And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

torsdag 31. oktober 2019

A Danish hell

Halloween is approaching, and even though I - as a Norwegian having grown up in the late '80s and early '90s - have no proper emotional connection to this season, I nonetheless appreciate how many of my fellow medievalists take the opportunity to share medieval depictions of the horrible and uncanny. So as an excuse to share this image, I present to you in this season of horror a heavily restored early sixteenth-century hellmouth from Sanderum Church near Odense in Denmark, one of the many masterful and wondrous details of this church interior.

mandag 28. oktober 2019

An autumnal view

This term I'm working in Växjö, Sweden, my first residence in Sweden and my first encounter with the Swedish autumn. There is much that resembles home, save for the notable absence of mountains, and I have been very fortunate in that my apartment has a balcony with a vista showcasing some of the beautiful colours of the season. While the temperatures usually do not allow me to enjoy this balcony as much as I would do in the summer, it nonetheless allows me some wonderful sights, such as the one in the picture below, which is a very good representation of my first Swedish autumn.

lørdag 26. oktober 2019

Panteísmo - a poem by Juana de Ibarbourou

This autumn I happened to become acquainted with the poetry of Uruguayan poet Juana de Ibarbourou (1895-1979). It was all a matter of chance, and it does not in any way speak of a great knowledge on my part of the poetry of Latin America. I was simply looking through a list of poets from Uruguay that my current university would have access to in its inter-library loan system, and this was part of my ongoing quest to read one book from every country in the world (a quest inspired by the project A year of reading the world by journalist Ann Morgan).

The Swedish university libraries do not carry a lot of Uruguayan poetry, and most of what is available has been produced by male poets. In general, I try my best to read works by women when entering into the literary heritage of a country that to me is new and largely unknown. I was therefore lucky to get my hands on a volume containing two of her collections, which I have been reading for the past two months.

In the course of my reading, I found that her verses struck a chord with me. Juana de Ibarbourou wrote about encounters with the natural world, about the kinship with forests, fields and countryside that resonated with my own upbringing in a rural district of the Norwegian fjords. And I was struck by how much of what she conveyed through her intense verses, depicting an antipodean world which I have never visited, easily translated into familiar vistas of my home tucked away somewhere in the Northern hemisphere. I became enamoured of her verses, and I kept reading until there was nothing more to be read in that volume I had borrowed.

At present, I do not know whether Juana de Ibarbourou's poetry is accessible in English translations, and whether they are accessible in complete editions of her collections. But in this blogpost, I present a preliminary translation of one of her poems that particularly caught my attention, and this is an attempt partly to improve my own Spanish through translation, and partly to present a sample of Juana de Ibarbourou's poetry to new readers. The poem in question is a sonnet from her collection Las lenguas de diamante (The tongues of diamond), published in 1919.


Siento un acre placer en tenderme en la tierra,
Con el sol matutino tibio como una cama.
Bajo mi cuerpo, ¡cuánta vida su vientre encierra! ¡Quién sabe qué diamante esconde aquí su llama!
¡Quién sabe qué tesoro, dentro de una mirada,Surgirá de este mismo lugar done reposo,
Si será el oro vivo de una era sembrada,
O la viva esmeralda de algún árbol frondoso!

¡Quien sabe qué estupenda y dorada simiente Ha de brotar ahora bajo mi cuerpo ardiente!
Futuro pebetero que espacerá a los vientos,

En las noches de estío, claras y rumurosas,
El calor de mi carne hecho aroma de rosas,
Fraganica de azucenas y olor de pensamientos.


I feel a bitter pleasure in lying down on the earth
With the morning sun warm as a bed.
Underneath my body, how much life is enclosed in its entrails!
Who knows what diamond hides here its flame!

Who knows what treasure, within a myriad,
Will rise up from this same spot where I now rest,
Whether it will be the living gold sown in a bygone age
Or the living emerald of a leafy tree!

Who knows what stupendous and golden seed
Is now sprouting beneath my burning body!
A future thurible that will spread to the winds

In the clear and noisy summer nights,
The heat of my flesh now given the scent of roses,
Fragrance of lilies, and the smell of thoughts.

tirsdag 8. oktober 2019

Canaan's grapes in Denmark

And speaking to them and to all the multitude, they shewed them the fruits of the land
- Numbers, 13:27

In the Book of Numbers, chapter 13, Moses sends twelve spies into Canaan, one from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to examine the quality of the promised land. The spies return with reports of a land of abundant riches, of milk and honey, of inhabitants of immense stature, and as proof they bring with them a cluster of grapes so large that two men have to carry the grapes between them.

In Christian art of the Middle Ages, the enormous cluster of grapes became a symbol of the bounty of God that the faithful eventually will receive. The scene of the two men carrying their burden of promise became an element of the pictorial narratives with which churches were often decorated in medieval Christendom. Consequently, this scene became part of a universal visual code that allowed men and women of all estates of any society of Latin Christendom to absorb Biblical history, and in this way people of Scandinavia, of Spain, of Dalmatia, of Germany could access the same iconography. In this blogpost, I wish to show you two such examples from parish churches in medieval Denmark - more specifically, the island of Fyn. The two examples are not only from two different churches, but also two different centuries, thus showing the stability of this iconography in medieval Christian art. And before I commence, I wish to thank my dear friend Dr Rosa Rodríguez Porto, whose insight into medieval art was what taught me about this scene in the first place.   

