Tuesday, October 31, 2017

10 things you didn’t know about the history (and mystery) of Halloween

History Extra

1) Most people believe 31 October is an ancient pagan festival associated with the supernatural. In fact, it has religious connotations – although there is disagreement among historians about when it begun. Some say Hallowtide was introduced as All Saints’ Day in the 7th century AD by Pope Boniface IV, while others maintain it was created in the 9th century AD by Christians to commemorate their martyrs and saints.

 In medieval Britain, ‘Halloween’ was the eve of the Catholic festival All Saints or All-Hallows (from Old English ‘Holy Man’) on 1 November, and was followed by the feast of All Souls on 2 November.

2) The tradition of carving a face on a turnip or swede (and more recently pumpkin), and using these as lanterns seems to be a relatively modern tradition. On the last Thursday in October, children in the Somerset village of Hinton St George carry lanterns made of mangel-wurzles (a type of root vegetable). The light shines through a design etched on the skin. They are carried around the streets as the children chant: “It’s Punky Night tonight, It’s Punky Night tonight, Give us a candle, give us a light, It’s Punky Night tonight.”

3) Much of the modern supernatural lore surrounding Halloween was invented as recently as the 19th century. Scots and Irish settlers brought the custom of Mischief Night visiting to North America, where it became known as ‘Trick or Treat’. Until the revival of interest in Halloween during the 1970s, this American tradition was largely unknown in England. The importation of ‘Trick or Treat’ into parts of England during the 1980s was helped by scenes in American TV programmes and the 1982 film E.T.

 4) There is no evidence the pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated a festival on 1 November, but the Venerable Bede says the month was known as ‘Blod-monath’ (blood month), when surplus livestock were slaughtered and offered as sacrifices. The truth is there is no written evidence that 31 October was linked to the supernatural in England before the 19th century.

5) In pre-Christian Ireland, 1 November was known as ‘Samhain’ (summer's end). This date marked the onset of winter in Gaelic-speaking areas of Britain. It was also the end of the pastoral farming year, when cattle were slaughtered and tribal gatherings such as the Irish Feis of Tara were held. In the 19th century the anthropologist Sir James Frazer popularised the idea of Samhain as an ancient Celtic festival of the dead, when pagan religious ceremonies were held.

 6) The Catholic tradition of offering prayers to the dead, the ringing of church bells and lighting of candles and torches on 1 November provides the link with the spirit world. In medieval times, prayers were said for souls trapped in purgatory on 1 November. This was believed to be a sort of ‘halfway house’ on the road to Heaven, and it was thought their ghosts could return to earth to ask relatives for assistance in the journey.

7) Popular Halloween customs in England included ‘souling’, where groups of adults – and later children wearing costumes – visited big houses to sing and collect money and food. Souling was common in parts of Cheshire, Shropshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire on 1 and 2 November. In parts of northern England, special cakes were baked and left in churchyards as offerings to the dead.

 8) Until the 19th century, bonfires were lit on Halloween in parts of northern England and Derbyshire. Some folklorists believe the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes bonfires on 5 November may be a memory of an older fire festival, but there is a lack of written evidence for these in England before the late 17th century.

9) Love divinations on Halloween spread to England from Scotland as a result of the popularity of Robert Burn’s poem Halloween in Victorian times. One love divination mentioned by Burns includes placing hazelnuts in the fire, naming one for yourself and the other for your partner. If they burned gently and then went out, this indicated a long and harmonious life together; if they coughed and spluttered or exploded, this was a sign of problems ahead.

Apples were also used for divination purposes: the skin was thrown over the shoulder, or the fruit floated in water or hung upon strings, to be seized by the teeth of the players.

10) The idea of Halloween as a festival of supernatural evil forces is an entirely modern invention. Urban legends about razor blades in apples and cyanide in sweets, hauntings by restless spirits and the use of 31 October as the date of evil or inauspicious events in horror films, reflect modern fears and terrors.

Every year Halloween provokes controversy and divides opinions: most people see it as just as a bit of harmless fun, but modern witches say it marks an ancient pagan festival, while some evangelical Christians claim it is a celebration of dangerous occult forces. This explains why folklorist Steve Roud calls it “the most widely misunderstood and misrepresented day in the festival year”.

Dr David Clarke is a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University. He holds a PhD in English cultural tradition and folklore, and a degree in archaeology, prehistory and medieval history.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Did a Native American travel with the Vikings and arrive in Iceland centuries before Columbus set sail?

Ancient Origins

Scientists have been searching for answers on the puzzles of history by sifting through the genetic code of certain Icelanders. They have been looking to see if a Native American woman from the New World accompanied the Vikings back to Europe, five centuries before Columbus arrived back in Spain with indigenous Native Americans.

It is well established through historical accounts and archaeological findings that Vikings set up initial colonies on the shores of North America just before 1000 A.D. But what is not known for certain is how a family of Icelanders came to have a genetic makeup which includes a surprising marker dating to 1000 A.D. — one which is found mostly in Native Americans.

In 2010, it was reported that the first Native Americans arrived on the continent of Europe sometime around the 11th century. The study, led by deCODE Genetics, a world-leading genome research lab in Iceland, discovered a unique gene that was present in only four distinct family lines. The DNA lineage, which was named C1e, is mitochondrial, meaning that the genes were introduced by and passed down through a female. Based on the evidence of the DNA, it has been suggested that a Native American, (voluntarily or involuntarily) accompanied the Vikings when they returned back to Iceland. The woman survived the voyage across the sea, and subsequently had children in her new home. As of today, there are 80 Icelanders who have the distinct gene passed down by this woman.

Nevertheless, there is another explanation for the presence of the C1e in these 80 Icelanders. It is possible that the Native American genes appeared in Iceland after the discovery of the New World by Columbus. It has been suggested that a Native American woman might have been brought back to mainland Europe by European explorers, who then found her way to Iceland. Researchers believe that this scenario is unlikely, however, given the fact that Iceland was pretty isolated at that point of time.

Nevertheless, the only way to effectively eliminate this possibility is for scientists to find the remains of a pre-Columbian Icelander whose genes can be analyzed and shown to contain the C1e lineage.

The Skálholt Map made by the Icelandic teacher Sigurd Stefansson in the year 1570. Helleland ('Stone Land' = Baffin island), Markland ('forest land' = Labrador), Skrælinge Land ('land of the foreigners’ = Labrador), Promontorium Vinlandiæ (the of Vinland = Newfoundland). Public Domain

Another problem facing the researchers is that the C1e genes might not have come from Native Americans, but from some other part of the world. For instance, no living Native American group has the exact DNA lineage as the one found in the 80 Icelanders. However, it may be that the Native American people who carried that lineage eventually went extinct.

One suggestion, which was proposed early in the research, was that the genes came from Asia. This was eventually ruled out, as the researchers managed to work out that the C1e lineage had been present in Iceland as early as the 18th century. This was long before the appearance of Asian genes in Icelanders.

Did a Native American travel to Iceland and leave behind a telltale genetic marker? A man helms replica Viking vessels. Wikimedia Commons

If the discovery does prove ultimately that the Vikings took a Native American woman back to Iceland, then history would indeed have to be rewritten. Although encounters with the Native Americans, known as Skraelings (or foreigners), were recorded by the Viking sagas, there is no mention whatsoever about the Vikings bringing a Native American woman home to Iceland with them. Furthermore, the available archaeological record does not show any presence of a Native American woman in Iceland.

