Thursday, April 19, 2018

The History Of Mead And The Lindisfarne Mead


If you’ve read mythology, you’ve undoubtedly run across mead, this drink of heroes, gods, lovers and kings.

The god Odin gave an eye to drink mead and gain wisdom. The hero Beowulf drank it and bragged about his valiant deeds. It was drunk in Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, where spiced mead was a favourite of the English kings.

Lindisfarne – The Holy Island

Mead is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks, a drink brewed from honey, water and yeast and quite appropriate for a God, or even your best friend. That’s right, mead is still made today by St Aidan’s Winery. Its name is Lindisfarne Mead and is a great, unique gift for a favourite family member or even newlyweds.

You might be scratching your head right now, wondering why newlyweds would want mead. In pre-Christian Europe, mead was one of the traditional wedding gifts. When a couple was married family and friends would supply them with enough mead for a month to ensure that they would be happy and fertile through their marriage. Hence, we still call the first month after marriage Honeymoon even though few newlyweds nowadays drink mead.

Many people mistakenly believe that mead is a historical myth or that the recipe and skill to make it has been long lost, but the magical elixir is ready for order from this unusual winery on Holy Island in Northumberland.

St Aidan’s Winery offers a wide variety of ales, fruit wines and spirits and – of course – mead, and also serves as an outlet for Celtic jewellery and other local crafts.

You may wonder how an island called Holy Island could possibly be the home to liquor or mead. The answer is simple: in Medieval times mead was usually made by monks as they were the ones to keep bees on a large scale. They also believed that mead was a cure for many illnesses and restored their body while God watched their soul.

Lindisfarne’s monks are long gone, but their recipe for mead has been preserved on the island and is still used to produce the delightful pale-gold beverage in the same fashion as they did in yesteryear. Therefore, you get the same good taste that Friar Tuck might have enjoyed.

Lindisfarne Mead is available directly on the island from the winery shop – where you can taste before you buy – but can also be bought online. Alongside full-size and half bottles, St Aidan’s Winery also offer a Mead Miniature Bottle that holds just 5 centilitres.

This is for those who want to test the mead before committing to buy a large size, or those who just want a conversation piece to set on the shelf. The prices are very reasonable, so you can afford to try the largest available without breaking the bank. Imagine your next get together where, instead of champagne you break out the mead, for medicinal purposes, of course.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Megalithic Examination Explains Why Stonehenge was Built on Salisbury Plain

Ancient Origins

The ability to excavate at the world-famous Stonehenge archaeological site is a privilege. Not everyone has gained special access to explore the megaliths with the closest detail. Thus, those who have had the chance to dig into the mystery of Stonehenge have the ear of others when they tell of their discoveries. Now, an archaeologist named Mike Pitts has decided to provide his explanation why the Stonehenge location was chosen.

 The answer, Pitts explained in a special Stonehenge edition of the journal British Archaeology, is evident through the analysis of two stones. A thorough examination of the Heel Stone and Stone 16 and the area around these two megaliths shows oft-overlooked aspects – simplicity and pits.

Stonehenge Heel Stone. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

These two stones stand apart from others because they have not been modified – no carving or shaping is apparent on the huge rocks. Pitts told The Times ,

“The assumption used to be that all the sarsens at Stonehenge had come from the Marlborough Downs more than 20 miles away. The idea has since been growing that some may be local and the heel stone came out of that big pit. If you are going to move something that large you would dress it before you move it, to get rid of some of the bulk. That suggests it has not been moved very far. It makes sense that the heel stone has always been more or less where it is now, half-buried.”

Pitts wrote that two big holes have been found beside the megaliths. The archaeologist believes that the pits are the remnants of where the stones were laying before builders decided to stand them up. For example, the 6 meters (20 feet) in diameter hole near the Heel Stone would have been big enough to have contained the megalith. Other explanations for the holes by these two stones have not satisfied Pitts.

Moreover, Science Alert reports that when the Heel Stone and Stone 16 (and their corresponding holes) are lined up, the two stones mark the horizon “where the Sun rises on the summer solstice, and sets on the winter solstice.”

