died as a result of the epidemics that followed famine. Illnesses like tuberculosis, sweating sickness, smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, mumps and gastrointestinal infections could and did kill.

 The Great Famine of the early 14th century was particularly bad: climate change led to much colder than average temperatures in Europe from c1300 – the ‘Little Ice Age’. In the seven years between 1315 and 1322, western Europe witnessed incredibly heavy rainfall, for up to 150 days at a time.

 Farmers struggled to plant, grow and harvest crops. What meagre crops did grow were often mildewed, and/or terribly expensive. The main food staple, bread, was in peril as a result. This also came at the same time as brutally cold winter weather.

 At least 10 per cent – perhaps close to 15 per cent – of people in England died during this period.

 4) Childbirth
 Today, with the benefits of ultrasound scans, epidurals and fetal monitoring, the risk for mother and baby during pregnancy and childbirth is at an all-time low. However, during the medieval period, giving birth was incredibly perilous.

 Breech presentations of the baby during labour often proved fatal for both mother and child. Labour could go on for several days, and some women eventually died of exhaustion. While Caesarean sections were known, they were unusual other than when the mother of the baby was already dead or dying, and they were not necessarily successful.

 Midwives, rather than trained doctors, usually attended pregnant women. They helped the mother-to-be during labour and, if needed, were able to perform emergency baptisms on babies in danger of dying. Most had received no formal training, but relied on practical experience gleaned from years of delivering babies.

 New mothers might survive the labour, but could die from various postnatal infections and complications. Equipment was very basic, and manual intervention was common. Status was no barrier to these problems – even Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, died soon after giving birth to the future Edward VI in 1537.




5) Infancy and childhood
 Infancy was particularly dangerous during the Middle Ages – mortality was terribly high. Based on surviving written records alone, scholars have estimated that 20–30 per cent of children under seven died, but the actual figure is almost certainly higher.

 Infants and children under seven were particularly vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition, diseases, and various infections. They might die due to smallpox, whooping cough, accidents, measles, tuberculosis, influenza, bowel or stomach infections, and much more. The majority of those struck down by the plague were also children. Nor, with chronic malnutrition, did the breast milk of medieval mothers carry the same immunity and other benefits of breast milk today.

 Being born into a family of wealth or status did not guarantee a long life either. We know that in ducal families in England between 1330 and 1479, for example, one third of children died before the age of five.

 6) Bad weather
 The vast majority of the medieval population was rural rather than urban, and the weather was of the utmost importance for those who worked or otherwise depended on the land. But as well as jeopardising livelihoods, bad weather could kill.

 Consistently poor weather could lead to problems sowing and growing crops, and ultimately the failure of the harvest. If summers were wet and cold, the grain crop could be destroyed. This was a major problem, as cereal grains were the main food source for most of the population.

 With less of this on hand, various problems would occur, including grain shortages, people eating inferior grain, and inflation, which resulted in hunger, starvation, disease, and higher death rates.

 This was especially the case from the 14th through to the 16th centuries, when the ice pack grew. By 1550, there had been an expansion of glaciers worldwide. This meant people faced the devastating effects of weather that was both colder and wetter.

 Medieval men and women were therefore eager to ensure that weather conditions stayed favourable. In Europe, there were rituals for ploughing, sowing seeds, and the harvesting of crops, as well as special prayers, charms, services, and processions to ensure good weather and the fertility of the fields. Certain saints were thought to protect against the frost (St Servais), have power over the wind (St Clement) or the rain and droughts (St Elias/Elijah) and generally the power of the saints and the Virgin Mary were believed to protect against storms and lightning.

 People also believed the weather was not merely a natural occurrence. Bad weather could be caused by the behaviour of wicked people, like murder, sin, incest, or family quarrels. It could also be linked to witches and sorcerers, who were thought to control the weather and destroy crops. They could, according to one infamous treatise on witches – the Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486 – fly in the air and conjure storms (including hailstorms and tempests), raise winds and cause lightning that could kill people and animals.

