Passing the serpent’s jaws into Valhalla

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

Valhalla, a board game from Tara Hill Designs

On a ship out of Lubeck, headed downriver to the Baltic and bound for Castle Gottorp, two of the hands find time to play an ancient board game.

Valhalla is a game of both chance and strategy, in which the players overcome physical obstacles, attacks by their opponents and the whims of the Gods in order to reach a joyous afterlife in Odin’s hall – Valhalla. The game is loosely based on Senet, which originated in ancient Egypt and was adopted by the Greeks and later the Romans, until it may have made its way north into medieval Scandinavia.

I found the game online a couple of years ago and downloaded the instructions (which are apparently no longer available).

The game board is in the pattern of a serpent, representing the Midgard Serpent which dwelt in the deep ocean and encircled the world. Along the serpent’s back are three rows of 12 spaces each, some of which are marked with runes representing various special conditions. The first row is the home harbour, where each players pieces begin the game. The second row is the open ocean, where each side battles for position. In the middle is an island with a ship yard where players must go for repairs if their ships are damaged. The third row represents the final leg of the journey, where players may form blockades, take shelter in a safe harbour, or be washed up on the rocky shoals, sending them back to the repair yards. Once past the serpents jaws, your ships pass into Valhalla, at which point they leave the board. The first player to remove all their ships is the winner.

In my novel, Ulf is the educated son of a Swedish nobleman who has abdicated his birthright to become an apprentice trader. Thadeus, a giant of a man whose birthright and interests are inferior to those of his opponent, collects various games and asks Ulf to play his latest acquisition.

Ulf sat down with his back against the bulkhead, sheltered from the southwest wind that drove the fluyt forward from the rear quarter. The surface of the river rippled and the small bow wave gurgled against the hull. The canvas, not yet filled with wind, luffed and flapped, reminding him of servants at home drying the household bedsheets. Ahead, the river began a wide turn to the east, past the old island fortress of the first Lubeck settlement. Cows meandered among a few black stones, but nothing remained of the citadel that Ulf had read about in his father’s library. On both sides of the river, workers were already in the fields. On the western shore a small caravan of wagons, loaded with grain, eased their way toward a local jetty where an old bark and her crew waited.

He was tired from the early morning work of outfitting the ship for sea, but cool air and the sun in his eyes conspired to keep Ulf awake. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened, hoping no one would bother him, and pulled the collar of his fine leather coat tighter against his throat to keep out a sudden gust of wind. He pulled his cap down tight and settled himself more snugly against the bulkhead, feeling the alternating mixture of warmth and wind.

He heard heavy footsteps on the wooden deck, and opened his eyes as a pair of legs lowered themselves down next to him.

“Aaah, so there you are!”

Recognizing the voice of crewman Thadeus Schynnagel, Ulf groaned in disappointment. The man was constantly enticing him to play one game of chance or another. He had given in a few times on the condition that no money would exchange hands.

Thadeus lowered his considerable weight onto the deck and tossed a red velvet bag into Ulf’s lap. “I’ll bet you’ve never seen this game before. Want to play? Just for fun, of course.”

“I was resting before we reach the open sea and I have to stand watch. Can we play later?”

“We need a stable surface and the river is calm today.” Thad retrieved the bag and dumped its contents onto the deck. “I found this in Lubeck. It cost me all the money I had. Very nice quality, don’t you think?”

Ulf took the rectangular board in his hands and turned it over. Carved into the soft spruce, the body of a serpent formed a playing area of three rows, tail to snout, across its surface. Evenly spaced holes pierced the snake’s body, apparently for inserting the oval tokens that Thad now held.

“Do you want dark or light?”

Do I have to choose?”

“No, but that way is more complicated.”

Ulf watched the man’s thick fingers place the twelve pieces onto the board, surprised again at how deft such a big man could be.

“Throw the four rune sticks.”

Ulf picked them up, cupped his hands, shook and threw the sticks. Two of them landed face down.

“Two points,” said Thad, pointing at the runic symbols. “The sun and god runes are face up. The gift and fate runes are face down. The most points you can get are five. Now move that ship two spaces, out of the harbor.”

Ulf selected the ship at the head of the line and moved it two spaces. “How do you win the game?”

“By moving all your ships off the board, past the serpent’s maw, here.” Thad pointed to the other end of the writhing snake. “Now it’s my turn. I’ll tell you the rules as we go along.”

