Lagertha: Viking Shieldmaiden

Lagertha (also spelt Lathgertha or Ladgerda) is a legendary Viking shieldmaiden known from Saxo Grammaticus’ early 13th-century CE Gesta Danorum. In this work, written in Latin and concerning Danish history, she is the first wife of Ragnar Lothbrok, a legendary Viking king said to have lived during the 9th century CE. Contrasting with the prominent role Lagertha plays in the ongoing Vikings TV series, where she is portrayed by Katheryn Winnick, the Gesta Danorum is the only historical source that even mentions her and ties her in with the more broadly-known Ragnar mythos, making her more of a footnote within his legend rather than a core element. She makes for a bold footnote, though, and an interesting character in her own right; brave and skilled, she is twice responsible for ensuring victory for Ragnar in battle. Although classical concepts of Amazons underlie Saxo’s warrior women, his stories are rooted in the Old Norse traditions known from medieval Icelandic literature. Specifically, Lagertha herself may have been inspired by the Norse goddess Thorgerd, local to Hálogaland, Norway.

Saxo Grammaticus sets the stage for Ragnar and Lagertha’s meeting by describing how the Swedish King Frø has slain Siward, King of the Norwegians, who was Ragnar’s grandfather, and has publically humiliated Siward’s female family members by putting them in a brothel. Ragnar, having just succeeded his father Siward Ring (Sigurd Hring or Ring in other Ragnar stories) to the throne of Jutland in Denmark, hears of this and is obviously not pleased. Coming to Norway with vengeance on his mind, Ragnar is met at his camp by some of the women who had been scorned, dressed up in male attire and ready to join him to hunt down the Swedish king. In the ensuing successful battle, it is one maiden in particular who stands out to Ragnar; he even goes so far as to attribute the victory to her might alone.

Lagertha’s origins aside, it is clear that in Saxo’s work she fulfils a role not immediately expected of historical women of that time but instead of a more legendary proportion: that of the warrior woman. Despite present-day popular imagination running wild with the image of the ‘strong Viking woman’, when critically evaluated the archaeological and historical material is not at all sufficient to support their existence. The Old Norse sagas, however, are a different beast altogether and show strong women taking action, stoking up revenge, standing up to their husbands or even engaging in fights. The popular TV series Vikings, although creatively expanding Lagertha’s role massively from that which it is in the Gesta, does take her reputation as shieldmaiden on board and shows her as a strong fighter who can hold her own, even participating in the raid on Paris (in the show, inspired by the historical siege of Paris of 845 CE).

Within the other legends revolving around Ragnar Lothbrok, Lagertha does not stand alone as a shieldmaiden. Aslaug (Kráka) is another wife of Ragnar, and she eventually leads her sons into battle against the Swedes.

Source: worldhistory.org

The Myth of Marie Laveau, Part I

“Marie Laveau was a negress of café au lait tint, handsome in face, commanding in figure, and of remarkable intellect and force of character. She masqueraded as a hairdresser, thus learning the secrets of many a proud old New Orleans family. In helping sweethearts to secret meetings and forwarding clandestine correspondences, she had no equal and cared not whether the men and women she aided were old in coquetry and vice or young and innocent.”

~ Richmond Daily Palladium, 1900

Morgan le Fay

Morgan le Fay first steps into Arthur’s mythos in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, written in 1150. Here, she is the eldest of the nine sisters who rule the ethereal isle of Avalon and is a powerful healer. This Morgan could shape shift into animals, manifest as a crone or a maiden and fly. She’s also clever – a skilled mathematician and astronomer. Arthur’s men trust Morgan and take their mortally injured king to her to be healed. Geoffrey’s portrayal of her is sympathetic and he creates a strong, rounded female character.

In Chrétien de Troyes’ French romantic interpretation of the myth, she is presented as Arthur’s sister and described as ‘Morgan the Wise’. She is no longer the ruler of the island, but is in a relationship with its ruler, Lord Guigomar. And so her power starts to be subsumed, manipulated by medieval writers, reluctant to believe a woman could be knowledgeable, powerful or clever.