From the choir of Sanderum Church

The first example of this scene comes from Sanderum Church, about which I have written briefly in a previous blogpost. The church itself was built in the latter half of the twelfth century, a time when several parish churches were built on Fyn, and which might serve as a testament to the wealth of the diocese, whose centre was Odense. The scene of the grapes can be found on the northern wall of the choir, where several scenes from the Old Testament are depicted. These scenes are from a thirteenth-century wall-painting programme that is likely to have once covered the entire interior with scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and possibly also scenes from the stories of certain saints. However, the only part that remains of this thirteenth-century decoration is the northern wall of the choir. Even this part is incomplete, since rebuilding in the later Middle Ages, a time when Sanderum most likely belonged to the Bendedictine convent of nuns at Dalum Monastery, altered several parts of the structure, both of the choir and the nave. But the two men bearing that large cluster of grapes have since then been rediscovered after a long period behind white paint, and can still serve to remind us of how this episode was transmitted to the local parishioners.   

Bellinge Church

The second example is from the church of Bellinge, a church that by the first quarter of the fourteenth century definitely belonged to Dalum Monastery, and whose oldest, and now almost completely lost, structure is in the late romanesque style. The interior of this church was covered by a wall-painting programme in 1496, in which scenes from the Bible can be found along the walls of the nave, in the vaulting, and in the choir, as well as a large depiction of St George killing the dragon. The scene of the two spies returning with their bounty of grapes can be found in the second of the two vaults of the nave, and can be seen from the choir when facing towards the congregation. This means that it would not have been seen by the parishioners in the course of the service itself, though they would likely see it when looking up after receiving the Eucharist - if they did so by walking up to the altar. 

There are most likely several more depictions of this scene throughout the medieval churches of Fyn. Many of them have been lost to us, either by the application of layers of white paint, or by rebuilding that have necessitated the removal of the crucial part of the wall. I hope to see more examples of these two spies in future visits to Danish parish churches, and I shall look for them eagerly. 

søndag 29. september 2019

Saint Michael in Segovia, a modern medieval knight

In my previous blogpost I ruminated briefly on the iconography on Saint Michael the Archangel for the occasion of today being Michaelmas, and I had intended to leave it at that this year. But as I was looking through some pictures from earlier this year, I came across another depiction of Saint Michael that I encountered on a late night in Segovia just a few months ago, and this is a picture I really want to share.

Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle
From a medieval prayer to the archangel

I was puzzled by this image, especially as it was posted on the door of a cafe in a way that made it seem that there was no clear relationship between the image and the place in which it was placed, and that this was not a part of the cafe's deliberate decor. In and of itself, the image is perhaps only to be expected in a city like Segovia, where the medieval cityscape is very well preserved, and where medieval iconography is ubiquitous. And to be sure, the image is a variation on the typical medieval representation of the archangel: A sword-wielding knight standing above his vanquished enemy, the satanic dragon. The legend arching across the upper part of the image is the opening of a liturgical chant for the feast of Michael going back to at least the ninth century (as can be seen here). He is carrying a shield that resembles that of Saint George, a common detail in Renaissance imagery, as illustrated by one of Raphael's famous paintings.

Saint Michael and the dragon
Raphael, between 1504 and 1505
Courtesy of Wikimedia

But there is one detail that strikes me as notably modern in this depiction, and which shows to me that this is a case of a modern medievalism used in representing Saint Michael as a symbol of fantasies of medieval knighthood. That detail is his armour, which is a chainmail armour covering most of his body (including his feet, from what it seems to me), partly covered by a tunic that reaches to the knee. This is a very common feature of medieval depictions of knights, including illuminations of Saint George. But it is not a typical feature of medieval depictions of Michael the Archangel. In medieval illuminations, Michael is usually wearing a kirtle or, more typically from the fourteenth century onwards, a full plate armour as in the painting by Raphael.

The monk Gelduin presents his work to Saint Michael 
Avranches - BM - ms. 0050, f.001, c.980-1000 
(Courtesy of

The final battle from BL MS Additional 11695, ff. 147v-148
Beatus of Liébana, Commentary on the Apocalypse, 10th century
(Courtesy of British Library)

Saint Michael battling the dragon 
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0528, f.198v, Homiliary, twelfth century 
(Courtesy of

A minuscule rendering of an epic battle
Cambrai - BM - ms. 0190, f.149, Epistolary, Cambrai, 1266 
(Courtesy of

In short, despite efforts, the Saint Michael I encountered in Segovia is clearly a product of the modern imagination and its imaginings of the medieval period, rather than a product of the medieval period itself, even though the iconography and the liturgical intertextuality clearly draw inspiration from the cult of Saint Michael as it was established in the medieval period. All in all, I will argue that this rendition has more in common with the Spanish comic book hero El Capitán Trueno (Captain Thunder) than with medieval renditions of the archangel.

