Mother Holle

"I am half sick of shadows," said the Lady of Shalott by John William WaterhouseMother Holle (or Frau Holle) is one of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, but it may be far more than a fairy tale.

In most of the other Brothers Grimm stories, anonymous and magical beings enter the world of the protagonist to assign heroic quests, bestow blessings, or mete out punishment.

Mother Holle is quite different, in that the magical being is named, she lives in the heavens, and the protagonist of the story must go to her by paradoxically diving into a spring. When Mother Holle shakes her featherbed, the loosed feathers fall to the earth as snow. These features suggest that the story is an origin myth for a supreme Mother Goddess with roots in the early Bronze Age.

Holle seems to be a northern version of the southern Perchta or Berchta, a goddess of spinning and weaving. She had both a light and a dark aspect, the one beautiful and shining, the other old and haggard. The name Perchta seems to derive from both beraht (Bright One) and pergan (Hidden One).

In my novel Fate’s Door, I imagine Holle as a Great Mother Goddess and the first weaver to sit at the loom of fate, weaving the lives of her children – mortal and immortal – into being.

Windswept by John William WaterhouseAfter millennia of weaving alone, she longs for company. When a wandering oread – a nymph of the mountains – climbs too high and is carried away by a cloud to Mother Holle’s cottage, she begs shelter. Mother Holle gives it, and the nymph stays for some time, recovering from her ordeal in the sky.

As she regains her health, the nymph helps the goddess with her tasks – both those of the household and those involved with her weaving. The two become friends. The nymph asks if she might make the cottage her home at the same moment when Mother Holle asks the nymph to stay forever, thus becoming a spirit or a numen of time.

This is the young Orroch, who eventually becomes the eldest norn.

In time, Mother Holle acquires another helper. When she is weary, the two young numeni play music to soother her and themselves, for the burden of crafting destiny is heavy.

Saint Cecilia by John William Waterhouse

After yet more millennia, another young nature spirit joins the family, and Orroch persuades Mother Holle to seek her freedom and leave the weaving to her helpers. Orroch promises the goddess that they will faithfully hand down the traditions of destiny to the new heirs that arise, and only then does the goddess depart.

Orroch imagines the goddess roaming the cosmos beyond even the confines of the sky, meeting strange denizens, and pursuing adventure, but no one really knows where Mother Holle has gone.

Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May by John William WaterhouseOrroch herself takes the role of weaver, while her helpers become the Pattern-maker and the Shuttle-catcher. They also seek the materials needed for the loom.

As the centuries roll by, Orroch remains steadfastly at her weaving, but newcomers take the roles of her assistants. No longer are they selected by chance. Invitations are sent to promising candidates. Orroch is content that this should be so until a certain lake nymph named Cinnisuent learns the ways of the norns. Only then does tragedy enter Orroch’s breast.

Mother Holle from the Brothers Grimm

A widow had two daughters. Her stepdaughter was beautiful and industrious, but the widow favored her birth daughter, allowing the girl to become lazy and spoiled. Thus the stepdaughter had all the work to do, becoming the Cinderella of the house.

Every day the poor girl sat by a well, next to the highway, and spun so much that her fingers bled. Now it happened that one day the spindle was completely bloody, so she dipped it in the well, to wash it off. It slipped from her hand and fell in. She ran to her stepmother weeping, and told her of the mishap. She was scolded sharply and mercilessly.

Her stepmother said, “Since you have let the spindle fall in, you must fetch it out again.”

The girl went back to the well, and did not know what to do. Terrified of more scolding, she jumped into the well to fetch the spindle. As she sank below the water, she lost her senses.

The Flower Picker by John William WaterhouseWhen she awoke and came to herself again, she stood in a beautiful meadow where the sun was shining, and there were many thousands of flowers. She cupped one in her hand to study it more closely.

Then she walked across the meadow and came to an oven full of bread. The bread called out, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.” So she stepped up to it, and with a baker’s peel took everything out, one loaf after the other and set them in a wide basket lying nearby.

After that she walked further and came to a tree laden with apples. “Shake me. Shake me. My apples are all ripe,” cried the tree. She shook the tree until the apples fell as though it were raining fruit. When none were left in the tree, she gathered them into a deep basket which lay under the tree, and then continued on her way.

Finally she came to a small cottage. An old woman peered out through the open window. She had very large teeth, which frightened the girl, who wanted to run away. But the old woman called out to her, “Don’t be afraid, dear child. Stay here with me, and if you keep my household in an orderly fashion, all will go well with you. Only you must take care to make my bed well and shake it diligently until the feathers fly, then it will snow in the world. I am Mother Holle.”

6 Boreas by John William WaterhouseBecause the old woman spoke so kindly to her, the girl took heart, agreed, and started in her service. The girl took care of everything to Mother Holle’s satisfaction and always shook her featherbed vigorously until the feathers flew about like snowflakes. Therefore she had a good life with her: no angry words, and roast meat to eat every day.

After she had been with Mother Holle for a time, she became sad. At first she did not know what was the matter with her, but at last she determined that it was homesickness. Even though she was many thousands of times better off with Mother Holle than at home, still she had a yearning to return. Finally she said to the old woman, “I have such a longing for home, and even though I am very well off here, I cannot stay longer. I must go up again to my own people.”

Mother Holle said, “I am pleased that you long for your home again, and because you have served me so faithfully, I will take you back myself.” With that she took her by the hand and led her to a large gate.

The gate was opened, and while the girl was standing under it, an immense rain of gold fell, and all the gold stuck to her, so that she was completely covered with it. “This is yours because you have been so industrious,” said Mother Holle, and at the same time she gave her back the spindle which had fallen into the well.

Then the gate was closed and the girl found herself on earth again, not far from her mother’s house. As she entered the yard the rooster, sitting on the well, cried, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, our golden girl is here anew.”

