Vikings in Greenland

Greenland, or Grœnland in Old Norse, was settled by Norwegian and Icelandic explorers during the 10th century AD, where two major Viking settlements emerged until their abandonment in the 15th century AD.

According to a medieval text called the Landnámabók, translated as “Book of Settlements”, Greenland was supposedly first sighted by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, also known as also known as Gunnbjörn Ulf-Krakuson during the early 10th century AD when his ship was blown off course.

In AD 978, Snæbjörn galti Hólmsteinsson is said to have set sail for Greenland with about two dozen companions, and settled on the islands of Gunnbjarnar Skerries, a small group of islands lying off the coast of Greenland, that according to Johannes Ruysch’s map from AD 1507 had “completely burned up” (possibly by volcanic activity). After spending a terrible winter on the islands, the settlers murdered Snæbjörn and his foster father, and abandoned the settlement to return to Iceland.

The first successful settlement of Greenland was by Erik Thorvaldsson, otherwise known as Erik the Red. According to the sagas, the Icelanders had exiled Erik during an assembly of the Althing for three years, as punishment for Erik killing Eyiolf the Foul over a dispute.

Erik went in search of land that had been reported to lie to the north and reached the coastline of Greenland where he spent the three years of his exile exploring the new land.

Upon returning to Iceland, he is said to have brought with him stories of “Greenland”, an auspiciously named land in order to sound more appealing than “Iceland” to lure potential settlers.

Erik returned to Greenland in AD 985 or 986 with a large number of colonists, who established two colonies on the southwest coast: The Eastern Settlement or Eystribyggð, in what is now Qaqortoq, and the Western Settlement or Vestribygð, close to present-day Nuuk. A later Middle Settlement emerged in what is now Ivittuut, but this is generally considered to be associated with an expansion from the Eastern Settlement.

Erik built his personal estate of Brattahlíð, near present-day Narsarsuaq where he ruled as paramount chieftain of Greenland until his death. According to legend, Erik had planned to journey with his son Leif Erikson (who is believed to have established a Norse settlement at Vinland), but Erik fell off his horse on his way to the ship. He later died from a pandemic that killed many of the island’s colonists in the winter after his son’s departure.

At their peak, the settlements are estimated to have had a combined population of between 2,000-10,000 inhabitants (sources differ), with archaeologists identifying the ruins of approximately 620 farmsteads spread across Greenland’s south-western fjords.

The settlers shared the island with the late Dorset culture, who lived in the northern and western parts of Greenland, and later with the Thule culture (who the Norsemen called the Skræling) that entered from the north around AD 1300 after migrating from Alaska.

In AD 1126, the Roman Catholic Church founded a diocese at Garðar in the Eastern Settlement at present-day Igaliku, which was subject to the Norwegian archdiocese of Nidaros and constructed several churches. By AD 1261, the Greenlanders had accepted rule by the King of Norway, which then entered into a union with the Kingdom of Denmark in AD 1380.

The settlements continued to prosper until the 14th century AD, where they entered a period of decline until their abandonment in the 15th century AD. Various theories have been proposed to explain the abandonment, with the most prominent being gradual climate change, loss of contact and support from Denmark, opportunities for migration back to Europe after the plague had left farmsteads abandoned, economic factors, or conflicts with the Inuit peoples.

The last written record from the Viking Greenlanders dates from AD 1408, which documents a marriage between Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdóttirin.

Source: HeritageDaily

Saffron Bread

Saffron Bread

In the Middle Ages, spices were a symbol of status and prosperity. Aristocrats’ meals were ordinarily heavily spiced, and saffron was especially favored. The attractive, bright yellow was used to color a variety of dishes.

It is believed that Welsh devas, also known as faeries, thrived on saffron. A twelfth-century story by Giraldus Cambrensis tells of a boy who was taken to a faery palace and found that the whole faery court ate nothing but saffron and milk.

The saffron crocus was first found in Greece and Asia Minor. Later, medieval people found that they could grow the flower closer to home. Spain, Italy, and England all produced large quantities of saffron.

