Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Tales About The Childhood Of King Harald Hardrada

Harald Sigurdsson was the half-brother of King Olaf II of Norway (r. 1015-1028). The half-brothers shared the same mother, Ásta, and she curiously gave birth to Harald around 1015, the same year that his half-brother, Olaf, launched his successful bid to claim the throne of Norway. Very little, unfortunately, is known about Harald’s early life—the Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), a major source for information on Harald, bemoaned that “We have no particular accounts about his youth until the age of fifteen, when he took part in the Battle of Stiklestad with his brother, King Olaf the Saint” (Heimskringla, King Harald’s Saga, chapter 99). Despite that statement, he did his best to find tales about Harald’s youth. Likely aided by his trips to Norway in 1218 and 1237, Snorri Sturluson uncovered three folkloric stories about the childhood of Harald Sigurdsson. As all three tales involved young Harald interacting with his reigning half-brother, King Olaf II, Snorri Sturluson filed the stories away inside his Saint Olaf’s Saga instead of the saga he wrote specifically about Harald.

All three of the stories about Harald Sigurdsson’s childhood were set around 1017, when he was three years old. To set the scene, King Olaf II had just crushed a conspiracy, toppling five minor kings in Norway during the process. After succeeding in his counter-intrigue, King Olaf II attended a feast prepared by his mother, Ásta. The feast proved to be a family reunion, as Olaf’s half-siblings were all present. Ásta, after remarrying following the death of Olaf’s father, had two daughters (Gunnhild and Ingrid), and three sons (Guthorm, Hálfdan and Harald). At the time of this feast, King Olaf did not yet have any known children, and, consequently, he was keeping an appraising eye on his half-brothers during the time they spent together, assessing which of them might be a worthy heir.

King Olaf II, for his first test, reportedly decided to see how his male siblings would react if he scared them. Acting like a typical older brother, King Olaf II found a good place to set an ambush for his unsuspecting siblings and waited for one of the boys to fall into his trap. When Guthorm and Hálfdan were caught by the king, all it took was for Olaf to stare at them with his fiercest, angriest countenance to make the two boys whimper and cry. When three-year-old Harald similarly found himself face to face with Olaf’s ferocious stare and scowl, he acted much differently than his older brothers. Under pressure from the king’s mightiest expression, the boy did not flinch, or squirm, or whimper. Instead, Harald stared right back at Olaf without showing any fear. Impressed (or frustrated), Olaf went a further step and tugged on a lock of Harald’s hair. Young Harald, however, did not take this lightly; he went on the counter-attack against Olaf. According to Snorri Sturluson, “The boy grabbed the king’s mustache and twitched it. Then the king said, ‘You are likely to be vindictive when you grow up, kinsman’” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76).

After the scare campaign, King Olaf II decided to conduct the rest of his appraisals in a less obtrusive way. The next trial for the boys occurred a few days later, when Olaf found his young half-brothers playing by a pond. Guthorm and Hálfdan, at one end of the pond, had used materials scattered around the yard to build themselves makeshift farmhouses and animal sheds. Within this miniature play-village, Guthorm and Hálfdan pretended to be farmers. Leaving those two to their play, King Olaf II found three-year-old Harald at another end of the pond. Instead of pretending to be a farmer, young Harald was amusing himself by placing small chips of wood afloat on the water of the pond. After watching Harald set many of these woodchips out to sea (or pond), Olaf finally asked the boy what he was doing. According to Snorri Sturluson, “He replied they were his warships. Then the king laughed and said, ‘It may well be, kinsman, that the time will come when you will be in command of ships’” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76).

Snorri Sturluson’s third tale about Harald Sigurdsson’s childhood occurred in a similar setting as the story laid out above. One day, reportedly still in 1017, Olaf II called together his three young half-brothers, Guthorm, Hálfdan and Harald. For his final test, the king simply asked the boys, “What would you most like to have?” Guthorm answered first, exclaiming that he wanted ten farms with fertile lands that would grow grain every summer. Halfdán agreed with his brother’s wish, but, instead of fields of grain, he wanted his ten farmlands to be filled with cows. Finally, it was young Harald’s turn to speak. After giving the question some thought, the boy proclaimed that he wanted loyal warriors. According to Snorri Sturluson, when Olaf asked how many warriors Harald wanted to lead, the boy answered, “So many that they would eat up all of my brother Hálfdan’s cows at a single meal” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76). As the story goes, King Olaf was extremely pleased with Harald’s response. He made a note of it and the next time he saw Ásta, he referenced Harald and told her, “In him you are likely to bring up a king, mother’” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 76).
Despite these few interactions between King Olaf II and his young, promising half-brother in 1017, the rest of Harald Sigurdsson’s childhood remains incredibly obscure. Perhaps, this is because King Olaf II later had a son named Magnus in 1024, who became the assumed heir of Norway. Whatever the case, Canute the Great of England and Denmark would expel King Olaf II from Norway in 1028. Yet, King Olaf II returned to Norway in 1030, campaigning to regain his throne. It was at that time that Harald Sigurdsson finally reappeared, as a tall and strong fifteen-year-old warrior who joined the army of King Olaf II. According to Snorri Sturluson, King Olaf II was unsure if his teenage half-brother should fight in the upcoming famous Battle of Stiklestad, but Harald reassured him by saying, “By all means I shall take part in it, and if I am so weak as not to be able to wield a sword, then I know what to do: let my hand be tied to the haft” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 209). During that fateful battle in 1030, King Olaf II was slain and Harald wounded.

After Stiklestad, Harald Sigurdsson fled to the Rus and then to Constantinople. Back in Norway, Magnus Olafsson, Harald’s nephew and son of Olaf II, regained the throne of Norway in 1035. Meanwhile, Harald Sigurdsson became an accomplished mercenary and member of Constantinople’s Varangian Guard. Fighting battles throughout the Mediterranean, Harald gained renown as a warrior and amassed an unimaginable treasure, which he hid from his Byzantine employers. With his armed followers and his great haul of plundered loot, Harald Sigurdsson returned to Norway in 1045, where he negotiated a deal with his nephew, Magnus, in which he reportedly bought half of Norway in exchange for half of his treasure. As Olaf had predicted, Harald became a king (King Harald III of Norway), and gained such epithets as “the Ruthless” or “the Hard Ruler.” 

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (19th-century Image from page 39 of "Art and artists of our time" (1888), depicting Frithiof and Ingeborg, [Public Domain] via flickr.com and Creative Commons).

  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
  • King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harald-III-Sigurdsson 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Olaf-II-Haraldsson  
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Magnus-I-Olafsson  

Thursday, November 7, 2019

How To Cure Lovesickness, According To The Malleus Maleficarum

In general, the Malleus Maleficarum (a 15th-century witch-hunting manual) is a horrible source for relationship advice. In fact, its passages can often be horribly sexist. For instance, the Malleus Maleficarum stated this lovely line: “it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives” (Part I, question 6). Yet, despite their poor credentials for giving relationship advice, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum decided to touch on the topic of love, and not of the brotherly or sisterly kind. In particular, they sought to educate their readers of ways to escape the clutches of lovesickness.

To the credit of the Malleus Maleficarum, the text did admit that most cases of lovesickness, or excessive lust, longing and infatuation, were likely the result of natural and non-diabolical causes. Therefore, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum addressed the issue in two ways—cures for natural lovesickness, and cures for witchcraft-caused lovesickness. Specifically, their aim was to educate their readers on how to avoid irreligious relationships and situations such as premarital or extramarital affairs. It was a serious topic for the authors, for they believed “if he cleaves to his earthly love, that will be his sole reward, but he will lose the bliss of Heaven, and be condemned to eternal fire” (Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, question 2, chapter 3).

Cures For Natural Lovesickness
Unmarried Sufferers:

1. For the unmarried sufferer of longing or unrequited love, the Malleus Maleficarum advised, “if the law permits, he may be married to her, and so be cured by yielding to nature” (Part II, question 2, chapter 3). The text also offered an experiment that doctors or parents could try out if they believed a person was made bedridden by lovesickness but would not divulge who it was that caused their affliction. For such a situation, the Malleus Maleficarum advised checking the patient’s pulse while various people came to his or her bedside. If the patient’s heart rate quickened when a certain someone entered the room, the doctor or parent could discover the object of their charge’s desires. If the two were then married in holy matrimony, claimed the Malleus Maleficarum, the lovesickness would be cured.

Married Sufferers:

2. For those who were already married or in situations where chasing their desires would lead to an irreligious or illegal outcome, the Malleus Maleficarum claimed that one option was to take medicine or medicinal supplements. No specifics were mentioned by the authors, but they did stress that when browsing through the dubious love-related potions and herbs, only “lawful remedies” should be used (Malleus Maleficarum, Part II, question 2, chapter 3).

3. Another self-help cure that the Malleus Maleficarum offered to those suffering from lovesickness was the idea of avoidance and busywork. For those beleaguered by unattainable or unrequited longing and desire, the authors suggested that such a person should distance themselves from the one they desired and then promptly delve into the most arduous and exhausting tasks available, so as to distract the mind through physical labor. By grinding away at such grueling chores, one could outwait the pangs of longing and survive lovesickness.