The girl went inside and, as she arrived all covered with gold, she was well received, both by her mother and her sister. The girl told all that had happened to her, and when the mother heard how she had come to the great wealth, she wanted to achieve the same fortune for her other daughter. She made the lazy girl go and sit by the well and spin. To make her spindle bloody, the girl shoved her hand into a thorn bush and pricked her fingers. Then she threw the spindle into the well, and jumped in after it.

Like the other girl, she too came to the beautiful meadow and walked along the same path. When she came to the oven, the bread cried again, “Oh, take me out. Take me out, or else I’ll burn. I’ve been thoroughly baked for a long time.”

But the lazy girl answered, “As if I would want to get all dirty,” and walked away.

Next she came to the apple tree. It cried out, “Oh, shake me. Shake me. My apples are all ripe.”

But the girl answered, “Oh yes, one could fall on my head,” and with that she walked on.

When she came to Mother Holle’s house, she was not afraid, because she had already heard about her large teeth, and she immediately began to work for her. On the first day she forced herself, was industrious, and obeyed Mother Holle, because she was thinking about all the gold that she would receive.

But on the second day she grew lazy, on the third day even more so, and then she didn’t even want to get up in the morning.

Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

She did not make the bed for Mother Holle, the way she was supposed to, and she did not shake it until the feathers flew. Mother Holle soon became tired of this and dismissed her from her duties. This was just what the lazy girl wanted. She thought that she would now get the rain of gold.

Mother Holle led her to the gate. She stood beneath it, but instead of gold, a large kettle full of pitch spilled over her. “That is the reward for your services,” said Mother Holle, and closed the gate. The lazy girl walked home, entirely covered with pitch.

As soon as the rooster on the well saw her, he cried out, “Cock-a-doodle-doo, our dirty girl is here anew.”

The pitch stuck fast to her, and did not come off as long as she lived.

The End

When I envision Mother Holle as she appears in my protagonist’s thoughts, I see a queenly woman resembling those painted by the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century.

Therefore, when I began my search for images for this post, I looked among the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. Although John William Waterhouse painted several decades after the break-up of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, his style blended theirs with that of his contemporaries, the Impressionists.

And it was amongst the Waterhouse paintings that I found images that matched those of my mind’s eye, as you can see from the selections above. While searching, I also discovered a video combining a slide show of many Waterhouse paintings with the music “Tu chiami una vita” by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, lyrics by Salvatore Quasimodo. It is so beautiful that I simply must share it with you. 😀


For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Nerine’s Room
Brocade and Drawlooms
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi

For more about Mother Holle, see:
Mother Hulda on Wikipedia
Frau Holle on Wikipedia
Perchta on Wikipedia

For more about John William Waterhouse, see:
John William Waterhouse on Wikipedia
Waterhouse Signatures on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
The Winds of Waterhouse on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood
Waterhouse’s Undine and Mermaids on the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood


Nerine’s Room

Nerine's room

When Nerine first enters her room in the 6th scene of Fate’s Door, she is desperate to find some oddment that she can add to the tapestry of destiny that will save her friend Altairos.

The well at the roots of the World Tree has just shown Altairos drowning at sea. And Nerine knows that if she can just find the right forbidden something, she can save him. Maybe.

She tries to calm herself – anxiety rarely helps one think clearly. The warmth emanating from the tile stove in the right corner on the outer wall helps, but not enough. Her errand is too fraught, too weighted with life and death.

So she’s looking at her room with far more attention than she’s given it in the last 5 years, and we look with her.

There are the built-in wardrobes on the left, with a stack of drawers and a niche between them. Could that vital something be behind those wardrobe doors or in one of the drawers?

Floorplan of Nerine's RoomAcross from the room’s door, there’s the shelf and mirror, and the two chests of drawers tucked beneath the shelf. There must be many trinkets stored in them. Maybe the saving item is amongst them.

The bed on the right with its nightstands seems less likely, as does the cushioned armchair near it. Surely the the linens in the blanket chest at the foot of the bed are too large to be incorporated into the tapestry of fate.

But Nerine considers everything. She does not have much time, and only the right thing will save her dear friend.

For extra chapters from Fate’s Door, see:
Update on Fate’s Door (Eilidh and Mount Olympus)
Nerine’s Youngest Sister (Agnippe and Mount Helicon)
The Nine Muses of Antiquity (Agnippe and the Muses)
Hera’s Handmaidens (Eilidh’s Farewell Party)

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Brocade and Drawlooms
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms



Brocade and Drawlooms

Brocade sampleBefore I learned about yunjin brocade, I’d assumed that my norns in Fate’s Door would weave upon a floor loom, something like the weaver I saw working in historic Williamsburg.

I hadn’t really thought through the process of weaving and the type of weaving necessary to the norns, creating the destiny of the world on their loom.

Floor looms can create beautiful cloth with some wonderful patterns. But the pattern has a limit to its complexity, and that pattern is repeated over and over again.

floor loom diagramThat would never work for the norns. While a larger theme or pattern might repeat through an era of history – the age of classical Greece or the time of republic Rome – the detail within that pattern would vary considerably. And when the world moved on, from ancient times to the Middle Ages, for example, the old pattern would vanish entirely, with a new one springing up.

A floor loom might have an array of heddles (which control the pattern of the weave), but once those heddles were threaded, the pattern for the fabric is unvarying.

My norns would need something more complex than a floor loom.

I read about dobby looms and jacquard looms and even modern power looms, but none of them possessed the kind of flexibility required.

Then I encountered yunjin brocade, woven in Nanjing, China for over 2,000 years. As I studied the textile samples, I saw that the patterns produced were more complex than anything I’d seen thus far.

Dragon robe of the Chinese emperor QianlongMore interesting still were examples of emperor’s robes woven by the piece on the yunjin looms and then assembled from those pieces. They were not cut from the woven silk. Rather each piece was woven to the correct shape and size, ready to be sewn to the other pieces after each came off the loom.

Even more important, the patterns in these pieces changed throughout each piece. The hem of the sleeve might have one pattern, the length of the sleeve another, and the shoulder yet another.

