Cave of the Fire Giant

As the author of one-third of a trilogy based on Norse mythology, I couldn’t pass up this Archaeology Magazine article on a cave in Iceland called Surtshellir (“Surt’s Cave”).

Surt is, of course, the ruler of Muspelheim, the fire giant who is said to destroy all of creation in accounts of Ragnarok, notably the Voluspa.

Surthshellir is a lava tube cave, an eminently desirable residence from a fire giant’s point of view. The cave used to be nearly inaccessible until relatively recent times, when a partial ceiling collapse opened up a sort of “skylight”. As a bonus, the cave boasts an underground stone wall and caches of smashed bones (one of the side caves is called “Beinaheller”–Bone Cave.)

The Icelandic settlers apparently recognized this early on, when Thorvald Thordarson traveled there to offer a drapa to Surt.

I found it interesting that the archaeologists researching the site can’t quite agree about what went on there. Some favor the hypothesis that it’s the abandoned lair of a famous outlaw band. (There are stories in Iceland to this effect–actually a good many over the centuries.) This contrasts with what some other archaeologists think, which is closer to their usual position when they don’t understand something: wave your hands vaguely and mutter ‘It must have had religious significance.’

Well, in the case of Surtshellir, I’m going to side with the wavers and mutterers. Let’s start with Thordarson’s drapa. I think that incident fits right in with other accounts of Iceland’s new settlers immediately recognizing some sites on the island as sacred (for example, Helgafell). In Surtshellir’s case, ‘unhallowed’ might be a more appropriate designation. So why a drapa, which is usually a poem of praise? Why would Thordarson celebrate a world-destroying fire giant? I would guess that it’s the same tendency that led those who feared fairies to refer to them as ‘The Good Folk’. Thordarson may have reasoned that if he praised Surt, the giant might stay put and rest on his fiery laurels.

The smashed bones piled up in the cave certainly seem like the remains of sacrifices. The bones weren’t cooked, but what need is there to pre-roast offerings to a fire giant? He can obviously handle his own cooking.

Then there’s the little detail of the fortress wall built across the cave, eight hundred feet away from the entrance. When it was built, there would have been no natural light down there. And no signs of human occupation have been found past that point. So I don’t put much stock in the idea that the wall was some outlaw’s defense structure. It was built to keep something in, something that might otherwise erupt (literally) from the dark places under the earth.

There’s also the incident of Snorri Sturluson’s son being mutilated, then left on the wall to die (amazing that he didn’t–even post-Viking Age Icelanders must have been pretty tough). It’s really hard not to see this as his enemies killing two birds with one stone, combining revenge with a sacrifice to Surt.

As for the stories about the cave being an outlaws’ hideout, I’m guessing that tradition arose to provide a convenient explanation for avoiding the cave, after Christianity had driven heathen culture and religion underground (no pun intended). The only thing I wonder about is, why not a tradition that the Devil lived there, at the entrance to the Christian Hell? Maybe just because outlaws were better characters for sagas.

Anyway, the cave is still there, Iceland is still there, so the strategy to contain Surt must have worked!

Sometimes Ghosts Are the Only Survivors

Those of us who write and blog in relative obscurity can be forgiven if sometimes we find comfort in meditations on the fleeting nature of fame. I recently found food for such thoughts while reading The Complete Wandering Ghosts, a collection of the eight (8) short ghost stories written by F. Marion Crawford.

Before this, I knew very little about Crawford, though I’d read a couple of his ghost stories that turned up in anthologies. (Yes, his–another thing I didn’t realize before. ‘F. Marion’ sounded like a woman’s name to me.)

Apparently, if I’d been around in the early 1900s, I would have had to be living under a whole pile of rocks not to have heard of him. His novels were read all over the English-speaking world. He was so famous that when he fell ill, the New York Times carried daily reports of his health on the front page. In the Italian town where he died, they shut all the shops in mourning, and one of the streets was named after him.

Today, pretty much all that’s left is this handful of ghost stories. (Well, I guess the street is probably still there, too.)

So what about the stories themselves?

The Dead Smile
You can see the plot twist in this one coming from a mile away, glowing brightly, waving its tattered cerements around, and wailing like a banshee. But Crawford builds the atmosphere up skillfully, and the upbeat ending is refreshing.

The Screaming Skull
Bad things happen to sailors who retire to live alone in the country, while keeping boxes of skeleton parts around the house. Particularly those who have given helpful advice to an opportunistic murderer.

Man Overboard!
Worse things happen at sea…especially when there are twin sailors who both fall in love with the same woman, before one of them falls (or did he?) overboard. This story moves slowly but it also captures the helpless, trapped feeling you can get when you know something bad is going to happen, is happening, but you can’t do anything about how long it will take to play out.

For the Blood is the Life
I’m not a big fan of vampire stories, but this is a good one with a picturesque Italian setting. It’s also unusual in that the vampire is original–created, it seems, by the circumstances of her death rather than the bite of another vampire.

The Upper Berth
Even worse things happen at sea. This is Crawford’s classic, anthologized more times than I can count. The ghost here is disconcertingly solid, closer to a Norse draugr.

By the Waters of Paradise
More of a romance than a ghost story, and almost a deconstruction of nineteenth-century romanticism–the brooding, melancholy hero, instead of getting consumption, grows a spine and wins love despite the opposition of dark forces.

The Doll’s Ghost
The book’s introduction dismisses this one as ‘sentimental’, but it’s my favorite story of Crawford’s. I defy any parent who ever thought they lost one of their children, even for a moment, to read this without tears. And of course it features a very unique kind of ghost.

The King’s Messenger
A fitting last story for this collection. Not surprising, but beautiful, and with a bit of a twist inherent in the structure of the story itself.

Well-behaved Pirates Rarely Made History

Seeing as we’re about 1/3 of the way to International Talk Like a Pirate Day, I felt it was high time to celebrate pirate history. I recently read The Republic of Pirates: Being The True And Surprising Story Of The Caribbean Pirates And The Man Who Brought Them Down. It’s an excellent and entertaining account, and I recommend it. This isn’t actually a review of the book, though; more of a meditation on its subject, the Golden Age of Piracy.

It turns out that English pirates in the Caribbean in the late 1600s and early 1700s had a lot going for them.

They weren’t just about seizing ships and cargo–they aspired to control entire colonies, notably the Bahamas, where many small islands offered lots of great places to hide or lurk. At times, they commanded fleets. The largest I found mention of in The Republic consisted of nine vessels, but that was pretty impressive for the Caribbean at that time.

The pirates were fairly egalitarian–everyone in the ship’s company had a vote when major decisions were made, and the captain’s share of loot wasn’t as outsized, relative to the crew, as it was aboard privateers.

Tolerance (well, mostly).
English pirates would often have French crew members, and sometimes even teamed up with French ships. Many West Indian blacks joined pirate crews (though unlucky slaves fresh from Africa, who didn’t speak English, were usually treated as cargo). As far as I could tell, though, no Spaniards need apply.

I found it a bit hard to imagine why any sailor, when given the opportunity, wouldn’t join a pirate company. True, you might get killed in a fight with the Royal Navy, or even hanged. But given the prevailing quality of life for sailors at that time, you couldn’t count on reaching old, or even middle, age anyway. On slave ships, for example, the crew tended to die at nearly the same rate as the slaves did. So I think it would have been pretty tempting to have at least a shot at a wealthy retirement.

I was struck by how confusing life on the seas would have been in the Golden Age. If pirates didn’t happen to be flying their battle flags, you might moor next to one of their ships without suspecting anything. You might even have thought it was a vessel you recognized–and you might have been right. Pirates were always looking to upgrade, seizing new ships and moving their crew and loot from one to another–especially if the captured vessel was a “ship of force”, with enough guns and mass to make even the Royal Navy think twice about taking it on.

Ships’ names could be a source of confusion, too. Often the pirates would rename ships they took, much like a Grand Theft Auto operation putting new license plates on stolen cars. Henry Avery, active in the early Golden Age, called his ship the Fancy, and that name was reused by a later pirate, Edward England. Stede Bonnet, who sailed with Blackbeard, named his flagship the Revenge. Not to be outdone, Blackbeard named his own ship Queen Anne’s Revenge. At times there were two different pirate ships in action called, respectively, the Mary Ann and the Mariane. Or possibly they were the same ship–no one’s really certain. And at some point, not Bonnet himself, but Benjamin Hornigold named his ship the Bonnet. Hornigold also, more helpfully if not modestly, named another of his vessels the Benjamin.

Then there was the Whydah, a swift, eighteen-gun slave ship commanded by a Captain Prince. When Black Sam Bellamy’s pirates took his ship, he was given another and even a bit of gold into the bargain, since he had a reputation for treating his crew fairly. The pirates then went on to wreck the Whydah on the New England coast, killing almost everyone on board. Captain Prince, who really should have known better, then accepted command of a ship called the Whydah II, which was almost captured by a different batch of pirates, escaping only at the last moment.