She remains a relatively benign character until Arthur’s tale is dramatically rewritten in the French Vulgate Cycle (c. 1210–30), thought to be composed by fundamentalist Cistercian monks. Cistercians were crusaders, dedicated to eradicating heretics. They despised women – some even argued against the existence of a female soul – and used the Arthurian tales as propaganda for the Christian religion. Morgan embodied everything that terrified them about the old forms of worship – a knowledgeable, gifted woman, unashamed of her flesh and desires, existing in a society that acknowledged a female presence. They twisted the benevolent character of Morgan Le Fay into a more sinister seductress and obsessive witch.

Using her looks and sexuality, she persuades Merlin to teach her the dark arts. She exposes Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot and later tries to seduce the knight. In the order’s later works, Morgan’s character becomes more overtly evil: she uses her powers to steal the magical sword Excalibur and its scabbard to use against Arthur and plots his downfall, only to be thwarted by the new witch Ninianne, the Lady of the Lake. However, at the end of Vulgate Cycle, Morgan is one of the ladies who escort Arthur on his final trip to Avalon.

By 1485, when the definitive Arthur book, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, appears, the Cistercian template is set. Malory’s Morgan is even more reductive. There is no affair that initiates her conflict with Guinevere; instead she’s just a fundamentally wicked person, malevolent, Arthur’s nemesis, a mistress of the dark arts, manifesting the medieval world’s fear of the knowledge and power of women.

In Germany, the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) was about to be published near-simultaneously and these books helped to whip up anti-magic fervour and presaged a spike in UK witch trials. One last vestige of Morgan’s earlier incarnation remains – she is permitted to transport Arthur’s body to Avalon.

Morgan has remained a powerful figure in literature – she appears in Italian Renaissance poems, French literature and English writer Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queen. She has smouldered on the big screen, memorably portrayed by Helen Mirren in Excalibur (1981).

Her character is strong enough to bear endless reworking. The image of a sexually confident woman, clever, and gifted with magical healing abilities has been reimagined from benevolent to evil, yet still retains its power. Medieval authors turned Morgan into an evil, vengeful caricature – the only way they could deal with her independence, her power, her sexuality.

Sources: Warriors, Witches, Women

Haunted South: Stuckey’s Bridge (Savoy, Mississippi)

There’s a lot of bridges in the South with a ghost tale attached to them, and Stuckey’s Bridge is no exception.

The 157-year-old bridge runs over the Chunky River and is rumored to be haunted by a gang member named Stuckey who murdered and robbed travelers during the early nineteenth century in the area of where the bridge would eventually be built, reports The Meridian Star.

Stuckey was eventually caught, put on trial, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging at the bridge he is now said to haunt.

Since then, folks have claimed to see the apparition of a man hanging from the bridge as well as heard unexplained splashing they claim is the sound of his body hitting the water.

Haunted South: Sloss Furnaces (Birmingham, Alabama)

Considering how many workers lost their lives at Sloss Furnaces’ in Birmingham, Ala. when it was in operation, is it any surprise that the former industrial site is said to be haunted?

Working at the furnace, which was in use for nearly 100 years, was considered to be very dangerous, and employees met grisly deaths — either by being incinerated, poisoned by carbon monoxide or falling victim to steam pipes that often burst unexpectedly — on a regular basis.

While the furnace, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 1981, may have closed up shop in 1971, it seems not all of its former employees left, according to The Travel Channel. At night, visitors have claimed to hear the screams of those who died, seen shadowy figures and heard the calls of a foreman deriding his crew.

Urban Legends: The Bell Witch (Adams, Tennessee)

The legend of the Bell Witch of Tennessee is arguably the most famous haunting in the country, or at least the best documented. It has been the subject of books and movies across 200 years. The Bell Witch remains popular with tourists today – people can visit the Bell Witch Cave, located on the land where John Bell and his daughter, Betsy, reportedly experienced horrific manifestations between 1817 and 1821 in Adams, Tenn.

It began when John Bell spotted a mysterious creature in the cornfield with “the body of a dog and the head of a rabbit.” Soon after the sighting, the Bell children began hearing scratching noises and experiencing various disturbances, thought to be the result of a curse by a local woman with whom John had a property dispute, Kate Batts.

Pat Fitzhugh wrote: “The encounters escalated, and the Bells’ youngest daughter, Betsy, began experiencing brutal encounters with the invisible entity. It would pull her hair and slap her relentlessly, often leaving welts and hand prints on her face and body.” In 1820, John Bell died, becoming, Fitzhugh said, “the only person in history whose death was attributed to the doings of a Spirit.”