Essentially, an ever-changing tapestry could be created by this ancient and intricate method of weaving.

I had found the loom my norns would weave at.

But, wow, was that loom a monster!

It measured 18 feet long, 4.5 feet wide, 13 feet tall (5.6 meters long, 1.4 meters wide, and 4 meters tall). It takes at least two people to use it. The weaver sits before the loom on a bench, passing the weft threads through the long warp threads. The picker sits aloft, picking different patterns of draw strings to create the openings in the warp threads (called “sheds”) for the weaver to pass the weft threads through.

Yunjin brocade loom

Because the norns must weave a wider cloth – they have the whole world to include – a third person is needed: someone to throw the shuttle when a thread must pass the whole width of the cloth. The weaver’s arms are not long enough to both toss the shuttle at one side and catch it at the other.

But the need for three was perfect for my story. The fates – whether they be the Greek moirai or the Roman parcae or the Norse norns – are always three.

I would have my weaver, my patterner (the picker), and my shuttle-catcher.

And it was appropriate that the loom of fate – the loom that wove the births and deaths and deeds of all alive – should be a “monster.” Any device with so much power should have something monstrous about it.

The video below shows a yunjin drawloom in action, as well as explaining some of the other intricacies of the ancient craft of yunjin brocade.

I found it fascinating! (But you probably already knew that I would. 😀 )

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Cottage of the Norns
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece

For more about brocade and looms, see:
About Looms
About Brocade
About Yunjin
Saving Yunjin



Cottage of the Norns

Sketch of the cottage of the norns

My first experience of the cottage where my norns in Fate’s Door live was through the eyes of Nerine, their handmaiden.

It’s the the end of winter, when the trees are leafless and the long grasses matted and dead. The stone cottage looks bleak without the flowering vines that adorn it in spring and summer and turn flaming red in autumn.

From the outside, the cottage seems a simple two-room affair. But when you go in . . . ah!

The front space isn’t two small rooms, but one large one, made bright with quilted orange window coverings and a rag rug of blues and greens. It’s sparsely furnished. Just a round table and chairs, a corner cabinet, pegs for cloaks, and a generous armoire for storage.

Hearth fireThe fire in the hearth on the left is usually banked, because the norns spend more time weaving than relaxing.

But where was the loom? The great loom on which fate was woven?

I followed Nerine as she passed through a door in the back wall. There was the loom!

It was huge and possessed a monstrous presence. Even Nerine – accustomed to it at this point in the story – could not ignore the loom’s power as she went about gathering threads and other supplies for the day’s weaving.

wool on shelfShe rooted amongst the shelves and cabinets along the walls, always aware of the loom.

I didn’t see the rest of the cottage until later – after an uncomfortable confrontation with the norns themselves.

Shaken, Nerine walked down a hallway leading from the back wall of the weaving chamber to her room. And then I knew that her room, as well as the chambers of the norns, all lay off that hallway.

At that point, I drew a quick sketch of the floorplan to keep the arrangement of the cottage straight in my mind.

I’d always imagined that I worked out the designs of the houses and palaces in my stories before I wrote the scenes that take place in them. After all, I drew a colossal plan for the cavern palace – the Lainkath – in Troll-magic before I wrote the scenes that took place there. Or so I remembered it.

But my memory was playing me false.

Lorelin entered the the great hall of that palace first, was served a meal in its luncheon parlor, played the spinet in its music room, and was shown her bedchamber, before I realized I needed to draw a map to keep it all straight.

So my experience of the cottage of the norns is, in fact, typical.

I see the places in my stories through my characters’ eyes first. And then – when necessary – I draw maps and floorplans to make sure the rooms stay in the right places as I write subsequent scenes. 😀

I drew a tidier floorplan to show the layout of the norns’ cottage to you (below), as well as a sketch of the cottage as it appears to Nerine in the second scene of the book Fate’s Door (above).

Floorplan of the norns' cottage

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Norns of Fate’s Door
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean



The Norns of Fate’s Door

The Three Moirai by Johann Gottfried Schadow

The three Fates appeared in many of the mythologies of ancient Europe. They were often envisioned as goddesses weaving on a loom, the tapestry thus created shaping the destinies of both mortals and gods.

The Spinner by William-Adolphe BouguereauThe ancient Greeks had the three Moirai. The word moira meant portion or share or lot of booty or treasure, and over time came to refer to one’s portion or lot in life, one’s fate.

Clotho, the spinner, spun the thread of life, the animating energy that gifted mortal and immortal with awareness and existence. She was also said to be a singer, singing of the things that are, the present.

Lachesis was the allotter or the drawer of lots, and she measured the thread of life meted out to each individual with her measuring rod. The beginning mark signified birth, while the ending mark was death. When she joined her sisters in song, she sang of the things that were, the past.

Atropos was “the unturning one,” also called inexorable or inevitable. She chose the nature of each person’s death, and when that dread moment arrived, cut the thread of life with her knife. She sang of the things that would be, the future.

The ancient Romans had their own version of the Fates: the Parcae, the goddesses of destiny.

The Parcae by Alfred AgacheNona, named after the ninth month of pregnancy, spun the thread of life. Decima, also revered as the goddess of childbirth, measured the thread of life with her rod. And Morta, the “Dead One,” chose the manner of each indiviual’s death and cut the thread of life.

It’s worth noting the slightly different connotations connected to “destiny” versus “fate.” Fate implies that the events of an individual’s life are ordered, inevitable, and unavoidable. While destiny refers to the finality of events as they have worked themselves out through the passage of time.

I can’t help wondering if the Romans conceived of a little “wiggle room” being available to the individual in the form of choice, where the Greeks may have believed that their lives were entirely predestined. I don’t have the answer to that question, but the Fates I portray in Fate’s Door adhere more to the Roman ideal of destiny than the Greek one of fate.

The Norns by Johannes GehrtsGiven that my story – Fate’s Door – is set in the 4th century BC, when the Hellene culture was ascendant, why didn’t I use the Greek personifications of the Fates? Why did I chose the Norse Norns instead?

