Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Origin Of The Phrase, “Out Of The Frying Pan, Into The Fire”

Throughout history, many cultures have created sayings that denote the progression from a bad situation into an even worse outcome. In modern English, perhaps the most famous of such sayings is: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” Although this phrase is still widely used by many modern English speakers, the saying was actually coined more than half a millennia ago.

The first person believed to have used the saying in the English language was Thomas More, who, in 1528, used a version of the phrase in one of several treatises he published over the years against the religious beliefs of William Tyndale. Even though Thomas More was presumably the first person to write the saying in English, another author had specifically written of frying pans and fires almost two centuries before More.

The Florentine author, Giovanni Boccaccio (c. 1313-1375), wrote a huge piece of literature, labeled The Decameron, which was likely produced between the years 1349 and 1352. In the book, ten characters camp out in an abandoned villa during the time of the Black Death plague in Europe, and they decide to amuse themselves by telling each other stories over a span of ten days. Every character tells a story on each of the ten days, resulting in one hundred total tales being told by the end of the book. The theme for the stories presented on the second day in the book has to do with people who suffer misfortunes, but, in the end, they somehow receive a semblance of joy or happiness from their hardships.

The first story told in day two of The Decameron is about a group of three jesters who went to see the body of a saint being displayed in a church. Yet, the sanctuary was so packed with people that the jesters could not get close to the holy corpse. In order to bypass the crowd, one of the jesters, named Martellino, pretended to be paralyzed while the other two carried him through the crowd, all the while clamoring that their friend needed a miraculous healing. Once the jesters reached the saint’s body, Martellino pretended to be miraculously healed, but he was immediately recognized as a fraud by someone in the crowd. The outraged people in the church then began to viciously beat up Martellino, and he was only saved from the clutches of the mob when one of the other jesters called over a soldier and accused Martellino of being a thief. At that point, the battered jester was hauled away by the soldier and rescued from the clutches of the angry church-goers.

The arrest of Martellino, however, was not much of an improvement over the angry crowd in the church. He was falsely imprisoned in a dungeon for the charge of thievery and even suffered sessions of torture at the hands of his jailors. It was at that moment that Martellino’s friend who had arranged for the arrested cried out: “We have taken him out of the frying-pan, and dropped him straight in the fire” (Decameron, Second Day, first story, trans. G. H. McWilliam). Yet, the tale had turn of fortune. At the end, Martellino’s friends convinced a local prince to intervene on the imprisoned man’s behalf and all three jesters ended up better off than they began.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Engraved portrait of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) by Raffaello Sanzio Morghen (1758-1833), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Decameron (Second Day, First Story) by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by G. H. McWilliam. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Goddess Athena Personally Gave Odysseus’ Wife, Penelope, A Makeover

Athena was the type of deity that had wild mood swings. One day, she would be cold-hearted enough to turn an innocent rape victim into a hideous monster because the woman had the audacity to be raped in a temple of Athena—poor Medusa. Yet, on other days, Athena could be loving enough to spontaneously give one of her favorite humans a godly makeover. Fortunately for Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, Athena appeared before her on one of her more cheerful days, intending only to amplify her beauty.

Not long after a disguised Odysseus returned to his homeland of Ithaca in Book XVIII of The Odyssey, Athena, almost like a big sister, decided to give Penelope a full-body makeover. Besides Odysseus and Penelope being two of her most favorite humans, Athena also had another motivation for her spur-of-the-moment makeover plans—the goddess was determined to see bloodshed on Ithaca. Making Penelope the epitome of beauty would ensure that none of the suitors that had crowded into her palace during Odysseus’ decades-long absence would leave the island, thereby setting up an inevitable massacre.

When Athena arrived at the palace of Ithaca, she did not wait to see if Penelope would consent to the makeover. Instead, the goddess put Penelope into a deep sleep and then propped her up on a couch in order to get to work. Athena apparently had made a detour to see Aphrodite before arriving on Ithaca, because she brought a few of the love-goddess’ signature beauty products to use in the makeover. For her first step, Athena washed and cleansed Penelope with Aphrodite’s products, especially a face ointment that Aphrodite often saved for special occasions, such as dancing with the muses.