4. Group-oriented methods of curing someone’s lovesickness were also proposed by the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum.  One option was for the sufferer to be brought to a mentor or educator. Such a person, claimed the authors of the text, could chastise the victim of lovesickness about their misplaced emotions and use various philosophical arguments to guide them out of their dilemma. An argument favored by the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum for use against people suffering from unadvisable longing was apparently that “such love is the greatest misery” (Part II, question 2, chapter 3). Once the educator or mentor drilled that or a similar statement into the head of the suffering person, the victim of lovesickness, in theory, would be able to move on.

5. If the mentor or educator method seems ineffective, then perhaps the Malleus Maleficarum’s friendly conversation route will be more palatable. For this, the sufferer of lovesickness need only visit a good friend—preferably a friend who is a good liar. This designated friend was then supposed to take up the ignoble task of shattering the aura of love and affection that the sufferer had for the desired person. In short, the Malleus Maleficarum suggested that the friends of a lovesick person could slander and defame the person whom the sufferer fancied. If the person who needed slandering was a woman, the Malleus Maleficarum advised the dutiful friend to “vilify the body and disposition of his [buddy’s] love, and so blacken her character that she may appear to him altogether base and deformed” (Part II, question 2, chapter 3). If smearing the name of an innocent person is not your cup of tea, the Malleus Maleficarum also admitted that introducing the lovesick individual to other men or women was a viable option if such matchmaking would not lead to a sin.

Cures For Witchcraft-Caused Lovesickness

1. Unsurprisingly, as the Malleus Maleficarum was a witch-hunter’s manual, the text inevitably concluded that some cases of lovesickness and inordinate longing was not natural, but brought about by witchcraft. One remedy for such diabolical lovesickness was reportedly to utter certain sacred words, yet the authors of the text neglected to mention which words they had in mind. If simple holy words and phrases did not suffice, then this method could be escalated all the way to a full-blown exorcism, which, besides expelling demons, would apparently cure the witch-borne lovesickness.

2. If an exorcism seemed too much of a hassle for a cure to lovesickness, then this next option provided by the Malleus Maleficarum may be more appealing. According to the authors of the text, the sufferer need only call on their guardian angel in order to be saved from their pesky supernatural lovesickness. In all, this method seems much more appealing than that of the exorcism.

3. Lastly, if the guardian angel is on vacation or not responding, another option presented by the Malleus Maleficarum is for the sufferer of lovesickness to simply head to church and make use of the features that the house of worship has to offer. On these last few methods, the text proclaimed, “Let him daily invoke the Guardian Angel deputed to him by God, let him use confession and frequent the shrines of the Saints, especially of the Blessed Virgin, and without doubt he will be delivered” (Part II, question 2, chapter 3).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Tristan and Isolde drinking a love potion, painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Adventures Of The Sailor-Donkey Of Cyprus

The Malleus Maleficarum was a 15th-century text that presented bizarre (but, unfortunately, influential) theories about witchcraft and magic, as well as commentary on subjects such as supernatural monsters, demons and other similarly diabolical creatures. Its authors, the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, did not simply write a dry treatise on the convoluted assumptions of witch hunters and demonologists; they also spiced up the text with supposed first-hand accounts of what they personally witnessed as inquisitors, and they also recorded tales of folklore presented to them by their co-workers. Many of these paranormal yarns are depressing reads, as they often end with the death of an accused (and most likely innocent) witch. Yet, some of the tales preserved by the inquisitors are so bizarre that they come across as quite humorous, which is a delightful change of pace from the otherwise dark and frustrating sections of the Malleus Maleficarum. One such comical digression appeared in part II, question 2, chapter 4 of the text—which featured a sailor who allegedly lived as a transformed donkey for over three years on the island of Cyprus.

To set the scene, a merchant ship was said to have pulled into port at the city of Salamis, in Cyprus, where it loitered for a time to sell its wares and restock its hull with new cargo. The protagonist of this strange tale was an unnamed member of the merchant ship crew. He was something of an antihero, for he seemed to be a loner who was at the bottom of the ship’s hierarchy of importance. While the rest of the crew set about loading and unloading goods, or accomplishing other such tasks, our protagonist was given the menial chore of buying a batch of eggs. In pursuit of this goal, the lone sailor went not to the city market, but to an isolated house which was situated near the beach. Outside of this dwelling, the sailor found a woman who was strolling around her property and enjoying the seaside breeze. The unnamed woman, according to the story, was not all that she appeared. She was allegedly a powerful witch and a member of a significant coven operating in Cyprus.

As the sailor said his greetings and asked to buy some eggs, the woman sized up the stranger with the eye of an intuitive predator. She could tell that he was a disrespected loner who was far away from home—the type of person who might be overlooked if he happened to suddenly disappear. While thinking these thoughts, the woman agreed to sell some eggs to the sailor, asking him to wait outside while she gathered them from her house. After some time, she reappeared from her abode with a basket of very special eggs, which the sailor purchased without any second thoughts. Leaving the mysterious woman behind, the sailor returned to the port, and finding that his crewmates had not returned to the ship, he decided to wander around the docks.