Perhaps the most honest answer is simply that the Greek Morai felt wrong for the roles in Fate’s Door, but there were a few more elements that had bearing on my creative vision.

For one, the Greek Morai are often portrayed as living in some desolate region far from the bounds of civilization. A wilderness at the foot of craggy mountains on the edge of the world. Or a dry and desert region below a looming cliff of black rock. They certainly lived nowhere near Mount Olympus.

If my Fates dwelt in the far north, as I envisioned them, then wouldn’t the mythologies of the Nordic peoples influence their manifestation?

The Hellenes might envision them as the Morai and speak of them as Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. But just as the Keltoi developed a different vision for Hermes and called him Lugh, so the northern Scandians would have their own idea of the Fates. The Norns might easily conform more closely to the Scandian ideal, even while the Greeks pursued their own vision.

My other reason for choosing the Norse Norns is more subtle, having to do with the cosmology of my story, and how I mapped the mythologies of the ancient world onto the history of that world.

I imagine the greater deities such as Zeus and Athena as arising from the cultural consciousness of the times. They possess more definition and permanence than the lesser demi-gods and nature spirits representing specific localities, such as the the Hippocrene Springs, or cultural concepts such as loyalty and honor.

Thus, while Zeus is always Zeus, the naiad of the Hippocrene Springs merely holds that role for a limited time, and passes on to another station or post when she is ready for a change.

Sea spirits (nereides), tree spirits (dryads), mountain spirits (oreads) and more animated the cosmos of the ancients.

A Naiad by John William Waterhouse

My Fates are time spirits, going back to the earliest of eras when sewing needles were invented in 19,000 BC in pre-historic France, or even earlier when thread was created from flax in 36,000 BC in Russia-to-be.

The very first weaver of destiny was a goddess, Mother Holle, working at a primitive ground loom. But as humanity acquired greater sophistication, and their world view grew more complex, Mother Holle acquired helpers – spirits of time, the Norns – and eventually abdicated her role to her helpers entirely.

As humans developed better weaving tools, the Norns benefited as well. Although the task of transferring the tapestry of the world from a ground loom to a vertical loom must have been formidable indeed.

vintage and ancient scissorsBecause my Norns are spirits of time, they have some access to both the past and the future. Some of their materials, such as pivoting scissors instead of spring scissors, come from the future, as does the complex brocade loom that they are using when Nerine arrives.

Of course, my Norns don’t conform exactly to the Norse Urthr (“fate”), Verthandi (“in the making”), and Skuld (“debt” or “future”).

Instead, I have Tynghed (derived from the Welsh “destiny”), Eowys (Anglo-Saxon “horse-wise”), and Orroch (Early English “oar”). I suspect that Urthr, Verthandi, and Skuld might have served the great loom of fate sometime after my story takes place, in the centuries when the Roman Empire dominated and the Germanic tribes – with their Norse dieties – nibbled at the Roman borders.

But like their later counterparts, my Tynghed, Eowys, and Orroch draw water from the Well of Fate, with which to water the World Tree, and they watch the visions of destiny in the Well’s dark magic.

Fate by Alphonse Mucha

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
The Baltic Sea
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean

For more about the three Fates, see:
The Moirai
The Parcae
The Norns



The Baltic Sea

Baltic Sea near KarklėThe Baltic Sea caused me all kinds of trouble in my writing of Fate’s Door.

First of all came the problem of what to call the dang thing.

I ran into this issue throughout the entire novel. The names from antiquity that get quoted everywhere are the ancient Roman names. There was the Mare Nostrum (Mediterranean) and the trireme (Greek trieres) and Karthago versus Karkhedon.

In some cases, I simply went with modern usage. Carthage. Why be unnecessarily obscure?

But Fate’s Door is set during the Hellenistic era when the ancient Greek world view dominated the Mediterranean. I found I often wanted the Hellene name for a thing. I usually had to dig for it. Lapadoússa, Európi, the Hyrcanian Sea, and so on.

But no matter how much digging I did, I could not find the Hellene name for the Baltic, if there even was one.

Reading about the etymology of “Baltic,” I could see that some version of “balt-” went back through many, many centuries. There was belt, used for two of the Danish Straits (The Belts). A legendary island (in the Baltic?) was named by Pliny (1st century AD) as Baltia. Pytheas (4th century BC – the time of Fate’s Door) named an island Basilia.

Odin's last words to BaldrOther scholars insist that the name originates from the Indo-European root bhel meaning “white” or “fair.” A few Swedish historians believe it derives from the god Balder of Norse mythology.

But I noticed that the etymology of Balder possesses as confused a history as does Baltic. Baldr, baldor, baltas, balths.

I read up on the religious beliefs of the ancient Scandinavian peoples.

They seem to have venerated a sun mother, a spear god, a sword god, and an axe god, who later became Ullin (Mother Holle), Othinn (Odin), Ingr (Freyr), and Thunrar (Thor). Who is to say that there might not have been a forerunner of Balder as well?

Nerine's voyage on the Baltic SeaI decided to go with Balder’s Sea.

But naming this northerly body of water was only the beginning of my tussle with the Baltic.

I’d estimated that my protagonist Nerine departed Mount Olympus around June 7. Her journey across Europe was roughly 1300 miles, which meant that it would take her 87 days. That is, she would arrive on the southern shore of the Baltic on September 2. Was that too late for her final push north?

When did the sun rise and set in Gdansk in September? What about Kemi in Finland? When did the Baltic Sea ice over?

Baltic Sea, March 2000, NASAWhy didn’t I ask these questions earlier? Aack!

Fortunately, my belated research gave me answers that meant I didn’t have to change the dates for Nerine’s departure.

In Gdansk, the sun rises at 5:54 AM on September 2 and sets at 7:35 PM. That’s 13.5 hours of daylight, plenty of time for travelling.

One more question bore on the answers to those above. Just how was Nerine getting from the southern shore to the northern one?

