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5 Charming Episodes of Violence from Medieval Iceland

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The sagas of early medieval Iceland (written down between 1100 and 1300) are some of the great works of Western literature. Heck, they've got it all: lust, envy, large-scale violence, widespread failures. Plus, these charming tales are all set in a time when a man just had to do what a man (generally a man with anger-management issues and a club) had to do.

1. Hallgerd the Petty (Njal's Saga)

One of the bloodiest feuds in Icelandic history arose from the seating chart at a wedding, when Bergthora asked Hallgerd Hoskuldsdattir to move over at a banquet to a less prestigious seat. It only makes sense that the slighted Hallgerd took the instruction as a deadly insult. Unfortunately for Bergthora, though, Hallgerd knew how to hold a grudge. After all, this was the same woman whose husband, Gunnar, once slapped her for stealing from one of his enemies. Then, years later, when besieged in his home by his enemies, Gunnar begged Hallgerd to give him a lock of her hair to repair his bowstring, and she refused, reminding him of the slap he'd given her. Gunnar was killed, and Hallgerd was finally happy.

Bergthora wasn't any luckier. Despite the attempts of Njal, Bergthora's husband, to make peace, things quickly got out of hand. Eventually, a gang attacked Njal's family on their farm and set fire to the farmhouse, killing everyone inside except for a brother-in-law, a Viking who didn't take kindly to his in-laws being barbecued. In response, he cobbled together a small army and successfully wiped out most of the conspirators before finally ending the bloody feud as all good feuds end . . . with a strategic marriage.

2. Hrafnkel's Comeback (Hrafnkel's Saga)

Hrafnkel was the perfect villain: a callous chieftain who murdered without paying compensation (this being rather bad manners at the time). Overthrown but spared by the kinsmen of a man he had killed, Hrafnkel was banished to the life of a penniless vagrant. But he managed to learn from past mistakes, gaining wisdom, kindness, and followers while his enemies grew weak and complacent. And while the wisdom and followers would definitely help him in his greater plan, we're not quite so sure we buy the kindness. Hrafnkel waited seven years for the opportunity to serve his revenge ice cold. And when it finally came, he killed the most dangerous of his enemies, then chased the rest out of his former holdings.

3. Thorstein Replaces the Men He Kills (The Tale of Thorstein the Staff-Struck)

What's a poor farmer to do when his honor is insulted by three servants of a wealthy landowner? If you're Thorstein Thorarinsson, you kill 'em, announcing your actions after the fact in accordance with Icelandic custom.

Luckily for Thorstein, the three he killed were so worthless that their own boss didn't particularly want to avenge them. Thorstein and the chieftain, Bjarni, fought a rather halfhearted duel, punctuated by frequent water breaks, pauses to examine one another's weapons, and even stops to tie their shoes mid-battle. Finally, they reached a settlement: Thorstein, who was strong enough to do the work of three men, became the perfect replacement for the three he had killed. Downsizing, Icelandic style.

4. Egil Rewrites a Poem in His Head (Egil's Saga)

Egil was a raider, a pirate, a murderer, and, oh so predictably, an accomplished poet to boot. On his way to deliver a poem to King Athelstan of England, he fell into the clutches of Eirik, the Viking king of York. This was most unfortunate, as Egil had made a career of being quite a pain in Eirik's royal rear. Given one night's reprieve while the king decided the method of execution, Egil stunned everyone by delivering, in perfect meter, a poem in praise of Eirik. He was released well before anyone realized that he had just replaced "Athelstan" with "Eirik" (the Old Norse form), maintaining the rhythm of the poem and saving his own neck. Long after he died of old age, Egil's grave was excavated and his abnormally bulky skull was discovered, proving that you can have a thick head and still do some quick thinking.

5. Gudmund Negotiates a Deal (Gudmund the Worthy's Saga)

When a chump named Skaering had his hand cut off by Norwegian merchants, he turned to his kinsman Gudmund to get him justice. Ever helpful, Gudmund arranged a monetary settlement, but as soon as he left the scene the Norwegians refused to pay. Summoned back, a rather annoyed Gudmund made the following proposal: "I will pay Skaering the amount that you mental-floss-forbidden-knowledge.jpgwere judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from among you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skaering and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that fellow's hand as cheaply as you wish." Not surprisingly, the Norwegians quickly coughed up the money, no doubt to the sound of Skaering's one hand clapping.

This article was written by Brian Gottesman and excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits. You can pick up a copy in the mental_floss store.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
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Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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