Tag Archives: myth

The ancient origins of werewolves



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In Ancient Greek texts, the king Lycaon is punished for misdeeds by being turned into a wolf.
Wikimedia

Tanika Koosmen, University of Newcastle

The werewolf is a staple of supernatural fiction, whether it be film, television, or literature. You might think this snarling creature is a creation of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, a result of the superstitions surrounding magic and witchcraft.

In reality, the werewolf is far older than that. The earliest surviving example of man-to-wolf transformation is found in The Epic of Gilgamesh from around 2,100 BC. However, the werewolf as we now know it first appeared in ancient Greece and Rome, in ethnographic, poetic and philosophical texts.

These stories of the transformed beast are usually mythological, although some have a basis in local histories, religions and cults. In 425 BC, Greek historian Herodotus described the Neuri, a nomadic tribe of magical men who changed into wolf shapes for several days of the year. The Neuri were from Scythia, land that is now part of Russia. Using wolf skins for warmth is not outside the realm of possibility for inhabitants of such a harsh climate: this is likely the reason Herodotus described their practice as “transformation”.

A werewolf in a German woodcut, circa 1512.
Wikimedia

The werewolf myth became integrated with the local history of Arcadia, a region of Greece. Here, Zeus was worshipped as Lycaean Zeus (“Wolf Zeus”). In 380 BC, Greek philosopher Plato told a story in the Republic about the “protector-turned-tyrant” of the shrine of Lycaean Zeus. In this short passage, the character Socrates remarks: “The story goes that he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf.”

Literary evidence suggests cult members mixed human flesh into their ritual sacrifice to Zeus. Both Pliny the Elder and Pausanias discuss the participation of a young athlete, Damarchus, in the Arcadian sacrifice of an adolescent boy: when Damarchus was compelled to taste the entrails of the young boy, he was transformed into a wolf for nine years. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice may have been practised at this site.




Read more:
Friday essay: the female werewolf and her shaggy suffragette sisters


Monsters and men

The most interesting aspect of Plato’s passage concerns the “protector-turned-tyrant”, also known as the mythical king, Lycaon. Expanded further in Latin texts, most notably Hyginus’s Fabulae and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon’s story contains all the elements of a modern werewolf tale: immoral behaviour, murder and cannibalism.

An Athenian vase depicting a man in a wolf skin, circa 460 BC.
Wikimedia

In Fabulae, the sons of Lycaon sacrificed their youngest brother to prove Zeus’s weakness. They served the corpse as a pseudo-feast and attempting to trick the god into eating it. A furious Zeus slayed the sons with a lightning bolt and transformed their father into a wolf. In Ovid’s version, Lycaon murdered and mutilated a protected hostage of Zeus, but suffered the same consequences.

Ovid’s passage is one of the only ancient sources that goes into detail on the act of transformation. His description of the metamorphosis uses haunting language that creates a correlation between Lycaon’s behaviour and the physical manipulation of his body:

…He tried to speak, but his voice broke into

an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;

his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed

by bloodlust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms

into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf.

Ovid’s Lycaon is the origin of the modern werewolf, as the physical manipulation of his body hinges on his prior immoral behaviour. It is this that has contributed to the establishment of the “monstrous werewolf” trope of modern fiction.

Lycaon’s character defects are physically grafted onto his body, manipulating his human form until he becomes that which his behaviour suggests. And, perhaps most importantly, Lycaon begins the idea that to transform into a werewolf you must first be a monster.

The idea that there was a link between biology (i.e. appearance) and “immoral” behaviour developed fully in the late 20th century. However, minority groups were more often the target than mythical kings. Law enforcement, scientists and the medical community joined forces to find “cures” for socially deviant behaviour such as criminality, violence and even homosexuality. Science and medicine were used as a vehicle through which bigotry and fear could be maintained, as shown by the treatment of HIV-affected men throughout the 1980s.

However, werewolf stories show the idea has ancient origins. For as long as authors have been changing bad men into wolves, we have been looking for the biological link between man and action.The Conversation

Tanika Koosmen, PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Here are the five ancient Britons who make up the myth of King Arthur



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Holly Hayes/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Miles Russell, Bournemouth University

King Arthur is probably the best known of all British mythological figures. He is a character from deep time celebrated across the world in literature, art and film as a doomed hero, energetically fighting the forces of evil. Most historians believe that the prototype for Arthur was a warlord living in the ruins of post-Roman Britain, but few can today agree on precisely who that was.