And Pitts believes that is a key part of why the Stonehenge building site was chosen. According to the archaeologist , the earliest prehistoric builders of Stonehenge may have noticed the coincidental alignment of the two stones and decided the site was important. He says , “The two largest natural sarsens on the plain aligned with the rising midsummer and the setting midwinter Sun” are probably what caught their attention.

The sun rising over Stonehenge on the morning of the Summer Solstice (June 21, 2005). (Andrew Dunn/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

 From there, others set about lugging more stones to the site – both from other locally sourced sarsen sandstones and more distantly obtained bluestones - and the fascinating location known today as Stonehenge was born.

The Cuckoo Stone, another large sarsen stone which lies in the field immediately west of Woodhenge. ( Stonehenge News and Information )

 Finally, Pitts reflected on the significance of discoveries at the site, writing,

“Continued radiocarbon dating may reveal further clusters of middle neolithic ritual features. But for now, the combination of a little henge, large cattle bones … and perhaps the two largest natural sarsens on the plain aligned with the rising midsummer and the setting midwinter Sun, make the site locally unique. It all suggests that Stonehenge didn't so much burst into view shortly after 3000 BCE, as grow slowly over a long time before.”

Stonehenge. ( Public Domain )

Top Image: Stonehenge. Source: CC BY SA 3.0

By Alicia McDermott

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Warding Evil and Welcoming Luck: Protective Amulets of the Ancient World

Ancient Origins

In the past, human life was vulnerable to disaster; Disease, wars, famine, natural disasters and many other factors could easily claim the lives of individuals. For this reason, people sought all kinds of protection they could get their hands on. This also implied protection of the supernatural sort. Amulets were the most widespread protection of this kind.

 People would go to witches, wizards or specialized merchants who knew how to make such objects, and sold them—sometimes at quite a high price. However, people used to pay because protection of their lives was more valuable to them than money. Made out of wood, metal, clay, stone or other materials, many amulets have survived up to the present day. They display a wide range of symbolism which fascinates even the modern man.

Turtle shaped amulet, Sioux People of North America. (1880-1920) “Decorated with beading, this turtle-shaped amulet made from animal hide is thought to contain an umbilical cord. The amulet was worn by girls until they reached puberty, to ward off illness. In many Native American belief systems, turtles were thought to look after women's diseases.” (Wellcome Trust/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Making Magic and Producing Protection
 It was believed magic was a source of protection to those who needed it. Thus, a multitude of amulets and talismans appeared, each with different uses. The creation of an amulet was a ritual in itself and an amulet could only be made by an initiate. Each amulet was based on a symbol and among the most well-known amulets are: the Ankh, the Yin-Yang, the pentagram, the Chinese symbol of luck, the nazar, the mystic knot, the all-seeing eye and the Egyptian scarab.

The Ankh (held in the right hand), during the reign of Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC) ( Public Domain )

 The symbol of Egyptian sovereigns par excellence, the Ankh is the symbol of eternal life. It was placed in the sarcophagus of all Egyptian pharaohs in order to provide protection and to offer them the chance to live forever in the afterlife. Also, the Ankh was proof of the power and rank of the Pharaoh. Another symbol of Egyptian sovereigns, the scarab symbolized long life. Also, it was believed to possess the power of transformation, and when used as a hieroglyph it meant “to come into being by taking on a given form,” “to be”, and “to become.”

Universal Harmony
The symbol of universal harmony and of the perpetual laws of the universe, the Yin-Yang represents unity in diversity. It was thought that where there is light, there will always be darkness, and where there is darkness, light will also follow. Yin represents the dark, feminine element, while the Yang is the bright, the masculine. From the opposition of the two forces, results universal harmony.

The Yin Yang symbol. (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

The pentagram has been a very powerful mystic symbol since the dawn of time. It was believed to defend its bearer from all evil and attract good fortune. All these qualities were due to the fact that an element was associated with each corner of the pentagram. Thus, the elements united together attracted beneficial influences.

The five-pointed pentagram symbol. (Flickr/ CC BY 2.0 )

Good Fortune
The Chinese character for good luck appears as an amulet in many forms. It even now appears on medallions, on buildings, in traditional Chinese calligraphy paintings and in many other examples. It was felt that by wearing this letter, luck was attracted.