 7) Violence
 Whether as witnesses, victims or perpetrators, people from the highest ranks of society to the lowest experienced violence as an omnipresent danger in daily life.

 Medieval violence took many forms. Street violence and brawls in taverns were not uncommon. Vassals might also revolt against their lords. Likewise, urban unrest also led to uprisings – for example, the lengthy rebellion of peasants in Flanders of 1323–28, or the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in England.

 Medieval records demonstrate the presence of other types of violence also: rape, assault and murder were not uncommon, nor was accidental homicide. One example is the case of Maud Fras, who was hit on the head and killed by a large stone accidentally dropped on her head at Montgomery Castle in Wales in 1288.

 Blood feuds between families that extended over generations were very much evident. So was what we know today as domestic violence. Local or regional disputes over land, money or other issues could also lead to bloodshed, as could the exercise of justice. Innocence or guilt in trials were at times decided by combat ordeals (duels to the death). In medieval Wales, political or dynastic rivals might be blinded, killed or castrated by Welsh noblemen to consolidate their positions.

 Killing and other acts of violence in warfare were also omnipresent, from smaller regional wars to larger-scale crusades from the end of the 11th century, fought by many countries at once. Death tolls in battle could be high: the deadliest clash of the Wars of the Roses, the battle of Towton (1461), claimed between 9,000 and 30,000 lives, according to contemporary reports.

 8) Heresy
 It could also be dangerous to disagree. People who held theological or religious opinions that were believed to go against the teachings of the Christian church were seen as heretics in medieval Christian Europe. These groups included Jews, Muslims and medieval Christians whose beliefs were considered to be unorthodox, like the Cathars.

 Kings, missionaries, crusaders, merchants and others – especially from the late 11th century – sought to ensure the victory of Christendom in the Mediterranean world. The First Crusade (1096–99) aimed to capture Jerusalem – and finally did so in 1099. Yet the city was soon lost, and further crusades had to be launched in a bid to regain it.

 Jews and Muslims also suffered persecution, expulsion and death in Christian Europe. In England, anti-Semitism resulted in massacres of Jews in York and London in the late 12th century, and Edward I banished all Jews from England in 1290 – they were only permitted to return in the mid-1600s.

 From the eighth century, efforts were also made to retake Iberia from Muslim rule, but it was not until 1492 that the entire peninsula was recaptured. This was part of an attempt in Spain to establish a united, single Christian faith and suppress heresy, which involved setting up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. As a result, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and Muslims were only allowed to stay if they converted to Christianity.

 Holy wars were also waged on Christians who were widely considered to be heretics. The Albigensian Crusade was directed at the Cathars (based chiefly in southern France) from 1209–29 – and massacres and more inquisitions and executions followed in the later 13th and 14th centuries.


9) Hunting
 Hunting was an important pastime for medieval royalty and the aristocracy, and skill in the sport was greatly admired. The emperor Charlemagne was recorded as greatly enjoying hunting in the early ninth century, and in England William the Conqueror sought to establish royal forests where he could indulge in his love of the hunt. But hunting was not without risks.

 Hunters could easily be injured or killed by accidents. They might fall from their horse, be pierced by an arrow, be mauled by the horns of stags or tusks of boars, or attacked by bears.

 Status certainly did not guarantee safety. Many examples exist of kings and nobles who met tragic ends as a result of hunting. The Byzantine emperor Basil I died in 886 after apparently having his belt impaled on the horns of a stag and being dragged more than 15 miles before being freed.

 In 1100, King William II (William Rufus) was famously killed by an arrow in a supposed hunting accident in the New Forest. Likewise, in 1143, King Fulk of Jerusalem died in a hunting accident at Acre, when his horse stumbled and his head was crushed by his saddle.

 10) Early or sudden death Sudden or premature death was common in the medieval period. Most people died young, but death rates could vary based on factors like status, wealth, location (higher death rates are seen in urban settlements), and possibly gender. Adults died from various causes, including plague, tuberculosis, malnutrition, famine, warfare, sweating sickness and infections. 

Wealth did not guarantee a long life. Surprisingly, well-fed monks did not necessarily live as long as some peasants. Peasants in the English manor of Halesowen might hope to reach the age of 50, but by contrast poor tenants in same manor could hope to live only about 40 years. Those of even lower status (cottagers) could live a mere 30 years.

 By the second half of the 14th century, peasants there were living five to seven years longer than in the previous 50 years. However, the average life expectancy for ducal families in England between 1330 and 1479 generally was only 24 years for men and 33 for women. In Florence, laypeople in the late 1420s could expect to live only 28.5 years (men) and 29.5 years (women).

 Dying a ‘good’ death was very important to medieval people, and was the subject of many books. People often worried about ‘sudden death’ (whether in battle, from natural causes, by execution, or an accident) and what would happen to those who died without time to prepare and receive the last rites. Written charms, for example, were thought to provide protection against sudden death – whether against death in battle, poison, lightning, fire, water, fever or other dangers.

 Dr Katharine Olson is a lecturer in medieval and early modern history at Bangor University. She specialises in the religious, cultural, social, political and intellectual history of medieval and early modern Britain, Ireland, Europe and the Atlantic world, c1100–1750.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Easter treats: what are Biddenden cakes?

History Extra


Every Easter Monday, in the village of Biddenden in Kent, a charity doles out tea, cheese and loaves of bread to local pensioners, and distributes hard-baked biscuits, known as Biddenden cakes, to villagers and visitors alike.

 Stamped on each cake is a representation of the ‘Biddenden maids’, conjoined twins from the 12th century who supposedly left money in their wills to found the charity. Joined at hip and shoulder, the twins, usually named as Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, are said to have lived to their thirties and died within six hours of one another in 1134.

 There is little evidence, though, that the Chulkhursts actually existed and the earliest account of what is probably a legend was only published in 1770.

 Answered by: Nick Rennison

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Big Ben to be Silenced – But the Iconic Bell Will Chime Again!

Ancient Origins




Big Ben to be Silenced – But the Iconic Bell Will Chime Again!

 The Victorian-era treasure known as Big Ben will be taking a four-year break from its hourly song starting at noon on Monday August 21. The bells making up the clock at the most photographed building in Britain will be silenced for scheduled conservation work which will include dismantling the mechanisms piece by piece for cleaning and repair.

The official name for the iconic tower is actually currently the Elizabeth Tower (for Queen Elizabeth II); Big Ben is just the largest of the five bells inside it. Nonetheless, the famous site is often referred to as Big Ben. The Great Bell (Big Ben) weighs a massive 13.7 tons and strikes on the hour to the note of E natural. It has been performing this task practically non-stop (apart from some short spells for maintenance) for 157 years.




There is a lot of history that has happened at the historical site over the years. The Palace of Westminster (which houses the Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben), has been a location of royal and governmental power, ambition, intrigue, protest, and terror since about the 11th century.

 Cnut, a Danish king who also ruled England from 1016-1035, may have been the first ruler to build a palace there.


Canute (Cnut) the Great illustrated in an Initial of a medieval manuscript. (Public Domain)

 King Henry III (1207-1272) transformed the palace in the 13th century into a site of grandeur for the government and royalty. According to Living Heritage “From as early as 1259, the state openings of parliamentary occasions were held in the King's private apartment at Westminster, the Painted Chamber.” By 1512 the palace was Parliament’s permanent home.



Parliament and Westminster Bridge. (Graeme Maclean/CC BY 2.0)

In 1605, Westminster was the backdrop for the infamous gunpowder plot - Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the old Houses of Lords and was executed in Old Palace Yard. Most of the medieval palace was eventually destroyed by fire in 1834; only Westminster Hall, the Jewel Tower, the Chapel of St Mary's Undercroft, and the Cloisters and Chapter House of St Stephen's Chapel survived.


‘The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators’, 1605, by unknown artist. (Public Domain)

The first attempts at chiming ‘Big Ben’ resulted in fractures on the bell and some reworking, but the grand bell started keeping time in 1859.


Engraving of the second 'Big Ben', taken from ‘The Illustrated News of the World’ December 4, 1858. (Public Domain)

 It’s not surprising that British newspaper columnist Quentin Letts told CBS News the idea of stopping Big Ben is like stopping London’s heartbeat. “This is the marrow in our bones, this old clock. The thought of it not being there, or one hand flying off, or heaven forbid, the thing going digital, is just too gruesome to consider.”

Letts should rest somewhat easier knowing that traditional methods and materials will be used as much as possible. However, some new amenities such as an elevator, washroom, and a kitchen will be added. A collection of 28 energy efficient LED lightbulbs that can change color will also be added to each clock face so the tower can be tinted for special events. This also means that the clock faces will be temporarily covered during some phases of the works.


Clock face on Elizabeth Tower. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Steve Jaggs, keeper of the Great Clock, said “The tower is not unstable. But unless we do something now it's going to get a lot worse […] We need to do the work pretty soon to keep this for future generations to enjoy.”

Although Big Ben won’t be chiming on the hour, it is still planned to sound on Remembrance Day and on New Year’s Eve. The clock will be powered by an electric motor during the conservation work, so it will continue to run. The BBC reports that BBC Radio 4, which has been broadcasting the chimes live, will be using a recording of the sounds while the bells are silent.


Locals have been asked to come out and mark the event of Big Ben’s final bongs until 2021 at noon on August 21.

 Top Image: The Elizabeth Tower houses Big Ben. Source: Public Domain

 By Alicia McDermott

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Viking Serpent: Serpent Worship, Sacred Geometry, and Secrets of the Celtic Church in Norway

Ancient Origins


Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code, inspired by Henry Lincoln and his two co-authors’ The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The Norwegian researcher Harald Boehlke was inspired by the same book. Lincoln’s tantalizing bait was religion and sacred geometry—specially the sacred pentagram.

In the opening scene of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown featured a dying man who had inscribed a pentagram onto his stomach with his own blood. Religion, Sacred geometry, and suspense were the ingredients that kept audiences spellbound. But, it was mainly fiction


A pentagram image was found on the body. (Public Domain)

What Harald found, however, is not fiction. In researching Norway’s Viking history, and Norway’s conversion to Christianity, he was led to profound discoveries. These surpassed by far even the astonishing geometry discovered on the blood-soaked soil of the Languedoc area of southern France, where the gnostic Cathars had been killed by the thousands by The Catholic Church and The Templars had many of their strongholds.

A completely different story regarding Norway’s conversion was revealed, rather than the hitherto accepted one. Harald discovered what is now called The Norwegian Pentagram, and other enormous geometric patterns with symbolic measurements, constructed with the help of cities built during the conversion years (ca.900-1130) to act as markers. And lo and behold, it was seen that Norway had not been converted by the Roman Catholics as had always been the accepted story.

Astonishing Discovery of Sacred Geometry and Ancient Symbols
The pentagram is for many a mysterious, foreboding, fateful and intimidating symbol. The Catholic Church must take credit for turning the pentagram from a symbol of the sacred feminine to a symbol of the devil. But the pentacle's demonic interpretation is historically inaccurate.

It has had many meanings in many cultures, tracing back in time many thousand years. The use of 1.618, called the Golden Section, or Golden Mean in sacred architecture is prevalent throughout Europe.

Pythagoreans considered the pentagram an emblem of perfection or the symbol of the human being. In a way, you might say it is the fingerprint of God. The pentagram incorporates the Golden Section 1.168. It is constructed using this number, and this number only. It can be said the pentagram is the visualization of the Golden Section 1.618.


The REAL Da Vinci Code: Vitruvian Man. The proportional relationship of the parts reflects universal design. (Public Domain)

This number is a large part of Holy Geometry. It permeates creation; It defines the spirals of a Nautilus shell, snowflakes, the galaxies, honeycombs. It is in many ways the number of creation as it is also mirrored in the proportions of the human body.