The runes clattered. “The serpent is Jörmungand, who dwells in the deep oceans and encircles the earth. You command the white ships, and our two fleets do battle in the open ocean, here.” He pointed to the middle row of peg holes. “I threw a three, so my ship defeats yours in battle and you must make repairs at the island shipyard. So I will move your ship there now.”

“And what happens to that ship?”

“After one turn, you can move it back into the harbor if you roll the right number. For now, throw the runes and move the next ship in line.”

Ulf picked up the runes and dropped them, differently this time, the ends perpendicular to the deck. One of them stood for a moment and then toppled. He read the names out, feeling the familiar sense of pride in his memory.

“Tiewaz and Hagalaz.”

“Zero points. No move.” Thad threw the runes. “Four tails up. Five points.” His first ship, already in the lead, landed in mid-ocean.

Ulf could see how the game would play, and allowed his mind to wander, only uttering sounds if necessary. He already, unfortunately, had Thad’s friendship. He didn’t want to encourage intimacy. He mentally put his opponent onto the ocean-island shipyard and left him there, sailing eastward to Alandia with captain Wisna, a woman he could fall in love with if she didn’t have the soul of a man. The wind whipped the hair about his eyes, obscuring the outline of the City of Sle, where the long cold days aboard ship would fade into warm beds and meade, and the hard weeks of battle would be proudly exaggerated by warriors.

Absently, he threw the runes and moved his ships and wished for a cup of mead in his hand. The desire was almost overwhelming, and Ulf despaired that it would keep him from his rightful place when Jens was gone. More than once since taking the apprenticeship, he had neglected his duties in favor of a strong drink. He also desired the authority that Jens had promised, but not the responsibility, and in this way he was not like his father. Also unlike his father, he was unaware of the truth of his desires, and the character flaw infected even his dreams.

The dreams had been with him since childhood. Always a subordinate, never a leader, he was still clever. While his brothers excelled in war and in the administration of the family estates, Ulf excelled only in learning. He learned to read long before his brothers, spent his days in the family library, and by the time he was thirteen he had finished every book his father owned. His mother regretted allowing him to read so much, and one failed attempt at restricting it had damaged their relationship forever. Ulf was aware of the rift, but wrongly attributed it to his father’s interference.

The dream of Wisna was a constant reminder of Ulf’s second-citizen status. Watching his dream from the outside, one might think that Ulf was a trusted lieutenant or skillful advisor, and sometimes the dream started out that way. But eventually, and always, his status waned and as the day awoke he was pulling at the oars with the others as they entered the harbor. Wisna laughed at him and put a boot into his chest as she strode toward the bow, leapt over the side, and left her crew to beach the ship and unload.

“Fate,” said Thad as the runes toppled to the deck yet again. “Hagalaz, the hailstorm. Looks like you have to go back a space.”

“Stop gloating,” said Ulf. “My luck at games is terrible, but it is offset by the luck of my birth.”

“What luck? You think it lucky to be born a nobleman?” Thad chuckled deeply. “There are some who count as nothing the status given by birth, while others depend on nothing else. You seem to be of the latter sort, and yet your station in life gives you no pleasure. As for myself, I care not for my lineage and I am a happy man.”

“That’s because you have no lineage worth caring about.”

“As if you do? What did you have to do with it? Did you choose your parents? Did your father choose his? No. A true man makes his own way, highborn or not. Any man who says otherwise is a liar or a fool. Or a noble. That’s one which has escaped to Valhalla. Five to go.”

Directly below them, in the head, Ulf heard someone grunting with great effort. It took equal effort for him not to compare the activity to Thad’s ridiculous talk about nobility. He watched the other man’s huge hand move a piece off the board, out of the serpent’s reach, and wished he had the stones to call out the man’s stupidity. He took his turn instead.

Hagalaz was the only rune face up. “Fate,” said Thad.

“That’s it,” said Ulf. “I quit.” He stood up into the wind and stretched.

“You can’t quit now!” Thad said in frustration. “Who quits a game just because they are losing?”

“We’re approaching Travemunde. I’ll be needed on watch.” The Bay of Travemunde was visible and getting larger just off the starboard bow. In the distance, on the port side, the red brick of the lighthouse stood watch over the gateway to the Baltic.