 The more digging is done into the history of the Vikings, the more our perceptions are changing as to how they lived, travelled, and traded.

Hopefully more light will be shed on this mystery over time, and the goings-on of the historic world can be unequivocally established, giving us a clearer understanding of our ancient past.

Featured image: Replica of 9th century Viking ship docked in Norway. Juanjo Marin/Flickr

Firth, N., 2010. First American in Europe 'was native woman kidnapped by Vikings and hauled back to Iceland 1,000 years ago'.

Govan, F., 2010. First Americands 'reached Europe five centuries before Columbus voyages'.

Watson, T., 2010. American Indian Sailed to Europe With Vikings?.

Tremlett, G. 2010. First Americans 'reached Europe five centuries before Columbus discoveries'. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/16/first-americans-europe-research

 By Ḏḥwty

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Who or what killed Alexander the Great?

Ancient Origins

In June 323 BC, Alexander the Great died in Babylon aged 32, having conquered an empire stretching from modern Albania to eastern Pakistan. The question of what, or who, killed the Macedonian king has never been answered successfully. However, new research may have finally solved the 2,000-year-old mystery.

Alexander III of Macedon, also known as Alexander the Great, was born in Pella in 356 BC and was mentored by Aristotle until the age of 16. He became king of Macedon, a state in northern ancient Greece, and by the age of 30 had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas. Alexander is considered one of history's most successful commanders. He conquered the whole of the Persian Empire but being an ambitious warrior, seeking to reach the 'ends of the world,' he invaded India in 326 BC but later turned back. He is credited with founding some 20 cities that bore his name, including Alexandria in ancient Egypt, and spread Greece's culture east. However, before completing his plans to invade Arabia, Alexander the Great died of a mysterious death, following 12 days of suffering.

What is known from historical records is that Alexander was holding a memorial feast to honour the death of a close personal friend. But around mid-evening, he was seized with intense pain and collapsed. He was taken to his bedchamber where, after days of agony, high fever, convulsions and delirium, he fell into a coma and died.

His initial systems were agitation, tremors, stiffness in the neck, and sharp pain in the area of the stomach. He then collapsed and suffered acute and excruciating agony wherever he was touched. He experienced an intense thirst, fever and delirium, and throughout the night he experienced convulsions and hallucinations, followed by periods of calm. In the final stages of the condition he could not talk, although he could still move his head and arms. Ultimately, his breathing became difficult and he died.

Alexander the Great on his deathbed. Image source.

The four most popular theories concerning his death are: Malaria, typhoid, alcohol poisoning, or being intentionally poisoned by a rival. Three can probably be discounted. Malaria is carried by mosquitoes that live in jungle and tropical locations, but not in desert regions such as central Iraq where Alexander died. Typhoid is transmitted by food or water contaminated by bacteria which causes epidemics and not just single, individual cases. There is nothing in any of the historical accounts to suggest such outbreak in Babylon at the time Alexander died. The main effect of alcohol poisoning is continual vomiting, but not once do any of the historical sources mention vomiting or even nausea as one of Alexander’s symptoms.

So what did kill Alexander? According to the historical accounts, Alexander’s body failed to show any signs of decay for six days after death, even though it was kept in a hot, sultry place. One explanation is a lethal dose of a toxic substance that pervaded the corpse and slowed the rate of decomposition. This suggests that Alexander the Great was poisoned, but by what?

Recent research conducted by Dr Leo Schep from the National Poisons Centre in New Zealand suggests that Alexander died from drinking poisonous wine from an innocuous-looking plant that, when fermented, is incredibly deadly.

Dr Schep, who has been researching the toxicological evidence for a decade, said some of the other poisoning theories - including arsenic and strychnine - were not plausible as death would have come far too fast, not over 12 days as the records suggest. The same applies to other poisons such as hemlock, aconite, wormwood, henbane and autumn crocus.

However, Dr Schep’s research, co-authored by Otago University classics expert Dr Pat Wheatley and published in the medical journal Clinical Toxicology, found the most plausible culprit was Veratrum album, known as white hellebore. The white-flowered plant, which can be fermented into a poisonous wine, was well-known to the Greeks as a herbal treatment.

Dr Schep's theory was that Veratrum album could have been fermented as a wine that was given to the leader. It would have tasted 'very bitter' but it could have been sweetened - and Alexander was likely to have been very drunk at the banquet. The symptoms caused by consuming the plant also fit with the description of what Alexander experienced over the 12 days before he died.

However, even if Alexander were poisoned, there's no proof that he was murdered by conspiring generals. There have been documented cases of people accidentally poisoning themselves with Veratum album. In 2010, Clinical Toxicology published a paper about four people in Central Europe who thought they were eating wild garlic. In about 30 minutes they were throwing up, in pain, partially blind, and confused. Unlike, perhaps, Alexander, they all survived.

 By April Holloway

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Ten amazing inventions from ancient times

Ancient Origins

Dating back thousands of years are numerous examples of ancient technology that leave us awe-struck at the knowledge and wisdom held by people of our past. They were the result of incredible advances in engineering and innovation as new, powerful civilizations emerged and came to dominate the ancient world. These advances stimulated societies to adopt new ways of living and governance, as well as new ways of understanding their world. However, many ancient inventions were forgotten, lost to the pages of history, only to be re-invented millennia later. Here we feature ten of the best examples of ancient technology and inventions that demonstrate the ingenuity of our ancient ancestors.

 1. The ancient invention of the steam engine by the Hero of Alexandria

Heron Alexandrinus, otherwise known as the Hero of Alexandria, was a 1st century Greek mathematician and engineer who is known as the first inventor of the steam engine. His steam powered device was called the aeolipile, named after Aiolos, God of the winds. The aeolipile consisted of a sphere positioned in such a way that it could rotate around its axis. Nozzles opposite each other would expel steam and both of the nozzles would generate a combined thrust resulting in torque, causing the sphere to spin around its axis. The rotation force sped up the sphere up to the point where the resistance from traction and air brought it to a stable rotation speed. The steam was created by boiling water under the sphere – the boiler was connected to the rotating sphere through a pair of pipes that at the same time served as pivots for the sphere. The replica of Heron’s machine could rotate at 1,500 rounds per minute with a very low pressure of 1.8 pounds per square inch. The remarkable device was forgotten and never used properly until 1577, when the steam engine was ‘re-invented’ by the philosopher, astronomer and engineer, Taqu al-Din.

 2. Is the Assyrian Nimrud lens the oldest telescope in the world?

The Nimrud lens is a 3,000-year-old piece of rock crystal, which was unearthed by Sir John Layard in 1850 at the Assyrian palace of Nimrud, in modern-day Iraq. The Nimrud lens (also called the Layard lens) is made from natural rock crystal and is a slightly oval in shape. It was roughly ground, perhaps on a lapidary wheel. It has a focal point about 11 centimetres from the flat side, and a focal length of about 12 cm. This would make it equivalent to a 3× magnifying glass (combined with another lens, it could achieve much greater magnification). The surface of the lens has twelve cavities that were opened during grinding, which would have contained naptha or some other fluid trapped in the raw crystal. Since its discovery over a century ago, scientists and historians have debated its use, with some suggesting it was used as a magnifying glass, and others maintaining it was a burning-glass used to start fires by concentrating sunlight. However, prominent Italian professor Giovanni Pettinato proposed the lens was used by the ancient Assyrians as part of a telescope, which would explain how the Assyrians knew so much about astronomy. According to conventional perspectives, the telescope was invented by Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey in 1608 AD, and Galileo was the first to point it to the sky and use it to study the cosmos. But even Galileo himself noted that the 'ancients' were aware of telescopes long before him. While lenses were around before the Nimrud lens, Pettinato believes this was one of the first to be used in a telescope.