¾  Cup Warm Milk

1 (¼-Ounce) Package Active Dry Yeast

1 Teaspoon Granulated Sugar

¼ Teaspoon Saffron Strands

½ Cup Boiling Water

3½ Cups All-Purpose Flour

1 Cup Butter, Softened

½ Cup Superfine Sugar

½ Cup Raisins

½ Cup Dried Cranberries

½ Cup Chopped Candied Orange Peel

1 Teaspoon Minced Fresh Thyme

Pour the milk into a bowl and dissolve the yeast and the sugar in it. Let stand in a warm place for approximately 10 minutes, until foaming. Steep the saffron in the boiling water for several minutes, then let the mixture cool.

Sift the flour into a large bowl. In a small bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Then add raisins, cranberries, orange peel, and thyme, mixing well. Gradually add the flour.

Strain the saffron mixture. Add the yeast mixture and saffron liquid to the flour mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon until smooth; it should look like a very thick batter.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Pour the batter into a greased and lined 10-inch round cake pan. Cover with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place for about 1 hour, until the mixture rises to the top of the pan. Bake the bread for 1 hour. Let it cool in the pan.

Slice and serve with butter.

Viking Longships

Arguably, the Norsemen’s biggest breakthrough in seafaring was the design of the longship. Viking ships were made mostly by timber, the Viking elongated their ship designs so that they could handle the roughest water and carry people across their vast distances. One of the Viking ships that remains includes the Oseberg Viking ship which is now listed as the most beautiful Viking ship ever found. 

Karvi:

Karvi is listed as the smallest Viking ship design with about 6 to 16 benches. This kind of ship had many uses, for trade, fishing, transportation, and military purpose. 

The unique structure of karvi helped it to handle shallow waters. This was ideal for transporting both people and cargo across the waters. 

By far, the most famous Viking ship ever discovered was the Gokstad ship. It was excavated around the 1880s and dated sometime around the 9th century. It was about 23 meters (75 feet) in length.

Snekkja:

A bigger design of the Viking ship was the Snekkja. “Snekkja” meant “snakes” in English. It was a sleek and dynamic vessel. 

The snekkja had a minium of 20 rowing benches. This kind of ship could carry on cox and about 40 oarsmen. 

Snekkja excelled in deeper waters. This made them ideal when travelling in fjords and across Atlantic expeditions. 

Skeid:

The skeid longship, translated as slider, is one of the larger Viking vessel designs. It was used as a warship. Skeid often had about  or more rowing benches. 

One of the largest discoveries of a skeid ship came to the public light in the mid when a 37 meter long vessel was unearthed in Roskilde harbour in Denmark. 

Drakker:

Another famous type of Viking longship was the drakker which means “dragon”. This kind of ship often contained many carvings from dragons to snakes. 

The excellent qualities on the ship not only helped the Viking to show off their carving and designing skills but also helped to intimidate the victims while raiding and pillaging. 

The Chained Books of Hereford Cathedral (Hereford, Herefordshire – Great Britain)

The Chained Books of Hereford Cathedral (Hereford, Herefordshire – Great Britain)

This cathedral contains two medieval marvels: a chained library of rare books and one of the earliest maps of the world.

In the Middle Ages, before the availability of the printing press, volumes on law and religion were quite rare and valuable. To protect against theft, the books at Hereford Cathedral were chained to desks, pulpits, and study tables.

The chained library was created in 1611 when a collection of hand-transcribed, hand-bound books was moved into the Lady Chapel. Most of the volumes in the collection are acquisitions dating back to the 1100s, although the oldest book in the collection, the Hereford Gospels, dates to about the year 800.

The medieval world map stored at Hereford Cathedral depicts three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. On the as-yet-unexplored periphery of these lands roam fire-breathing dragons, dog-faced men, people who survive on only the scent of apples, and the Monocoli, a race of mythical beings who take shade under their giant feet when the sun becomes too bright.

The 5 × 4.5-foot map (1.5 × 1.4 m), created around 1300, is part geography, part history, and part religious teaching aid. A lack of confirmed information on Asian and African geography presented no obstacle for the mapmaker, who used hearsay, mythology, and imagination to fill in the gaps—which explains the four-eyed Ethiopians.

