Canada: Where the Vikings Landed

At l’Anse aux Meadows stands a grass covered building, with multiple chimneys sprouting from the earthy roof. This is the only confirmed Viking settlement in Canada. There are no confirmed Viking settlements in the United States, and certainly none in Mexico. The nearest confirmed Viking settlements are in Greenland, a place with an even lower population than Canada.

L’Anse aux Meadows is a place that everyone in Canada can be proud of. But, according to the Viking sagas, it wasn’t the only place in Canada they visited. The sagas list three places were the Vikings landed; Helluland, somewhere in the far north, Markland, a forested area, and Vinland.

Where exactly were these lands located? And have we found any of them?

Helluland
There is seems to be no doubt that Helluland was in Canada. It was recorded as the first place, west of Greenland, that the Vikings stopped. A land of flat stones’ that Leif Erikson, leader of the traveling Viking, deemed too inhospitable to make a permanent settlement it.

Dr. Patricia Sutherland believes she may have found Helluland. Where? On Baffin Island, part of Nunavut, the fifth biggest island in the world. It all started when Sutherland went to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and noticed, among the museums collection, several strands of yarn, found on Baffin Island.

Why was something as simple as yarn such a big deal? Because the people native to the island had never made yarn. Instead they made strong cords out of animal sinew. So how had this yarn wound up there?

Sutherland traveled to Baffin Island, and began digging. There she found whetstones, designed to be used on metal tools, and rat dung. There are no rats native to Baffin Island. No rats native to the Canadian Arctic.

So where had the rat dung come from? Analysis confirmed that this was the dung of an European rat. A rat couldn’t have swum across the Atlantic alone. Analysis suggested the dung was from 1000 AD. Which could only mean one thing; around 1000 AD a group of Europeans had arrived on Baffin Island, and stayed long enough for rats to escape their ship.

The yarn found proved to be made from the fur off an arctic hare. Which meant that these Europeans had stayed long enough to catch or trade for a hare, and spin it’s fur into wool. Long enough to damage their tools enough that they needed sharpening.

This is the farthest north that evidence for pre-Columbian Europeans has been found. Almost all researchers agree that Helluland was the most nothernly land the Vikings found. So is this Helluland?

Well, there’s one little problem. The Vikings arrived in Helluland around 1000 AD, but like I said before, they didn’t stay for long. Not long enough to make yarn out of hare fur. Which begs the question — who was on Baffin Island?

My theory? The Irish. Tales have been told for over a thousand years of the Irish sailing west, over the Atlantic, and discovering new land. There has been speculation for years about what land the tales might be referring to. Iceland? Greenland? Or a land that existed only in the minds of the Irish?

There isn’t enough evidence to come to a conclusion. But there is no doubt that, many, many years before Columbus arrived a group of Europeans stood on the cold shores of Baffin Island.

Markland
Most scholars agree that Markland was located south of Helluland, but north of Vinland. It’s described as a heavily wooded land. Leif Erikson gathered lumber from Markland and brought it back to Greenland, a place with a severe lumber shortage.

It seems Vikings were still harvesting lumber from Markland three hundred years later, when records from Iceland mention a ship bringing lumber from Markland to Greenland.

Many believe that Markland was located somewhere on the Labrador Coast, a place covered by taiga, also known as boreal forest. Sadly, no hard evidence has been found. Yet.

Vinland
I grew up believing the story that Vinland could be translated as ‘Wine land’. I was wrong. What Vinland actually means is ‘land of meadows’. Disappointing, I know. Who doesn’t like the thought of a bunch drunk Vikings naming the land they’d discovered ‘Wine land’, after their favourite drink? Alas, it was not so.

Most researchers believe we’ve already found Vinland, none other than l’Anse aux Meadows, the only confirmed Viking site west of Greenland. The evidence seems to be everywhere — even in l’Anse aux Meadows name.

The word ‘meadows’ is not, like the rest of the name ‘l’Anse aux Meadows’, French. The site was originally called ‘l’Anse aux Médée’ — Jellyfish Cove. Then the Englush moved in, and corrupted the name as ‘l’Anse aux Meadows’, influenced by the fact l’Anse aux Meadows is full of, well, meadows.

