Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Joy of Snow

It’s really winter now! A couple of days ago we had our first December snow, and my children were unbelievably excited. Rosy cheeks, bright eyes, the whole bit. My son even wrecked my daughter’s snowman with a snowball! Right on target!

If you have some snow to work with, try making one of these snölyktor (snow lanterns). Simply build a dome out of snowballs, leaving an opening through which you can install a votive candle or tea light. Then wait until dusk and behold!

There’s a lovely depiction of a snow lantern in Astrid Lindgren’s Jul i Bullerbyn, illustrated by Ilon Wikland. (The American version is called Christmas in Noisy Village.)

Astrid Lindgren, of course, was one of Sweden’s most beloved children’s authors. She also wrote the Pippi Longstocking books, among many others. She died in 2002 at age 94.

There are a number of books featuring The Children of Noisy Village. In them Lindgren portrays the traditional rural life of Småland, her home-province, and captures brilliantly the simple joys and whimsy of childhood. Last year I read Springtime in Noisy Village to my son’s second-grade class. I was worried that kids accustomed to Star Wars and Sponge Bob Squarepants might find Noisy Village too childlike, but they loved it.

True, it is a cliché, but this is the time of year for everyone to play at being a child again. Now get out there and—oh no! duck! Incoming snowball!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

'The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia' by Neil S. Price: Some thoughts

A long, dark, cold Scandinavian winter, 1000 years or more ago: the sun barely, if at all, makes an appearance. In the northern, inland areas, all signs of life are completely covered in snow for months at a time. Only the reindeer manage to scrape below the snow to find sustenance. As a human being, you are just about totally dependent on this animal for food and clothing. In the southern and coastal areas of Scandinavia, you may not be buried in snow, but icy cold rain, driven by an unrelenting wind, pelts you mercilessly. In the dark sky you see the dramatic, frightening Aurora Borealis. Who are those spirits in the sky? Will summer ever return? Will warmth come? Will new animals be born? Will crops grow? How can I be sure?

And what of your own life? How can you be assured that you will enjoy health, good fortune, and life rather than their opposites? Why do some enjoy the former while others are doomed to the latter? Indeed, we all must die eventually: Why?

In the The Viking Way Neil S. Price allies archaeology with anthropology, folklore, literature, sociology, and psychology, to begin to illuminate the unrecorded beliefs of our Viking ancestors. Some of the conclusions that he reaches are familiar to me. Others are very new, and having just finished his book a couple of days ago, I'm still reaching for them, trying to integrate them into my view of how things must have been on the Swedish west coast 1000 years ago.

At stake is this pressing question: How did those people address the twin mysteries of life and death? Clearly in those northern climates (not only Scandinavia proper but also Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, the Faeroes, Shetland) there is not an overabundance of sustenance for all; survival was touch-and-go at best in certain places, perhaps slightly more assured in others. Famine, sickness and injury were probably never far removed from any of them. But it's very interesting to me that these people addressed life and death as a holistic totality, not as two irreconcilable things (i.e. life/good vs. death/evil) as in "we're going to eradicate evil." They knew better.

In fact, they saw very clearly that in a very literal way, death is necessary for the continuation of life. If no one dies, there simply won't be enough to go around. Perhaps the custom of exposing infants gained some legitimacy from this view. (It is known to have been a bone of contention in the Icelandic conversion to Christianity.) There is also a suggestion that the earliest Scandinavian kings were subject to death in order to secure the fertility and prosperity of their realms. And of course, animal and human sacrifice were also performed with, presumably, the same goals.

But how to make these sacrifices work? For that it is necessary to have some access to the gods or the spirit world, the agents who keep the machinery of the life/death cycle humming. It is here that Dr. Price places sei∂r, a complex of magical/religious practice that encompasses sorcery and ritual. He puts sei∂r in the context of circumpolar religious belief and practice, analogous to shamanism as it exists among the Saami, and more broadly in Siberia and North America.

My understanding of shamanism is limited, at best, though Dr. Price does an admirable job of providing an overview. I think it's safe for me to say that one aspect of shamanism has a connection to fertility: those dependent on the reindeer and on the hunting of other animals felt an urgent need to see that the animals who provided them sustenance were in turn replenished. This need for assurance regarding the continuation of life is definitely a concern echoed in the literary depictions of sei∂r.

But as Dr. Price points out, the twist here is in the translation of the above necessity to the Nordic context. How does this idea (understandable to us today in the concept of "sustainability") become useful for the support of a warrior society, in the context of the organization of warfare and larger fighting forces?

There clearly remains a link to fertility here, albeit a link that at first seems odd and elusive. Dead souls go both to Odin (the war god) and to Freyja (the fertility goddess). Dead bodies on the battlefield, however, become, as it says on runestones, "food for the ravens/wolves." In the past I always thought that this was either a simple statement of fact or a more poetic (and gruesome) way of saying that those guys were goners, but now I realize I was being both too literal and too figurative. It seems that those corpses were actually thought of as sacrificial victims dedicated to Odin (ravens and wolves being his animal helpers). This makes perfect sense in the context of fertility and rebirth, because those fallen soldiers were brought to Valhalla by Odin's valkyries so that they could live and fight again at Ragnarök.

In the sparse environment of the north, where kings and chieftains needed portable wealth to sustain their warrior bands, raids and battles became a way of life. Did what was essentially a fertility cult provide the underlying structure for the beliefs and more importantly, the rituals (in the form of sei∂r) needed to sustain these kings or chieftains and their culture? And how in the world did this all fit together?

I took the above photo in the summer, believe it or not, in Varberg, on the Swedish west coast, in between rain storms. It was a summer that made you wonder if Ragnarök was at hand. Click on photo to enlarge.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What will you take with you?