When I encountered Saint Michael in this guise, I was intrigued as I always am when I see examples of how medieval culture inspires modern imitations. But I was also a bit perturbed, and precisely because I know that modern imitations of medieval culture are often likely to have their genesis in fantasies that champion violent nationalism. In Scandinavia, this is seen in racist appropriations of the Viking past, and in Spain the medieval past and its chivalric trappings can easily be applied to fuel sentiments of anti-Semitism and islamophobia. When seeing the modern rendition of the medieval Saint Michael, one immediate question was: Who is the speaker of the supplication in the legend, what is the battle in question, and against whom is Saint Michael to be expected? I would love to know whether this imagery is more widespread in Spain, and whether it does have the kind of troubling connotations that I fear, or whether it is simply an act of enthusiasm.

lørdag 28. september 2019

Saint Michael in Roskilde

Today, September 29, is the feast of Saint Michael the Archangel. Saint Michael is a popular figure in medieval Christian art, where he is most commonly depicted as the leader of God's army in the fight against the rebel angels. This is often portrayed as the winged Michael in battle with a dragon, and it is a scene that can be found in religious art throughout Christendom. It is likely to have inspired the iconography for several saints who have also become famous for battling dragons. This might especially be the case with Saint George, who is often rendered in a way that makes him appear as more or less a Saint Michael sans wings. This can be explained in part by George typically being depicted as an armed knight, which really emphasises his similarity with the armed general of the heavenly cohorts, Michael. The iconographies of other dragon-battling saints might also have been influenced by Saint Michael, either directly or indirectly through such imitators as Saint George. This is particularly likely in the cases of saints where the dragon has not been an instrumental part of the foundational legend. An example of this can be seen in the case of Saint Olaf of Norway, who is often shown with a dragon or dragon-like figure under his feet. Such a scene is not found Olaf's oldest narratives, and the scene is therefore more likely to have been shaped by other influences. A counterexample are scenes of such famous dragonslayers as Saint Margaret of Antioch, who emerged from the dragon after being swallowed, a scene so iconic that it is unlikely to have been inspired by Saint Michael or any more nondescript dragon slaying stories. The same goes for the legend of Saint Martha fighting the tarasque in Provence, where the iconography of a half-swallowed man's legs protruding from the beast's mouth is unlikely to have any immediate iconographical origin from outside the legend itself. I am, however, not familiar with whether there are any studies of these possible connections.   

For the feast of Michaelmas this year, I'm putting up a picture from a bench end in Roskilde Cathedral. The scene was made around the turn of the fifteenth century. 

Michael battling the dragon
Bench end from Roskilde Cathedral, c.1500

torsdag 26. september 2019

Utopia - a poem by Wisława Szymborska

One of my fascinations is how people imagine their ideal societies, their utopias, and I have a particular soft spot for stories that flesh out a Utopian society in one way or another. The other day I came across a very beautifully formulated description of Utopia that really highlights the gaping chasm that exists between the ideals that humans wish for, and the willingness they have to actually take the necessary steps to achieve those ideals. The text in question is a poem by Wisława Szymborska from her collection People on a bridge, translated by Adam Czerniawski and published by Forest Books.

lørdag 21. september 2019

Saint Matthew in Ethiopia - an extract from the liturgical office for the feast of Saint Matthew

Today is the feast of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. According to his apocryphal acts, which became accepted as historical truth, Matthew was a missionary in Ethiopia. The foundation of this story appears to be an episode in the Acts of the Apostles where there is included a reference to Ethiopian Jews who were converted in Jerusalem during the ministry of the twelve disciples. The legend of Saint Matthew, however, has the apostle travelling to Ethiopia where he fights two pagan sorcerers who keep the kingdom under control with their powers. Matthew's ministry is ultimately successful, but as part of that success he is also martyred to serve as a witness of Christ to the burgeoning Christian community in Ethiopia. (For a brief reflection on the story of his death as represented in the Nuremberg Chronicle, see this blogpost.)

There is no historical foundation to the legend of Matthew in Ethiopia. It is likely that the Ethiopian Jews did indeed encounter Christianity at a very early point, as the Acts of the Apostles record, because Ethiopia, or rather, the Kingdom of Aksum, was part of a wider network of exchange in the first century CE and we are told from the Acts of the Apostles that Jews from many parts of the known world travelled to Jerusalem. Moreover, according to a more likely tradition, the royal family of Aksum accepted Christianity during the ministry of the Syrian missionary Frumentius, and Aksum thus became one of the two first kingdoms to convert to Christianity (the other being Armenia, also in the fourth century).

In the Latin Middle Ages, however, the conversion of Aksum was ascribed to Saint Matthew. And while Matthew's apocryphal acts were written down in a milieu where knowledge of Ethiopia was accessible, it is clear that whatever knowledge was available was also not applied to the legend. This owes in large part to the fantastical element of much of the early legends of the apostles, which partly can be ascribed to the tradition of the Greek novels where such fantastical details and exotic journeys were important elements. For instance, the apocryphal acts of Saint Matthew claims that the Ethiopian capital is called Naddaber, while the king who accepted Christianity was called Eglyppus. In reality, the capital was Aksum, which had given the kingdom its name, and the first Christian king was most likely Ezanas. The original version of the legend is now lost, but the story itself was firmly established in the Latin tradition and was recounted every year during the liturgical office for the feast of September 21.

In the course of my work on liturgical manuscript fragments, I have encountered an extract from the legend of Saint Matthew in a fragment form a Germany breviary, tentatively dated to the fourteenth century. This fragment is found in the special collection of the University of Southern Denmark, where I worked for a short period of time, identifying, transcribing and describing liturgical fragments. In the fragment from RARA Musik M 4, only the first lesson of the office for the feast day has survived, and this part only describes the prelude to Matthew's arrival in Ethiopia. For the feast of Saint Matthew, I will here share my transcription of this lesson, along with a rough translation of its content, and I have here marked the red initials of the original fragment to better highlight the shifts of the text. 