The Vikings described Vinland as a land of many meadows — a description that matches the meadows of l’Anse aux Meadows perfectly.

The question that fascinates archaeologists — was l’Anse aux Meadows the Vinland or just a part of Vinland. After all, butternuts, hundreds of years old, were found at the site. And wild butternuts don’t grow in Newfoundland, where l’Anse aux Meadows is located. The nearest place where butternuts grow is New Brunswick.

Someone picked those butternuts and brought them to l’Anse aux Meadows. The question is, who? Were the butternuts picked by Vikings, journeying inland? Or did they somehow get them through trade?

Add the size of l’Anse aux Meadows — it’s not as big as one would expect a permanent Viking settlement to be. Could it be that l’Anse aux Meadows is merely the entrance to Vinland, a place where Vikings stayed during winter, when it was too cold to explore safely? A place where longboats landed and reloaded?

If that’s so, if l’Anse aux Meadows really was just the tip of the iceberg , how far into North America did the Vikings go? The St. Lawrence river? The great lakes? Maybe even America? No one knows — yet.

In Closing

Learning about the Canadian Vikings is exhilarating — we know so much more than we once did , but countless mysteries still remain. I’ve considered becoming an archaeologist before, but decided against it. Helluland, Markland, and Vinland make me want to reconsider that decision.

In the meantime, Canadians can be proud of l’Anse aux Meadows — the only confirmed Viking settlement west of Greenland. The site America wishes it had.

Sources

Viking Settlement on Baffin Island

Nunavut Viking Settlement

Leif Ericson and the Vikings in Canada

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

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the Basilisk and Other Legendary Snakes

One thing I love is learning about mythical monsters. Just picturing these creatures stirs my imagination, and sometimes brings a smile to my face. Lately I’ve been learning about legendary snakes, and, wow, have I been enjoying myself.

I hope you, too, enjoy learned about these amazing, mythical creatures.

Basilisk

The basilisk is one of the most well-known mythical snakes, mostly thanks to Harry Potter. Stories have been told about the basilisk for centuries. Various people, like Pliny the Elder, and Leonardo da Vinci, have written about it. Even Shakespeare paid the basilisk brief tribute, in his play, Richard III.

The basilisk’s appearance has evolved through out the centuries. According to Pllny the Elder’s Natural History, written around 78 AD, the basilisk was a snake, with a crown-like crest on his head; almost all future authors kept that feature.

Some people insisted the basilisk looked like a rooster, with the tail of a snake. Can you imagine how weird that would look? If I meet a basilisk that looked like that, I would either scream in terror or die laughing.

According to Leonardo da Vinci, the basilisk was twelve fingers long (27 centimetres), a far cry from the massive creature that would later appear in Harry Potter. He, too, mentioned the crown-like crest. Apparently, when other snakes heard the basilisk coming, they would flee in terror.

Both Pliny and da Vinci claimed that the basilisk’s worst enemy was the weasel. Leonardo wrote that weasels would seek out basilisk dens and urinate on them. The smell of the weasel urine would kill any basilisk that smelled it. I have to wonder how a basilisk would’ve handled skunk urine …

One thing has remained the same in all basilisk legends since Pliny — the baslisk’s poisonous nature. Pliny claimed the basilisk was so poisonous that it could kill plants just by breathing on them, and burn grass just by touching it. According to da Vinci, a man on a horse killed a basilisk with his spear. The basilisk he’d killed was so poisonous that, even though it had bitten neither man or horse, both died immediately afterward.

Quite a few people nowadays believe that the basilisk was based on the king cobra. Like the basilisk, the king cobra has a crown shaped mark on it’s forehead. Although it’s nowhere near as poisonous as most writings say the basilisk is, the bite of a king cobra can easily kill a grown man.

Not only that, but the mongoose, a creature that looks a lot like a weasel, will often hunt and eat the king cobra. However, the mongoose kills with its teeth — not by urinating on the cobra.