In one burial a spear had been hurled over the head of the deceased and lodged in the wall of the grave chamber. In another the deceased is a male Sámi wearing typical Norse women's clothing. Another is a double cremation where, after the fire, the man's and woman's remains and effects were carefully separated out and buried apart from each other, in contrasting fashion, again with some normally female-associated goods placed with the man and vice versa. These burials are among those discussed in Neil Price's The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia.

Thanks to the wonderful people at my local library, I finally got my hands on a copy of this book--the first edition, that is, not the second, although I suspect I may have to purchase the latter at some point. It's a big, big book, with lots of information that's new to me. I appreciate Price’s introduction to scholarship on the noaidi - the "Sámi shaman." I'm still 100 pages shy of the finish, and I feel like I'm reading a detective novel, trying to make some guesses of my own in advance of the thrilling conclusion. I just read about the Sámi view of the Northern Lights and it kind of blew my mind. I woke up this morning with it all spinning around in my head.

In the meantime, though, the burials have really captured my imagination. Archaeologist Dr. Price discusses several Norse and Sámi graves in connection with his topic. They include intriguing assemblages of grave goods, and show evidence of what must have been profound, meaningful funerary rites.

He has singled out graves that he believes may house the remains of sorcerers or spiritual specialists, and as these people operated toward the outer limits of human society, their graves are bound to be extraordinary. Still, it seems to me that graves in general represent a category that is fair game for both religious symbolism and intimate associations.

Even within the general body of Norse graves that I've read about from this period there exist enormously varied burial practices - aside from clothing, grave goods, and their arrangement within the graves there are differences in topographical situation, shape, lining, markers, etc. And, of course, there are both inhumation and cremation graves.

The lack of standardizaton has posed problems for those trying to "make sense of" these graves in the light of known mythologies. Ellis-Davidson simply wrote that differences indicate the presence of strong family traditions. Some contemporary scholars look at regional patterns in burial preferences as one way of trying to delineate different political/social/religious spheres of influence within Scandinavia of the period. I don’t have enormous experience in this area, but in reading accounts of graves here and there, exact parallels among them seem to be relatively rare. Perhaps the more "run-of-the-mill" graves simply don't get written about. The ones on the farther reaches of the bell curve, however, seem to be numerous and remarkable.

An acquaintance back here in the 21st century recently encountered numerous deposition options for a relative’s ashes, including the possibility of housing them within the structure of a birdbath! I guess I've been lucky so far – I haven’t had to delve into this subject in a personal way - but I was very surprised to hear that the birdbath option is a standardized one available through a local funeral home! 

If, however, most of our burials today seem unremarkable when compared with those of the past, it is perhaps partly because we entrust them to corporate entities. What if, instead (and I’m not suggesting that we actually do this), we buried our own loved ones ourselves? Not only would we be forced to plan every aspect of the disposal of their physical being, but we would also have a more intimate, tactile, and perhaps, profound, association with death itself. How would this impact our view of death? How would this be manifested in our choices of grave types, sites, or grave goods (or lack thereof)? Would our final resting situations remain as uniform as they are today? Or would our choices be as baffling to future archaeologists as those of our ancestors are to us?


Ellis Davidson, Hilda. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Price, Neil S. The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia. Uppsala, 2002.

Söderberg, Bengt. Aristokratiskt rum och gränsöverskridande. Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetets förlag, 2005.

Photos: A Viking-age grave at Li, Fjärås, Sweden; A Bronze-age stenhög (stone burial cairn) overlooks the sea from the Swedish west coast; More Viking-age graves at Li; A kyrkogård (churchyard), Kungsbacka, Sweden. Click the photos to enlarge.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Lofty Thoughts/Summer Laborlore

It's been so long since I've posted that I couldn't even remember my password. I had to look it up in my folder of passwords, usernames, and answers to security questions, which, thank goodness, I was able to find wedged into an overflowing drawer of the messy desk that is nominally mine.

My time in Sweden was truly fantastic, and I'm sure that I'll have lots to write about, assuming I can endure until my little lovelies are back in school. If you're a stay-at-home parent by trade (or by default), perhaps you know what I mean.

This summer is better than previous ones, though, in that I have had some actual thoughts in my head, like air in an otherwise deflated balloon. However, when it comes to the point where I'm ready to tie it and hang it up for display, motherhood obliges me to let go--for just a second--and with a long, farty noise (which, if it wasn't purely metaphorical, would delight the little ones) my balloon/head shoots erratically around the office and lands flaccid and empty on the long-unvacuumed floor.

But if truth be told I did have the opportunity one morning this week to visit the Library of Congress to hear the keynote speaker at the Laborlore symposium: none other than my former colleague Nick Spitzer. His talk was called "In Katrina's Wake: The Building Trades in New Orleans."

Nick is, of course, the host and creator of the American Routes radio program, in which capacity he delves into the vernacular music of the U.S. To a great extent this music retains its links to roots music and to the people who combine night time and weekend music-making with ordinary day jobs. This has been the practice in New Orleans as well, going back at least a century, where the same largely Creole community that created jazz in response to the tightening talons of Jim Crow also built, ornamented, and maintained that beautiful city's homes and public buildings. Those New Orleans families still practice the building trades, having passed them down through the generations along with the music, which, though one may be led to believe otherwise, is not the drunken excess of libertines but rather a remarkable commentary and elaboration by the working people themselves on their city, their place within it, and their lives. Rebuilding New Orleans--body and soul--is about bringing these families back, letting them do their thing (actually, things) and insuring that the city continues to be a fertile place for people to work and play.