3. The Oldest Calendar in Scotland

Research carried out last year on an ancient site excavated by the National Trust for Scotland in 2004 revealed that it contained a sophisticated calendar system that is approximately 10,000 years old, making it the oldest calendar ever discovered in the world. The site – at Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeenshire – contains a 50 metre long row of twelve pits which were created by Stone Age Britons and which were in use from around 8000 BC (the early Mesolithic period) to around 4,000 BC (the early Neolithic). The pits represent the months of the year as well as the lunar phases of the moon. They were formed in a complex arc design in which each lunar month was divided into three roughly ten day weeks – representing the waxing moon, the full moon and the waning moon. It also allowed the observation of the mid-winter sunrise so that the lunar calendar could be recalibrated each year to bring it back in line with the solar year. The entire arc represents a whole year and may also reflect the movements of the moon across the sky.

 4. Ancient Roman Concrete was Far Superior to Our Own

Scientists studying the composition of Roman concrete, which has been submerged under the Mediterranean Sea for the last 2,000 years, discovered that it was superior to modern-day concrete in terms of durability and being less environmentally damaging. The Romans made concrete by mixing lime and volcanic rock. For underwater structures, the combination of lime and volcanic ash with seawater instantly triggered a chemical reaction in which the lime incorporated molecules into its structure and reacted with the ash to cement the whole mixture together. Analysis of the concrete found that it produces a significantly different compound to modern day cement, which is an incredibly stable binder. In addition, the ancient concrete contains the ideal crystalline structure of Tobermorite, which has a greater strength and durability than the modern equivalent. Finally, microscopic studies identified other minerals in the ancient concrete which show potential application for high-performance concretes, including the encapsulation of hazardous wastes. "In the middle 20th century, concrete structures were designed to last 50 years," said scientist Paulo Monteiro said. "Yet Roman harbour installations have survived 2,000 years of chemical attack and wave action underwater.”

 5. 2000-year-old metal coatings superior to today’s standards

Research has shown that artisans and craftsmen 2,000 years ago used a form of ancient technology for applying thin films of metal to statues and other items, which was superior to today’s standards for producing DVDs, solar cells, electronic devices and other products. Fire gilding and silvering are age-old mercury-based processes used to coat the surface items such as jewels, statues and amulets with thin layers of gold or silver. From a technological point of view, what the ancient gilders achieved 2000 years ago, was to make the metal coatings incredibly thin, adherent and uniform, which saved expensive metals and improved its durability, something which has never been achieved to the same standard today. Apparently without any knowledge about the chemical–physical processes, ancient craftsmen systematically manipulated metals to create spectacular results. They developed a variety of techniques, including using mercury like a glue to apply thin films of metals to objects. The findings demonstrate that there was a far higher level of understanding and knowledge of advanced concepts and techniques in our ancient past than what they are given credit for.

 6. The incredible 2000-year-old earthquake detector

Although we still cannot accurately predict earthquakes, we have come a long way in detecting, recording, and measuring seismic shocks. Many don’t realise that this process began nearly 2000 years ago, with the invention of the first seismoscope in 132 AD by a Chinese astronomer, mathematician, engineer, and inventor called Zhang (‘Chang’) Heng. The device was remarkably accurate in detecting earthquakes from afar, and did not rely on shaking or movement in the location where the device was situated. Zhang's seismoscope was a giant bronze vessel, resembling a samovar almost 6 feet in diameter. Eight dragons snaked face-down along the outside of the barrel, marking the primary compass directions. In each dragon's mouth was a small bronze ball. Beneath the dragons sat eight bronze toads, with their broad mouths gaping to receive the balls. The sound of the ball striking one of the eight toads would alert observers to the earthquake and would give a rough indication of the earthquake's direction of origin. In 2005, scientists in Zengzhou, China (which was also Zhang's hometown) managed to replicate Zhang's seismoscope and used it to detect simulated earthquakes based on waves from four different real-life earthquakes in China and Vietnam. The seismoscope detected all of them. As a matter of fact, the data gathered from the tests corresponded accurately with that gathered by modern-day seismometers!

7. Mythical sunstone used as ancient navigational device

An ancient Norse myth described a magical gem used to navigate the seas, which could reveal the position of the sun when hidden behind clouds or even before dawn or after sunset. Now it appears the myth is in fact true. In March 2013, a team of scientists announced that a unique calcite crystal, which was found in the wreck of an Elizabethan ship sunk off the Channel Islands, contains properties consistent with the legendary Viking sunstone and that shards of the crystal can indeed act as a remarkably precise navigational aid. According to the 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 are equal, the sun's position can be pinpointed with remarkable accuracy.

 8. The Baghdad Battery

The Baghdad Battery, sometimes referred to as the Parthian Battery, is a clay pot which encapsulates a copper cylinder. Suspended in the centre of this cylinder—but not touching it—is an iron rod. Both the copper cylinder and the iron rod are held in place with an asphalt plug. These artifacts (more than one was found) were discovered during the 1936 excavations of the old village Khujut Rabu, near Baghdad. The village is considered to be about 2000 years old, and was built during the Parthian period (250BC to 224 AD). Although it is not known exactly what the use of such a device would have been, the name ‘Baghdad Battery’, comes from one of the prevailing theories established in 1938 when Wilhelm Konig, the German archaeologist who performed the excavations, examined the battery and concluded that this device was an ancient electric battery. After the Second World War, Willard Gray, an American working at the General Electric High Voltage Laboratory in Pittsfield, built replicas and, filling them with an electrolyte, found that the devices could produce 2 volts of electricity. The question remains, if it really was a battery, what was it used to power?

9. 1,600-year-old goblet shows that the Romans used nanotechnology

The Lycurgus Cup, as it is known due to its depiction of a scene involving King Lycurgus of Thrace, is a 1,600-year-old jade green Roman chalice that changes colour depending on the direction of the light upon it. It baffled scientists ever since the glass chalice was acquired by the British Museum in the 1950s. They could not work out why the cup appeared jade green when lit from the front but blood red when lit from behind. The mystery was solved in 1990, when researchers in England scrutinized broken fragments under a microscope and discovered that the Roman artisans were nanotechnology pioneers: they had impregnated the glass with particles of silver and gold, ground down until they were as small as 50 nanometres in diameter, less than one-thousandth the size of a grain of table salt. The work was so precise that there is no way that the resulting effect was an accident. In fact, the exact mixture of the metals suggests that the Romans had perfected the use of nanoparticles. When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in ways that alter the colour depending on the observer’s position.

10. The ancient Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism was discovered in 1900 during the recovery of a shipwreck off of the Greek island, Antikythera, in waters 60 meters deep. It is a metallic device which consists of a complex combination of gears, and dates back to the 2nd century BCE. The Antikythera mechanism is one of the most amazing mechanical devices discovered from the ancient world. For decades, scientists have utilized the latest technology in attempts to decipher its functionality; however, due to its complexity, its true purpose and function remained elusive. But in the last few years, a number of scientists appear to have solved the mystery as to precisely how this incredible piece of technology once worked. Peter Lynch, professor of meteorology at University College Dublin, explains: “The mechanism was driven by a handle that turned a linked system of more than 30 gear wheels…The gears were coupled to pointers on the front and back of the mechanism, showing the positions of the sun, moon and planets as they moved through the zodiac. An extendable arm with a pin followed a spiral groove, like a record player stylus. A small sphere, half white and half black, indicated the phase of the moon. Even more impressive was the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses.” Amazingly, the device even included a dial to indicate which of the pan-Hellenic games would take place each year, with the Olympics occurring every fourth year. Just one small cog out of 30 remains a mystery and it is hoped that further research can place this last piece in the puzzle.

