Monday, June 26, 2017

A Match Made in Greek Legend: What Happened When Heracles Met the Snake Woman?


Ancient Origins


While completing his Twelve Labors, the Greek hero Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) got up to tons of mischief—and that included bedding a lot of women. In the process, he fathered a whole host of legendary sons, called the Heracleidae, from whom many clans across the Mediterranean claimed descent. According to Herodotus, the “Father of History,” the Greeks living in Scythia—an area of Central Eurasia—were descended from one of Heracles’s most interesting sons.

 Heracles Meets a Half-Human, Half-Serpent Mate
The Greeks who lived on the Black Sea (a.k.a. “Pontic Greeks”) created a founding myth directly tied to their homeland. During Heracles’s tenth labor—capturing cattle belonging to the monster Geryon—the hero arrived in what would eventually become the fertile land of Scythia, then a desert. Geryon himself lived on an island, so Heracles decided to rest up before sailing out to tackle him. He must have forgotten to tie up his horses, though, since they ran off while he was asleep.


Heracles and the Horses of Diomedes. ( Public Domain )

While searching throughout Scythia, Heracles came across an area called “The Woodland.” In that cave, he discovered a hybrid creature whose upper half was that of a human woman, but her bottom half was 100% pure snake. Both she and the famed Greek monster Echidna, mother of the likes of the Sphinx and Cerberus, were half-snake, half-woman. Our viper madam was never given a first name, so she’s more likely an echidna, not the Echidna.


Echidna. Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio 1555, Parco dei Mostri (Monster Park), Lazio, Italy. (Gabriele Delhey/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

 Heracles asked this unusual half-human, half-serpent if she’d seen his horses; she said she was hiding them, but would only give them back if he had sex with her. Emotional and sexual blackmail? Par for the course for Greek mythology, Heracles agreed to the bargain, but the snake woman was so into him that she pulled a Circe and tried to keep him there forever by refusing to return his horses.


An Echidna fighting Hercules in the TV program ‘ Hercules: The Legendary Journeys ’.
( CC BY SA )

Eventually, he got really annoyed—and then she told him she was pregnant! The snake lady said she had three of his sons in her belly and asked the hero what she was supposed to do with them when they grew up. Heracles gave her a belt with a golden goblet hanging from it and a big bow. He told her that, when they were adults, the youths should all try to draw the bow and put the girdle on; whoever drew the super-stiff bow and wore the girdle best would inherit her land in Scythia. The other ones, she should send away.


Heracles drawing back his bow. ( Public Domain )

Heracles’ Three Sons with the Snake Woman Compete
Years later, the snake woman’s three sons grew up into nice young men. The oldest was Agathyrsus, the second Gelonus, and the youngest Scythes. The eldest two guys couldn’t draw their dad’s bow or put his belt on properly, so their mom banished them, but little Scythes was able to do the job.

Scythes went on to found the kingdom of Scythia, and, as Herodotus claimed, “from Scythes, the son of Hercules, were descended the after kings of Scythia.” And those very monarchs also wore belts with goblets hanging from them, in the tradition of their legendary ancestor.


‘Ovid among the Scythians’ (1862) by Eugène Delacroix. ( Public Domain )

And Agathyrsus and Gelonus fathered tribes named after themselves in the same general area; not bad for failures. Interestingly, some medieval Irish chroniclers traced the ancestry of the Picts, a confederation of tribes in what is now Scotland, to the Agathyrsi and Geloni.


Hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman (a member of an ancient Celtic people from Scotland). De Bry’s engraving, “The True Picture of a Women Picte.” ( Public Domain )

Top Image: ‘Heracles and Omphale’ (1724) by François Lemoyne. (Deriv.) ( Public Domain ) Like the Echidna, mythology counts Omphale as another of Heracles’ lovers.

By Carly Silver

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Unmasking King Richard: Does the Lionhearted King of England Have a Better Reputation Than He Deserves?

Ancient Origins

Cruel. Courageous. Scheming. Chivalrous. These are just some of the contradictory words that have been used to describe the English king with a ‘Lion heart.’ But lions are not always majestic creatures, they can be downright vicious… perhaps this nickname really does suit the famous king Richard I?

