Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Gyda—The Face That Launched A Thousand Norsemen

In the mid-to-late 9th century there lived a Norwegian noblewoman by the name of Gyda (or Gytha). According to legend, she was the daughter of King Eirík of Horthaland and had a reputation for great beauty, matched by even greater political ambition. Although minor kings from all over Scandinavia tried to court her, Gyda refused to marry a petty lord. Weak Norwegian kings with only a few shires to their name did not interest her. Instead, she wanted a Norwegian suitor with enough power to be called King of all Norway, just as Denmark and Sweden had arch-kings who ruled over their noble peers. As the story goes, the history of Norway changed forever when messengers from a certain King Harald came to ask Gyda if she was interested in marrying their liege.

King Harald I of Norway was said to have become the ruler of a minor kingdom in southeast Norway around 860. He was supposedly only ten years old at the time, and his survival in those early years was largely due to his skilled guardian, Guthorm. Together, young Harald and Guthorm survived invasions on multiple fronts and eventually counterattacked, leading to the deaths of several rival kings. According to the Icelandic historian and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1178-1241), King Harald emerged from this first stage of his reign with a long list of conquests—during his teenage and early adult years, he supposedly added to his own kingdom such regions as Hringaríki, Heithmork, Guthbrands Dale, Hathaland, Thótn, Raumarí, northern Vingulmork and lands around the Glomma River.

The messengers of King Harald listed out these lands and conquests to the fair maiden, Gyda, feeling sure that she would see that their king was one of the most powerful men in Norway and that she would surely agree to a marriage. Gyda, however, countered the argument of the messengers by proclaiming that even though Harald wielded great power, he was still only a minor king in southeast Norway. As she had stated many times before, she stressed that she had no intention of marrying a petty regional king who had no ambition of ruling the whole of Norway. Therefore, she sent King Harald’s messengers away with a formal refusal to the proposed marriage. Yet, Gyda must have seen promise in young Harald, for she sent a second message to him—if one day he indeed became the king of all Norway, Gyda promised that she would marry him, but not a day before he conquered the whole land.

The messengers of King Harald were said to have been deeply offended by Gyda’s words. Yet, when they delivered her demands to their liege, King Harald reportedly found her challenge quite exhilarating. According to legend, it was after Gyda refused to marry Harald that the king vowed not to cut or groom his hair until all of Norway fell under his control. During the subsequent years of warfare, Harald’s tangled mass of hair became famous. Indeed, according to the 9th-century skald, Thorbjorn Hornfloki, King Harald was nicknamed Lúfa, which translated to something like “Slovenly Person.” Yet, when the conquering king defeated his last rivals in the momentous Battle of Hafrsfjord in the late 9th century, Harald finally cut his matted locks and adopted his more widely known name, Harald Finehair (or Fairhair).

Unfortunately for Gyda, Harald’s lust for conquest seemed to outgrow his lust for the woman who had once refused his marriage proposal. By the time Harald became king of all Norway, he had already supposedly married well over ten women. Even so, after Norway was his, King Harald Finehair remembered the noblewoman who had sparked his ambition for conquest. Almost as an afterthought, he reportedly sent his agents to fetch Gyda and she ultimately became one of the many women present in King Harald Finehair’s sizable harem.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of Gyda refusing the messengers of Harald Fairhair, painted by Knud Larson Bergslien (c. 1827-1908), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Alexander The Great’s Animal Guides To The Siwa Oasis

Alexander the Great was an incredibly religious man. How could he not be? After all, his father’s family claimed to have been descended from Heracles, son of Zeus, and his mother’s family similarly was said to trace their lineage back to the demigod Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis. Additionally, the mother of the famous king convinced herself and her son that Alexander was not fathered by a mortal, but by a god disguised as her husband. As Alexander believed (or wanted his subjects to believe) that the deities were not only gods, but also his family, it is unsurprising that Alexander the Great held countless sacrificial offerings during his campaigns and generally sought out temples of worship wherever he traveled.

One of the most powerful religious pilgrimages that Alexander the Great undertook was his trip to the Siwa Oasis around 332 or 331 BCE. This occurred around the time he founded the Egyptian city of Alexandria, although ancient sources did not agree on whether the pilgrimage took place before or after the founding of the city. In Siwa, there was a famous oracle of the Egyptian god, Amun, whom the Greeks believed to be another interpretation of Zeus. As a supposed descendant of Zeus, Alexander the Great was naturally drawn to the oracle.