By April Holloway

Friday, October 27, 2017

Volcanic Eruptions and Climate Change Incited Upheaval in Ancient Egypt - and Historians Warn of Repetition

Ancient Origins

The Nile river was the lifeblood of ancient Egypt. When the waterway flooded nearby lands things were good, but a lack of that precious water caused serious issues. Now, historians have found that the famous waterway could have been negatively impacted at key moments in the Ptolemaic period – inciting social, political, and economic upheavals. Most surprisingly, it seems that the lack of Nile flooding could have been set off by volcanic eruptions altering the climate.

 The results of research on the link between the climatic impact in ancient Egypt by volcanoes was recently published in Nature Communications. In the paper, the authors explain that “Explosive eruptions can perturb climate by injecting sulfurous gases into the stratosphere; these gases react to form reflective sulfate aerosols that remain aloft in decreasing concentrations for approximately one to two years.” Through a chain of events, those sulfurous gases cool the atmosphere, and if that takes place in the Northern Hemisphere, monsoon rains may not move as far as they usually do.

Merapi volcano, eruption at night. (1865) Raden Saleh. (Public Domain)

Francis Ludlow, a climate historian at Trinity College in Dublin and a co-author of the study, explained to EurekAlert! how those climatic events impacted the Nile River, “When the monsoon rains don't move far enough north, you don't have as much rain falling over Ethiopia. And that's what feeds the summer flood of the Nile in Egypt that was so critical to agriculture.”

Burial chamber of Sennedjem, Scene: Plowing farmer. (Public Domain)

Science Alert reports that the researchers have linked at least three major events in ancient Egypt’s declining years to volcanic eruptions and the subsequent suppression of the Nile. An eruption in 245 BC has been used as a partial explanation for Ptolemy III's exit from the area now Syria and Iraq, as the Roman historian Justinus wrote, if Ptolemy III “had not been recalled to Egypt by disturbances at home, [he] would have made himself master of all Seleucus's dominions.”

The 20-year Theban revolt (starting in 207 BC) has been connected to another volcanic eruption. And finally, eruptions during the reign of Cleopatra VII in 46 and 44 BC led to serious famines and the release of state-reserved grain. This may have been the so-called “straw that broke the camel’s back” – climatic, social, political, and economic upheaval combined and brought down the famous ancient Egyptian civilization.

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887). (Public Domain)

Ludlow says that the connection between the eruptions, Nile failure, and problematic events in Egypt are “highly unlikely to have occurred by chance, such is the level of overlap.”

The historians determined the impact of the eruptions on the Nile and Egyptian society by examining a monument known as al-Miqyas, or the Nilometer, which has preserved a record of the Nile's summer peaks since the early 7th century. They combined that data with events prior to that time by piecing together information from previous research providing a timeline of major volcanic eruptions around the world and historical records

Measuring shaft of the Nilometer on Rhoda Island, Cairo. Nilometers measured how high or low the flood would be. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Yale University researcher Joseph Manning told EurekAlert! “That's the beauty of these climate records. For the first time, you can actually see a dynamic society in Egypt, not just a static description of a bunch of texts in chronological order.

The Nile River from a boat between Luxor and Aswan. (Public Domain)

But this is not just a story of past issues, the researchers stressed to EurekAlert! that we should take note. Ludlow says:

 “The 21st century has been lacking in explosive eruptions of the kind that can severely affect monsoon patterns. But that could change at any time. The potential for this needs to be taken into account in trying to agree on how the valuable waters of the Blue Nile are going to be managed between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.”

 This study is part of the Volcanic Impacts on Climate and Society working group of Past Global Changes (PAGES), a global research project of Future Earth.

Fragment of a temple relief with Nile god Hapi. The inscription on the frieze reads "all luck, all life" which is what was hoped for; Medinet (Egypt); 746-655 BC. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Artist’s depiction of an Ancient Egyptian girl kneeling by the Nile River. Source: Ann Wuyts/ CC BY 2.0

By Alicia McDermott

Thursday, October 26, 2017

1800-Year-Old Roman Era Theater Found at Jerusalem’s Western Wall

Ancient Origins

What seems to be a long-lost ancient Roman Theater has been unearthed next to Jerusalem's Western Wall. The archaeological dig under Wilson’s Arch also revealed eight previously unknown layers of Western Wall stones.

Roman Amphitheater
Hidden for More than 1,700 Years A team of Israeli archaeologists have unearthed what they speculate may have been an ancient Roman amphitheater that hasn't seen the light of day in more than 1,700 years as Phys Org reported. Excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority are currently taking place underneath Wilson's Arch, which stands next to the holy site in the heart of the Old City. Wilson’s Arch, built of immense stones, is the last of a series of such arches that

Wilson's Arch, gives entry to the Temple Mount on the western section of the plaza. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The team was hoping to find artifacts that would help them date Wilson's Arch, but during the dig they unexpectedly came across the buried theater. "The discovery was a real surprise," site excavators Joe Uziel, Tehillah Lieberman and Avi Solomon said in a statement. "We did not imagine that a window would open for us onto the mystery of Jerusalem's lost theater. What's very exciting about this amazing structure is that we totally didn't expect to find it here," Uziel told CNN.

Dr. Joe Uziel, Excavation Director, standing on steps of the amphitheater (Image: Israel Antiquities)

Theater-Like Structure Couldn’t Have Held More than 200 People
“This is a relatively small structure compared to known Roman theaters (such as at Caesarea, Bet She’an and Bet Guvrin). This fact, in addition to its location under a roofed space – in this case under Wilson’s Arch – leads us to suggest that this is a theater-like structure of the type known in the Roman world as an odeon. In most cases, such structures were used for acoustic performances. Alternatively, this may have been a structure known as a bouleuterion – the building where the city council met, in this case the council of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina – Roman Jerusalem,” the archaeologist said as CNN reported. “It’s probably the most important archaeological site in the country, the first public structure from the Roman period of Jerusalem,” Yuval Baruch, chief Jerusalem architect at the Israel Antiquities Authority, told AFP. "It's a theater-like structure that held 200 people," he added.

Archaeologist Tehillah Lieberman on unfinished steps (Image: Israel Antiquities)

The Amphitheater Wasn't Completed
However, it's unlikely that performers or politicians ever used the amphitheater. Several signs, such as an uncut staircase and unfinished carvings, suggest that it was abandoned before its inaugural performance. It's not yet clear why the amphitheater wasn't completed, but it's possible that the Bar Kokhba Revolt, when the Jews rebelled against the Romans, had something to do with the theater's unfinished circumstances, the archaeologists suggest. Perhaps construction began before the revolt, but was abandoned once the revolt started.

Other unfinished buildings from this period have been found in the Western Wall Plaza, the archaeologists added. "This is indeed one of the most important findings in all my 30 years at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation," Mordechai (Suli) Eliav, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, said in a statement. And added, "This discovery joins many other findings uncovered in the area of the Western Wall Plaza, which together create a living historical mosaic of Jerusalem and the Western Wall for which the generations longed so powerfully."

