Tag Archives: educational

How History Channel’s ‘Vikings’ Compares To Reality

Spoiler alert: the below contains spoilers through the third season of Vikings.

Over the past three years, Vikings has gotten better and better every year. Its story lines are consistently good, but it’s grown in scale from a Viking villagers attacking an English monastery, to a Viking king laying siege to Paris. And the show tries to be historically accurate: as a PopSugar interview with an expert tells us, the costumes, hair styles and characters all fit within the Viking culture, even if some of it is the stuff of legends. The series even has a lot of dialogue in authentic languages of the time: Old Norse, Old English, Old French, none of which sound anything like their modern counterparts.

vikings explanation

But how about the timeline and the characters? How do they compare to real history? The article gets the crux of it:

the show is both radically compressing and extending eras

The first raid portrayed in the series, in the second episode of the first season, is the infamous first Viking raid ever recorded, in 793 A.D., at the monastery on the East English isle of Lindisfarne. (The sunstone they used to navigate is thought to be real, too.) The attack was as shocking, if not more so, than the show makes it seem. To the British, the Vikings were demons.

Lindisfarne was located in what at the time was the Kingdom of Northumbria, and in the next episode, we meet its king, Ælla. Here is the first glimpse of the mangling of the timeline: in history, Ælla dies in 867. He looks to be in his 40s in the series, but let’s say life was hard back then and he was 25: that would mean he lived to be 100. However, Ælla does play a prominent role in Norse legend, particularly in one of the Norse sagas about Ragnar Lodbrok, The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons (possible future spoilers) and it makes sense that they included him in the show.

We’ll get back to Ragnar himself — as well as the rest of the Vikings — a little later but first, let’s look at the events of the second season because here, the series jumps forward four years and expands in scope quite a bit. In the second episode, the Vikings, now accompanied by King Horik, land in Wessex and we meet King Egbert. The historical Egbert lived from 770-something to 839.


If we count from the known raid of Lindisfarne, the series would be in 797-798, which would put Egbert in his late 20s, when he was in exile. However, he looks like he’s in his 40s, with his grown son, another historical figure named Æthelwulf, being in his late 20s. In the seventh episode, Egbert and Ælla, whose kingdoms are separated by Mercia, propose an alliance against the Vikings and Mercians, and seal it by wedding their children, Æthelwulf and Judith. It is believed that the real Ælla did have a daughter, but she was named Æthelthryth. However, the real Æthelwulf was indeed married to a Judith in order to form an alliance, but she was Judith of Flanders, and the alliance was with West Francia.

In the eighth episode, we meet a Princess Kwenthrith of Mercia, who seems to want to be either Queen Cynethryth or Princess Cwenthryth. If we have to pick one, it’s probably the former, who lived in late 700s, and was actually queen. However, neither of these women fought a civil war or ruled alone, as Kwenthrith in the series did, and so she seems to be largely fictional. The real Egbert did defeat Mercia though, in the late 820s, and was briefly the 8th and penultimate bretwalda, or ruler of all Britain. His grandson, Alfred the Great, was the last bretwalda. Incidentally, in the series Alfred is the name that Egbert gives to Aethelstan’s bastard child with Judith.

So, based on Egbert’s age and the events, the story seems to not take place as much in the late 790s as the 820s. (Egbert’s son, Æthelwulf, is first mentioned in history in 825 as heading a large army, so he had to be at least in his 20s by then, which matches up with the TV character.) If we leave Ælla and Kwenthrith out, and pretend the attack on Lindisfarne wasn’t the famous one in 793, we can almost say the series takes place in the 820s.


Almost, because the events of the third season would disagree. Noting that there’s no jump in time like the four year one in the previous season, Kwenthrith’s uncle, Beorhtwulf, dies in the battle in the first episode, and she poisons her brother, Burgred, in the fourth one. In reality, both of them were kings of Mercia for decent amounts of time: the former from 840 to 852 and the latter from 852 to 874. This not only really upsets the correspondence with the series, but also puts the story even later, in the mid 800s. The invasion of Paris introduces even more confusion.

