Being rather busy this week I was going to write a small piece on “Northern Pygmies” as recorded by Olaus Magnus, in his work, “A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555”. Re reading the relevant parts though I realised I had in my first reading of it, misread it….. And most of the actual details of these ancient northern Pygmies, were in fact an earlier description of pygmies from ancient Greece, used for reference by Olaus. My plans for a rather straight forward curio of an article were scuppered, well so I thought. Whilst the “straightforward” part was still in tatters, as with all things regarding the ancient past of the North, it only takes a little delving past what is commonly known, to find a whole host of interesting intrigues worthy of investigation.
So where to begin?
As stated Olaus Magnus in his book of 1555 has a curious little passage about “the Pygmies of Greenland”. He claims that by the word of several trusted sources, that the original inhabitants of Greenland were in fact Pygmies. He also adds a small section of their bold nature,
“The little dwarf fearlessly attacks his bigger opponent and triumphs in his victory, for at every opportunity he assualts taller men with no less courage than if he could boast of a giants might and so have the upper hand”
As is often the case with Olaus, he backs up his more “dubious” stories with those of classical antiquity. In this case he uses both Pliny and Homer, and their tales of the “Spithamaean Pygmies” riding goats into battle as part of their seasonal war with Cranes!
Now whilst this is most interesting, my misreading of this and thinking that it was the Pygmies of Greenland that were the Goat riding warriors who took on the feathered folk, so I thought I should delve a little more to see if there were any more stories of “pygmy” people of the north. As you would expect given the rich folklore of the north there were such accounts.
I was next led to the quite amazing notion that on an island that surrounds the North pole their lived another group of pygmies. What was even more interesting about this story though, was how they came to be “found”.
I first found the relatively famous map by cartographer Gerardus Mercator (Below). On the south eastern island we have a description which in English states,
“Here live Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, who are like those called Scraelings in Greenland”
Here this becomes a little interesting, well in the case of Pygmies, for two reasons. Firstly this Island is said to be connected to Greenland via an Isthmus, which would back up in theory at least the claim of Olaus that Pygmies once occupied this land mass (A narrow passage of land between two waters), as it would be easily traversable. Secondly is the identification by Mercator that these Pygmies are in fact what are known as “Skraelings”, who are the people mentioned in the sagas as being encountered in Viking voyages to the “new” world. The main occupants of these extreme north areas now are of course the Inuit, who themselves being much smaller than Norsemen (avg 5,4 inch), could easily of been seen as “dwarfs”. There is also the fact that some of the earliest occupants of these areas were in fact smaller than the modern Inuit. Within Inuit legend, there are tales of people smaller than themselves, now identified as “Dorset Culture”. This pre Inuit peoples, now believed to be totally extinct, were at the time of the Norse explorations, by far the most numerous and controlled much of the territory that the Norse would of first found (see below). These people therefore are almost certainly the “scraelings” of the Norse Sagas.
The map by Mercator is rather interesting in of itself, I mean how did he know of Pygmies and these four Islands in the far North? Well always a sucker for an intrigue, I persisted to find out, and the story only got stranger!
It appears Mercator had gotten his information from a book written by a fourteenth century explorer by the name of Jacobus Cnoyen. The Dutchman’s book, “Itinerarium” gets its evidence from two other books, the “Gestae Arthuri” and “Inventio Fortunata” Although Cnoyen never actually read the latter, but got his information from a man who met the man who wrote it.
Both these books are now lost to us, and so is Cnoyens book, which makes the paper trail in researching this a little harder. Whilst this may appear to make the case for their legitimacy more tenable, we do have several mentions of these books by other writers. It should also be noted that in the historical record this is quite a common occurrence, many books get lost to us through time and we are forced to piece them back together via writings of those who read them. The main sources of information on Cnoyens book “Itinerarium” is via the Astrologer, astronomer, Mathematician, Occultist and Queens adviser John Dee and Mercator’s own notes. Interestingly Dee’s writings on this are also mostly lost when his home and library were partially burned down by people accusing Dee of communing with evil spirits! As interesting as the life of John Dee is we will just for now at least, say that we have credible sources for the Cnoyens book, and try to continue on our story, of Pygmies and the Arctic conquering King Arthur!
According to Cnoyen, the first evidence of these pygmies, and the main source of information for Mercator’s maps, comes from the book “Inventio Fortunata” or “Fortunate discovery”. As stated Cnoyen himself never read this book, but came about the knowledge contained within it from an acquaintance, who had personally met the mysterious figure who had wrote it.