 Richard I was an English king who lived during the 12th century. He is famous, amongst other things, for his epithet, Cœur de Lion, which is often translated as ‘the Lionheart’. This is an attestation to Richard’s skill as a military commander and to his courage as a warrior. For many, he is seen as a hero, especially with regards to his military campaigns against Saladin in the Holy Land. Nevertheless, there seems to be a darker side to Richard’s life, one that is often left out when his story is told.

A Drastic Take on ‘Rebelling Against Your Father’
Richard I was born in 1157 in Oxford, England. His father was Henry II of England and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1173, Richard joined his brothers, Henry and Geoffrey, in their revolt against their father. The king had to invade Aquitaine twice before Richard finally surrendered. After the failure of this rebellion, Richard begged for his father’s forgiveness, which he received. Additionally, Richard swore allegiance once more to his father.



‘Richard Duke of the Normans and of the Aquitanians and Count of the Angevins.’ (Public Domain)

 Richard was pardoned by his father for his participation in the rebellion and after that was occupied with putting down uprisings by disgruntled barons in his own duchy of Aquitaine, especially in the region of Gascony. Richard’s cruelty in governing his duchy eventually resulted in a major revolt by the Gascons in 1183. Additionally, the rebels sought the aid of Richard’s brothers, Henry and Geoffrey, in their attempt to oust Richard from Aquitaine. The uprising collapsed, however, when Henry died suddenly in June 1183.

The death of his elder brother meant that Richard was now the new heir to the throne. Henry II wanted give Aquitaine to Richard’s younger brother, John, a plan that the future king vehemently opposed. As a result, Richard formed an alliance with the King of France, Philip II, and drove Henry II into submission. Henry II, who was forced to acknowledge Richard as his heir, died shortly after this in 1189.



Richard the Lionheart, Richard I of England, being anointed during his coronation in Westminster Abbey. (Public Domain)

A Warrior King Who Barely Saw His Kingdom
Although Richard was crowned King of England, his interest was not in ruling the kingdom left by his father. Instead, he fantasized about leading the Third Crusade, which had for its goal the recapture of Jerusalem, following its fall to Saladin in 1187. Of his ten-year reign as the King of England, only six months of it were spent in this kingdom. Furthermore, in order to fund his military campaign in the Holy Land, Richard emptied his father’s treasury and sold sheriffdoms and other offices. In 1190, Richard set out for the Holy Land with a formidable fleet and army.



Richard I Leaving England for the Crusades. (Public Domain)

In June 1191, the king arrived in Acre. The city fell in July and Richard’s brilliant victory over Saladin at the Battle of Arsuf resulted in the control of the southern Levantine coast all the way to Jaffa by the Crusaders. In 1192, Richard concluded a treaty with Saladin, which included a truce of three years and permission for Christian pilgrims to access the holy places in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the Third Crusade ultimately failed to achieve its main goal, i.e. the recapture of Jerusalem.

Tiles depicting Richard I of England and Saladin, now in the British Museum. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Diplomatic Issues Take their Toll
Richard seems to have not been on good terms with the other leaders of the Crusade. For instance, he had quarreled with Philip II, the King of France and insulted Leopold V, the Duke of Austria, by tearing down his banner. The former had returned to France following the fall of Acre and was plotting to take over Richard’s lands in France. This was one of the reasons that prompted the English king to leave the Holy Land and to return to Europe.


Richard and Philip of France, French manuscript of 1261. (Public Domain)

On his way back to England, Richard was driven ashore near Venice due to bad weather. As he had previously offended Leopold V, Richard decided to disguise himself, though he was recognized in Vienna in 1192 and subsequently imprisoned by the duke.

 Richard was then handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI and was only released after a huge ransom of 150,000 marks was paid. After returning to England, Richard was crowned as King of England for a second time, as he feared that the ransom paid to Henry VI had compromised the independence of his kingship.



Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI grants a pardon to Richard I of England. ( Public Domain )

Shortly after this, Richard left for Normandy and fought against Philip II intermittently for the last few years of his life. In

1199, Richard was fighting against Viscount Aimar V of Limoges, who had revolted against him. The insignificant castle of Chalus-Chabrol was besieged by Richard, which, according to some sources, was due to Aimar’s refusal to hand over a hoard of gold unearthed by a peasant to the king. It was here that Richard was wounded by an arrow. He died several days later.


