Speaking Truthahn to Power – or – How The Vikings Discovered Thanksgiving!

by John Holbo on November 29, 2014

Bit late, but a family-oriented, all-American blog like Crooked Timber should have a Thanksgiving-themed post.

This semester I was teaching ‘topics in aesthetics’ and we ended up doing a unit on fakes and forgeries. I read a bunch of stuff on the history of famous cases. Lots of fascinating material, of course. I like the story of Lothar Malskat and the Turkeys In The Schwahl, entertainingly retold in Jonathan Keats, Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age [amazon]. (That subtitle doth protest too much. But fun read.)

Long story short: this guy Malskat was a fake and a fraud! He was supposed to restore the painting in this here 13th Century church cloister but it was, basically, like, gone. Nothing left. So he made it up! Here’s an excerpt:

Within the Nazi context, the schwahl’s [should be ‘Schwahl’ and I guess that’s a proper name for the cloister in this church, bit confused by that term actually] educational value was significant. According to Stange, the paintings represented “an excellent demonstration of the ties, permanent because they spring from nationality, which bind Schleswig to the Saxonian-Westphalian area and its art.” In other words, the murals could be used to promote Third Reich nationalism. Perhaps more important, the figures conformed to appropriate racial stereotypes, confirming the purity of the German bloodline. As Malskat later put it in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt, “I had to paint the apostles as long-headed Vikings because one did not want Eastern round-heads.”

The greatest zeal, though, was reserved for the so-called Schleswiger Truthähnbilder, eight paintings of turkeys embellishing a depiction of the Massacre of the Innocents. The turkeys were first pointed out by an independent historian named Freerk Haye Schirrmann-Hamkens in a 1938 article for a local newspaper. Schirrmann-Hamkens brought up the turkeys because their appearance in a mural allegedly painted circa 1300 was surprising: Turkeys are New World birds believed to have first been introduced to Europe by the Spaniards in the 1550s. Of course Schirrmann-Hamkens couldn’t question the authenticity of paintings that were under Himmler’s protection. Instead, he used the paintings to question history. By his reckoning, the Schleswiger Truthähnbilder showed that Vikings had discovered America—and brought back gobblers to the Fatherland—centuries before Christopher Columbus was conceived.

Schirrmann-Hamkens’ theory was bound to be popular. Already the Nazis were championing a 1925 tome by a Danish librarian arguing that the German explorer Didrik Pining had reached America in 1473. A 13th-century Nordic conquest of America that brought turkeys to Schleswig was even better, serving even more firmly to establish the supremacy of the German race (not to mention their Viking pedigree). “The portrayals are based on a high degree of personal observation,” Stange wrote of the turkeys in his 1940 essay. (“They are not, as so often, borrowed from reference books,” he added, lest anybody think that the Vikings had merely raided a library.) Turkeys in early medieval Germany became a part of the Nazi orthodoxy, and were put to work on behalf of the Third Reich propaganda machine. “Aryan seafarers went to American long before Columbus did,” a guidebook to St. Petri-Dom advised tourists. “Incidentally, Columbus is the descendant of Spanish Jews from Barcelona.”

Dissent came from an unexpected source. Nearly 80 years old when Malskat’s restoration was complete, August Olbers emerged from retirement to assert that the Schleswiger Truthähnbilder weren’t proof of circumnavigation by Vikings because he himself had painted them in the late 1880s [when he had attempted a restoration of the same paintings]. Olbers explained that he had not intended to fool anyone. Unable to discern what had originally filled the wall space beneath the Massacre of the Innocents and loath to leave it empty, he’d come up with a motif of foxes and turkeys to symbolize the guile and gluttony of the murderous King Herod.

Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered why we celebrate Thanksgiving, why there is a Presidential turkey pardon and all – well, you can thank the vikings! And bad King Herod.

Next year, rather than arguing with your conservative in-laws over Thanksgiving dinner, you should baffle them with Nazi conspiracy theories about turkeys.



John Holbo 11.29.14 at 5:29 am

Probably a classic American folk song is also based on the same 13th Century German cloister.

Turkey in the Schwahl, Turkey in the Hay
Roll ’em up an’ twist ’em up a high tuc-ka-haw
An’ twist ’em up a tune called Turkey in the Schwahl

Tuc-ka-haw is obviously a corruption of ‘Tuchhandel’ – meaning, the drapery trade.


jkay 11.29.14 at 10:31 am

BUT IT’S TRUE!!!!!!!!!

Vikings were the first Europeans to survive years here on what must’ve been at least some of their crops. And isn’t that’s what Turkey-Day celebrates?

They might’ve had a big celebration, too, for isn’t it the human thing, a special 1st XMAS or something Norse? And crews are likelier to get cranky without parties.

The Norse Empires, at their height, ran from Newfoundland to Russia.

Even the turkeys aren’t impossible if they were native wild to Vinland;
Though I think it was more famous for fish.


Lynne 11.29.14 at 10:54 am

Is this an all-American blog?


yabonn 11.29.14 at 1:04 pm

jkay @ 2
Though I think it was more famous for fish.

Icelandic Turkeys are a fact. Proof :

Highly unquiet the new birds,
But good guests at the feast
Their meat plenty and fat
A gift from far away kin

… though the precise reference for the saga escapes me at the moment.


ingrid robeyns 11.29.14 at 1:08 pm

Lynne: luckily, the answer is no. I am 0% American (except if my trips to the US make me a tiny bit American, but that would be quite a stretch).

But I take it John was testing whether Chris, Henry, Harry, Kieran, John Q., Maria, Daniel, Eszter and me (did I forget a non-American?) are awake, or he was being ironic, or he wants to tell us it’s about time we write another post, or he has another message that I fail to understand.

Happy thanksgiving to those who celebrate it.


John Holbo 11.29.14 at 1:15 pm

The post contains a number of falsehoods.


Ronan(rf) 11.29.14 at 1:42 pm

This post should have been written in a manner intended to convince people opposed to thanksgiving, (such as the Ayatollah Khomeini, except more marginal figures amenable to argument) , that America is worth giving thanks for, and then we could have a discussiom about whether a leftist politics should be engaging with people like the the Ayatollah (dead though he is)
I kid ! Happy T-givin’ Great Satanists !


James Wimberley 11.29.14 at 3:43 pm

“Columbus is the descendant of Spanish Jews from Barcelona.” The theory has not been limited to Nazis. Simon Wiesenthal was a fan. If Columbus did have a converso background, old or recent, it would have paid him to conceal it at the court of the fanatical Reyes Católicos. The Spanish Inquisition was aimed at conversos, not the remnant of Spanish Jews, who were simply expelled.


Anon 11.29.14 at 3:43 pm

“Is this an all-American blog?”

I think it’s an all-Americans-who-wish-they-were-Brits-plus-a-handful-of-Brits blog. So, basically, the only thing worse than an all-American blog.


James Wimberley 11.29.14 at 3:51 pm

yabonn #4 :the precise reference for the saga escapes me at the moment”
Must be the Sagan af Brenndur Kalkúnn, if Google Translate is not lying to me.


Merian 11.29.14 at 5:08 pm

The word in question, “Schwahl (der)” is a common noun from Low German. It’s uncommon enough in modern German (which was developed out of High German) that I wasn’t familiar with it, but it’s easy to look up. The Danish equivalent is “svalen”. It’s a term for the architectural feature, something like a cloister that’s open on one side, maybe. You could argue that it functions here as a proper noun. The upshot is that borrowing it as either a lower-case or upper-case spelling could be justified.


PatrickinIowa 11.29.14 at 5:18 pm

Where do Canadians fit in all of this, besides the fact that they had their Thanksgiving a month and half ago, instead of Columbus Day?


gocart mozart 11.29.14 at 8:00 pm

It does not take much historical research to uncover the fact that nobody knows if the Pilgrims really ate turkey at the first Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing we know for sure about what the Pilgrims ate is that it couldn’t have tasted very good. Even today, well brought-up English girls are taught by their mothers to boil all veggies for at least a month and a half, just in case one of the dinner guests turns up without his teeth… (It is certainly unfair to say that the English lack both a cuisine and a sense of humor: their cooking is a joke in itself.)

“It would also not require much digging to discover that Christopher Columbus, the man who may have brought linguine with clam sauce to this continent, was from Genoa, and obviously would have sooner acknowledged that the world was shaped like an isosceles triangle than to have eaten the sort of things that the English Puritans ate. Righting an ancient wrong against Columbus, a great man who certainly did not come all this way only to have a city in Ohio named after him, would be a serious historical contribution. Also, I happen to love spaghetti carbonara.”


Colin Danby 11.29.14 at 8:31 pm

Newfoundland is a little chilly for turkeys, but aren’t there numerous speculations putting Vinland farther South? I see there’s a town called Norse, Texas.


JanieM 11.29.14 at 8:46 pm

gocart mozart, thanks for reminding me how much I loved The Tummy Trilogy years ago. Maybe it’s time to reread it.


Hogan 11.29.14 at 9:02 pm

@12: Canadians? That’s just a myth.


The Dark Avenger 11.30.14 at 12:02 am


I don’t know about Barcelona or CC being Jewish, but experts who have examined his surviving hand-written material have stated that there are no examples in Italian, and that his mistakes in Latin suggest he spoke Catalan.

A case can be made that making him an Italian would’ve served the purposes of Their Spanish And Most Catholic Majesties in welding together the disparate areas of the Iberian Peninsula and calling the result Spain, but beyond that, there’s no real evidence one way or another as to CC’s true origins.


jkay 11.30.14 at 6:14 am

Vikings have a similarly, er, excuse for cuisine, but hunger is the best sauce, and there would’ve been too much hunger that first year especially. I blame it on that their far seafaring meant long-stored stuff before refrigeration. All the Med made both great seafarers and top cuisine because they bought fresh stuff daily in markets always set up by the water.

Vinland has been found at 0L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in Canada, because that was closest to where they took on cargo, probably Greenland. The same reason Colon reached the Caribbean and the British reached VA and MA first.

Though whom can believe in an oil-bearing “nation” we haven’t invaded since they discovered it? No, no.


Trivial 11.30.14 at 7:49 am

Vinland has been found at 0L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in Canada

L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland may not alone account for the fabled Vinland of the Sagas, but most world history textbooks describe this UNESCO World Heritage Site as a Viking outpost.


praisegod barebones 11.30.14 at 11:25 am

Obviously John’s post is satire, but I’m surprised how many of you seem unaware of recent scholarship establishing conclusively that America was discovered by Muslims.



praisegod barebones 11.30.14 at 11:31 am

I should probably say that I’m not one hundred percent convinced; but there are obviously experts on both sides, so let’s Teach the Controversy.


yabonn 11.30.14 at 12:29 pm

James Wimberley @10
Thanks, that was it. That part when they negotiate bitterly about the stranded acorn? Awesome.


yabonn 11.30.14 at 12:34 pm

… “stranded maize ear”.

Eugh… now it’s less funny.


Glen Tomkins 11.30.14 at 3:48 pm

This sort of creative filling in is not at all unusual. Just about the entire content of every one of the competing Christian theologies has been hallucinated to cover the huge gaps what the True Believers just know the holy text meant to go into, but He must not have had the time to spell it out, or something.

In comparison, Malskat is scrupulously faithful to the original. He only confabulated where there actually clearly was a gap in the original. He didn’t also just make up the existence of a gap. He didn’t make up the need to confabulate, and therefore, in comparison to the theologians, deserves some sort of Nobel Prize in Fidelity to the Original.

This sort of Malskatian confabulation isn’t nearly as common, because if you confine yourself to patching up actual holes in the original, that’s so limiting. But there is a locus classicus for this sort of patching up, the construction of the boat to leave Calypso’s island in the Odyssey. There are over 50 lines that presumably describe Odysseus making this boat, but they are so chock full of hapax legomena, and we know so little about how the Greeks of even later and better documented eras constructed boats, that you might as well imagine Odysseus constructing a spaceship, and you couldn’t refute that idea from the text.

Some translators just skip the 50 lines. Calypso leads Odysseus to the grove with the right raw materials in one line, and — abracadabra — the boat is finished in the next line.

Some translators just confabulate a few generic boat-building lines to insert, though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone go the full 50+ lines driving on empty.

I want to see a Malskat solution to this problem. Do a translation, somebody, where it is a spaceship that Odysseus has to build to get off Calypso’s planet. Oh, sure, nesos means island, but who’s to say it can’t also mean planet?


Colin Danby 11.30.14 at 5:24 pm

The problem becomes clearer if we remember that Odysseus was in America at the time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henriette_Mertz). He was possibly building a little steamship for the voyage home.


Glen Tomkins 11.30.14 at 6:46 pm

Well, this Mertz person seems to have at least part of the right stuff for the task. But I’m afraid that saying that Odysseus got to America even before Lehi, doesn’t solve a problem with the Odyssey that can only be resolved by imagining that Odysseus and his crew got to another planet, or least one of the polar regions of out own planet.

At one point, Odysseus and his crew find themselves in a place where they cannot find the cardinal directions. Now, to readers in an era of well-marked roads, maps, GPS and the Google, finding yourself in a place where you can’t tell these directions — without those tools — may not strike one as odd. But the people of Homer’s time had to use celestial navigation just to get from Eleusis to Athens. The sun rises a bit south of true east, sets a bit south of true west, and at its highest point during the day is due south. You couldn’t possibly be anyplace on Earth, except near the poles, where you can’t tell directions.

So there, Henriette Mertz. Go large or go home.

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