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Skraelings and Demons August 30, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

Here’s a nice example of how intelligent men and women were able to create beasts/demons from a compounded misinterpretation.

First, in the early Middle Ages, some of the Viking dragon boats sailing out of Scandinavia missed the party to the south, where the pointy-headed ones were wrecking settlements in Britain, the Baltic, northern France, Spain and further afield. These ‘other’ Norse headed to the north and settled first Iceland, then Greenland and finally and, temporarily, the Canadian coast. In Canada and Greenland they came across the sub-arctic peoples of this area. These they termed the skraelings and Beach offered, a year and more ago, a brief description of an early Norse-Skraeling meeting, which ended predictably enough, in tears.

The Vikings had their doubts about whether the Skraelings were human or not. But by the time that news of these curious creatures was carried back home then they were emphatically trolls or ogres.

There is some problem understanding the priority of legends here. It is just possible that the Irish had already encountered the Inuit prior to the Norse voyages into the North Atlantic. There is also the problem that Laplanders and other Asian sub-arctic peoples were being reported in western Europe at about the same time.

Contact with sub-Arctic peoples withered as European contact with Greenland grew less and then, finally, as the Greenland colonies disappeared in circumstances that we still don’t understand (another post, another day).

However, and here things start to get silly, these legends remained and survived renewed contact with Sub-Arctic peoples in the Age of Exploration and in Asia and even in Lapland. Now there was a problem though. European folklore demanded that the northern regions hosted dwarfs or trolls – terminology varied – but travellers came across unusual (to them) humans but no signs of northern pygmies.

Beach has visited the always interesting Athanasius Kircher on other occasions. Consider how AK scratching his head about the little people of the north who stubbornly refused to be found by western Europeans. The following translation is excerpted from an excellent Christian Latin website. The Latin, Beach quickly transcribed from AK’s work.

In his Book of the Embassy to Moscow, Paul Jovius [unknown person – tr.] writes: ‘Beyond the Lappland, in the region ‘twixt Corum and Aquilo [exact locations unknown – tr.], where heat is forever absent, pygmies can be found – so some witnesses of exceptional trustworthiness have related. These pygmies, even after they grown to the greatest height to which they can attain, do not exceed the height of a lad of ten years of age. They are an uncanny species of human being, using a grunting form of speech, so that they seem to be as closely related to apes in their behaviour as they are distant from actual humans in their bodily mass, mentality, and height.’ With regards to these pygmies, the reader ought to consult Olaf Magnus, who refers to them as Screlingeri, i.e., ‘Cubit-Highs’. The most venerable authors – Plutarch, Ctesios, Pliny – have also made mention of monsters of this sort – and likewise assert that they do indeed exist, so that I cannot thus easily deny that they do. But I do not readily conclude that these pygmies are a true species of human being, since no nation can be found, even if one combs the entire earth, with any knowledge of humans of this kind, let alone where such a species flourishes.

Paulus Iouius in Libro de Moscouitarum Legatione: ultra Lappones, inquit, in regione inter Corum Aquilonem perpetua oppressa caligine pygmaeos reperiri, aliqui eximiae fidei testes retulerunt, qui postquam ad summum adoleuerunt, nostratis pueri denum annorum mensuram non excedunt; meticulosum hominum genus & garritu sermonem exprimens, adeo ut tam simiae propinqui , quam statura & sensibus iustaque proceritate ah homine remoti uideantur. De hisce uide Olaum Magnum, qui eos Screlingeros, hoc est, Cubitales appellat. Meminerunt & huiusmodi monstrorum Auctores grauissimi, Plutarchus, Ctesias, Plinius, ac proinde ea aliquando uisa essa uti non facile negauero. Ita homines eos ueros fuisse non facile assiuero, cum huiusmodi hominum in tanta orbis terrarum perlustrati notitia nulla Natio inuenta sit, huiusmodi pygmaeorum altrix.

AK has an easy answer to the problem. These pygmies are not humans but demons!

My conclusion, therefore, is as follows. It is certain that these pygmies are seen by shepherds and farmers in the most remote corners of the Arctic lands, those lands condemned almost entirely to perpetual darkness. Since shepherds and farmers are, according to Olaf Magnus, disposed to every sort of superstition, and delude themselves easily with regards to the existence of spirits, it ought to seem remarkable to no one that they ordinarily see the demons manifesting under the form of a human pygmy. In this way the demons can both perpetuate the superstition among the minds of the credulous, and to confer benefits upon those to whom they have manifested. If, moreover, such a genus of little human indeed exists in the foggy septentrional regions, why have they remained hidden from the Batavians, that exceedingly curious race, who has done naught else for the past sixty years other than engage in the exploration of the most hidden recesses, not only of the north, but of every corner of the entire world? Why have the Batavians found nothing of pygmies of this sort in any nation? Why have no dwarves of this kind ever been taken from Lappland, Karelia, Cremesia [location unknown, perhaps Estonia or Vepsia – tr.], Finland, or from any of those countries hard by Germany – Suevia [now the province of Schwabenland in Germany – tr.], Denmark, or the Netherlands? Furthermore, monsters from even the most remote regions of the Indies are not ordinarily brought to our country, nor can anyone be found who would dare to claim that they had ever seen a pygmy answering to the description of the Cubit-Highs in any of the aforementioned nations. Thus all the accounts of the ancient Geographers concerning pygmies of this kind, written primarily for an unsophisticated readership, are purely mythical.

Unde concluditur, eos a rudibus & agrestibus hominibus in ultimo Septentrionis angulo tenebris fere perennibus damnato uisos esse. Cum enim dicti homines teste Olao ad omne superstitionis genus procliues sint & daemonibus facile se deuoueant, mirum fane nemini uideri debet, eos sub humana pygmaei forma, tum ad superstitionem in simpliciorum animis propagandam, tum ad eos beneficiis quibus interdum afficiuntur deuinciendos apparere. Si enim tale homunculorum genus in caliginosis istiusmodi regionibus extititit, cur curiosissimos Batauos latuerunt ? Qui iam a sexaginta annorum spatio fere nihil aliud agunt, quam ut non dicam quosuis abstrusissimos Septentrionis, sed & orbis terrarum angulos explorare non definant, nihil tamen de huiusmodi pygmaeorum natione compererint. Cur nullus huiusmodi nanorum ex Lappia, Biarmia, Cremesia, Finlandia, caeterisque, in Germaniae uicinas nationes, Sueciam, Daniam, Hollandiam, unquam abductus fuit? Cum tamen minoris momenti monstra ex ultimis Indiarum partibus fecum in patriam abducere non definant: neque hodierna die ullus reperitur, qui similem pygmaeum cubitalem in iis partibus se uidisse asseuerare audeat.


31 August 2011: Invisible writes in ‘I wonder if the ‘pygmies’ were the Icelandic huldufólk/hidden people/elves, who are said to range from a few inches high to more-or-less human size. (The master of the Elf School/Álfaskólinn in Reykjavik says there are 13 types.) Even today they are very difficult to find–some people say they are just adept at living unobserved; others say they come from another dimension. Still others, of course, say they don’t exist at all. Just the sort of creatures to appear and disappear in remote areas with ‘superstitious’ farmers and shepherds as witnesses. And, since there are apparently good/Christian elves and bad/pagan elves, clerics seeking to stamp out superstition might well classify them as demons. If they weren’t so purely mythical, of course…’ Thanks Inv!