The rest of the crew was apparently having a grand time in the city, and did not intend to return to the ship any time soon. As such, the lone sailor on the docks had only the basket of eggs for company, which inevitably made him bored and hungry. Before long, he decided to snack on one of the eggs, and he found the morsel so delicious that he ultimately ate the whole basket of eggs as he waited for the return of his crewmates. Yet, as mentioned earlier, these were very special eggs, prepared with extra care by an alleged witch. The sailor soon began to feel odd, and started to show peculiar symptoms. As the Malleus Maleficarum exclaimed, “behold! an hour later he was made dumb as if he had no power of speech” (part II, question 2, chapter 4).

While the unfortunate sailor was being attacked by the effects of the bad eggs, the other members of the merchant ship began wandering back to the docks. None of them made notice of the dazed and muted sailor who could now only move by crawling about on all four limbs. Although the lone sailor was not noticed by his comrades, he saw that the crew was finally returning to the ship. Still feeling odd, the sailor crawled his way back, probably hoping they had some sort of medicine or antidote on board for whatever ailed him. As soon as the sailor attempted to board the ship, however, his former crewmates looked on him with shock and annoyance—those nearby even went so far as to pick up sticks and brooms to shoo the poor sailor away. They called his such names as ‘beast’ and ‘animal,’ and before long our protagonist began to piece together what had happened. In the zoological sense of the word, the sailor had become a total ass.

The crew of the merchant ship apparently cared little for their missing crewmate, and they set sail despite the sailor’s absence from the ship. Stranded, the donkey-sailor wandered about Cyprus, searching for food and shelter. It was a rough life, for, as the Malleus Maleficarum rightly said, “since everybody thought he was an ass, he was necessarily treated as such” (part II, question 2, chapter 4). The sailor-donkey eventually realized that only one person on Cyprus would be able to see through his transformed appearance. Therefore, he returned to the city of Salamis and retraced his steps to the seaside house of the alleged witch who had caused his transformation. She agreed to feed and house the sailor-donkey, but there was a catch—in exchange, she wanted him to be her beast of burden for the foreseeable future. The sailor-donkey, so the story goes, accepted the witch’s terms and would spend the next three years hauling supplies, such as lumber and grain, back to the woman’s seaside home.

Life with the witch was a bittersweet existence for the sailor-donkey. On the one hand, he had been unwillingly turned into a beast of burden and was now living a servile existence on the estate of the person who had caused his transformation. On the other hand, the witch and her coven were the only people on Cyprus who knew the sailor’s identity, and while they were away from prying eyes, the witches would give the sailor-donkey the ability to speak. They even reportedly had quite amicable conversations.  

Despite being fed, sheltered and allowed to speak from time to time, the sailor-donkey was not happy. As the tale was recorded in a religious-themed text, it may not be surprising to learn that one of the main complaints that the sailor had was that the witches refused to allow him to go to church. During his fourth year as the witch’s beast of burden, this church-deprivation became too much for the bewitched sailor. As the tale goes, our cursed protagonist was one day hoofing through the streets of Salamis with the witch when he heard the sound of bells ring out from the local church. Hearing those beckoning tones, the sailor clopped his way to the location of the church. Yet, as he still apparently looked like a donkey, he feared to enter, lest he should be shooed away by the congregation. Therefore, he stayed just outside the entrance and knelt in prayer as best he could in his awkward animal form. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, he “knelt down outside by bending the knees of his hind legs, and lifted his forelegs, that is, his hands, joined together over his ass’s head, as it was thought to be, and looked upon the elevation of the Sacrament” (part II, question 2, chapter 4).

Unfortunately, the sailor-donkey was not allowed to pray for long, as the witch had followed him to the church and promptly started beating him when she discovered what he was doing. Fortunately, the outlandish sight of a praying donkey with outstretched hooves had caught the attention of some people on the street, and they subsequently saw the woman appear and smack the donkey with a stick as punishment for the animal’s show of piety. The onlookers found this whole situation incredibly suspicious and they decided to make a citizens’ arrest. They then dragged the woman and the donkey before a local judge. As the story goes, the accused witch confessed after being tortured, and she was able to change the sailor back to normal after they were both escorted to her seaside home. Once the sailor was released in human form, the accused witch was thrown back in jail. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, “she paid the debt to which her crimes merited. And the young man returned joyfully to his own country” (part II, question 2, chapter 4).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Taming of the Donkey by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala  (1841–1871), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Hernán Cortés’ Bloody Sack Of Cholula

In 1519, Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, leading a band of Spaniards into a precarious political environment that was dominated by the Aztec Empire. To Cortés’ good fortune, the Spaniards eventually landed in a region populated by the Totonacs, a people who grudgingly paid tribute to the Aztecs. By July of 1519, Cortés was able to bring the Totonac cities into rebellion against the then ruler of the Aztecs, Montezuma II. After founding the colony of Vera Cruz and building up his alliance with the Totonacs, Cortés headed inland toward the Tlaxcalans, the fiercest rival of the Aztecs at the time. As there were Totonac warriors—former Aztec tributaries—marching with the Spaniards, the Tlaxcalans reportedly believed that Cortés had aligned with Montezuma II, and therefore the forces of Tlaxcala were at first hostile to the conquistadors. In early September, the Tlaxcalans went to war against Cortés, attacking the Spaniards during the day and ambushing the conquistadors at night. Yet, after the Tlaxcalans suffered several costly defeats, they made peace with the foreigners. When the leaders of Tlaxcala subsequently discovered that Cortés was not aligned with Montezuma, but was instead stirring up all kinds of trouble for the Aztecs, the Tlaxcalans eagerly agreed to an alliance with Hernán Cortés.

Around the time that Cortés and the Tlaxcalans began negotiating, five Aztec diplomats from Montezuma arrived in the Spanish camp. The envoys brought with them gifts of gold, jewels and cloth for Cortés, and they also delivered a message from Montezuma, in which he reportedly promised to pay tribute to Cortés’ liege, Charles V, in exchange for the Spaniards never traveling to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). After peace was formally ratified between the Spaniards and the Tlaxcalans, some of the Aztec diplomats rushed off to inform Montezuma of the happenings. A few days later, more Aztec diplomats arrived (with a further helping of ornate gifts) and they delivered another message from Montezuma, in which he begged the Spaniards not to trust the Tlaxcalans. The Aztecs, however, were not the only ones sowing distrust—during Cortés’ alliance negotiations with Tlaxcala, the Tlaxcalans repeatedly advised the Spaniards not to trust Montezuma or his subject states. Unfortunately for the Aztecs, as the Spanish support for the Totonac rebellion had already shown, Cortés did not have Montezuma’s interests at heart—therefore he traveled to Tlaxcala, soaked up as much local intelligence about the Aztecs as he could obtain, and recruited 1,000 Tlaxcalan warriors to accompany the Spaniards on their journeys.

While the Spaniards were still in Tlaxcala, another message arrived from Montezuma, in which he said it was dangerous to spend so much time with the Tlaxcalans. Montezuma suggested that Cortés travel toward Tenochtitlan, where Aztec-aligned cities would take good care of the Spaniards. The Aztec ambassadors with Cortés pointed out the city of Cholula as an ideal destination—it was one of the most important cities in Mexico and it served as an agricultural, religious and military hub in the region. Most of all, Cholula was staunchly loyal to Montezuma. Upon hearing of the suggested city, Cortés sent a message to Cholula, requesting that leaders from the area come to meet him in Tlaxcala. The Cholulans, in response, sent messengers of low status to Tlaxcala with a message that the chiefs of Cholula would not be meeting with Cortés. Infuriated, Cortés sent the messengers home with a second, angrier-toned request that the Cholulan chiefs come to meet him. The Cholulans responded steadfastly that they would in no way send their chieftains into the territory of Tlaxcala, a long-time enemy of Cholula and the Aztecs. Hernán Cortés found this explanation reasonable and decided to instead bring himself and his forces to the Cholulans. The 1,000 Tlaxcalan recruits went with him.

When Cortés’ party neared Cholula, the city’s leaders and priests came out to meet the travelers on the road. The mood was said to have been joyous until the Cholulans sighted the large contingent of Tlaxcalans in Cortés’ wake. Upon this discovery, the leaders of Cholula forbid the warriors of Tlaxcala from entering the city. When the Tlaxcalans agreed to camp away in some nearby fields, the Cholulans, satisfied, let Cortés and approximately 400 of his Spanish followers, as well as his Totonac allies, enter into the city.

At first, Cortés’ experience in the city was pleasant. The Spaniards and their allies (minus the Tlaxcalans) were given lodging and plenty of good food. Once he had access to the Cholulan leaders, Hernán Cortés began making his usual requests of the locals—convert to Christianity and swear fealty to Charles V. The Cholulans refused the first command, but said they would think about the second. For two days, the cordial atmosphere lasted; local chiefs and priests met with the Spaniards, and the residents of Cholula crowded the streets and rooftops to get a glimpse of the strange foreigners.

The mood in Cholula underwent an abrupt change on the third day, however, when dignitaries from Montezuma arrived in the city. They presented another message from the indecisive Montezuma, in which he expressly ordered the Spaniards not to continue on toward Tenochtitlan. Montezuma’s ambassador’s also met with the local authorities in Cholula, resulting in a drastic change in the local attitude toward the Spaniards—they stopped bringing food, the chieftains no longer met with Cortés, and average Cholulans in the streets avoided the Spaniards like the plague.