“Not for another hour at least. We still need to drop off our pilot.”

Ulf let his irritation get the best of him. “I don’t care about the stupid game. I didn’t want to play it in the first place.” Before the idea of kicking the game overboard was fully formed, his foot lashed out and the pieces scattered.

Thad bellowed something unintelligible as the board disappeared over the side.

“I’m sorry!” shouted Ulf. “I didn’t mean …” But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence before Thad picked him off his feet and threw him into the river.

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To Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?

For the Greeks, Hell was a place called Tartarus, and its three most famous inhabitants were Sisyphus, endlessly pushing his rock up the hill, Ixion, strapped to a wheel for eternity, and Tantalus, forever unable to quench his thirst. For ancient Norsemen, the great abyss that formed the boundary of the ocean and the world, Ginnungagap, was derived from Tartarus and Chaos. Europeans whose lands bordered the mighty Ottoman Empire appropriated the word and used it to demonize their enemies, “The Monstrous Tartar.”

From the British Museum: "Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: [1664])"

From the British Museum: “Part of a broadside ballad on the so-called horse-headed Tartar reputedly captured by Count Zrinyi in Hungary while fighting the Ottoman army; with a woodcut showing a man with a horse neck, mane and ears, holding in his left hand a bow and in his right an arrow; with letterpress title, text in one column and verses in two columns, and with a column of type ornaments. (n.p.: [1664])”

Aeschylus, Virgil, Aristophanes, and Homer before them, wrote eloquently about hell. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus writes, “Oh if only he had hurled me below the earth, yes beneath Hades, the entertainer of the dead, into impassable Tartarus, and had ruthlessly fastened me in fetters no hand can loose, so that neither god nor any other might have gloated over this agony I feel!”

In Birds, Aristophanes says, “At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence.”

In the Iliad, Homer writes of the saffron-robed dawn, and Zeus threatening to hurl into Tartarus anyone who dares oppose him.

Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over the face of all the earth, and Zeus that hurleth the thunderbolt made a gathering of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus, and himself addressed their gathering; and all the gods gave ear: “Hearken unto me, all ye gods and goddesses, that I may speak what the heart in my breast biddeth me. Let not any goddess nor yet any god essay this thing, to thwart my word, but do ye all alike assent thereto, that with all speed I may bring these deeds to pass. Whomsoever I shall mark minded apart from the gods to go and bear aid either to Trojans or Danaans, smitten in no seemly wise shall he come back to Olympus, or I shall take and hurl him into murky Tartarus, far, far away, where is the deepest gulf beneath the earth, the gates whereof are of iron and the threshold of bronze, as far beneath Hades as heaven is above earth: then shall ye know how far the mightiest am I of all gods.”

Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 13th century, wrote of Tartarus in The Danish History, saying that the vanquished King Harald would “outstrip those who shared his death in their journey to Tartarus.” The king who slew him, Ring, prayed that “Pluto, the lord of Orcus, [would] grant a calm abode there for friend and foe.”

Grammaticus also told of an expedition to a land of the dead by an Icelander named Thorkillus. Somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea, this place was known as Gandvik in the Norse, derived from a word meaning “magic.”

Icelanders used to tell incredible stories of enormous riches piled up there, but the way to this place was full of dangers and almost inaccessible to mortals. According to the experts of this route, one had to cross the Ocean that surrounds the Earth, leaving Sun and stars behind, traveling to the kingdom of chaos and finally moving into places without light, shrouded in perpetual darkness.

The place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.

Thorkillus traveled to the place of the dead described by ancient Icelanders, somewhere between the Ural Mountains and the White Sea.

For those Europeans who suffered the geographical misfortune of living along the warpath of Ottoman Sultans, nothing but the most extreme depiction of their enemies would do.

The image above, from the British Museum, explains that Tartars were monsters, no doubt from the pit of hell. The word was first used in this sense in the 13th century, referring to the hordes of Ghengis Khan. “… from Medieval Latin Tartarus, from Persian Tatar, first used 13c. in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan (1202-1227), said to be ultimately from Tata, a name of the Mongols for themselves. Form in European languages probably influenced by Latin Tartarus ‘hell.'”

The Online Etymology Dictionary also says that a phrase from the 1660s — “to catch a Tartar” — means “get hold of what cannot be controlled.”

