Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Vibenna Brothers And Macstrna—Possibly Forgotten Tyrants (Or Kings) Of Ancient Rome




According to the traditional story laid down by Livy and other ancient Roman historians, there were only seven kings who ruled Rome during the city-state’s regal period: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. These seven men, at least in the traditional scheme of things, were the sole rulers of Rome for the span of about 244 years (753-509 BCE)—an average of about 35 years per king. Given that even the most stable monarchies of the ancient and medieval world all hovered at average reigns of about 20 years or less, the timeline and list of kings presented by Roman tradition has long been viewed with skepticism. In such a militarily- and politically-tumultuous region as ancient Italy, many historians are inclined to believe that numerous unknown Roman kings and tyrants existed in pre-Republic Rome, but were forgotten by the later Romans, who only began publishing their own histories around 200 BCE.

A certain Etruscan adventurer known as Macstrna is one of those possibly lost kings or tyrants of pre-Republic Rome. He was a follower of the Vibenna brothers (Caeles and Aulus), a pair of twins from Vulci, Italy, who were powerful Etruscan chieftains living around the time of the regal period in Rome. The Vibenna brothers and Macstrna were mentioned by ancient antiquarians (Varro, Verrius Flaccus) and historians (Tacitus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Claudius), and archeologists have found several objects bearing their images or names, some of which date back as far as the 6th century BCE. From these sources, a framework of their lives—albeit a vague and incomplete one—can be constructed to bring these figures partially out of obscurity.

Caeles and Aulus Vibenna were both powerful chieftains and can probably be classified as condottieri—warlords with enough power to operate independently of their homeland’s government. Macstrna was their most prestigious follower, and he became the right-hand man of Caeles. When the powerful brothers and Macstrna ran afoul of their own people, they apparently chose Rome as a place of exile, where they were often known as ‘Caelius’, ‘Olus’, and ‘Mastarna’. Some Romans also called the brothers by the name ‘Vivenna’ instead of Vibenna. According to ancient antiquarians and historians, Aulus and Caeles each influenced Rome their in own way. Caeles, in particular, was reportedly so helpful to the Romans that he was given an estate on one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Yet, that pales in comparison to what Aulus may have achieved—the fascinating Chronography of 354, in its Chronicle of the City of Rome, claims that Olus (as the Romans called Aulus) became a king of Rome. It must be said, however, that no other ancient historian, antiquarian, or piece of archaeology yet found has corroborated the claim of the Chronography of 354. Aulus/Olus, be he a king or a rich refugee, was said to have been eventually murdered in Rome and his remains rested on a certain Roman hill. According to tradition, when the head (caput) of Olus was later found on that hill, the Romans began calling the site the Capitoline Hill.

Caeles, Aulus and Macstrna, however, were not always friendly with Rome. One reported episode where the Vibenna brothers and their trusty champion, Macstrna, were enemies of Rome was painted in detail on a tomb wall in Vulci around the 4th century BCE—this wall was rediscovered in 1857 at a location called the François Tomb. The paintings (which were unfortunately hauled away to a private villa) showed an interesting scene that depicted the Vibenna brothers and four companions (including Macstrna) in an armed struggle against four enemies. Along with each painted figure was a written name that identified each person in the scene. Interestingly, among the men fighting the Vibenna brothers was a man labeled by the original painter as ‘Cneve Tarchunies Rumach,’ which can be Latinized to Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome. The Tarquin family, according to Roman tradition, produced two kings of Rome (Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus)—nevertheless, it must be said that no Gnaeus Tarquinius was ever mentioned in the traditional Tarquin family trees provided by ancient historians.

Upon analyzing the painting further, scholars discovered clues that led them to make an interesting theory about the meaning of the scene. In the painting, Macstrna can be seen cutting binding rope from the hands of his friend, Caeles Vibenna. Additionally, all but one of the Vibenna party was painted in the nude, whereas all of the opposing faction was depicted with some sort of clothing. Scholars have interpreted these clues to mean that the Vibenna brothers and their associates had been captured and imprisoned by Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome. The single clothed Vibenna supporter, scholars theorize, then orchestrated a successful prison break, allowing the naked (but now armed) escapees to overcome their captors.

Little is known of the death of Caeles Vibenna, but when the powerful Etruscan chieftain did eventually die, it seems that his lieutenant, Macstrna, took command of the leaderless group and became a chieftain in his own right. Like the Vibenna brothers, Macstrna, too, was said to have run afoul of his Etruscan homeland and traveled to Rome. The emperor and historian, Claudius (r. 41-54), included some information about Macstrna in a speech he delivered in 48 CE, and a copy of the speech has survived on a bronze tablet found at Lyons. Claudius stated, “If we follow Etruscan sources, he [Macstrna] was once the faithful companion of Caelius Vivenna and took part in all his adventures. Subsequently, driven out by a change of fortune, he left Etruria with all the remnants of Caelius’ army and occupied the Caelian hill, naming it thus after his former leader” (Table of Lyons, ILS 212.I.8-27). The Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), agreed with Claudius that the Caelian hill was named after Caeles/Caelius: ““the [Caelian] hill was originally called Oak Hill because of its dense growth of oak trees, and was later named ‘Caelian’ after Caeles Vibenna, an Etruscan chief who, for helping Rome, had been granted the hill as a residence by Tarquinius Priscus—or another king” (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book IV, section 65).

After Macstrna took up residence in the late Caeles Vibenna’s estate on the Caelian hill, he apparently delved into Roman politics. According to Emperor Claudius, Macstrna ultimately became a king. The emperor offered an intriguing (but unverified) theory that linked Macstrna to one of the more popular Roman monarchs: “Servius [Tullius] changed his name (for in Etruscan his name was Mastarna), and was called by the name I have used, and he obtained the throne to the greatest advantage of the state” (Table of Lyons, ILS 212.I.8-27). As of now, however, there is still no evidence to truly link Macstrna to the Roman king, Servius Tullius, and until further evidence is found, the traditional stories of these two figures are too different to satisfactorily mesh them together. Yet, many historians do find it plausible that, instead of being another name for Servius Tullius, Macstrna could have simply been an entirely separate and unknown king or tyrant of Rome. Some theorize (again without definitive evidence) that ‘Macstrna’ is not a name, but a corrupted variant of the title, magister, which, when lengthened to magister populi, becomes an alternative title for dictator. Unfortunately, with the scant amount of information we currently have, the truth about the extent of power wielded by the Vibenna brothers and Macstrna will remain clouded in mystery.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene of ancient Rome painted by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996. 
  • The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995. 
  • https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-new-pauly/caput-oli-e226900 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Rome#ref387601 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Seven-Hills-of-Rome 
  • https://www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/brothers-vibenna/ 
  • http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/chronography_of_354_16_chronicle_of_the_city_of_rome.htm

  •  

Thursday, June 6, 2019

5 Odd Ways 15th-Century People Believed They Could Detect A Witch



The witch-fearing people of medieval Europe developed for themselves several methods that they thought would help them detect, and possibly track, witches living in their communities. As with folk remedies and superstitious actions meant to ward off bad luck, these practices could be quite odd and imaginative. The methods recorded here comes from the Malleus Maleficarum, written by the Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger and published around 1487. They drew much of their inspiration from what they encountered or heard in Germanic, Austrian, and Alpine regions. As such, these methods for detecting witches were likely used in those areas, although some of these practices were also found elsewhere. Many of these methods are related to livestock, which is understandable, as livestock troubles (especially the drying up of milk and animal deaths) were some of the most frequently reported claims of witchcraft. Without further ado, here are five ways that 15th-century people attempted to detect, and sometimes track, possible witches in their communities.