Sources: Atlas Obscura

Château De Montségur (“Satan’s Synagogue”)

Château De Montségur (“Satan’s Synagogue”)

Before turning their thoughts to the intriguing legends associated with these ruins, any person who strays off the marked footpaths and loses his or her footing on the edge of the precipices that drop away on every side of this aptly nicknamed “citadel in the sky.” And let us not forget that early in 1244 it was a feat of rock climbing that sealed the fate of the Cathars when they were besieged here by the army of King Louis IX. After seven months, during which traditional military strategies had brought nothing but failure, Hugues des Arcis, the commander of the forces encamped at the foot of this eagle’s nest, finally decided to send a small group of particularly agile soldiers up the cliff face. Under cover of darkness, this detachment reached the summit, captured a watchtower, and installed a trebuchet, with which it proceeded to bombard the interior of the castle without respite, making life impossible for the besieged, who were forced to surrender after a few weeks.

The fate of this community, the last bastion of the Cathar faith in France, is well known. One Sunday in March 1244, the day of the equinox, the believers—more than two hundred men and women—were led down to a pyre that had been set up at the foot of the hill, steadfastly refusing to renounce their faith. What else could they do, these pacifists who had taken a vow to show courage in the face of suffering and death? The name Cathar—from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”—was given them by their contemporaries on account of their asceticism and refusal to compromise in any way. For the same reason, those who had undergone the rite of ordination called the consolamentum were known as perfecti, although among one another they preferred the terms “good man” and “good woman.” The band of sympathizers protecting the pacifist Cathars were allowed to go free provided they pledged to stop supporting heresy and swore allegiance to the king of France.

The Château de Montségur that stands today is not the same fortress that existed at the time of these dreadful events. Historians, archeologists, and local storytellers cannot agree on all the details. For example, was the Cathars’ place of martyrdom the prats dels cremats (“field of the burned”), as indicated today by a stele, or was it a neighboring hill? At this magnificent site, so many questions remain unanswered. There’s the legendary Cathar treasure, said to have been held in safekeeping at Montségur before being smuggled out to an unknown destination. And then there are the four men deputed by the community to slip away under the utmost secrecy prior to the ultimate surrender, carrying with them who knows what. Items of treasure? Precious documents? Mysterious keys enabling the Cathar tradition to be revived elsewhere? At Montségur nothing seems impossible. In the last century a team of German researchers came, with the blessing of the Nazi regime, to investigate, convinced that the castle housed the Holy Grail, the famous cup believed to have been used to catch Christ’s blood.

What should we make of the site’s architecture, of the spectacular alignment of the sun’s rays at solstice time, as if its architects had wanted the castle to function as a kind of astronomical calendar? And doesn’t its floor plan reflect the constellation of Boötes, with the donjon representing the star Arcturus? Is it also mere chance that “Cant del Boièr” (Song of the Herdsman) remains one of the most popular folk songs in the Occitanian canon, with some people reading into its words a coded message addressed to future generations?

“After seven hundred years the bay tree will flower again”—and with it, no doubt, the Cathar faith. Thus were the words of the troubadour in the Occitania of old. Or was it the last of the perfecti to be burned at the stake? Or even a poet born generations later? Basically, nobody knows. It is even possible that the bay tree could be an olive tree, and that the date is regularly adjusted so that it never loses its relevance. No matter. The legend remains perplexing enough for visitors to be drawn in by its verses while contemplating the ruins of what the inquisitors called “Satan’s synagogue” – but never quite managed to utterly destroy.

Sources: Atlas of Cursed Places

Witch Trials Of Europe

Valais: France/Switzerland, 1428–1447

Often considered to be the first in Europe, the Valais trials began in the French-speaking southern region of Valais and spread to German-speaking Wallis. The trials claimed at least 367 victims (the actual toll may be higher), with just as many men as women killed. It all began in August 1428, when delegates from seven different districts demanded investigations into any accused witches or sorcerers. They established a rule that if any single person was accused of witchcraft three times, they were to be arrested. Once arrested, there was no way to escape; those that confessed were burned at the stake and those who didn’t were tortured until they did confess. While the trials were poorly documented, there are a few records that remain from the local clerk of the court, Johannes Fründ.