My own purposes for the word Tartarus are more mundane. It only appears once, in what is now Chapter 7 of my novel. Mina and her protector Sa’d, are shopping in Galata for a map of Anatolia. Naturally, they visit the map-maker.

It looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Scrolls, paper, books, twine and dust lay everywhere, on tables and shelves in the front of the store, and Mina could only imagine what might be seen behind the heavy curtain at the back.

“What do you need?” Shouted the owner. “I have it!” He scuttled out from behind the curtain, a small man covered with an apron and bearing a most delicate knife.

“A map of the empire from here to the Caspian Sea,” Sa’d replied.

“Should that include the regions toward Egypt, or the other direction toward the Tsar and his beastly hordes?”

“The beastly hordes.” To Mina, he said, grinning, “You knew there would be beastly hordes, right?”

“Yes, I suppose so, although I hadn’t considered it directly. Are they as bad as they sound?”

“Worse!” said the proprietor. “Their knives are a thousand times the size of this.” He raised the sharp little knife and slashed the air dramatically. “But I use mine to greater effect. I can slice the world in half, while they are limited to slaughtering a few hundred men a day. Where are you going? As far as Astrakhan? Up the Volga River? Even to Tartarus, the furthest limits of the earth and sea?”

“Not as far as that, cartographer.” Sa’d smiled, clearly enjoying the man’s histrionics. “Just the Caspian. A merchant’s route, if you have one.”

I’ve done a fair bit of research on ancient maps, but I don’t know what kind travelers might have actually carried with them. In my mind, Mina acquires something simpler than the map of Natolia produced by Joan Blaeu in 1635, seen below, and Tartarus is (of course) not depicted.

The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.

“The Atlas Maior or Great Atlas was produced by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) between 1660 and 1663. It was with no doubt one of the most expensive cartographical productions of the 17th century. It contained 600 maps and 3000 pages with text in Latin. Later editions appeared also with French or German text.” From the Facsimile Edition of the Atlas Blaeu.

Finally, a shameless plug. If you’d like to read the first two chapters of my novel, head over to WattPad. Criticism encouraged!

Lake Gokcha and the Black Monastery

The Black Monastery sits on a peninsula at the northeast end of Lake Sevan in Armenia. Up and down the lakeshore, remains of ancient towns encrust the landscape. Fifteen miles to the southeast, 900 cross-stones — the largest number of khatchkars in the country — rise out of the harsh soil at the Noratus cemetery.

Brady Kiesling describes the region and the monastery in Rediscovering Armenia: An Archaeological/Touristic Gazetteer and Map Set for the Historical Monuments of Armenia.

The Sevan basin is windswept, treeless and austere, but with stunning skies, an ever-changing lake surface, and a rich history.  All around the lake are the tumbled stone remains of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and towns, and little boulder clumps marking vast fields of prehistoric burials with superb burnished pottery. …

Continuing straight past the Sevan city turn-off, passing various hostels, one crosses the Hrazdan river and, about 2 km later, reaches a wide parking area with the road (right) leading to the Sevan peninsula.  Ignoring the red “no entry” signs and bearing right, one comes to the parking area and restaurants at the foot of the steps to Sevanavank* (once also known as Sevank, “Black Monastery”).  Here on the then island, Princess Mariam Bagratuni sponsored construction of a monastery, first post-Arab example of an important religious/architectural regional school, under the spiritual guidance of the future katholikos Mashtots.  As the 13th c. Bishop/historian Stepanos Orbelian describes it,

“In that time, the venerable Mashtots shone for his amazing virtue on the island of Sevan. … He received the order in a vision to build a church in the name of the twelve apostles and to set up a religious community there.  In his trance, he saw 12 figures walking toward him on the sea, who showed him the place for the church.  After this vision and a warning from on high, the great queen Mariam, wife of Vasak of Syunik, came to St. Mashtots and, having persuaded him, built a richly ornamented church called the Twelve Apostles, next a second called the Mother of God. She furnished them abundantly, and made them the house of God and the refuge of pious men, in the year 323/AD 874.”

The monastery fell on harder times, and there is a terrible tale that, in the mid-18th century, the monks were ashamed lest the visiting katholikos see their collection of ragged and water-damaged manuscripts, and so secretly dumped them in the lake.