The Divination Method
Molybdomancy is a type of divination performed by pouring molten metal into water and examining the resulting metal formations. Diviners used this method in their attempts to predict the future, but it also eventually developed into a method for detecting witches. If citizens of a town suspected that a witch was in their midst, they might go to their local occult healer or diviner and ask for molybdomancy to be used in order to search for a malicious practitioner of witchcraft. According to the Malleus Maleficarum, a practitioner of Molybdomancy could both detect if witchcraft was used on a person and also harm the witch who cast the spell. Inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger described a peasant healer in Swabia who used Molybdomancy to determine if his patient was bewitched: “he took molten lead (in the manner of another witch whom we have mentioned), and held it in an iron ladle over my foot and poured it into a bowl of water… ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I see that this infirmity is not natural, but certainly due to witchcraft’” (in Part II, question 2, introduction).

If the benevolent occult healer also dabbled in witchcraft, it was believed that he or she could use molybdomancy to track and harm the witch who cursed the person that the healer was healing. The Malleus Maleficarum described a good witch who reportedly offered this service to someone she was healing: “Then the witch pours molten lead into water until, by the work of the devil, some image is formed by the solidified lead. On this, the witch asks in which part of the body he wishes his enemy to be hurt, so that he may recognize him by that hurt” (Part II, question 2, introduction). Therefore, in theory, if the healer scratched or broke the lead figure’s arm, then the arm of the guilty witch would be magically injured, and the townspeople could hunt the witch by scouring the town for people with injured arms.

The Bucket Drumming Method
Like the previous method, this practice supposedly could detect witchcraft and cause harm to a malignant witch operating in a town. Yet, whereas the molybdomancy was used to detect and punish witches who used their spells to do bodily harm, the bucket drumming method was instead used against witches who harmed livestock. If a milkmaid discovered that a cow was producing less milk than usual, and suspected that this reduction was of supernatural origin, then she might have used the bucket drumming method to ferret out the troublesome witch. The first step was to gather as much of the afflicted cow’s milk as could be obtained and place it in a pail. Next, this bucket of milk was hung over a fire, and then the practitioner of the ritual would begin drumming on the side of the pail with a stick. To increase the chance of the method working, some magical phrases could apparently be learned from the local occult healer or benevolent witch that would improve the ritual’s effectiveness. This method, it was believed, linked the milk bucket to the malignant witch, and every blow made against the pail was magically transferred to the back of the witch. The villagers then could search for witches by looking for people with welts on their backs, and even if no witch was discovered, it was believed that the ritual would at least deter the witch from placing any more curses on cows.

The Rampaging Cow Method
If bucket drumming was not your style, and you wanted a more direct way to discover a witch, there was always the good ol’ rampaging cow method. This one is quite self-explanatory. According to an odd supernatural theory, if a bewitched cow was led out to pasture and given a good whack, the animal would run straight for the house of the witch. There was, however, a catch—this method apparently only worked if dirty laundry was placed on the cow’s head or back. On this type of witch-tracking, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum wrote: “they drive it [the cow] out into the fields with a man’s trousers, or some such unclean thing, upon its head or back. And this they do chiefly on Feast Days and Holy Days, and possibly with some sort of invocation of the devil; and they beat the cow with a stick and drive it away. Then the cow runs straight to the house of the witch, and beats vehemently upon the door with its horns, lowing loudly all the while” (Part II, question 2, introduction).

The Organ-Burning Method
If the bewitched animal had died from the spell, the organ-burning method was another option. This ritual, however, was not for the faint of heart. Once the ritual was begun, the witch would reportedly feel so much pain that she would hunt down the person performing the ritual and do all in her power to stop the rite from being completed. What was supposed to be burned in these rituals could vary from case to case, but in stories of this method, the witch almost always appears, and with her arrival, the tales transition into the genre of spooky horror stories.