After Harald’s discovery of the ‘Norwegian Pentagram’ – enormous geometric patterns with symbolic measurements, and ancient spiritual sites in Norway creating a pentagram across the landscape— a larger mystery now confronted him: who had placed this sacred geometry across the whole of southern Norway?



Norwegian Pentagram (From The Viking Serpent by Harald S Boehlke)


Who may have created a symbolic pentagram in Norway? (From The Viking Serpent by Harald S Boehlke)

The sacred geometry was not limited to the pentagram. Studying the Sagas and other historical works led him to discover more geometry. Strange myths and fables that he had dismissed earlier suddenly seemed to make sense, leading to one exciting discovery after the other. The books The Norwegian Pentagram and its English translation The Viking Serpent came into being.

Startling History: Celts brought Christianity to Norway?
The research showed that the Celts brought Christianity to Norway, a fact that at best has been played down in our time of ‘enlightenment’. The important part the Celts played in the unification and christening of Norway has been hidden behind a veil pulled down by the Roman Catholic Church as they maneuvered into position within Norway, as in the rest of Europe.

 In the year 1000 CE, Norway was still a ‘heathen’ country, and contrary to popular belief, it was not the Roman Catholic Church that had struggled to convert the feared Vikings to Christianity. Abundant evidence was found that suggested certain groupings within the Celtic Church had converted the Vikings to Christendom instead. These were Gnostics from the Celtic Church, influenced by the serpent worshipping Ophites from Egypt and Syria who used the serpent as a symbol of Christ.

After Emperor Constantine in 325CE sanctioned the Christian faith which believed Jesus being the son of god, the Gnostics, Arians, Ophites and other sects were persecuted and dispersed. The persecution of the Gnostics was mainly the work of the influential group that later evolved into what we today call the Roman Catholic Church.


The Serpent on the Cross - The Crucified Serpent, after an illustration in the notebook of Nicolas Flamel (CC BY-SA 4.0)

From the Middle East, the ideas and beliefs of the Gnostic Arians and Ophites disseminated towards the ‘outskirts’ of Europe. The Arians went as far north as the Iberian Peninsula, while the Ophites apparently found their way to the British Isles where, according to legend, St. Patrick was sent to Ireland to ‘guide’ the Celts back to the ‘true faith’. While there, he took time to banish all “serpents” from Ireland some time during the fifth century, apparently without too much success. It is interesting to note that there have never been serpents in Ireland. Patrick’s feat is therefore all the more interesting. The ‘serpents’ he attempted to banish were probably bipedal – those of the Celtic Church who revered the ‘serpent’ Jesus.


Stained glass window featuring St Patrick (CC BY-SA 4.0)


The ‘snakes’ that St Patrick drove out of Ireland were the Druidic priests who had serpents tattooed on their forearms. Serpent altars from Cornwall England and from Senhouse Museum, Maryport, Cumbria, England. (Source: Harald Boehlke)

Secret Arrangements, Religion and Kingmaking
From the ninth century, Norwegian Vikings had settled in the Celtic fringe of the British Isles. From the Orkneys in the north down through Northumberland, Cumbria and Wales as well as areas in Ireland, they made new lives for themselves, mainly as farmers and artisans (a fact that did not exclude the occasional ‘Viking raid’).

The heathen Norwegians came into contact with the Gnostic Celtic Church, who from 935-1015 CE, made secret arrangements and engaged in a joint venture with no fewer than three Vikings of royal descent intent upon ascending the Norwegian throne. The Viking kings-to-be made plans to unite Norway as one kingdom, with themselves on the throne. In return for Celtic monetary and administrative aid the Viking kings gave them ‘permission’ to pursue their own ambitions: to convert the Asatru pagans (ancient Norse religion) to Celtic Christianity. The Celtic Church was intent on using Christian magic to consecrate and conquer the land and its people, inaugurating one king and one religion. They traded their knowledge of how to pacify a rebellious population by introducing religion, piousness, and ecclesiastical laws enabling their Viking mentors to ascend the throne, and keep it.

The Celts first made contact with the son of the Norwegian Viking-king Harald ‘Fairhair’, the young Haakon. During the first half of the 10th Century, Haakon was brought up at the court of the Wessex king Athelstan.



Haakon ‘The Good’, son of Harald Fairhair (Public Domain)

Monks from the monastery at Glastonbury had given Haakon his education, and upon the death of his father, Haakon returned to Norway with his Celtic helpers, conquered the throne, and began an enormous secret undertaking which was not to be revealed for a thousand years.

After the death of Haakon (ca. 961 CE), the Celtic clergy cooperated with the famed Viking king-to-be, Olav Tryggvason and later with Olav the Holy. These three constitute the most renowned of the Norwegian Viking rulers.

Sacred Symbols, 666, and the Golden Ratio
When the Celts arrived in Norway, they founded cities and monasteries as sacred markers. They and their Viking collaborators removed old cities that did not fit into the sacred pattern—a pattern that resulted in a gigantic pentagram stretching across southern Norway.




The drawing of a man's body in a pentagram suggests relationships to the golden ratio. By Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, circa 1510. (Public Domain)

It was invisible unless one knew how to utilize the holy mathematical formulae of ‘The Golden Ratio’. Only the initiated knew it was there, and only the initiated could trace it using the monasteries and the five medieval cities of Norway: Nidaros, Tunsberg, Bergen, Stavanger and Hamar.

In The Viking Serpent, Harald demonstrates how they were all laid down according to the ‘Golden Ratio’.

Norway’s two round churches mark the two extremities of the main geometric marker line. The resulting pentagram is inscribed in a circle measuring 666 miles in circumference - the number of the Beast symbolizing Christ as the serpent, as shown in the Gnostic Nag Hammadi texts found in the Egyptian desert in 1945.



The Apocalypse of Peter: Gnostic Nag Hammadi text, circa 100 and circa 200 AD (Public Domain)

These texts describe Jesus as the one “called the Beast” (From the Nag Hammadi Library: The interpretation of “the beast” is “the instructor.” For it was found to be the “wisest of all beings.”) Thus, the Celts introduced their Christianity to Norway, leaving behind a trail of serpent imagery. The Celtic clergy’s use of the ‘Number of the Beast’ reflects their occult use of ‘magic’ and their reverence of the serpent.

 Serpents Abound
The saga writer Snorre Sturluson noted that king Olav (the third ally of the Celtic Church), on his return to Norway from the British Isles in 1015 CE, used the serpent as a symbol on his helmet and banner. In an old saga of which only fragments remain, the burial of St. Olav also reflects the number 666. The stave churches, unique to Norway, were built during these times.


Borgund Stave Church, Laerdal, Sogn og Fjordane County, Western Norway (CC BY-SA 3.0)

These churches were decorated with serpent imagery in abundance: woodcarvings of writhing coiling snakes climbing the portals, and from all gables one can witness – even today – serpents raising their heads with playing tongues.

Borgund Stave Church with wooden serpent architecture (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Additionally, the roofs and walls of these churches are covered with wooden ‘scales’ that seem to mimic serpent-skin.


Serpent carvings adorning the church portal (Kind permission from Norwegian Directorate of Cultural Heritage)

Folklore Reveals Ancient Connections
 Interesting too is the story of a Celtic princess, Sunniva, escaping barbaric ‘suitors’ by setting to sea in a frail Celtic wicker-and-hide craft. According to lore, she landed with her entourage on a small island on the fiercest part of the Norwegian coast and became Norway’s very first saint.



Medieval statue (dated c. 1200) Found in Urnes stave church, Luster, Western Norway, which may be St Sunniva. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 On this same tiny inhospitable island on the fiercest stretch of the Norwegian coast, Norway’s first bishopric was erected in 1068 CE. In 997CE, the Celtic clergy and their second ally the Viking King Olav Tryggvason, founded the city of Nidaros, which was the capital of Norway for hundreds of years. It is interesting to note that Nidaros can be translated into the Gaelic language as meaning “old serpent wisdom”, ‘Neidr’ being serpent, and ‘ros’ being old knowledge.