Because the music, the architecture, and other creative expressions come out of both work and play, of course. Work and play and life give meaning to each other. And if this seems a far-fetched idea, difficult to apply to one's own humdrum life and job, then let Nick be an example. His own career, even when I first knew him (way back when) as an agent of the government bureaucracy (!), has epitomized experimentation, creativity, play--as well as care for the nuts and bolts-- as clearly as Louis Armstrong's banjo player/plasterer Johnny St. Cyr, or any of those other gentlemen he spoke of at the symposium.

Nick can speak on any topic but when you get him going on something he really cares about, it's preaching. At the LOC, in front of an audience of colleagues and friends, Nick may have been preaching to the converted. But that's largely what preachers do, I suppose. In any case I sensed strongly that this particular crowd was both inspired and spurred to further action in the field of documenting and explicating labor lore.

How inspired I am to continue on with my summer labor is another issue altogether. In any case my audience is a captive one, even as I am captive to it. With two weeks still remaining, I'm going to fill up some balloons, of the literal variety. Up, up and away! Farty noises, ahoy!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

I like the ice cream at the pool better

In a couple of days I'll be on an airplane heading home to Sweden and family, ocean and rocks, lakes and woods, the beauty that I remember from girlhood and that still inspires me. But before I leave my suburban US existence behind for a few weeks, here's a silly ode to the sun-baked, chlorine-scented, sunscreen-slicked flipside of my childhood memories.

They sell ice cream at the pool.
At the front desk there's a chart with pictures
Of twelve different kinds or more.
Mom says she's got ice cream at home in the freezer
So we're not going to buy it here,
But I like the ice cream at the pool better.

I like it when the ice cream sandwiches fuzzy my fingers with chocolate
And I have to lick it off.

I like it when the rocket pop paints my lips and tongue with reddish-purply blue
And my fingers trickly drops of sticky.

I want a drumstick salty with peanuts and a hard plug of chocolate
At the bottom of the cone.

I want to bite into a premium ice cream bar and feel the chocolate sheathing split and slide
Like the earth's techtonic plates
And cool vanilla lava slipping down my throat.

I want a choco-taco
Here and now
On the hot desert concrete
By the pool

Mom says she's got ice cream at home in the freezer
So we're not going to buy it here.
But I like the ice cream at the pool better.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Swimming in Lane 2, Odin

On Friday I had the happy experience of finding and reading Neil Price's "The Archaeology of Sei∂r: Circumpolar Traditions in Viking Pre-Christian Religion," which I found while "surfing the net." (Many thanks to Dr. Price and to Brathair for making it available. The academically affiliated have no idea how much we ivory-tower refugees appreciate the access to papers and such that would otherwise be out of our reach.) The paper served, for me in any case, as an introduction to Dr. Price's work on shamanism as well as Viking age warfare. It pointed, at its conclusion, to the possible existence of a type of Viking-age battle magic that drew on both shamanic traditions from, presumably, the Sami and other northern neighbors, fused with the organized, larger-scale warfare of traditional Germanic societies.

On Saturday I was treated to my children's first swim meet of the season. Perhaps it was the unrelenting sun beating down on my head, but I found that the various "battle rituals" associated with the meet provided me a different point of access to Dr. Price's paper.

Dr. Price, and other eminent researchers, please don't be insulted! Obviously, you have made it a life-long goal to gain greater specificity, deeper knowledge, and a more thorough understanding of your subjects, and perhaps the type of observation that I am making will offend in its tendency to generalize or trivialize...but hear me out!

There was an air of expectation, excitement, focus. The pool was clean, still; lanes marked, chairs rearranged, flags flying, victory signs mounted, concessions displayed. Warm-ups and last minute strategies were completed. Then the chanting commenced. The swimsuit- and swimcap-clad, goggle-eyed figures looked elemental, dancing and splashing in the fractured, glittering water, lit by the sun. There were innumerable cheers. They began softly, grew in volume and pitch and ended in hooting and body percussion. Then the teams retired to the secrecy and darkness of the locker rooms, where veterans taught the novices some new cheers. Soon the swimmers emerged covered with geometric war paint and the team names inscribed on backs and chests. More huddling, chanting, and finally the boys with letters on their chests dove off the board, one by one, spelling the name of the team.

True, there was no magic or shamanism in evidence. But my children did perform feats that I hadn't thought possible. And a non-military person like myself, who, I must also admit, has never been on a sports team, gained perhaps a little bit of insight into a culture of long ago and far away.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Tale of Two Parties

I recently read E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News. Set in an economically depressed Newfoundland town that’s kind of creepy as well as quirky, it was a lot of fun to read. Like a gallery of pencil sketches, bristling with odd details, that you are free to color in yourself.

One memorable scene is the farewell party for Nutbeem, a British expat who’s spent over a year outfitting a boat with which to make his escape. In Proulx’s words, the party ends up having “more in common with a parking-lot fight behind a waterfront bar than a jolly good-bye to Nutbeem.” When I finished reading the scene I immediately thought of the party for Doc in John Steinbeck’s classic Cannery Row. And then I thought of both of them in light of the posts on drinking I’ve done on this blog. (On the mythical origins of drinking and toasting and On the not-so-mythical outcomes of drinking and toasting.)

Both Proulx and Steinbeck seem to emphasize the ritual aspect of these parties. Each has a specific raison d’être that has been collectively agreed upon: the one is to bid farewell to Nutbeem; the other is to repay Doc for earlier events gone sour. Both authors describe the individual and collective preparatory action: securing valuables (including dependent children); hoarding supplies (especially drink, but also food); bathing (in the case of the flophouse bums on Cannery Row); and music selection. Steinbeck’s party is more structured, but both include drinking to excess, music, food, verbal pursuits (i.e. poetry or storytelling), and, notably, both parties come to a climax that includes fighting and destruction of property.