In the account presented in the Malleus Maleficarum, a person whose animal was supposedly killed by witchcraft had the organ-burning method in mind when he ceremoniously took the deceased creature’s intestines to his home. For unclear reasons, he made sure to enter through the back door—by no means was he to enter through the front door—and ultimately brought the intestines to his kitchen. Before proceeding, he made sure that the doors and windows of the house were secure, then he built a fire from coal. Finally, when the fire was hot and he had prepared himself for the horrors to come, the man put the intestines of his bewitched animal on top of the fire. As with the milk-bucket method, this ritual supposedly transferred the damage sustained by the cursed intestines back to the witch who cast the spell. Therefore, according to the theory, as the cow’s intestines were burning, so too were the intestines of the witch. The Malleus Maleficarum described the eerie and scary scene:

“But when they perform this experiment they take great care that the door is securely locked; because the witch is compelled by her pains to try to enter the house, and if she can take a coal from the fire, all her pains will disappear. And we have often been told that, when she is unable to enter the house, she surrounds it inside and out with the densest fog, with such horrible shrieks and commotions that at last all those in the house think the roof is verily going to fall down and crush them unless they open the door” (Part II, question 2, introduction).

According to folklore, if this method was used and completed, the witch would often be found dead somewhere near the location where the ritual was carried out, including right outside the door. Spooky.

The Shoe-Grease Method
To end this article on a more jovial note, we will conclude with a strange witch-hunting technique that we have hereby named the shoe-grease method. This is one of the more unique methods as it neither punishes the witch or points the user toward the witch’s direction. Instead, the shoe-grease method is more of a trap that could supposedly be laid out in secret to catch a witch by surprise.

The shoe-grease method seems to have been a community effort, as multiple people were involved. For this to work, the youths of the town would have to be willing to go along with the plan, and all the conspirators had to keep the plot confidential until Sunday. The Malleus Maleficarum described the bizarre ritual trap as follows:

“On a Sunday, they smear the shoes of young men with grease, lard or pig’s fat, as is their wont when they wish to repair and renew the freshness of the leather, and thus the juveniles enter the church, whence it is impossible for any witches who are present to make their way out or depart until those who are anxious to espy them either go away themselves or give them express leave to make their way to their homes” (Part II, question 2, introduction).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (The Bewitched Man by  Francisco Goya  (1746–1828), [Publioc Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Malleus-maleficarum  

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Ancient Chinese Spirit Mountains Of Bohai


In the days of the Qin and early Han Dynasty, ancient China was in the midst of an immortal-hunting fervor that infected all levels of society, including the emperors. The mysterious community of supernatural Chinese entities, known collectively as “the immortals,” had similar lives to the Greek gods—both groups were said to have rarely appeared before human eyes and both divine communities spent most of their time in isolation on holy mountains. Yet, the mountain retreats of the Chinese immortals were a bit more complex than the dwelling of the Greek gods on Olympus. According to ancient Chinese mythology, the immortals lived on huge and mobile supernatural landmasses known as spirit mountains, which, like a mirage, could be seen but not reached in the Gulf of Bohai.

Belief in the immortals and spirit mountains long predated the Qin Dynasty. In fact, the 4th-century BCE Daoist scholar, Liezi, mentioned five such spirit mountains in the text that shares his name. Yet, it was King Zheng (the First Emperor of Qin) who mobilized the empire in search of the spirit islands. Sometime after King Zheng brought all of the Chinese kingdoms under his rule in 221 BCE and declared himself to be the August Emperor, a man named Xu Fu appeared before the emperor and claimed that he had a lead on finding three of the evasive spirit mountains. These three mountain-islands were called Fangzhang, Yingzhou and Penglai, of which the last was seemingly the most important. From these magical islands, an elixir (or herb) of immortality could reportedly be obtained, which was something that the First Emperor was eager to possess. Upon hearing of Xu Fu’s proposed expedition to search for the spirit mountains in the Gulf of Bohai, the First Emperor of Qin enthusiastically agreed to the plan and reportedly put Xu Fu in command of thousands of explorers.

Although Fu Xu and other explorers spent a fortune (of the emperor’s money) on their quest to find the spirit mountains, they never made any progress. In their reports back to the First Emperor, Xu Fu and his comrades came up with a number of odd excuses for their inability to find the magical mountain abodes, such as the appearances of magical barriers or hostile aquatic guardians. According to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), one such message to the First Emperor read, “The herbs of Penglai can surely be obtained. But always there are large fish that cause difficulty, and therefore we are unable to reach the island” (Shi Ji, 6). In response, the emperor reportedly gave the explorers fishing gear and, for the biggest of fish, repeating crossbows. Interestingly, the First Emperor was said to have been touring the coastline of the Gulf of Bohai (and hunting for giant fish) when he fell ill and died in 210 BCE.

