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The Gale-Force Legend Of Thorstein Red-Nose

Thorstein Red-Nose was the oldest son of Hrolf Red-Beard, an early settler of Iceland who built a homestead, called Foss, in the Southern Region of Iceland during the late 9th or early 10th century. For geographical bearings, they reportedly settled slightly to the northeast of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. When Thorstein Red-Nose eventually took over management of the Foss farm, he focused his efforts on raising sheep, and he turned out to be quite good at that job. At the height of his success, Thorstein Red-Nose was said to have possessed well over 2,000 sheep in his flock, which he raised in pastureland that was situated beside a waterfall.

Thorstein’s animals, abounding in quantity and quality, naturally drew the interest of neighbors, who began pondering over the secrets to the Foss farm’s success. Evidently, the prying people undervalued Thorstein’s skill, time and effort, and instead looked for other, more supernatural, reasons as to why Thorstein’s flock was flourishing. In the end, the gossipers concluded that Thorstein Red-Nose’s success was due to the gift of foresight, as well as divine favor that he had cultivated by offering sacrifices to the waterfall near his pastures.

Unfortunately for Thorstein Red-Nose, no skill, time, effort, or even supernatural foresight, could ensure success forever. As the story goes, a giant storm with terrible winds eventually hit the pasture, and presumably Thorstein was caught in the tempest while trying to herd his animals to safety. Thorstein Red-Nose’s intriguing life and mysterious end was recorded in the Icelandic Book of Settlements, which stated: “Thorstein Red-Nose was a great sacrificer. He used to make sacrifices to the waterfall and all the left-overs had to be thrown into it. He could see clearly into the future. Thorstein had all his sheep counted and they numbered 2400…The night he died, all the sheep got swept into the waterfall by a gale” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 355). Such was the reported fate of Thorstein Red-Nose—he and the flock of sheep he had worked so hard to cultivate were allegedly all killed during a storm. Curiously, as Thorstein was rumored to have had the ability to predict the future, he naturally was said to have predicted his own death.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from a painting labeled “En hyrdedreng, der driver en flok far,” by J.V. Gertner (c. 1818 – 1871), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst).

 

Sources:

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.

Andromache Lamenting The Death Of Hector, Attributed To The Workshop Of Heinrich Friedrich Füger (c. 1751-1818)

This gloomy painting, attributed to the workshop of the Austrian artist Heinrich Friedrich Füger (c. 1751-1818), depicts the widowed Andromache mourning over the body of her husband, Hector—the slain champion of Troy. He had been defeated in a duel by Achilles, who went on to dishonor the body of the dead hero. With the help of the god, Hermes, King Priam of the Trojans was able to convince Achilles to return Hector’s neglected body. As the remains of the deceased hero were carted into the city, allowing the dead man’s family to properly mourn, the grief-stricken event painted above was finally able to ensue. The poet, Homer, described the scene in The Iliad, writing, “When the family had brought Hector into the palace, they laid him on an elaborate bed and set beside him dirge-singers to lead the laments and chant their melancholy songs, while the women took up the cry. White-armed Andromache, holding the head of man-slaying Hector between her hands, began her dirge” (The Iliad, book 24, approximately line 720). Of course, the death of Hector was only the start of Troy’s troubles. The Greek army camped outside the walls would soon sneak into the city, bringing about the destruction of Priam’s kingdom.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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Machiavelli

Machiavelli (c. 1469-1527)

“A prince must also show himself a lover of merit, give preferment to the able, and honour those who excel in every art.”

  • From The Prince (chapter 21) by Machiavelli, translated and printed by the Henry Regnery Company, 1948.

The Tale Of Artemis’ Gravitative Revenge Against An Impious Hunter

In the ancient world, if a devout Greek hunter wanted to honor the huntress-goddess, Artemis, one of the ways he or she could reportedly express their devotion to their patron goddess was to leave sacrificial offerings suspended in trees for Artemis. A Greek-Sicilian historian named Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) reported that this particular method of worship was notably done by a hunter who lived in the Paestum region of southern Italy. On this unnamed hunter of legend, Diodorus Siculus claimed, “it had been his practice to dedicate to Artemis the heads and feet of animals he secured and to nail them to the trees” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.22). Yet, this showy (and a bit gruesome) form of worship had its risks.

