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Showing posts with label myths. Show all posts
Showing posts with label myths. Show all posts

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Damn, Girl-Sigrid the Haughty? More Like Sigrid the Petty and Bloodthirsty

Influential in four countries, Queen of both Sweden and Denmark, mother of two great kings, and instrumental in one of the greatest sea battles of the Viking age, Queen Sigrid the Haughty is most known for setting two potential suitors on fire. Much about Sigrid's life is unknown, and even if she was a real person, a legend, or a combination of several different Viking queens is up for debate. However, the myths around Sigrid are epic in proportion, and if a girl ever made you say 'damn!', it was certainly her.

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Sigrid and her second husband, Sweyn
Sigrid was born in the mid 900s most likely in Poland, but also possibly in Pomerania (modern Czechia) or Denmark. One of the solid facts about Sigrid was that she married King Eric the Victorious of Sweden, and it was written by medieval chroniclers that Eric the Victorious married the daughter of King Mieszko I of Poland and Doubravka of Bohemia (also modern Czechia). Whatever her origins, Sigrid definitely married Eric the Victorious, and they had at least one child, a boy named Olaf, who would succeed his father.

In Sigrid's late twenties or early thirties she was widowed, leaving her as regent for her son Olaf. Beautiful and wealthy, Sigrid was an attractive marriage prospect. Much like Penelope of Homer's Odyssey, suitors came out of the woodwork to compete for Sigrid's hand, including Sigrid's foster brother, Harald Grenske, a minor king in Vestland.

Unlike fair Penelope, Sigrid was not down to deal with suitors tramping around her house disrespecting her, especially if those suitors did not have the fortune or title to match her own. To demonstrate her distaste, she invited Harald, as well as a Russian prince named Vissavald to a great feast. About halfway through, she locked the doors of the meadhall, and set it on fire with Harald and Vissavald still inside. She reportedly stabbed anyone who tried to escape.

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Most of what we know about Sigrid comes from the Icelandic
Sagas
Unlike in the case of Elizabeth Bathory, another famous blood soaked woman, setting a group of rude noblemen on fire was completely respectable. Viking society was harsh, and as the regent of Sweden (keep in mind, this is the WHOLE of Sweden, not just a small part. Sigrid was the overlady, the queen of queens.), Sigrid needed to show that she would not be disrespected. Most of the suitors got the message.

Unfortunately, King Olaf Trygvasson of Norway didn't quite get the message. He came courting, and failed epicly. He praised her beauty and wit, then belittled her manner. He informed her that if she wanted to marry him (keep in mind, there is no record of Sigrid wanting to marry him), she would have to convert to Christianity, something that was completely unthinkable to the deeply devout pagan Sigrid.

When Sigrid gave Olaf his marching orders, he snapped. He called her ugly, saying that he would never want to marry such an old woman anyways. He slapped her on the face--a fatal mistake on his part. According to legend, Sigrid informed Olaf that his blow may 'some day be thy death'.

Several years after her first husband's death, Sigrid remarried, this time to Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark. This united Sweden and Denmark, and Sigrid and Sweyn had two sons, the most famous of whom was known as Canute.


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Sigrid's son, Canute, would later conquer
England
Sigrid didn't forget insults, especially not from the King of Norway. The Icelandic sagas say that she convinced Sweyn, who was already feuding with Norway, to take to the sea against Olaf. Sweyn, combined the Sigrid's Swedish forces, cornered Olaf and the Norwegian navy, thoroughly defeating them at what would later be named The Battle of Skold. Olaf didn't survive the battle. He either jumped off, or was thrown off the side of his ship and sank, dragged down by the weight of his armor.

From here, the details of Sigrid's life get even murkier. From all reports, her marriage to Sweyn wasn't very happy, and the pair split. Sigrid went back to Poland to assist her brother, King Bolesław. With her help, Bolesław was able to make Poland thrive, and they were both well loved by the people. Sigrid could have stayed happy and content in Poland, but when her son Canute conquered England in 1016 she jumped on a ship to join him. Though the details of her life in England are unknown, she likely died, and was buried there.

Many historians dismiss Sigrid as a myth. There are very few surviving historical records from that period, and most of her history was recorded in the Icelandic sagas, written many years after her death. However, mentions of the men she was close to, namely her father and husbands, help establish her existence, if not quite her deeds.

Sources
The Viking Tale of Svein Forkbeard and Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid the Haughty
Sigrid the Haughty: Queen Consort of Four Countries and Owner of a Forceful Personality
Sigrid the Haughty (D. before 1013)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

William Tell-the Man, the Myth, the Apple

William Tell is the great Swiss hero you kinda know about (unless you're Swiss). He is most famous for having shot an apple off his son's head, and for most people, that is the end of their William Tell knowledge. However, William Tell is also a sign of resistance, liberty, and independence. He is one of the most renowned people in Swiss history, and he may not have been real.

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William Tell depicted on a 1970 postage stamp
To understand why William Tell is such a big deal, you have to understand Swiss history. In the early 13th century several groups of Celtic, Germanic, and French people living in the Alps decided that they didn't have much in common with the surrounding countries, so they banded together to form one country.