In ages past, Sevan was called Lake Gokcha. Ancient routes through the region were known to Arab geographers, but according to The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade, by H.A. Manandian, they sometimes got the distances wrong. “The Arabs, being plain dwellers covered their distances more rapidly than in the more mountainous regions of the Caucuses where the distances could indeed seem much greater than they actually were. The Arabs rarely had recourse to other means of measuring distances.”

The book is available online, along with an excellent selection of other ancient works, at Robert Bedrosian’s History Workshop. Here is the page which contains a map of old roads around Lake Sevan.

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

H.A. Manandian, The Trade and Cities of Armenia in Relation to Ancient World Trade

In my novel, one chapter takes place around Lake Sevan, then named Lake Gokcha. A small group of Armenian traders are leaving Erivan Fortress, having received approval from the conquering Murad IV, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

They stopped briefly at the edge of town while the Turks asked questions. Mina heard raised voices asking about the firearms, Khatcheres responding belligerently about the Sultan’s approval, and finally they were waved on. The road rose slowly northeast all day through farmlands and small towns, and what Khatcheres said about pushing hard proved to be true. They ate as they walked, and the snow-covered peaks that were due east in the morning were almost due south as Gokcha Lake came into view.

The word came back from the front. “We stop for the night in Ordaklu!” Mina was glad to hear it. She knew she’d traveled further this day than on any day with the caravan, and the wound sent a pulsing ache through her whole body.

“What’s in Ordaklu?” she asked Vartan, trying to divert her attention from the pain.

“Not much. I’ve only been there once, when I was small. My father worked for the mint in Erivan, and was sent up here on business. He brought me, and I remember playing in the cemetery and the ruins of the fort.”

“Where is your father now?”

“He was executed by the last Ottoman governor of Erivan, just before the Persians took the fort. They accused him of helping to plan the invasion.”

“You said your sister was murdered by the Persians.”

“Yes. Interesting, isn’t it?”

“Interesting!” Mina felt outrage at Vartan’s callousness. “That’s what you call it?” A thousand other threatening words filled her mind, but the look of sorrow in Vartan’s eyes stopped her from speaking.

“That’s what happened. I’ve tried to avoid following my father’s example.” He whistled and urged his beast forward, leaving Mina to fall back into line.

The contrast of beauty and horrible sorrow struck Mina once again. The blue waters of the lake, the rich red dirt of the road, the verdant green hills, and the capes of snow and frost that flowed down from the high mountains. The road was curving back to the south, and the lake was visible view past a trio of hills that marked the border of a small valley. She knew that their way in the morning would take them forty miles in the opposite direction they’d been traveling all day.

The history around Lake Sevan is also rich, beautiful and horrible. Ethnic cleansing has featured prominently in Armenia’s past. But, as Brady Kiesling writes:

But there is another Armenia, a subtly green, richly textured landscape, every corner of which has been sculpted by millennia of human triumphs and tragedies.  There is a gifted and generous population, now mostly cut off from outside stimuli but still desperately eager to demonstrate to foreign visitors its traditional hospitality and pride at its survival.  There is nature, exotic, sometimes heart-rendingly beautiful, now mostly unvisited but far from inaccessible.  And of course there is the basic human truth, that enjoyment of a place or activity is directly dependent on the investment made.  Armenia is still difficult to explore unaided, but the rewards of doing so are commensurately great.

(Updated Feb. 10, 2013 – AGW)

Travel theme: Circles

When I was younger I traveled the world, dragged by my family from one country to another, back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. I hope to travel widely again, in this newer century. Until then, my travels occur only through the vast loops of Internet connections that lead from my computer to the far corners of the earth and back again.

But what a magnificent journey it is! Some of what I find makes its way into the pages of my new novel. Other discoveries wait, scribbled in the pages of my notebook, saved in lists of my favorite sites, deposited in magical magnetic collections of ones and zeroes.

Source: Global Integrity.

“The world’s next great natural resource race will not be the traditional mad dash to mine, extract, and commercialize oil, gas, timber, minerals, or even water. … The prize: the ones and zeros that increasingly comprise the fabric of contemporary society – your data.” Source: Global Integrity.

The idea for this post came from the site, Where’s My Backpack? Although my blog doesn’t treat the theme of travel in same way, I couldn’t resist the temptation of posting some of the magic circles I’ve found on my own adventure.

The main character of my novel is a young Hungarian girl, Mina Ferenci. Captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1626, she is taken from her home town of Mako to Istanbul to be a household slave.