First lesson for the feast of Saint Matthew
Syddansk Universitetsbibliotek, RARA Musik M 4
German breviary, probably fourteenth century

Lectio prima:

Erant duo magi zaroes et arfaxat apud ethiopiam in ciuitate eorum magna que dicatur naddaber in qua erat rex eglyppus. Hunc ita [que] ludificabant hi duo magi ut dicerent se deos esse et credebat eis rex et omnis populis memorate urbis. Et ibat opinio eorum per totam ethiopiam ita ut ex longinquis regionibus ethiopie uenirent et adorarent eos. Faciebant enim hominum gressus figi et tam diu inmobiles stare quamdiu ipsi uoluissent. Similiter et uisus hominum et auditus a suo officio refrenabant. Imperabant serpentibus ut percuterent quod et marsi facere solent et ipsi incantando curabant et ut dici uulgo solet malignus maior reuerentia exhibetur timor quam benignus amoris. Curam ergo deus hominum gerens matheum contra hos apostolum misit. Qui ingres[sus]

My translation:
There were two magicians, Zaroes and Arfaxat, among the Ethiopians, in their great city which they call Naddaber in which was King Eglyppus. And so these two magicians sported, and called themselves gods, and the king believed them, and they were called as such by people of the entire city. And the rumour about them advanced through all of Ethiopia, so that from remote regions of Ethiopia they came and paid reverence to them. They made the feet of some persons transfixed and to stand immobile for as long as they themselves wished. Likewise they restrained the use of hearing and seeing in some persons. They ordered serpents so that they would strike and be accustomed to make weak those whom they themselves would cure by enchanting, and so the multitude is accustomed to show wicked fear greater reverence than kind love. Therefore, God sent the apostle Matthew as a cure to these people against those [magicians]. Who entering […] 

fredag 30. august 2019

An antiphon for John the Baptist

Yesterday, August 29, was the feast of the beheading of John the Baptist, also known as Decollatio in liturgical calendars. Decollatio is a minor feast for John the Baptist, as his main feast is his birthday on June 24. I have a particular fascination with this feast, and it is almost entirely owing to a fragment from a liturgical manuscript that I researched as part of a side project during and shortly after my PhD. The fragment in question is one of three fragments used as bindings for a three-volume collection of music by Michael Praetorius, a collection titled Polyhymnia. All the three fragments come from the same manuscript, which I believe to have been a breviary of Northern German provenance, tentatively dated to the fourteenth century.

The reason why this particular fragment, fragment XII, has fuelled my fascination with the feast of the Decollation is that it contains part of the office for precisely this feast. In the picture below, we see the full text of the Magnificat antiphon Preco superni iudicis (CID: 206802). An antiphon is a chant that is performed in connection with another text, for instance as a refrain to its theme. Most antiphons are performed in conjunction with psalms, but the Magnificat antiphon precedes the Magnificat, which is Mary's response to the archangel Gabriel in the Gospel of Luke. It is a fixed text always read at Vesper. This particular antiphon, Preco superni iudicis, was one of the first texts I transcribed as a part of my collaboration with the university library of University of Southern Denmark. My fascination is, in other words, of a sentimental nature, as it reminds me of the exciting detective work of working with a fragment that no one has ever worked on before, while putting your growing experience in transcription, Latin and liturgical studies to test after test.

Detail from the feast of Decollatio
Syddansk Universitet RARA Musik M 4

The text of this fragment has been transcribed in an hitherto unpublished report I wrote as a part of a four-month pilot project which was a collaboration between the university library and the Centre for Medieval Literature. As it was a pilot project and therefore of a very limited duration, I did not have time to work as closely on the individual fragments as I had hoped. For instance, I have not taken the time to translate it, a task I hope to do as a sort of completion of my work on the fragment - even though I'm sure there exist translations of the text elsewhere already. However, in lieu of a proper translation of the text, and on the occasion of yesterday's feast, I here present to you my transcription of the Magnificat antiphon in Fragment XII. I have kept the spelling of the fragment, rather than the standardised spelling you encounter in databases. One day I might take the time to finally translate it. Or rather, one week, as my Latin is quite rusty.

It should be noticed that while the text in the fragment is continuous, I have here chosen to divide the text into its strophes in order to bring out the antiphon's rhyme scheme.

Preco superni iudicis

Preco superni iudicis 
precursor summi uindicis 
paranymphus sponsi ueri 
multa passus ludibria 
triumphauit per omnia 
nec potuit aboleri 
domus in petra posita 
nam iusti recordatio  
pigranti compositio  
ut mel dulcis et musica 
in uini conuiuio 

tirsdag 27. august 2019

A new chapter

This autumn I'm starting a new chapter in my life. Until the end of January, I will be working as a university lecturer in history at the Linnaeus University, and I'm already looking back at my first week. My office is in Växjö, once an important episcopal seat close to the Danish border and the centre of a flourishing medieval church parish. As the pictures below will show - a very modest selection for the time being - it is a beautiful place, marked by lakes and pine forests and a harsh soil that once drove thousands of Swedes from this region to emigrate to America, a higher number than any other region of Sweden. A small town, beautiful in its architecture and one I look forward to explore further in the weeks ahead.

I am immensely glad to have been given this opportunity. I have daunting tasks ahead, and in the process of dealing with these tasks I will learn a lot, and by the end I think I will look back at this time as hectic but immensely rewarding.