Other Finds Include Pottery Vessels and Coins
Other findings under Wilson's Arch include pottery vessels and coins. During the recent excavation under the arch, archaeologists also found eight stone courses and a human-made stone layer supporting the structure above buried under 26 feet (8 meters) of dirt. Ultimately, The Jerusalem Post reports that the findings will be presented to the public during a conference called “New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and its Environs,” which will take place later this year at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to celebrate the 50 years of archaeology since the unification of Jerusalem.

Top image: Theater-like structure found at the Western Wall Tunnels, Jerusalem (Image: Israel Antiquities)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

900-Year-Old German Monastery Forced to Shut Down Because of Monk Shortage

Ancient Origins

Himmerod Abbey, a Cistercian monastery that's existed for almost 900 years in what is now western Germany is closing down for good, due to running expenses and also a shortage of monks. Notably, the monastery was used during the 1950’s in a distinctly non-monastic capacity, as a secret meeting point of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers discussing West Germany's rearmament.

 Closure After 883 Years of Operation
Himmerod Abbey is a Cistercian monastery in western Germany that was founded in 1134 by French Abbot Bernhard of Clairvaux. After coming back from the brink of bankruptcy six years ago, the monastery now has to shut its doors permanently as DW reports. There are only six monks currently living in the abbey compared to the thirty residing there almost forty years ago.

Himmerod Monastery Church (CC BY 2.0)

In 1922 the monastery was re-founded by the settlement of German Cistercian monks from the former monastery of Mariastern in modern-day Bosnia. The church building was reconstructed under Abbot Vitus Recke (Abbot from 1937 to 1959), and completed in 1962. The abbey today has a museum, a book - and art shop, a café, a guesthouse and retreat-house, as well as a fishery. Its highlight, however, is its own publishing house, the Himmerod Drucke, which has published over 50 works by a number of authors, especially Father Stephan Reimund Senge, a monk at Himmerod. The journal Unsere Liebe Frau von Himmerod ("Our Lady of Himmerod") appears three times a year, and the newsletter Himmeroder Rundbrief edited by Father Stephan, about ten times a year.

Himmerod Abbey by Fritz von Wille, pre-1941, church ruins before reconstruction (Public Domain)

The Infamous Himmerod Memorandum
 The Himmerod memorandum was a 40-page document produced following a 1950 secret meeting of former Wehrmacht high-ranking officers invited by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to the Himmerod Abbey to discuss West Germany's rearmament. The resulting document laid foundation for the establishment of the new army – Bundeswehr – of the Federal Republic.

The memorandum, along with the public declaration of Wehrmacht's "honor" by the Allied military commanders and West Germany's politicians, contributed to the creation of the myth of the "clean Wehrmacht.”

From 5 to 9 October 1950, a group of former senior officers, at the behest of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, met in secret at the Himmerod Abbey, from where the memorandum took its name, to discuss West Germany's rearmament. The participants were divided in several subcommittees that focused on the political, ethical, operational and logistical aspects of the future armed forces.

The resulting memorandum included a summary of the discussions at the conference and bore the name "Memorandum on the Formation of a German Contingent for the Defense of Western Europe within the framework of an International Fighting Force". It was intended as both a planning document and as a basis of negotiations with the Western Allies. The participants of the conference were convinced that no future German army would be possible without the historical rehabilitation of the Wehrmacht.

Himmerod Church interior (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Uncertain Future
The monastery’s property, near the village of Grosslittgen, will be transferred to the Catholic diocese of Trier, while the six monks will move to other monasteries. The Catholic diocese of Trier has yet to announce what it plans to do with the site. Additionally, it is not yet clear what will happen to the monastery's other staff. "Himmerod will remain a spiritual site,” head of the monastery, Abbot Johannes, said as DW reports. “The walls have retained this history. I am telling you: There is no way to destroy this spiritual place, which has attracted people for centuries. I am certain people will continue to come here," he added.

The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 in response to a perceived abandonment of humility by the leading order of the time. Cistercian monasteries are divided into those that follow the Common Observance, the Middle Observance and the Strict Observance also known as Trappists. Despite the latest closure, there are still more than 160 Trappist monasteries in the world, with over 2,000 Trappist monks and roughly 1800 Trappist nuns.

Himmerod Abbey church (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top image: Himmerod Abbey and Church building (Public Domain)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Ruins of Ramses II Temple Unearthed in Giza's Abusir

Ancient Origins

An Egyptian-Czech archaeological mission has unearthed the ruins of a King Ramses II temple during excavation works taking place in the Abusir necropolis in the governorate of Giza. Ramses II was one of the most powerful and celebrated Egyptian kings and was revered as a god in his own lifetime. The absence of evidence of his building in this important area was an anomaly which this discovery now corrects. The archaeologists also uncovered telling reliefs of solar deities.

 Temple Stretches an Impressive 1768 Square Meters
Deputy Head of the mission, Mohamed Megahed, told Ahram Online that the temple is positioned in an area that forms a natural transition between a terrace of the Nile and the floodplain in Abusir. He also added that the temple stretches over 1768 square meters (18700 sq. ft.) and consists of a mud brick foundation for one of its pylons, a large forecourt that leads to the hypostyle hall, parts of which are painted blue.

View of the entrance pylon of the temple (Image: Czech Institute of Egyptology)

At the rear end of the court, the team of archaeologists discovered a staircase or a ramp to a sanctuary, the back of which is divided into three parallel chambers. The ruins of this building were lying under sand and rubble, which also contain ancient remnants which are of archaeological interest.

 “The remains of this building, which constitutes the very core of the complex, were covered with huge deposits of sand and chips of stone of which many bore fragments of polychrome reliefs,” Dr. Mirsolave Barta, director of the Czech mission, told Ahram Online.

View of the excavated temple looking south (Image: Czech Institute of Egyptology)

Temple is the First Evidence of King Ramses II Building in Memphis Necropolis
King Ramses II, (also spelt Ramesses or Rameses and given the title Ramses the Great) had the second longest known reign in Egypt, as the third king of the 19th dynasty of Egypt, 13th century BC). He was well known for extensive building programs but until now this had not been in evidence at the Memphis necropolis where so many other temples are found. Although the presence of Ramses is known here not least from a huge statue that was recovered from the Great Temple of Ptah in 1820 but that long missing evidence of construction has now been found.

Dr. Barta went on to explain that the different titles of King Ramses II were found inscribed on a relief fragment connected to the cult of the solar deities. Furthermore, the head of the Czech mission said that relief fragments portraying scenes of the solar gods Amun, Ra and Nekhbet were also discovered. The find thus verifies the uninterrupted worship of the sun god Ra in the region of Abusir, which began in the 5th dynasty and continued until the era of the New Kingdom. However, the most important thing about this discovery likely remains that this temple is the first evidence so far of King Ramses II’s construction in the Memphis necropolis.

Cartouche of Ramses II, (Image: Czech Institute of Egyptology)

“The discovery of the Ramses II temple provides unique evidence on building and religious activities of the king in Memphis area and at the same time shows the permanent status of the cult of sun god Re who was venerated in Abusir since the 5th Dynasty and onwards to the New Kingdom,” Barta tells Ahram Online.

The Life and Death of Ramses II
As we have previously reported at Ancient Origins, Ramses II is arguably one of the greatest pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Being the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, Ramses II ascended the throne of Egypt during his late teens in 1279 BC following the death of his father – Seti I. He is known to have ruled ancient Egypt for a total of 66 years, outliving many of his sons in the process – although he is believed to have fathered more than 100 children. As a result of his long and prosperous reign, Ramses II was able to undertake numerous military campaigns against neighboring regions, as well as build monuments to the gods, and of course, to himself.