Trier: Germany, 1581–1593

One of the largest witch trials in European history started in the rural diocese of Trier in 1581, eventually reaching the city itself six years later. The motives behind this massive witch-purging were likely political. Wanting to prove his loyalty to the Jesuits, the newly-appointed Archbishop Johann von Schöneburg ordered a purge of three groups of nonconformists: Protestants, Jews and witches. Very few of those accused of witchcraft were ever released. Between 1587 and 1593, 368 of the accused from 22 villages were burned alive, almost all confessing under torture. Almost a third of the victims were nobility or held positions in the government or local administration, including judges, burgermeisters, councilors, canons and parish priests.

North Berwick: Scotland, 1590–1592

When King James VI of Scotland sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark, a severe coastal storm forced him to land in Norway and take refuge for several weeks. The storm was blamed on witchcraft, which brewed the king’s obsession with eliminating the practice. He became so obsessed he even penned a book, Daemonologie, endorsing witch hunting. The first to fall victim was Gilly Duncan. Accused of using healing cures and subject to prolonged torture, Duncan confessed to having a contract with the devil. She was burned at the stake for her crime. In total, 70 people were accused of witchcraft, including several members of Scottish nobility, although the actual number of those killed remains unknown. These events had such a profound effect that it’s believed Shakespeare adapted parts of the trial—including the torture rituals—into “Macbeth.” The North Berwick witch trials were the first major trials in Scotland, but many followed, claiming an estimated total of 3,000-4,000 lives between 1560 and 1707.

Fulda: Germany, 1603–1606

After returning from a 20-year exile from his post, Balthasar von Dernbach, the prince-abbot of the Fulda monastery, joined the ongoing efforts of the Catholic Counter-Reformation to thwart perceived religious liberalism. Dernbach launched an aggressive investigation into witchcraft and sorcery to purge the city of Fulda of “improper” things. The most well-known victim was a pregnant woman named Merga Bien. Accused of murdering her second husband, their children and a family member of her husband’s employer, she was tortured and forced to confess. Found guilty, Bien was burned at the stake. The witch hunts were stopped upon the death of Dernbach in 1605.

Pendle: England, 1612–1634

Taking place in Pendle Hill—a poor, lawless region in Lancashire, England, where begging and magical healing were common—these trials were among the most famous and well-documented of the 17th century. The previous decades had been rife with a fear of witchcraft, which was only magnified by the obsession of James VI (now also King James I of England) in purging his lands of witches and sorcerers. Required to report anyone who refused to attend the English Church or take communion, the local Justice of the Peace, Roger Nowell, was also tasked with investigating claims of witchcraft. One such claim was made by a local Halifax peddler who accused a local woman, Alizon Device, of giving him a stroke through witchcraft. Device freely confessed to the crime and implicated many of her family members. Other locals implicated their families, only later to be accused themselves. Altogether, 12 were accused of using witchcraft to murder 10 people. Eleven of the accused went to trial—nine women and two men—and 10 were found guilty and hanged.

Torsåker: Sweden, 1674–1675

The largest witch trial in Swedish history—and one of the largest mass killings of witches in recorded history—saw 71 accused witches, including 65 females, or roughly one-fifth of all women in the region, beheaded and burned in a single day. The bloodshed began when minister Laurentius Christophori Hornæus of Ytterlännäs was instructed to investigate witchcraft within his parish. He ordered two young boys to stand at the doors and identify witches by the invisible devil’s mark on their forehead as they walked into church. Much to the dismay of Hornæus, one of the boys identified the minister’s wife, a situation that was quickly hushed up. The accused were suspected of abducting children and taking them to Satan’s Sabbath (eight festivals celebrated by Wiccans and Neopagans) at Blockula (a meadow popular in Swedish folklore where the devil held court). Relying mostly on children, testimonies were extracted through whippings, forced bathing in frozen lakes or by threats to bake the children in an oven. There were very few records of these trials, and the primary source was recorded 60 years after their conclusion by the grandson of minister Hornæus, who recorded his grandmother’s eyewitness account to the proceedings. The trials were thought to have shaky legitimacy since the commission and local courts failed to report the death sentences to a higher court before carrying them out.

Sources: history.com, Cultures of Witchcraft, The Witch Hunts

 

Joan of Arc Beatified

On this day in 1909 Joan of Arc was beatified (Beatification is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a deceased person’s entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name), nearly 500 years after her execution; which is somewhat coy of the Vatican when viewed in the light of recent fast-tracking of saintly candidates.