A papercut showing the luck character Fú written in 100 different ways. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Warding Evil
The Nazar or “the blue eye” was thought to have the power to protect against the evil eye and to reject negative energies. This symbol may even now be worn as an amulet, but it can also be seen on airplanes, buildings, cars or in other places.

Left, the blue Nazar ( CC BY 2.0 ), and right, the Ruby Eye Pendant from an ancient Mesopotamia ( CC BY-SA 3.0 ). Many amulets were used to protect against the evil eye.

Originally from Tibet, the mystic knot represented the Samsara, the eternal cycle of reincarnation. Also, it represented unlimited wisdom and the strong connection between knowledge and applied method. A powerful symbol, it was believed to attract the benevolent energies of the ancestors to their descendants.

The all-seeing eye was thought to have the power to provide knowledge. It was said to see and reflect the past, the present, and the future. Because knowledge is power, legend the one who had it could become the most powerful man on earth.

Maneki Neko is a popular cat symbol with its raised paw meant to invite good luck. The higher the paw is in the air, the greater the invited luck. Also, it sometimes holds a Koban, a Japanese coin meant to ensure financial luck. Widely used in Feng Shui, Chinese coins with lucky symbols are believed to attract financial luck. In most cases, they have represented on them a dragon alone, or a dragon and a tiger together, in order to attract the positive energies of these two mythological beings.

Left, a Maneki Neko or Lucky Cat ( CC BY 2.0 ), and right, a Koban coin ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Throughout human history a multitude of magical rituals were conducted for different purposes and intentions. Magic rituals led to the appearance of magical objects such as amulets which are still believed to have different warding or welcoming properties, and are thought to be able to help the wearer in various regards. All these have improved man’s life or, at least, they have given him the feeling that he is under the influence of divine protection.

Featured image: Amulet of a Ba. Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 332-30 B.C. Jewelry and Adornments; amulets. Gold with inlays of lapis lazuli, turquoise, and steatite. (Public Domain)

 By: Valda Roric

Monday, April 16, 2018

Greek mythology and human origins

Ancient Origins

Greek mythology begins with the Creation Myth , which is contained within many different sources of ancient Greek texts. The most complete one is Theogony from the Greek poet Hesiod, who lived around the 8 th century BCE. Hesiod combines all Greek myths and traditions to create this mythical cosmogony.

 According to Theogony, in the beginning only chaos and void existed throughout the entire universe (The Greek word chaos does not have the same meaning in which it is used today, but simply meant empty space or a dark void.).

 Chaos was followed by Gaia (which means earth) and Eros (which is love). It is not specified if Gaia and Eros were born from Chaos or whether they were pre-existing; however, Hesiod mentions that Gaia (Earth) came into existence in order to become the home of the gods. This is similar to other myths, like Sumerian myths, which describe how the earth was initially created for the gods to dwell.

Chaos also gave birth to Erebus, who was the darkness of the underworld, and Nyx (night).

Gaia gave birth to Uranus (heavens) and Okeanos (ocean).

The story continues showing how the gods mated with each other to complete the whole of creation. Nyx and Erebus mated, and Hemere (day) and Aether (air) were born. Nyx also gave birth to other gods like Moros, Thanatos (death), Nemesis, Hypnos (sleep), Eris and Keres.

Uranus and Gaia became the first gods to rule. Uranus then mated with Gaia and produced Cyclopes and the twelve Titans (a race of giants). One of the Titans was Cronus (Saturn).

And from here the pantheon of the famous gods of Greek mythology begins.

Uranus was jealous of his children and condemned them to stay in the womb of Gaia; however, Gaia, with the help of Cronus, punishes Uranus by castrating him. His genitals and his blood fell into Earth and created another set of gods—Aphrodite, Erinyes, giants and nymphs.

 Uranus and Gaia spoke a prophecy to Cronus, telling him that one of his sons would overpower him. As a result, Cronus decided to swallow their children. Gaia was able to save baby Zeus (Jupiter), who was raised on the Greek island Crete until he, with the help of Metis (another Titan), made Cronus to regurgitate the swallowed children. Led by Zues, the six brothers and sisters (Demeter, Hera, Hestia, Hades and Poseidon) rebelled against their father against whom they were victorious, throwing Cronus forever into the Tartarus (the dark world under Earth).