In 1364 eight men turn up at the court of the King of Norway, with a book, an Astrolabe (a device used by astronomers and navigators) and an interesting story. Who exactly these people were is unclear, as it is stated they were the 5th generation of those who had originally gone to explore the Northern regions. They were possibly from Belgium, although they could have been from a much earlier expedition involving King Arthur, but we will get to that later!
Two of the men are priests, and one (Cnoyen’s acquaintance) tells the King of their meeting with an English monk, from which they got the Astrolabe, that presumably enabled them to navigate their way back to civilization. This Monk had by their account mapped the north pole, where they had been stuck with some accuracy. He had recorded this in a book known as “Inventio Fortunata”. Their is much debate about who this monk was, and what exactly was in the book, but it is referenced by several map makers of the time.
The second source for such Islands comes from the book, “Gestae Arthuri”. This book as you would expect is said to relay a history of King Arthur, which includes his apparent conquest of the Northern realms. Before we get into this book though, it is important that we note that this is not the first book to mention King Arthur in relation to Northern Conquests. There is of course the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, in which it states,
“Arthur took his fleet to Iceland, where he defeated the natives and conquered their land. As the news spread through the islands that no one could stop Arthur, kings Doldauius of Gotland and Gunuasius of the Orkneys came unbidden to submit and promised to pay tribute . . exulted at being universally feared and decided to conquer all Europe. He readied his fleets and headed first for Norway to make his brother-in-law Loth its king . . (Arthurs army) assaulted the cities with fire at the ready, and scattered the country-dwellers with unabated fury until they had subjected the whole of Norway and Denmark to Arthur’s control””
But back to the “Gestae Arthuri” Via copies of segments of Cnoyen’s work we get several references to King Arthur’s expeditions there, which I will go through now.
“That great army of Arthur’s had lain all the winter of AD 530 in the northern islands of Scotland. And on May 3 a part of it crossed over into Iceland. At that time there returned from the north four of the twelve ships whose captains warned Arthur of the indrawing seas. So that Arthur did not proceed further, but peopled all the islands between Scotland and Iceland, and also peopled Grocland. (Mercator adds here: “So it seems the Indrawing Sea only begins beyond Grocland.”) In this Grocland he found people 23 feet tall, that is to say of the feet with which land is measured”
In another extract we get this,
“One group of Arthur’s knights sailed thus far when he was conquering the northern isles and making them all subject to him. And we read that nearly 4000 persons entered the indrawing seas who never returned.”
Before we move on, I think we must take a look at was is said above. Three points are of interest, that of the “indrawing seas” “Grocland” and that of “giants”.
The indrawing seas said to of swallowed up a group of King Arthurs men, are verified in another text that relates information from the book “Inventio Fortunata”. Johannes Ruysh states,
“It is said in the book concerning the Inventio Fortunata that at the arctic pole there is a high magnetic rock, thirty-three German miles in circumference. A surging sea surrounds this rock, as if the water were discharged downward from a vase through an opening. Around it are islands, two of which are inhabited.”
This would back up the claim that at the North there is an “indrawing sea”. That is, in the center of these Islands there is a whirlpool effect, that would draw in any ships caught in its grasp, namely Arthur’s expedition as stated above. This sea and the nature of the rivers between the islands are mentioned further by Mercator, where he also claims that any caught in it could not be saved by winds.
Grocland is believed by Mercator to be Greenland, this is also the belief of Cnoyen. This further adds to the claims of the Indrawing sea, as past “Grocland” you would essentially be on the outer edge of the four islands, thus the “whirlpool”.
The giants mentioned as being encountered by Arthur at “Grocland” or as some believed “Greenland” like the “Pygmies” before could like the Pygmies, be backed up by Inuit legend. The Inuit as well is describing smaller people, also describe giants, whom they call the Tuniit. The Inuit claim that these were the first inhabitants of the area, but despite their large size were easily overcome in war. This kind of neatly ties in with the earlier description by Olaus Magnus, of the fighting spirit of the “dwarfs”. It should also be stated that Mercator also claims that one of the four Islands surrounding the North pole is inhabited by Giants!