Siwa truly was (and is) a fertile oasis surrounded by difficult and treacherous terrain. The Roman general and historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), used the accounts of Ptolemy (Alexander’s companion who became king of Egypt) and Aristobulus (a civilian friend of Alexander who was concerned with engineering and science) to piece together his own report on the Siwa expedition in his text, The Campaigns of Alexander. As Alexander’s contemporaries told it, the king and his companions marched into the desert, only to find themselves quickly lost. The shifting sands had erased any signs of a path to Siwa, leaving the pilgrims stranded in a deadly landscape with dwindling supplies. Yet, just as Alexander and his companions began to doubt their likelihood of survival, a miracle happened. According to both Ptolemy and Aristobulus, a pair of animals arrived to guide Alexander to Siwa. The two sources, however, disagreed on what type of animal came to the rescue of the famous king. In Ptolemy’s version of the story, two snakes slithered in front of Alexander’s party to show them the way to the oracle. Aristobulus, instead, reported that it was two crows that arrived to guide the stranded conqueror to his destination.

With the help of the animals, Alexander successfully reached Siwa and obtained his audience with the oracle. What the king was told there remains unknown, but perhaps the oracle confirmed the story of divine birth told by Alexander’s mother—after all, coins were later minted that showed Alexander wielding lighting. In any case, Alexander was reportedly a changed man after leaving the temple of Siwa. With his task complete, the king marched back into the desert and was apparently led once more to safety by his animal guides.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Flying Raven, by Édouard Manet  (1832–1883), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011. 
  • Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Canal Blunder Of Charlemagne

In the year 793, the Saxons launched one of many rebellions against Charlemagne and the empire of the Franks. This rebellion, however, was particularly dire, as the Saxons began their revolt by slaughtering a Frankish army led by Count Theodoric. With that blow, the Saxons had the momentum and the Franks needed to crush the rebellion before the rebels could recruit more fighters amid the wave of Saxon enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Charlemagne set his eye on a more long-term goal—instead of marching straight for Saxony, he moved his troops to southern Germany, where the Danube and the Main Rivers run parallel, but do not touch. Charlemagne envisioned connecting the two huge rivers with a canal. If he succeeded, it would be a feat of infrastructure engineering that would have both economic and military benefits.

Charlemagne put his men to work on the canal in the Autumn of 793. His plan was to connect the Main and the Danube by linking two smaller offshoots of the rivers—the River Rednitz and the Altmühl. Yet, almost immediately, it became apparent to the whole army that the canal was going to be much more difficult to construct than their king had previously believed. The ground where the army was digging turned out to be too swampy and muddy for a viable canal to be built at that time. Stubbornly, Charlemagne continued to fight against Mother Nature in hopes of completing his canal, but he was forced to abandon the project by the end of the year. Over a millennia later, however, Germany would accomplish Charlemagne’s vision by completing a Rhine-Main-Danube canal in 1992.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Charlemagne Receives the Submission of Widukind, by Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

An Interesting Way That The Extravagant Emperor Claudius Supposedly Attempted To Restrain Extravagance In Rome

As early as the reign of Augustus (r. 31 BCE – 14 CE), the emperors of Rome had adopted the powers wielded by the office of the Censor. The Roman Censor had duties such as organizing censuses, evaluating the membership of Roman societal classes (including the Senate), and keeping an eye on financial practices in Rome. With such powers, it is easy see why the emperors wanted to absorb the duties of the Censor for themselves.

As suggested by the name “Censor,” the holders of this office were additionally tasked with keeping immorality and excessive indulgence under control in Rome. It was an ironic role for the emperors, as many among their ranks led lives of unimaginable debauchery and wastefulness. Nevertheless, a few of the emperors took their role as a moral Censor seriously. Others, however, half-heartedly made a show of condemning extravagance while simultaneously emptying the treasury to fund massive public entertainment.

Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) was one of those ironic Roman rulers who held the role of Censor, but also hosted magnificent shows of all kinds. For example, according to Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Claudius used gladiators to recreate in Rome the realistic siege and pillaging of a town, and he even inaugurated the completion of a canal project by holding a mock sea battle on Fucine Lake.

According to Suetonius, Emperor Claudius did carry out at least one memorable action specifically in his role as Censor, although even this was done with a flair of showmanship. One day, Claudius apparently decided it was time to make a public display against extravagance.  With this in mind, the emperor headed to the Sigillaria (a market street) and searched for something that was particularly decadent. After perusing the wares, he finally picked an ornate silver-plated chariot and had it rolled out to a public space. Then, with the curious eyes of the Roman people watching, Emperor Claudius reportedly had his soldiers hack the expensive chariot to pieces. With his duty as censor apparently complete, Claudius went back to planning his next great gladiatorial extravaganza.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Chariot of the mascarade des artistes français in Rome c. 1748. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
  • The Twelve Caesars (Divus Claudius, 15) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Palace Intrigue of Empress Dowager Wang

Madam Wang was a Chinese noblewoman who could trace her ancestry back to the ancient kingdom of Yan. Helped by her noble blood, Madam Wang and her sister were both accepted into the imperial palace, where they became concubines of Liu Qi, the heir apparent of Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE). At the time when Liu Qi ascended to the throne in 157 BCE, henceforth being known as Emperor Jing, Madam Wang was pregnant with the new emperor’s child. The baby boy was born in 156 BCE and was named Liu Che. He would eventually become Emperor Wu, one of China’s most famous emperors, but, at the time of his birth, Liu Che and Madam Wang were a long way from power.