The aforementioned Sima Qian was the Grand Historian and Palace Secretary of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141-87 BCE). Emperor Wu was reportedly the most zealous seeker of the immortals since the days of the First Emperor of Qin.  When Emperor Wu was not focused on orchestrating new conquests and expanding the power of his central government, he would send out waves of explorers into the Gulf of Bohai to search for spirit mountains.

Present in Emperor Wu’s court were several magicians who claimed to have knowledge of the spirit mountains—and others even claimed to have been students of the immortals. The magicians whose teachings most affected Emperor Wu were Li Shaojun (an elderly wiseman who claimed to know how to reach Penglai) and Gongsun Qing, a long-serving courtier and magical advisor who eventually attempted to grow a so-called fungus of immortality in the emperor’s palace. Gongsun Qing did, indeed, grow some sort of strange fungus around 109 BCE, prompting the excited emperor to proclaim a general amnesty in celebration, yet it was a far cry from the herb of immortality on Penglai.

Sima Qian wrote about the magicians and Emperor Wu’s search for the magical islands in what is known as The Treatise on the Feng and Shan Sacrifices (Shi Ji 28), included in his Records of the Grand Historian. In that treatise, Sima Qian wrote down a summary of the various pieces of folklore he had heard about the spirit mountains:

“[Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou] were three spirit mountains which were supposed to exist in the Gulf of Bohai. They were not very far from the land of men, it was said, but the difficulty was that, whenever a boat was about to touch their shores, a wind would always spring up and drive it away. In the past, people said, there had been men who succeeded in reaching them, and found them peopled by fairy spirits who possessed the elixirs of immortality. All the plants and birds and animals of the island were white, and the palaces and gates were made of gold and silver. Seen from afar, the three spirit mountains looked like clouds but, as soon as one drew closer, they seemed instead to be down under the water” (Shi Ji 28, Burton Watson translation pg. 14).

As happened with the First Emperor of Qin, the explorers and magicians working with Emperor Wu made little progress in their search for the immortals and the spirit mountains of Bohai. Although Emperor Wu did execute numerous magicians who were found out to be frauds, and, by 98 BCE, began to feel disheartened about his search for the magic islands, the emperor reportedly never lost faith in their existence.  Yet, despite Emperor’s Wu’s decades of sending explorers into the Gulf of Bohai, and his cultivation of a home-grown fungus of immortality, the emperor never found a way to ward off old age. He died in 87 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Painting depicting the Spirit Island of Penglai by Yuan Yao (active in the 18th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Empress Drama Of Emperor Leo VI



Leo VI was the emperor of Constantinople from 886 to 912. He was a prolific writer who published codes of law, poems, treatises, and other miscellaneous works on ecclesiastical and secular subjects. These scholarly endeavors earned Leo the epithet of “the Wise” or “the Philosopher,” yet, outside of the realm of academia, Leo’s reign was incredibly chaotic. Militarily, his time in power was disastrous. The Empire of Constantinople was defeated in Lombardia by Prince Aigion of Benevento (c. 887), and Symeon of Bulgaria was so successful against the emperor’s armies between 894 and 897 that Leo VI began pay annual tribute to the Bulgars. Leo’s forces were also pushed out of Sicily (c. 902), and the Muslim naval forces began to dominate the seas. In the Aegean, the Greek-Muslim admiral, Leo of Tripoli, was a nightmare for Constantinople—he captured Thessalonica in 904 and also inflicted a major defeat against the imperial navy in 912 at Samos. In addition to the poor military record of Leo VI, he also had an incredibly tumultuous love life, as well as a long-running feud with the church of Constantinople. Interestingly, the poor relationship between the emperor and his church was often directly related to his private life, especially toward the end of his reign.