I'm slowly settling in, slowly learning the nuances that separate Sweden from Norway, but also the nuances that are shared and familiar. My Swedish improves, a new national literature is awaiting to be explored, and there are new places to visit. It is a new chapter, and I welcome it.

torsdag 1. august 2019

Atlántida – or, the converging of modern medievalism and the legend of Atlantis, part 4

This is the fourth and final blogpost in a series concerned with the application of the Atlantis myth in Ricard Ferrándiz' story Atlántida, a volume in the series El Capitán Trueno.

For the previous installments, see part one, part two, and part three.

Final remarks           

Atlántida has been my first proper encounter with the storyworld of Capitán Trueno, and I decided to begin with this lately composed volume solely because it contains an Atlantis fantasy set in the Middle Ages, a rare bird among the innumerable versions of the Atlantis story in modern narrative culture. Due to my interest in the reception of the Atlantis myth, and since I am a medievalist by profession, I have particularly enjoyed how Ricard Ferrándiz has followed certain tropes from the cultural history of Atlantis, while added some details that I have not seen elsewhere.         

The geographical setting of the fabled continent in the subtropical Atlantic Ocean, the temporal setting of pre-cataclysmic Atlantis in the early classical era, the blend of Egyptian and Greek culture visible in costumes, architecture and names, the high technological level of the empire, the subterranean survival following the cataclysm, and the existence of a mirror image in the shape of a technologically backwards culture, all these are common elements found in several of the fantasies spun around the Atlantis myth. There are, however, elements that are, if not entirely novel then at least found only infrequently in other Atlantis fantasies, and which make Ferrándiz’ Atlántida particularly interesting to a reader like me. One such element is the setting of the story in the Middle Ages, more specifically towards the end of the twelfth century. In those cases where the Atlantean culture has survived until the contemporary setting of the story in question, it follows, as that contemporary setting tends to be modern, that Atlantis has also continued through the medieval period, but typically without any contact with people of that time, skipping the Middle Ages altogether. In this way, Atlántida manages to blend a familiar trope with an unfamiliar temporal setting, namely that the final demise of the surviving Atlantean culture – which is the common trope – does not come about in the modern era after centuries of slumber, but instead takes place in the twelfth century, an unfamiliar temporal setting.       

Moreover, one further element that I found very refreshing as a medievalist was that the Atlantean culture is not depicted as impossibly further ahead than the cultures of the story’s temporal setting. Granted, it is a culture that has learned to manufacture explosives of a much more stable quality than any medieval culture can boast of, but since gunpowder can be made without any modern technologies, and since gunpowder even antedates the medieval period, this technological innovation does not seem too far-fetched in twelfth century Atlantis. There are, however, further innovations that appear to be even more sinister, as suggested by the codex containing knowledge for which the world is not ready, according to Djad-dze. But of what this knowledge consists is left unanswered, and might possibly become a good sequel to Atlántida sometime. Aside from the explosives, the most tangible evidence of the Atlantean technology is the codex, which makes Atlantis both further ahead than its pre-cataclysm contemporaries and also on a level very similar to that of the twelfth-century contemporaries of the last surviving Atlantean. That technological advancement can be demonstrated in such a clear, yet plausible way is not common in an Atlantis fantasy, and it is undeniably refreshing.     

All in all, Atlántida is a very welcome addition to the library of Atlantis fantasies, and I hope that it might serve to bring about further fantasies involving the Atlantis myth set in the Middle Ages. I am also very happy that Ferrándiz has brought the Norse world into contact with the Atlantis myth, something which only rarely happens, such as in the case of the Thorgal series, the Captain Newfoundland comic strip, and in the prologue of the animated Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), both of which involve Vikings. In Atlántida, however, it is the world of twelfth-century kingdoms, a time when the closest link between the Norse culture and Atlantis is a brief reference lifted, albeit most likely second hand, from Timaios found in the Latin chronicle Historia antiquitate regum norwagiensum (History of the old Norwegian kings), authored by Theodoricus Monk and probably written in Trondheim around 1180. This particular medievalist is very happy about that. 

Atlántida – or, the converging of modern medievalism and the legend of Atlantis, part 3

This is the third of four blogposts. For the others, see the first, the second, and the fourth.
Scenes from the cultural history of Atlantis      

In this third part of my blogposts on the application of the Atlantis myth in the comic book series El Capitán Trueno, I will now address what elements of the cultural history of Atlantis have been used by Ricard Ferrándiz in his story Atlántida. Having given a brief introduction to the reception of Atlantis in post-medieval culture and a quick recapitulation of the story itself, I will now talk about how Ferrándiz’ Atlántida compares with other Atlantis fantasies through an investigation of selected elements common to such stories.   


