Sunday, December 24, 2017

Mistletoe, The Killer Of Gods

Baldr (or Baldur), a Norse god of light and beauty, was loved by almost all of creation, from the divine Æsir all the way to the plants and stones of the earth. As such, when Baldr began to have dreams and premonitions of his own death, the Æsir held a council and decided to make everything in the world swear an oath to never harm Baldr, an oath that most living beings and elements would be more than willing to make.

According to The Prose Edda, a collection of Norse myths compiled by the powerful Icelandic leader, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), Baldr’s mother, Frigg, obtained promises from fire, water, metals, stones, plant life, animal wildlife, poisons and even diseases and viruses, all swearing that they would not harm her son. When all of the oaths were collected, Baldr was so invulnerable that the mighty gods, themselves, amused themselves by punching, throwing stones, shooting arrows, even striking or stabbing at Baldr, all to no effect. Baldr’s newfound defensive prowess was lauded and praised by the gods—well, all except one. Loki, the usual delinquent deity of Norse mythology, loathed Baldr’s invulnerability. Therefore, Loki began to investigate, hoping that, like Achilles, a vulnerable chink could be found in Baldr’s supernatural armor.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Strategy Of The Decoy Camp—Alexios Komnenos Versus Nikephoros Basilakios

In the autumn of 1078, a young general (and future emperor) of the Byzantine Empire by the name of Alexios Komnenos handed a freshly captured rebel leader named Nikephoros Bryennios the Elder over to an agent of Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081). In exchange for the prisoner, the agent of the emperor delivered a message for Alexios containing a new task set to him by the crown. Around the same time that Bryennios’ rebellion was crushed, another rebellion had erupted in the city of Dyrrakhion (modern Durrës, Albania), led by Nikephoros Basilakios—Alexios’ task was to hunt down this third Nikephoros (whom we will simply refer to as Basilakios) and put a stop to the rebellion.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Athenian-Aided Egyptian Rebellion of Inaros Against The Persian Empire

The ancient Egyptians were not happy with their position as a subject nation ruled by Persian overlords. They rebelled during the reigns of Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE) and Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE), but were unsuccessful in both of those endeavors. When Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BCE, another leader incited the Egyptian people to once more rebel against Persian rule. This leader was named Inaros, a prince or king of Libyan descent who managed to rally most of Egypt behind him in a massive six-year war against an ancient superpower.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The United States Government Experimented With Camels In The 19th Century

George H. Crosman is credited as the first man to suggest that camels could be a valuable asset if utilized by the U. S. military in dry, desert regions of the United States. He first brought up this point in 1836, when he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He claimed that camels would be unaffected by America’s most arid climates, and would also require less feed or water than the horses and mules already used by the government. Despite these fair points, Lt. Crosman’s ideas were rejected and shelved by the United States for more than a decade.

In 1847, after Crosman achieved the rank of Major, he once again brought up the idea of caravans of camels traveling westward, through the plains and deserts of the new lands claimed or conquered by the United States in North America. This time, Crosman fully convinced Major Henry C. Wayne, who conveniently worked in the Quartermaster Department. Maj. Wayne forwarded the idea to the War Department and to Congress, where it fell on the sympathetic ears of Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis, the future president of the rebellious Confederate States of America. At the time, Davis did not yet have enough clout to bring Crosman’s dream to reality, but the senator did not forget the suggestion.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Dwarves Made Most Of The Amazing Items Used By The Gods Of Norse Mythology

Interestingly, the gods of Norse mythology often had little-to-no innate power when compared to the divinities of other mythologies. At times, the band of deities led by the High One, Odin, seemed to be merely equivalents to Greek or Roman demigods. A prime example is that the immortality of the Norse gods did not occur naturally—to stay alive, the gods were said to eat magical apples of youth, tended by the goddess, Idunn. Also, the gods of Norse mythology were some of the most vulnerable and mortal deities ever worshipped; almost all of the major Norse gods were prophesied to die at Ragnarok. Yet, despite all of their handicaps and vulnerabilities, the Norse gods did become incredibly powerful. Curiously, however, the brilliant workmanship of the dwarves played a huge part in making this happen.

In Norse mythology, the dwarves were the go-to craftsmen for the gods. The great Icelandic chronicler of Norse mythology, Snorri Sturlusson (1179-1241), wrote about several of the magnificent items that the dwarves created for the gods. From tools, to weapons, to livestock, the dwarves could create it.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Dualistic Reign of Ghazan Khan Of The Ilkhanate

The Mongolian-descended Mahmud Ghazan was born around 1271 and was raised by his grandfather (Abagha Khan, r. 1265-1282) and his father (Arghun Khan, r. 1284-1291) to be a follower of the Buddhist faith. When Abagha Khan died, his son, Teguder, became the new khan of the Ilkhanate. Yet, Teguder’s brother, Arghun successfully raised a large faction against the khan, with one of the main complaints being that Teguder had forsaken Buddhism for Islam. Arghun managed to overthrow Teguder and continued Buddhist dominance over the Mongolian-ruled Ilkhanate.

(Abaqa on horse, Arghun standing, Ghazan as a child in his arms, in Rachid al-Din, Djami al-Tawarikh, 14th century. Reproduction in "Ghengis Khan et l'Empire Mongol", Jean-Paul Roux [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

In 1284, Arghun Khan named his teenage son, Mahmud Ghazan, as the new viceroy or governor in charge of the Ilkhanate’s lands around the region of Persia. Ghazan remained in this post for about ten years, during the reigns of both his father, Arghun Khan, and his uncle, Gaykatu Khan (r. 1291-1295). During his post in Persia, Ghazan battled against a rival faction of Mongolians, known as the Chagatai Mongols, and also defeated a rebellion led by an officer named Nawruz. Even though the revolt was finally crushed in 1294, Nawruz’s life was spared. Interestingly, the rebel leader would play a significant role in Ghazan’s later rise to power.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Many Different Categories of Divination, Witchcraft or Magic

The idea of magic, or at least the belief that the future can be predicted through ritualistic, magical or religious means, has seemingly been in the minds of humans since the dawn of recorded history. When hunting witches was a craze in European society, two Papal Inquisitors named Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger described the abilities of the strongest witches in Part II, Question 1, Chapter 2 of their witch-hunter’s manual, The Malleus Maleficarum, which was published around 1487 CE. They wrote that the most talented witches had the ability to control weather. These top-tier supernatural magicians could supposedly summon strong storms of wind, lightning and hail, which they could aim directly at their enemies. They could also curse or hex both man and beast in various ways (such as infertility or death), and they also were said to have psychological powers that could instill madness in victims. They could also allegedly influence the speech of others, specifically by magically forcing any of their captured accomplices to keep silent when tortured by inquisitors.

Offensive magic and witchcraft, which seems to be the type of magic that authors and filmmakers like to portray most of all in their works, drew an unfair lot when compared to the carefully-crafted complex and grandiose names used to label the other categories of supernatural abilities—especially the field of divination, or the prediction of the future using supernatural or pseudoscientific means. Although the magical field of prediction gets a lot less coverage in the books and theater box-offices of the modern world, these prophetic practices were deemed very serious and important in the ancient, medieval and early colonial world. The great Roman orator and statesman, Cicero, wrote one of the most extensive ancient books on the subject, On Divination (De Divinatione). Furthermore, as a consequence of the human addiction to labeling and categorizing absolutely every little thing known to mankind, there is no shortage of overly-specific names for virtually each and every form of these supernatural crafts. Many of these fields fall under the broad category of sortilege, or predicting the future using tools of chance, such as cards. Yet, the broader terms for divination were broken down even further, spawning a whole host of new words, many of which end in “mancy.” For example, divination through the use of cards is called cartomancy. Most of these types of divination are discussed in Part I, Question 17 of The Malleus Maleficarum. Here are just a few of the endless subdivisions of divination that were popular in cultures based out of Europe or the Middle East:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Love Killed The Norse God, Frey

The Pride of the Vanir
The most famous deities from the Vanir clan of the Norse gods were the children of Njord—Frey and Freyja. Both siblings were fertility gods, although they manifested their powers in different ways. Frey had influence over the heat of the sun and the refreshment of the rain—making him especially important to farmers who needed help with their harvests. Freyja exercised her influence more within the realm of love, and could, if she was so inclined, provide her followers with prosperity in their households. Although the Vanir were a one-time rival of the main clan of Norse divinities, known as the Æsir (Odin, Thor etc…), the two sides eventually made peace and became so close that the name “Æsir” became a label that could be used to describe all of the gods that kept their homes in Asgard, including Frey and Freyja.

Frey and Freyja were described as being among the most beautiful of the Norse gods. Yet, with their beauty also came brawn. Freyja, despite being a goddess of household fertility and happiness, also had a ferocious side. Whenever she decided to join a battle, she was said to claim half of the resulting dead to join her inside her hall at Folkvangar, the Warriors’ Fields. The rest of the worthy souls that she left behind would go to Odin’s host of warriors in Valhalla. Freyja was also a goddess of unique style—she was said to have ridden in a chariot pulled by two large cats.

("Freya" (1901) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess Freya rests her hand upon a shield, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Frey, too, was more than he seemed. Despite being a fertility god that could control the weather, Frey also had a selection of supernatural items that made him a more than formidable divinity. Whereas his sister had a chariot pulled by cats, Frey had his own chariot that was hauled by a golden boar. This gilded creature was a gift from two dwarves named Eitri and Brokk. It was said that the boar’s bristles emitted a light bright enough to overcome any darkness. Also in Frey’s possession was the greatest ship available in the Norse mythological world—Skidbladnir. This ship, also crafted by dwarves, was large enough to house all of the gods and their weaponry, yet also had the miraculous ability to be folded up when not in use, so as to be stored in a pouch or a pocket. Furthermore, the ship always had a favorable wind, which would blow in the direction of wherever the captain wanted to sail. Even with all of these incredible items, Frey’s most precious possession was his trusty sword. This supernatural weapon was basically Frey’s bodyguard. The sword could expertly dispatch multiple threats without Fray having to use up any of his own energy. Simply put, as long as he had his sword, Frey was virtually invincible.

  (Image of Frey from around 1900, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

A Sacrifice For Love—As told by Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241)
On a fateful day, Frey ascended to the top of Hlidskjalf, a watchtower near the center of Asgard. From his vantage point on the tower, the god of sun and rain looked to the north and saw an enormous, beautiful home that belonged to a family of mountain giants. The residence was magnificent, even by the standards set in Asgard. Either inside the house or absent from the property were the giants Gymir and Aurboda, yet their daughter, Gerd, was presently in front of the home, about to approach the door.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

John Skylitzes’ Scandalous Libel Against The 9th-Century Patriarch Of Constantinople, John VII “The Grammarian”

Those who win victory can, and sometimes do, distort the memory of the factions that they triumphed over. This reality can be found in the Synopsis of Byzantine History by John Skylitzes, a historian who thrived during the reign of Emperor Alexios Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). In his synopsis of the history covering the reigns of emperors throughout the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, Skylitzes gave little-to-no sympathy to the proponents of Iconoclasm—a Christian movement that condemned the use of ‘icons,’ such as images and sculptures, claiming that the veneration of these items constituted idolatry. Empress Irene almost eradicated the movement in 787, but Iconoclasm recovered and was only defeated decades later, on the instigation of Empress Theodora in 843. John Skylitzes, despite writing centuries after the fall of Iconoclasm, apparently still held a grudge against the last Iconoclast Patriarch (religious leader) of Constantinople—John VII “the Grammarian.” In his history, Skylitzes accused John the Grammarian of almost every horror imaginable.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

King Cleomenes I of Sparta—His Eventful Reign And His Odd Demise

The co-kings of Sparta, Cleomenes I (of the Agiad royal house) and Demaratus (of the Eurypontid royal house), ruled in the opening years of the Greco-Persian Wars. Although Cleomenes and Demaratus were both kings of Sparta, they did not see eye to eye on how to lead their great city in the very tense time of Greek history in which they lived. While Cleomenes would usually get his way, Demaratus was able to thwart his co-monarch’s ambitions in several circumstances.

Cleomenes (r. 520-490 BCE) worked ruthlessly during his reign to make Sparta the most dominant and influential power in the Peloponnesus and to strengthen the Peloponnesian League against its rivals. While he did this, he kept his eye on events elsewhere in Greece, and often participated in the conflicts and powershifts occurring in other Greek cities and leagues.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Startling Saints—The Adventures of Saint Germanus of Auxerre

Saint Germanus (or Germain) of Auxerre lived in one of the most chaotic times in Roman history, under the reigns of some of the most incompetent Roman Emperors that ever existed. His life, as a Roman government official and then as a bishop, was notable and influential enough to ensure him a place in the history books, yet Germanus’ biographers and commentators also recorded the numerous miracles that were attributed to the saint. In this account, the miracles will be left in the narrative, so that readers can decide for themselves how much or how little credence to give the miraculous events reported to have occurred during St. Germanus’ life.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Tragic Life Of The Roman Emperor, Julian The Apostate

When Constantine the Great became the ruler of the entire Roman Empire in 324 CE, most of his relatives probably thought they would be set for life in positions of power and luxury. Actually, when Constantine died in 337, only a few people in the royal family benefited. The large empire was divided between Constantine’s legitimate sons, Constantine II, Canstans I and Canstantius II. These three brothers each adopted the title of emperor and ruled their own domains. Unfortunately for all of the other relatives and cousins who were not direct, legitimate heirs of Constantine the Great, their fate was very different. Instead of being seen as allies and kin, the three new emperors saw most of their family as rivals and enemies.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Chaotic Reigns Of The Sons Of Constantine The Great

Constantine the Great, emperor of the Western Roman Empire (c. 312-324 CE), and later the entire Roman Empire (c. 324-337), climbed to ultimate power after defeating a host of rivals in a long and bloody civil war. Despite experiencing firsthand the complications that come with dividing a single empire among multiple emperors, Constantine the Great groomed all three of his legitimate sons for rule and gave them each the title of caesar. When Constantine the Great died in 337, none of his sons were given primacy. All three of them, Constantine II, Constans I, and Constantius II all proclaimed themselves to be an augustus (or emperor), and divided the empire amongst themselves. Constantine II ruled Roman Britain, Gaul (France) and Spain. Constans I took Italy, North Africa (excluding Egypt) and some of the Balkans. Constantius II took the remainder of the Balkans, and the rest of the Roman lands, with land spanning around the Mediterranean from Greece to Egypt.

Although the empire fell in succession to Constantine’s sons, it was these sons, and these sons only, who controlled the Roman Empire—all other relatives were considered a threat. In a plan probably masterminded by Constantius II, the emperors purged the land of potential rivals, including many of their own cousins and even a half-brother of Constantine the Great, ironically also named Constantius. Two notable imperial cousins that survived the purge were Gallus and Julian, the former would be a future caesar and the latter a future emperor.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Killer WWII Dogs Of Cat Island

During the Second World War, all the warring countries were looking for an edge in their war effort, be it through machinery and science, new methods of personnel training or, unfortunately, even experimental drug-use. While most military research and development funding went to the tried and true necessities, such as weaponry, tanks, airplanes and ships, the war-torn countries of the world were also open to investigating more abnormal methods of warfare. Looking for any and every way to win the war, some countries invested their resources into turning mankind’s furry, four-legged best friends into trained man-killers.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Marriage Fiasco of Cleisthenes, Tyrant of Sicyon

(Painting of a ancient festival to Demeter, by Francis Davis Millet  (1846–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The tyrant, Cleisthenes, is thought to have ruled the city-state of Sicyon from approximately 600-570 BCE. Sicyon was located somewhere in the northern Peloponnesus, between ancient Corinth and Achaea. Cleisthenes was a member of the Orthagoras family (or the Orthagorids), and his reign was the climax of his dynasty’s rule in Sicyon.

Cleisthenes successfully ushered Sicyon through the political and military conflicts of ancient Greece. He sided with the Oracle of Delphi in the First Sacred War (around the 590s BCE), which led to the destruction of Crisa. He was also a patron of athletics and sports, both in Delphi and at home in Sicyon.

It was around this time, after emerging victorious from the First Sacred War, that Cleisthenes began thinking of arranging a marriage for his daughter, Agariste. The tyrant, however, did not want just any marriage for his daughter; he wanted to marry his girl to the greatest man in all of Greece. To make sure the most accomplished men in Greece would hear of his daughter’s marriage eligibility, Cleisthenes made an announcement at one of Greece’s most prestigious events—either the Olympic or Pythian Games. According to the historian, Herodotus, he made his declaration after having won fist place in an Olympic chariot race. Yet, others think his announcement came after participating in the 582 BCE Pythian Games. Either way, the most athletic and affluent Greeks heard that Cleisthenes was accepting suitors for his daughter’s hand in marriage. As with most stories recorded by Herodotus, the tale of Cleithenes’ marriage fiasco is likely highly exaggerated and filled with folklore, but nonetheless, it remains incredibly entertaining.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

During WWII, A United States Serviceman Became A Serial Strangler In Australia

(Photograph of Edward Leonsky taken prior to 1942, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Private Edward Joseph Leonski, also known as Eddie, was one of around 15,000 U. S. military personnel stationed in Melbourne, Australia in 1942 during the midst of World War II. Yet, unlike the other thousands of U.S. troops, the twenty-four-year-old Edward Leonski was a serial killer who would go on a murder spree, ending the lives of three innocent women.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Jack The Ripper May Have Been One Of The First Self-Named Serial Killers

(Jack the Ripper image titled "A Suspicious Character" from Illustrated London News for October 13,1888, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Mass murderers and predator killers have plagued mankind since before recorded history, but the idea of the “serial killer”—with its quasi celebrity status—is more of a recent development. Many think the first recognizable serial killer of the modern variety was Jack the Ripper. Jack’s multiple killings in the fall of 1888 not only caused widespread terror, but also sparked a remarkable media sensation.

One of the side effects of the media’s attention was hundreds of anonymous letters that claimed to be sent by the killer. All of the letters are viewed with extreme skepticism, but two of them (the so-called “Dear Boss” and “Saucy Jacky” letters) are thought to be the most legitimate. After assessing the writing style and tone of the letters, they are both thought to have been written by the same person. They both seem to have information that should have only been known by the police and the murderer. Furthermore, the two letters were sent directly to the Central News Agency to ensure media coverage. The letters, both signed with the name “Jack the Ripper,” are thought to have been the original source of the serial killer’s now globally-known name.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Origin Myths Of The Ancient Scythians

(Scythian gold comb housed in the Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The bulk of what is known about the Scythian people was recorded by the Greek historian, Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE. In more modern times, archaeologists have broadened the historical perspective on the Scythians by studying sites found within the territory of the ancient Scythian empire. From unearthed relics and artifacts, archeologists have found that the Scythians possessed bronze armor of Greek design and swords of Persian style, as well as ample gold, art and jewelry.

In book four of The Histories, Herodotus gave three possible scenarios that led to the creation of the Scythian people as he knew them in the 5th century BCE. Of the three possibilities that were recorded, Herodotus favored one about nomadic migration. In the model, the Scythian people moved from central Asia into Russia and Ukraine between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, displacing the Cimmerians as they flooded into the region.

Although Herodotus favored the nomadic model mentioned above, that did not stop him from recoding two other interesting and entertaining Scythian creation myths. The two myths relayed to the reader by Herodotus differed greatly, but they had two great similarities. In both myths, three children played a great role in the story, with the youngest child always taking the most prominent role.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Brunhild of Austrasia—The 6th-Century Kingmaker Of The Franks

(15th-century depiction of the marriage between King Sigebert I and Brunhild from the Grandes Chroniques de France, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

In 566 or 567 CE, King Athanagild of the Visigoths gave his two daughters in marriage to two powerful Frankish kings who also happened to be brothers. One daughter, named Galswintha, was married to King Chilperic I of Neustria, whose lands consisted of much of northern France, excluding Brittany. Athanagild’s other daughter, Brunhild, married King Sigebert I of Austrasia, ruling a domain spanning (in modern terms) from eastern France into Belgium, the Netherlands and western Germany. When these marriages were cemented, neither the Frankish nor Visigothic kings could have guessed just how influential one of these two women would become. Brunhild would prove to be a powerful kingmaker for several generations of Frankish monarchs.

  (Approximate map of the rise of Frankish Empire, from 481 to 814 (including Austrasia and Neustria), licensed as Creative Commons 1.0 (CC 1.0))

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Gods Of Norse Mythology And Their Mead of Poetry And Knowledge

(Odin entertaining guests in Valhalla, by Emil Doepler  (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

According to the stories of Norse mythology, the gods in Asgard possessed vats of mead that turned the drinker into a poet or a scholar. Yet, the mead itself is not the best part of this interesting tale. Before the mead reached its final resting place in Asgard, the special brew underwent a tremendous journey from its creation to its acquisition by the Norse gods. It is a story that starts and ends with the Norse divinities, but in between, dwarves, giants and murder all make a showing.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Did The Crusader Bohemond Escape The Middle East By Pretending To Be A Corpse? The Byzantine Emperor’s Daughter Believed He Did

(Bohemond of Antioch by Merry-Joseph Blondel  (1781–1853), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

When Pope Urban II announced the First Crusade in 1095, the Norman noble, Bohemond (1050/58-1109 CE), quickly grasped at the opportunity. Of all of the crusader lords that partook in the armed pilgrimage, his motives are among the clearest. As his half-brother seized the great majority of the family’s lands and assets, Bohemond saw the crusades as an unequalled opportunity to amass land, gold and glory. Plus, the spiritual rewards and absolution of sins promised by the pope were also gladly welcomed.

The crusader coalition made their way to the Holy Lands by a route through the Byzantine Empire, which controlled most of the Balkans and much of western Anatolia at that time. To gain safe passage through the Byzantine territory, the crusaders made a costly deal with the emperor, Alexios I Komnenos—the crusaders swore that they would hand over all the lands to the emperor that they captured which were former imperial provinces. Unfortunately for the crusaders, the Byzantine Empire was the surviving remnant of the Roman Empire, which meant that Emperor Alexios claimed as his own almost everything that was captured during the First Crusade.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

There Was An Incredible Amount Of Military Technological Advancement In the Decades Leading Up To World War I

(75mm pack howitzer M1920, c. 1921 [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

By the end of the 19th century, into the early 20th century, the weapons of warfare were evolving at an alarming rate. Guns, explosives and machines were becoming increasingly more lightweight, powerful and exponentially more deadly. The tragedy of the situation was that very few people knew just how devastating many of these new weapons would be when a major war broke out. True, there were many wars in the years before World War One— such as the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Boer Wars (1880-1881 and 1889-1902), the Spanish-American War (1898), and the Ruso-Japanese War (1904-1905). Yet, in these wars, countries often remained doubtful about the new weaponry in their arsenals, and were still in a phase of experimentation and implementation. By the start of WWI in 1914, however, most major powers had adopted the latest guns, artillery, explosives, ships and planes, resulting in a Great War the likes of which the world had never before seen.