Curiously, several local priests in Cholula eventually began mediating between Cortés and the leaders of the city, ultimately brokering a meeting between the two sides. In the parley, the Cholulan leadership explained that Montezuma had commanded the city to give no further food to the Spaniards and to not let them travel any further toward Tenochtitlan. In response to this revelation, Cortés merely replied that he would continue on the road to Tenochtitlan anyway, preferably the very next day, and that he wanted 2,000 Cholulan porters to accompany him on his journey. The Cholulans were reportedly startled by the reply, but they agreed to assemble Cortés’ escort at a designated courtyard near the city’s temple.

According to the story put forward by the Spanish sources, Cortés received an incredible number of revelations over the next few hours until sunrise. Cortés’ Totonac allies appeared, claiming that they had found hidden pits in the city that were filled with sharpened stakes, as well as rooftops stocked with stones that could be used as projectiles. They also claimed to have seen earthen and wooden defenses that had been recently been built in the city. Later, some Tlaxcalans who had sneaked into Cholula came to Cortés and informed him that they had seen signs of war preparation at the periphery of the city, including an exodus of baggage and civilians, as well as invocations to the gods for assistance in war. Finally, Hernán Cortés’ interpreter, Malinche (whom the Spaniards called Doña Marina), rounded up three witnesses—two local priests and an elderly woman—who allegedly all confessed that the Cholulans were planning to lead the Spaniards into an ambush of 20,000 Aztec warriors hidden just outside the city.

Although the validity of the evidence, and the motivations of the people who provided it, have long been debated over the centuries, Hernán Cortés and his fellow Spaniards were, at that time, apparently completely convinced that the Cholulans wanted to do them harm. In this state of mind, Cortés sent messengers to his Tlaxcalan allies, telling them to be prepared for battle, and to attack the city if they should hear a gunshot. Finally, before dawn, Cortés marched his Spaniards and Totonac allies to the courtyard where the 2,000 Cholulan porters were due to assemble. He set up troops at all entrances and exits from the courtyard and waited for the Cholulan leaders, priests and escorts to arrive. When these people began to pour into the courtyard, the atmosphere was reportedly joyous—the Cholulans were apparently in a giggly mood that morning and their steps were quick and purposeful. More than the required 2,000 appeared in the courtyard, filling up the space. Among the crowd were two of the informants that Doña Marina had brought to Cortés; these men were subtlety sent away by the Spaniards and were told to lock themselves in their homes.

Despite the ring of Cortés’ troops encircling the courtyard, and the selective sending-away of certain pro-Spanish Cholulans, the people who gathered in the square apparently took little notice of the vulnerable situation into which they had walked. The realization of danger, however, became all too apparent when Hernán Cortés started to speak to the crowd through his interpreter. He accused the gathered Cholulans of nefarious and treasonous acts against himself and his liege, Charles V—a crime that was punishable by death. After Cortés’ speech, the Cholulan leaders reportedly again claimed that they were only following Montezuma’s orders, yet it is unclear if they were referring to the withheld food or the planned ambush of which they were being accused. Whatever the case, Hernán Cortés found the explanation unsatisfactory and decided to show no mercy to the Cholulan chiefs, priests and warriors in the courtyard. As Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the Spaniards at the scene, described the event, Cortés “ordered a musket to be fired, which was the signal we had agreed on; and they [the Cholulans] received a blow that they will remember for ever, for we killed many of them” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 83).

A large portion of the Cholulans in the courtyard were unarmed, as their primary purpose for gathering had been to serve as porters and luggage carriers of the Spaniards. As such, Hernán Cortés’ small band of conquistadors, armed with swords, shields, crossbows and firearms, cut through the thousands of Cholulans in the square with ease in a period of about two hours. In a later dispatch to Charles V, Hernán Cortés claimed that 3,000 Cholulans died in the attack, yet other contemporary 16th-century sources reported as many as 6,000 were killed.

Cortés and the Spaniards were not the only threat to Cholula on the day of the massacre—1,000 Tlaxcalan warriors were still camped outside of the city. When they heard the sounds of gunshots, the Tlaxcalans stormed Cholula to kill, plunder and take captives in the streets. As had happened before the attack at the courtyard, the Spaniards sheltered certain selected Cholulan priests and chieftains from the rampage of the Tlaxcalans, yet many of the other leadership figures in Cholula died in the massacre or on the chaotic streets. When word of events in Cholula spread back to Tlaxcala, more Tlaxcalan warriors arrived at the scene to take part in the sacking of the city.

After an unknown number of days, Cortés began to rein in the chaos. The people who were still alive in Cholula were pardoned and the Spaniards managed to convince the Tlaxcalans to return to the outskirts of the city. Cortés also reportedly asked the Tlaxcalans to release their Cholulan prisoners, although the degree to which this was done is uncertain. A new regime of chieftains and priests, returned to power in Cholula, in which the figures sheltered by the Spaniards during the attack now took prominence. Finally, Cortés was able to broker some kind of peace between the new Cholulan leaders and the Tlaxcalans who had just sacked the city.

After staying a reported fourteen days in Cholula, Hernán Cortés set out in the direction of Tenochtitlan. The alleged 20,000 hidden Aztecs warriors near Cholula—if they had really been there—had by this time withdrawn, and Cortés faced no further harassment during his trip to the Aztec capital. As was hinted earlier, the events at Cholula were controversial and much debated even in the day of Cortés. During the 16th century, Cortés’ fellow Spaniards questioned the reliability of the evidence presented by the Totonacs, the Tlaxcalans and the interpreter, Doña Marina, which led to the preemptive killing of so many Cholulans. Hernán Cortés’ comrade, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, was especially hostile to the insinuations of a bishop and Dominican friar named Bartolome de las Casas (d. 1566), who alleged Cortés “punished the Cholulans for no reason at all” and accused the Spaniards of “great cruelties” in the city (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 83). In rebuttal to Bartolome de las Casas’ accusations, Bernal Díaz del Castillo praised an investigation done by a team of “some good Franciscans,” who interviewed the leaders of the new regime in Cholula, and the accounts they received from the city leaders were reportedly identical to the ones presented by Cortés and his companions (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 83).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Storming of Teocalli by Hernan Cortes, by Emanuel Leutze  (1816–1868), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Destructive Trek Of The ‘Ten Thousand’ Mercenaries Along The Black Sea Coast

In late 401 BCE, an army of over 10,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries fought on the side of the rebel, Cyrus the Younger, against King Artaxerxes II of Persia at the Battle of Cunaxa, which took place somewhere in Babylonia. The rebel leader, Cyrus, was slain during the battle, but the Greek mercenaries survived remarkably intact. With their employer dead and the rebellion crushed, the Greek mercenaries found themselves in an incredibly precarious situation—they were deep in foreign territory beside an army of the king they had just tried to kill. Nevertheless, the two sides maintained peace for a time.

A truce was brokered and Artaxerxes II entrusted the handling of the Greek problem to several governing satraps, including Tissaphernes, a Persian noble who was often entangled in Greco-Persian issues. The mercenaries and the watchful Persians coexisted as the Greeks marched past several villages and cities, yet at a place along what was called the Zapatas River, the situation changed drastically. Both sides blamed the other for the breakdown in relations. Greeks accused the Persians of treachery, while Persians decried the mercenaries for looting. Both sides were partially right—it appears that Tissaphernes provided the Greeks too little food at too high a price, and the mercenaries scavenged for food out of necessity. Whatever the case, the Persians arrested twenty-five of the highest-ranking mercenary officers and executed them, some immediately, and others at a later date.

After the arrest of the mercenary commanders, a group of around one hundred surviving field officers gathered to elect new leadership. The two most important of these newly elected mercenary generals were Chirisophus (a Spartan who would command the front) and Xenophon, an Athenian who took command of the rear guard. That same Xenophon would later write down the experiences of these mercenaries, remembered as the Ten Thousand, in his Anabasis Kyrou (The Upcountry March/Expedition of Cyrus).  

Under the leadership of the likes of Chirisophus and Xenophon, the mercenaries began the next phase of their journey. Persians forces were now openly hostile to the Greek mercenaries, and the stranded warriors-for-hire were often stalked and harassed. Yet, the Greeks were not the only people endangered because of the breakdown in relations. As the Greeks were no longer provided with a supply line by the Persians satraps, local villages and cities (with their food, shelter and wealth) became more and more tempting to the army of hungry mercenaries. In consequence of their foraging and looting, the Greek mercenaries made many enemies during their journey through Mesopotamia and Armenia, and finally the shores of the Black Sea.

Around 400 BCE, the mercenaries reached the Greek-populated city of Trapezus, located on the southeast end of the Black Sea. By this point, the discipline that had allowed the mercenaries to survive Persian armies and local militias in multiple roadblocks, mountain ambushes, and full-scale battles began to diminish. Upon reaching the coast of the Black Sea, more and more mercenaries began to seek loot to the point of insubordination against their commanders. To keep the troops happy (and fed), the mercenary generals were now always on the lookout for places to pillage.

