From an elephant to an Oliphant

There’s an intriguing object in York Minster, a medieval cathedral in northern England, that caught my attention.  It’s called an oliphant. It’s made from part of an elephant – a tusk. Carved with images of animals, it was filled with wine and presented to the church by a Viking nobleman called Ulf in the year 1036.

What interested me about this object was the way it revealed how interconnected the world was in the Middle Ages.  Here is an elephant tusk – probably from Africa. The animals carved on it were copied from ancient Syrian and Babylonian art – ancient even in those times.  The carvings were probably done in Amalfi in Italy, where craftsmen had easy access to ivory.

How did it get to be in Viking hands?  Well, the Vikings got everywhere.  They ruled England at times, served the Byzantines in the east, traded in Russia, founded cities in Ireland and were the ancestors of the Normans. The Vikings were worldly people and it wasn’t so unusual that a rich warrior would have such a trinket.  Here are some photos of the oliphant that I took a month ago.


The 13th Warrior – medieval movie and guilty pleasure

I’ve never understood the hostility that this movie generated when it came out in 1999 – it seemed that once the critical slating got underway, everybody jumped on board to throw rotten tomatoes at it…and you can go to the Rotten Tomatoes movie website to see that plenty of people still hate The 13th Warrior.

But I’ve got a soft spot for certain movies that have been put through the critical mincer but still retain a certain historical fascination and are actually very watchable – and The 13th Warrior is not a dull movie. It’s rather violent and its take on the relationship between the emerging Arab/Islamic world of the east and the so-called Dark Ages in the west is if nothing else, picturesque and spooky!

And to be blunt – it’s certainly not down there with the unintentionally hilarious Ironclad and pretty dreadful Season of the Witch – two recent historical and hysterical offerings from Hollywood.

The 13th Warrior was based on a book by Michael Crichton – the man who brought you great horror sci fi movies in the 1970s like Coma and Westworld and then went on to conjure up Jurassic Park. The 13th Warrior was based on his book Eaters of the Dead and the movie originally adopted that name but when he was called in to direct it, it changed title.

In short, the year is 922CE and an Arab emissary (Antonio Banderas) leaves his beautiful homeland to go to the barbaric west where he falls in with a bunch of uncouth Vikings. He learns their language and fights battles alongside them against a mysterious creature that is threatening to wipe them out. A Viking prophecy stipulates that a foreign man must be present if the beast is to be vanquished – and along comes our Arab friend. I won’t spoil the plot any further!

The movie cost far more than it made back at the box office and Omar Sharif – who had a bit part in the film – slated it and then the critics gave it a good booting. But I think for those trying to understand the cultural clashes of the very early Middle Ages – it’s a good watch. Time, I suspect, may be kinder to The 13th Warrior than the critics were – I hope you agree!