What is interesting to me is that the trajectories of these two parties are, as described by the authors, inevitable and even inherent. Both authors emphasize the organic, fluid nature of the party as a collective creation. That alcohol is the number one necessity is clear, and that its “inspirational” qualities allow the impulses behind the parties to be realized is implied. In Cannery Row, the activities that take place at the party reestablish the normal order and good-feeling of the neighborhood. In The Shipping News, the party and its culmination in the deliberate and wanton destruction of Nutbeem’s boat reveal the anger, envy, resentment and frustration of the men of Killick-Claw, who are trapped into either staying in this poor little town or leaving it. Both parties, ultimately, are expressions of the natural order and condition of the participants.

The aftermaths of the parties are also similar, in that both honorees (Nutbeem and Doc) seem fully accepting of the destruction. There is no anger, perhaps because there was no malice intended. Especially in the case of Nutbeem, it’s almost as if the outcome is preordained and as such, he takes it as a positive:

“I wouldn’t have made it anyway,” he said. “Storm coming. Gale warnings, sleet, snow, followed by deep cold, the whole string of knots. By Tuesday there’ll be fast ice. I wouldn’t have made it.”

Although, in fact, Nutbeem does leave Killick-Claw, by air if not by sea, it hardly matters, because the collective has spoken. Regarding ritual, Durkheim says, “men celebrate it to remain faithful to the past, to keep for the group its normal physiognomy…” I think it’s fascinating the way these parties do just that, in highly dramatic fashion.

Are there any other good party scenes out there?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Melted Ice and Withered Blossoms

Spring in Washington doesn’t just bring pretty pink cherry trees this year. It also brings cool, Swedish ICE to the waterfront in Georgetown.

That's how the House of Sweden (see photo) introduces its theme for the spring: Water and Environment. Sweden officially lists climate issues as a top priority and this exhibit and related programs offer education about and different views of the climate crisis.

The mention of the “pretty pink cherry trees” refers to April’s cherry blossom festival, centered around cherry trees given to the U.S. by Japan in 1912 and planted around the tidal basin on the National Mall.

The Japanese love of the cherry blossoms is due, in part, to their transience, symbolizing the transience of beauty, youth and life. Here in Washington, the “peak days” for the blossoms around the tidal basin are eagerly awaited and announced with due fanfare by the National Park Service. Tourists, joggers, bikers, and workers on their lunch breaks or playing hooky circle the tidal basin en masse, admiring the knobby, silver trunks and clouds of pale pink blossoms.

It’s quite something, really, for a city seemingly so immune to natural beauty, to celebrate a few blooming trees in this way. It’s the only “rite of spring” that we collectively have.

Yesterday I was in Georgetown and walked down to Sweden House, the new home of the Swedish Embassy, where earlier in the month they had arranged monumental sculptures made of Swedish ice around their sundial on the waterfront terrace. I figured the blocks of ice would have long melted away, but thanks to an unusually cool spring, they were still there and still quite large. The hot sun was at work, though, speeding up those molecules to the point at which gravity could pull them into the tanks below with the dripping sound of spring.

One tends to associate ice with coldness, hardness, barrenness and blankness. But in Norse mythology ice plays an important part in the creation of the world. Indeed Ymir, the first living being, is “born” through the contact of fire and ice. The outdoor exhibit at the House of Sweden certainly highlighted the creative potential of ice. Even after the forms of the scultures were melted beyond recognition, the ice was not at all blank or barren, it was patterned with interior cracks and bubbles, different colors, and, on the surface, different textures for touching. Illuminated by sunshine, it was more beautiful, and certainly more evocative, than any stained glass I’ve ever seen.

For us earthlings at this point in time, the life-giving, life-sustaining nature of ice has become apparent and even urgent. If the endangered polar ice is melted away, the predictable cycle that brings us the cherry blossoms, among other things, will be disrupted. And we will, belatedly, truly understand the meaning of transience.

Click on the images to enlarge.

Read my earlier piece on Climate Change in the North.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Just how bad were those Vikings? I mean, relatively speaking...

I recently had a familiar conversation. A friend had been reading Egil’s Saga and commented on all the (apparently) wanton destruction and killing that takes place. And I found myself, as always, trying to defend these old buddies of mine. Trying to explain how they really weren’t all that bad.

But how bad were they really?

I don’t subscribe to a black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us view of things. The way I see it, there’s one world, with good and bad all mixed up in it and in us. If you put Egil’s behavior into the cultural context, of course, it looks pretty normal and it brought him success. You could see it as an example of a Darwinian struggle to pass on one’s genetic code. You could see Viking behavior in general as a cultural evolutionary strategy.

But that’s not good enough for me. I just love these guys (and girls) and I hate to see them put down. I can list their accomplishments. Egil’s poetry, for one. Evidence of other literature (albeit oral) and legal codes. Ship design and navigation. Architecture, runestones, metalwork, wood carving, agriculture and animal husbandry, trade, and—don’t laugh!—foreign relations and statecraft.

Okay, I admit it, I have a strong interest in promoting a positive view of the Vikings, even if it means pointing out everyone else’s negatives!

So just what were the European non-Viking alpha males of that era up to? (I mean, when they weren’t at church.) Surely they couldn’t have been, uh, killing anyone?

Around the time of the first Viking attacks on England, we have the “rise of the Kingdom of Wessex, which overcame the Cornish Welsh and the southern dependencies of Mercia…enforced the submission of both Mercia and Northumbria.” Just how did they enforce the aforementioned submission? Did they make the Northumbrians wear women’s underwear?

