Rustic Sports

The other day I was out shopping, and as is my wont I was in David’s, where I observed this framed poster. Apologies for photo quality:



The thing that really struck me about this was the rainbow printing, which is pretty cool, but I have also noticed the term “Hibernian Lamb,” which I believe may be some kind of bitchy Victorian term for a pig.

Rustic Sports

O Tannenbullshit



The aged artificial tree went up on Sunday here at 1 Gonzo Mansions, and has already accumulated a fine crop of presents. The Amazon boxes are a bit un-festive-looking, but since we have no idea what’s in them we don’t dare open them for fear of spoilers. But amidst the general holiday cheer, there are some odd notes.

One of the things I always find fascinating is when you have a historical misconception that’s on both sides of an argument. This seems to be the case with this thing about the “pagan” origins of Christmas trees.

Here is what we know about Christmas trees: the practice probably comes from Germany in the 18th century and spread to parts of the world where Germans immigrated, like Britain and the US. Subsequently, the media power of the US in particular spread the custom around the world. But people get very excited about the link with “pagan” traditions.

I wish I could articulate how skeptical I am of all this. Take this quote from one Christian site:

Centuries ago in Great Britain, woods priests called Druids used evergreens during mysterious winter solstice rituals.

Mysteeeeeeerious. What do we know about these mysterious rituals, and where do we know it from?

Hmmm. Not much. I guess that’s why they’re mysterious?

Now, I have not studied this in depth, but as far as I can tell the reasoning is, like the Halloween thing, backward. I feel like I can see the fell hand of the 19th-century folklorist here, desperately trying to glide over the fact that Druids were supposedly into oaks and Christmas trees are conifers, looking at any practice that involves decorating the house with any kind of plant (Roman Christians are forbidden from decorating their houses with laurel wreaths. A laurel wreath’s kind of like a fir tree, right?) and seeing a Christmas tree, and generally stretching like billy-o. You start with a custom that’s German and involves a tree, and because you’re a muddle-headed 19th-century German Romantic aswim in volkisch dumbness, you start to have hazy visions of the Irminsul, and quick, you need to explain how this connects to pagan practices in some way. So you round up every greenery-related custom you can find, and instead of any kind of historical thread connecting these practices you fire off a barrage of descriptions of things that are a little bit like each other, but there’s so much of it … and before you know it everyone knows that Christmas trees are pagan, even if no one can point to an actual source.

Hell, I’d even be willing to believe that folky Romanticism was part of what got people so into Christmas trees, summoning up some nebulous image of wintry hospitality and warmth and little cabins with glowing windows in deep snowy woods. (The practice appears to have started in urban areas, actually, but hey.) The association with folky fuzzy concepts of paganism could very well have something to do with why people get into many of these greenery-related Christmas concepts. But that hardly means they’re “inspired by” or even anything at all to do with paganism.

And then there’s the usual seasonal arguments. People decorated their houses with evergreen plants in the winter, eh? No shit they did; they were hardly going to put spring flowers up.

What’s weird is that both sides in the Christmas tree debate seem to credit the same argument. Take this Christian site, which condemns the whole tree idea as non-Christian on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs, and compare to this site, which approves of the Christmas tree on the grounds that it comes from pagan customs. This guy debunks the common idea that Jeremiah 10:1-4 condemns the Christmas tree, mainly by going on to read Jeremiah 10:5 and the following verses.

It’s like this with all Christianity-and-paganism stuff, I sometimes think. One lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s bad, one lot thinks Christianity copied paganism and that’s good, and those who think that maybe neither side has as clear an idea of what Christianity or paganism really are in their historical contexts as they probably could are in the decided minority.

Oh well.

I think what I’ll do is stick some stick-on bows on the Amazon packages so that they look sparkly and festive despite being brown cardboard.

O Tannenbullshit

The Triumphant Return of Derpy the Dragon

You may recall that during my review of The Vikings, I introduced you to that loveable scamp Derpy the Dragon:


Well, I thought I had seen the last of him, but the spirit of Derpy is irrepressible. Today I was in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and who should I come across but:


He is the figurehead of a canoe from, er, somewhere or other in the Pacific, and if you look at his eye you will see that it is actually made of a china teacup; the other one is also a teacup, but they are mismatched. Technically, I believe he is supposed to be a crocodile.