The location of Atlantis        

As mentioned, the location of Atlantis in this story is not specified, beyond that it lies in the Atlantic Ocean and that its vegetation suggests a subtropical climate. The fact that there is an active volcano on the island makes it tempting to point to a location near the Canary Islands (which were not known to European sailors until the fourteenth century), although it seems that the accuracy of this matter has been deliberately avoided by Ferrándiz. That Atlantis is situated in the ocean with which it is onomastically linked is not surprising, although it bears pointing out since some stories place Atlantis in North Africa (as we shall see below), and the Mediterranean has likewise been held as a good candidate for the location of the fabled empire. In particular, the island of Santorini is suggested to have served as an inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis myth, and the islanders themselves seem to encourage this suggestion, as Santorini has restaurants, hotels and even a bookshop carrying Atlantis in their names. However, the Atlantic Ocean is by far the most common location of the lost continent in most of its reception history, although there are differences of opinion as to where in the Atlantic Ocean it can be found. Olof Rudbeck the Elder equated Atlantis with Scandinavia, while the iconic map found in William Scott-Elliott’s Story of Atlantis depicts the continent as stretching between the Caribbean and Europe. Arthur Conan Doyle, in his novel The Maracot Deep (1929), situates Atlantis in a submarine ravine in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge some days’ voyage south of the Canary Islands. The continent has even been suggested to have changed location, as in Pezzin and Da Vita’s Topolino e l’Atlantide continente perduto, where a comet strikes Atlantis which such force that it is moved south and becomes the modern-day continent of Antarctica. These few examples, in short, indicate that Ferrándiz follows the general consensus of Atlantis’ reception history in placing the remnant of the continent somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.


Aside from the geographical location, another feature to be noted is that in Atlántida the surviving Atlanteans have moved underground. This, too, is a topos very common to the Atlantis stories, and it comes in several variations. In The Maracot Deep, the surviving part of Atlantis is buried under tons of mud on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and although the inhabitants utilise this terrain as a hunting ground through their diving gear, it is a world that can only be accessed temporarily, which means that in practical terms the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Atlanteans are subterranean. In the Thorgal comic book series, the location of Atlantis is expressly revealed in volume 26 (from 2001), Le Royaume sous le Sable (the kingdom under the sand), where it is found under the mountains somewhere in North Africa. In this location, Jean van Hamme possibly follows Pierre Benoit’s L’Atlantide, who situates the surviving remnants and the descendants in the Ahaggar Mountains of Southern Algeria. It should be noted, however, that although Benoit has placed the Atlantean court in a system of man-made caves, and although most of the exchanges between the protagonists and the Queen Antinea’s retinue take place inside the mountain, the Atlanteans are able to leave their caverns as they please, so their lives are not entirely subterranean. In Atlántida, the subterranean life of Djad-dze and his fellow Atlanteans is on the one hand similar to that of Benoit’s story, in that they live in caves in the mountains, like moles, as Djad-dze himself says. On the other hand, this subterranean lifestyle is also similar to the kind of confinement we see in The Maracot Deep, in that Dajd-dze and his compatriots have grown so unaccustomed to sunlight that overexposure can prove fatal – as evidenced by the dead crew encountered by Capitán Trueno, Sigrid, and the others. What allows Djad-dze to move about on the island – albeit in safe distance from the red men – is its perpetual fog owing to the volcano. Consequently, although Atlántida deals with the topos of subterranean dwellings in a manner that is unique to the way Ferrándiz has constructed his version of Atlantis, it nonetheless fits with established tradition.   


Culture of the Atlanteans      

Despite Atlantis most often being situated somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, most, if not all, stories of the mythic kingdom depict its culture as being related to that of Ancient Greece or Ancient Egypt, and sometimes – as in the case of Atlántida – a mixture of the two. This is perhaps only to be expected, given that the oldest known textual source for the transmission of the story is one of Plato’s dialogues, and that Plato claims that this knowledge has been transmitted from the Egyptians. In the case of Edgar P. Jacobs’ L’Énigme de l’Atlantide, the subterranean Atlantis – accessible through a system of caves on one of the islands of the Azores – has continued its culture which resembles that of Ancient Greece in its mythology, part of its clothing, and its titles. For instance, the leader of the Atlantean air force is called aerostratego, meaning air-general, the leader is addressed as Basileus, i.e. king, and its capital is named Poseidopolis. In the long-running story arc of the Scandinavian The Phantom universe Mörkrets hjärta (Heart of Darkness) written by Claes Reimerthi and drawn by Joan Boix, the prologue which takes place in Atlantis shows architecture and ships clearly modelled on Ancient Egypt. In Topolino e l’Atlantide continente perduto, on the other hand, Atlantis of 10 000 years ago resembles a Mesopotamian culture with ziggurats and beards modelled on Assyrian and Babylonian reliefs. Moreover, a joint Mesopotamian and Egyptian inspiration can be seen in the name of the culture’s divinity, Ishta-Ra, combining the names of the Assyrian goddess Ishtar with the Egyptian god Ra. In what seems to be a curious attempt at emphasising the chronological otherness of the high-cultured Atlantis, dinosaurs have survived and are used as domestic animals.         

In Ferrándiz’ story of Capitán Trueno, the cultural affiliation of Atlantis is somewhat more mixed and curious. Its architecture and its pantheon, judging from what little we see of either, are both decidedly Greek, and soldiers depicted in a flashback wear typical Greek helmets. Yet the ship encountered by Trueno and Sigrid underway to Atlantis bears a stronger resemblance to Egyptian ships than the triremes of Greece, and the name Djad-dze seems modelled on some idea of Egyptian names rather than Greek names. (I would like to note that its similarity to the contemporary Malian name Djadja, as exemplified in Aya Nakamura’s 2018 single, could be used to connect Ferrándiz’ Atlantis with the Saharan location of Benoit’s L’Atlantide, but this is merely a fun coincidence.)


