Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Ancient Germanic Tattoos and Cannabis Use

Comic book illustration by Kresse (1953)
I am reading the fifth book in the Warrior of Rome series by Harry Sidebottom, called The Wolves of the North. As well as being a novelist, Sidebottom is a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at the University of Oxford. His intimacy with ancient history means that he is often able to bring the ancient world to life, and what I have been reading about recently is particularly intriguing. He is describing the Heruli – an ancient Germanic tribe who are depicted as, inter alia, tattooed inhalers of cannabis. How much truth is there likely to be in this portrayal? Well, it seems to be quite feasible. 

Describing the Heruli ("utterly abandoned rascals")
Briefly put, the Heruli were one of a number of Germanic tribes who became a problem for Rome from the 3rd century onwards. Originally from Scandinavia, by the mid 3rd century they were living in the general area of modern day Ukraine. From there they spread themselves in a number of directions, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Odin – God of the Fearless

"Wotan" (1969) by K Vasilyev
Most of what we know about Odin, and other Germanic Gods, comes from Icelandic manuscripts written roughly 200 years or more after Iceland formally adopted Christianity (though much of this material appears to copy works written hundreds of years earlier). Perhaps one of best descriptions of Odin comes from the Hyndluljod:
“Let's ask the Host-father [Odin] to sit in good cheer; he grants and gives out gold to the worthy ... He gives victory to some, to some wealth, eloquence to many, and sense to men; a fair wind he gives to sailors, and fine words to skalds; he gives manliness to many a fighter.
Another of the Icelandic poems, the Hávamál, is said to record the words of Odin. From this, perhaps the most haunting passage is the following:
“Wounded I hung on a wind-swept tree. For nine long nights, pierced by a spear, pledged to Odin. Offered, myself to myself. The wisest know not from whence spring the roots of that ancient tree. They gave me no bread, they gave me no mead, I looked down; with a loud cry, I took up runes; from that tree I fell.”
This is a tale of shamanism that hints at a means of acquiring sacred knowledge that has been lost but can be found. On a purely functional level it also establishes Odin as the father of the written word, and thereby the protector of knowledge. Thus he is known as the Fjölnir (wise one, all-knowing or concealer), Fjölsviðr (very wise one) and Saðr (truthful).* Another story that emphasises this aspect of Odin is told in the Prose Edda: