The Sin of Truth

Artwork by Duncan Long

Artwork by Duncan Long

The novel is finished, but not yet published. Many thanks to Duncan Long for the cover art.

The story is a historical adventure that crosses two continents and the borders of four empires. The Ottoman Sultan Murad IV is invading the empire of Persian Shah Safi. In Russia, the first Tsar of House Romanov, pressured to accept the throne at a young age, consolidates power in the Baltic states and fights off the Ottomans in the south. In continental Europe, the Holy Roman Empire is being torn apart by the Thirty Years War.

The Renaissance and the Reformation, underway for two hundred years, have changed everything: science, medicine, trade, religion, politics, art, and war. Against this historical backdrop, three unique individuals fight to survive and flourish in a world that is struggling to be born anew.

Mina: A young Hungarian girl, enslaved by the Ottoman Turks in 1630, escapes from Istanbul with an ancient manuscript. She makes her way to the Caspian Sea and joins a German trade mission on its way home up the Volga.

Jens: A Swedish trader, formerly of the Hanseatic League and now the wagonmaster of a German mission trying to open a new Silk Road to Persia.

James: His parents killed by Catholic forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, James is raised by his uncle, a Protestant military officer.

Can a slave girl learn to be free? Will an old Hansa trader, grieving the loss of his wife and daughters, learn to accept new ways? Can a Protestant boy raised on war forgive the faith which murdered his parents?

And underneath it all, will an ancient truth finally be revealed, or will it sink back into obscurity?

The Crash of the Sun

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa.

Kaali Meteorite Crater on the island of Saaremaa. Source: Tina Gill.

You won’t find much if you search the Web for “the crash of the sun.”

Some of what you do find is less than palatable, unless you’re into the ambient/electronica/experimental music of the Italian band SBPS2. Down at the tail end of the nine Google results, you’ll find a link to Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore.

Estonia is a curious country. Snuggled up against Russia — if one can place such a cuddly word so near to that totalitarian nightmare —  with a frozen coastline on the Gulf of Finland, the country has been fought over by Poland, Germany, Denmark, Germany, Russia and Sweden. In the 1400’s it was part of Livonia, and despite the Christianization of the pagans the country still has its own curious identity.

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

The Livonian Confederation, 15th century

In 1639, the characters from my novel travel by ship from Reval (present-day Tallinn) to Riga, and are forced to land on the island of Saaremaa to make repairs.

Ulf looked around at the crew members sleeping on the dry sand around him. Others had been sent for construction materials, food and water. From the west, borne on the soft wind, he could hear the bark of seals and the cries of birds. Master Jens turned the carcass of the dead bird over the open fire and continued the telling — the endless telling — of yet another boring story from the dying past.

“The island settlements to the east are ancient, and the place was known to the vikings as Eysysla. Eirik – a bastard son of the Norsk King Haakon Sigurdsson – invaded here 600 years ago, killing everyone he found and taking Danish ships as his own. But today it is a haven for healers. They say massive stones fall here from the sky, trailing fire and bringing magic elements. Don’t be surprised if witches appear to you out of thin air. And whatever they ask of you, don’t do it.”

Ulf wished the old man would just shut up.

As you can see, I am not Ulf. The story of the meteorite is real, and it fascinates me — as do the other stories that Master Jens tells. Volume 23 of Estonian Folklore tells what really happened.

The Kaali meteorite crash is the kind of unique and astounding event that must have become a topic of storytelling and singing for many generations afterward. As mentioned above, it evidently occurred around 2000 BC, on Saaremaa Island in the Baltic Sea. As recent scientific studies have established (Tiirmaa 1994), a meteorite of iron streaked from east to west over the Estonian mainland, broke  apart as a result of atmospheric friction, and hit the island in at least 9 places, leaving craters that can be seen to this day.

Tiirmaa (1994: 63) likens the event to a small nuclear explosion (minus radioactivity). … the amount of energy needed to form the main crater was equivalent to 1-4 kilotons (1–4 million kg or 2–8 million pounds) of TNT explosive. The largest fragment hit the ground and exploded with enough energy to create a crater 110 m in diameter, 22 m deep, with a rim 4–7 m above the ground.

It is hard to imagine what went on in the minds of the humans who saw flaming chunks of the sky fall to earth, heard the sonic boom of the streaking fragments and the ear-splitting crash, felt the ground shudder beneath their feet, and were engulfed by a great cloud of dust and ash. Trees, animals, and dwellings within a radius of 2–5 km from the site would have been destroyed, a forest fire would have been ignited, and the survivors would have had to run for their lives to avoid asphyxiation from the vaporized and pulverized matter and gases. This may have been the greatest meteorite impact ever in a populated area. It was truly a fearsome and spectacular event, more than enough to alter existing world-views and to inspire new tales and songs.