First, we meet Count Odo, who in reality, fairly successfully defended Paris from the Viking siege of 885-886. However, all other signs indicate that the siege portrayed is the one from 845, because it:

  • was the first Viking siege of Paris, and this seemed to also be the case in the series
  • was led by Ragnar
  • better matches the battle tactics used
  • occurred during the reign of the Frankish emperor Charles the Bald, who was the grandson of Charlemagne, as mentioned in the series
    • Charles the Fat ruled during the 885-886 siege, and he was great-grandson of Charlemagne
    • Charles the Bald was named so ironically, because he had lots of hair, just like in the series
    • Charles the Bald had a daughter, as in the series, while Charles the Fat did not
  • ended with a raid inside the city and the payment of 5670 lb of gold and silver, as shown in the series

So it’s pretty clear that aside from Odo’s presence, who was not yet born then, the siege depicted is the one in 845. In the season three finale, Ragnar pretends to convert to Christianity and then die, uses his coffin as a Trojan horse to get into the city, fights his way to the gates, and lets his army in. In reality, they didn’t need to do that to get into the city, and that story is actually attributed to Ragnar’s son, Björn Ironside, who did the same thing to get into what he thought was Rome, but was actually Luna.


Finally, Charles the Bald marries his daughter Gisla to Rollo, in order to secure an alliance with the Vikings. This is interesting for two reasons:

  • Remember Judith of Flanders, who married Æthelwulf? She was Charles the Bald’s daughter. It’s strange that in the series, they named his wife Judith and made it a diplomatic marriage, but with the wrong kingdom
  • Charles the Bald did not have a daughter named Gisla but his grandson, Charles the Simple, is believed to have had one named Gisela, whom he did give to Rollo — in 911

Which brings us to the Vikings themselves and some history, which may or may not turn out to be spoilers of later seasons of the show:

  • The actual Rollo lived from about 850 to 930, and apparently had nothing to do with Ragnar. He and his army eventually settled in Normandy — which took its name from the Normans, meaning North men
    • Incidentally, Rollo is the great-great-great-grandfather of William the Conqueror, and thus an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II and many other European monarchs.
  • King Horik ruled the Danes from 827 to 854
  • It’s not known which historical figure Ragnar was, if he even existed, but legend has it that the Great Heathen Army, which conquered much of England starting in 865, was led by his sons and constituted to avenge his death


If that’s true, that would mean Ragnar was born in the early 800s, and could’ve laid the 845 siege to Paris. But there’s no way much else in the timeline makes sense:

  • King Horik died 9 years after the siege of Paris in real life, but before it in the series
  • The historical King Egbert died in 6 years before the siege, but he’s still alive in the series
  • Rollo was born 5 years after the siege, Odo 7
  • The situation with the Mercian monarchy in no way represents reality

However, we do get a sense that even though people and events have been shifted both backwards and forwards through time, the story does take place in the mid-early 800s. The two firm historical dates we have are the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 and the siege of Paris in 845. Given they both can’t be true, and based on the other events in the series, fixing it to the latter seems more “correct”.

So in that case, Lindisfarne has been pushed forward in time almost 40 years; Egbert and Æthelwulf about 10 years; Ælla and Ragnar are about where they should be; Horik has been pulled back 10 years, and Rollo and Odo about 40; Gisela, almost 70.

Which is actually not a bad way to do the series: it takes about a century from the height of the Viking Age, compresses it down to a few years, and tells the most interesting stories, with compelling characters that shared a history, even if they weren’t actually contemporaries. Portraying that much history in one series would be very hard without a device like this. And actually, our historical sources from back then are so shaky, that who knows if what we think we know actually happened that way.

See also:

Evaporated Cane Juice Is Actually Just Sugar

This is a sugar cane. Looks tasty, right? If only we stuck to eating things that look good before processing...

That term, ‘evaporated cane juice’, is everywhere now — because it sounds more natural. But it turns out evaporating cane juice is simply how sugar is made: you get the juice out of some cane, dry it out (meaning, evaporate it), then separate the molasses from the crystals and voila: white sugar. The only difference with evaporated cane juice is that the molasses aren’t fully separated out — so all the evil sugar is still in there, plus some brown goo. And no, molasses are not good for you.

In fact, juicing anything is not good for you: it’s like extracting the crack from a cocaine plant. An apple, orange or what have you contains a lot of fiber, so when you eat it you get its fructose — which has a lot of energy but is not great for you — but all the fiber will keep you from eating too much of it. (The fiber will also do wonders for your digestive system.)  But when you juice fruit, all you’re doing is getting rid of the great fiber and concentrating the high-calorie part of the plant into a liquid. So stop processing perfectly good plants:  just eat the much healthier unjuiced fruit.