As Diodorus Siculus continued the tale, the unnamed hunter began to grow lax in his religious practice. In particular, when he brought down especially fearsome and impressive prey during his hunts, he began to feel tempted to keep trophies of these animals for himself. Unfortunately, temptation eventually got the better of the hunter, and he indeed began to neglect his offerings to Artemis so he could instead display hunting trophies for his own honor. Artemis—vengeful and wrathful as any other ancient deity—did not appreciate this turn of events, and she sooner or later would take revenge. Diodorus Siculus wrote down the tale of what happened to the careless hunter:

“[O]nce, when he had overpowered a huge boar, he said, as though in contempt of the goddess, ‘The head of the beast I dedicate to myself,’ and bearing out his words he hung the head on a tree, and then, the atmosphere being very warm, at midday he fell asleep [under the tree]. While he was thus asleep the throng broke, and the head fell down of itself upon the sleeper and killed him” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.22).

As the saying goes, nothing good comes from a woman scorned—especially, in this case, when the woman is a goddess. According to the legend, Artemis undoubtedly had a hand in making sure the sacrilegious boar head fell fatally onto the skull of the impious hunter. Unfortunately for the dead huntsman, he received little sympathy from storytellers and their listeners. Most seemed to believe that the presumptuous hunter should have known better than to do what he did. Diodorus Siculus, for his part, commented, “In truth there is no reason why anyone should marvel at this happening, for many actual occurrences are recorded which illustrate the vengeance this goddess takes upon the impious…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.22). It is vague, however, whether or not these ‘many actual occurrences’ included more cases of Artemis using this particular tactic of dropping heavy animal skulls on the heads of other hunters.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped Artemis from The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Gaetano Gandolfi (c. 1734–1802), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).

 

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Loki And Sigyn, Painted By C.W. Eckersberg (c. 1783 – 1853)

This painting, by the Danish artist Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (c. 1783 – 1853), was inspired by a painful myth involving the mischievous Norse god, Loki. Based on the chronological timeline of myths provided by the Icelandic scholar and historian, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), this tortuous scene came as a consequence of one of Loki’s greatest crimes against his fellow gods—the killing of Baldr. To understand the scene depicted in C.W. Eckersberg’s painting, we must begin our narrative with Loki’s dastardly scheme that ultimately led to his own hellish punishment.

Baldr (also spelled Baldur or Balder) was a near-invincible god whose mother, Frigg, obtained promises from fire, water, metals, stones, plant life, animal wildlife, poisons and even diseases and viruses, all swearing that they would not harm her son. When all of the oaths were collected, Baldr was so invulnerable that the mighty gods amused themselves by punching, throwing stones, shooting arrows, even striking or stabbing at Baldr, all to no effect. Baldr’s newfound defensive prowess was lauded and praised by the gods—well, all except one. Loki, the usual delinquent deity of Norse mythology, loathed Baldr’s invulnerability. Therefore, Loki began to investigate, hoping that, like Achilles, a vulnerable chink could be found in Baldr’s supernatural armor. During his investigation, Loki relied on his expertise in shape shifting. He transformed himself into a woman and then struck up a conversation with Frigg. Unfortunately for Baldr, Frigg was too trusting during her conversation with the disguised stranger, resulting in Loki learning that there was still one plant that could cause harm to Baldr—mistletoe.

After discovering the secret, Loki set off in search of the deadly plant. He successfully found a twig of mistletoe that could pass off for a projectile, and with this in hand, he returned to the homeland of the gods, where the deities were still amusing themselves by launching blows against Baldr. Mischievous (or in this case, murderous) Loki now sauntered over to a blind god named Hod and encouraged him to join the fun of attacking Baldr’s near-invulnerable skin. Hod unfortunately agreed, and Loki eagerly put the stick of mistletoe in the blind god’s hands. After receiving some help in aiming from Loki, Hod launched the mistletoe projectile, and to the horror of the gods, the plant truly did turn out to be Baldr’s weakness. Shocking all witnesses present (except Loki), the mistletoe skewered Baldr, killing him on the spot. After Baldr’s death, the gods sought out Hel, the goddess of the dead, and tried to negotiate for Baldr’s return. She conceded that if everything in creation wept over Baldr’s death, she would agree to let him go free. As the story goes, the gods nearly met Hel’s conditions, but, once again, Loki was there to interfere, and his unweeping eyes kept Baldr in the underworld.