The last piece of text we have apparently from Cnoyen’s work relates to Arthur Further expedition North,
“When those four ships had come back, there were sailors who asserted that they knew there were magnetic rocks under the water, and that eight ships had foundered because of their iron nails. So Arthur again fitted out a fleet of twelve ships, containing no iron, and embarked 1800 men and about 400 women. They sailed northwards on May 3 in the year following that in which the former ships had departed. And of these 12 ships, five were driven on the rocks in the storm, but the rest of them made their way between the high rocks on June 18, which was 44 days after they had set out”
As these fragmented texts are a little confusing, I will try now to decipher them to make them make a little more sense. It appears King Arthur first ventured North with 12 ships, and populated all the lands between and including Scotland and Grocland (presumably Greeenland), where he met Giants. Of This twelve ships it appears only 4 survived after venturing even further North, these being the ones that “warned” Arthur not to traverse further. In the paragraph above though, it appears these ships came back with knowledge of “magnetic rocks” and thus were able to advise Arthur how to overcome some of the perils faced in the North. Thus Arthur not deterred by such perilous conditions ordered another 12 ships built, this time with no iron fittings and attempted to conquer this region again. Of these 12 ships, with a crew of 1800 souls, 7 make it, thus about 1000 souls settle the far reaches of the world. Given the mention of magnetic rocks, indrawing seas and that it must be further north than “Grocland”, we can only assume that this is the Arctic regions as mentioned in other works.
So there you have it, Arthur’s relatively unknown conquest of the Arctic! I guess this leaves the question, did he actually do it?
Of course, I cannot say and with a story littered with unbelievable instances, it would be quite easy to dismiss it as all a story of make believe. There are other later mentions of Arthurs northern conquest, even suggestions he also conquered some of the Americas, but with uncertain source material, they add little in the way of validating such stories.
As stated above some of these stories tally up reasonably well with Inuit mythology, but is there anything more tangible in the historic record that could give us a hint that this most bold and daring adventure was ever undertaken? Well, there is one thing we could point too, that of the Settling of Iceland. We are told via the “Íslendingabók”that when the Norse explorers first ventured to Iceland they met Monks, these were of the “Celtic Christian” variety. So within the sagas themselves there is clear indication that the Norse folk were not the first to set foot upon that land. Celtic Christianity originating in Britain/Ireland, around the time of Romes leaving, does suggest that some of these peoples did indeed settle Iceland, sometime before the first Norse voyages there (around 830AD). Given that when the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain they established a pagan religion, this would have had to of occurred either before their arrival, or after they converted. Before would obviously put them at the exact same time of this supposed Northern expedition by the mythical Arthur.
To add to this there is also the interesting genetic make up of Icelanders, that they have a relativelyt even make up of British/Irish ancestry and Scandinavian. This genetic anomaly, is often said to of come about by way of Viking raiding parties stealing women from Ireland and Britain. Whilst the Genetic evidence does suggest a higher percentage of British/Irish DNA came via the female line, it is not to the degree that many make out. Given that the sagas and recent archaeological evidence does indeed suggest prior occupation by a British/Irish group of settlers it is quite within the realms of possibility that this genetic make up could come by way of cohabitation and eventual mixing of the new Norse folk and the older British/Irish group. I mean if there is a monastery there, that had been kept going it would need to draw its monastic recruits from somewhere. A small population therefore would have been more suited than people sailing up to an apparent unknown landmass of the time on a relatively regular basis.
Does this prove the story of King Arthur, of course not, but it does leave the door of belief open just a little. Although much of our ancient folklore is often dismissed by modern academics as mere tall tales, I am always of the opinion that at every instance we should hear it out and examine each claim by its own merit. I mean, up until relatively recently the idea that Norse settlers had found and settled the Americas was considered a total fabrication, Now with archaeological finds Vinland is becoming more and more accepted. We also have tales from Indonesia, where locals had always told of “pygmy” peoples once living among them, these, of course were mostly dismissed as mere “mythology” till of course they found some interesting bones that backed up the claim.
Whilst I could of easily just took one look at this story and dismissed it, as mere tall tales, I am glad I didn’t. As keeping that door of belief open, just a little, I was lead on a wonderful journey of ancient daring and conquest, that I had never heard before. For a few moments I was lost at sea battling whirlpools and Giants. Even if it is just pure fabrication, I was allowed a glimpse inside the imagination of my Ancestors. Whilst this is often overlooked in our times, and heavy focus is put on their actions, it is in the imagination of the man that you find his reasoning . So I ask you what better way to truly understand our forebears, than their wildest thoughts, to see how they viewed the world around them and what magic inspired them?