It’s clear that the people of ancient Scandinavia had already mastered boat building. The Gutones (the ancient Goths) in what would eventually become Poland came from either the island of Gotland or from Sweden by boat. All the coastal settlements traded extensively, and that trade arrived by sea. The mountainous terrain of Scandinavia made travel by land very difficult and chancy.

Badekunda stone shipThe cultural emphasis of the ancient Scandinavians on ships is reflected in a preoccupation with sea vessels. Stones outlining the shape of a ship surrounded the old burial mounds, symbolic ships to carry the dead into the afterlife. Their religious images depict the sun mother helped into the morning ship by a magical fish, carried past noon by a powerful sun horse and delivered to the evening ship, where a serpent helps the sun settle.

So Nerine would be going north by boat. But what type of a boat?

The earliest archaeological evidence we have for the vessels of ancient Scandinavia are the ships of Nydam Mose. The site was a sacred lake in the Iron Age, but became a peat bog, an excellent environment for preserving ship timbers. Archaeological digs unearthed three ships there, the largest and oldest made of oak.


The oak ship has been dated to 310 or 320 AD, a good 600 years later than the time of Fate’s Door. But I suspected that this ship could provide clues about the earlier boats.

For one thing, it did not have a sail, but was propelled by 30 oarsmen. That seemed particularly significant, since the later Viking ships did have sails, and its contemporaneous ships of the Mediterranean also possessed sails.

clinker versus carvelThe Nydam Mose ship was clinker built. That is, the planks of the hull overlapped and were riveted together with woolen cloth to seal the seam. It would have been a significant innovation, if the Bronze Age vessels shared that design. Clinker ships are lighter and they can bend and flex, meaning that they withstand the battering of a storm-driven sea intact.

Interesting as I find these details, they weren’t directly pertinent to my story. How fast did the ship move, and how long would it take to row one from Gdansk, Poland to Kemi, Finland?

The oak ship of Nydam Mose was 75 feet long (23 meters) and 13 feet wide (4 meters). It was very close in size to the later Viking ships. And we know how fast the Viking ships were, both under sail and under oar. I would use the oar-driven speed for Nerine’s ship, the Saiwsgaitsa: between 5 and 6 knots (5.75 mph – 6.9 mph).

Nydam Mose ship, interior view

The Viking ships routinely travelled 75 miles per day, favorable winds or no.

At 6 mph, the Saiwsgaitsa would require 12.5 hours to go that far.

I couldn’t imagine the Gutonic oarsmen lingering in camp on shore. They were tough and phlegmatic. They’d be up before the dawn and on the water the moment the sky was light enough to see. And they’d make camp in the evening with just enough daylight remaining to permit the pegging of tents and the gathering of firewood. 12.5 hours was enough.

With 1100 miles to row, the sea journey would take 2 weeks. They’d make the northern shore by September 17.

On September 17, the sun rises in Kemi at 6:47 AM and sets at 7:44 PM. That’s just under 13 hours of daylight. The seafarers would be making a quick turnaround! They needed to get back south before the days grew too short.

The frozen Baltic SeaAnd before ice choked the water.

Ice begins to form in the northernmost reaches of the Baltic in mid-November. By late February, the entire northern half of the sea is frozen, with the peak of the ice falling in March. The thaw begins in April. By June, all of the ice has melted.

Just as experimental archaeologists made reconstructions of ancient Hellene merchant ships and ancient triremes, so did they create a reconstruction of the oak Nydam Mose ship. I wasn’t able to find a cool video of their venture, but in the course of my research on the ancient North, I discovered a wonderful video about Bronze Age Scandinavia.

At the time of Fate’s Door, the Bronze Age has just turned to the early Iron Age, but the dividing line between one era and the next is often much sharper in the history books than it is in the experience of the people who live through the change. I suspect that many facets of Bronze Age Scandinavia persisted into the first century of the Iron Age.

So take a look at these vignettes from the lands around the ancient Baltic Sea.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Ancient Goths
Lugh and the Lunasad
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms

For more about the ships of Nydam Mose, see:
Nydam Mose on Flickr
Nydam Mose on Wikipedia
The Nydam Ships on NAVIS
The Nordic Bronze Age



The Ancient Goths

When Nerine, the sea nymph protagonist of Fate’s Door, traveled across Europe in the 4th century BC, I needed to know who she would encounter on her journey.

The first part of her route along the Vardar through Macedonia (Paionía) was fairly simple. (The river was called the Bardarios then.) The Paíones living there had adopted the customs of their Hellene neighbors. Their architecture and dress were similar. They were said by the people of the time to be tougher and more hard-working than the southerners, that quality being the main difference between them.

The Keltoi of central Europe required more research, but there is a lot of information about these proto-Celts.

After Nerine crossed the Carpathian Mountains, she entered the lands of the Gutones. The information on the Gutones is much scarcer than I would have preferred.

Scandian Stone Circle

The Gutones lived in Poland along the Vistula River (the Istula, according to the ancient Greeks) and on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Early historians spoke of them as migrating south from Scandia (Sweden).

There are three potential spots discussed by more modern historians as origination points.

Götaland, or Gothland, a southeastern region of Sweden, provides a likely homeland for the ancient Goths. Equally possible are the lands along the river called Göta älv (the River of the Geats). And then there is the island named Gotland.

There seems to be no definitive answer, but what is certain is that these Scandinavian tribes arrived in Poland sometime before 750 BC and slowly spread southward and eastward, eventually arriving on the shores of the Black Sea.

Map  of Gothic Expansion

Jordanes, a historian of ancient Rome in the 6th century AD, wrote a comprehensive account of the Goths. He possessed Gothic ancestry and was eager to show that Goths came of a past as glorious as that of the Romans, so one must assume that some of his narrative is fictional. And in any case, his description of Gothic culture concerns the Goths of his time, rather than the Gutones of Nerine’s time, some thousand years earlier.

