Friday, May 31, 2019

The Honey Of Madness In The Pontic Mountains

The Pontic Mountains in northern Anatolia gained a fearsome reputation in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Curiously enough, the region’s notoriety was in large part due to its not-so-sweet honey. In fact, several ancient armies unfortunately discovered that some of the honey produced in the Pontic Mountains could be poisonous and mind altering.

In Greece, the mad honey of the Pontic Mountains was popularized by Xenophon, an Athenian philosopher, historian and mercenary, who personally encountered the honey while serving with a famous mercenary company, known as the Ten Thousand. A Persian prince named Cyrus the Younger hired the mercenary company in 401 BCE for a failed revolt against King Artaxerxes II. When Cyrus was killed and his revolt crushed, the Greek mercenaries found themselves alone and unwelcome in the vicinity of Babylonia. While being pursued by Persian forces and ambushed by local tribes, the Greeks weaved their way through Mesopotamia and Armenia to reach the Pontic Mountains, from which they could see the Black Sea. Nearby was the Greek-inhabited coastal city of Trapezus, but the Greeks could not reach it in a single day, and would have to camp in the mountains for several days until they neared the coast.

After having defeated a militia of Colchians, the mercenaries encountered very little resistance during their march to Trapezus. They took a detour to some villages on the mountainside, and no one stopped the Greeks from helping themselves to the local supplies. In particular, the mercenaries were delighted to find an abundance of beehives and honeycomb around the villages. Yet, the honey would turn out to be potentially more dangerous than local militias. Xenophon vividly described the scene that occurred after the Greeks ate their fill of the honey:

“all the men who ate honeycomb became deranged, suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, and were too weak to stand up. Those who had eaten a little behaved as though they were drunk, while those who had eaten a lot behaved like madmen, or even like people on the point of death. The ground was so thickly covered with supine men that it looked like the aftermath of a defeat, and morale plummeted” (Anabasis, Book 4, section 8).

Fortunately for Xenophon and the Greek mercenaries, the worst effects of the honey wore off after 24 hours, and the group was able to resume their march to Trapezus after a few more days of rest. Several centuries later, however, a Roman army in the region had less luck with the honey.

According to the Roman geographer and historian, Strabo (c. 64 BCE-21+ CE), Pompey the Great lost a portion of his army to the effects of the mad honey in the Pontic Mountains. In 66 BCE, he had been assigned to command Roman forces against King Mithridates VI in Pontus. When Mithridates committed suicide in 63 BCE, Pompey had a fairly free hand in reorganizing the region.

One particular community in the Pontic Mountains gave Pompey difficulty. Strabo identified this group as the Heptacometae, which he believed was linked to a certain Mossynoeci people that Xenophon and the Ten Thousand encountered centuries earlier. According to Strabo, the Heptacometae weaponized the poisonous honey of the Pontic Mountains and successfully used it in war against a portion of Pompey’s army. Strabo wrote:

The Heptacometae cut down three maniples of Pompey's army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them” (Geography, Book 12, chapter 3, section 18).

Interestingly, scientists in the late 19th century claimed to have solved the mystery of the honey. In a 1889 study, the maddening properties in the Pontic honey were attributed to andromedotoxin that bees picked up from a local variety of yellow-flower rhododendron (Rhododendron luteum). Honey produced in May and June from bees in regions dominated by the Pontic rhododendrons apparently had a concentration of andromedotoxin that was high enough to make it dangerous to consume.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cupid the Honey Thief by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Horror Stories Of Duke Rauching And The Sad Tale Of His Runaway Servants

Duke Rauching was a leading Frankish nobleman of the 6th century who lived and died by the courtly intrigue of the Merovingian era. He was reportedly the type of noble who would thwart an assassination attempt against a king, only to organize his own plot against that very same king at a later point—something he unsuccessfully attempted to do with King Childebert II (r. 575-595). Yet, Duke Rauching was a man of his time, and, although he was no saint, many of the other nobles and kings of his day were equally as bloodstained. Nevertheless, the duke had the misfortune of leaving an extremely bad impression on Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), whose History of the Franks is the main source for 6th-century Frankish history. Gregory of Tours painted Duke Rauching as a villain among villains, and if Gregory’s reports were not exaggerated, then the duke must have been a vindictive, sadistic killer. Yet, as with Emperor Caligula, it is difficult to distinguish the difference between truth, exaggeration, and falsehood when it comes to Duke Rauching.

Gregory of Tours introduced Duke Rauching into his historical narrative as he described events around 575—a year when King Sigebert was assassinated during a civil war against his brother, King Chilperic, and a rebel army marched on Chilperic’s capital, Soissons. The rebellion was crushed and the rebel leader mysteriously died. Duke Rauching’s first recorded act in Gregory’s History was to marry the rebel’s widow.

After bringing Duke Rauching into the scope of the history, Gregory of Tours digressed into several tales about the duke’s abnormal sadistic depravity. According to Gregory, “his savage brutality went far beyond the bonds of human cruelty and folly” (History of the Franks, Book V, section 3). The list of horrible rumors descends further and further into barbarism as Gregory of Tours progresses with his story. First, Duke Rauching was accused of the stereotypical nobleman’s fault of treating his servants as if they were less than human. The next rumor, however, was dramatically more horrific. Gregory wrote, “Whenever, as the custom is, a serf stood before him with a lighted candle as he ate his meal, Rauching would make him bare his shins and grasp the candle between them until it burned out; and when a new candle was lighted, Rauching would repeat the trick, until the serf’s legs were completely scorched” (HF, 5.3). To emphasize the point that the duke was completely insane, Gregory added the line, “Rauching would be convulsed with merriment to watch the man weep” (HF, 5.3). The next tale presented by Gregory featured two servants who ran away from Duke Rauching. Like the serfs with the candles, the runaways would not be shown any mercy by the duke.