The sacred geometry of Norway does not limit itself to the enormous pentagram: According to old legends, a certain Norwegian island called Sandøy, or ‘Sandy Island’ is connected to Scotland under the sea. It just so happens that the northwestern upper point of the enormous pentagram falls upon a small island called Sandsøy, or ‘Sandy Island’. On this island, facing the sea, we find the Dollstein cave, which has an intriguing history. Myths tell of treasures hidden in the cave, sought by the Orkney earl Ragnvald in 1127. Even myths about King Arthur are weaved into the island’s lore!

The sacred geometry in the landscape of Norway is so ingeniously contrived, it is difficult for us to understand how it was done. Certainly, the builders’ skills of surveying far surpassed anything historians have been willing to give them credit for. The Norwegian Pentagram and the Viking Serpent will undoubtedly prove to be important additions to our understanding of our forefathers’ skills and beliefs, as well as lifting the veil that the Christian church, historians and archaeologists have lowered over our eyes.

Harald S. Boehlke was born into a Norwegian diplomat family in Oslo, Norway in 1946, and has lived in five different countries. His main interests lie in archaeology, history and art—and shining a bright light on hidden mysteries. Harald is author of The Viking Serpent. | Visit TheVikingSerpent.com --

Top Image: Borgund Stave Church (Eduardo/CC BY-SA 2.0), pentagram, Vitruvian man, and serpent (Public Domain); Deriv.

By Harald Boehlke

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Trajan's Column: An Unyielding Pillar of Imperial Strength


Ancient Origins


A pillar of Emperor Trajan's military victories, the Column of Trajan is as much a benchmark of Rome's strength as an empire as it is a monument to Trajan's success as a leader. Situated at the northern end of the Forum of Trajan, the Column is where all eyes are immediately drawn upon entering the complex. Even today surrounded by the ruins of Trajan's Market, the Ulpia Library and various other crumbling structures, Trajan's Column stands as resolute as Trajan's forces in the war against Dacia.


The column as it stands in the Forum of Trajan (public domain)

Trajan’s Victories
Trajan was a special emperor, as loved by his people as he was feared by his enemies (a trait not as common as one would have hoped for in Rome). Therefore, depicted on his Column is Trajan's most successful military victory: his defeat of Dacia, an "uncivilized" culture on the fringe of the Roman Empire (a region which coincides with modern day Romania and a portion of Serbia). Twining around the tower from base to peak is Trajan's two victories over the Dacians: the first achieved in 102AD; the second, a few years later in 106AD. The Column was begun soon after his successes, under the architect of the Apollodorus of Damascus, and was completed around 113 AD, four years before Trajan's death.


Statue of Roman Emperor Trajan at Tower Hill, London (CC by SA 3.0)

A Column of Triumph
The narrative band winds around the Column twenty-three times, the width of the band and depth of the carvings increasing gradually as the scenes twined further up the colossal structure of Carrara marble (see an interactive display of the carvings here). After the defeat of the Dacians, Trajan declared 123 days of celebration, so one must wonder whether there is a correlation between the number of bands and the festivities. As a monument of the emperor's victory, and the Roman penchant for symbolism, it would not be unreasonable to presume as much. Though Trajan's Column is an impressive feat, it was not the first of its kind in the ancient world. Victory columns were erected long before the Romans came along, variations of the practice seen thousands of years before Rome existed in the ancient Near East. It has been postulated that Roman victory columns were even modelled after the Egyptian obelisks, four-sided pillars erected from a single stone, decorated with hieroglyphics that narrate religious beliefs, and occasionally uprooted from their Egyptian homes and supplanted in the Empire as a sign of conquest. The erection of triumphal columns narrating military successes therefore seems a rather natural transition from usurping monuments (the presence of which indicate conquest) to creating distinctly Roman adaptations.