Tomb of Richard I of England at Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon, in Anjou, France.
 ( Public Domain )

Top Image: King Richard I. Source: vikingstovirgin

By Wu Mingren

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Three Boat Burials of Viking-era Chiefs Found in as Many Days at Icelandic Site


Ancient Origins


Archaeologists have announced that they found three Viking-age boat burials in quick succession on a fjord along Iceland’s northern coast this week. They believe they may find more Viking burials in the vicinity and hope they will be unlooted. Two other burials had been discovered in previous years, making these recent burials the third, fourth and fifth.

 The discovery earlier this week of a boat, sword and dog bones, buried along with some human bones from the 9 th or 10 th centuries, indicates an important chief was memorialized there. Archaeologists are working quickly to excavate the burial because some of it has already been washed away by waves. Another ship burial was located right next to this first one and the third not far away.

 Archaeologists are unsure what has been lost to the waters of the fjord so far because half the boat has been washed away, says a story about the excavation in Iceland Magazine online. The experts expect to find that the other boat burials have also been washing out to sea, says another article in the magazine.


Hikers came across this Viking sword last September in southern Iceland. The sword from the ship burial is not in as good condition as this one. ( Photo: Árni Björn)

While the dog and sword burial is heavily damaged from erosion, archaeologists believe they will find still other burials in the vicinity.

Two of the names of the site, near Akureyri town on Eyjafjörður fjord in northern Iceland, contain words for burials.

Says Iceland Magazine:

The area where the ship burial was found is known as Dysnes, a name which points to Viking age graves, as dys is an old word for burial mound. The word Dysnes could be translated to ‘Burial ness.’ The precise location of the boat grave is then known as Kumlateigur, kuml being another old word for burial, and Kumlateigur translating as ‘Burial stretch.’ Both place names are ancient and point to more than one grave.

 A boat burial was discovered at Kumlholt or “Burial hill” south of this site 11 years ago.

The recent finds are important for a couple of reasons. Experts say that while many important Viking chiefs were buried in boats in mainland Scandinavia, only a few such entombments have been found in Iceland. The island nation has few trees, and timber was scarce for boat-building there, so it’s thought in Iceland such burials were uncommon. Boats were just too valuable, says Iceland Magazine.



How a Viking boat may have looked in a 1912 reproduction in the Homes and Gardens magazine (Flickr’s The Commons/ Wikimedia)

Another reason the first find is important is the discovery of the sword, which is rare. The inclusion of a boat and sword in the burial both indicate the chief was very important and powerful. Last September a Viking age sword was found in southern Iceland.

Another unusual thing about the find is that Viking burials that have not been looted are rare. Many such burials in Iceland that have been excavated have been robbed. The boat burial at Kumlholt from 11 years ago was robbed at some time. Of course we will never know what valuables were taken from that grave.

Waves have washed away half of the boat in the most recent find and all the artifacts contained in that part of it have been lost. The sword and dog and human bones were near the surface. The discovery of the sword leads the experts to believe the grave had been previously undisturbed.

Top image: Archaeologists dig at the site of the first ship burial, where the human and dog bones, the ship and sword were found. You can see how close the waters of the fjord are in the background.        ( Iceland Magazine /Auðunn)

By Mark Miller

Friday, June 23, 2017

Vikings Used Sherwood Forest Long Before It Was Known as the Hideout of Robin Hood


Ancient Origins


A team of archaeologists has made a significant discovery at an ancient monument which served as a Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire, England. Archaeologists stated that the newly found ruins mark the site of ‘Thing’ or Thynghowe of great archaeological significance not only nationally, but internationally as well.

 Vikings Used Ancient Monument Way Before Robin Hood Makes it Famous The new discovery suggests that long before legendary figure Robin Hood was hiding in Sherwood Forest, Vikings held their most important meetings there. The site, known as a Thynghowe, is at the top of Hanger Hill, on the boundary of the Budby, Warsop and Edwinstowe parishes, and on the edge of Birklands wood. 

The Thynghowe was discovered by local residents Stuart Reddish and Lynda Mallett in 2004, who have since founded the community action group The Friends of Thynghowe. Over a decade later, Mercian’s Geophysical Magnetometer Survey findings are putting a spotlight on their discovery, opening a window for new study and further examination of the Viking influence in Sherwood. “It was the group, their drive and passion, who have helped to find and protect this site,” archaeologist Andy Gaunt of Mercian Archaeological Services told Observer.