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Uí Néill and the Eóganachta were the primary adversaries, with the Laigin stuck in the middle, forced--upon pain of…uh…having their lunch money stolen--to accept the “overlordship” of one or the other. They had been fighting for centuries and when the Norse appeared on the scene they made no bones about using alliances with the newcomers to further their own agendas.

And then there was Charlemagne, whom people seem to love for reviving Roman “culture.” (I'm not sure whether gladitorial combat to the death was included in that.) He was operating around the same time as our friends from Wessex. Here’s how he’s described by one author: “…[Charlemagne] spent his long reign fighting continual aggressive wars…conquered the remaining fragment of Frisia and…Saxony…absorbed Bavaria…establish[ed] protectorates over the nearer Slavs…[in] conflict with the Avars, whose downfall he contrived with the aid of the Bulgars…annexed the Lombard kingdom…” And in his spare time he did needlepoint, skipped gaily through the forest, and hosted telethons to raise money for poor starving orphans…actually that last bit is true, and I understand it helped him get into heaven in spite of it all. (That and protecting Pope Leo III when he was assaulted by his enemies, who, by the way, were not Vikings.)

Have I made my point yet? Bear with me, I've got one more example.

I can't forget the Germans in the tenth century. Henry the Fowler collected tribute from the Danes, I believe. What he had to do to get that tribute, I can only imagine. Otto I “humbled or dethroned other dukes...spent [years] fighting in south Italy…suppress[ed] Bavarian revolt…attempted invasion of France…died…while organizing a campaign against the Saracens.”

“Excuse me, but I’d like to try out that throne now.”

“Oh, yes, Otto, please, do have a sit! And can I get you a nice mug of cold beer?”

Perhaps I’m being snide, but there are some important points to note here. Most obviously, these guys had literate public relations people at work from the very start, whereas the Vikings did not write their own stories. Even the modern vocabulary is telling: the Vikings plundered and pillaged, but the others “overcame,” “enforced submission,” “conquered,” “annexed,” “absorbed,” “humbled and dethroned,” etc. Anti-pagan bias historically played a big part, too.

Finally, the English, Irish, French and German leaders fit within a traditional, and in a sense, evolutionary, view of history that sees the creation of the nation-state as an end that justifies the means. Thanks to newer currents in historiography we can move away from that view now. The Vikings certainly used violence, but they were not alone, and they also had their creative, honorable sides. The more we discover about them, the more there is to admire.


Hoffman, Ross J.S. and James J. Flynn. Medieval History With Questions and Answers. Littlefield, Adams and Co. 1965. (Okay, so this one’s a little old, but this is the stuff we were given when I was in school.)

McEvedy, Colin. The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History. Penguin Books. (And would you believe it? I can’t find a date on this thing! I promise it’s not from the dark ages, like that other one. The ISBN is 0140512497.)

Moody, T.W. and F.X. Martin. The Course of Irish History. Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1994.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Virginia Woman Blogs; Receives No Comments

With all the interest in blogging and bloggers lately, we here at spindlewhorl decided it’s high time that we work up our own blogger profile.

Close at hand is blogger Leslie Spitz-Edson, 42. We caught up with her at her home, where she can often be found, sitting at her desk and wondering why she receives no comments on her blog,

“I just don’t get it,” she said, reflecting on possible reasons for the shunning of her blog by other cyberspace regulars.

“There’s nothing controversial on my blog. Nothing at all…well…I did once call the Soviet system a ‘purveyor of revenge on successful families and an instigator of rage, despair, murder and suicide,’” she reflected, referring to her review of The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky. “Sorry!” (Phone calls to Konstantin Chernenko were not returned.)

“But, honestly, there’s nothing offensive…uh…I did once review a novel by an author who once wrote a book with a lot of sex in it.” Spitz-Edson quickly pointed out, though, that the book she DID review, Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders, has no sex in it. “Well, almost. There was one illegitimate birth. Oops!”

“There might be the odd musing about a 1000-year-old buried object, but nothing that would warrant concern about me or my soundness of mind,” she insisted. “But now that I think of it there was an awful lot of drinking on that television skit I mentioned…” What? Dinner for One?

Ms. Spitz-Edson says that she blogs mainly about her areas of interest. “I’m not trying to ride on anyone’s coattails here, or steal anyone’s thunder, or take the words out of anyone’s mouth or anything,” she insists. “Although I have to admit that Alicia Björnsdotter’s and Emma Reid’s Grovt och grant WAS already listed on another website...oh dear, I’m a bad, bad, woman!”

Recovering quickly, she added, “but really, of all the 10,600,000 Google-hits for “Jamestown”, my article is definitely the best!”

Talk about riding on coattails! Apologies to The Onion!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Review of What’s New at Jamestown: The Case for Archaeology

When I was a girl, Jamestown was just a story, and a somewhat confusing, problematic one at that. It was supposed to be really important, but just how did it fit into the Grand Patriotic Narrative of American History? Was it the first European settlement in America? No. The first permanent European settlement? No. A settlement based on lofty principles such as liberty or freedom of religion? Uh, no. Well planned and executed by highly competent individuals? Hardly. What it did have was a (supposedly) sympathetic “Indian princess,” cannibalism, and let’s not forget the genesis of the tobacco industry, still claiming lives 400 years later.

But never fear! These days, rich, true stories are being unearthed and told at Jamestown, and they can add much more to our knowledge of history and of the U.S. than those old, tired ones ever could.

There are two Jamestowns. Jamestown Settlement, run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, offers a visitor center with café, gift shops and a museum, along with three living history areas: reconstructions of an Indian village, the Jamestown fort, and the three ships that carried the first English colonists, the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant. Historic Jamestowne, a National Park Service/APVA Preservation Virginia site, offers a visitor center, film, the site itself (currently being excavated) and the new Archaearium, a museum that presents the area’s archaeology. Together the two Jamestowns tell a story of that settlement—and of the U.S.—that began long before 1607 and continues as I type: a story that embraces events in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and in the sea passages between.