In the time before his ascendance to the throne, Emperor Jing had been cajoled into an arranged marriage by his grandmother, Empress Dowager Bo. Jing disliked the woman and they produced no sons, but she was named empress when the new emperor succeeded his father. Therefore, when Madam Wang gave birth to her son, she still remained one of many concubines ranked below the empress.

A change came in 155 BCE, when Empress Dowager Bo died. With the pressure of his respected grandmother gone, Emperor Jing quickly dismissed the empress from the arranged marriage and appointed as his heir the eldest son born from his concubines. While this was a positive step for Madam Wang, she was still far from power—her son was not the oldest of Emperor Jing’s male children. Instead, the title of heir apparent was bestowed on Liu Rong, whose mother was a certain Lady Li.

For years, Madam Wang could not escape the shadow of Lady Li. Although Emperor Jing apparently never named her as his empress, Lady Li’s position as the mother of the heir held enormous clout. Nevertheless, there were other powerful women who knew how to pull strings in the court of Emperor Jing. In particular, Empress Dowager Dou (Jing’s mother) and the Elder Princess (Liu Piao, Jing’s sister) held sway over the emperor. The former of the two, Empress Dowager Dou, seemed to restrain herself from dabbling too much in politics, with the exception of actively encouraging her husband and son to practice the virtues of Daoism. The Elder Princess, in contrast, was apparently less subdued in wielding her influence.

Shortly after Liu Rong was named heir apparent, the Elder Princess began reaching out to the heir’s mother, Lady Li. A marriage was proposed between Liu Rong and one of the Elder Princesses own daughters. Lady Li, however, was apparently jealous of the princess’ influence or she possibly saw the Elder Princess as a dangerous mother-in-law to Liu Rong. Whatever the case, Lady Li rejected the offer and did not allow her son to marry the Elder Princess’ daughter. Unfortunately for Lady Li, this was the beginning of the end for her imperial ambitions.

Liu Piao, the Elder Princess, was evidently outraged by Lady Li’s rejection and pledged to destroy the woman’s reputation. Not long after Lady Li’s fateful decision, Madam Wang received an interesting proposal—the Elder Princess suggested a marriage between her own daughter, Lady Chen, and Madam Wang’s son, Liu Che. Unlike her rival, Madam Wang accepted the offer. With their agreement reached, the Elder Princess and the concubine formed an alliance and plotted the downfall of their common foe.

The pair launched a two-prong attack against Lady Li. Elder Princess Liu Piao exploited Emperor Jing’s trust in her sisterly advice to criticize Lady Li on a daily basis, while also heaping praise on Madam Wang and her son, Liu Che. Meanwhile, Madam Wang skillfully manipulated the government ministers to a devastating effect. According to the Han historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Madam Wang successfully tricked the grand messenger into forcefully insisting to Emperor Jing that Lady Li needed to be granted the title of empress. The emperor mistakenly believed that an impatient Lady Li had put the idea in the grand messenger’s head, a thought that made the emperor very angry. Whatever the truth may have been, Emperor Jing made some drastic family reevaluations in his seventh year of rule. In 150 BCE, Emperor Jing refused to see Lady Li any longer and removed her son from the position of heir apparent. Within months, Emperor Jing declared Madam Wang to be his empress and named her son, Liu Che (future Emperor Wu, r. 141-87 BCE), as his heir.

Picture Attribution: (Chinese mural [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Medieval Priest Named Rusticus Reportedly Became A Bishop Because Of A Timely Arrival And A Prophetic Dream

In the year 423, Bishop Venerandus of Clermont-Ferrand died, leaving the bishopric vacant. As no heir was selected for the position, several factions emerged in Clermont-Ferrand, each supporting its own candidate for the title of bishop. Fittingly, the people of the diocese chose Sunday as the day to debate about who should become the new leader of the local church. Neither the religious reason for the town’s debate, nor the holy day on which the discussion was held, restrained the people of Clermont-Ferrand from heatedly arguing among themselves and ultimately driving deeper divisions between the different factions. Yet, according to Bishop Gregory of Tours (539-594), order was finally regained in the debate when a mysterious veiled woman spoke up and proclaimed that she had received a prophecy from God.

The anonymous veiled woman chastised the people of Clermont-Ferrand, claiming that not a single candidate put forward by the various factions had the backing of God. After she had the crowd’s attention, the veiled woman continued her speech, stating that she had received a divine vision in which the face of the next bishop was revealed to her in a prophetic dream. As if on cue, a little-known priest from somewhere in the outskirt of the diocese joined the congregation. His name was Rusticus, and as soon as the veiled woman set her eyes on the priest, she began to scream that he, the new arrival, was the one that God had chosen in her vision. Whether this was divine intervention, a fateful fluke, or a genius con job masterminded by Rusticus and the veiled woman, the result was that the people of Clermont-Ferrand were swayed to abandon all of their previous candidates and to support Rusticus as their bishop. Whatever the case, Rusticus served as the bishop of Clermont from 424 to 446 and was later considered to be a saint.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (14th century depiction of Saint Nonnus and Saint Pelagia, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Peculiar Tale Of Saur, The Magical Talking Dog Of Medieval Norway

In his Heimskringla, the Icelandic chief, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), ambitiously sought to write an entertaining, but historically inspired, narrative that traced the royal line of Norway from the ancient fog of myth all the way to the reign of Magnus Erlingsson (r. 1162-1184). Sturluson achieved his goal, ultimately producing a book that not only contained vital information about medieval Scandinavia (especially through his preservation of Skaldic poetry), but was also skillfully written in a pleasant and enjoyable way. Nevertheless, the Heimskringla was a series of sagas, and while sagas feature historical subjects and people, they also often take great artistic license for the sake of storytelling, or otherwise use myth and folklore to spice up the tale. The Heimskringla, though an admirable work of great importance, was no exception. Take, for example, the odd story of Saur, the magical talking dog of Norway.

The bizarre tale of Saur appears as an interesting digression in the Saga of Hákon the Good, the fourth saga contained in the Heimskringla. It is quite a big digression, for although the saga is about Hákon the Good (king of Norway, r. 934/940-961), the tale of Saur was set more than a century earlier, in the time before Norway was unified under a single monarchy. The haphazard placement of Saur’s story in the saga conjures up an image of Snorri Sturluson having this fun folklorish tale in his possession, but not knowing where it would best fit in the narrative. Therefore, when he happened to write about Hákon the Good interacting with Trondheim, the setting of Saur’s story, Snorri Sturluson decided to include the tale of the dog in the saga, even if it was a bit chronologically awkward, just because it was that entertaining.

As the story goes, there lived a certain minor king called Eystein the Powerful in Uppland who, according to tradition, lived around the early 9th century. Eystein the Powerful allegedly invaded the region of Trondheim and brought the district under his influence. With the area conquered, the king needed to appoint someone to govern the newly acquired land. He apparently offered the names of two possible candidates for the job, and let the people of Trondheim decide which of the two would be their new overlord. One option was Thórir Faxi, a trusted thrall of Eystein. The other choice was Saur—a dog.

Trondheim, of course, chose the dog as their new governor, thinking that they could remain autonomous if a mere animal was their appointed ruler. Yet, when Saur padded his way into Trondheim, the locals soon realized that this was no ordinary dog. According to the tale, Saur was a magical creature with three times the intelligence of an average man. He could also allegedly speak in human tongues after having barked twice; although, how understandable this speech was is unknown, for Snorri did not say if the dog spoke full sentences or just one word between barks.

Saur must have either impressed or frightened the people of Trondheim, because the locals began to heap luxurious gifts upon their magical hound. A collar and chain of gold and silver were crafted for the furry lord. He was also supposedly given a dog bed fit for a king, which was placed on a hill where the rulers of Trondheim once held their court. Additionally, the people of Trondheim reportedly carried Saur on their shoulders when he wished to travel, ensuring that his noble paws were never dirtied by mud. All in all, he lived a pampered life.

Saur, however, was a dog of his times—no Norse ruler, including the magical mutt of Trondheim, wanted to be thought of as soft or weak. Therefore, when a threat occurred in his domain, Saur would bare his teeth and boldly scamper toward the danger. As the story goes, this noble nature eventually led to Saur’s death. One day, a pack of wolves attacked a flock of sheep in Trondheim. Upon hearing of this attack, Saur heroically rushed to the flock’s defense. Unfortunately, the brave hound did not wait for reinforcements, but instead chose to carry on alone. Although he was a magical dog, Saur was no match for the pack of wolves, and his bizarre tale ends with him sadly being ripped apart by his canine cousins.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Medieval illumination of a dog, 14th century, from a Codex in the Czech Republic, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.