Mina's journey begins in Istanbul, at 41 degrees 00'28.85" N, 28 degrees 58'26.06" E.

Mina’s journey (in yellow) begins in Istanbul, at 41 degrees 00’28.85″ N, 28 degrees 58’26.06″ E.

Viewed from above, Istanbul is filled with circles - the minarets and domes of the mosques.

Viewed from above, Istanbul is filled with circles – the minarets and domes of the mosques.

Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Sublime Porte.

Groups of men were filtering into the courtyard through the four southern gates and Mina slowed to a walk and followed them along a straight wide path lined with cypress, willows and other trees she could  not identify. From the four minarets the call to prayer began, and from within the animosity in her gut she felt the urge to laugh. This time she did not suppress it and her amusement grew as the words spread out into the courtyard and beyond.

“God is most great,” sang the voices from the minarets. “I testify there is no other God but God. I testify Muhammad is the messenger of God. Come and pray. Come and flourish. God is most great. There is no God but God.”

Mina accepted the invitation and entered the inner courtyard through the gate. The shock of beauty almost took her breath away. A plateau of perfectly smooth white marble was walled in by multicolored stone columns supporting windowed galleries. Above the galleries, arches of the same multicolored stone looked like rainbows. A line of domes finished the top of each wall and the four minarets anchored each corner of the courtyard.

You might wonder how a girl could enter the mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent. In real life, she couldn’t. In the novel … well, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. Mina does escape from slavery (of course) taking with her two maps that describe the trade routes across Anatolia to the Caspian Sea.

Maps have been enormously important throughout history, but a “map” has not always been what we understand it to be today. For instance, the Portolan Charts of the 1400’s, which appeared as Europeans started using the magnetic compass, “were made to get seafarers from home to another place and back again safely.”  Modern viewers, although we can identify certain features, would find them useless for our own travels.

1466 Portolan Chart, Petrus Roselli, Cartographer. "Features that usually appear on portolan charts include: a network of lines made within a circle, coastlines of lands, place-names, scales of distance, a compass showing cardinal directions, and indications of shoals, reefs, and islands along coastlines. Source: James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

1466 Portolan Chart, Petrus Roselli, Cartographer. “Features that usually appear on portolan charts include: a network of lines made within a circle, coastlines of lands, place-names, scales of distance, a compass showing cardinal directions, and indications of shoals, reefs, and islands along coastlines. Source: James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota.

Technology advanced, and Portolan Charts were succeeded by the modern map, with all its variations. Other inventions exploded into human consciousness, too, many of them related to astronomy and navigation. The “lead and line” — used by sailors for so long to gauge depth, speed and distance — disappeared from use. The Museo Galileo has some stunning examples of human ingenuity, like this “nautical circle.”

"Designed by Robert Dudley and made by Charles Whitwell, this large disk bears only a superficial resemblance to the astrolabe. In fact, it probably belonged to a more complex instrument described in Dudley's Arcano del mare. A ruler complete with circle also forms part of this navigation instrument." Source: Museo Galileo.

“Designed by Robert Dudley and made by Charles Whitwell, this large disk bears only a superficial resemblance to the astrolabe. In fact, it probably belonged to a more complex instrument described in Dudley’s Arcano del mare. A ruler complete with circle also forms part of this navigation instrument.” Source: Museo Galileo.

Other examples of the circle have no circular images to accompany them. With the invention of the printing press, books spread across empires and some authors sought to catalog all knowledge in a new form. As William N. West points out in Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 2002, part of the word “encyclopedia” comes in part from the Greek root word meaning “circle.”

The capaciousness of the word “encyclopedia” in the sixteenth century and its almost utopian claims for comprehensiveness, compression, and speed of access, similar in tone and content to modern ones for the World Wide Web, are in part a result of its newness; like the word “theatrum,” “encyclopedia” was a sign for which a referent had to be imagined before it could be realized. From its beginnings, the term was unstable, implying a great deal about totality and mastery but difficult to pin down or even evaluate as serious or satirical. Although composed of Greek elements — enkuklios means “general” or “everyday” and derives from the root kuklos, “circle,” while paideia means “education” or “training” — it is in fact not the product of any Greek-speaking culture, but rather of one that read Greek voraciously, early modern humanist Europe.