After that, the rebel gods of ancient Greece divided the universe between them. Zeus was the supreme god, ruling over all others, and all of them lived on the peak of Mount Olympus in Greece.

Greek mythology is full of fights between the gods, similar to other myths and religions—and so far we still have not seen the creation of man.

In the above mentioned battle, three Titans did not support Cronus: Prometheus, Epimetheus and Okeanos. Prometheus later joined Zeus. All the Titans were sent into Tartarus (the underworld), with the exception of Prometheus and Epimetheus.

Prometheus was the one to create man out of earth (mud), and the goddess Athena breathed life into the man. Here we see another common pattern repeating in the creation, where the spirit is given to the body so that it will become alive.

Epimetheus was the one to whom Prometheus assigned the duty to give all living creatures of the planet different qualities/skills; however, Epimetheus had already given all the good skills and qualities to other creatures, and nothing was left for man. Consequently, Prometheus made man to stand upright—as only the gods had done—and gave him fire.

This made Zeus angry because he was not very fond of man, though man was Prometheus’s favourite creation. Zeus thus decreed that man must present a portion of each animal they sacrificed to the gods, but Prometheus tricked Zeus and, as a result, Zeus took fire away from man. Prometheus then stole fire back and returned it to man. For that Zeus punished both man and Prometheus.

The punishment that Zeus inflicted to man was to create Pandora (with the help of god Hephaestus), the first woman. He gave Pandora as a gift a box that she was not allowed to open. The box was full of misfortunes, diseases and plagues, while at the bottom of the box there was also hope.

 Prometheus was condemned to be tormented on the Caucasus Mountain where he was chained on a rock in unbreakable chains. Every night an eagle would appear and eat his liver. During the day the liver was reborn, and every night the eagle would return and eat it again.

Later on a Centaur, Chiron, and a semi-god, Hercules, would release Prometheus from his torment.

It is clear that Greek mythology contains parallels to other mythologies and religions, such as water being the beginning of all life, the on-going fighting between gods and, most importantly, the denial of the gods to allow humans to have knowledge.

By John Black

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Catapult: The Long-Reaching History of a Prominent Medieval Siege Engine

Ancient Origins

One of the most iconic images of the European Middle Ages is the castle. This defensive structure was often heavily fortified and provided its inhabitants with much-needed safety. It was usually quite difficult for an enemy to capture a castle, and for that, an attacking army needed siege engines. One of the most important and efficient siege engines was the catapult.

 The Roman Onager
The catapult was a weapon used since ancient times. In its most basic form, the catapult may be described as a “one-armed stone thrower”. In the Roman world, a catapult-like siege engine known as the ‘onager’ (meaning ‘wild ass’) was used when the Romans were besieging an enemy. One suggestion for this name’s origins is that the Romans likened the stones that were hurled by the catapult to the rocks kicked up behind galloping hooves. An alternate suggestion is that the device jumped when it fired its projectiles. Another type of catapult, which had a sling, was known as the ‘scorpion’, as a shot from this device is reported to resemble the movement of a scorpion’s tail.

A Roman onager with sling (‘Scorpion’). ( Public Domain )

 Chinese Traction Catapults
The use of catapults, however, was not limited to the Roman army. There are records which show that the catapult was also employed by the armies of ancient China as well. For example, during the early Spring and Autumn period (8th – 7th centuries BC), there was a machine called a ‘hui’ that was used by the King of Zhou against the Duke of Zheng during a battle in 707 BC. As the word ‘hui’ no longer exists, we cannot be completely sure of its meaning. Nevertheless, scholars from the Han Dynasty interpreted this device as a catapult.

A clearer mention of the catapult in Chinese sources may be found in the Mohist texts of the Warring States period (5th – 3rd centuries BC). In these texts, the catapults were operated using the lever principle, and are known as traction catapults. These devices could be used by either the besieger or the besieged. As a weapon employed by the besieged, the traction catapult could be used to attack enemy siege towers, and to hurl objects at enemy troops either to kill them or to disrupt their formation.

Ancient Chinese mobile catapult cart. ( CC BY 1.0 )

 The Torsion Catapults
In the West, by contrast, catapults operated according to a different principle. Instead of using the lever technique, European catapults operated according to torsion mechanics. This technology was first introduced by the Greeks, and later adopted by the Romans.

 By the European Middle Ages, a variation of the Roman ‘onager’ was developed. This was called the mangonel, which means ‘an engine of war’ (mangonel may also refer to other siege engines). The primary difference between an ‘onager’ and a mangonel is that the latter launched its projectiles from a fixed bowl rather than from a sling. This meant that instead of a large, single projectile, the mangonel could be used also to launch a few smaller projectiles.

A Medieval mangonel. ( Public Domain )

 Traction Meets Torsion
Whilst torsion-operated catapults were being used by European armies, Chinese traction catapult technology had also spread westwards during and around the 6th century AD. It has been speculated that the knowledge of this technology was partially responsible for the victories achieved by the Islamic armies over the next few centuries.

 Nevertheless, the first recorded Western encounter with the traction catapult was not during a battle with a Muslim army, but with a nomadic tribe known as the Avars. According to John, an Archbishop of Thessaloniki, during the siege of the city in 597 AD, the Avars were using 50 large traction catapults that hurled stones at the defenders.

 It has been speculated that the Avars had interacted with the Northern Wei in China, and learned the traction catapult technology from them. European encounters with the traction catapults of the Muslims (commonly known as ‘al-manjaniq’) would only come later during the Islamic conquest of Iberia. However, it has been argued that it was only during the Crusades that such technology became adopted in Europe.

 The Evolution of the Trebuchet
The catapult eventually evolved into the hinged counter-weight trebuchet, a siege engine that had much greater accuracy and range, as well as a higher trajectory than the catapult. Whilst the trebuchet dominated the European battlefield for several centuries, it soon became obsolete in China due to the introduction of gunpowder weapons.

Replica of a trebuchet, Castle Laupen, Switzerland. ( CC BY 3.0 )

 The arrival of gunpowder in Europe also signaled the end of the widespread use of these siege engines. However, the last major use of catapults in battle is said to have happened during the First World War, when French troops used these devices to hurl grenades into German trenches.

French soldiers using a grenade catapult in World War I. ( Public Domain )

 Featured image: 13th Century illustration of Mongols laying siege to a Middle-Eastern city using a trebuchet. ( Public Domain )

 By: Ḏḥwty

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Boys Joust Wanna Have Fun


By Natalie Anderson

Sketch from the childhood Lehbruch of Maximilian I 

Hands down, my favourite image that I came across over the course of my PhD research was the above – at first glance, a rather inconspicuous, unglamourous one. In the margins of his childhood Lehrbuch, or textbook, the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) has doodled a picture of himself as a knight on horseback. Astride his rather wonky steed, Maximilian is holding his lance at the ready, prepared to take part in that quintessential medieval sport: the tournament. Although, with a well-developed sense of social status, Maximilian has appropriately signed the picture ‘Maximilian archidux’ (in his youth he held the title of archduke of Austria), the young noble still displays the same timeless, universal urge of bored schoolchildren everywhere: to escape their current, mundane surroundings by imagining themselves somewhere more exciting.

For Maximilian, even as a grown man, this ideal escape was always the tournament. And it was the same for many noblemen of the fifteenth century. After all, knightly training was an essential part of a young man’s education, and the ability to excel in the tournament and, in particular, in the individual joust, was an integral part of one’s social standing, image, and networking abilities. Thus this training began at a young age, and a love of the tournament was instilled in boys during their childhood (as is so clearly evidenced by the above image).

Kunsthistorisched Museum, Vienna, Inv. No. P81, P92. 

Interestingly, toys played a central role in this. A boy might be given miniature figures of jousting men on horseback to play with, such as these from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The same toys can be seen in one of Maximilian’s biographies (in the loosest sense of the Maximilian (right) playing with jousting figurines in Weisskunig. word) Weisskunig – a highly allegorical retelling of the emperor’s life. As a young man, Maximilian may be seen playing with similar proto-action figures, learning the rules of the joust. Much as they do today, medieval toys taught their owners about their expected societal roles.

Indeed, play was often a central teaching tool. Another great example of this are the ‘training lances’ that boys used when first being introduced to that most masculine activity of jousting. Rather than being tipped with steel lanceheads, these wooden shafts had two whirling flags on the end, making for a harmless imitation of the actual sport. Soon enough, however, these whimsical objects were exchanged for the real thing.

Maximilian (right) playing with jousting figurines in Weisskunig.

Yet some knights still apparently remembered them with fondness. In one sixteenth century Turnierbuch, or tournament book – a popular form of commemorative tournament literature – one man’s equipment features an image of the youthful training tool. The same object may even be seen in three-dimensional form on his crest! One imagines it twirling eye-catchingly in the breeze as he charged toward his opponent.

When the young Maximilian absentmindedly sketched the above image into his textbook, he was imagining his future as the quintessential medieval knight: clad in shining armour, mounted on horseback, lance at the ready. By the fifteenth century, this was a future all boys were encouraged to imagine, through the use of toys and childhood training. Knightly practices were instilled in them from a young age, and practice for the tournament was a central part of this.

A child’s jousting toy, from ‘Hans Burgkmair des Jüngeren: Turnierbuch von 1529’.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Mythical Viking Sunstone Used for Navigation was Real and Remarkably Accurate, New Study Shows

Ancient Origins

The Vikings have been reputed to be remarkable seafarers who could fearlessly navigate their way through unknown oceans to invade unsuspecting communities along the North Sea and Atlantic Sea coasts of Europe. A well-known ancient Norse myth describes a magical gem that could reveal the position of the sun when hidden behind clouds or even after sunset. A new study shows the sunstone was real and very accurate.

Several accounts in the ancient Nordic sagas speak of a sólarsteinn or “sunstone”, which they used to determine the sun’s position after sunset. For years, it was thought to be little more than a legend. But in 2010, a unique crystal was found in the wreck of an Elizabethan ship sunk off the coast of the Channel Islands. After three years of intensive study, scientists announced that the crystal made of a calcite substance could indeed act as a navigational aid.

According to those researchers, the principle behind the sunstone relies on its unusual property of creating a double refraction of sunlight, even when it is obscured by cloud or fog. By turning the crystal in front of the human eye until the darkness of the two shadows were equal, the sun's position can be pinpointed with remarkable accuracy.

The Vikings were known to be master seafarers. Leiv Eiriksson Discovers America by Christian Krohg, 1893 ( public domain )

New Study Reveals Accuracy reports on a new study conducted by researchers from ELTE Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, who ran computer simulations of 1000 voyages between Norway and Greenland with varying cloudiness, in order to determine how accurate the sunstone was in navigation.

“After inputting data describing such trips, the researchers ran the simulations multiple times over the course of two specific virtual days, the spring equinox and the summer solstice. They ran the trials for different types of crystals and with differing intervals between sunstone tests,” reported

The results of their study revealed that using a cordierite crystal for a minimum of every three hours was around 92.2 to 100 percent accurate.

“This explains why the Vikings could rule the Atlantic Ocean for 300 years and could reach North America without a magnetic compass,” the study authors wrote in the paper published by the Royal Society Open Science .

Sunstone was Used in Parallel to a Sun Compass
Researchers believe that they combined the power of the sunstone with that of a sun compass or ‘sundial’ to navigate their ships after dark.

Wooden fragment discovered in Uunartoq, Greenland, in 1948, which is believed to be a sun-compass used to determine direction. Image credit: Soren Thirslund.

Part of a Viking sun compass was unearthed in 1948 in a fjord in Uunartoq, Greeland, which was settled by Norse farmers in the 10 th century. Originally believed to be a household decoration, researchers later discovered that the lines engraved along the edge were for navigational purposes.

“The team found that at noon every day, when the sun is highest in the sky, a dial in the center of the compass would have cast a shadow between two lines on the plate,” reported Live Science in 2013. “The ancient seafarers could have measured the length of that noon shadow using scaling lines on the dial, and then determined the latitude.”

A scene from the Vikings (2013) History Channel Series demonstrates how the sundial was used.

Top image: A calcite crystal found on an Elizabethan ship believed to have helped the Vikings navigate the seas. Credit: The Natural History Museum.

By April Holloway