Today’s historians think that the Goths (or Gutes or Geats or Gutones – the ancients had many variants) did not come south and overwhelm the existing peoples living in northern Poland, but simply settled there peaceably, slowly assimilating their culture, as well as influencing it.

As the map above shows, by 334 BC (the year of Nerine’s journey), the Gutones had expanded their reach from the shore of the Baltic Sea along the Vistula River. I chose the island Gotland as their original homeland, and then started researching the Przeworsk culture of the people with whom the Gutones mingled.

Gutones settlement(The ancient Greeks used the term Gutones for the Goths, and thus I chose their term, rather than any of the other many variants.)

The Przeworsk peoples, and thus – likely – the Gutones as well, lived in small, unprotected villages of just a few houses and with a population of only a few dozen. They knew the technology for digging and building wells, so they did not have to live near water, but the Vistula River would have served as a natural conduit for trade.

Their houses were fashioned from logs and were usually set partially below ground level.

GutonesThe one photograph I could find – of a museum display – showed the people wearing more solid-colored clothing than the Keltoi, although the lady of the pair sports a skirt of “window-pane” plaid, while the gent possesses a more complex variant on the same pattern on his mantle.

I did find mention of colorful straps created by tablet weaving which were used to make straps and belts, and to edge garments. I also discovered that archeological evidence indicated that nearly every individual among the Gutones carried a comb in a pouch on his or her person and used it frequently to keep his or her long hair – worn loose or with the front locks pulled back in a bun – tangle free.

Taking all this and swirling it in my imagination, I came up with a peaceable people with a calm and disciplined character, practical and much less fiery than the Keltoi living south of the Carpathians.

Stone Circle in PolandThe people of the Przeworsk culture followed a tradition of erecting circles of standing stones, and these were used to conduct general assemblies in which decisions affecting the whole village or several villages were made.

The northerners from Scandia evidently possessed this tradition as well. They also shared the practice of erecting lone standing stones or menhirs.

Standing Stone in the Czech RepublicBut the purpose such stones served is much debated. Were they used in rites of sacrifice? Were they territorial markers? Were they elements of a complex ideology? Did they mark graves? Did they commemorate great heroes?

The later seems to have been part of the Scandinavian tradition. But I could find no definitive answer for the standing stones of Poland, merely that they form a remarkable part of the landscape.

One tradition the Gutones brought with them from the north was the burial mound. The Przeworsk culture before them cremated their dead, placed the ashes in an urn, and then buried the urn in a cemetary. The Gutones also favored cremation – although their funerary rites were not uniform – but they placed jewelry, glassware, pottery, fibulae, and their characteristic bone combs within the mound erected over the ashes of the dead.

Sulm valley tumulusSometimes a standing stone was placed atop the burial mound; sometimes a ring of them encircled it. When Nerine descends from the Carpathians, her first encounter with the culture of the Gutones is the sight of a burial mound in the forested foothills. Although, the season is autumn for Nerine, and the leaves of the beech trees, golden.

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Crossing the Danube
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie



Lugh and the Lunasad

Mercury by Hendrick Goltzius, 300 pixelsLugh or Lú was a Celtic god with a long pedigree. He was part of Irish mythology in pre-Christian Ireland, that is, the centuries before 400 AD.

But the Celts arrived in Ireland around 275 BC, bringing their culture and their religious beliefs with them, including Lugh.

The god’s name gives some indication of his journey through time.

The Celts in Gaul and Iberia called him Lugus. The syllable “lo” in Apollo may indicate some connection between Lugh and Apollo, especially because the Indo-European root word of leuk means “flashing light,” and Lugh is believed to derive from leuk.

Yet the meaning “flashing light” seems more likely to refer to lightning than the sun. Indeed, the Breton luc’h and the Cornish lughes both mean “lightning-flash.” (Lugh may have been a predecessor to the Norse god Thor.)

Of even more interest to me was the well-established fact that the Gaulish Lugus was considered by the ancient Romans to be the Gauls’ version of Mercury. Mercury was the patron god of commerce, contracts, eloquence, messages, travelers, and trade.

While the Gaulish Lugus was a master of all arts and oversaw journeys and business transactions.

Vercingetorix  throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar

These mentions of Lugus and Mercury occurred during the time of Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, roughly 280 years after the events in Fate’s Door. The thing is, while the ancient Greeks of the 4th century BC make mention of the Keltoi, they do not describe the Keltic religious beliefs. I was going to have to do some extrapolating.

My first decision: Lugh’s name. The western Celts in later periods seemed to move toward the ending sound of “g” as is given or “ch” as in chosen. How might the pronunciation of earlier Keltoi who moved east to settle have changed? Did they stay with the “k” sound from from leuk?

Lugus altar stoneSince I really had no true indication – I’d have to guess – I decided to stick with the name used in pre-Christian Ireland, Lugh, rhyming with Hugh. Perhaps we moderns might have spelled the name of my 4th century BC Keltic god as Leu. But I decided to keep it simple. So, Lugh.

There are many stories about Lugh in Irish mythology, but the one that caught my attention concerned Lugh and his foster mother Tailtiu. Tailtiu was the goddess who cleared the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

What if this were a very old story that traveled with the Celts as they left central Europe and was modified to relate to their new surroundings? I could imagine the myth as originating in the lands along the Danube river, where Lugh’s foster mother cleared the plains of what is now Hungary and Romania for agriculture.

Like the Hellenes who created lesser gods associated with local springs and valleys (in addition to their supreme Olympians), so did the Keltoi revere local features. And the most dominant nature goddess would have been Danu, the spirit of the mighty Danube river.

Therefore I mapped the story of the Irish Lugh onto the territories of the Keltoi.

In the 4th century BC of Fate’s Door, Lugh was fostered by Danu. Like the Irish Tailtiu, Danu was exhausted by her labor and unable to fight off the demons of blight and famine. Her son Lugh fought in her stead to preserve his mother’s legacy, but he was overcome and imprisoned. Yet just as the stalk of grain is cut down and springs renewed from the earth after its seed is planted, so does Lugh prevail. He rises to new strength after his capture, defeating the demons, and then presiding as sovereign over the agricultural cycle of fertility.

The Irish Celts celebrated Lugh in a festival that marked the beginning of the harvest season, around the beginning of August. This was the Lunasad, which included visits to nearby holy sites, athletic contests, dance, feasting, trading, and a ritual play enacting Lugh’s fight against the demons of blight and famine.

Hermes LogiosI decided that my Keltoi would celebrate a similar festival. As it happened that Nerine – the heroine of Fate’s Door – would arrive at the stronghold of the Keltic High King in early August, she would naturally participate in that festival. The dancing, the feasting, and the High King’s courtesy to her would delight Nerine, but one of the religious rites would disturb her deeply and propel her further along her inner journey.

Early in my research on the Keltoi, I learned of the connection between Lugus and Mercury and decided that a similar connection existed between Lugh and Hermes. Hermes, as the patron of orators, poets, athletes, invention, travellers and trade, would possess a similar affinity to Lugh. It also worked beautifully with my choice for Nerine to travel across Europe under the protection of an elite cohort of Hermes’ warriors.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean



Crossing the Danube

In the 4th century BC, a well-established trade route led from the Aegean Sea across Europe to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. It was called the Amber Road, because amber washed up on the beaches of the Baltic was brought south along it to the Mediterranean civilizations, where that substance was greatly prized.

Baltic amber with fossil inclusions

The route was not a nicely paved continuous road, of course. Rather it was an established route through the terrain that avoided difficult mountains and hostile peoples, and likely included arrangements with friendly tribes for the purchase of shelter, food for the traders, and fodder for the horses.

One route postulated for the Amber Road connects Italy to the Baltic, but it probably came into use during the dominance of the ancient Romans. My story, Fate’s Door, takes places when the Hellenes were more influential, as well as ancient Persia and other city-states in the eastern Mediterranean.

Map of Europe and the Amber RoadAdditionally, there were established trade routes north from the Aegean following the Vardar River and then the Great Morava River to the Danube.

From the Danube, the River Tisza leads up to the Carpathian Mountains, a relatively gentle, non-alpine series of ridges. The Vistula River flows from the Carpathians to the Baltic, providing a simple last leg of the journey north.

This is the route I envision my heroine Nerine following when she travels with her escort of guards across Europe.

Not all the rivers or all portions of the rivers are navigable by boat, so I have the group riding along roads and paths beside the rivers. Indeed, the Keltoi living in central Europe at the time were famous for their network of roads and the trade that passed along them.

Because the route follows the Vardar from its mouth to its source, and the Great Morava from its source to its mouth, I reasoned that Nerine and her guard would find places near the sources of these streams where the water was relatively shallow and safe to ford. The same could be said of the Tisza and the Vistula.

This was an important point, because the ancient Hellenes focused more on travel by sea than travel by land, and were not the great bridge and aqueduct builders that the ancient Romans were.

The Danube River gave me serious pause. Clearly, since amber was regularly traded during this time (and before), the ancient traders possessed a way to cross the Danube. But there would be no fording it or wading it. How would they get themselves, their supplies, and their trade goods to the other bank?

Danube River in Ritopek, Serbia

Nerine comments that the Danube must more than 4 stadia wide when she first sees it. That is, more than half a mile, or close to a kilometer, from bank to bank.

I researched river boats in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, and discovered that the peoples of central Europe had them and made extensive use of them for both fishing and river trade.

But what were these boats like? Could they have carried the horses of traders (or those of Nerine and her escort) across the Danube?

Luckily for me, a group of experimental archaeologists decided to construct a “sewn-plank” boat from the Bronze Age. It was a sea-going vessel, but seemed a reasonable proto-type for the boats the Keltoi may have plied on the Danube and the navigable reaches of the Great Morava and other rivers, for trade and for hunting the vast sturgeon that swam those waters on the cusp between pre-history and history.

Bronze Age Morgawr

Their boats were no mere hollowed-out tree trunks, but skillfully constructed vessels using thick planks, an intricate system of cleats and slots to fit the timbers together, and “ropes” of yew withies, passed through holes in the wood and knotted to bind the planks together.

Moss was used to fill the seams between the planks, and beeswax to seal the yew withy “stitches.” The video below shows how these stitches were made.

The experimental archaeologists were successful in their project, and they used authentic tools and methods in their building of the Morgawr. The news coverage of the boat’s launch calls it a shaky maiden voyage, but I believe they were taking some journalist license to gain an attention-catching headline. The Morgawr was expected to ship water until the timbers swelled and shut the inevitable leaks.

These sewn-plank boats were large, roughly 50 feet long (16 meters) and 8 feet wide (2.5 meters).

But, but, but!

Their method of construction meant that the bottom was chock full of blocky cleats. As I stared at the photo, I couldn’t imagine a horse stepping into the vessel easily and then standing there patiently on the uneven footing, while the boat swayed and moved on the water.

Nerine, her guards, and their material goods could cross the river in these boats. I would have to find another way for the horses. Could they swim?

The first thing that came to mind were the ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia in the United States. The ponies are tough and semi-wild. And every year in the summer, they are rounded up to swim across the sea channel between Assateague Island and Chincoteague Island.

How wide was this channel? And how long did it take the ponies to swim it?

That information was readily found. The channel is roughly half a mile across and it takes about 4 minutes for a pony to swim it.

The mounts of the ancient Greeks were small and tough, like the Chincoteague ponies, closer to the primitive horse than the highly bred horses of our modern era. They had black manes, tails, and legs. Their body color was golden brown with a black stripe along the back from the neck to the tail.

It seemed clear that just as the Chincoteague ponies could swim the Assateague Channel, so the horses of Nerine’s cohort could swim the Danube.

Equus ferus caballus pony

I had found the way for Nerine, the Poniró Peltastés (Nerine’s escort guards), their supplies, and their mounts to cross the Danube.