Loki, due to his role in killing Baldr and keeping the god locked away in the realm of the dead, quickly found that his fellow Norse gods were much angrier at him than usual. Sensing the unforgiving atmosphere, Loki tried to escape by transforming into a fish and diving into a river. Yet, the gods tracked him down and dragged him out of the water with a net. After that victory, the Norse gods devised the elaborate punishment seen above in C.W. Eckersberg’s painting. Snorri Sturluson wrote a detailed description of the punishment:

“Loki was now captured, and with no thought of mercy he was taken to a cave. They [the Norse gods/Æsir] took three flat stones and, setting them on their edges, broke a hole through each of them. Then they caught Loki’s sons, Vali and Nari or Narfi. The Æsir changed Vali into a wolf, and he ripped apart his brother Narfi. Next the Æsir took his guts, and with them they bound Loki on to the top of the three stones—one under his shoulders, a second under his loins, and the third under his knees. The fetters became iron. Then Skadi took a poisonous snake and fastened it above Loki so that it drips on to his face. But Sigyn, his wife, placed herself beside him from where she holds a bowl to catch the drops of venom. When the bowl becomes full, she leaves to pour out the poison, and at that moment the poison drips on to Loki’s face” (Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, chapter 50).

Such was the punishment that the Norse gods inflicted on Loki after his schemes led to the death of Baldr. Loki was destined to remain in this state of torture until he would ultimately break free at the apocalyptic time of Ragnarok. As the prophetic story goes, in that final clash between the Norse gods and their monstrous foes at Ragnarok, Loki would lead Hel’s underworld forces against the gods. Loki’s freedom would be short-lived, however, for he was fated to die at the hands of Heimdall during the course of the battle.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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The Crossfire Death Of Aufusus

Aufusus was a young Lombard nobleman who flourished during the first half of the 8th century. He had links to the royal family, for he was a nephew of the powerful King Liutprand of the Lombards (r. 712-744). While being a nephew of a king does not often correlate to a high rank in dynastic chains of succession, the circumstances were different for Aufusus. King Liutprand, as it happened, never fathered a legitimate male heir to the throne, and therefore the king’s nephews, such as Aufusus, were viewed as the predominant claimants to the throne. To Aufusus’ advantage, he evidently had earned his mighty uncle’s affection and respect, which could have swayed opinions in the Lombard court about which of the king’s nephews would make a good king in the future. Nevertheless, such status and praise could also make Aufusus many enemies, especially from opportunist dukes and rival nephews of the king.

One day, Aufusus’ life headed down a fateful track when he accepted an invitation from King Liutprand to go on a hunting trip to a place called City Forest, which was not far from the Tanaro River region. As the story goes, King Liutprand, Aufusus, and other hunters present entered City Forest and, during their hunt, they began tracking a prized stag. As they hunted their prey, the noblemen evidently began encircling the stag, carelessly putting themselves into positions where they were vulnerable to crossfire from each other’s bows. Worse came to worst, and a stray arrow was ultimately shot far off its mark. Instead of hitting the stag, the arrow skewered the king’s nephew, Aufusus.

King Liutprand, when he learned of the disaster, immediately sent messengers and agents to nearby regions adjacent to City Forest in order to gather or consult anyone with medical or holy knowledge. As the story goes, one such person that the king’s men tracked down was a local hermit holyman named Baodolinus, who had allegedly performed miracle healings in the past. Although Baodolinus was willing to help, he faltered when the injured man’s  wound was described to him. Ultimately, Baodolinus decided not to go, for (based on intuition, medical knowledge, or prophecy) he believed that Aufusus was already dead, or at least that the injured man would die before help could arrive on the scene. This tale of Aufusus’ death and the consultation of Baodolinus was recorded by the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), who wrote:

“[W]hen Liutprand had gone to hunt in the City Forest, one of his companions attempted to hit a stag with an arrow and unintentionally wounded the king’s nephew, that is, his sister’s son, Aufusus by name. When the king saw this he began with tears to lament his misfortune, for he loved that boy greatly, and straightaway sent a horseman of his followers to run to Baodolinus the man of God, and ask him to pray to Christ for the life of the boy. And while he was going to the servant of God, the boy died. And when he came to him the follower of Christ [Baodolinus] spoke to him as follows: ‘I know for what cause you are coming, but that which you have been sent to ask cannot be done since the boy is dead’” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.58).