Regardless of the supernatural elements of her story, she remains an interesting historical character. Quite how a teenage peasant girl in the early years of the 15th century managed to convince a garrison commander and then the uncrowned king of France Charles VII that she could lead an army against English forces remains to this day a mystery shrouded in legendary tales.

#JoanOfArc #Beatificatio

Witch Trial Tests

1. Swimming Test 

As part of the infamous “swimming test,” accused witches were dragged to the nearest body of water, stripped to their undergarments, bound and then tossed in to to see if they would sink or float. Since witches were believed to have spurned the sacrament of baptism, it was thought that the water would reject their body and prevent them from submerging. According to this logic, an innocent person would sink like a stone, but a witch would simply bob on the surface. The victim typically had a rope tied around their waist so they could be pulled from the water if they sank, but it wasn’t unusual for accidental drowning deaths to occur. 

Witch swimming derived from the “trial by water,” an ancient practice where suspected criminals and sorcerers were thrown into rushing rivers to allow a higher power to decide their fate. This custom was banned in many European counties in the Middle Ages, only to reemerge in the 17th century as a witch experiment, and it persisted in some locales well into the 18th century. For example, in 1710, the swimming test was used as evidence against a Hungarian woman named Dorko Boda, who was later beaten and burned at the stake as a witch.

2. Prayer Test

Medieval wisdom held that witches were incapable of speaking scripture aloud, so accused sorcerers were made to recite selections from the Bible—usually the Lord’s Prayer—without making mistakes or omissions. While it may have simply been a sign that the suspected witch was illiterate or nervous, any errors were viewed as proof that the speaker was in league with the devil. This twisted test of public speaking ability was commonly used as hard evidence in witch trials. In 1712, it was applied in the case Jane Wenham, an accused witch who supposedly struggled to speak the words “forgive us our trespasses” and “lead us not into temptation” during her interrogation. Still, even a successful prayer test didn’t guarantee an acquittal. During the Salem Witch Trials, the accused sorcerer George Burroughs flawlessly recited the prayer from the gallows just before his execution. The performance was dismissed as a devil’s trick, and the hanging proceeded as planned.

3. Touch Test

The touch test worked on the idea that victims of sorcery would have a special reaction to physical contact with their evildoer. In cases where a possessed person fell into spells or fits, the suspected witch would be brought into the room and asked to a lay a hand on them. A non-reaction signaled innocence, but if the victim came out of their fit, it was seen as proof that the suspect had placed them under a spell. 

Touch tests played a famous part in the 1662 trial of Rose Cullender and Amy Denny, two elderly English women charged with bewitching a pair of young girls. The children had been suffering from fits that left their fists clenched so tightly that even a strong man could not pry their fingers apart, but early tests showed they easily opened whenever Cullender or Denny touched them. To ensure the reaction was genuine, judges had the children blindfolded and touched by other members of the court. The girls unclenched their fists anyway, which suggested they were faking, but even this was not enough to prove the women’s innocence. Cullender and Denny were both later hanged as witches. 

4. Witch Cakes

A bizarre form of counter-magic, the witch cake was a supernatural dessert used to identify suspected evildoers. In cases of mysterious illness or possession, witch-hunters would take a sample of the victim’s urine, mix it with rye-meal and ashes and bake it into a cake. This stomach-turning concoction was then fed to a dog—the “familiars,” or animal helpers, of witches—in the hope that the beast would fall under its spell and reveal the name of the guilty sorcerer. During the hysteria that preceded the Salem Witch Trials, the slave Tituba famously helped prepare a witch cake to identify the person responsible for bewitching young Betty Parris and others. The brew failed to work, and Tituba’s supposed knowledge of spells and folk remedies was later used as evidence against her when she was accused of being a witch.

5. Witch’s Marks 

Witch-hunters often had their suspects stripped and publicly examined for signs of an unsightly blemish that witches were said to receive upon making their pact with Satan. This “Devil’s Mark” could supposedly change shape and color, and was believed to be numb and insensitive to pain. Prosecutors might also search for the “witches’ teat,” an extra nipple allegedly used to suckle the witch’s helper animals. In both cases, it was easy for even the most minor physical imperfections to be labeled as the work of the devil himself. Moles, scars, birthmarks, sores, supernumerary nipples and tattoos could all qualify, so examiners rarely came up empty-handed. In the midst of witch hunts, desperate villagers would sometimes even burn or cut off any offending marks on their bodies, only to have their wounds labeled as proof of a covenant with the devil.