The troubled love life of Leo VI began in 882, when the sixteen-year-old future emperor was forced by his father (Emperor Basil I) to marry Theophano Martinakiou. As arranged marriages go, Theophano was the dream of most imperial princes. Not only did she have powerful connections to the Amorian Dynasty, an influential family allied with Leo’s own Macedonian Dynasty, but she was also one of the most beautiful women in the empire—In fact, she was chosen as Leo’s wife after winning a beauty contest in 882. Nevertheless, love cannot be forced, and, despite the two having a daughter together, Leo VI and Theophano never had a particularly warm marital relationship.

Leo’s marriage to Theophano was one of politics, not love, and the young prince was open to a more passionate relationship outside of marriage.  He found this more emotional connection in Zoe Zautsina, a noblewoman of Armenian descent who was reportedly a widow. It is unclear when the clandestine relationship between the married Leo and the widowed Zoe began, but some think it was a contributing factor to Leo’s long period of house arrest from 883 to 886, in the years prior to his father’s death.

Leo VI became emperor after his father, Basil I, died in 886. Once in power, Zoe Zautsina was apparently raised from the shadows to the position of a concubine. Empress Theophano was still alive at the time, and she reportedly was kept well informed about her husband’s affair. Yet, she seemingly sympathized with her husband, or at least kept a dignified demeanor despite Leo’s wandering attentions. Of Theophano’s attitude, the historian, John Skylitzes (c. 11th century), wrote, “For her part, she saw and heard everything that was going on but did not in the least allow herself to give way to the passion of jealousy” (Synopsis historion, chapter 7, section 3). Unfortunately, Empress Theophano fell ill and died around 896 or 897. Interestingly, Leo VI may have been gaining a new appreciation of his wife at the time of her death—the emperor successfully pressured the clergy of Constantinople into naming his late empress a saint.

After the death of Theophano, Leo VI was finally able to marry his mistress, Zoe Zautsina. The marriage occurred around 898, yet their long-delayed union was tragically short. Empress Zoe Zautsina reportedly lived only a year and eight months after the marriage, placing her death around 899 or 900. They had one daughter together, Anna, who was reportedly born well before Leo and Zoe were officially married. Although Emperor Leo VI doted over Zoe Zautsina, many of his courtiers and clergymen thought she was distasteful. As her burial was being prepared, someone allegedly vandalized Zoe’s sarcophagus with a distasteful reference to Psalm 137:8; John Skylitzes wrote, “When the sarcophagus in which her body was to be laid was being prepared, they found an incised inscription which read: ‘Daughter of Babylon, wasted with misery’” (Synopsis historion, chapter 7, section 16).

With the death of Zoe Zautsina, Emperor Leo VI faced an ecclesiastical and political problem. The church of Constantinople only condoned a man to marry twice—this was a problem for Leo because the children he had with Theophano and Zoe Zautsina were all daughters. If the church had its way, Leo VI would die without an heir since the emperor’s daughters could not inherit the empire. There were also ceremonies that required someone to play the role of the empress, so Leo VI named the young Anna, daughter of Zoe Zautsina, as his symbolic empress while he planned his next move.

It did not take long for Emperor Leo VI to make his decision. To the protest of the clergy, Leo married a woman named Eudokia Biane around the year 900. Yet tragedy struck again, and Empress Eudokia died of childbirth complications in 901. The newborn baby, a boy named Basil, survived the birth, but he unfortunately died a few days later. After the tragic deaths of Eudokia and Basil, the public duties of empress were once more carried out by Anna.

Although young Anna would continue to play out the role of empress in public for years to come, Emperor Leo soon found a new mistress. Her name was Zoe Karbonopsina, or Zoe ‘of the coal-black eyes,’ a woman from a distinguished family. She quickly became something more than just a mistress, but the emperor withheld from her the title of empress. The church of Constantinople was apparently ok with this marital gray-area as long as Zoe Karbonopsina was not made Leo’s official wife and empress. Yet, the precarious balance between the emperor and the religious Patriarch of Constantinople broke in 905, when Zoe Karbonopsina gave birth to a son named Constantine VII. With a male heir finally born, Emperor Leo VI scrambled to strengthen the boy’s status. First, Leo had his brother, Alexander, become the boy’s godfather. Next, Leo put plans in motion to elevate Zoe Karbonopsina to the rank of a full-fledged empress, which would further legitimize young Constantine’s claim to the throne.