Jamestown Settlement

The new, 15-minute introductory film at Jamestown Settlement is impressive. Beautifully filmed with convincing actors, it provides a feel for the natural milieu, introduces the cultures that eventually came together at Jamestown, and adds depth to the overall experience. Though the brutality pictured was--how shall I put it?—tastefully muted, it was a bit much for my sensitive six-year old. My sheltered nine-year old had no problem with it.

The living history areas appeal, above all, to the senses. For modern, urban hands and noses, handling the deerskins, furs, pottery, baskets, fishing nets, charcoal, armor, and heavy water buckets is instructive in itself. My children loved trying on armor, scraping out and climbing into the dug-out canoes and testing straw-mattressed sailors’ bunks. I enjoyed knotting the fishing nets. I wish there had been more costumed interpreters, but the ones there were had plenty of interesting information and answers to all the key questions: How did they prepare their food? Where did they sleep? And of course (since there were young children in my party), where did they go to the bathroom?

The museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement is extensive, informed not only by history and archaeology, but also by the natural sciences, anthropology, ethnology, geography, architecture, technology, etc. It includes interactive videos and films and a multitude of artifacts that help to depict 17th-century life in Virginia, England, and Africa (primarily Angola, where the first slaves sent to Jamestown apparently originated). The museum professional in my party (a.k.a. my husband) was favorably impressed by the exhibition craft and by the wealth of information available and accessible to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.

Historic Jamestowne

The real thrill of the experience, though, for me, was to get out to the actual site of the original fort on the banks of the James River. It was, until recently, thought to have been lost to the river. Thanks to rethinking by archaeologist Bill Kelso, it has been found and excavations are ongoing. Hundreds of thousands of objects as well as bodily remains have already been found. Structures that have been excavated to date include (the postholes of) a building, probably of wattle-and-daub construction (which is being reconstructed on site) and a well that contained many well-preserved objects from the early years of the settlement.

Also quite fascinating is the most recently added element: the Archaearium. This wonderful museum presents not only the artifacts and remains, but also archaeology itself. Visitors are treated to a crash course on how specialists attempt to analyze these finds, using knowledge and methods from dozens of disciplines—from art history to osteology, numismatics to geology, together, of course with modern techniques such as carbon 14 testing and DNA analysis. Then, in selected cases, the pieces are put together, and the viewer can see how knowledge grows, particular scenarios may be deduced, and conclusions can be tested and considered.

At the Archaearium it becomes apparent that archaeology, because it is perhaps the only unbiased witness to past events, can and should play a large part in the writing and rewriting of history. This is perhaps the biggest inspiration of all: a call to wake up, look for the evidence, dig in and, actually or even just metaphorically, get your hands dirty!

A practical note:

During our mid-week, spring-break visit the Jamestown Settlement gift shop was completely maxed out; the claustrophobic effect was even worse than in the passenger hold of the reconstructed Susan Constant. The café was doable for an early lunch, but I don’t see how it will be able to handle peak summer crowds. In other words, BYO food!

Monday, April 9, 2007


On a large plateau with a view over the Kungsbacka river and the fjord beyond, there was a village. It had been there, as far as anyone supposed, for generations, stretching back deeply into the Middle Ages. Around a dozen farms with their barns and stables; home fields held closely and outer fields escaping to the river, where hooves sunk into the soft ground. Fences of wood and stone, ditches, paths. Every so often a house burned, fell into disrepair, or was deemed obsolete, salvaged, and rebuilt. Again and again houses rose upon the remains of their predecessors. Like the cells of a human body, the houses were replaced, but still it was the same village; still it was Varla.

It even was Varla in the 1960s, when I was there. Hand-in-hand my grandfather and I took sugar cubes and apples to the horses stabled down the dusty road. With trepidation I observed the hay-bailing machine in the summer pasture, suffered a wasp-sting and burning nettles, but nothing clouds the sunshine in my memory.

Today much of the plateau is covered with typical, tasteful, functional Swedish homes, lining up along the streets that arch their way around the hilltop. In between now and then, though, came the archaeologists, looking for history and traces of earlier times.

Who lived there before? Would you believe it? Women in woven aprons and bronze brooches, keys dangling, in longhouses by hearth-light weaving sails for the ships that plundered and traded. Men in peaked Viking-helmets and riders with iron spurs and gleaming silver buckles of twisted animal limbs. Meat roasting in pit-ovens and bread baking on heated stones. Wells dug, and wells filled in with refuse. Births, deaths and burials following upon each other as times and habits went through their slow changes.

Is my Varla is gone? Is it gone, too, the Varla that nurtured the Bronze Age, the Vendel Age, the Viking Age and generations more? Once again we’ve built upon past structures seemingly obliterated. I wonder if, this time, it is still the same village. Is the old grown new again, or is it just layers?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

A Quick Re-View of 'The Greenlanders' by Jane Smiley

Author Jane Smiley has written a new novel that takes the premise of the Boccaccio's Italian Renaissance classic the Decameron and applies it to modern-day Hollywood. I haven’t read the book, called Ten Days in the Hills, but the recent Washington Post story on the subject included a mention of one of Ms. Smiley’s earlier novels, The Greenlanders.

You don’t hear much about The Greenlanders, but it is an amazing book. Dark and haunting, it is Ms. Smiley’s brilliant imagining of the final years of the Norse Greenland colony. Unlike Ten Days in the Hills, it doesn’t appropriate an earlier literary conceit and rework it with modern characters and setting. What it does do is take the current apocalyptic sensibility—whether expressed in Christian, Muslim, environmentalist, or other terms—and gives it some depth by portraying the progress of a real, historical societal extinction on an intimate human scale. In that sense, The Greenlanders has much to tell us about the terrifying nature of both human power and human impotence.

Greenland was settled by Norse colonists shortly after its exploration in the 980s by Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson’s father. (Leif, by tradition one of the Norse discoverers of America, was partly responsible for the Norse settlement in Newfoundland, at L’Anse aux Meadows.) It was Erik, a Norwegian outlaw, who gave Greenland its name, hoping to attract settlers to this largely glaciated land. Whether because of the name or some other factor, settlers did come to Greenland, and by 1300 there were probably some 2,000-5,000 people there, split between the Eastern Settlement (at Julianehåb) and the Western Settlement (at Godthåbsfjord). Settlers built turf longhouses in the fashion of those in Iceland and raised livestock, supplementing meat and dairy products with seal, fish, sea birds and their eggs, and the occasional beached whale. They depended heavily on trade with Iceland, and through Iceland, with Norway and Europe beyond. With a bishop installed at Gardar (Igaliku) from the early 12th century, the Greenlanders likely felt that their home, built with their own hands and sanctioned as it was by God and the church, was permanent.

And it was permanent for nearly 500 years, which is, after all, longer than European civilization has existed in North America. But ultimately the Norse colony disappeared: first the Western Settlement (around 1350) and then the Eastern Settlement (about a century later). A cooling climate at around this time helped to push the Greenlanders, whose survival had always been marginal, over the edge. By the time of Ms. Smiley’s story their seafaring abilities had suffered decline. Ice must have clogged their harbors for much of the year and wood for shipbuilding was not locally available. Strangely enough, though, we don’t know exactly why or how the Greenland colony disappeared. Was it famine (no stranger to these parts), an epidemic (also common), strife or assimilation with the Inuit, or pirates? Some suggest that once the population had dwindled to a certain point those remaining were transported to Iceland or elsewhere, although there is no historical record of such an occurrence. Some of the last Greenlanders, found buried in the churchyard at Herjolfnes (Ikigaat), were wearing up-to-date European-style clothing, so they must still have had some connection to the outside world.

Six hundred years ago Greenland was on the far edge of the (European) world and its existence was, sad to say, largely irrelevant. Perhaps—and again, we don’t know what actions they did or didn’t take—the Icelanders and Norwegians, the Greenlanders’ closest relations, so to speak, had more pressing matters to attend to. If that seems callous, we should remember that even in our own era—with its instant communications and live video and audio feeds from all parts of the globe—there are still people (think of the Jews and others in Europe, the Cambodians, the Bosnian Muslims, the Rwandans, the people of Darfur, etc.) who were/are largely abandoned by us, their human kin who are fortunate enough to have been born elsewhere. In this age of global climate change the Inuit people are now facing the possible extinction of their society in the Arctic, thanks to a combination of our actions and our inaction.

It must have been a combination of factors that doomed the Greenland colony. Ms. Smiley, herself a scholar of Norse language and culture, examines them all, weaving them organically into the lives of her characters in ways that are believable and chilling. One of the most relevant aspects of the novel for us now is how the countless variations on human frailty—greed, envy, fear, superstition, hatred, irrationality, closed-mindedness, conformity, etc.--can play into the demise of a society.

If we choose our actions and our leaders carefully, can we hope to avoid such a demise?


Arneborg, Jette and Kirsten A. Seaver “From Vikings to Norsemen” and Lynnerup, Niels “Life and Death in Norse Greenland” both in Fitzhugh, William W. and Elisabeth I. Ward. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington and London: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Graham-Campbell, James, Colleen Batey, Helen Clarke, R.I. Page and Neil S. Price. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. (A Facts on File book). Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Limited, 1994.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Book Review: 'The Reindeer People' by Piers Vitebsky

The Siberian reindeer herders’ camp is a fairly intimate collection of perhaps a dozen people and a few small tents, surrounded by thousands of square miles of space. One might mistakenly describe the space as empty, but in fact it is manifestly full. Stands of larch, lichen, grasses, bogs and lakes adorn the mountain ranges and river systems that feed into the Arctic Ocean. Bears, wolves, marmots, and other fur-bearing mammals, as well as birds, fish and spirits live here. Graves are carefully placed in the landscape, many on platforms or stilts in an older style. Their inhabitants require offerings from passersby, and they have stories, as do many of the mountain passes and other landmarks.

There are blueberries here, and even in a dry year Emmie knows exactly where to find them. There are mushrooms here, and when the reindeer flock to them in a late-summer feeding frenzy, Kostya can retrieve his animals, spread over many miles of territory, with amazing ease. The inconceivably large Siberian taiga, though austere and even deadly, especially during the bitter winter and the treacherous spring thaw, is portrayed in this book as well-ordered and peaceful. Each herding “brigade” (to use the Soviet term) knows the land as it knows its own mother.

Within the camp all is orderly and calm, too, which is nothing short of miraculous, considering that these people pack up their things and move every few days as they shepherd their reindeer through a yearly migration cycle, making use of the best grazing land while, as much as possible, avoiding stinging, parasitic insects and hungry wolves. (These two categories of creatures seem to be the bad guys of the taiga.) Every few days the herders pack tents, gear, books, journals, clothing and bedding, as well as kitchen items from utensils and pots to provisions and even the stove itself. These items are loaded into saddlebags carried by specially trained reindeer. All that remains behind is a stack of wooden poles (for the tents) and perhaps a platform with appropriate supplies neatly tied down under a reindeer skin or tarp, ready for use when the brigade returns to this spot in a year’s time. When the herders arrive several hours later at their next location, everything must be unpacked and reassembled for immediate occupation and use.