Consequently Gaunt explains how these meetings worked, “It’s where they [Vikings] signed laws, settled disputes and all sorts of things like that. The ‘thing site’ is definitely where they’d meet and where they would hold assemblies. And, if we’re correct, they would’ve stood within the circle and discussed laws and the question of the day, and then they’d pronounce the verdict from the top of the hill from the ‘thing mound’. That’s how it might have worked,” he says according to a report from local news site Notts TV.


A scan of the Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest. Credit: Mercian Archaeological Services CIC

The Ancient Parliamentary Plains of Iceland
 Only a handful of ‘Thing sites’ have been found all over the Viking world: in Dublin, the Isle of Man and the Shetland Islands, the Faroe Islands and Iceland – arguably the most famous Viking Thing Site.

 Also known as the country’s first parliament, the Althingi (literally meaning the all thing, or general assembly), is over a thousand years old. As reported in a previous Ancient Origins article, the Althingi was founded in 930 AD and was originally used for the general assembly of the Icelandic Commonwealth.


Þingvellir National Park, iceland . Photo source: UNESCO.

These assemblies were conducted at Þingvellir (the ‘assembly fields’ or ‘Parliament Plains’), which is in the south western part of the island. The gatherings typically lasted for two weeks in June, which was a period of uninterrupted daylight, and had the mildest weather. During these meetings, the country’s most powerful leaders would decide on legislation and dispense justice. At the center of the assembly was the Lögberg, or Law Rock. This was a rocky outcrop which the Lawspeaker, the presiding official of the assembly, took his seat. This Lawspeaker was an important national official, and was elected for a three-year term as the chairman of the lögrétta (legislative or law council). Among other duties, the Lawspeaker had to announce publicly the laws that were passed by the lögrétta.


The Law Rock, where the world’s first every Parliament congregated. Image source

 Despite the prestige that went along with this position, the Lawspeaker had, in reality, little or no official power. Thus, the Lawspeaker may be comparable to the Speakers of modern day parliaments. Serious matters of government were not the only items on the agenda. The general assembly was in fact also the main social event of the year. Hundreds of Icelanders of all professions, including farmers, traders and craftsmen, would converge on the Axe River which ran through the Þingvellir. During the two weeks that the general assembly was in session, friendships were formed and broken, news and information were passed on from one person to another, disputes were settled, and business would have been transacted. The gathering would almost certainly have had a festival-like atmosphere to it.




Vikings marching to Althing, the world's oldest parliament established in Thingvellir in AD 930. Image by Marja.

The Viking Meeting Point in Sherwood Forest is Unique
An excited Gaunt, however, argues that the Viking meeting point in Sherwood Forest is different than the rest in its own way, “The level of preservation makes it a pristine. There’s not really an equivalent. We can stand on that hill and know we’re standing where Vikings stood. There are not many places in the U.K. where you can say that,” he told Observer. And adds: “Its hugely important archaeological remains could have been lost forever and have remained unknown and unrecorded.”

Ultimately, Gaunt clarified that the next step for the Mercian and the Friends of Thynghowe team is to wait patiently for the results of further scientific examination of the finds from local universities, and then to conduct a wide study where more experts can participate, while everyone who’s fascinated by Viking history will get a chance to learn more about Viking legacy in Sherwood. “This is the Viking part of the story of Sherwood Forest,” he told Observer adding that between the Saxons and Medieval period, Thynghowe provides “another layer of that magical story.”

Top image: Reconstruction of a Viking meeting by jonathan_hart

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Thursday, June 22, 2017

1,500-Year-Old Mound in England Found to be Elite Anglo Saxon Burial


Ancient Origins


Students at the historic British boys’ boarding school Eton College may have been using an ancient grave as a community gathering place for centuries, not realizing that the 20-foot mound near the school is really a Saxon burial monument built 1,500 years ago, possibly holding the body of an important historical figure.


Eton Montem as depicted in The English Spy, published 1825. (public domain)

 New Finds Will Extend Knowledge of the History of Slough
The University of Reading official website reports that the circular mound in Slough, England, which is more than 100 feet (30 meters) across, was built about 1,500 years ago, during the same period of time other well-known burial mounds were created in order to “accommodate” local leaders and people of high social status. According to the archaeologists of the prestigious University, the Montem Mound in the Berkshire town, now surrounded by Municipal buildings and car parks, is no exception to that rule and most likely served as the resting place of a significant person and could also contain artifacts of significant value.

 The discovery of the “Sutton Hoo of Slough” is considered to be of great archaeological value since it is only one of the very few mounds from this period. Additionally, the newly found mound opposes the previous dominant theory that suggested that the specific structure was a Norman Conquest-era “motte and bailey” castle.

Dr. Jim Leary, the University of Reading archaeologist who led the exploration back in December 2016, stated as Phys Org reports: "Conventional wisdom placed the Montem Mound 500 years later, in the Norman period. But we have shown that it dates to between the 5th and 7th centuries, not long after the collapse of Roman Empire. This is a time of heroic myth and legend where archaeology fills the gaps of the historic record. This discovery will add so much more to our understanding of the people who lived in Britain at this time. It will also extend our knowledge of the history of Slough."

Unique Technique Used for the First Time
The mound is already a statutory Scheduled Ancient Monument which protects it from development. As Phys Org mentions, the discovery took place during a Leverhulme Trust-funded project called the “Round Mounds Project”. With the use of a novel technique which drills into and dates mottes in England for the first time, researchers get a unique chance to learn more about the age of the monuments. The specific technique allows important information to be collected while it doesn’t severely harm the precious archaeological sites.

King George III and Queen Charlotte at the “Montem”, 1778 (ink wash on paper), by Samuel H. Grimm via the British Library online gallery 

Working alongside colleagues at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre at East Kilbride, the team from Reading has demonstrated that, despite the majority of the mounds examined so far being constructed in the period immediately after the Norman Conquest in 1066, there are some extraordinary exceptions.

Dr. Jim Leary said as Phys Org reports, “We tested material from all through the mound, so we are confident that it dates to the Saxon period. Given the dates of the mound, its size and dimensions, and the proximity to the known richly-furnished Saxon barrow at Taplow, it seems most likely that Montem Mound is a prestigious Saxon burial mound."


Montem Mound, Bath Road, Slough. December 1997 (Slough History Online)

 The archaeological investigations at the site were agreed with Historic England, and consent was granted by the Secretary of State. It is managed as a historical feature as part of Slough Borough Council's parks and open spaces services. The Council is already preparing an enhancement scheme with an interpretation board so that everyone can understand the importance and history of this special green mound.

Top image: Main: Anglo Saxon Portraits (BBC) Inset: Montem Mound (CC by SA 3.0)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Solstice - June 21, 2017




The longest day of the year! The summer solstice occurs when the tilt of a planet's semi-axis, in either the northern or the southern hemisphere, is most inclined toward the star that it orbits.




Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sam’s historical recipe corner: Anzac biscuits

History Extra


Tasty, nutritious and easy to make, it’s not surprising that Anzac biscuits are still a popular snack in Australia and New Zealand, particularly on Anzac Day (25 April), which marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

 Ingredients
85g porridge oats
 85g desiccated coconut
 100g plain flour
 100g caster sugar
 100g butter, plus extra for greasing
 1 tbsp golden syrup
 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

 Method
Heat oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Put the oats, coconut, flour and sugar in a bowl. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the golden syrup. Add the bicarbonate of soda to 2 tbsp boiling water, then stir into the golden syrup and butter mixture.

 Make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients and pour in the butter and golden syrup mixture. Stir gently to incorporate the dry ingredients.

 Put dessertspoonfuls of the mixture on to buttered baking sheets – about 2.5cm/1in apart to allow room for spreading. Bake in batches for 8-10 mins until golden. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

 My verdict
I’ve often read that Anzac biscuits were sent out to New Zealand and Australian troops serving in Gallipoli during the First World War. According to the National Army Museum, though, this is a myth and most of these deliciously chewy biscuits were in fact sold at fetes and galas at home, often as part of fundraising efforts. You can imagine, though, that they would have been an ideal biscuit for soldiers: hearty, nutritious and long-lasting.

 On a Monday morning, the BBC History Magazine team tucked into a few that had been left in the office all weekend: they still tasted just as good!

 Difficulty: 2/10
 Time: 20 minutes

 Recipe courtesy of BBC Good Food.