But back to the main point: sugar, high fructose corn syrup, evaporated cane juice — same poison, different names.

See also:


From NPR


If There Are So Many Stars, Why Is The Sky Dark At Night?

It might sound like a stupid question at first, because of all the black darkness in between the stars, but the answer is actually evidence of one of the fundamental properties of our universe. The problem comes in when you realize there shouldn’t be any darkness at night: there are trillions of trillions of stars in the universe, and their light should literally be filling up the sky all the time. So then why is it mostly dark? Some stars are really far away and their light hasn’t gotten here yet, but there are still plenty of stars whose light should be flooding our tiny planet. Which it is — we just can’t see it, because by the time the light gets here, it’s infrared.

Night Sky. Photo by Scott Wylie


If the universe were constant and stars stayed in the same position, the night sky would be indeed be filled with light. But because the universe is expanding, stars are constantly moving away from each other, and therefore away from us, too. That motion causes redshift, which is what happens to light from an object that is moving away: the wavelength increases due to the Doppler effect, and since color is dictated by the wavelength of light, it first appears more and more red and then infrared, which we can’t see anymore. So the sky is dark because most of the light that we would normally see — from all the countless stars — has been shifted to infrared on its way to Earth — because the universe is expanding.


How The Giant Statues On Easter Island May Have Walked

Easter Island (whose native name is Rapa Nui) in the South Pacific is generally seen as an example of the Tragedy of the Commons: inhabitants selfishly depleted the island’s shared natural resources, leading to their own eventual doom. Settlers arrived there in 800 A.D. and found a lush island filled with forests, then over the next thousand years proceeded to cut the trees down and make canoes for fishing, houses for living, and tools for farming. But they didn’t realize how fragile the ecosystem on the island was, and that the trees, once cut, would be very difficult to grow back. After several centuries, there were virtually no trees on the island, and since it’s one of the most isolated places on earth and was therefore devoid of trade, this meant there were no more canoes, houses or farming tools. And even if there were, without protection from the trees, fierce winds eroded the soil so much that farming was next to impossible. Eventually, lack of food and the resulting violence decimated the population.


Ahu Tongariki near Rano Raraku, a 15-moai ahu excavated and restored in the 1990s


Dutch explorers discovered the island on Easter Sunday (hence its Western name) in 1622, about 75 years after the last forests had disappeared; they described the island as having rich soil and being cultivated, and of course having a shore lined with giant statues. Roughly 50 years later, Spanish explorers found it and also mentioned the statues, but said the land was largely uncultivated. Four years after that, James Cook said the soil was poor and the statues neglected, with some having fallen down. In 1786, French explorers reported only 10% of the island was cultivated and finally, in 1825, a British ship reported no standing statues.

The prevalent theory is that the impressive statues, which were central to the Rapa Nui religion, had all been toppled in a quick 50 years — after having watched over the shore for centuries — because the islanders didn’t think to protect the environment they all shared. The fact is that the island was slowly deforested, which led to soil erosion and a lack of fishing canoes, which led to a lack of food, which led to civil war and eventually cannibalism. By 1877, thanks to additional deaths from genocide committed by slave traders in the 1860s and the smallpox introduced by them, the island’s population was down to 111 people — from about 3,000 when it was first discovered by Europeans, and probably around 10,000 a few decades before that. In 1888, it was annexed by Chile (the closest large country) as a result of a treaty with the remaining natives. The tragedy is told in a 2006 book called Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed.

Statues on Easter Island in various states of restoration in 2004. Photo by Phillie Casablanca.


But recently, a couple of archaeologists have threaded a different story through those same facts and published it in a book called The Statues That Walked: Unraveling The Mystery of Easter Island. Their theory is that the original Polynesian settlers of the island arrived in 1200 A.D., (400 years after the generally accepted date) and purposely brought rats with them on their canoes along with chickens, in order to eat them. Once on the island, however, without any natural predators, the rats flourished on their own and ate the nuts of the now-extinct and slow-growing Easter Island palm tree, thereby preventing their reseeding. And so the trees were decimated due to rats brought by the settlers, not directly by the settlers’ hands. Even so, they figured out ways around soil erosion: stone enclosures were built around farms to protect them from winds, and the soil was enriched with volcanic gravel. They practiced population control and generally lived a sustainable existence until the Europeans came, who introduced new diseases and new status symbols aside from the giant statues. Eventually, the Rapa Nui started dying en masse and stopped caring about the statues, which subsequently fell into disrepair. These archaeologists also believe that obsidian weapons that have been discovered were actually farming tools, and that there was no civil war.