Although Paul the Deacon did not insinuate any foul play was involved while writing his own account, the idea that Aufusus may have been intentionally killed is not beyond the realm of possibility. The hunting incident was not clearly pinpointed on a chronological timeline, but Paul the Deacon wove it into his commentary of events that were occurring in the last few years before King Liutprand’s death in 744. At that time, the aging king still did not have any sons, and political maneuverings between the favored nephews might have been on the rise. Indeed, the Lombard realm became quite unstable after King Liutprand’s death. One of the late king’s nephews, Hildeprand, seized the throne—only to be overthrown eight months later by Duke Ratchis of Friuli. King Ratchis (r. 744-749) was then overthrown by his brother, King Aistulf (r. 749-756), and then a civil war emerged between a resurgent Ratchis and a new contender named Duke Desiderius of Tuscia. King Desiderius (r. 757-774) was the victor, but his weakened and war-torn kingdom was soon conquered by Charlemagne.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Hare hunting from BL Eg 1146, f. 7v, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Europeana and The British Library.jpg).

 

Sources:

  • History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.

The Judgement Of Midas In The Contest Between Apollo And Pan, By Pieter Codde (c. 1599 – 1678)

This painting, by the Dutch artist Pieter Codde (c. 1599 – 1678), re-creates a myth about the god, Phoebus Apollo, competing in a music competition against the satyr-god, Pan. Famous King Midas of Phrygia is featured in the artwork and the myth, but his role as a judge in this story was actually quite happenstance. For the showdown between Apollo and Pan, a mountain god named Tmolus was the official judge. Midas, however, had the fortune…or misfortune…of being at the right place and the right time to join Tmolus in witnessing the godly competition. Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, described the scene that followed:

“So Pan performed on his rustic pipes,
and his barbarous strains entranced the ears of Midas, who chanced
to be there when he played. When the piece was finished, Tmolus solemnly
turned his head in Apollo’s direction, and so did his forest.
Phoebus was crowned with a wreath of Parnassian bay on his golden
hair, and he swept the ground with his mantle of Tyrian purple.
His lyre richly inlaid with jewels and Indian ivory.
Holding the instrument firm in his left hand, plectrum in his right,
he struck the pose of a maestro; and then he plucked at the strings
with his practiced thumb, till Tmolus, enthralled by the beautiful music,
notified Pan that his pipes must yield the palm to the lyre.
All agreed with the judgment pronounced by the sacred mountain;
only Midas challenged the verdict and called it unfair.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11.160-173).

Such is the mythological tale that Pieter Codde re-creates in his painting, albeit with touches of fashion from his own era. Apollo, his lyre exchanged for a violin, is represented by the man dressed in blue and cloaked with red. Pan can be seen reclining in front of the musician, showing more interest in the nearby women than on his opponent in the music competition. As the quote above conveyed, King Midas ultimately sided with Pan during the musical showdown, and that bold decision resulted in a noticeable punishment (one that Pieter Codde included in his painting)—Apollo transformed Midas’ ears to look as if they belonged on a donkey.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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Aristotle

Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE)

“We praise those who love their friends, and the possession of many friends is held to be one of the fine things of life.”

  • From The Nicomachean Ethics (Bekker page 1155a) by Aristotle, translated by J. A. K. Thomson (Penguin Classics, 2004).

The Tale Of Heracles’ Ironic Name

Ancient Greece’s mightiest hero, Heracles (known in Rome as Hercules), was said to have been actually born with the name Alcaeus. As the ancient tales tell, the hero’s famous designation of Heracles was a nickname that he gained as a result of his deeds in life. For more context, a brief recap of the circumstances of Heracles’ birth and adventures would be helpful.

According to myth, Heracles’ birth occurred after the Mycenaean princess, Alcmene, experienced a divine night with the high-god, Zeus, who was convincingly disguised as Alcmene’s husband, Amphitryon. Zeus had special plans for this newest son, and one of his first ambitions was to place Heracles on the throne of the Mycenaean stronghold city of Tiryns. Zeus even went so far as to utter a careless and vague prophecy that a ruler of the Mycenaeans was about to be born. Nevertheless, Zeus’ godly wife, Hera, learned of her husband’s latest case of unfaithfulness, and she decided to sabotage the successful life of Heracles. Hera, in a direct challenge to Zeus’ plans, pulled her divine strings to arrange for Hercules’ royal rival—a Mycenaean nobleman named Eurystheus—to be born before Heracles, and therefore it was this Eurystheus who became the next king of Tiryns. Although this was a setback, Zeus was able to make the best out of a bad situation, arranging for a new divine deal, which stipulated that if Heracles could accomplish a set number of miraculous labors that were selected by Eurystheus, then Heracles could join the ranks of the immortal gods. Hera, perhaps not knowing just how powerful and competent Heracles would grow to be, did not object to the new divine pact.