Luckily, for crew members on merchant ships, being captured by a pirate didn’t necessarily mean all was lost. You could always join the pirate company yourself. Even if you didn’t, you might get your ship back, or a different vessel if the pirates had one to spare but happened to like yours better. At worst, your ship might be crippled to slow it down, or you might get set ashore at some point where it would take you a while to get back to civilization and warn the authorities. Your chances of being forced to walk the plank were minimal. Some pirates were more brutal than others, but again, given the standards of the time, not especially so. Blackbeard, for example, apparently didn’t kill anyone in any of his raids. Relying on scary displays and a fast-growing reputation, he usually captured vessels without firing a shot.

Some of the pirates even saw themselves as many tend to see them now–outlaws with a touch of the romantic about them. Sam Bellamy called himself “The Robin Hood of the Seas”, and his crew were said to play the part of Robin’s merry men. Bellamy argued that the pirates should emulate the famous outlaw, taking from the wealthy merchants and giving to poor sailors.

Assuming the pirates considered themselves to be the “poor sailors”, they succeeded…for a while. Long enough to make a Golden Age that still shines in our imagination.

Folk Songs of Old New England

This book, compiled in 1939 when there were still plenty of people to be found in New England who’d lived through the 1800s, is a great resource. As you’d expect, many ballads are included, ranging from the comic to the tragic to the comically tragic. Some of the ‘standard’ folk songs, like ‘The Elfin Knight’ and ‘Frog Would A-Wooing Go’, appear in this collection with different verses I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But there’s a lot more to this compendium. Sea chanteys (with notes on which chantey went along with which specific shipboard task), ‘kissing games’, and even fiddle tunes and dances. I didn’t know the difference between a ‘line’ or ‘contra’ dance and a quadrille (square dance) before reading this book, but now I do! And I didn’t realize that lumberjacks had their own tale-telling and musical tradition–although, if you think about it, how could they not?

There’s a section with short biographies of the singers and callers, and notes about their family history, that is well worth reading as well.

In short, this book is a cultural treasure, a snapshot of a time when old traditions, though waning, still survived in an unbroken line–as opposed to being revived, as they are today (or so I hope).

New(ish) Research in Robin Hood Country

Well, obviously I didn’t do enough research before I wrote Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head. In the story, I have King Edward making a royal visit to Nottingham Castle, annoying the Sheriff no end. Now I find, through an article in Archaeology Today, that Edward probably would have hung at The King’s Houses instead. This was a royal complex at the edge of Sherwood Forest that was something like a cross between a country club and a convention center. It featured (of course) a large hunting park, as well as a private pond stocked with fish for those inconvenient fast days. A great place if you were an aristocrat, but as far as Robin, or any of the local villagers were concerned, it would have been a case of “there goes the neighborhood.”

Today nothing remains but a few tottering, ruined walls. I can’t find anything on the Archaeology Today site about this, but you can read all about it  here. Note that this brochure calls the site “King John’s Palace”, but the text shows that it was very much in use during the period I’ve placed my Robin Hood story, the early to mid 1300s.

If you follow the link above, you may even find out what a “caracute” was.

Moving over to Nottingham, I found an amazing 2013 Gizmodo article from a link at Archaeology Today. It turns out that Nottingham sits over a network of sandstone caves, many or most of them artificial. They range from beer cellars used by local pubs to one nasty oubliette where, legend has it, Robin himself was once imprisoned. Sometimes the caves are connected by tunnels or labyrinths. It occurs to me that they might have offered a handy way to get in and out of Nottingham unseen…which may be how Robin wound up making his escape!

The article about Nottingham’s underground world can be found here.

Virtual Book Fair Booth–Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head by Eric Tanafon

I’m participating in The Virtual Book Fair! The event is live November 12-21. For more information, check out the event on Facebook here.


I’m Eric Tanafon. Thanks for visiting! I’m an eccentric, reclusive author with a large family, living in genteel poverty in New England.

Robin Hood: Wolf’s Head reveals, for the first time, the true nature of Robin’s band of merry….men?

Be warned, for Here There Be…

Creatures of darkness, not all alike. Kings without crowns, knights who left their shining armor behind. Witches, hermits, berserkers, and other honest outlaws. Ballads sung to the lute and spells spoken by moonlight.

Stories within stories, a Thousand and One Sherwoodian Nights.

And in the end…redemption.


Right now, you can get a copy for only 1.99. Why not preview it first?

Scavenger Hunt Number: 10

Find more booths to visit here!