Python

You might be a bit puzzled by the title. Pythons are real, aren’t they? You can see them in most decent zoos, and they’re a favourite for documentaries. And thats true — pythons are real snakes, but they got their name from a mythical serpent known as Python.

According to legend, Python lived in Delphi, which the Greeks believed was the centre of the Earth. An early account refers to Python as a female, but later accounts refer to Python as male. Nowadays, it’s known that some snails can change from male to female — maybe Python was related?

When the goddess Leto got pregnant by Zeus, god of thunder and the sky, Zeus’ wife, Hera, got jealous. Hera decided she would like Leto better dead, so she sent Python to kill Leto, preferably before she gave birth.

Hera’s plan didn’t quite work out. Leto ran away from Python, and managed to find a place where Python couldn’t get her, and gave birth to twins — the goddess, Artemis, and the god, Apollo. The twins aged fast. When Apollo was only four days old, he decided to take revenge on Python for what the serpent had put his mother through.

It would have made more sense to for Apollo to kill Hera, since she was the one who’d sent Python after Leto, but I suppose newborns have never been that logical.

So, young Apollo, who by four days could already walk, went to Hephaestus, the god of metalworking, and asked for a weapon he could kill Python with. Hephaestus made him a silver bow with golden arrows.

Apollo took the bow and arrows, and went after Python. Most newborns couldn’t kill a fly, let alone giant serpent, but apparently Apollo was different, because Python died during their confrontation.

Zeus was not happy, possibly because Python’s mother had been Gaia, which would make him Zeus’ uncle. Just a few days old and Apollo had already pissed off daddy. To make amends, Apollo started the Pythian Games, a competition of musical and martial skills, named in honour of Python.

To summarize, Python the serpent was Zeus’ uncle, sent by Zeus’ wife to kill Zeus’ lover and killed by Zeus’ son. Any questions?

Lindworm

The lindworm is not as well-known as the basilisk. It’s described as a giant serpent , able to breathe either poison or fire. The lindworm moves by dragging itself with its two arms, which, in many accounts, are its only limbs. Some stories add wings, giving the lindworm a wyvern-like appearance.

Stories of the lindworm were first told by the Norse. One such story is the legend of Fafnir, a dwarf turned lindworm through a mixture of cursed gold and greed.

As the story goes, Loki, the Norse trickster god, accidentally killed one of Fafnir’s brothers. Fafnir’s father demanded Loki repay him for the loss of his son with gold. Loki came up with the gold, and gave it to Fafnir’s father. The gold happened to be cursed, but Fafnir’s father, apparently unaware of Loki’s reputation, accepted it.

The sight of the cursed gold corrupted Fafnir, who killed his father to take it for himself. But cursed gold can have nasty effects on humans, and it turns out dwarves are no different. Within months, Fafnir had transformed into a lindworm, one with very poisonous breath.

For the next who-knows-how-many years Fafnir basically just lay around on his pile of gold. His poisonous breath kept most visitors, and potential thieves, from coming anywhere near his treasure.

Regin, Fafnir’s sole surviving brother, wanted the gold for himself. Apparently the thought of becoming a lindworm didn’t disturb him. Anyways, Regin decided to send the hero, Sigurd, to kill Fafnir.

Sigurd succeeded in killing Fafnir, and then, as Regin had instructed him, cooked Fafnir’s heart. Sigurd was supposed to serve cooked heart to Regin, but was warned that Regin was planning to kill him. After foiling Regin’s plot, Sigurd decided to keep the heart for himself. He cut the heart in half, and gobbled up one half.

The other half, Sigurd kept, and later gave to his wife, Gudrun. Talk about a romantic gift. I can’t imagine his wife was thrilled.

For any women readers: If your husband gave you a shrivelled, dried lindworm heart as a gift, what would you do?

In Closing

Snakes — especially legendary ones — are amazing. Writing this article was surprisingly fun — I especially enjoyed writing about lindworms. If you had as much fun reading this post as I did writing it, then I know you had a good time. Merry Christmas!