The long-tailed fireball would have been brighter than the sun, visible not just on Saaremaa but as far as 700 km (450 miles) away (Meri 1984: 55; Tiirmaa 1994: 65). Included in the area of direct observability are much of southern Finland and Karelia, the Novgorod area of Russia, the Polish coast, and lower Sweden.

At the end of the dissertation comes a song. The Kaali Meteorite Song. “Each song line is to be sung first by the lead singer [storyteller], and repeated by the chorus [listeners].”

Narrator: The night was dark. The sky-god Ukko decided to shed more light on earth.

Ukko struck to make a fire,
Struck a white-hot lightning fire.
From his flaming sword he struck it,
As the sparks did fly and sputter;
Fire hit against his fingers,
Sputtered sparks from sacred fingers,
High above aloft in heaven,
On the starry plains of heaven.

Narrator: He entrusted the care of the fire to the maid of air, for her to form and shape.

Into a new moon to form it,
Into a new day to shape it.

Narrator: But this did not turn out well.

Imbi rocked the baby fire,
Back and forth the little white one.
On her hands she held the fire,
Put the spark up on her fingers:
Fire fell from butterfingers
From the fingers of the guardian.

Narrator: The catastrophe followed

Heaven torn and lacerated,
Skyvault became perforated;
Fire tore through sky like blizzard,
Sped and crashed along the cloudline,
Through nine heavens it descended,
Through six spangled vaults of heaven.
Evil deeds it then accomplished,
Cruel deeds it perpetrated:
Burning up the daughters’ bosoms,
Tearing at the breasts of maidens,
And the knees of boys destroying,
And the master’s beard consuming.
And of all its deeds most evil:
Burned the baby in his cradle.
Went on burning many uplands,
Many uplands, many boglands,
Crashed at last into the water,
In the waves of Lake Alue:
And the fire rose up flaming,
And the sparks a rose all crackling.
Three times in a night of summer,
Nine times in a night of autumn,
Roared up to the height of spruce trees,
Sprang up high against the shorebanks
With the strength of furious fire,
With the might of angry white heat.
Even threw the fish on dry land,
Heaved the perch across the beaches.

Big noses and the bawdy aesthetic

Perusing my collection of scholarly papers, in search of some facts about city life in the Early Modern era, I rediscovered Large Noses and Changing Meanings in Sixteenth-century German Prints, by Alison Stewart. I first found the paper almost a year ago, and it’s been sitting ever since in my digital stack of research, waiting.

Or perhaps it’s been panting, wheezing or ejaculating, because the topic of the paper is just what you might think after reading the title.

Woodcuts produced by the Nuremberg school during the early sixteenth century provide insights into the history of taste, in particular the changing nature of the bawdy aesthetic so prevalent in the art of the time. Sebald Beham’s Nose Dance of c. 1534 offers a good case in point. The print represents in the foreground a group of large-nosed men and one woman, and a fool who exposes himself (at lower right).

The scene is a popular peasant holiday of the time, Kermis, “the celebration of the anniversary of a church or of the name saint to whom the church is dedicated.” Contemporary documents indicate that the nose dance was performed routinely.

The dancer with the largest nose will be crowned king of the dance and gets the garland. Second prize is the nose mask, and third the underpants. The garland is, of course, a traditional attribute or the victor; the nose mask mirrors the shape of the nose, and may well have been worn by some of the contestants; while the underpants reminds us of the popular belief that the size of a man’s nose is indicative of the size of his penis …

The description of the woodcut is by Nuremberg poet-shoemaker Hans Sachs.

Narrated in the first person, the text relates that numerous drunk peasants can be seen at the kermis held in the town of Gumpelsbrunn: there they eat, drink and yell, a maiden sings to the accompaniment of a bagpipe, two shawm players arrive to play for the row dance, and the young men run, wrestle and throw each other down on their stomachs, many smashing their penises. Gingerbread is for sale, and a rooster dance takes place, involving wonderful tricks waddling, bowing and turning around, so that one can see up the women’s skirts. Sachs describes the rows and disputes, with two men attacking three, and even a flogging.

The entire paper is worth reading, and some passages remind me of more recent events.

While not discounting altogether the moralizing aspects of the image and text, it is important to keep in mind that although they may seem outrageous to many today, sixteenth-century audiences would have found them highly entertaining. Nuremberg was then a loud and dirty place, the behaviour found there uncouth and often violent. People talked loudly in church – and even defecated in the street: an announcement was issued to warn residents not to use the streets in this manner during the Emperor’s visit, but to avail themselves of the public Sprachhauser, or latrines.

All that’s missing today is the fornicating, the violence, the maypole, and the fool exposing himself. Oh, wait, all of that did happen during the nationwide “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Perhaps today’s society is not as evolved as we pretend.