Category Archives: Europe – General
Shillings, gods and runes: clues in language suggest a Semitic superpower in ancient northern Europe
Remember when Australians paid in shillings and pence? New research suggests the words for these coins and other culturally important items and concepts are the result of close contact between the early Germanic people and the Carthaginian Empire more than 2,000 years ago.
The city of Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BCE by the Phoenicians. The Carthaginian Empire took over the Phoenician sphere of influence, with its own sphere of influence from the Mediterranean in the east to the Atlantic in the west and further into Africa in the south. The empire was destroyed in 146 BCE after an epic struggle against the Romans.
The presence of the Carthaginians on the Iberian Peninsula is well documented, and it is commonly assumed they had commercial relations with the British Isles. But it is not generally believed they had a permanent physical presence in northern Europe.
By studying the origin of key Germanic words and other parts of Germanic languages, Theo Vennemann and I have found traces of such a physical presence, giving us a completely new understanding of the influence of this Semitic superpower in northern Europe.
Language can be a major source of historical knowledge. Words can tell stories about their speakers even if there is no material evidence from archeology or genetics. The many early Latin words in English, such as “street”, “wine” and “wall”, are evidence for the influence of Roman civilisation.
Punic was the language of the Carthaginians. It is a Semitic language and closely related to Hebrew. Unfortunately, there are few surviving texts in Punic and so we often have to use Biblical Hebrew as a proxy.
Proto-Germanic was spoken in what is now northern Germany and southern Scandinavia more than 2,000 years ago, and is the ancestor of contemporary Germanic languages such as English, German, Norwegian and Dutch.
Identifying traces of Punic in Proto-Germanic languages tell an interesting story.
Take the words “shilling” and “penny”: both words are found in Proto-Germanic. The early Germanic people did not have their own coins, but it is likely they knew coins if they had words for them.
In antiquity, coins were used in the Mediterranean. One major coin minted in Carthage was the shekel, the current name for currency of Israel. We think this is the historical origin of the word “shilling” because of the specific way the Carthaginians pronounced “shekel”, which is different from how it is pronounced in Hebrew.
The pronunciation of Punic can be reasonably inferred from Greek and Latin spellings, as the sounds of Greek and Latin letters are well known. Punic placed a strong emphasis on the second syllable of shekel and had a plain “s” at the beginning, instead of the “esh” sound in Hebrew.
But to speakers of Proto-Germanic – who normally put the emphasis on the first syllable of words – it would have sounded like “skel”. This is exactly how the crucial first part of the word “shilling” is constructed. The second part, “-(l)ing”, is undoubtedly Germanic. It was added to express an individuating meaning, as in Old German silbarling, literally “piece of silver”.
This combining of languages in one word shows early Germanic people must have been familiar with Punic.
Similarly, our word “penny” derives from the Punic word for “face”, panē. Punic coins were minted with the face of the goddess Tanit, so we believe panē would have been a likely name for a Carthaginian coin.
Cultural and social dominance
Sharing names for coins could indicate a trade relationship. Other words suggest the Carthaginians and early Germanic people had a much closer relationship.
By studying loan words between Punic and Proto-Germanic, we can infer the Carthaginians were culturally and socially dominant.
One area of Carthage leadership was agricultural technology. Our work traces the word “plough” back to a Punic verb root meaning “divide”. Importantly, “plough” was used by Proto-Germanic speakers to refer to a more advanced type of plough than the old scratch plough, or ard.
Close contact with the Carthaginians can explain why speakers of Proto-Germanic knew this innovative tool.
The Old Germanic and Old English words for the nobility, for example æþele, are also most likely Punic loanwords. If a word referring to the ruling class of people comes from another language, this is a good indication the people speaking this language were socially dominant.
Intersections of language and culture
We found Punic also strongly influenced the grammar of early Germanic, Germanic mythology and the Runic alphabet used in inscriptions in Germanic languages, until the Middle Ages.
This new evidence suggests many early Germanic people learnt Punic and worked for the Carthaginians, married into their families, and had bilingual and bicultural children.
When Carthage was destroyed this connection was eventually lost. But the traces of this Semitic superpower remain in modern Germanic languages, their culture and their ancient letters.
On Christmas Day, 1119, the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II persuaded a group of French knights led by Hugh de Payne II to save their souls by protecting pilgrims travelling the Holy Land. And so the Order of the Knights Templar was formed.
This revolutionary order of knights lived as monks and took vows of poverty and chastity, but these were monks with a difference – they would take up arms as knights to protect the civilians using the dangerous roads of the newly conquered Kingdom of Jerusalem. From these humble beginnings, the order would grow to become one of the premier Christian military forces of the Crusades.
Over the next 900 years, these warrior monks would become associated with the Holy Grail, the Freemasons and the occult. But are any of these associations true, or are they just baseless myth?
The Crusades ended in 1291 after the Christian capital of Acre fell to the Mameluke forces of Egypt and the Templars found themselves redundant. Despite their wealth and European holdings, their reason for existence had been to wage war in defence of the Holy Land.
But the French king Philip IV was in debt to the Templar order and, with the Holy land lost, he capitalised on their vulnerability and had the Templars arrested in France on Friday October 13, 1307 in a dawn raid on their Paris Temple and residences. In 1312, the order was abolished by papal decree and in 1314 the last grand-master, Jacque de Molay, was burned at the stake in Paris with three other Templars. With the order destroyed, any surviving former members joined other orders or monasteries.
Despite the arrests and charges of heresy being laid against the order, a document known as the Chinon Parchment was found in 2001 in the Vatican’s archives which documents that the Templars were, in fact, exonerated by the Catholic Church in 1312. But, despite clearing them of heresy, Pope Clement ordered that they be disbanded.
Appropriation of a legend
The suppression of the Templars meant that there was nobody to safeguard their legacy. Since then, the order has been appropriated by other organisations – most notably as ancestors to the Masonic order in the 18th century and, more recently, by right-wing extremist groups such as the Knights Templar-UK and mass-murdering terrorist Anders Behring Breivik.
The Knights Templar’s association with Freemasonry is not so much a myth as it was a marketing campaign by 18th-century Freemasons to appeal to the aristocracy. Historian Frank Sanello explained in his 2003 book, The Knights Templars: God’s Warriors, the Devil’s Bankers, that initially it was Andrew Ramsey, a senior French Freemason of the era, who first made the link between the Freemasons and the Crusader knights.
But he originally claimed the Freemasons were descended from the crusading Order of the Knight Hospitaller. Of course, the Hospitallers were still operational, unlike the Knight Templar, so Ramsey quickly changed his claim to the Templars being the Freemasons’ crusading ancestry.
The Knights Templar had actually been mythologised in popular culture as early as the 13th century in the Grail epic Parzival by German knight and poet Wolfram von Eschenbach. In this Grail epic, the Knights Templar were included in the story as the guardians of the Grail. After the order’s sudden fall, these warrior monks became associated with conspiracies and the occult.
For some, a mystery still surrounds the fate of the Templar fortune (which was in reality seized by Phillip IV, with the majority of their property redistributed to the Hospitallers) and the Templar confessions (extracted under torture) to worshipping an idol dubbed Baphomet. The link between the Templars and the occult would resurface again in the 16th century in Henry Agrippa’s book De Occulta Philosophia.
Modern fiction continues to draw upon the widespread mysteries and fanciful theories. These mythical associations are key themes for many popular works of fiction, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in which the Templars guard the Grail. The Templar myth has also found its way into the digital gaming format in the globally successful Assassin’s Creed franchise, in which the player must assassinate a villainous Templar.
Nine centuries after they were formed, the Templars remain the most iconic and infamous order of knights from the Crusades. The Templar legacy has grown beyond their medieval military role and the name has become synonymous with the occult, conspiracies, the Holy Grail and the Freemasons. But these are all false narratives – fantastical, but misleading.
The real legacy of the Templars remains with the Portuguese Order of Knights, Ordem dos Cavaleiros de Nosso Senhor Jesus Cristo(Order of the Knights of Jesus Christ). This order was created by King Diniz in 1319 with Papal permission due to the prominent role the Templars played in establishing the kingdom of Portugal. The new knighthood even moved into the Templars’ former headquarters at Tomar.
For historian Micheal Haag, this new order “was the Templars under another name” – but it pledged obedience to the king of Portugal and not the Pope like their Templar predecessors.
And so the essence of the Templar’s successors still exists today as a Portuguese order of merit for outstanding service – and the Templar myth continues to provide a rich source of inspiration for artistic endeavours.
Vikings are often seen as heathen marauders mercilessly targeting Christian churches and killing defenceless monks. But this is only part of their story. The Vikings played a key role in spreading Christianity, too.
Norse mythology has long captured the popular imagination and many today have heard stories about the pagan gods, particularly Odin, Thor and Loki, recently reimagined in Marvel’s comic books and movies. Some now even follow reconstructed versions of these beliefs, known as Ásatrú (the religion of the Aesir).
Our main source for this mythology, the Prose Edda, was written by a 13th-century Christian, the Icelandic politician Snorri Sturluson. Scandinavia converted to Christianity later than many parts of Europe, but this process is still an important part of the Vikings’ real story. Indeed, there are fascinating works of Norse literature with a Christian theme, including sagas of bishops and saints.
It would be wrong to minimise Viking violence, but raiding – hit and run attacks for plunder – in the medieval period was not confined to these Scandinavian seafarers. The Irish annals, such as the Annals of Ulster, record far more attacks by Irishmen on other Irishmen, including the raiding and burning of churches, than attacks by Scandinavians.
An ideological clash is one suggested cause of the “Viking Age”. This line of thinking suggests that pagan Scandinavians sought to avenge Christian attacks, such as the Frankish emperor Charlemagne’s invasion of Saxony from 772AD to 804AD. This 30-year conflict involved forced mass baptism, the death penalty for “heathen practices” and included the execution of 4,500 Saxon rebels at Verden in 782AD.
It seems more likely, however, that Christian monasteries were initially targeted because they were poorly defended and contained portable wealth in the form of metalwork and people. Settling in richer Christian lands also offered better prospects for some than remaining in resource-poor Scandinavia.
The rise of Christianity
The conversion of Scandinavia was gradual with Christian missionaries preaching intermittently in Scandinavia from the eighth century. While there was some resistance, Christianity and Norse paganism were not always fundamentally opposed. A 10th-century soapstone mould from Trendgården in Jutland, Denmark, allowed the casting of metal Thor’s hammer amulets alongside crosses. The same craftsman clearly catered for both pagans and Christians.
The first Scandinavian king to be converted was the Danish exile Harald Klak. He was baptised in 826AD with the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious as his sponsor, in exchange for imperial support for an (albeit unsuccessful) attempt to regain his throne.
Guthrum, a king from the Viking Great Army which attacked England in the ninth century, was also baptised as part of his agreement following defeat by the West Saxon king Alfred “the Great” in 878AD. Indeed, coming into contact with Christian kingdoms which were more politically centralised arguably led to greater unification of the Scandinavian realms.
One of the most significant turning points in the Christianisation of Scandinavia was the conversion of the Danish king Harald Bluetooth in the 960s. Bluetooth technology is named after Harald because he united disparate parts of Denmark, while the technology unites communication devices.
Harald proudly proclaimed on the now iconic Jelling stone, an impressive monument with a runic inscription, that he “made the Danes Christian”. And this connection between kingship and Christianity continued.
Norway was converted largely due to two of its kings: Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Haraldsson. The latter was canonised shortly after his death in battle in 1030AD, becoming Scandinavia’s first native saint.
Future Norwegian kings benefited from their association with Olaf Haraldsson, who became Norway’s patron saint. Other royal Scandinavian saints would follow, notably Erik of Sweden and Knud the Holy of Denmark. The Norse earldom of Orkney also produced a martyr from its ruling family: St Magnus, who was killed in around 1116 in a dynastic squabble.
The 2018 Danish Eurovision entry (Rasmussen’s song Higher Ground) portrays Magnus as a pacifist viking refusing to fight. Saga sources do suggest that Magnus refused on one occasion to raid with the Norwegian king and fled from the fleet, but his career was not without violence.
Scandinavians who settled abroad in Christian lands were also converted to the dominant religion. While Scandinavian settlers initially buried their dead in traditional pagan ways, they soon adopted the customs of those living around them. And their settlements became part of the political and cultural makeup of their host societies.
Some of the most celebrated pieces of medieval Irish ecclesiastical art were likely made by Hiberno-Scandinavian craftsmen from Viking-founded towns like Dublin. These objects also feature stylistic elements which had spread from the Scandinavian homelands.
For example, the 11th-century Clonmacnoise crozier is decorated in the Scandinavian art style of Ringerike, with snake-like animals in figure-of-eight patterns. Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, associated with the sixth-century St Ciaran, is one of Ireland’s oldest and most important ecclesiastical sites. And the ancestors of these craftsmen might have been the very raiders who had attacked Irish churches.
Soldiers of God
Even Scandinavian settlers in the remote islands of the North Atlantic joined the European mainstream with some enthusiasm. Partly due to pressure from Norway, Iceland officially converted to Christianity in the year 1000. Following consultation at their national assembly (the Alþing) it was decided that the country would convert but that some pagan practices would still be tolerated.
The settlements on Greenland eventually failed in the 14th and 15th centuries, but even when the inhabitants were starving they still devoted precious resources to importing luxury goods for the church, including wine and vestments.
Scandinavians also joined the Crusades; now they were the Christians attacking the so-called heathens. The Norwegian king Sigurd “Jerusalem-farer” – named for his visit to the Holy Land – was, in fact, the first European king to participate in the Crusades personally, making a journey from 1108 to 1111, a short while after the First Crusade culminated in the Christian reoccupation of Jerusalem in 1099.
Crusading was, after all, not so different from Viking raiding, but this time the killing and looting had Christian backing. Instead of an afterlife of feasting in Valhalla as a reward for dying in battle, those who died on Crusade would go straight to Heaven.
Indeed, the Viking world was as much populated by missionary kings, bishops and saints as it was by raiders, gods and giants.