What is curious about Ferrándiz Atlantis and its culture is not its blend of Greek and Egyptian elements, as these are fairly well established in the reception history of the fabled continent. What is curious, and, to my knowledge, a novel detail, is the Atlanteans’ ability to communicate in Latin, as this language – at least as a written language – presumably postdates the apogee of Atlantis. Naturally, Ferrándiz has chosen Latin so as to enable a medieval European like Trueno, presumably receiving some basic education in the cathedral schools of Spain, to read the message and to read the volumes of Atlantean knowledge bestowed upon the group by Djad-dze. The curious nature of Latin being used by an Atlantean need not be unduly problematised since it mainly serves to make the story possible, but it does open up for a lot of interesting implications of Atlantis’ place in the storyworld of Capitán Trueno. Have the Atlanteans managed to monitor the development of the outside world to keep up with some of its linguistic developments, for instance?    

One final point of interest with regards to the cultural affiliation of Atlantis is the so-called red men. These serve as the cultural and intellectual foils of the Atlantean empire, and they are presented as living in the stone age, eating raw meat, clothed in furs, and their appearance is reminiscent in part of the stereotypical relict Neanderthal of pulp fiction, in part of Conan the Barbarian. If the latter resemblance is more than a mere coincidence, Ferrándiz might have created a reversal of Robert E. Howard’s origin story of the Cimmerians of his story world, who were descendants of colonists from Atlantis. In Ferrándiz’ story, however, it is the Atlantean empire that has been colonised by these men of the perpetual stone age. Be that as it may, the term “hombres rojos” for this people is also noteworthy and might contain some suggestion of Ferrándiz’ inspiration. One possibility is that it is drawn from the theosophical Atlantis mythology, as exemplified by, but not unique to, William Scott-Elliot, where the red men were degenerate Atlanteans. Another possibility is that they are meant to invoke the Native Americans, suggesting perhaps that Atlantis once connected Europe and America, and that the stone age appearance of these red men provides another indicator of the antiquity of Atlantean cataclysm. The idea of contact between Atlantis as Native American cultures is far from new to Ferrándiz’ story. For instance, in L’Énigme de l’Atlantide, Edgar P. Jacobs has imagined a neighbouring subterranean culture whose technological level is inferior to that of Atlantis, but which is modelled on the apogees of the Meso-American cultures of the Maya and the Aztecs. There are, of course, other possible sources for Férrandiz’ hombres rojos, but they do nonetheless seem to fit with one of the tropes of the reception of Atlantis in popular culture, namely the counterpart to the high culture of the Atlanteans, be that culture Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian or a conglomerate of all. 

Pre-war ritual of the neighbouring civilization to the Atlanteans
From Edgar P. Jacobs’ L’Énigme de l’Atlantide

Despite the obviously high technological level of the underground civilisation based on the Maya culture, they nonetheless serve as the barbarian foil to the even more technologically advanced Atlanteans in Edgar P. Jacobs'  L’Énigme de l’Atlantide
The red men, hombres rojos, serving as the technological foil to Ferrándiz' Atlanteans

Tecnhological advancement  

Perhaps the most famous common denominator of all Atlantis fantasies is its culture’s high technological level. In some cases, the height of this technology level is relative to other contemporary cultures, meaning that Atlantis is a culture of its time. An example of this can be seen in Topolino e l’Atlantide continente perduto, where the architectural and astronomical achievements on the one hand antedates the Mesopotamian cultures which inspired it by millennia, but where the anachronisms do not extend to modern technology. In other cases, the technological level of Atlantis is imagined to have been higher than even the technology of the twentieth century. This latter group can be further divided into stories where this high level of technology was reached already prior to the cataclysm, and stories where the high technological level is reached after the cataclysm has happened.

n the case of Atlantis in the storyworld of Capitán Trueno, its technological and scientific advancement is an interesting case when seen in comparison with other Atlantis fantasies. There are no inventions that appear wildly and even ludicrously anachronistic, neither with regards to the pre-classical origin of Atlantean history or the twelfth-century setting of the story. The one item that is notable for its sophistication are the explosives, which appear to be far more volatile yet far more controllable than anything known from the Middle Ages, resembling nitro-glycerine rather than the grenades that would be produced centuries later. In other words, these explosives seem impossibly out of place and time in the twelfth century. On the other hand, as the manufacture of these explosives is not explained, the disbelief is suspended, and the technology behind it appears advanced yet not necessarily far-fetched. Another item worth noting is the invention of a ventilation system designed to enable the mole-like subterranean continuation of the Atlantean culture. This is also an element found in other Atlantis fantasies where the surviving Atlanteans are trapped underground, as in the case of The Maracot Deep.    

One final technological detail worth mentioning is interesting because it at first appears almost mundane, but which really points to the advancement of the Atlantean culture in Ferrándiz’ version. This is the invention of the codex, which is a ubiquitous feature in Djad-dze’s library. By making the codex the primary form of textual transmission in the Atlantean culture, Ferrándiz has both made this culture centuries ahead of its contemporaries of the classical era – supposing that the invention of the codex either antedated or followed shortly after the cataclysm – and also on the level of the medieval setting of the story. While scrolls also have an important part in Atlantean textual culture, a flashback during Djad-dze’s recounting of the survival of the Atlanteans shows that already during its early stage of survival, Atlantis had made good use of the codex. This is significant, as the invention of the codex in the classical world appears to be in the first century CE, with the codex taking over the importance of the scroll by the early seventh century. While the Atlantean codex of Atlántida is not as eye-catchingly advanced as the explosives, or as the sundry machines of other Atlantis fantasies, to a historian of text such as myself, the codex remains the most interesting invention of Ferrándiz’ Atlantis, and also a sublimely elegant way of signalling how the technology of Atlantis has advanced relative to its contemporaries of the classical era but without reaching an impossibly advanced level. 



