Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
In 1947, a young Norwegian and five fellow Scandinavians whom he recruited went down to Peru. There they built a raft with balsa wood using traditional Native American techniques. Then they set sail on the raft for French Polynesia. One hundred and one days and eight thousand kilometers later, they reached their destination, demonstrating at least the plausibility of the young Norwegian’s theory that Polynesians originally came from the Americas.
His name was Thor Heyerdahl, and the name of the raft was the Kon-Tiki. The voyage made him a legendary adventurer, even if it didn’t quite prove his ethnological theory.
Decades later, Heyerdahl came up with another theory. This one had to do with his native Norway and the country of Azerbaijan.
In the final years of his life, Heyerdahl engaged in a project called “Jakten på Odin,” “the Search for Odin.” He took as a starting point the Ynglinga Saga, written in Old Norse in the early 13th century by the Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. Sturluson’s saga presents the Nordic pantheon, Odin and his fellows, as historical human beings who eventually came to be worshipped as gods. And Sturluson suggested that Odin’s original realm, Asgard, was somewhere near the Caucasus.
After a number of visits to Azerbaijan, Heyerdahl grew convinced that he had found the original Asgard, or Aesir, or Aser as Sturluson also called Odin’s old country.
His theory partly hung on the similarities between those names of places. But he also cited as evidence the remarkable petroglyphs in Qobustan, or Gobustan, about fifty kilometers west of Baku. These petroglyphs, dating to between 20,000 years ago and 2,000 years ago, depict animals, people, and boats sailing on water. Heyerdahl decided that these petroglyphs were similar stylistically to carvings found in Scandinavia and that the boat carvings represented part of the journey north.
In addition, on his final visit to Azerbaijan, in 2000, two years before his death, Heyerdahl visited the village of Kish. Just outside the northwestern town of Sheki, Kish has at its center an Albanian church originally built in the first century A.D. (Note that this Albania is not that Albania: there is an Albania in the Balkans, and in the Caucasus there was another ancient civilization called Albania, at least so-named by the Greeks, as we do not know what the Caucasian Albanians called themselves. The two Albanias have nothing to do with each other.) At the church’s archaeological site Heyerdahl found two things to inspire him: a faded and undeciphered ancient Albanian inscription on the church’s altar stone, and skeletons of several entombed individuals who, at almost two meters (over six feet) tall, would have been remarkably towering for their times and place.
Heyerdahl decided that the alphabet of the inscription was or was related to Scandinavian runes. He further decided that the remarkable height of the skeletons showed that they were racially Nordic.
There were only a few problems with his theory. The similarity between the names of Azerbaijan and Aesir is likely coincidental, given that “Azerbaijan” is derived from the name of an ancient Persian satrap of the region, Atropates. Heyerdahl also drew a link between Azov, in today’s southern Russia, and as-hof, meaning “temple of the Aesir,” even though the name Azov is of Turkic origin and unrelated to the Indo-European language family of which Norse is a member. Moreover, whereas Heyerdahl theorized that Odin and his people migrated to Scandinavia around the time of Christ, Azov didn’t gain its name until about a thousand years later.
Similarly, of the remarkably tall individuals buried on the grounds of the church of Kish, some date from as late as the early Middle Ages, centuries after Heyerdahl’s theory would say that the Nordic ancestors left the area. And the inscription, though it may resemble runes at first glance, has never been demonstrated to bear any relationship to runic. As for the petroglyphs at Qobustan, well, they range some 18,000 years in antiquity, and they can more or less be said to resemble stone age carvings from many different parts of the world.
For these and other reasons, Heyerdahl’s theory is almost certainly wrong, and hardly any serious scholar accepts it. But that has not stopped Azerbaijanis from putting up a statue of Heyerdahl across from the Kish church and having an explanatory sign inside it spelling out the country’s supposed connection to Norway.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."