When Emperor Leo VI married Zoe Karbonopsina in April, 906, and declared her to be his empress (finally relieving Anna of her ceremonial duty), it ignited an odd showdown in Constantinople, known as the Tetragamy affair. Leo’s third marriage to Eudokia had been scorned, but begrudgingly accepted. His fourth marriage to Zoe Karbonopsina, however, was considered pure scandal. In fact, after the fourth marriage, Patriarch Nicholas of Constantinople and other clergymen banned Leo VI from entering church on at least two occasions—at the Christmas service of 906 and the Epiphany service of 907. Later in 907, however, Leo VI was able to have a much more friendly churchman, named Euthymios, placed at the head of the church in Constantinople.

Zoe Karbonopsina would remain Leo’s empress until the emperor’s death in 912.  After Leo VI, power momentarily passed to his brother, Alexander. During Alexander’s reign, the late Leo’s allied patriarch, Euthymios, was kicked out of Constantinople (and was given a physical beating by his fellow clergymen) and was sent into exile—Nicholas was then restored as Patriarch of Constantinople. Alexander also systematically began stripping power from other allies of the late Leo VI (including Empress Zoe), but Alexander died in 913 and power returned to Constantine VII, the son of Leo VI and Zoe Karbonopsina.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Leo VI from the Hagia Sophia, photographed by José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro and licensed Creative Commons 3.0).

Sources:
  • John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-VI-Byzantine-emperor 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Leo_VI/ 
  • https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/leo-vi-byzantine-emperor  

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Irish Hermit Monks Were Said To Have Inhabited Iceland Before Scandinavian Settlers



Several Irish Christian anchorites (holy-men seeking seclusion from society) reportedly discovered and lived in Iceland before the arrival of pagan settlers from Scandinavia. As questions like “which nation arrived first?” and “which religion was here first?” can inspire nationalistic and theological biases, the existence of such anchorites on Iceland remains hotly debated to this day. Some scholars want to entirely disregard written sources about the Irish anchorites in Iceland until archaeological evidence is found. Other scholars take a more literalist approach and want to blindly believe written records unless archaeology proves the sources wrong. Here, however, we will take a neutral stance and present the earliest written evidence behind the idea that Irish anchorites were present on Iceland, doing this simply for public awareness and intellectual entertainment—the metaphorical “food for thought.”

It is believed that the earliest person to claim that Irish hermits had set up camp in Iceland was the Irish monk, Dicuil, who published a text called Concerning the Measurement of the World in the year 825. In the work, Dicuil claimed that three Irish anchorites sailed to the mysterious island of “Thule” around 795. The so-called island of Thule has a history stretching back to the 4th century BCE, when the Greek explorer, Pytheas, found a large landmass (which he named Thule) after having sailed for nearly a week out into the sea off the northern coast of the British Isles. The identity of Pytheas’ Thule is still debated—many believe the explorer found Iceland, yet others think he may have reached Norway, instead.

It is unsurprising that we are not in agreement on the location of Thule, as even the ancients did not seem to know exactly where to find Pytheas’ Thule. By the time Julius Agricola was the Roman governor in Britannia (r. 77-84 CE), his fleet apparently believed Shetland was Thule. With multiple islands being called Thule by various authors, modern scholars have a difficult task of using the geographical description and latitude information to differentiate the regions. In the case of the 9th-century monk, Dicuil, his description of Thule has convinced many that he was referring to Iceland. The renowned Icelandic scholar and translator, Hermann Pálsson made mention of Dicuil in the introduction of his translation of The Book of Settlements. On Dicuil’s Thule, Hermann Pálsson confidently wrote, “The latitude he assigns to ‘Thule’ makes it certain that this must have been Iceland” (Pálsson, Landnámabók introduction, 1972, reprint 2006).

