July 20, 2004

Woad House

Linus Gelber at Pepper of the Earth has a hilarious review of King Arthur ("The Untold True Story that Inspired the Legend"), starting with this:

The Steppes of Sarmatia. Fires, huts, mud.

Lookout: Look out!
Elders of Sarmatia: What’s wrong?
Lookout: The Romans are coming!
Elders: What about it?
Lookout: They are coming as they do every 15 years to reap their bounty under treaty, to take our children away to the cold north where they will train them as cavalry riders and force them to patrol dangerous lands near Hadrian’s Wall! Shall we rally to arms and stop them?
Elders: No.
Lookout: But why not?
Elders: For one thing, our tribe disappeared over 200 years ago.

Among many other good parts, there's an extended consideration of the Woad Problem:

Woads: Woooooo!
Arthur: Woads!
Knights: What?
Soldiers: Whoa!
Guy Dressed Like Bishop Germanius: Ow!

The Knights slaughter the Picts Woads. Arthur interrogates a survivor at swordpoint.

Woad Survivor: …and really it’s a complete misnomer. Everyone believes the Picts painted themselves blue and tattooed themselves with hallucinogenic dye from the woad plant, but there’s very little evidence in the historical record. Woad isn’t psychotropic, for one thing, and it doesn’t work as a tattoo dye. The only eyewitness account of naked blue warriors is in Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul, and that justifies both Caesar’s losses in battle and the further commitment of forces to the Gallic campaign, so he needed to make the Picts sound terrifying and fearsome, which makes the text highly suspect.
Arthur: Sort of a Weapons of Mass Destruction thing.
Woad: Exactly.
Arthur: So that kind of messes up Braveheart too, doesn’t it?
Woad: Look, did you see The Passion of Christ? That man wouldn’t know history if it sat on his –

It seems that there's a general tendency to replace old but historically inaccurate myths and legends with new but historically inaccurate myths and legends.


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 20, 2004 06:19 PM