Over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur has been endlessly rewritten and reshaped. New layers have been added to the tale. The story repeated in modern times includes courtly love, chivalry and religion – and characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, whose relationship was famously immortalised in Thomas Malory’s 1485 book Le Morte D’Arthur. The 2017 cinematic outing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is only the most recent reimagining.

But before the addition of the Holy Grail, Camelot and the Round Table, the first full account of Arthur the man appeared in the Historia Regum Brianniae (the History of the Kings of Britain) a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136.

We know next to nothing about Geoffrey, but he claimed to have begun writing the Historia at the request of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, who persuaded him to translate an ancient book “written in the British tongue”. Many have concluded, as Geoffrey failed to name his primary source and it has never been firmly identified, that he simply made it all up in a fit of patriotism.

Whatever the origin of the Historia, however, it was a roaring success, providing the British with an heroic mythology – a national epic to rival anything written by the English or Normans.

Story teller

As a piece of literature, Geoffrey’s book is arguably the most important work in the European tradition. It lays the ground for not just for the whole Arthurian Cycle, but also for the tales surrounding legendary sites such as Stonehenge and Tintagel and characters such as the various kings: Cole, Lear and Cymbeline (the latter two immortalised by Shakespeare).

As a piece of history, however, it is universally derided, containing much that is clearly fictitious, such as wizards, magic and dragons.

If we want to gain a better understanding of who King Arthur was, however, we cannot afford to be so picky. It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who first supplies the life-story of the great king, from conception to mortal wounding on the battlefield, so we cannot dismiss him entirely out of hand.

A full and forensic examination of the Historia Regum Britanniae, has demonstrated that Geoffrey’s account was no simple work of make-believe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence now exists to suggest that his text was, in fact, compiled from a variety of early British sources, including oral folklore, king-lists, dynastic tables and bardic praise poems, some of which date back to the first century BC.

Here be dragons?
George Reyes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In creating a single, unified account, Geoffrey exercised a significant degree of editorial control over this material, massaging data and smoothing out chronological inconsistencies.

Once you accept that Geoffrey’s book is not a single narrative, but a mass of unrelated stories threaded together, individual elements can successfully be identified and reinstated to their correct time and place. This has significant repercussions for Arthur. In this revised context, it is clear that he simply cannot have existed.

Arthur, in the Historia, is the ultimate composite figure. There is nothing in his story that is truly original. In fact, there are five discrete characters discernible within the great Arthurian mix. Once you detach their stories from the narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.

Cast of characters

The chronological hook, upon which Geoffrey hung 16% of his story of Arthur, belongs to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a late 5th-century warlord from whom the youthful coronation, the capture of York (from the Saxons) and the battle of Badon Hill is taken wholesale.

Next comes Arvirargus, who represents 24% of Arthur’s plagiarised life, a British king from the early 1st century AD. In the Historia, Arthur’s subjugation of the Orkneys, his return home and marriage to Ganhumara (Queen Guinevere in later adaptions) parallels that of the earlier king, who married Genvissa on his return south.

Constantine’s statue in York.
chrisdorney/Shutterstock

Constantine the Great, who in AD 306 was proclaimed Roman emperor in York, forms 8% of Arthur’s story, whilst Magnus Maximus, a usurper from AD 383, completes a further 39%. Both men took troops from Britain to fight against the armies of Rome, Constantine defeating the emperor Maxentius; Maximus killing the emperor Gratian, before advancing to Italy. Both sequences are later duplicated in Arthur’s story.

The final 12% of King Arthur’s life, as recounted by Geoffrey, repeat those of Cassivellaunus, a monarch from the 1st century BC, who, in Geoffrey’s version of events, was betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mandubracius, the prototype for Modred.

All this leaves just 1% of Geoffrey’s story of Arthur unaccounted for: the invasion of Iceland and Norway. This may, in fact, be no more than simple wish-fulfilment, the ancient Britons being accorded the full and total subjugation of what was later to become the homeland of the Vikings.

The ConversationArthur, as he first appears, in the book that launched his international career, is no more than an amalgam. He is a Celtic superhero created from the deeds of others. His literary and artistic success ultimately lies in the way that various generations have reshaped the basic story to suit themselves – making Arthur a hero to rich and poor, elite and revolutionary alike. As an individual, it is now clear that he never existed, but it is unlikely that his popularity will ever diminish.