Ramses II colossal statue in the Memphis open air museum in Egypt. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

 Despite being the one of the most powerful men on earth during his life, Ramses II did not have much control over his physical remains after his death. While his mummified body was originally buried in the tomb KV7 in the Valley of the Kings, looting by grave robbers prompted the Egyptian priests to move his body to a safer resting place. The actions of these priests have rescued the mummy of Ramses II from the looters, only to have it fall into the hands of archaeologists.

In 1881, the mummy of Ramses II, along with those of more than fifty other rulers and nobles were discovered in a secret royal cache at Dier el-Bahri. Ramses II’s mummy was identified based on the hieroglyphics, which detailed the relocation of his mummy by the priests, on the linen covering the body of the pharaoh. About a hundred years after his mummy was discovered, archaeologists noticed the deteriorating condition of Ramses II’s mummy and decided to fly it to Paris to be treated for a fungal infection. Interestingly, the pharaoh was issued an Egyptian passport, in which his occupation was listed as ‘King (deceased)’. Today, the mummy of this great pharaoh rests in the Cairo Museum in Egypt.

Top image: Colossal Statue of Ramses II in Memphis. (CC BY-SA 2.0) Ramses II and his prisoners, Memphis relief (CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Legend of Helen of Troy

Ancient Origins

The mythical Helen of Troy has inspired poets and artists for centuries as the woman whose beauty sparked the Trojan War. But Helen’s character is more complex than it seems. When considering the many Greek and Roman myths that surround Helen, from her childhood to her life after the Trojan War, a layered and fascinating woman emerges.

 Helen is among the mythical characters fathered by Zeus. In the form of a swan, Zeus either seduced or assaulted Helen’s mother Leda. On the same night, Leda slept with her husband Tyndareus and as a result gave birth to four children, who hatched from two eggs.

“Leda and the Swan” by Cesare da Sesto, copy of lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci (1515-1520). Image source.

From one egg came the semi-divine children, Helen and Polydeuces (who is called Pollux in Latin), and from the other egg came the mortals Clytemnestra and Castor. The boys, collectively called the Dioscuri, became the divine protectors of sailors at sea, while Helen and Clytemnestra would go on to play important roles in the saga of the Trojan War.

 In another, older myth, Helen’s parents were Zeus and Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance. In this version, too, Helen hatched from an egg.

Helen was destined to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Her reputation was so great that even as a young child, the hero Theseus desired her for his bride. He kidnapped her and hid her in his city of Athens, but when he was away, Helen’s brothers, the Dioscuri, rescued her and brought her home.

As an adult, Helen was courted by many suitors, out of whom she chose Menelaus, the king of Sparta. But though Menelaus was valiant and wealthy, Helen’s love for him would prove tenuous.

Around this time there was a great event among the Olympians: the marriage of the goddess Thetis to the mortal Peleus. All the gods were invited to attend except for Eris, whose name means “discord.” Furious at her exclusion, Eris comes to the party anyway and tosses an apple to the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite on which is written “for the most beautiful.” Each goddess claims the apple is meant for her and the ensuing dispute threatens the peace of Olympus.

 Zeus appoints the Trojan prince Paris to judge who is most beautiful of the three. To sway his vote, each goddess offers Paris a bribe. From Hera, Paris would have royal power, while Athena offers victory in battle. Aphrodite promises him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife, and Paris names her winner of the competition.

“The Judgment of Paris” by Peter Paul Reubens (ca. 1638).

Paris contemplates the goddesses while Hermes holds up the apple. Athena is nearest to Hermes with her characteristic weapons by her side, Aphrodite is in the middle with her son Eros hugging her leg, and Hera stands on the far right. Image source.

To claim the prize promised by Aphrodite, Paris travels to the court of Menelaus, where he is honored as guest. Defying the ancient laws of hospitality, Paris seduces Helen and flees with her in his ship.

Roman poet Ovid writes a letter from Helen to Paris, capturing her mix of hesitance and eagerness:

I wish you had come in your swift ship back then, When my virginity was sought by a thousand suitors. If I had seen you, you would have been first of the thousand, My husband will give me pardon for this judgment! (Ovid, Heroides 17.103-6)

“The Abduction of Helen” by Gavin Hamilton (1784). Image source.

Paris sails home to Troy with his new bride, an act which was considered abduction regardless of Helen’s complicity. When Menelaus discovers that Helen is gone, he and his brother Agamemnon lead troops overseas to wage war on Troy.

There is, however, another version of Helen’s journey from Mycenae put forth by the historian Herodotus, the poet Stesichorus, and the playwright Euripides in his play Helen. In this version, a storm forces Paris and Helen to land in Egypt, where the local king removes Helen from her kidnapper and sends Paris back to Troy. In Egypt, Helen is worshipped as the “Foreign Aphrodite.” Meanwhile, at Troy, a phantom image of Helen convinces the Greeks she is there. Eventually, the Greeks win the war and Menelaus arrives in Egypt to reunite with the real Helen and sail home. Herodotus argues that this version of the story is more plausible because if the Trojans had had the real Helen in their city, they would have given her back rather than let so many great soldiers die in battle over her.

Nevertheless, in the most popular version of the story, that of Homer, Helen and Paris return to Troy together. When they arrive, Paris’ first wife, the nymph Oenone, sees them together and laments that he has abandoned her. She grows bitter and even faults Helen for having been kidnapped by Theseus as a child. In heartbroken anger she says:

She who is abducted so often, must offer herself up to be abducted! (Ovid, Heroides V.132)

Paris’ slight against Oenone would prove detrimental for him in the end.

The Greeks sail to Troy and ten years of war commence.

Featured image: Helen of Troy by Evelyn De Morgan (1898, London). Image source.

 Primary Sources Euripides Helen; Trojan Women; Orestes Herodotus, The Histories Homer, Iliad; Odyssey Hyginus, Fabulae Lucian, Judgment of Paris Ovid, Heroides V, XVI, XVII Stesichorus, Palinode Vergil, Aeneid By Miriam Kamil

Sunday, October 22, 2017

6 myths about Richard III

History Extra

Myth 1: Richard was a murderer Shakespeare’s famous play,
 Richard III, summarises Richard’s alleged murder victims in the list of ghosts who prevent his sleep on the last night of his life. These comprise Edward of Westminster (putative son of King Henry VI); Henry VI himself; George, Duke of Clarence; Earl Rivers; Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan; Lord Hastings; the ‘princes in the Tower’; the Duke of Buckingham and Queen Anne Neville.

But Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Buckingham were all executed (a legal process), not murdered: Clarence was executed by Edward IV (probably on the incentive of Elizabeth Woodville). Rivers, Grey and Vaughan were executed by the Earl of Northumberland, and Hastings and Buckingham were executed by Richard III because they had conspired against him. Intriguingly, similar subsequent actions by Henry VII are viewed as a sign of ‘strong kingship’!

There is no evidence that Edward of Westminster, Henry VI, the ‘princes in the Tower’ or Anne Neville were murdered by anyone. Edward of Westminster was killed at the battle of Tewkesbury, and Anne Neville almost certainly died naturally. Also, if Richard III really had been a serious killer in the interests of his own ambitions, why didn’t he kill Lord and Lady Stanley – and John Morton?

