I recently read Circe, a historical fantasy by Madeline Miller, a retelling and exploration of the maligned figure in Ancient Greek mythology, the witch Circe.
Circe follows the unusual female figure of Ancient Greek literature, the witch daughter of the Titan god Helios, exiled to Aiaia by Olyimpium Zeus. The details of Circe’s strangely mortal-like voice, her yellow Titan eyes and seemingly lack of powerful gifts make her unwanted and taunted among the Titans and Olympians alike. Yet Circe raises her brother from infancy and it is he who discovers the hidden powers of the Titan and Nyrad heritage. Aeëtes later becomes the infamous god, creator of the Golden Fleece, father of Medea and challenged by Jason and the Argonauts. Their sister Pasiphaë is wed to King Minos of Crete, the extravagant courts of Knossos later falling to Pasiphaë’s own vengeance when she gives birth to the monstrous Minotaur. Circe’s gifts for witchcraft are later revealed when she transforms mortals into gods and rival nymph Cilla into a monster.
Exiled on the island of Aeaea, Circe enters the legendary heroic tale of Odysseus who, shipwrecked on the Isle, stays for several years on the course of his travels back to Ithaca. Unbeknown to Odysseus, Circe bears him a child and earns the wrath of the powerful Olympian goddess Athena, Odysseus patron and protector. The prophecy of Odysseus death relates to his son and desperate to protect her child, Circe obscures the Isle in a powerful illusion, keeping all the gods away except the trickster Hermes and challenges Trygion, the ancient god of the deep sea for a weapon powerful enough to inflict pain upon the immortals.
Circe was vividly described and detailed, the explanations of Ancient Greek mythology and literature were wonderful. As a former scholar of Ancient Greek and Roman history and mythology, I loved the originality of Miller’s witch Circe while still adhering to the foundations of the broader mythologies. A surprising and exotic storytelling! Definitely well recommended!
In early September 2019, I travelled to Iceland and visited Eldhestar Icelandic horse trekking company located less than 30 minutes drive southeast from the capital Reykjavik. The Icelandic horse was brought to the island by the Viking settlers. You can read about about Icelandic Viking history and the history of Reykjavik here. There are also a series of posts on iconic southeastern Icelandic waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes and iconic Icelandic landscape.
Eldhestar translates to “volcano horses” in Icelandic and aptly named Eldhestar riding stables are located in the valley beneath the volcano Hengill, a region populated by natural hot springs, geysers and rivers. The nearby town of Hveragerði has a thriving horticulture industry using extensive greenhouses where heating and electricity is supplied by geothermal power from the nearby active Hengill volcano.
The Icelandic horse is native to Iceland, being brought to the island with the Viking settlers and isolated from other horse breeds throughout much of history. For this reason, Icelandic horses have not been exposed to other equine viruses if horses leave Iceland, they cannot be re-introduced but most be left in mainland Europe. There are also no other horse breeds allowed in Iceland but nearly every farm, hamlet or paddock contains Icelandic horses which outnumber the human population according to a public census several years ago! Icelandic horses are also semi-domesticated and, for the most part, are not stabled and even spend the harsh winter months foraging for feed in the snow drifts. This hardy character and the endurance of the breed to travel extensive distances over the volcanic rock and challenging terrain makes the horses beloved by many Icelanders.
I was interested in the Icelandic horse for several reasons. First, I had to see these legendarily tough horses for myself. They are certainly smaller than I’d expected but not in a noticeable way. When moving, they can cover huge amounts of ground with a very large stride, which includes the unique tolt, a gait that occurs naturally in most Icelandic horses. This trot, is uniquely fast and a longer-stride which is surprisingly comfortable.
My guide with Eldhestar was wonderful and the Icelandic horse I was riding (Freya) was enthusiastic and free-willed (a trait that I admire and seems expected in a breed that needn’t rely on human assistance). The Eldhestar riding tours can be as large as a month-long trek across the island, where an entire support team of horses are required, riding horses swapped each day for fresh mounts. In true Icelandic fashion, the 3-4 horses for each rider follow the riding line in a free-moving herd.
Apologies in advance for some jerky and imperfect video of a herd of Icelandic horses, the amazing landscape in the fertile floodplains.