Miles Russell, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Bournemouth University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


True crime: why the Irish counterfeiting wave of the late 18th century was a myth



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Satirical Bank Note (1820), highlighting how easy it was to be hanged for spending fake money, despite how prevalent it was.
George Cruikshank and William Hone

Adam Crymble, University of Hertfordshire

The claim that immigrants or minorities are more criminal than the general population is a common trope. From Donald Trump’s claim that Mexicans in the US were “bringing drugs … bringing crime. They’re rapists”, to the frequent portrayal of African-Americans as having a criminal mentality, to how black men are disproportionately stopped by the police under “stop and search” laws in the UK. Other studies have explored how “driving while black” can increase a drivers’ likelihood of being charged with a traffic offence.

People have long blamed those unlike themselves. Are immigrants and minorities more criminal than locals, or just more likely to get caught – or even just more likely to be blamed? An example of Irish living in London at the beginning of the professional police era shows that who ends up in front of the judge is more dependent on how the crime is policed than on who is responsible. If police tactics unduly target minority groups, then this inflation of the criminal statistics can, and has, been used to paint minority groups in a negative light.

Bank notes not worth the paper

London experienced a massive crime wave between 1797 and 1821, linked almost entirely to counterfeiting and forgery. The problem got so bad that people began to worry if the cash in their pocket was real – aware that they could be executed for knowingly spending bad money. Bank notes had only recently been introduced in England and, as historian Randall McGowen has remarked, they were “scarcely more than a printed form with a number, a date and a clerk’s signature”. Forgers even had the gall to produce the fake bank notes in prison, selling them onward for a fraction of their face value to anyone brave enough to attempt to pass them off in the city’s shops.

A George III gold sovereign from 1817, when coins were made of gold – unless they were fakes.
Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA

Even coinage, then comprised of actual silver and gold, was at risk. Talented button makers and engravers turned their attention to the technically similar processes of making false coins, which would be made with a cheaper metal and rubbed with aqua fortis (nitric acid) or aqua regis (a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids) to make the fake appear either silver or gold respectively.

Soon the city was crawling with fake money, including more than 250,000 forged banknotes. Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate of the era, estimated 120 sellers were each distributing hundreds of false coins onto the city’s streets. He singled out the Irish as one of the problem groups behind the crime wave.

Justice deserved?

Peter King’s previous research on Irish crime claimed the justice system did not show an anti-Irish prejudice and that the Irish criminals got what was coming to them. Certainly there are records from London’s courtrooms to support this.

For example, Irishmen John Fennell and James Gillington were arrested in 1799 after having allegedly forged more than 600 bank notes with a home-made printing press. But at the other end of the spectrum the records are filled with Irish such as John Brown, who tried to pay for his glass of gin at the pub with a false coin. Looking at the numbers alone the Irish do seem to have been a problem – but these numbers hide the extent to which policing strategy affected who got arrested in the first place.

Initially, the authorities relied almost exclusively on tips from shopkeepers who had been offered false money. It fell to them to detain suspects and call for the watchman who would make the arrest. This meant people spending false money had a far greater chance of getting arrested than those involved in the more profitable aspects of manufacture and wholesale.

The Irish were more involved in the petty but very public act of spending the money – those aspects of the crime most associated with poverty. As new arrivals, the Irish were at a further disadvantage, and cunning locals were only too happy to trick their new “friends” into buying a round at the bar with the false coins they supplied. With the system of policing set up to almost exclusively target these minor players, the courtrooms filled with poor Irish which led to their reputation for criminality.

Enter the detectives

Despite these arrests the problem of forgery worsened. So, in 1812, the Bank of England changed its strategy, encouraging specialist detectives to hunt for the real counterfeiters. With generous rewards as incentives, these detectives soon managed to infiltrate the criminal networks. This often involved using accomplices in the crime to trick the counterfeiters and wholesalers into selling to an undercover agent, in exchange for a reduction in their own sentence.

For the first time the Bank was encouraging local criminals to “out” other local criminals and, as they did so, the ethnic makeup of defendants appearing in the court began to change: the number of English defendants rose 27-fold in the years immediately after the change in policing strategy.

The ConversationThis research highlights what gets missed when policing focuses on crime perpetrated by ethnic minorities. No one at the time noticed the dramatic reduction in Irish defendants but, by the 1810s, the claim that the Irish were behind the forged currency crime wave was unsupportable. This wasn’t because the situation had changed for the criminals, but because the police had changed where they were looking for them – and discovered that the real culprits behind the crime wave were the local English, and probably always had been.