With the beauty products applied, Athena moved on to her other talents. The goddess was something of a magical plastic surgeon. With this skill, Athena accentuated Penelope’s beauty in several ways. For one, the goddess made Penelope taller. She also used her power to turn Penelope’s skin the polished color of freshly sawn ivory. Finally, as a last touch, Athena decided that it would not hurt to make Penelope a little more voluptuous.

With her makeover complete, Athena woke up the sleeping woman and planted in her head an insurmountable desire to speak to all of the suitors in her home. When Penelope stepped out into the open, she did indeed turn heads, including that of her long-lost husband who was in attendance, but disguised. With all of the men’s desires enflamed, the suitors renewed their efforts to marry Penelope, while Odysseus continued to plot their demise.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of Pallas Athena, Attributed to Rembrandt (1606–1669), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Odd Story Of Emperor Gaozu’s Nephew, Marquis Soup Rattle

Liu Bang was a low-level official who rebelled against the Qin Dynasty to become king of Han (r.206-202 BCE) and ultimately the first emperor of the Han Dynasty (r. 202-195 BCE), thereafter gaining the name of Emperor Gaozu. As he had seen firsthand just how unstable an emperor’s position could be, Gaozu decided to entrust most of his empire’s noble feudal positions to members of his Liu family. As such, by the time of the emperor’s death in 195 BCE, only a single kingdom of China was ruled by a king who was unrelated to the imperial family.

Although Gaozu gave out kingdoms and other royal titles to his brothers, his sons, and his cousins, as well as to the descendants of all those listed above, the emperor oddly refused to hand out any title whatsoever to a certain unlucky nephew. His name was Liu Xin and he was the son of Gaozu’s deceased older brother, Liu Bo. Most family members of Liu Xin’s hereditary proximity to the emperor were given noble titles, yet Gaozu never considered the nephew for any feudal positions. Gaozu’s father, respectfully called the Venerable Sire or the Grand Supreme Emperor, apparently thought that Gaozu had simply forgotten about Liu Xin. When questioned, however, Emperor Gaozu reportedly stated that Liu Xin’s treatment was not a mistake, but a deliberate punishment.  As explanation, the emperor told an odd story about his past.

In the time when Emperor Gaozu was still the commoner known as Liu Bang, he apparently had a bad habit of bringing groups of friends to the house of Liu Bo, his older brother. Even worse, Liu Bang and his companions always arrived at his brother’s house at meal times. Although Liu Bang had the ability to be a people-person when it suited him and he usually acted respectfully toward family, he also often had an insufferable attitude, accentuated by bouts of extreme rudeness. As such, on those days when Liu Bang arrived on his brother’s doorstep with a party of friends in tow, he was the type of person who fully expected to be fed and entertained at his brother’s expense. Despite Liu Bang’s wants, he was not yet a king or emperor, so Liu Bo’s wife naturally felt no obligation to feed her scavenging brother-in-law.

Liu Bo’s wife apparently had one go-to tactic that she used whenever Liu Bang arrived in search of sustenance. As the story goes, she would go over to her kettle where food was being prepared and then loudly rattle the ladle. Feigning sympathy with their hunger, she would lie that her family had already eaten and that there was nothing left in the kettle. Upon hearing the news, Liu Bang’s disappointed friends would shuffle out of the home and search for another place to eat. Yet, on one of these occasions, Liu Bang peeked into the kettle after his friends had left and, low and behold, there was still plenty of food left in the pot.

After recounting that story to his father, Emperor Gaozu explained that he had long held a grudge against Liu Bo’s wife because of her kettle rattling. Fortunately, the Venerable Sire, as a good father should, eventually convinced Gaozu that his nephew, Liu Xin, should not be punished because of the actions of his mother. As a result, the neglected nephew finally received a noble title—a very unique position, at that. The promotion, however, was likely not what the nephew or the Venerable Sire had expected. According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Liu Xin was given the special title of Marquis Soup Rattle.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of the The Dahuting Tomb mural, c. 2nd-3rd century CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Emperor Nero Had A Divine Beard

Not only was Emperor Nero a member of the Julian family (Augustus was his great-great-grandfather), he was also part of the Ahenobarbi clan. This latter group, which Nero was connected to through his father, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, was said to have earned their name through a peculiar event that supposedly occurred in 5th century BCE.

According to Roman tradition, it was not long after Rome had ousted its Etruscan overlords in 509 BCE, when an army of Latins attacked, intending to re-impose Etruscan rule over the Romans. As legend has it, the army of the fledgling Roman Republic defeated the would-be oppressors at Lake Regillus with the help of the horse-riding gods, Castor and Pollux, who supposedly led the Romans in a decisive cavalry charge.

Castor and Pollux were apparently excited about Rome’s victory at Lake Regillus and were impatient about spreading the news back to the victorious city. Instead of waiting for the soldiers to naturally make their way back home, Castor and Pollux miraculously appeared to a random wanderer. Exactly where this encounter took place differed from source to source—Suetonius claimed the setting was on a country road to Rome, while Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus claimed it occurred at a fountain in the Forum. Whatever the case, the first person who supposedly made contact with the two gods was a certain Lucius Domitius, an ancestor of Nero.

As the story goes, the gods told Lucius Domitius that a great battle had been won at Lake Regillus. They then commanded the man to spread the word to the Roman people. To make sure that Lucius Domitius was believed, the gods then touched the man’s black beard, turning it a vibrant bronze color.

After that encounter, Lucius’ descendants began to have good luck in their endeavors. According to Suetonius, Lucius Domitius and his immediate descendants earned for their family the rank of patrician and achieved seven consulships, two censorships, and a military triumph. Lucius Domitius also discovered that his divinely colored locks were hereditary, as all of his descendants had shades of bronze for their hair.

The bronze-colored (aheneus) beard (barba) sported by Lucius Domitius and his male descendants allegedly served as the origin of their family surname, Ahenobarbus. By the time of Nero (r. 54-68), however, the miraculous bronze hair of the Ahenobarbi may have diluted in color, as Suetonius claimed Nero’s hair was mostly blonde.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (heavily modified painting of Nero by Eugène Delacroix  (1798–1863), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Twelve Caesars (Divus Claudius, 15) by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Colorful Haunting Of Bishop Eparchius

Eparchius ruled the diocese of Clermont-Ferrand around the time that the region was under the influence of King Euric the Visigoth (r. 466-484). Bishop Eparchius was evidently an insomniac who habitually crept into his local cathedral to pray at odd hours of the night. One of his many nightly prayer sessions, however, was not like the others—on that particular evening, the bishop was horrified to find that his cathedral was infested with demons. The bizarre tale was written down by Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) in his text, The History of the Franks, and served as some much-needed comic relief between accounts of warlords battling over the remains of post-Roman Gaul.

According to The History of the Franks, the weird haunting of Bishop Eparchius started like any other night. The sleepless bishop was restless and could not fall to sleep, so he decided, as he often did, to go pray in the cathedral to ease his mind. Yet, when he arrived at the church, Eparchius discovered that he was not alone in the sanctuary. As the drowsy bishop entered the cathedral, he was shocked to find that all the pews were filled with demons. Most outrageous of all, however, was the view of Satan, the arch-demon himself, sitting in the bishop’s own holy chair. The Devil, although in a male form, was evidently feeling particularly feminine that night, for he was reportedly “made up to look like a painted woman” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Book II, chapter 21).

Now, most laymen would likely be afraid when faced by a demonic horde. Eparchius, however, was a mighty bishop who scoffed at the presumptuous devils. Instead of being afraid, Bishop Eparchius became very, very angry. Storming into the cathedral, the bishop shooed away the lesser demons like a flock of pigeons. With that complete, the indignant Bishop Eparchius turned to Satan and blasted him with some unkind words: “’You hideous prostitute,’ said the Bishop,…’Leave the house of God this instant and stop polluting it with your presence!’” (History of the Franks, Book II, chapter 21).

Satan was apparently extremely hurt by the bishop’s words. Therefore, the Devil decided to curse the bishop before descending down into hell: “’Since you give me the title of prostitute,’ said Satan, ‘I will see that you yourself are constantly harassed with sexual desire’” (History of the Franks, Book II, chapter 21). As the story goes, the Devil’s promise came true and Bishop Eparchius developed into a lusty old man. Even so, the bishop was able to live like a saint, for he could apparently banish all of his pesky impure thoughts by continuously making the sign of the cross.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Anonymous panting of Saint Anthony tormented by Demons, c. 1520, [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 20, 2018

Nero Reportedly Survived An Assassination Attempt Because Of A Discarded Snakeskin

Agrippina the Younger was a member of the Julio-Claudian family who was exiled from Rome during the reign of her brother, Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41). Fortunately for her, Caligula was soon assassinated and Agrippina was almost immediately invited back to Rome by the next emperor, her uncle, Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54).

When Agrippina returned to Rome, she was allowed to resume raising her young son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. As Agrippina and her son were among the increasingly rare surviving descendants of Augustus (Agrippina was his great-granddaughter), their return to Roman society brought about all sorts of possibilities for Rome’s ruling elite to use in their endless political maneuverings. Agrippina the Younger welcomed the plotting, as she was an ambitious and cunning woman who thrived in court intrigue.

Unfortunately for Agrippina, ruthless and independent-thinking women were not in short supply in ancient Rome. In particular, she had a worthy rival in Messalina, who had been the wife of Emperor Claudius since the year 39 or 40. As Messalina was just as ambitious and politically savvy as her adversary, she immediately realized the threat that Agrippina and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus could potentially pose to herself and to her own son, Britannicus. Naturally, a great feud formed between the two sly women. Several ancient historians and biographers mentioned the battle of intrigue between the two women. Tacitus (c. 56-117+) wrote that Messalina was a “particularly virulent” persecutor of Agrippina and that Messalina was only distracted from her campaign by a wild affair with a certain Gaius Silius (Annals, Book XI).

The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), claimed that the feud between the two women almost became murderous. In his book, The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius alleged that Messalina eventually sent a team of assassins to murder Agrippina’s son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. According to the tale, the assassins found the young boy sleeping and were about to strangle him when they saw something terrifying. At the foot of the bed, the assassins were confronted by the coiled, scaly hide of a snake that was seemingly guarding the sleeping young boy. Believing that their target was divinely protected, the assassins loudly fled from the scene. The commotion either woke Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus or his mother, Agrippina, for they knew that assassins had been near and that a snake had been the reason of their indiscreet exit.

Upon inspection, however, all was not as it seemed. What was at the foot of the boy’s bed was not a live snake, but just the shed skin of one that had slithered by recently. Even so, Agrippina must have thought it was lucky, for she reportedly had the snakeskin gilded and turned into a bracelet, which she gave to her son.

Messalina, of course, was right to suspect and fear Agrippina and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. In the year 48, Messalina was executed by Claudius after word spread about the aforementioned affair that his wife was having with Gaius Silius. One year after Messalina’s execution, Claudius married Agrippina the Younger and adopted her son, who, upon adoption, assumed the infamous name Nero. When Claudius died of suspicious circumstances in the year 54, Agrippina and her allies ensured that it was not Britannicus, Claudius’ son by blood, but Nero, the late emperor’s adopted son, who became the next leader of the Roman Empire. In the year 55, Emperor Nero (r. 54-68) fulfilled Messalina’s nightmare by assassinating her son, Britannicus, who was only 13 or 14 years of age at the time of his murder.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (scene with Dionysus and a snake (c. 62-79 AD) - from Pompeii, House of the Centenary, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Tragic Tale of King Liu Hui

Liu Hui was a son of Emperor Gaozu (king r.206-202 BCE, Emperor r. 202-195 BCE), the founder of the Han Dynasty in China. Although the Liu family would continue to rule China for centuries, Liu Hui and his brothers fell on very hard times after the death of their father. Of the eight sons fathered by Emperor Gaozu, only one was born from Empress Lü. Therefore, when Gaozu died and Empress Lü’s son, Liu Ying, became the new emperor, she quickly came to regard her late husband’s other surviving sons as threats to her own child’s power.

The first of Liu Hui’s brothers to be targeted by Empress Lü was Liu Ruyi. Empress Lü apparently detested Ruyi because his mother, Lady Qi, had been Gaozu’s favorite concubine. Furthermore, it was said that Emperor Gaozu had seriously considered making Liu Ruyi his heir instead of Empress Lü’s son. Nevertheless, the Empress and other advisors convinced Emperor Gaozu to keep Liu Ying as his heir and to send Ruyi away from the capital to become the king of Zhao. Even though Empress Lü had her way, she did not forget how close Lady Qi and Ruyi had come to shattering her life. Therefore, in 194 BCE, one year after the death of Gaozu, she had Liu Ruyi poisoned and then executed Lady Qi.

Liu Ying, who was supposedly driven to unhealthy habits to cope with his mother’s brutality, died in 188 BCE, when he was only twenty-three years old. Upon her son’s death, Empress Lü took full control of government, ruling as regent for two successive child-emperors of questionable birth. During her time as regent, she diligently introduced members of her Lü clan into government and noble positions, which angered and frightened her husband’s Liu clan. Unfortunately, by the end of the decade, Empress Lü apparently began to harbor murderous feelings toward the other sons of her late husband.

Sometime during Empress Lü’s reign, she arranged for Liu Hui and other sons of Gaozu to marry women from the Lü clan. These uneasy marriages caused drama between the Liu princes and their overbearing stepmother. This tension peaked in 181 BCE, when Empress Lü had Liu You—the new king of Zhao and another of Gaozu’s sons—starved to death after he allegedly offended his Lü family bride.

Liu Hui succeeded his half-brother, You, as the next king of Zhao, a title which must have seemed like a death sentence after the unnatural deaths of the kingdom’s two previous kings. Liu Hui found himself in an eerily similar situation to his recently deceased brother—both of them had been set up with wives from the Lü family, yet neither brother had any chemistry with his assigned bride. Even worse, Liu Hui’s wife brought with her a troop of Lü clan advisors, whose mission was to turn the new king of Zhao into a puppet ruler.

Despite these unfavorable conditions, King Hui took comfort in having with him a beloved concubine who could ease his sorrows. Yet, Liu Hui’s love for his unnamed concubine caused great jealousy for his queen. Sadly, as Hui’s brothers had discovered before him, it was deadly to be the target of a Lü woman’s scorn.

Whereas Liu You’s bride had complained to the empress about her husband, King Hui’s wife instead chose a more hands-on approach to dealing with her problem. According to Sima Qian, the angry queen exacted her revenge not on King Hui, but on the concubine that he loved. As even the royal attendants in Zhao were apparently loyal to the Lü clan, it was not difficult for the queen to have her way. Tragically, King Hui’s last bastion of comfort was murdered with poison.

The death of the woman he loved plunged Liu Hui into heartbroken depression. After her death, the king was inspired by the muse of sadness to write a poem in honor of his murdered partner and he even composed music to accompany the mournful verses. In the end, King Hui lost the will to live and ultimately committed suicide before the end of 181 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribute: (image from the Pictorial History Of China And India, by Robert Sears (1810-1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and Flickr.).

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Sneeze Was Seen As A Good Omen In Ancient Greece

Throughout history, religious humans of various faiths have long believed that certain emotions, feelings or sensations could be inflicted on people by supernatural forces. For instance, in the ancient Greco-Roman society, many thought that a deity called Eros or Cupid inspired the feeling of love. Similarly, according to some teachings of the Abrahamic religions, sinful temptations are caused by the machinations of demons. In that same strain of thought, the ancient Greeks also believed that sneezes could be divinely inspired. In fact, a sneeze was believed to be a good omen if it occurred after a serious statement or a decision.

This belief made an appearance in writing as early as the age of the 8th-century BCE epic poet, Homer. Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, professed her belief that a sneeze was a sign of the gods’ support in book XVII of The Odyssey. In that scene of the poem, Penelope had just finished longingly prophesying about how Odysseus would purge the shameless suitors in her home once he returned to Ithaca. As soon as Penelope ended her hopeful speech, her son, Telemachus, let out a great sneeze. After hearing her son’s powerful sneeze, Penelope cheerfully exclaimed, “Didn’t you notice that my son sneezed a blessing on all I had said?” (Book 17, approx. line 540, Penguin, 2009).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped and sneeze-modified tondo from an Attic red cup, possibly Briseis and Phoenix (Louvre caption) or Hecamede and Nestor, ca. 490 BC. From Vulci. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009. 

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.