This wasn't really a problem with the rest of Europe, because at the time the rest of Europe didn't really know or care about Switzerland. High up in their mountains, the Swiss were essentially a group of farmers who didn't even speak the same language. However, all that changed in the mid 1200s, when a bridge across the St. Gotthard's pass was constructed, connecting Switzerland and Italy via land.

A convenient land route between Northern Europe and Italy was a pretty big deal. The Italians had some pretty dope stuff, and everyone wanted to do business with them. However, because of the Alps and the Apennines, Italy was very difficult to get to via land. Sure, you could take a boat, but hiring a ship was expensive, especially if you lived in a landlocked country. In addition to being costly, shipping was risky and time consuming. It was much safer and easier to spend three days trekking through the Uri Canton of Switzerland than it was to spend weeks on a boat.

After construction of the bridge, the people of the Uri canton were doing very well. Travelers had to pay locals for food and shelter, as well as to rent mules to carry their goods through the pass. However, as time went on there began to be some civil unrest. By 1257 the Uri people thought it best to appeal to their nearest nobleman--Rudolph von Hapsburg--to settle their internal issues. Rudolph agreed most readily.

In late 1257 Rudolph marched his armies into Switzerland, and just sorta stayed. The Swiss had, effectively, invited a wolf to a sheep's dinner party, and the wolf was taking full advantage of this. As expected, the Swiss were none too pleased with this, and began to act out.

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William Tell shooting the apple off of his son's head
Skip ahead to 1291--or 1307 depending on the account. In the town of Altdorf a pro-Hapsburg sheriff--Gessler has placed a Hapsburg hat on a pole in the middle of the square. All people passing it are required to bow to it to show their respect for the Hapsburg family.

Enter William Tell. A simple farmer and expert marksman from Burglen, William doesn't particularly care for the Hapsburgs, and he doesn't care who knows it. He doesn't bow to the hat, and this makes Gessler angry.

So, in his fit of rage, Gessler does what any reasonable officer of the law would do in that situation--he forces Tell to endanger the life of his son. Gessler informs Tell that he must shoot an apple off of his son's head. Should Tell miss the apple, both he and his son will be executed.

Tell is, of course, reluctant to shoot an armor piercing projectile at many kilometers per hour at his son, no matter how good of a marksman he may be. However, his son encourages him to make the shot, so William does. And, because he is so amazing, William splits the apple in half, and it falls off of his son's head. Gessler congratulates Tell on his amazing shot, but stops to ask him a question. Before taking the shot Gessler saw William conceal a second arrow in his jacket. What was that about?

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The remains of Kussnacht-renamed Gessler--Castle. Like Many
Hapsburg era castles, Gessler Castle was torn down during
the effort to drive the Hapsburgs out of Switzerland.
Never one to stop pushing his luck, Tell informs Gessler that, had he missed and killed his child, the second arrow would have been for Gessler. This makes Gessler angry, and he orders his cronies to slap William in irons, and put him on a boat bound for the dungeon at Kussnacht castle.

While on the boat a big storm blows up on the lake. Gessler releases William from his chains, because in addition to being an excellent marksman, and the king of sass, William is also an excellent sailor. Living up to his reputation, William guides the boat to safety in an outcropping of rocks. However, when the boat touches the rocks, William leaps out, and pushes the boat back into the sea.

Coming to the conclusion that Gessler and his men would probably survive, William finds them after they land, and ambushes the sheriff's party, killing them all. Then, with three other friends, William swears a pact to rid Switzerland of the Hapsburg troops, and free them from their oppression. This is, essentially, the start of the Swiss War for Independence.

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William Tell Monument in Altdorf
Now, as with many heroic figures from this time period, it is difficult to ascertain if they actually lived or not. The tale of William Tell wasn't put to paper until centuries after the events that supposedly occurred, and sources disagree about the year in which it occurred. Additionally, there are no parish records of a William Tell living in that time. However, while it may be difficult to prove the actual physical existence of a 13th (or 14th) century man named William Tell, there is no need to prove how big of an impact Tell has had on Swiss culture.

William Tell is, essentially, the Swiss national hero. He's a symbol of Swiss bravery and ingenuity. His iconography is famous--he appears on coins, there are statues of him around the country, and his crossbow appears on every item exported by the Swiss. Every time the Swiss are threatened with war or invasion, his myth comes alive again, fueling the fires of Swiss nationalism. While he may not have lived, his influence is undeniable.

Sources
In Search of William Tell
William Tell--Swiss Hero
Who Was William Tell?
The Legend of William Tell

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Damn, Girl-Sammuramat and Semiramis-The Woman and the Legend

Ancient Assyria was brutal. Warmongering and conquest was an enormous part of the culture, and women had no place in war or political leadership¹. Queen Sammuramat, however, had a place in both.