The city of Trapezus was spared, but the region surrounding it was foraged to the extent that scavengers sent out by the mercenaries were gone for more than a day before returning with supplies. Meanwhile, the mercenaries received one or two ships from the Trapezuntians, with which the mercenaries tried their hand at piracy and commandeered several unlucky merchant vessels. Eventually, the people of Trapezus thought of a way to gain a respite from their rowdy guests—they sent the mercenaries off to raid a rival people, called the Drilae. Half of the mercenary army accepted the plan and invaded the Drilae lands, where they besieged and broke into a stronghold and gathered as much loot as they could before being forced out by local opposition.

After the raiders returned from the territory of the Drilae, the mercenaries decided to resume their travels. They had not commandeered enough ships to carry the reported 8,600 mercenaries who were still fit to fight, but some of the camp followers and injured were able to sail alongside the marching adventurers. Departing from Trapezus, the mercenaries and their rag-tag fleet of commandeered ships reached the nearby city of Cerasus. This city, too, was mainly populated by Greeks. Yet, the rowdiness of the mercenaries was increasing and they showed this city less respect than they did Trapezus.

According to Xenophon, a certain Clearetus and a band of warriors went rogue and attacked some villages that were under the protection of Cerasus. Three elders from the afflicted villages traveled to Cerasus to report the incident. They delivered their message, but were soon after murdered by some of the guilty mercenaries. The mercenaries also caused trouble for the Greek inhabitants of Cerasus—Xenophon claimed that a mob of angry mercenaries tried to stone an unfortunate market official named Zelarchus to death.

From Cerasus, the mercenaries bumbled their way into the midst of a civil war among a group of people known as the Mossynoecians, which roughly translates to ‘those who live in wooden towers.’ The mercenaries joined the rebel side of the conflict and besieged what the Greeks thought was the capital city of the region. The mercenaries captured the city for the rebels, but not before looting the buildings and setting fire to its wooden structures.

After helping the rebel Mossynoecians win their war, the mercenaries continued their march westward along the coast of the Black sea. They then reached the Chalybian people, who were likely spared maltreatment because they were subjects or allies of the Mossynoecian regime that the mercenaries had just helped. After the Chalybians, the Greeks encountered a group called the Tibarenians. The appraising eye of the mercenaries recognized that the land would be easy for an army to maneuver over and that the Tibarenian settlements were poorly defended. It was a tempting target for even the most pacifistic of the mercenary leaders. The Tibarenians, who likely had heard tales of the devastation left behind in the wake of this mercenary army, sent out delegates to offer the foreigners friendship and military access. Xenophon (in third person perspective) gave a blunt account of the his and his comrades’ response to these delegates: “The generals wanted to attack the villages, to give the men a little something by way of profit, so they refused to accept the tokens of friendship which arrived from the Tibarenians, but told them to wait until they had decided what to do” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book V, section 5).

After delivering this eerie response, the mercenary generals called for animal sacrifices to be performed and had diviners read omens to determine if the gods were in favor of the Greeks attacking the Tibarenians. As stated earlier, the mercenary commanders were eager to attack, so when the first sacrifice and omen reading produced a disappointing outcome, they sacrificed a second time…and a third time, so on and so forth. Xenophon described their battle with the will of the gods: “They performed sacrifices, and eventually, after many victims had been sacrificed, the diviners unanimously declared that the gods were absolutely opposed to war” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book V, section 5). With no divine support for the planned raids, the mercenaries accepted the friendship of the Tibarenian people and marched peacefully through their land to reach the Greek-inhabited city of Cotyora.

The Tibarenians were lucky, for when the mercenaries reached Cotyora, they quickly began to cause drama. Although the city and the mercenaries initially exchanged cheerful greetings, held religious processions and competed in athletic contests, the warriors-for-hire soon began to cause tension by scavenging from the local villages. The mercenaries caused such a stir that delegates from the powerful city of Sinope (the colonizer of Trapezus, Cerasus and Cotyora) arrived on the scene and told the mercenaries to behave themselves or face dire consequences.

The army, however, did not change their ways. They went on to threaten Sinope to send a fleet of transport ships for the mercenaries to use, and later attempted to extort money from the city of Heraclea. Even after the mercenaries reached Byzantium—the seat of Spartan power in the region—the roaming army remained chaotic. The mercenaries momentarily occupied Byzantium, forcing the Spartan officials to seek shelter in a stronghold. Yet, there were smooth-talkers in the ranks of the mercenaries who were able to miraculously talk the Spartans out of imposing any drastic consequences. Instead, the army left the city and offered their services to Prince Seuthes of Thrace.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Sketch of the Ten Thousand reaching the Black Sea, by Bernard Granville Baker (1870-1957), [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.
  • https://www.ancient.eu/image/128/map-of-persia-and-the-march-of-the-ten-thousand/ 
  • https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/military-history/the-battle-of-cunaxa-and-the-march-of-the-10000/