As the story goes, a charming tale of romantic love played out on Duke Rauching’s estate—one of the duke’s servants fell in love with one of the duke’s maids. The two lovebirds enjoyed their secret affair on the duke’s estate for over two years, at which point the couple decided to bring their relationship to the next level. They ran away from Duke Rauching and fled to a local church, where they were married by an understanding priest. In addition to performing the ceremony, the priest also gave the couple a place where they could live in secrecy and peace.

Duke Rauching, however, quickly discovered that two of his servants were missing, and he followed their trail to the local church. The duke must have also known that the priest was hiding the couple, for he demanded that they be retrieved. Yet, Rauching also tried to calm the clergyman by saying that he forgave the love-stricken pair and simply wanted them to return to his estate—no punishment, no burning of shins with candles. The priest, however, was not completely convinced and wanted the duke to swear before God that the newlyweds would not be separated. According to Gregory of Tours, Duke Rauching responded with the carefully crafted words, “I will never separate them. On the contrary I will make only too sure that they remain closely united” (HF, 5.3).

The duke’s slippery speech unfortunately fooled the priest. When the clergyman subsequently visited the newlyweds and delivered to them the duke’s words, they too were won over by the promise and agreed to return to the duke’s estate. With normalcy resumed, the priest in his church, and the newlyweds on the road, all were oblivious of what the future had in store—yet Duke Rauching (according to Gregory) had been planning his revenge ever since he formulated his loophole-riddled vow to God.

When the runaway lovers arrived at the duke’s estate, Rauching had them detained or distracted while he prepared their elaborate punishment. Gregory of Tours described the preparation and execution of the duke’s horrific plan in great detail:

“He [Rauching] immediately ordered his men to cut down a tree and then had a portion of the trunk split by wedges and hollowed out. Then he had a hole dug three or four feet deep in the earth and the hollowed-out tree trunk placed in it. He put the girl inside, as if she were already a corpse, had the young man thrown on top of her, fixed a lid over them and filed the grave with earth, burying them both alive” (HF, 5.3).

After a while, news of the duke’s latest villainous deed became the talk of the town and the hoodwinked priest finally learned the fate of the newlyweds. The brave clergyman reportedly sprinted to the estate of the duke, where he “upbraided Rauching bitterly” (HF, 5.3). After an epic bout of moral and theological debate, the priest convinced the duke to exhume the hollowed-out log. Nevertheless, the priest had not been quick enough. The male servant was pulled out of the grave alive, but his bride, on whom he had been tossed, was beyond help and already succumbed to suffocation.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Scene of French noblemen and clergy from page 80 of “The Story History of France” (1919), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Odd Tale Of Herjolf The Avenger

Old Herjolf Sigurdsson was reportedly one of the many adventurers to sail to Iceland during the Icelandic Age of Settlement (approximately 860-930). According to the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), the elderly Herjolf, and his son, Thorstein Coal-beard, laid claim to the lands in Iceland between Bulandshofdi and Kirkjuffjord. Unfortunately, little was recorded about Herjolf’s life after he settled in Iceland, and perhaps he succumbed to his old age not long after reaching his destination. Nevertheless, before he died, Herjolf Sigurdsson secured his legacy by telling tales about his wild youthful exploits in the old country. Some of these stories were transformed by Icelandic skalds into poetry, of which one poem still survives.

In his glory days, Herjolf Sigurdsson was reportedly one of the best fighters in the Nordic world. He was, as they say, a chip off the old block—Herjolf’s father, Sigurd Hog’s-Head, was described as a champion among men. Mighty Sigurd, however, was quickly outshined by his impressive son, who reportedly began performing great feats of Herculean strength when he was only a child. Yet, the rivalry between father and son was abruptly cut off when Sigurd Hog’s-Head was slain by a rival sometime during Herjolf’s childhood. In death, Sigurd left one last test for his son, as Herjolf was expected to avenge his father’s killing. Herjolf did, indeed, avenge his father, and reportedly did so when he was only twelve years of age.

The most memorable of Herjolf’s tales, however, occurred four years before he avenged his father’s death.  At the time, he was an eight-year-old goatherd. Although young, Herjolf took his job seriously and was incredibly protective of his goats. Humans likely knew not to mess with the growing warrior’s animals. Animals, however, did not have the same insight. One day, as the story goes, a brown bear with a distinctively burned rump ambushed Herjolf’s livestock and successfully bit one of the goats. The young hero, however, did not shy away from the predator but charged forward against the bear to rescue (or avenge) his poor goat. Using whatever he had on hand, eight-year-old Herjolf was able to drive off or kill the bear. Interestingly enough, this is the tale that was preserved and immortalized by an anonymous skald in this curious verse:

“The bear with a burnt arse
bit Herjolf’s goat.
Herjolf with the bent arse
paid the bear back.”
(Landnámabók, Stulubók manuscript, chapter 80)

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A scene of Valhalla by Emil Doepler (c. 1855-1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.