He continued: “In 1817, Bell contracted a mysterious affliction that worsened over the next three years, ultimately leading to his death. Kate took pleasure in tormenting him during his affliction, finally poisoning him one December morning as he lay unconscious after suffering a number of violent seizures.”

Sirens vs. Mermaids

Sirens

  • In Greek mythology, the Sirens were actually winged, half-human, half-bird creatures.
  • According to literature, the Sirens lived on an island near Scylla and Charybdis (traditionally located in the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily).
  • In most folklore, sirens have been shown singing songs.
  • In most Greek poet and tradition, the Sirens were depicted as beautiful maidens that would sit half-naked on rocky shores. They would then lure sailors to them using their beautiful singing voices; with the sailors following them not knowing that they are sailing into problems.
  • According to classical Greek poets and traditions, there are around seven named sirens, they include: Anglaope, Molpe, Peisinoe, Thelxiope, Leucosia, Pathenope and Ligeia.
  • The sirens are often cited as being fathered by the river God Achelous, with the mother usually being cited as being one of the nine muses, they include: Calliope, Terpischore, Melpomene or Sterope.
  • A famous Greek folktale claimed that the Sirens were fated to die if any mortal should hear them sing and live to tell the story.

Mermaids

  • In folklore, a mermaid is an aquatic creature with the head and the upper body of a female human and the tail of a fish.
  • Mermaids are present in almost every culture’s mythology, from Europe and the Americas, to the Near East, Africa and Asia.
  • In all folklores, mermaids are depicted as magical creatures that live and dwell under the sea with their own culture and customs.
  • In many poets and traditions, mermaids are usually depicted as peaceful, non-violent creatures that try to live their lives away from human interference.
  • In some folklore, mermaids are sometimes associated with perilous events such as floods, storms, and shipwrecks and drowning.
  • A famous Greek folktale claimed that Alexander the Great’s sister, Thessalonike was transformed into a mermaid upon her death in 295 BC and lived in the Aegean Sea.

Salamanders

Salamanders are a type of elemental spirit commonly associated with fire. Salamanders were first described by German-Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493 -1541) and have remained popular in esoteric occultism, literature, and art since then.

Paracelsus believed that since Nature is made up of elements we can see, they must also have spiritual counterparts of peculiar creatures we can’t see. He called these the Elementals, which are now referred to as Nature spirits, and divided them into four groups gnomes (earth), undines (water), sylphs (air), and salamanders (fire).

In the folklore of Salamanders, there are two forms. The first is their association with fire: Salamanders purify the soul through fire and illuminate the mind with wisdom. Second, they represent an aspect of spirit that must be re-awakened and a force that assists in spiritual transformation.

Depictions of Salamanders vary greatly! Some people insist they are little balls of light, but during the Middle Ages, many claimed they are lizard-like in appearance. Alternatively, Salamanders are sometimes described as slender, red, and dry-skinned creatures with a malevolent demeanor.

Pùca

Pùca, sometimes spelled Pooka, is a Celtic spirit andshape-shifter that can take various forms, including horses, rabbits, goats, and humans.

It’s also known as Puck in English Folklore, is sometimes believed to use the light of Will o’ the Wisp to lure people into swamps or ditches and then fleeing with delight.

Depending on circumstances, Pooka may be helpful to humanity, but more often than not, its pranks are damaging and hurtful. It has been said that seeing a Pooka in some form is an omen of imminent death.

It was believed during medieval times Pooka would whisk away little children if they were to go near them.

Púca are said to inhabit wild places like remote thickets and glens. A household would leave a plate of food at night for the púca outside their house or yard; in return, it would do chores during the night and protect the property from fire and trespassers.

During the Celtic Feast of Samhain, it was believed the Pooka, shaped like a horse, would stomp the last seasonal blackberries and offer prophecy and divination to anyone who wished to receive it.

In Old and Middle English the word meant simply “demon.” In Elizabethan lore he was a mischievous, brownie like fairy also called Robin Goodfellow, or Hobgoblin.

As one of the leading characters in William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck boasts of his pranks of changing shapes, misleading travelers at night, spoiling milk, frightening young girls, and tripping venerable old dames.

Britannica – Puck fairy