Sources

Lindworm, Wikpedia

Fafnir, Britanica

Basilisk, Wikipedia

Python, Britanica

Leto, Wikpedia

Christmas and Saturnalia

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman holiday, dedicated to the god Saturn, celebrated long before Christmas was even thought of. At first Saturnalia was only celebrated on December 17, but, over the centuries, the celebration was lengthened, until it lasted nearly a week. The poet Catullus called it ‘the best of times’, while Pliny the Younger, a senator, hated it.

Some of Saturnalia’s traditions have continued on, to the modern holiday of Christmas. But many other traditions, for better or worse, have been forgotten.

One tradition that doesn’t seem to have survived is the sacrifice of piglets. Can you imagine, gathering to watch as a tiny piglet was killed? Nowadays, no one in Canada or America would dream of killing a piglet. Some people make a living from killing grown-up pigs (bacon doesn’t grow on trees), but no one would harm a piglet.

It was also traditional, on Saturnalia, for masters and slave to swap roles — temporarily. Slaves could say whatever they wanted about their masters, without being punished or reprimanded. At least, they were supposed to be. I wouldn’t be surprised angry masters found ways to punish the more talkative slaves once Saturnalia was over.

Gambling, usually taboo, was permitted. Saturnalia was the only time when you could legally gamble all your hard-earned money away. This tradition doesn’t seem to have survived. Gambling is no longer restricted to December. You can legally flush all your cash down the casino toilet anytime you want.

Nobody shouted ‘Merry Christmas’ during Saturnalia, although the phrase ‘Io Saturnalia’ was used in much the same way. But ‘Io Saturnalia’ wasn’t used just for greetings. It was also used as an exclamation of triumph (I win! Io Saturnalia!) and sometimes to end a joke (The chicken crossed the road! Io Saturnalia!).

The King of Saturnalia was yet another tradition. During Saturnalia, households would elect one person to be ‘King’. This person could be anyone, a genius or an idiot. Whatever the ‘King’ ordered had to be obeyed — like ‘dress as a lady’ or ‘pee on him’. Can you imagine how fun it would be to be King of Saturnalia? Can you imagine how awful it would be if you weren’t?

Then there was the gift giving, a tradition that we have kept. Saturnalia gifts could range in price from toothpicks and dice, to exotic pets … or slaves. Wax figurines, called sigillaria, were especially popular as gifts. Sometimes poems were given along with the gifts, similar to how cards are given now.

With a only a few changes, like stockings, or the absence of slaves on the gift list, this tradition has remained intact.

Some of these traditions don’t sound like any fun. Who’d want to kill a piglet? Others sound like they could be very fun. The best tradition of all, the gift giving, is the one that has survived the longest, and practically defines Christmas. After all, it’s about the giving, not the getting. Just ask the Grinch.

Sources

Saturnalia, Britannica

Saturnalia, Wikipedia

Did the Romans Invent Christmas?, BBC

the Story of Canadian Thanksgiving

Everyone knows how American Thanksgiving began. The story of the pilgrims and the Native Americans enjoying a feast has been told so many times it’s almost become a myth. With Canadian Thanksgiving fast approaching, I’ve begun wondering — how did Thanksgiving start in my beloved homeland?

Unlike America, there was no single event that lead to Canadian Thanksgiving. Instead, Canadian Thanksgiving was the result of many traditions combining into one.

Days devoted to thanks have existed for a long time, starting when Noah made his thanks offering after leaving the Ark. One of the earliest recorded Thanksgiving traditions started in Port-Royal, where, at the suggestion of a man known as Samuel de Champlain, the Order of Good Cheer was formed.

Port-Royal had just undergone a hard winter. Many people had become ill with scurvy. Some had died. As a result, morale was very low. The Order of Good Cheer was formed to combat this. To this end, the Order of Good Cheer used was hosting public gatherings.

The first of these gatherings took place in November, 1606. It could be described as Canada’s earliest recorded Thanksgiving. Nearly every white man in Port-Royal joined in, as did many of the Mi’kmaq people.