Adam Crymble, Lecturer in digital history, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Explainer: the myth of the Noble Savage


Helen Gardner, Deakin University

Federal Liberal MP Dennis Jensen has come under attack for telling Parliament the Australian government should not be funding people to live a “noble savage” lifestyle in remote Indigenous communities. To link the idea of the “noble savage” to Indigenous Australians in 2016 is unquestionably offensive, but to understand why it’s worthwhile probing the term’s chequered history.

Victor Hugo’s novel Bug-Jargal (1826) used the ‘nobel savage’ trope.
Illustration from Bug-Jargal (1826).

The modern myth of the noble savage is most commonly attributed to the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. He believed the original “man” was free from sin, appetite or the concept of right and wrong, and that those deemed “savages” were not brutal but noble.

His noble savage, considered in Emile, ou de l’Education (1762), Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1782) and Confessions (1768), was a shining beacon to 18th-century Europe.

The idea can be found also in theology as an explanation for the degeneration of 18th-century society. The founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, claimed that,

in the beginning man was made right with regular, pure affections.

But “he” became diseased and degenerated, obsessed with the things of the world.

James Cook brought Enlightenment ideas and sciences to the South Seas in his journeys around the Pacific, and was perhaps expressing Rousseau-style sentiments when he described Australian Aborigines in noble savage tones:

They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff, they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air, so that they have very little need of Clothing …

They were, Cook famously declared in his Endeavour journals, “far more happier than we Europeans”.

Through the 19th century, as empires swallowed Indigenous lands, the idea of the noble savage receded and the reverse negative stereotype of the dangerous, brutal savage prevailed.

The European reaction to the death of James Cook revealed the conflicting stereotype of the ‘brutal savage’.
Johanne Zoffany, The Death of Captain James Cook, 1779

Both typecasts relied on the idea that the Indigenous peoples of the world were in an original state, “primitive”, “backward”, the ancient ancestor to “modern man”, the infants of humanity. Metaphors of time forged the social relationships of colonialism.

The noble savage re-emerged with Karl Marx’s critique of empire in the mid to late 19th century. It was expressed most powerfully by his partner, Friedrich Engels, who tied his revolutionary hunger for freedom from Victorian restrictions to the belief that human societies were originally led by women, and were characterised by the absence of jealousy and a state of almost free love.

In his famous fourth edition of Origins (1894), Engels claimed that the most perfect example of this society could be found among Australian Aborigines.

Friedrich Engels popularised the notion of the ‘noble savage’ for a new century.
via Wikimedia Commons

Engels berated those who argued for the brutal savage, for those “philistines in their brothel-tainted imagination” who viewed Aboriginal sexual relations with abhorrence.

Many historians and anthropologists have questioned his reading of the Australian texts, in particular Fison and Howitt’s landmark study of Aboriginal and Pacific Island societies, Kamilaroi and Kurnai (1880), that formed the basis of his analysis.

Engels’ noble savage proved particularly tenacious through the 20th century and became a kind of pagan foundation for the Soviet State, an argument against both Christianity and the West.

Free love was held to be the gift of the revolution, an attempt to recreate the perceived sexual freedom of Indigenous peoples.

The idea of the noble savage became a romantic foil to the alienation and inequities of capitalism and was restated by the neo-Marxists of the 1970s.

Yet another version of the noble savage can be found in New Age romanticism. Indigenous peoples are credited with special powers, such as healing or enhanced spirituality. New Age practitioners might seek to recreate or dance through Indigenous ceremonies, often with little idea of their original meanings.

Dream catchers and unattributed dot paintings on bags produced in China prove that there is money to be made from this model of the myth.

Scholars have long recognised that both the noble and the brutal savage are fantasies of the European mind that kept Indigenous peoples in a suspended state of either elevated purity or perpetual evil.

The noble savage binds Indigenous peoples to an impossible standard. The brutal savage, by contrast, becomes the pre-emptive argument for Indigenous failings.

The ideal of the noble savage has led to considerable derision. James Cook’s most famous biographer, J.C. Beaglehole, dismissed Cook’s passage on Aborigines as,

preposterous sublimity, this nonsense on stilts.

The Conversation

Helen Gardner, Associate Professor Of History, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Article: The Myth of the 8 Hour Sleep


The following link is to an article about the historical method of sleeping – a quick and interesting read.

For more, visit:
http://www.neatorama.com/2012/02/22/the-myth-of-8-hour-sleep/


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