Location of Easter Island


One other difference in their theory: how the statues got to the shore from the dormant volcano where they were made, miles away. (Statues at various stages of completion have been found in a quarry in the volcano and on the route from there to the beach.) Mainstream thinking is that the statues were made at the quarry, then rolled on logs to the shore.  But while the authors of the alternative theory don’t believe oral tradition about violence and cannibalism, they do believe the tradition which says the statues walked to the shore. And what’s more, it may actually be true: in a video of experiments funded by National Geographic, it’s clear that a very large and heavy statue can be made to walk with a few strong ropes and three groups of people pulling it from one side and the other. The secret: the statues’ giant heads and potbelly design makes them heavy in the front, giving them forward momentum and allowing the islanders to use gravity to help propel the statue forward.

From YouTube and National Geographic, via Neatorama

‘Ye Olde’ Should Be Read As ‘The Old’

Minute Physics decided this issue is important enough to make a video about even though it has nothing to do with physics, so here is why you’re reading ‘Ye Olde Shoppe’ the wrong way: in the olden days, the sound “th” had its own letter, Þ, called thorn. This letter appears in Scandinavian languages and was probably introduced by the Vikings, during numerous invasions of England during the 9th and 10th centuries (Old Norse and Old English were similar languages, both having come from Northern Germany). During this time, words like “this” and “that” would have been written “Þis” and “Þat”, if Old English were anything like Modern English.


The first page of the Old English text of Beowulf, with words containing the letter thorn circled


Then the English were conquered for the last time, in 1066 by an entirely different sort of Vikings: Normans, who had settled in the part of northern France now known as Normandy, who spoke French and who instituted it as the language of the aristocracy in England. Over time, the ruling class did adopt English, but it became heavily influenced by French.  These French-speaking English didn’t like the letter thorn, so they started using “th” instead of “Þ”, and it obviously caught on. But for centuries after the Norman conquest, thorn was still used.

In fact, it was still in use when the printing press was invented 400 years later, but since printing presses came from continental Europe, the typed alphabets were Latin and didn’t include the letter thorn and other Norse runes. Having to make do with what they had, English writers figured that ‘y’ looked close enough to “Þ” and started using it instead. And that’s how “Þe olde” became “ye olde”. Interestingly “ye“, pronounced like you’d think, actually meant the same thing back in those days as “y’all” does in the South now.

This taco house will not put up the French spelling of "þe"


All Scandinavian languages eventually followed suit with English and started using “th” instead of “Þ” — except for Icelandic, who still uses thorn and another Old English letter called eth (ð). As for English, there’s little chance of it going back to “Þ”, especially since words like “thorn” would become “Þorn” and probably be either read as “born” or “porn”. And just for confusion, there’s a letter called sho (Ϸ) that looks very similar to thorn, but comes from the Greek alphabet and has nothing to do with English.

From YouTube, via Neatorama

3 Learning Tricks From A Psychologist

UCLA has a Learning and Forgetting Lab and the guy who its named after gave Wired a few hints on how to learn and not forget:

  • Interleave: don’t just keep trying to learn one thing until you master it, but rather move on to something else for a while. The something else should be related though, so maybe break up a subject like the Cold War into decades.
  • Change venues periodically: if you study in only one location, you’ll only remember the stuff in that location.
  • Learn, wait a while, then recall: if you just learn a thing once, it’ll get more and more buried the longer you don’t recall it. But if you wait some time, until you can just barely remember it, then study it again, it will help you recall it easier the next time. In a sense, it’s like practicing retrieving that particular memory, because we have so many facts in our heads that we need that practice.


So come back and read this in three days from a different location.

From Wired

Math And Plants

One of the coolest things about math is when it can actually be applied to the real world, like when it helps you figure out in what direction to shoot a cannon ball to hit your nemesis’ house, or how to beat the house at Black Jack. But even those applications are almost always about physics or chemistry and rarely about biology, since life can’t be bothered with such rational things as math.

The video below is therefore very cool because it shows that the leaves in plants are generally spaced in a mathematical series, because that’s the optimal way for leaves to grow such that they fill in the most available space. And because of that simple fact, plant growth can be predicted mathematically, which makes math that much more interesting.

From YouTube, via Neatorama

A Brief History Of Santa

C.G.P Grey’s newest video explains how Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and other similar characters were all thrown into the American melting pot, out of which emerged Santa Claus.

The real-life Santa village in Finland he mentioned is called Rovaniemi, and it has a pretty good Internet presence, including a website and a YouTube channel.

If you liked this video, Mr. Grey has a few other interesting ones:

From YouTube, via Laughing Squid


Why The Electoral College Should Be Abolished

The venerable C.G.P. Grey is back with another interesting and educational video, this time tackling the problems with the American Electoral College. (If that term is a fuzzy memory from high school government class, he also has a good five-minute video on how it works). The problems he points out with the system:

  • It’s unfair to people living in large states, because of a rule that redistributes some electors to smaller states, to keep presidential candidates from ignoring them. As a consequence, a vote from a person in Vermont counts for three Texans’ votes and someone in Wyoming counts for four Californians.
  • But candidates still ignore the small states, which get pretty much no visits or money from candidates.
  • What’s more, they also ignore the big states, like California, Texas and New York. Why? Because where candidates spend their resources is in big “battleground” states — the ones that could go either way. These days, Texas is a lock for Republicans, while California and New York are firmly Democratic; so why even bother preaching to the choir? Instead, candidates focus on a handful of states like Florida and Ohio that have big populations from both parties.
  • In fact, in the two months before the 2008 elections, just four states (FL, OH, PA, VA) received the majority of visits and money. So the opinions of the citizens in those four states tend to dominate politics, making it really unfair for someone in Colorado, for example.
  • It is technically possible to win the presidency with 22% of the popular vote. That means 78% of the people could vote for Obama in 2012, and he could still lose. This should absolutely not be possible in any democracy, much less in a country with the United States’ stature.
  • Throughout American history, there have been three elections in which someone became president with less than 50% of the popular vote — most recently, G.W. Bush in 2000. That means that 5% of the 56 elections since 1788 have failed. Any critical system that has a 5% failure rate is broken: if the electric utility failed that often, you’d have no power for more than two weeks a year; if the DMV failed that often, 5% of drivers would be blind or kids.

Clearly, much of government is broken — e.g., the economic system, the justice system — because they have much higher failure rates. However, at least we’re doing the best we can for most of them. But that’s not true for the electoral system: as he points out in the first video, the electoral college was created because in the 18th century, information traveled at the speed of a horse: having a small-ish group vote at the same time and place was the best way to do an election. But now, information travels at the speed of light and the electoral college is just simply archaic.

If you liked this video, Mr. Grey has a few other interesting ones:

From YouTube, via Laughing Squid

Why Daylight Saving Time Should Be Abolished

C.G.P. Grey — the guy who explained the difference between England, Britain and the U.K., and taught us that there’s no good way to figure out how many continents there are — has a new video all about Daylight Saving Time (DST), the curse of which is about to end in a couple of weeks, at least until next year. The video tries to be somewhat objective, but makes a few good points on why DST is bad:

  • In hot climates, it doesn’t save energy. The biggest reason for that is the invention of air conditioning: in the summer when it’s hot out, people won’t enjoy the summer heat, but rather stay inside with the A/C. Now, they might not turn on the lights because the sun’s still up (and this is what DST was meant to do), but the A/C consumes more energy than a dozen light bulbs.
  • Overall, there are conflicting studies that show both that DST saves energy and that it wastes more energy. In either case, the savings or waste is less than 1%, which is about 4$/year per household. Is that worth the hassle?
  • No, it’s not, because there are a lot of human costs associated with the time change: heart attacks and suicides spike the week after the time change; coordinating international meetings (which is pretty common these days) is a productivity loser, because different countries change times at different dates and not even our techy gadgets can keep up with all of them. Not only that, but even within the US, there are places where DST is not observed — like Hawaii and Arizona.

From YouTube, via Laughing Squid