These gatherings took place weekly, from winter to spring, stopping briefly during summer and fall, before being taken up again in winter.

A century later, Canada was flooded by Loyalists, who brought their own Thanksgiving traditions with them. This is why our Thanksgiving traditions have much in common with American Thanksgiving — turkeys and pumpkins being a few examples.

The first official Thanksgiving day was declared in 1872, during November. I was surprised by that fact. For those who don’t live in Canada, Thanksgiving here is celebrated in early October. American Thanksgiving is in November. Every year, I get cards from my American cousins, wishing me a happy Thanksgiving a month too late.

Even after a lifetime of receiving these cards, I’m still slightly startled when I realize that, for Americans, Thanksgiving hasn’t come yet.

How did our Thanksgivings transfer from November to October?

The answer, like much of Canadian history, is annoyingly simple.

For a while Thanksgiving was on the closest Thursday to November 11. Eventually, the government just moved Thanksgiving to the eleventh. The problem was, November 11 had just been made home to another official holiday — Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I.

I’m not sure how people where supposed to celebrate both these holidays at the same time. Perhaps they were supposed to be thankful for the end of the war?

In 1931, Armistice Day was replaced by Remembrance Day, and Thanksgiving was booted to the second Monday in October. Thanksgiving hasn’t changed dates since. Like I said before, annoyingly simple.

If this were America, the story of how a national holiday changed date would doubtless contain more fireworks, and possibly a museum or two.

Nowadays, Thanksgiving is celebrated throughout Canada. Of course, Canada is a big country, and there is a lot of variation between provinces. In B.C., Nanaimo bars often form an important part of the Thanksgiving feast. Butter tarts are associated with Thanksgiving in Ontario, and in Newfoundland, Jiggs Dinner (similar to stew) often replaces roast turkey.

Soon the 145th Thanksgiving since 1872 will take place. National, provincial and personal Thanksgiving traditions will come into play. Delicious food will be cooked and served. For that, I am thankful.

A Note

When researching this article, I was unable to find any information about First Nation autumn festivals or days devoted to giving thanks. If you happen to know anything about that particular subject, please let me know.

Sources

Recipe for Jiggs Dinner
Canadian Thanksgiving, the Canadian Encyclopedia
Thanksgiving, Wikipedia
Mi’kmaq, Wikipedia

the Myths and Facts of Jurassic Park

‘Jurassic Park’ is one of the most well known movie series of all times. Even those who haven’t watched it have heard of it. Pre-historic monsters hunting screaming humans; a recipe for success.

Of course, one has to wonder—were real dinosaurs anything like the ones in ‘Jurassic Park’?

Brachiosaurus

The infamous Veggiesaurus — a harmless herbivore that couldn’t hurt a fly if it tried.

If anyone believes the above statement, they’ve got a surprise coming. Herbivores are often more dangerous than carnivores. Take the moose, for instance. A herbivore that lives of greens, yet attacks more humans than bears and wolves combined, and injures more humans per year than any other wild animal, except the hippo (also a herbivore).
If, like most herbivores, you live in a world full of things that want to eat you, then you need to be able to defend yourself.

A tiny human hardly would’ve been worth the attention of a dinosaur as huge as Brachiosaurus. However, one wrong step from Brachiosaurus, and those poor palaeontologists would have gone squish!

Triceratops

Many people’s favourite dinosaur, yet Triceratops appeared in the movie for only a few minutes. Apparently the screenwriters didn’t think it had much plot potential.

I think otherwise.

Triceratops weighed as much as an African elephant. Did you know elephants are one of the most dangerous animals in Africa? Elephants killed over two hundred people in the years between 2000 and 2004. A group of elephants once killed a rhino.

Of course, elephants are also beautiful, amazing creatures. Seeing one in the wild should be on every person’s bucket list. If Triceratops were still around, I imagine it would be the same.

Scientist have uncovered a Triceratops skull with a dent in one of it’s horns, the same shape as a T. Rex tooth. What was really interesting was the fact the bone had healed over — in other words, the Triceratops had fought a T. Rex, and lived to tell about it.