Gotland Museum contains an amazing variety of prehistoric Swedish and Viking Age archaeology and history. The collections include picture stones from Gotland Island, large collections from establishment of the official seal and recognition of Gotland county, the doomed Battle of Visby and Viking Age silver and gold hoards found on Gotland Island.
The Gotland Museum collections contain some of the oldest picture stones in Sweden with many dating from the prehistoric era of circa 9000 years ago and including the pre-Viking Age era of circa 700 AD. The earliest picture stones feature animal and geometric motifs before the more familiar Celtic styles of decoration are incorporated into the picture stones. Some of the largest picture stones are well over 6 ft and depict themes and motifs mentioned in Norse mythology. There is one famous picture stone that appears to depict common themes and characters from Norse mythology with a warrior riding into battle on an eight-legged horse, a wolf and a woman holding out a drinking horn. Below that scene is a Viking ship and armed warriors and possibly a Valkyrie or similar winged female archer.
There are also prehistoric human skeletal remains recovered from sites on Gotland Island that offer a rare glimpse into the ritualistic behaviour of the early inhabitants on the island.
The burial of a young woman in her early twenties has been called the “Hedgehog Girl” for the many items made from the local Gotland Island hedgehog which were used to decorate her grave. She was buried with five hedgehog jaws placed across her chest and would have originally worn a cap made from hedgehog skin while her dress was edged with beading made from fox and seal teeth. There were many hedgehog spines found beside her head and it was likely the cap was decorated with hedgehog spines while her grave goods also included offerings of hedgehog spines and teeth. The local inhabitants of Visby confirmed that the hedgehog is still an important symbol of Gotland Island and, despite the ram being on the official seal of Gotland Island, the hedgehog continues to be the symbolic animal of Gotland. There is a strong Association between the symbolic role the hedgehog played in the prehistoric communities and that the common animal today was of symbolic and, possibly ritualistic importance, in the past with some archaeologists interpreting the hedgehog girl had a ritualistic or shamanic role in the prehistoric community.
The grave of a young woman has been named the “Girl with the Flutes” for the total 35 of false bone flutes, 23 buried throughout the grave and another 12 placed directly beside her. The grave was also decorated with red ochre and contained fishing tackle, bone fishing hooks, a finely carved bone comb and bone jewellery. A clay figurine at the foot of the grave is difficult to discern but is either a bird or a seal. The grave was located on the cliffs overlooking the sea and combined with the numerous flutes, it has been suggested a literal or symbolic communication between the girl and the birds or the seals. Whatever the case may have been, the burial shows a strong symbolic nature to the burial where the sea and the role of the flutes was clearly important for the woman buried on the sea cliffs. There was likely a close connection between the prehistoric communities of Gotland Island, they were probably reliant on the sea for survival in times when crops or livestock failed.
The Viking Age was also well-known for the silver and gold hoards that were buried throughout Scandinavia and in other parts of Europe. Gotland Museum has an interesting display of the various hoards associated with the island. Many are vast collections of coins from different regions, silver bracelets, gold torques, silver and gold rings, beautifully crafted silver brooches for cloaks and the elaborately engraved square brooch used by women. Most of the items in these hoards have been recovered during excavations at specific archeological sites but in a few occasions, including a hoard of gold coins stored in a clay jar, an industrious rabbit warren disturbed the buried treasure, bringing the hoard once more to the surface.
Gotland Museum contained an interesting collection of archaeological and historical items from the pre-Viking Age era, Viking Age and through to the Middle Ages. Items from the Viking Age included axe blades and swords recovered from local archaeology sites, carved game pieces made from bone and horse teeth. A gilt weather vane for a Viking longship appears an extraordinary extravaganza by modern standards but retains the deep swirling pictographs on the surface. The arrival of Christianity to Gotland Island was ushered in slowly with early wooden churches a solemn, pagan-appearing place, the wooden form of Christ more resembling Odin during his search for knowledge as he hung upon the tree Yggdrasil. Symbolic jewellery like Thor’s hammer was slowly replaced by the crucifix and the combination ancient and “new” religions defined by the crucifix marked by runes scored into its surface. Other unusual items included Wolfs-head endpieces for a row of church pews, near-immaculately preserved leather boots and the old former seal of Gotland Island established in 1280.