It’s nice to see he’s still working. I have a lot of fond memories of ol’ Derpy.

The Triumphant Return of Derpy the Dragon

Movie Monday: Hannibal (1959)

I hope you are like this guy:



Not that kind of marching, obviously, but there is a lot of fucking marching in this movie. Which is a bit of a shame, considering its completely over-the-top poster:

Hannibal movie poster


Would you be surprised to learn that the savage orgy of destruction this poster promises does not appear in the film?

OK, so, Victor Mature is Hannibal, and he is invading Italy in 218 BC. Target: Rome!



Check it out, guys, Rome! Oh, look, it’s the Colosseum! That’s pretty cool how it travelled back in time to be there 300 years before it was built!

We get like a minute of the Senate fretting about the invasion, and then it’s Hannibal and his men crossing the Alps. And, I am not kidding, this scene goes on for like ten minutes. Just ten minutes of guys and elephants struggling through the mountains.

Now I am sort of torn about this, because on the one hand obviously the crossing of the Alps was a big deal and took a long time — and, to add to that, I really like that the army on the march has loads of supply wagons and herds of livestock and all the stuff an ancient army would really have that you so seldom see in films. On the other hand, this movie is only an hour and forty minutes long, so literally 10% of the running time is just guys marching through the mountains while officers shout “keep going!”



This guy here takes like a second-long warm up before shouting some encouragement.

Anyway, we do have a little dialogue here, and we get to meet Hannibal. Hannibal is smug:



Hannibal is greasy:



Hannibal meets some Gauls:



The Gauls are never seen again.

Hannibal meets a Roman girl and takes her captive but then falls in love with her. In a weird coincidence, it’s Rita Gam from Sign of the Pagan.

Hannibal fights some confusing, unconvincing battles with the Romans in which they clash their tin swords against each other. Hannibal loses an eye, but not in battle, just to an eye infection. This was a really serious problem in the ancient world, and if you don’t believe me, look at any Roman army medical record. It’s nothing but eye inflammations from hell to breakfast.

The Senate waffles around a bit, and Hannibal wins another vague and confusing battle. He romances Rita Gam a bit more. There is dissension among the Carthaginian officers, and one of them tries to have Rita Gam killed, but fails. He then fights Hannibal, using a … thingummy …



It’s like a shield with a big old spiky spear coming out of it … I have no idea.

Anyway, Hannibal is victorious, and he celebrates by having like five or six half-naked guys punch each other, which the Carthaginian crowd seem to think is super-duper exciting. Way out of proportion to its actual excitingness, considering their camp is full of elephants and stuff.



Anyway, in Hannibal’s hour of victory, dissension in the ranks comes back to bite him in the ass; promised reinforcements from Carthage don’t arrive, but his wife and kid do, exposing him for the greasy philanderer he is. One of Hannibal’s brothers gets killed in a scene that’s played like we’re supposed to know who he was. Rita Gam runs off back to Rome and kills herself. The end. Hannibal’s last lines are just him saying “march!” over and over again, which is sadly appropriate.

The movie is more-or-less historical in its outline, plus or minus a shoehorned-in love story and a bunch of simplifications for brevity. It’s meant to be a spectacle, I think, with lots of big battles and scenery and elephants, and it certainly has elephants, I’ll give it that. But for a giant historical spectacle, it’s also just really boring, with a lot of guys in minidresses clanging tin swords against each other.

Partly it suffers from the historical movie problem of trying to fit real events into a cinematic narrative when the actual story of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy is really kind of anticlimactic; all the good stuff is in the beginning and middle, and the end just kind of fizzles out.

Oh well.

Movie Monday: Hannibal (1959)

Low content day: birchbark letters

I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to, er, not posting things on this blog. But today I am sick and knackered, so it is going to be a mostly link-heavy post today.

As you may know, our access to details of the private lives of individuals in history is mainly dependent on how perishable and/or well-preserved their means of communication was. In preliterate societies, that means you’re pretty much up shit creek. Oh, you can establish quite a lot with archaeology, but obviously not as much as you can with archaeology and written sources. And in many early societies, it’s rare for letters to be preserved even if they were relatively common. That’s why when you get something like The Vindolanda Tablets, a collection of everyday correspondence from people in and around a Roman fort in northern Britain, it’s so exciting. This one is probably the most famous:

Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On 11 September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present (?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings. (2nd hand) I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. (Back, 1st hand) To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.