6. Pricking and Scratching Tests

If witch-hunters struggled to find obvious evidence of “witch’s marks” on a suspect’s body, they might resort to the ghastly practice of “pricking” as a means of sussing it out. Witch-hunting books and instructional pamphlets noted that the marks were insensitive to pain and couldn’t bleed, so examiners used specially designed needles to repeatedly stab and prick at the accused person’s flesh until they discovered a spot that produced the desired results. In England and Scotland, the torture was eventually performed by well-paid professional “prickers,” many of whom were actually con men who used dulled needlepoints to identify fake witch’s marks. 

Along with pricking, the unfortunate suspect might also be subjected to “scratching” by their supposed victims. This test was based on the notion that possessed people found relief by scratching the person responsible with their fingernails until they drew blood. If their symptoms improved after clawing at the accused’s skin, it was seen as partial evidence of guilt. 

7. Incantations

Also known as “charging,” this test involved forcing the accused witch to verbally order the devil to let the possessed victim come out of their fit or trance. Other people would also utter the words to act as a “control,” and judges would then gauge whether the statements had any effect on the victim’s condition. Charges were famously used in the 16th century witch trial of Alice Samuel and her husband and daughter, who were accused of bewitching five girls from the wealthy Throckmorton family. During the proceedings, judges forced the Samuels to demand that the devil release the girls from their spell by stating, “As I am a witch…so I charge the devil to let Mistress Throckmorton come out of her fit at this present.” When the possessed girls immediately recovered, the Samuels were found guilty and hanged as witches.

Sources: history.com, historycollection.com, washingtonpost.com

Tollund Man (Silkeborg, Central Denmark)

Tollund Man (Silkeborg, Central Denmark)

Walking around the Bjældskovdal bog in 1950, brothers Emil and Viggo Højgaard (along with Grethe, Viggo’s wife) stumbled upon a body. Believing the man to be the victim of a recent killing, they called the police. Further investigations revealed that he had indeed been murdered—some 2,300 years earlier.

The Tollund Man was found curled in the fetal position with his eyes closed and a serene expression frozen on his face. The cold, acidic, oxygen-starved conditions of the peat bog had kept him remarkably well preserved. His hair, beard stubble, eyelashes, and toenails were all intact, and he was nude, but for a sheepskin cap and wide belt around his waist. A rope was wound tightly around his neck. The Iron Age man had been hanged, likely during a ritual sacrifice.

In 1950, it was not yet known how best to preserve discoveries like Tollund Man. Accordingly, only the head of the original specimen was kept intact. The rest of the body was subjected to various tests to determine his probable age (probably around 40, due to the presence of wisdom teeth and wrinkles) and the conditions surrounding his life and death. Among the details found: Tollund Man was 5 feet 3 inches (1.6 m) tall, his final meal was a gruel made from barley and flaxseed, and his “sacrificers” (read: killers) took the time to close his mouth and eyes after death.

Thousands of “bog bodies” have been discovered in sphagnum swamps across Northern Europe, but the Tollund Man remains the best preserved. His original head and reconstructed body now reside at the Silkeborg Museum. The rope used to end his life is still wrapped around his throat.

Source: Atlas Obscura

Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)

Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003)

I have a deep appreciation for the film innovations of Leni Riefenstahl over her long career. To be clear I am not saying I admire her affiliation with Nazi Germany. I am not saying that I feel her propaganda work during the 1930’s & 1940’s is something that inspires me or I admire. I do however recognize the brilliance of the work she did during that time from a strictly artistic point-of-view and as an effective form of propaganda for a morally reprehensible regime that unfortunately existed in a dark period of human history. Whether you believe her claims that she was unaware of the Nazi war crimes they were committing or not I leave up to your own conscience. For what it is worth she won over fifty libel cases against people accusing her of knowing of the Nazi crimes. She would later go onto say of meeting Hitler, “It was the biggest catastrophe of my life. Until the day I die people will keep saying, ‘Leni is a Nazi’, and I’ll keep saying, ‘But what did she do?”