The Battle of Visby was fought in 1361 when Danish forces invaded Gotland Island led by King Valdemar IV and the well-trained Danish army, the force numbering around 2000-2500. In contrast, the defending forces of Visby numbered only 2000 and were not trained infantrymen, or were older individuals, those who had survived previous battles and still bore the marks of injury. The result was a massacre, the Danish forces taking Visby and leaving many of the surviving defending forces of Visby so badly injured they later died from their injuries. The grisly remains from the mass graves outside Visby reveal the savage injuries caused by swords and axes, the damage inflicted from the mace and other battle weapons broke bones and shattered skulls. The healing of these injuries was inadequate and health of the individuals was compromised, with the bones badly set, often twisted and likely leaving the limb unusable.
A constant interest and inspiration in my writing and daily life is the environment. Recently, Australia has suffered some of the worst bushfires on top of a lengthening drought. While I was travelling in Europe from August-October 2019, I started thinking about a possible new idea for novel. First, I needed to write a short story exploring some of the themes and characters. The idea for this story took shape from the the reliance of many early nomadic cultures on the environment. I wondered how a magical way to harness that power could play a vital role in securing the survival of one group over another. I drew inspiration from some of the marvellous artefacts, histories, fairytales and fables I encountered while travelling through European museums. I found inspiration in folktales of magical objects imbued with a spirit like stories of the jinn from Middle Eastern folktales or silver treasure in Celtic folklore. In many of these cursed object folktales, the powerful object, more accurately the entity within, are beholden to the will of a mortal.
In Icelandic tradition, the Yule lads are thirteen trolls who arrive one at a time on each of the 13 days before Christmas and depart in the order they arrived, on the days after Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the troll witch Gryla leaves the mountains to seek any children who had been ill-behaved or were without the protection of their parents, taking them back to the mountains where she cooks them into a stew for her lazy husband.
The thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads are described with the acts they are infamously known for tormenting human communities. More can be found at the Smithsonian Magazine here
Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans Spoon Licker: He licks spoons Pot Scraper: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there – convenient for midnight snacking?) Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr) Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland
Since 1746, the Yule trolls became less scary and presented as more mischievous, trickster characters who were depicted as jolly Santa Claus-like figures who left gifts for the well-behaved children and potatoes for the ill-behaved ones. The Yule trolls as they had been described in early traditions and folktales described them as emaciated and clothed in rags. There is a current movement in Iceland to return the Yule Lads to their original descriptions and depictions as the vagabond and desperate orphans accompanying Gryla.
In early September 2019, I traveled to Uppsala in Sweden to one of the most accessible archaeological sites from the early Viking Age, a series of impressive burial mounds. You can read more about Viking Age history and archaeology from my visit to Stockholm’s Historiska Museum here and Gotland Museum.
The site of Gamla Uppsala has long inspired many generations with the 19th century archaeological investigations uncovering a series of significant burials within the massive Viking Age burial mounds. The discovery of these burials were initially associated with the Norse gods and many the epic poem Beowulf among other Viking Age sagas.
The early archaeological investigations also connected the burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala with a royal houses of Sweden, the Ynglinga Dynasty who ruled the region of Uppsala during the 5th and 6th centuries. Further away from the Royal Mounds, Roman and Iron Age burials have also been found, showing Gamla Uppsala has a long tradition of burial practices. Gamla Uppsala is a UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site located only 4 kilometers north of Uppsala city, easily accessible from Stockholm by train and a public bus from Uppsala stops outside the Gamla Uppsala Museum and the site. There are three main Royal Mounds within the site complex which dominate the landscape, standing between 9 to 12 meters high.
The Royal Mounds overlook a ploughed field which has revealed many artifacts associated with a horse racing arena, suggesting the largest of the burial mounds which existed before the horse arena, might have been a site for ritualized celebrations involving the horsemanship to honor the royal dynasties.
There are several 19th century reminders at the site where even the ‘romantic’ stylized Odin’s Mead Hall, now a historic restaurant has also been preserved as part of the history at the Gamla Uppsala site.