Due to Hera’s maneuverings, Heracles was not born as a king or a prince, and he therefore became inclined to live the life of an adventuring wanderer. As Heracles grew and his strength became more apparent, Hera decided to begin sending creatures to attack the hero. The first of these were two serpents that Hera sent to kill baby Heracles, but the young godling simply strangled the snakes to death, a feat that gained the promising young hero great fame. Hera’s future attempts to send monsters to kill Heracles would have similar effects—for example, Hera reportedly raised the famous Hydra, and therefore inadvertently contributed to Heracles’ renown when he was later praised for defeating that very beast. In the end, although Hera put many threats, obstacles and painful situations in the life of Heracles, her adversarial role in his life paradoxically played a major part in propelling Heracles to stardom and immortality.

With this peculiar relationship between Heracles and Hera in mind, it is not surprising that ancient Greeks suspected that there was a connection to the goddess, Hera, in the hero’s nickname. In a tradition told by the Greek-Sicilian historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), the name Heracles derived from a combination of ‘Hera’ and kleos (meaning glory). Diodorus wrote, “Consequently the inhabitants of Argos, on learning of what had taken place, gave him the name Heracles because he had gained glory (kleos) by the aid of Hera, although he had formerly been called Alcaeus. Other children are given their names by their parents, this one alone gained his name by his valour” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.10). Although this possible connection between Hera and Heracles is entertaining, it should be noted that the name Heracles could also have been inspired by êra (or service), just as easily as it could have been inspired by Hera, the goddess.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, by Gustave Moreau (c. 1826-1898), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago).

 

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Orpheus and Eurydice, painted by Anselm Feuerbach (c. 1829-1880)

This painting, by the German artist Anselm Feuerbach (c. 1829-1880), was inspired by the sad and tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The instrument-wielding man on the left is Orpheus, a superstar musician of ancient Greek mythology who had the power to entrance everything in creation (animate and inanimate, mortal and divine) whenever he chose to play and sing. Following behind Orpheus is Eurydice—a nymph who fell in love with the legendary musician. As Orpheus reciprocated her love, the two decided to become married. Yet, before they could live happily ever after, tragedy unfairly struck their love story. On or around their wedding day, Eurydice was heartbreakingly bitten by a venomous snake and she died from the wound. Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, described this mythical death scene:

“The outcome was even worse than foreshadowed: the newly-wed bride,
while taking a stroll through the grass with her band of attendant naiads,
suddenly fell down dead with the fangs of a snake in her ankle.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.8-10)

This sad event, no matter how tragic it was on its own, was actually just the prelude to a much more elaborate myth—which happens to be the myth depicted above in Anselm Feuerbach’s painting. It is the story of Orpheus journeying into the underworld in an attempt to bring Eurydice back from the dead. A concise summery of the myth was recorded by a scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), who wrote:

“[Calliope, the muse of poetry, bore] Orpheus, who practised the art of singing to the lyre, and set rocks and trees in motion by his singing. When his wife, Eurydice, died from a snake-bite, he went down to Hades in the hope of bringing her up, and persuaded Pluto to send her back to earth. Pluto promised to do so, provided that on the way up Orpheus never looked round until he had arrived back at his house. But Orpheus failed to obey him, and turning round, he caught sight of his wife, and she had to return below” (Apollodorus, Library, I.3.2).

Such, then, is the myth that inspired Anselm Feuerbach’s painting. In the artwork, Orpheus can be seen leading Eurydice out of the darkness, guiding her toward the glimmer of light. Yet, as the quote above conveyed, Orpheus tragically broke his deal with the god of the dead. Orpheus, sadly, could not stop himself from taking a peek to make sure that Eurydice was following him out of the underworld. She, indeed, was right behind him, but as soon as Orpheus broke the rules by taking an early glimpse, he had to traumatically watch Eurydice be dragged back to the realm of the dead. After losing his wife for this second time, Orpheus withdrew into depressed seclusion, seemingly shunning all contact with anything besides the flora and fauna of nature.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

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