In the next and final blogpost in this series, I will summarise some of my reflections on Ferrándiz' Atlántida.

tirsdag 30. juli 2019

Atlántida – or, the converging of modern medievalism and the legend of Atlantis, part 2

This is the second of four blogposts on the comic book story Atlántida by Ricard Ferrándiz, which is a part of the storyworld of El Capitán Trueno. See also the first, the third and the fourth installment.

El Capitán Trueno and Atlantis      

Due to the scarcity of medieval, or perhaps rather medievalist, Atlantis fantasies, I was very excited to find the Capitán Trueno album Atlántida, and I read it eagerly in the course of a dark evening before Christmas. I should note, however, that this album is my first encounter with the comic book series El Capitán Trueno (aside from a parody/homage in the comic book series Mortadelo y Filemón which was what made me aware of the captain’s existence). Consequently, I cannot evaluate the book in light of the history of the series, and in my comments and reflections I will be unable to catch elements that will be obvious to long-time readers. My aim with this text is, instead, to examine the treatment of the Atlantis myth and to see how the author has dealt with certain issues that are standard topoi of stories about Atlantis.  

I should first, however, give some brief notes of introduction to readers who are as unfamiliar as I am with the universe of Capitán Trueno. The comic book series was created in 1956 by the author Victor Mora Pujadas and the artist Miguel Ambrosio Zaragoza, and it is centred on the exploits of four protagonists: Capitán Trueno who is a Spanish knight, his girlfriend Sigrid who is the queen of the island Thule in the far north, and their friends Goliath the giant and the young boy Crispín. The temporal setting of the series is the end of the twelfth century, and in the course of the series’ long history the quartet has been brought to many distant geographical locations. El Capitán Trueno has enjoyed immense popularity in Spain, and several other comic book writers and artists have contributed to the growth to the series. The album in focus here is drawn and written by Ricard Ferrándiz. Perhaps needless to say, the following paragraphs will contain several spoilers.    

Atlántida begins in Sigrid’s island kingdom Thule, presumably modelled in part on Iceland – often identified as the classical Thule by several medieval scholars – and in part on Norway, considering that Iceland in the twelfth century was not a kingdom whereas Norway was. The idea of a female ruler of a distant northern island touches on several elements found in medieval depictions of the far north, for instance in Adam of Bremen, but these cannot be addressed here. As the story begins, however, the kingdom is in preparation for the wedding of Sigrid and Capitán Trueno, a wedding that – true to the vagaries of comic book series – has been decades in the making. In order to escape the hubbub of the preparations, Goliath and Crispín go fishing, and Goliath hooks a bottle with a message inside it. This message is what sets the sequence of events unfolding.      

The text of the message is in Latin, which is translated by Capitán Trueno, and it is a call for help with a map of the island and a drawing of the constellation Orion. The captain remarks that it is an island not found on any nautical map (which makes perfect sense at the turn of the twelfth century, both considering that the Atlantic south of Spain was for all intents and purposes uncharted territory, and that the portolan charts were to be invented first in the thirteenth century). Due to the mystery of the island’s location and the call for help, Sigrid, the queen of Thule, decides to go in immediate search of the sender of the bottle and let the nuptial ceremonies wait until their return.

After an eventful voyage, during which they encounter a strange ship filled with a dead crew in black cloaks which appear to signal that the island is in the vicinity, they reach their destination, which is cloaked in volcanic fog. The group of four split into two teams and go exploring the island to look for the sender of the message. Suddenly, Trueno and Sigrid are ambushed by a group of humans cloaked in fur and armed with clubs and stone axes, of a broad and strong build reminiscent of the stereotypical stone age man. These men are later called “hombres rojos”, red men, by the narrator of the story, and they abduct Sigrid and bring her to an ancient ruined city where they tie her up for a human sacrifice, barely stopped in time by Trueno and, with timely aid, Crispín and Goliath. The latter two are armed with jars of explosives, which they have been given by the sender of the message whom they have met in the meantime. This man is the last surviving descendant of Atlantis. 

Once the situation has calmed down, the pale and cloaked Atlantean Djad-dze invites them into the subterranean realm which is the last remnant of the once mighty city state. Here, in the laboratory and library, he recounts the history of Atlantis, once so prosperous and advanced, then brought low by a cataclysm interpreted as divine retribution for the struggle and bloodshed that eventually tainted the Atlanteans. He then explains why he has sent for their aid: The volcano is about to erupt, and this will most likely wipe out the entire island and with it all the accumulated knowledge of physics, history, chemistry and other disciplines of Atlantis. It is Djad-dze’s wish that at least some of this is preserved, with the exception of one red-bound volume, whose content the human species is not yet prepared to receive. The four then prepare their departure from the moribound island, and after a brief but violent encounter with another band of red men, they are underway to Thule where they still have problems awaiting – but that is irrelevant to the Atlantis element and also an unnecessary spoiler, so I will say nothing of it here. With this summary of the events in Atlántida pertaining to Atlantis, I hope to have prepared the ground for a reflection on some of the elements in the story and how they fit with the wider cultural history of the Atlantean civilisation, to which I will return in the next blogpost.