The City of Brass is the first installment in the debut fantasy series The Daevabad Trilogy by American author S. A. Chakraborty based on early Islamic folklore and legends. The City of Brass follows female protagonistNahri, a con-woman and thief who grew up an orphan on the Cairo streets during Ottoman-French occupation. Nahri has never believed in magic, thinking her unusually accurate abilities to sense illness and talent for languages an extension of her ability to deceive and read a mark. When Nahri attempts a risky healing, she uses a language remembered only from her childhood and accidentally summons Dara, a legendary but mysterious and dangerous warrior djin. In summoning Dara, Nahri also attracts the attention of the deadly ghouls controlled by the destructive ifrit. Fighting for their lives, Dara takes Nahri and flees across the vast expanse of desert, certain the ifrit search for her. In flight across the endless desert landscape, Dara tells Nahri of the legendary city of Daevabad, the tall gilded brass walls of the legendary djinn fortress. Nahri follows Dara, the haunting memories of ghouls and ifrit spurring her to trust Dara even though it has been centuries since he had been within Daevabad and the inconsistencies of his story worry Nahri at the reception they might receive. The City of Brass was a powerful fantasy debut with the unique Islamic folklore and legends providing an adventurous flair that can only become stronger with the continuing installments in the series.
Human survival has always been dependent on the natural environment and many mythologies show links between folklore and human fear of environmental instability. I was curious to explore folklore dealing with how past and present cultures attempt to explain and avoid disastrous environmental fluctuations. As human survival is so clearly linked to a stable environment, natural disasters like floods, drought and severe storms have been explained by many different folktales, explaining how appeasing supernatural forces could avoid climatic catastrophe. Long and short-term disasters were often viewed as societies or specific families who had failed to appease the supernatural beings who had power over the environment. Such examples occur throughout different cultures and folklore but the common themes involve a bargain between the mortals inhabiting lands under the power of supernatural beings, whether they are the Fair Folk of Irish folklore, the jinn of the Middle East or powerful spirits of Japanese folklore. According to folklore, a bargain with these supernatural beings can protect the land from poor harvests, drought, floods or harsh winters. I am exploring how these bargains could occur over generations with supernatural beings acting as guardians for a specific family and the effect for the environment when reneging on such a bargain.
I have been working hard writing a large scene over several chapters in my novel-in-progress, Ragnarok Dreaming. The scene is based on a significant section in Norse mythology recorded in The Prose Edda, called the Skaldskaparmal, where Loki is portrayed for the first time as a more malicious being. The Skaldskaparmal describes Loki’s deliberate deception of the most innocent among the gods, Idunn who is also the guardian of immortality for the Aesir. In return for his own life, Loki promises Idunn to the mightiest of the frost giants, Thrazi. When Loki deceives Idunn into following him beyond the protective lands of the Aesir, she is kidnapped by Thrazi and held as his prisoner. Although Loki’s guilt is evident, his concern grows as the Aesir begin to age rapidly without Idunn tending the tree that provides the apples and their immortality. Odin has Loki beaten for his betrayal which has the desired effect to spur Loki’s conscience. He finally agrees to helps rescue Idunn from Thrazi‘s wintry mountain fortress. In truth, the Aesir are too weakened and aged to assault the mountain fortress, Thyrheim. Loki rescues Idunn and lures Thrazi back toward Asgard where Odin and Thor have built a bonfire. In the form of a hawk, Loki easily evades Thrazi’s eagle-form but Thrazi is caught by the flames and destroyed.Loki retains some of his humanity in the Skaldskaparmal but from now on, his considerations of the Aesir are complicated, alternating more swiftly from bitter dislike to a sense of familial belonging. Loki is neither Aesir nor truly of the jotnar but is caught somewhere in-between.
In my work-in-progress, Ragnarok Dreaming, I explore Loki’s conflict where he belongs to neither the giants nor the gods; a conscious and unconscious character motivation.
Ancient history and mythology have always been favorite topics for me. Recently, I found an interesting article on newly discovered sections of ancient Mesopotamian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, detailing the legendary feats of a historical king. The Epic of Gilgamesh was inscribed on cuneiform tablets which continue to baffle scholars as to the purpose of why these clay tablets are so small.I was interested in the mythology behind the zodiac, the legends behind creation of constellations rather than modern interpretations of astrology and divination. The constellation we know as Taurus, existed in the ancient Mesopotamian cultures and was also represented and embodied by a bull. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the formation of the constellation the ancient Greeks later called Taurus, is described as a battle between the hero Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven, a destructive bull sent to avenge the goddess Ishtar after the wrongs committed by Gilgamesh. I wrote a speculative fiction story in a contemporary setting incorporating the Bull of Heaven based on Ishtar’s vengeance against Gilgamesh. I have added the destructive environmental effects caused by the Bull of Heaven and alluded to in The Epic of Gilgamesh.