Arctic sailors escaped from Cyclops
Updated: Jul 4
"The reason I'm late for class? Well, there was a strange cat in our barn this morning, and I stepped in its poop. Therefore, I first had to clean my shoes before I could go to school. That’s the reason. Really!" A similar pretext was made in AD 1040 by a bunch of Frisians who said they had sailed to the North Pole, saw world's end and escaped many great dangers. It is a story of bribe and prejudice.
Here is the English translation of this thousand year old lie recorded by magister Adam of Bremen (originally, in fact, the town of Bremen was called Bremum) in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum 'deeds of bishops of the Hamburg church' written in ca. AD 1075. Magister Adam came from the Margravate of Meissen. He was a chronicler connected to the church of Bremen. Why this context is important will become clear after reading this post.
But, also a warning before reading the text below. It is not suitable for underage because of very violent scenes. Here we go:
Archbishop Adalbert of blessed memory likewise told us that in the days of his predecessor [this is Alebrand, see below] certain noble men of Frisia spread sail to the north for the purpose of ranging through the sea, because the inhabitants claimed that by a direct course toward the north from the mouth of the Weser River one meets with no land but only that sea called the Libersee.
The partners pledged themselves under oath to look into this novel claim and, with a joyful call to the oarsmen, set out from the Frisian coast. Then, leaving on the one side Denmark, on the other Britain, they came to the Orkneys. And when they had left these islands to their left, while they had Norway on their right, the navigators landed after a long passage on icy Iceland. And as they furrowed the seas from that place toward the farthest northern pole, after they saw behind them all the islands spoken about above [namely Vinland -i.e. Newfoundland- and Greenland], they commended their way and venture to Almighty God and the holy confessor Willehad.
Of a sudden they fell into that numbing ocean’s dark mist which could hardly be penetrated with the eyes. And, behold, the current of the fluctuating ocean whirled back to its mysterious fountainhead and with most furious impetuosity drew the unhappy sailors, who in their despair now thought only of death, on to chaos; this they say is the abysmal chasm – that deep in which report has it all the back flow of the sea, which to decrease, is absorbed and in turn revomited, as the mounting fluctuation is usually described. As the partners were imploring the mercy of God to receive their souls, the backward thrust of the sea carried away some of their ships, but its forward ejection threw the rest far behind the others. Freed thus by the timely help of God from the instant peril they had had before their eyes, they seconded the flood by rowing with all their might.
No sooner had the mariners escaped the peril of darkness and the land of frost than unexpectedly came upon an island fortified like a town by very high cliffs which encircled it. When they disembarked there to explore the place, they found men lurking in underground hollows at midday. Before the entrances lay a countless number of vessels of gold and of metals of a kind considered rare and precious by mortals. When they had taken as much of the treasure as they could carry away, the happy oarsmen returned quickly to their ships. Of a sudden they saw coming behind them amazingly tall men whom our people call Cyclops. Before them ran dogs exceeding the usual size of these quadrupeds, who in their attack seized one of the comrades and in a twinkling tore him to pieces before their eyes. The rest, however, took to the ships and escaped the peril. The giants, as they said, followed them, with vociferations, almost out to the high sea.
Attended by such good fortune, the Frisians came back to Bremen (Bremum) where they told Archbishop Alebrand everything as it had happened and made offerings to the blessed Christ and His holy confessor Willehad for their safe return.
* * *
Would, nowadays, a schoolteacher believe such a story for being late for class? "Ma'am, I sailed to the Arctic and back. Saw the end of the world, escaped from a maelstrom, found a lot of valuables and precious things just laying around on a treasure island, fled from Cyclops and huge dogs, bút I made it back alive from terra incognita; rowing. That's why I'm late, ma'am." No, of course she would not. These Frisians were clearly ordinary pirates. It was a made-up story explaining to the ecclesiastical authorities all the booty they were carrying when they returned from sea.
The Pirate Code
These eleventh-century pirates sailed under oath: "the partners pledged themselves under oath". In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries pirates and buccaneers before embarking had to sign the code of the ship. It were the ship's articles how to behave, the penalties on misbehaviour and how the loot was devided; the so-called pirate codes. Besides signing the code, they had to swear an oath of allegiance too. Hence, an old pirate tradition dating to AD 1000, at least.
But Archbishop Alebrand, apparently, díd believe the story of these sea robbers. That is, he believed it after the Frisians had made offerings to Christ and Saint Willehad. This means some of the booty was given to the church (Toorn-Piebenga, 1986). Maybe Alebrand's judgement was clouded and he wanted to believe they had not been pirating. A man of a pragmatic nature.
And, the lie even grew bigger. Adam of Bremen recorded this story, which he must have heard from Alebrand, for true in his above cited Gesta hammaburgensis. What was magister Adam's motive to record such a blatant lie? Or, did he really believe the miraculous story? If the latter is the case, what does that say about the rest of his voluminous and much appreciated work? Or, were these euphemistically called 'ranging trips' still going on when magister Adam wrote down his stuff, decennia later? Were these pirates still offering a percentage of their prizes to Christ and to Saint Willehad, and was his judgement therefore clouded as well?
The above means Frisians never reached the Arctic in the High Middle Ages, at least this story does not prove it. The bright side of all this is that another Frisian sailor, Willem Barentsz from the Wadden Sea island Terschelling, still can claim to be the first Frisian to have wintered in the Arctic, i.e. at Nova Zembla in AD 1596.
Poolreis Arctic Travel
De zon zinkt nooit terneer, The sun sinks never low,
't Bestendig licht wordt steiler The stable light turns higher
En stralender, toch ijler And more radiant, though thinner
Dan in de wereld weleer. Than in the world before.
Sneeuw en ijsvelden flonkren, Snow and ice-fields sparkle,
Eindeloos hermelijn, Endless ermine,
Wij zijn de eenige donkren We are the only darks
In de witte woestijn, In the white desert,
Waar een volstrekte vrede Where a perfect peace
Besterft, alleen begaan Dies, only tread
Door honden, mannen, sleden, By dogs, men, sleds.
Smalle karavaan. Slender caravan.
Door allen vergeten By all forgotten
Die hen kenden op aarde, Who knew them on earth,
Door den drift bezeten Possessed by the drift
Naar het einde der aarde. To the end of the earth.
J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936)
Note - This region, the southern coasts of the North Sea, has a very, very old pirating tradition. It dates back to the period of the Great Wandering of People. Check out our blog post It all began with piracy to learn how a true pirate culture developed along these shores. It is a history seldomly told but it captures the imagination.
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