The intricate carvings depict the battle victories of Emperor Trajan (Mary Harrsch / flickr)

 Roman Propaganda
Because of the nature of the monument, the story carved into the pillar is singular—that is, it is not broken down into individual scenes, but rather is one continuous narration of Trajan's military campaigns in Dacia. Yet the coiling imagery emphasizes not Trajan's slaughter of Dacian forces and enslavement of Dacian women and children, but rather the good Roman's duty to father and fatherland (i.e., religion and country). The purpose of such a depiction is not to illustrate Trajan's ruthless military strategies that brought Dacia under Roman control; rather the Column illustrates the ways in which Trajan contributed wealth, land and able-bodied slaves to his empire. This message is only furthered when Trajan later used some of the loot from his Dacian victory to set into motion an extensive public building program that would benefit those within the city of Rome. (And of course, spread his reputation as a giving leader.)


A scene from Trajan’s column: Building a fortress (CC by SA 3.0)

Trajan, the Merciful Conqueror?
While scholars debate the exact purposes of the images chosen for Trajan's Column, this author postulates that the decision might have been a simple matter of ensuring the public understood Trajan's goals were for them, rather than for protecting his position of power or filling his pockets with gold. The images on the Column center on Trajan's armies dutifully presenting offering to the Roman gods and building bridges and houses in Dacian territory: essentially, Trajan emphasized the same public building strategies on the Column he was using for Rome contemporaneously. Further, the minimal number of battle scenes on the Column depicts Trajan as a merciful conqueror, and reiterating his already defined image as an honorable leader. If Trajan had chosen to solely illustrate the gruesome slaughters of Dacian forces, and the enslavement of the Dacians women and children, the message of Trajan's strength would have been clear, but ruthless. As Trajan is still remembered as one of the best Roman leaders, the images carved were a brilliant propagandistic decision.

 Ancient Viewing of Column Scenes
According to Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Column was once flanked by the Biblioteca Ulpia,—or the Ulpian Library—a library housing Greek and Latin literature in separate collections (and the greatest ancient library following the fall of the Library of Alexandria). The library rose with the Column, and were intentionally designed to include various viewing platforms to allow those who moved through the collections to view the highest parts of the Column. Unlike the later Column of Marcus Aurelius (in which the upper bands of the column are deeply carved to allow viewing from the ground), the images of Trajan's Column only minutely increased in depth because of the aid the libraries provided two thousand years ago.


The scenes on Trajan’s column focus more on offerings and construction rather than battle (public domain)

Not Just an Art Piece But Also a Tomb for the Emperor
The base of the Column was used to further exemplify Trajan's victories against the Dacians, a helpful addition should the Column ever suffer the same fate as that of Antoninus Pius in which only the base survives. Within the base once laid the remains of Emperor Trajan and his wife, a decision the Roman Senate voted for following his death in 117 AD and subsequent deification. The golden urns of Trajan and his wife Plotina have since been stolen, but the inclusion of the great emperor in his titular Forum would have spoken volumes to his people and their descendants of his military prestige.

A Lasting Legacy
Trajan's Column stands not only as a monument to Trajan's success against the Dacian forces, but also as a symbol of his success in ending struggle spanning years of Dacian threats on the Roman borders. Julius Caesar had attempted to squash the "barbarians" around 44 BC; Augustus' armies fought them again when the Dacians attempted to support Mark Antony during the political upheaval toward the end of the reign of the Second Triumvirate. A hundred years later, Emperor Domitian began a war against the Dacians in 87 AD, believed to be over aggression and gold; ironically, one of the reasons it is believed Domitian was unsuccessful was because the Dacians were phenomenal metal workers (because of the abundance of precious metals in the area) capable of quickly supplementing their weaponry with every loss. By the time Trajan took power in 98AD, it was evident that the Dacians had to be squelched once and for all. Thus, the Column stands not only for Trajan's triumph over the ‘barbarians’ but also as a symbol that his military prowess far-surpassed his predecessors.

 Top image: A section of Trajan’s column (Jake&Brady / flickr)

By Ryan Stone