Morton had plotted with Lord Hastings in 1483, but while Hastings was executed, Morton was only imprisoned. As for the Stanleys, Lady Stanley was involved in Buckingham's rebellion. And in June 1485, when the invasion of his stepson, Henry Tudor was imminent, Lord Stanley requested leave to retire from court. His loyalty had always been somewhat doubtful. Nevertheless, Richard III simply granted Stanley's request - leading ultimately to the king's own defeat at Bosworth.

Myth 2: Richard was a usurper
The dictionary definition of ‘usurp’ is “to seize and hold (the power and rights of another, for example) by force or without legal authority”. The official website of the British Monarchy states unequivocally (but completely erroneously) that “Richard III usurped the throne from the young Edward V”.

Curiously, the monarchy website does not describe either Henry VII or Edward IV as usurpers, yet both of those kings seized power by force, in battle! On the other hand, Richard III did not seize power. He was offered the crown by the three estates of the realm (the Lords and Commons who had come to London for the opening of a prospective Parliament in 1483) on the basis of evidence presented to them by one of the bishops, to the effect that Edward IV had committed bigamy and that Edward V and his siblings were therefore bastards.

Even if that judgement was incorrect, the fact remains that it was a legal authority that invited a possibly reluctant Richard to assume the role of king. His characterisation as a ‘usurper’ is therefore simply an example of how history is rewritten by the victors (in this case, Henry VII).

Myth 3: Richard aimed to marry his niece It has frequently been claimed (on the basis of reports of a letter, the original of which does not survive), that in 1485 Richard III planned to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. There is no doubt that rumours to this effect were current in 1485, and we know for certain that Richard was concerned about them. That is not surprising, since his invitation to mount the throne had been based upon the conclusion that all of Edward IV’s children were bastards.

Obviously no logical monarch would have sought to marry a bastard niece. In fact, very clear evidence survives that proves beyond question that Richard did intend to remarry in 1485. However, his chosen bride was the Portuguese princess Joana. What’s more, his diplomats in Portugal were also seeking to arrange a second marriage there – between Richard’s illegitimate niece, Elizabeth, and a minor member of the Portuguese royal family!

Myth 4: Richard slept at the Boar Inn in Leicester In August 1485, prior to the battle of Bosworth, Richard III spent one night in Leicester. About a century later, a myth began to emerge that claimed that on this visit he had slept at a Leicester inn that featured the sign of a boar. This story is still very widely believed today.

However, there is no evidence to even show that such an inn existed in 1485. We know that previously Richard had stayed at the castle on his rare visits to Leicester. The earliest written source for the story of the Boar Inn visit is John Speede [English cartographer and historian, d1629].

Curiously, Speede also produced another myth about Richard III – that his body had been dug up at the time of the Dissolution. Many people in Leicester used to believe Speede’s story about the fate of Richard’s body. However, when the BBC commissioned me to research it in 2004, I concluded that it was false, and I was proved right by the finding of the king’s remains on the Greyfriars site in 2012. The story of staying at the Boar Inn is probably also nothing more than a later invention.

Myth 5: Richard rode a white horse at Bosworth
In his famous play about the king, Shakespeare has Richard III order his attendants to ‘Saddle white Surrey [Syrie] for the field tomorrow’. On this basis it is sometimes stated as fact that Richard rode a white horse at his final battle. But prior to Shakespeare, no one had recorded this, although an earlier 16th-century chronicler, Edward Hall, had said that Richard rode a white horse when he entered Leicester a couple of days earlier.

There is no evidence to prove either point. Nor is there any proof that Richard owned a horse called ‘White Syrie’ or ‘White Surrey’. However, we do know that his stables contained grey horses (horses with a coat of white hair).

Myth 6: Richard attended his last mass at Sutton Cheney Church
It was claimed in the 1920s that early on the morning of 22 August 1485, Richard III made his way from his camp to Sutton Cheney Church in order to attend mass there. No earlier source exists for this unlikely tale, which appears to have been invented in order to provide an ecclesiastical focus for modern commemorations of Richard.

A slightly different version of this story was recently circulated to justify the fact that, prior to reburial, the king’s remains will be taken to Sutton Cheney. It was said it is believed King Richard took his final mass at St James’ church on the eve of the battle.

 For a priest to celebrate mass in the evening (at a time when he would have been required to fast from the previous midnight, before taking communion) would have been very unusual! Moreover, documentary evidence shows clearly that Richard’s army at Bosworth was accompanied by his own chaplains, who would normally have celebrated mass for the king in his tent.

John Ashdown-Hill is the author of The Mythology of Richard III (Amberley Publishing, April 2015). To find out more about the author, visit www.johnashdownhill.com.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Shakespeare’s best (or worst) villains

History Extra

Tamora – Titus Andronicus
Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is a cruel and brutal central player in Shakespeare’s ultimate revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. Her ruthless, bloody-minded scheming leads to a gore-fest worthy of Game of Thrones.

We are introduced to Tamora as a conquered queen, begging the general of Rome, Titus Andronicus, to show her captured sons mercy. When Titus refuses and instead executes her sons he unleashes a maelstrom of vengeance, as Tamora becomes fuelled by the need to wreak revenge on Titus and his family.

Tamora is patient in her quest for vengeance. She secures herself a powerful position by marrying the weak-willed emperor Saturninus, who she manipulates as a political pawn while conducting an illicit relationship with Aaron, her equally scheming lover.

Tamora’s villainy reaches a shocking peak when she orders her two surviving sons to rape and mutilate Titus’s daughter Lavinia, cruelly ignoring the innocent girl’s pleas for mercy and mocking her distress. In one of Shakespeare’s most shocking and disturbing moments, Lavinia emerges with her hands cut off and her tongue removed. In a 2014 production at London’s Globe Theatre the gore was so overwhelming that during the course of the 51-show run 100 audience members reportedly either fainted (including the reviewer from The Independent) or had to leave.

Tamora gets her comeuppance in one of Shakespeare’s most outrageously blood-soaked finales: Titus murders her two sons and serves them to her baked in a pie. After unwittingly eating the pie Tamora is stabbed to death, as the final scene descends into a bloodbath.

Angelo – Measure for Measure
At first glance Angelo appears quite unlike any of Shakespeare’s other villains: a puritanical moral crusader whose righteousness (and name) seems almost otherworldly. He appears immune to sins of the flesh, described in Act I as “a man whose blood/ is very snow-broth; one who never feels/ the wanton stings and motions of the sense.” However, we quickly come to discover that the upright Angelo is not as virtuous as he first seems.

As temporary leader of Vienna, Angelo proves harsh and unforgiving. He takes a malevolent delight in dishing out severe justice, proclaiming in one scene: “hoping you’ll find good cause to whip them all”.

One way in which Angelo asserts his authority is by cracking down on the city’s sexual immorality, sentencing the young Claudio to death for impregnating his lover. But when Claudio’s virtuous sister Isabella comes to beg for mercy for her brother, Angelo’s intense hypocrisy is revealed. Consumed by lust for Isabella he propositions her, claiming he will reprieve Claudio if she agrees – and if not, her brother’s death is guaranteed to be slow and tortuous.

Revelations from Angelo’s past highlight further his cruel nature, as the audience learns that he abandoned his fiancée when her dowry was lost in a shipwreck.

However, Angelo is not entirely incorrigible. He is willing to confess his sins and expresses guilt, stating in Act V, Scene I “I crave death more willingly than mercy”. Furthermore, none of his immoral plans come to fruition; Isabella is not seduced and Claudio is not executed. Despite his corrupt lust and serious hypocrisy, he is one of Shakespeare’s few villains to be granted forgiveness. The Duke of Vienna pardons his crimes and repeals his death sentence, on the condition that he marries the mistress he abandoned.

