Have Yourself a Ghostly Little Christmas

Did you know that telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve is a long-standing English tradition?

“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”

The practice of gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories was as much a part of Christmas for the Victorian English as Santa Claus is for us.

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Female Viking Warriors?

It’s beginning to look like Viking shield-maidens may have existed in numbers greater than previously thought, if the excavations at sites in eastern England are any indication:

[Archeologist Shane] McLeod notes that recently, burials of female Norse immigrants have started to turn up in Eastern England. “An increase in the number of finds of Norse-style jewellery in the last two decades has led some scholars to suggest a larger number of female settlers. Indeed, it has been noted that there are more Norse female dress items than those worn by men,” says the study.

So, the study looked at 14 Viking burials from the era, definable by the Norse grave goods found with them and isotopes found in their bones that reveal their birthplace. The bones were sorted for telltale osteological signs of which gender they belonged to, rather than assuming that burial with a sword or knife denoted a male burial.

Overall, McLeod reports that six of the 14 burials were of women, seven were men, and one was indeterminable. Warlike grave goods may have misled earlier researchers about the gender of Viking invaders, the study suggests. At a mass burial site called Repton Woods, “(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield,” says the study.

Personally, I’d like to see a better sampling than fourteen interments before asserting that Viking warriors had something approaching gender parity. Still, this is an interesting discovery. I look forward to seeing where it leads.

Beneath Stonehenge

From Smithsonian.com:

[Archeologist Vince] Gaffney’s latest research effort, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, is a four-year collaboration between a British team and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Austria that has produced the first detailed underground survey of the area surrounding Stonehenge, totaling more than four square miles. The results are astonishing. The researchers have found buried evidence of more than 15 previously unknown or poorly understood late Neolithic monuments: henges, barrows, segmented ditches, pits. To Gaffney, these findings suggest a scale of activity around Stonehenge far beyond what was previously suspected.

Environmental and Historical Preservation of Faery “Homes”

Whether out of respect for faeries, the environment, or history, a number of archeological sites and stunning natural vistas have been preserved in northern Europe, as Melissa Marshall describes in an article at Atlas Obscura titled “Fairy Forts, Dens, & Glens: When Places Are Preserved by Mythical Belief.”

In an effort to avoid the wrath of the fairies, communities of the British Isles and Ireland have protected the fairy “homes,” and as a result have preserved sites of great beauty from development and destruction, which is a kind of magic in itself. Conversely, more than a few lovely spots have become damaged and even threatened with destruction by enthusiastic fairy hunters.

Ireland’s Fairy Forts — more properly known as ring forts — are the remains of strongholds and other dwellings dating back as far as the Iron Age. However, local tradition holds that fairies make their home in these ring forts and terrible luck will come to anyone who participates in their destruction. These folk beliefs seem to only date back to the 12th century, but they were strong enough to allow thousands of ring forts to grow wild as the rest of the land was being cultivated for human use.

In modern times, folk beliefs alone have often not been enough to preserve these archaeological sites. In Iceland, protection of elf homes (elves being supernatural cousins of faeries) is codified into building codes and even made a semi-official vocation at Elf School,  and yet some cynics avow that non-believing environmentalists might be exploiting folk beliefs to protect the island’s pristine eco system.

It’s a very interesting article that addresses the many conflicting motivations—and results—of setting aside certain places “for the faeries.”

The Simonside Dwarves

The Fairytale Traveler gives us the run-down on the dwarves of England’s Simonside Hills. There have been legends—strongly influenced by Norse mythology, apparently—of nocturnal, not-very-nice dwarves in this northern part of England since at least the thirteenth century, and some believe they played a role in Tolkien’s depiction of the wicked dwarves of the Iron Hills.