With the encyclopedia came the idea of a museum, the Kunstkammer, or “art cabinet.” Elites of the Early Modern era collected treasures —  just like they do today, and for all the same reasons — but the manner of organization was entirely different. The History of the Royal Danish Kunstkammer, a 2002 essay by Bente Gundestrup of the The National Museum of Denmark , tells an interesting story:

Hans Christian Andersen concludes his tale The Princess and the Pea by telling us that ‘– the pea was put into the museum, where it can still be seen, if no one has taken it!’ Anyone who has read the story will probably recognize the ending, but they will almost certainly have been unaware of the allusions to one particular museum, and to a remarkable act of theft.

The absolutist monarchs of Denmark had created a multi-museum in Copenhagen – a Kunstkammer – containing all those things, which nowadays can only be seen by visiting a whole range of different museums. The collection reflected the Universe, with naturalia created by God, and objets d’art created by Man – all arranged and displayed according to an efficient, precise system.

This was the repository for some of the treasures of the realm. Here could be found the exquisite Dagmar Cross, as well as the two famous 5th century Golden Horns – found in 1639 and 1734. It was the fate of these Golden Horns that Hans Christian Andersen was hinting at. In 1802 they were stolen from the Kunstkammer and later melted down. The theft inspired Adam Oehlenschläger that same year to write his poem Golden Horns.

Kunstkammer der Regensburger Familie Dimpfel, 1668, Ulmer Museum.

Kunstkammer der Regensburger Familie Dimpfel, 1668, Ulmer Museum. Source: Kunst- und Wunderkammern.

And here this blog entry comes full circle, because Mina Ferenci, the former Ottoman slave girl, arrives in the Baltic in the company of one Adam Olearius. Therein lies a tale, but I’ll leave you with this final circle, the Great Gottorp Globe, currently owned by the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology.

The Great Gottorp Globe is on display at our museum. One of the first planetariums in the world, it is unique in its size and construction, allowing an external globe with a map of the earth’s surface and an internal planetarium with a map of the starry sky to rotate simultaneously.

The globe was made in 1654-1664 under the supervision of A. Olearius in Gottorp, the resident of the Duke of Holstein. The planetarium globe of 3.1 meters in diameter was given to Peter the Great during the Northern War and brought to Petersburg in 1717. Initially, it was placed in a special pavilion on the Tsaristin meadow (now the Field of Mars). It is known that the Tsar frequently examined the Gottorp globe in the morning, such was the interest he took in it.

In 1717, the globe was moved to the tower of the Kunstkamera building. It was severely damaged in the fire of 1747, and its surface was destroyed. Thanks to the work of 18th-century Russian craftsmen, modern restorers, researchers and curators, visitors to the museum today can share the pride and amazement which this unique globe evoked among the people of past centuries.

The globe was made in 1654-1664 under the supervision of A. Olearius in Gottorp, the resident of the Duke of Holstein. The planetarium globe of 3.1 meters in diameter was given to Peter the Great during the Northern War and brought to Petersburg in 1717.

The globe was made in 1654-1664 under the supervision of A. Olearius in Gottorp, the resident of the Duke of Holstein. The planetarium globe of 3.1 meters in diameter was given to Peter the Great during the Northern War and brought to Petersburg in 1717.

From Istanbul to Gottorp: Maps for the Journey

“Mina stared at the rough men across the fire, felt the eight hundred miles of darkness at her back, and wished she could be a girl again. She unconsciously rubbed her calloused fingers together in a nervous rhythm. Fifty hard days ago in Ankara, Pococke’s caravan had veered south for Aleppo while her map insisted that she go east. Since the roads overflowed with soldiers aiming for Erivan Fortress, since Erivan lay between her and the Caspian Sea, and since traveling alone meant a quick death at the hands of bandits or worse, she had joined the camp followers on the road to war.”

— From Empires of Truth, Chapter Two, “Out of the Faithful Nation.”

Eight hundred miles have fallen behind her, and the journey has only just begun. In her pack, a stolen manuscript of uncertain origin might make her fortune or seal her fate. Ahead lay an uncharted path through the Caucuses to the Caspian Sea, where, if God or Allah wills it, she will be allowed to join a caravan bound for the Baltic.

It has been almost five years since I set out on my own journey of creation. Six drafts later, after countless hours of research, the story is coming to its end. Below are some of the old maps I’ve used for routes and place-names. Some of the cities along Mina’s route include Istanbul, Ankara, and Erzurum. Crossing into Armenia, under the watchful gaze of Mt. Ararat, she travels through Erivan, Berdkunk and Kot. At the eastern end of Lake Gokcha (now called Sevan) the pass of Zodsk leads her into Persia, and the city of Berdaa. Turning south, she travels to Ardebil, known today for its carpets but famous in the 1600’s for its cats. A day’s journey takes her to Astara, on the western shore of the Caspian. Northward she crosses the Volga River into Astrakhan, where sturgeon, melons and rock-salt are staples of trade. Two thousand miles to the northwest, the Neva River links to the Baltic Sea, the location of modern-day St. Petersburg. Along the Baltic coast to Reval, Riga, Stralsund, Lubeck, and finally Schloss Gottorp where the journey ends.

I hope you enjoy these maps as much as I do.

Astrakhan, Burlaks, and the Song of the Volga Boatmen

Long after the Mongol Empire died, and the Silk Road vanished along with it, the city of Astrakhan remained an important stop for merchant-travelers. Situated at the northern end of the Caspian Sea, in the vast Volga Delta, it was a crossroads of cultures. Indians, Armenians, Persians, Turks and Europeans mingled with Russians and the local Tatars.

For several hundred years, gangs of poor men and women — the burlakshauled boats from Astrakhan to Moscow and back again, up and down the Main Street of Russia: the Volga River. An old Russian song says, “Volga, thou art our mother,” but the burlaks sang a different song, first published in 1866 as “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.” The song inspired Russian artist Ilya Repin to paint Barge Haulers on the Volga  in 1870.

Astrakhan is also a stopping point for the characters in my forthcoming novel — tentatively titled Empires of Truth, Book 1 of The Antiquary Trilogy. A European mission to Persia is returning to the Baltic, and they stop in Astrakhan for six months to build boats and prepare for the voyage up the Volga.

The quartermaster, a Swede named Jens who is related to his country’s royal family, is overseeing the transfer of their caravan across the Volga and into their temporary quarters outside the walls of Astrakhan.

Clusters of buildings were scattered across the plain between the river and the city. Against the rising sun, on the tops of all the tallest buildings, Orthodox three-bar crosses raised Christ’s crucified body into the air, another reminder that the mission had arrived back in familiar, if not quite friendly, territory. Five towers on this section of wall created a sawtooth shadow on the ground, and the road from the main gate cut through rough earth to the solitary dock where a few ships were tied up. Most were anchored out in deep water, while smaller boats had been run up on the beach for teams of men to work their cargo. All had given way to ten flat-bottomed barges that rested against the far bank, the ten ropes stretched from one side of the river to the other, and the two hundred barge-haulers who were ready to bring the Persian caravan across.

“If you’re ready to begin, I’ll give the order,” the soldier said.

“Yes. We’re ready.”

The soldier shouted something to one of his men and a flag went up.

Jens thought the burlaks who manned the ropes looked exactly like Adam’s translation – from the Tatar word meaning “homeless” and the Latvian for “violent criminals.” Their faces and arms were darkened by days in the sun. Their clothes were a patchwork of soiled rags sewn together, and fragments of white skin showed where new holes had been torn. When the flag dropped, their muscled bodies strained against leather straps, and the loose-hanging ropes snapped up out of the water. He expected their faces to contort with the intense physical effort of pulling the loaded barges off the beach, but there was no change at all. The day’s work had just begun, and every man’s eyes already held an immutable look of exhaustion and despair.

The burlaks did their work expertly and without supervision, starting with the barge furthest downstream. As the Volga’s current swept one barge away from the shore, the next upstream gang of men started their haul, until all ten boats were in the water in a staggered symphony of backbreaking labor. And then the men started singing. Jens didn’t understand the words, but he heard the repeating chorus that echoed their trudging steps until all the boats were safe on the eastern shore, and he made a mental note to ask Adam about the haunting song.

The song that the burlaks sing is haunting indeed. The English translation does not do it justice, but here are the first two stanzas.

Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more
Yo, heave ho!
Yo, heave ho!
Once more, once again, still once more

Now we fell the stout birch tree,
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Ay-da, da, ay-da!
Now we pull hard: one, two, three.

You can listen to two different versions at the Wikipedia page.