But the Danube is a mighty river with the powerful current that a large roil of water produces. Adventure awaits those who dare its dynamic flow! 😀

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People

For more about sewn-plank boats, see:
Noth Ferriby’s Bronze Age Boats
The Ferriby Boats
The Morgawr

For more about the primitive horse, see:
The Polish Primitive Horse
The Mongolian Wild Horse

For more about the Chincoteague ponies, see:
The Chincoteague Pony
Assateague Island National Seashore
Chincoteague Island Pony Swim



The Keltoi of Európi was very late to this party.

For decades I thought of Celtic culture as located in the British Isles. You might tour Scotland to see sites and artifacts of the Picts and the Gaels, or Ireland to hear Celtic music, or Wales to visit Celtic burial mounds.

I remember I was confused when I saw that the album notes in Loreena McKennit’s The Book of Secrets referred to her exploration of Celtic music in Spain and Morocco. “There were Celts in Spain?!” I thought. “That makes no sense!”

Yes, I was clueless. I did enlarge my idea of where Celtic culture might be found on the globe.

But it was not until my heroine in Fate’s Door was due to travel across Európi that I adjusted my skewed view to mesh with reality. Why I didn’t remember that the ancient Greeks referred to the tribes north of the Hellenic penninsula as Keltoi, I’ll never know.

No, that’s not true. I have a terrible memory. Of course I didn’t remember a detail like that.

The moment Nerine set off from the Isles of Pelagie (the three islands in the Mediterranean between Italy and Tunisian), I started researching. First the geography around Mount Olympus, because she would come to land there, and then the Keltoi living in lands both north and south of the Danube.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the origin of the Celtic peoples was in central Europe in the 8th century BC. I studied various maps showing the spread of their cultural ideas, expanding slowly from what is now Austria, to encompass France and Hungary, and – eventually – Persia, Spain, and then the British Isles.

Celts in Europe

Once Nerine reached the Great Morava River (the Moirios), she would be traveling through the lands of the Keltoi, the Keltic tribes. And she would not leave the Keltoi until she crossed the Carpathian Mountains.

(I use the word Celtic when referring to modern day Celts, but Keltic when referring to the ancient Keltoi.)

So what about these Keltoi of Európi? What were they like? There’s a fair amount of archeological evidence from which to draw knowledge.

Celtic_Gold-plated_Disc,_Auvers-sur-Oise,_Val-d'OiseThey possessed the fiery temperament one associates with the Celts, liking a good fight, and some portion of them were red-headed. More were blond. They wore plaid cloaks and golden torcs. They used spiraling patterns or decoration on their jewelry, weapons, home furnishings, and grave goods. In fact, they were recognizably Celtic, even to my modern eye.

The ancient Greeks viewed the Keltoi as barbarians, yet their cultural mores were not barbaric, but rather remarkably civilized. They possessed a monetary system, they maintained extensive trade routes through their territories and traded tin, lead, iron, silver, and gold for amber from the north, silk from the east, and copper from the Aegean. Women’s roles were less circumscribed than for their counterparts in Hellenic society, some of them pursuing warrior’s training, a few even holding power as kings.

Pliny credited the Keltoi with the invention of soap, saying that they cleansed themselves regularly and often – but with soap and water rather than oil and strigil.

golden torcThey were sophisticated enough to have evolved differentiated social classes: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual stratum including druids, poets, and jurists; and everyone else.

Of course, what primarily interested me were the elements that my heroine Nerine would notice. What did their houses look like? What clothes did they wear? What hospitality would they offer guests?

I discovered that one of their gods, Lugh, was equated with the Hellenic Hermes, the god of trade, roads, and travelers, among other things. Since Nerine was traveling under the protection of Hermes, this seemed an excellent motive for friendly relations between her party and the Keltic leaders, especially since the Keltoi engaged in trade so thoroughly.

Thorsberg costumeThe Keltoi wore clothing woven of wool and linen and, sometimes, among the wealthy, silk. The weave of the fabric was often very fine and even. Men wore tunics and trews, the trews sometimes footed, to cover the feet as socks might. These inner garments might be either solid or plaid, but the cloak worn over them generally was plaid. In especially bitter weather, another cloak of sheepskin went atop the wool cloak.

Nerine’s travel garments were modeled after those recovered from the Thorsberg moor, fine garments deposited as votive offerings, but likely of the quality worn by kings. The Thorsberg tunic and trews were solid cream, while I made Nerine’s a soft plaid of white and cream. The Thorsberg cloak was woven in blues, Nerine’s in greens.

0877_Keltische_Frau_im_3._Jh._v._ChrKeltic women wore dresses or a tunic and skirt, often with a plaid scarf pinned by a brooch. Like the men, they donned a light wool cloak in summer, a heavier one together with sheepskin in winter. Both men and women wore belts, leather for ordinary folk, braided gold or silver for the nobility. Boots were rare, but carefully fashioned leather shoes, common. Women wore trews when they rode horses.

I found two reconstructions of Keltic dwellings. The one – in Havranok, Slovakia – features log walls and roofs seemingly formed of stacked twig bundles. I took this style for my Keltoi living in the lands south of the Danube along the Great Morava.


The other style – from a reconstruction in Altburg, Germany – showed half-timbered walls, with panels of plastered wattle-and-daub, and thatched roofs. I took these buildings as models for the Keltoi villages north of the Danube along the Tisza River.

Bund-ro-altburg-BAll of the Keltic settlements were clustered around the hill fort of their chieftain or king.

The Keltoi as a people venerated hundreds of gods and goddesses, because their gods tended to be local: the deity of a particular lake or spring or grove. River goddesses were particularly popular, and thus the goddess of the Danube would have been honored by many tribes. Certain skills – such as smithing, the use of weapons, and the gift for bardic poetry – were also believed to possess an animating divinity, giving rise to gods such as Lugh, reputed to be many-skilled.

Nerine arrives at the settlement of the Keltic high king on the day of Lugh’s festival and participates in the celebration, much of which enchants her, although its conclusion disturbs and disgusts her.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece