By Sidsel Overgaard
Just about halfway between Denmark’s Viking past and its decidedly civilized present, lived a man named Tycho Brahe. Perhaps you’ve heard his name before, this astronomer whose meticulous observations helped lead to a modern understanding of the solar system. Despite the vast amount of empirical data he left behind, Tycho Brahe’s tantalizingly eccentric life left him with a legacy tangled in a web of fact and fiction.
One of the people most qualified to untangle that web is Jens Vellev, a Danish archaeologist who led the (second) exhumation of Tycho’s body in 2010. We put him to the test with a few of the most rampant Tycho Brahe legends.
True or false: Tycho lost his nose in a dual, allegedly over a math equation, and tried to hide the evidence with a silver prosthetic?
True (mostly). “The old reports say his nose was made of silver and gold. And that would be lovely –a very expensive nose!” says Vellev. “But we sent a little piece of his skull to be analyzed and from that we could see that the nose was actually made… of brass.”
True or false: Tycho had an affair with the queen of Denmark, which caused a falling out with her son, King Christian IV (and according to one theory, may have inspired the story of Hamlet).
“Totally, raving mad. Crazy,” is Vellev’s firm answer to that one. However, it is true that Tycho spent the final years of his life in Prague, due to some sort of disagreement with the Danish King. But Vellev says that despite this perceived injustice, Tycho remained deeply connected to his homeland, signing letters and books, “Tycho Brahe, the Dane.”
True or false: Tycho once owned a pet moose, who died after getting drunk and falling down the stairs. He also employed a supposedly clairvoyant dwarf who sat at his feet during mealtimes and made predictions about the future.
True and true.
True or false: Tycho actually died from a mercury overdose, poisoned by his jealous colleague, Johannes Kepler.
False. While hair retrieved during the first exhumation in 1901 did reveal high levels of mercury leading to much speculation, more rigorous testing after the second exhumation showed that Tycho did not have enough mercury (or any other poison) in his body to kill him.
So what did kill this legendary Dane? “We don’t know,” admits Vellev, which means the life and death of Tycho Brahe remains one of Denmark’s great mysteries.