Another source from outside of Iceland is the Historia Norvegiae (History of Norway), an anonymous work that is believed to have been written in the 12th century. In that text, monkish figures called “Papae” were said to have lived on islands scattered around the British Isles before the arrival of Norse settlers. The anonymous author explained the title given to the religious figures by stating, “the Papae have been named from their white robes, which they wore like priests; whence priests are all called papae in the Teutonic tongue” (trans. A. O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, vol. I, 330-2). The author of the Historia Norvegiae did not specifically mention Iceland as a destination of these so-called papae, yet if they were sailing to places such as the Orkney Islands, who is to say that they did not keep sailing farther out.

Although the Historia Norvegiae did not connect the Papae to Iceland, another 12th-century writer did make that connection. Ari Thorgilsson the Learned (c. 1068-1148) was the first known historian of Iceland to write in the Icelandic vernacular and he claimed that when Norwegian settlers first arrived in Iceland, they found a few Irish monks already present on the island. This claim was first written in Ari’s text, the Book of Icelanders (Islendingabók). The assertion was later repeated in the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), of which Ari the Learned is thought to have been a major contributor or original author. The Book of Settlements became a generational affair, with numerous versions being produced over the centuries and additional information included in each new edition.

There are five existent versions of the Book of Settlements, the oldest of which is the Stulubók (produced c. 1275-1280). The Stulubók and the Islendingabók have a nearly identical passage about the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Scandinavian settlers. Sturla Thordarson, the author of the Sturlubók, wrote, “before Iceland was settled from Norway there were other people there, called Papar by the Norwegians. They were Christians and were thought to have come overseas from the west, because people found Irish books, bells, croziers, and lots of other things, so it was clear they must have been Irish” (Sturlubók, chapter 1, trans. Hermann Pálsson, 1976, 2006). Ari Thorgilsson’s earlier account matched that of Sturla Thordarson except that Ari also claimed that the Christian monks left Iceland after the arrival of the Norse settlers. Ari the Learned was also slightly less committal to the monks’ origin—whereas Sturla claimed it was “clear” that the monks were Irish, Ari wrote “one could perceive” the monks of having an Irish origin based off of the evidence left behind (the books, bells, croziers, etc…). Although the Book of Settlements and the Book of Icelanders both mention Christian relics being left behind by the monks, no convincing archaeological remains of such pre-settlement items (or of the monks who left them there) has yet been discovered on Iceland.

In addition to the lack of physical evidence, some have questioned the truthfulness of Ari the Learned on the claim of Irish monks in Iceland because of Ari’s close connections to the See of Skalholt in Christianized Iceland. Like most medieval scholars, Ari received much of his education through the church, and two of his greatest patrons were the bishops, Thorlak Runolfsson of Skalholt and Ketil Thorsteinsson of Holar. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not Ari the Learned and other Christian scholars in Iceland would lie about the pre-settlement Irish monks is a debate of opinion, not fact. As of now, with no archaeological evidence to prove or disprove the claims, historians can only fall back on the stereotypical government response—we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of Irish monks in Iceland before the arrival of Norse settlers. Yet, although the existence of the monks cannot be confirmed, a majority of the historical community still seems to give Ari Thorgilsson and his successors the benefit of the doubt on their claim that Irish monks were present on Iceland before the time of settlement.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Public Domain: (An image from the tale of Saint Brendan, published by the Franciscan Sisters of the Perpetual Adoration (La Crosse, Wis.), c. early 1900s, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Sources:
  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006. 
  • http://www.paparproject.org.uk/introduction.html#6 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dicuil 
  • http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/People/Dicuil/Britannica_1911*.html 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ari-Thorgilsson-the-Learned 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Iceland/Government-and-society#ref10088 
  • https://www.historyireland.com/pre-norman-history/the-arctic-irish-fact-or-fiction/ 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pytheas