1603-4 engraving of a scene from Measure For Measure. (Archive photos/ Getty images)

Richard III – Richard III
Despite having little grounding in historical fact, Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III as a Machiavellian villain who had a physical deformity, lusted after his niece and lost his “kingdom for a horse” has had real sticking power.

A malicious, deceptive and bitter usurper who seizes England’s throne by nefarious means, Shakespeare’s Richard takes delight in his own villainy. He is unabashed in his evil motives, shamelessly proclaiming in his famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech: “I am determined to prove a villain”. However, Richard is also an undeniably charming and complex figure who sucks in the audience with his immoral logic and dazzling wordplay.

But Richard’s sins come back to haunt him – quite literally. Shakespeare provides us a long list of Richard’s murder victims, in a roll call of ghosts that visit him on the last night of his life. Edward of Westminster; Henry VI; George, Duke of Clarence; Earl Rivers; Richard Grey; Thomas Vaughan; Lord Hastings; the princes in the Tower; the Duke of Buckingham and Queen Anne Neville are all claimed to have been murdered by the king.

Writing for History Extra, John Ashdown-Hill suggests that Shakespeare’s claims here are both unfair and untrue. He suggests that some of Richard’s alleged victims (Clarence, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Buckingham) were legitimately and legally executed, while “there is no evidence that Edward of Westminster, Henry VI, the princes in the Tower or Anne Neville were murdered by anyone”.

Immediately after his visitation by spirits – the evening before his downfall and death – Richard appears to be suddenly struck by doubt. Despite the glee he formerly took in his wrongdoing, he suddenly lacks conviction about his actions: “O no, alas, I rather hate myself/ For hateful deeds committed by myself/ I am a villain”.

Goneril and Regan – King Lear
Described by their own father as “unnatural hags”, Goneril and Regan are two grasping, self-interested and power-hungry daughters of King Lear. Their willingness to betray their father and their honest sister Cordelia causes the collapse of a kingdom and ultimately leads to Lear’s descent into madness.

In the play’s opening scene the elderly Lear declares his intention to step down as king and divide his realm between his three daughters. In response to this, Goneril and Regan cleverly charm their father, hoping to grasp all they can from his inheritance. Falling for their superficial flattery, Lear divides his kingdom between the two of them, disinheriting Cordelia, who claims she cannot express her love for her father in words. This proves to be a fatal mistake, as Goneril and Regan’s feigned loyalty dissolves rapidly and their willingness to betray their father quickly becomes clear.

 By Act III the sisters’ ruthless political manoeuvrings have descended into outright violence. Regan and husband, the Duke of Cornwall, torture her father’s supporter Gloucester, plucking out his eyes and turning him out to wander blindly in the wild. Cornwall’s gruesome exclamation of “Out, vile jelly!” as he rips out the old man’s eyes, is one of the play’s most memorable – and horrifying – moments.

Goneril and Regan’s malevolence eventually turns inwards and rips them apart. Fuelled by jealousy at her sister’s supposed relationship with Edmund (another central villain of the play), Goneril poisons Regan and then kills herself.

 Lady Macbeth – Macbeth
Lady Macbeth is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating female characters. Driven towards evil by a deep ambition and a ruthless appetite for power, she uses her sexuality and powers of manipulation to exert a corrosive influence over her husband, Macbeth.

Arguably a more compelling character than her husband, Lady Macbeth is generally viewed as the driving force behind Macbeth’s lust for power. While he is plagued by uncertainty about killing those who stand in his way, his wife is altogether stronger in her immoral convictions. She persuades him to pursue the Scottish throne by violent and deceptive means, telling him to “look like th' innocent flower/ but be the serpent under't”.

Lady Macbeth encourages her husband’s wrongdoing by portraying murder as both the logical and brave course of action, telling him to “Screw your courage to the sticking place/and we’ll not fail”. After Macbeth murders King Duncan (to claim his throne) she reassures him that “what’s done, is done” and cleans up the murder scene when Macbeth is too afraid to do so. At other points in the play Lady Macbeth’s manipulation of her husband descends into outright bullying. In an intriguing reversal of gender roles she dismisses her husband’s anxiety as feminine weakness, mockingly asking “are you a man?” in response to his hesitation.

Like many of Shakespeare’s villains, Lady Macbeth is eventually consumed by her guilty conscience and driven mad by her murderous actions. Plagued by episodes of sleepwalking, she wanders through the castle, unable to rid the image of her bloodstained hands from her mind, muttering: “Out damn’d spot… who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?” This is our last image of Lady Macbeth – in the play’s final act she becomes disappointingly absent, eventually committing suicide offstage.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, in a 1906 painting by John Singer Sargent. (Print Collector/Getty Images)

Claudius – Hamlet
In the first act of Hamlet, Shakespeare tells his audience “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. We quickly discover that this is a reference to Denmark’s usurper king – and Hamlet’s uncle – Claudius.

A crafty politician determined to maintain his grasp over his kingdom, Claudius is guilty of the ultimate sin – fratricide. He has secretly murdered his brother, the king (Hamlet’s father), pouring poison into his ear as he slept, in order to claim his throne and steal his wife.

 But, like Macbeth and Richard III, Claudius too is plagued by the vengeful ghost of his victim. The spirit of the dead king appears to Hamlet, demanding to be avenged and exposing Claudius as “that incestuous, that adulterate beast/ with witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts...”.

Shakespeare has crafted a particularly intriguing villain in Claudius by giving him a conscience. Unlike Iago, Tamora or Richard III, Claudius takes no pleasure in his wrongdoing. In Act III he expresses his guilt when he confesses his sins in prayer: “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven”.

King Claudius ultimately falls victim to his own conniving nature, as his wife, Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother, who many critics suggest Claudius genuinely loves), accidentally drinks from a poisoned chalice Claudius had intended for Hamlet. Claudius, too, meets his bitter end in classic bloody Shakespearean form: Hamlet stabs Claudius with a poisoned sword before forcing him to drink from the poisoned chalice.

Iago – Othello
 Many scholars see Iago as the most inherently evil of all Shakespeare’s villains. He spends the course of the play relentlessly plotting Othello’s downfall and his malicious scheming drives the storyline towards its tragic finale.

What proves so compelling about Iago is that his motivations for such insidious and calculated scheming seem unclear – his only desire appears to be Othello’s destruction. He accomplishes this by planting the seed of jealousy in Othello’s mind. He plots to “pour pestilence into his ear” in order to turn him against his wife, Desdemona. Skillfully concealing his nefarious intentions while winning Othello’s trust, Iago constructs a web of lies to make Othello believe in Desdemona’s sexual infidelity.

The consequences of Iago’s insidious influence are devastating. Enraged by jealousy, Othello eventually murders Desdemona and then kills himself. Although Iago’s schemes are eventually revealed and he is sentenced to execution, it is too little, too late, as his plans have already reached their disastrous conclusion.

Shakespeare does provide some reasons for Iago’s actions: that Othello passed him over for a military promotion and may have slept with his wife. However, it is generally agreed that none of these explanations are really fleshed out enough to provide a convincing motive for Iago’s scheming and profound hatred of Othello. Instead, Iago seems to have an intense enjoyment of manipulation and maliciousness for its own sake, perhaps making him the most essentially evil of all Shakespeare’s villains.