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Semiramis Hears of the Insurrection of Babylon
by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of definitive, reliable information about Sammuramat. She lived before 1000 BCE, and it's difficult to retrieve written, official records from that era. However, it's a pretty good bet that Sammuramat was something special, because she's the basis for the legendary Semiramis, and legends don't usually spring out of nowhere.

But first the facts. We know that Sammuramat was the wife of king Shamshi-Adad V, and that after he died in battle she took the throne as regent for her son, Adad-Nirari III. She was involved in invasions of Armenia² and India, and she was a great builder. We also know that she held her throne for between 30-40 years--pretty impressive for a ruler of that time period.

And that would be about the end of the stone cold fact for Sammuramat, the rest is guesswork based off the myths of Queen Semiramis. There are enough similarities between Semiramis and Sammuramat to presume that Semiramis is based off of Sammuramat, Hellenization of her name aside.

According to the myths, Semiramis was the the daughter of Derceto, a Syrian fish goddess, and a handsome youth who served Derceto. Ashamed at having done the deed with a mortal, Derceto killed the youth, and abandoned Semiramis on the banks of a river to die. Luckily for Semiramis, the local avian community decided to keep her alive. Doves brought her food and milk, and covered her for warm. They nourished her until the keeper of the king's herds--Semmis-- found her and adopted her. All of this demi-goddess and dove nonsense later led to Semiramis being associated with Ishtar/Inanna/Astarte after her death.

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Map of the Assyrian Empire
Semiramis possessed, or course, an unearthly beauty, and so when Onnes, the governor of Syria, saw her, he immediately asked for her hand in marriage. Semmis agreed, and the pair married. According to legend, they were quite in love, and had two sons together. Legend also claims that not only was Semiramis really attractive, she was also really smart. Smart enough that Onnes consulted her before doing pretty much anything. So when the king asked Onnes to go to war, it wasn't long before Onnes asked Semiramis to join him.
The Assyrian army had been unsuccessfully attacking the city of Bactra in modern day Afghanistan when Semiramis turned up. She had been wearing long robes that covered her skin and made it impossible to tell if she was male or female³. When she arrived on the battlefield, she saw Assyrian soldiers besieging the city from every angle except at the raised acropolis, which was  undefended. Choosing a group of soldiers skilled at climbing, Semiramis led the men, and captured the acropolis, bringing down the city.

Shamshi-Adad was, understandably, intrigued to see who had captured the city he'd been going after for forever. When Onnes introduced him to his lovely wife, Shamshi-Adad fell instantly in love. He ordered Onnes to let him have Semiramis. Though the king said that Onnes could marry his daughter as recompense, Onnes wasn't too keen on that, and he went and hanged himself. Semiramis' feelings are unknown.

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Cuneiform on a rock near Van, Armenia. This writing
is sometimes attributed to Semiramis in myths
Sources disagree upon how exactly Semiramis came to the throne, but the most common story is that she convinced Shamshi-Adad to let her have power for five days. He agreed to do so, and in the biggest power move of the BCEs, Semiramis had him executed, and declared herself regent.

Next Semiramis started engaging in the traditional hobbies of kings--conquest, building, and sex. According to the legends, she was a master of all three. She lead a successful invasion of Armenia, kept stability in the restless Assyrian empire, and led an invasion of India that may or may not have gone well depending on who you ask. Semiramis for sure built the embankments at Babylon, but she's also credited with building the city of Babylon and the famous hanging gardens. (Spoiler alert, she didn't do either of those things) According to Armenian legends, she carved wisdom on the unbreakable stones near modern day Van.

And, of course, the most lurid myths about Semiramis are the myths about her insatiable sexual appetites. Wherever famous and powerful women go, myths about their voracious lust follow them. In Semiramis' case, the myths are that she never remarried in order to preserve her power, but instead took lovers from an elite regiment of guards in her army. After one night of passion, she had her lover executed to prevent endangering the political stability she worked so hard for.
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Semiramis Inspecting the City of Babylon
by Degas
Sammuramat, while definitely a colorful character, could not possibly have done all the things that the mythical Semiramis did. Historical dating of the ruins of Babylon prove that it existed long before she did, and the writing in the caves above Van, while written in Cuneiform, is not written in the Assyrian language. What is true, however, is that myths and legends grow up around powerful and exceptional people. A woman holding power, and for that long, in ancient Assyria was completely unprecedented, it only follows that myths would spring up around her, if not only to justify the status quo. By making Sammuramat a demigoddess with superhuman skills the Assyrians guaranteed that she would be the exception, not the rule. By making Sammuramat the exception, it was ensured that it would be incredibly difficult for another woman to hold the throne.

¹Enheduanna, remember, was Sumerian. The Sumerians and Assyrians, though they share a homeland and are often lumped together under the term 'Mesopotamian', are different civilizations.
²The Armenians aren't too fond of her
³Some myths attribute Semiramis with the invention of the chador.

Sources
Semiramis
Sammu-ramat
Sammu-Ramat and Semiramis: The Inspiration and the Myth
The True Story of Semiramis, Legendary Queen of Babylon
Sammuramat