But preservation is a hit-and-miss thing. A huge number of letters or notes written on birch bark from Novgorod, for instance, have been preserved simply because soil conditions kept them nice and wet and prevented the air from getting at them. There are loads of fascinating letters, including financial transactions, love letters and crime reports. You can read a little bit about them here. One particularly charming group of documents appear to be schoolwork from a kid called Onfim, complete with his doodles. There’s a fun page about them here.



The left image shows Onfim’s schoolwork, while the right is on the back of the page; he’s drawn a fearsome wild beast with a sign that says “Greetings from Onfim to Danilo.”

So there you go. Not much for today, but it’s been a long day and I have that thing where my everything hurts.

Low content day: birchbark letters

The effectiveness argument

Many years ago, when I lived in Durham, I happened to discover one day that there was a wargames show on. I went and had a great time, and one of the things that I remember was playing in a Trojan War game being run by a guy called Nikolas Lloyd. I later discovered that he had a web page, and these days he is making a series of YouTube videos. There are a lot of good ones, including lots about what reenactment can teach us about the practicalities of using ancient weapons and armour. His style is great, very charming and clearly sincere. I approve. If you are interested in ancient warfare and/or its portrayal in popular culture, I think you should watch a few — and they’re usually nice and short.

Here is one, about mail:

Now, as it happens, I quite agree with him that mail armour must have been more effective than some people would like us to believe. But while that’s true, my inclination in general is to treat the argument ‘people used it, and therefore it must have worked’ with a big-ass grain of salt. Obviously, this does not apply to loads of things that people used assiduously and/or spent huge amounts of money on for centuries. Astrology, for instance, or bloodletting. Really just the whole of medieval medicine. And there are tons of examples of this happening even when lives were at stake. So I’m not sure that the empirical evidence of people’s own eyes is necessarily a guarantee of a change in their behaviour. You would hope, but I’m not sure.

The effectiveness argument

I Love Fake History, Part 2: The Nazi Occult by Kenneth Hite.

Right, the chaos is over and I’m back on the job!

The current issue of Fortean Times has my review of The Nazi Occult by Kenneth Hite in it. I’m not going to cover the whole book again, because I already did, but I’d like to talk about it in the specific context of my love of imaginary settings and fake history.



So, The Nazi Occult is part of Dark Osprey, which itself appears to be a subset of Osprey Adventures, Osprey’s line that encompasses fantasy, mythology, horror, alternative history and so on. (think I may add this one to the ol’ wish list.) In many ways, however, it’s like a normal Osprey book, with the usual colour plates, maps, photographs, historical documents and so on. It’s basically an Osprey from an alternate universe where secret Nazi occult research in WWII was real.

The Nazi Occult does two things that are very important in writing fake history (or non-narrative fiction, or whatever you want to call it). First, it does the voice of an Osprey very well. This is no surprise: I once sold Ken an Osprey volume on the Reconquista at a flea market on the basis that it was an Osprey book he hadn’t read. Nailing the sound of historical writing is vital to this kind of project, and it’s exactly why World War Z fails in this task.

The second thing is that the fantasy in The Nazi Occult is seamlessly blended with a) actual history about the connection of various esoteric groups to Nazism and b) actual lunacy about the Nazis’ secret occult weapons. So you’ve got crazy things that are actually true and crazy things that many people believe all treated with a similarly straight face. You can only do this when you’ve spent a long time learning the crazy.

The one thing I wish that this book had is a different cover. It’s not that the cover is bad or anything, but if it looked more like this:



… it would be better still. You would have a fake text of Ambridge proportions then.

Anyway, I liked it, and not just because I got it free. I don’t know what use I’m going to get out of it, but then what use am I going to get out of my copy of Heroes of the Soviet Union 1941-45? But it will be my first stop whenever I need to shoehorn some kind of Nazi occult conspiracy into something — which happens more often than you might think.

I Love Fake History, Part 2: The Nazi Occult by Kenneth Hite.