Her most infamous and historically significant film was “Triumph of the Will” (Named by Hitler) of the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg.  According to reports she originally did not wish to make the film, but Hitler convinced her on the condition that she not be required to make further films for the party.  She did however make a few more films for the Nazi party such as an eighteen minute follow up film at the 1935 party rally focusing on the army which felt they were not fairly represented in the first film.  She went on to claim to never have intended to make a pro-Nazi propaganda film and was disgusted it was used that way.  Whether that is true or not “Triumph of the Will” has been universally recognized as a masterful, innovative example of documentary filmmaking.  Years later the Economist (magazine) wrote that Triumph of the Will “sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.”  The film scholar Mark Cousins went on to claim, “Next to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Leni Riefenstahl was the most technically talented Western film maker of her era”.

In 1936 with the Olympics approaching she traveled to Greece to film the location of the original Olympics at Olympia.  This footage became part of the film “Olympia” a highly successful film.  It was noted for its technical as well as aesthetic achievements.  Her use of tracking shots as well as slow motion of the athletes has been seen as a major influence on modern sports photography.  She is noted to have filmed footage of all races at the Olympics, including the American Jesse Owens.  Upon its release in the United States the American philanthropist and former Olympic athlete (1912 Olympics) Avery Brundage said it was, “The greatest Olympic film ever made.”

During the invasion of Poland she worked as a war correspondent.  On September 12th, 1939 thirty civilians were executed and there are claims she attempted to intervene, but a German soldier held her at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her if she continued.  Whether that is true or not, close-up photos of a distraught Riefenstahl still exist from that day.  She would later claim she did not realize the civilians were Jews.  Nevertheless a month later she filmed Hitler’s victory parade in Warsaw.  It was the last Nazi related film of her career.

After the war she was held in American and French run detention camps and prisons from 1945-1948.  She is reported to have reacted with horror and tears when shown photos of the concentration camps.  She was tried four times but never found guilty of anything but being a “fellow traveler” who was sympathetic to the Nazis.  Through the 1950’s and 1960’s she attempted many times (15 by her count) to make films but they were always met with resistance, public protests and sharp criticism.

In the 1960’s her focus made the transition to still photography.  She became enamored with Africa, inspired by Hemingway’s book “The Green Hills of Afruca,” and the photography of George Rodger.  She traveled many times to Sudan to photograph the Nuba tribes.  She lived with them sporadically learning their culture so she could photograph them more easily.  She was eventually granted Sudanese citizenship for her services to the country, becoming the first foreigner to have a Sudanese passport.  Her two books of the tribes, “The Last of the Nuba,” and “The People of Kau,” published in the 1970’s were both international bestsellers.  She photographed the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.  Later she photographer Mick Jagger, Siegfried and Roy, and was a friend of Andy Warhol.  She was a guest of honor at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

At age 72 she became interested in underwater photography.  She lied about her age (by 20 years) and became certified to scuba dive.  In 1978 she published a book of coral gardens and then in 1990 her book “Wonder Under Water.”  On her 100th birthday she released her final film, “Underwater Impressions” an idealized documentary of life in the oceans.  It was her first film in twenty-five years.  At age 100 she was still photographing marine life and gained distinction as the world’s oldest scuba diver.  She continued to be active in her late life being a member of Greenpeace for eight years.   In 2000 she was in a helicopter crash while attempting to determine the fate of her Nuba friends during the Sudanese civil war.  On Auguest 22nd, 2003 she celebrated her 101st birthday and married her longtime friend and cameraman Horst Kettner, who was forty years her junior.  On September 8th she died from cancer.

As the daily telegraph wrote upon her death :

“[Leni Riefenstahl] was perhaps the most talented female cinema director of the 20th century; her celebration of Nazi Germany in film ensured that she was certainly the most infamous…Critics would later decry her fascination with the athletes’ [Olympia] physiques as fascistic; but in truth her interest was born not of racist ends but of the delight she, as a former dancer, took in the human form.”

“Opinions will be divided between those who see her as a young, talented and ambitious woman caught up in the tide of events which she did not fully understand, and those who believe her to be a cold and opportunist propagandist and a Nazi by association.”