Now that’s plot potential!

Velociraptor

The Velociraptor was very, very different from what was portrayed in the movies. The movie Velociraptors have nothing in common with the pre-historic ones, except the name.

For starters, actual Velociraptors were three feet high, not seven feet. There is no evidence Velociraptors hunted in packs, and no evidence that they were smarter than the average turkey.

Velociraptors did not have the feather mohawks shown in the third movie. They also weren’t scaly or leathery. Real Velociraptors were completely covered in feathers — they looked like a cross between a deranged toucan and a clawed duck.

That’s not to say Velociraptors weren’t dangerous — each foot had a three inch claw. A fight with a Velociraptor would, at the very least, leave you needing stitches.

In Closing

Dinosaurs were amazing, wonderful creatures. Some, like Triceratops, got little screen time, but were portrayed accurately. Others, like the velociraptors, received lots of screen time, but were portrayed completely wrong. Brachiosaurus got stuck somewhere in between.

That said, if Jurassic Park was real place, and you could see any one of these dinosaurs, which would you choose?

Sources

Brachiosaurus, Wikipedia

Velociraptor, Wikipedia

Triceratops, Wikipedia

Velociraptors, Business Insider

 

 

 

Macbeth: the Man and the Myth 

Macbeth is one of my favourite plays. That’s saying something, because I’ve only ever seen half the play. But I’ve read the script hundreds of times, and each time is as thrilling as the time before.

Finding out the play was was based on actual history was amazing. Who was the real Macbeth? Was he as ruthlessly ambitious as his fictional counterpart?

Macbeth was born in the eleventh century. His grandfather was Malcolm II, King of Scotland. Pretty much nothing is known about his childhood. In the eleventh century, a person’s childhood was rarely considered interesting enough to be recorded.

In 1020, Macbeth’s father was killed by a man named Gille Coemgáin. How did Macbeth feel about this? Was he angry, or was he forgiving?

All that is known is that Gille Coemgáin died before 1032, burned to death along with fifty of his men. No one knows who started the fire that Gille Coemgáin died in, but Macbeth is high on the list of suspects.

Afterwards, Macbeth married Gruoch, Gille’s wife. No one knows how this marriage came about, or what Gruoch thought of marrying a man suspected of murdering her husband.

Gruoch and Gille had at least one son, Lulach. Macbeth raised him as his own.

Malcolm II died in 1034, and was succeeded by Macbeth’s cousin Duncan. You might remember him from Shakespeare’s play. In the play, Macbeth murdered him to gain the throne. But was Duncan murdered in real life?

Duncan was probably not a popular king. His nickname was ‘An t-Ilgarach’, meaning ‘the diseased’. Duncan ruled for less than a decade. For some reason, Duncan decided it would be a good idea to lead an army against Moray—Macbeth’s territory.

Unsurprisingly, Macbeth defended himself against this attack, and Duncan was killed in the process. Death in battle is a different thing from being stabbed in your sleep. In this, at least, Macbeth was justified.

Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donald were children at the time. Malcolm, it is believed, was taken to England for safety, and Donald to Ireland.

Guess who seized the throne in the meantime? Yes, none other than Macbeth himself. In the play, Macbeth’s rein is portrayed as short, a few years at most. In reality, Macbeth ruled Scotland for seventeen years.

Then Malcolm, now an adult made his comeback. With the help of the English, he set out to regain his throne. Macduff, however, did not join Malcolm’s army. Why? Simple, really. As far as the evidence goes, Macduff never actually existed.

Records from the time claim Malcolm was the one who killed Macbeth. Although it could be that Malcolm stole another man’s glory, to make himself look better. Hard to tell, now that the battle’s lost and won.

Shakespeare’s play was based on real events—but very loosely. The facts are
fascinating, and I hope to learn more about the real Macbeth in the future.

If you have any thoughts on Macbeth you would like to share, feel free to leave a comment.

Gruoch, Wikipedia

Duncun I, Wikipedia