The village of Sebyan, around which the herds in their Soviet incarnation revolve, is the foil to the open, spacious, calm, orderly taiga. It is crowded and noisy with gossip, bureaucratic paper rustling, and wheeling and dealing. The government-run village and its mandatory state school rob men of their families, women of their traditional role as partners in a family enterprise, and children of their culture, replacing them with vodka, sugar and phony folkloric performances. The State Farm bureaucracy is a purveyor of revenge on successful families and an instigator of rage, despair, murder and suicide.

If space is telling in The Reindeer People, so, too, is time, underpinning the entire story. There are the thousands of years during which, in symbiosis with the reindeer, the Eveny culture was crafted; the scant generations since the Soviets tortured it into a mundane system of post-capitalist production; and the relatively few years since perestroika introduced its own set of difficulties. There is also the time spent by Dr. Vitebsky and his Eveny hosts: quiet time, hour upon hour invested in building the personal relationships that give this study its depth. Also described here is the elegant yearly cycle of migration, traced over and over on the vast landscape of the Russian Arctic, which lies underneath the multitude of stomping, crunching reindeer hooves like a living, calendrical carpet. In this way of life, the movement through space is a concrete representation of the movement through time.

Since the retreat of the glaciers after the last Ice Age, reindeer have lived in the northernmost reaches of Siberia, moving through the river systems and mountain ranges. The Eveny are just one group among several who live with these partly wild, partly domesticated animals, managing them with techniques taken from psychology as well as animal husbandry. Over thousands of years the Eveny and their kin created a home in the coldest place on earth—a culture that is physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually and socially sustaining. In The Reindeer People, Dr. Vitebsky’s experiences illuminate for us the interrelated beliefs, habits, dreams, and turns of tongue that deepen the many meetings and farewells, arrivals and departures of this still (for the herders) essentially nomadic life. Dr. Vitebsky provides fascinating background and history, and, I think, to his credit, he acknowledges his place as a participant on the ground (his wife and children even join him and Brigade 7 one summer) and as an anthropologist trying to make sense of it all, but to a large extent he lets the herders tell their own stories.

Before the Soviets, the yearly migration cycles were apparently augmented by other, longer travels over thousands of miles, made possible by the reindeer who, when winter snow and ice blanket uneven or boggy terrain, can virtually fly. There is also reference to a traditional midsummer ritual which symbolized the flight of each person to the sun on the back of a winged reindeer. Before the Soviets exterminated them, Eveny shamans also flew to the realm of spirits on missions of healing. (And the platform graves, are these a form of flight as well?) The centralized Soviet system disallowed these earlier forms of flying; its introduction of helicopters to move people and supplies, ironically but predictably, fostered dependence rather than healing or transcendence. This condition has been exacerbated by the post-Soviet reduction of transportation and other support.

Change is inevitable, both in natural systems (how will climate change impact this land and its inhabitants?) and in human affairs. There will always be a conquering people, a natural disaster, political discord, religious missions or schisms, new technologies or some other eventuality to catalyze cultural change, whether gradual or abrupt, violent or peaceful. The unrecoverable loss that results is acute and painful—in this case it is traumatic. Certainly, as I read this book, I mourned the loss of self-determination and freedom, the destruction of culture and tradition, the irradiation of the environment and its people, the breakup of families, and the impersonal cruelty of a morally bankrupt system that encourages treachery and death.

As Lidia, one of the herder’s wives, explains to Dr. Vitebsky, it is difficult for a herder to adjust to the village, because his soul is open from living in the taiga. I hope that the thousands of years of Eveny culture can ultimately transcend the destruction of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, and that the people can, in some fashion, metaphorically or actually, return to the well-ordered space which they created and which is rightfully theirs. Dr. Vitebsky’s friend Tolya (Anatoly Alekseyev), an Eveny anthropologist, is perhaps the pivotal person in this story, if not in the book itself. As Dr. Vitebsky points out, Tolya, in his use of aviation to contact otherworldly beings, is like a modern shaman, flying from the taiga to the world of scholars and activists on a mission of healing for his people. I wish him all the best on his journey.

The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia is a winner of the Kiriyama Prize for Nonfiction and a recipient of the Victor Turner Prize Honorable Mention.

Piers Vitebsky is the head of anthropology and Russian northern studies at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. He was the first Westerner to live with Siberian reindeer people since the Russian Revolution.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Climate Change in the North

Perhaps you’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth. I did, and I applaud the recent nomination of Al Gore for the Nobel Peace Prize. He truly has, as Norwegian environmental minister Börge Brende said, “som ingen annan satt klimatfrågen på agenden” (like no one else put the question of climate on the agenda).

The images from his movie---refugees fleeing flooded metropolises, massive droughts, and other cataclysms--are frightening and unforgettable. Now, thanks to the report recently issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rationality and science are making even stronger headway.

The official report isn’t as tough to wade through as I had anticipated. With my interest in the North, I slogged through the chapter on Europe trying to get an idea of the ramifications of global climate change for Scandinavia.

Northern areas will be subject to more precipitation in the winter, when saturated soils are less able to absorb the extra moisture, setting up conditions for increased flooding. On the flipside, warmer and drier summers with increased evaporation could lead to greater concentrations of harmful nutrients (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water. Longer summers will leave forests vulnerable to damage from insects and fungi that are new to northern regions, and stressed, dying, and drying vegetation could be susceptible to forest fires. Because of the warmer weather, all crops, annual or perennial (such as grapes and other fruit, for example), will be more susceptible to disease outbreaks.

Rising sea levels (7-23 inches by 2100 even if the polar ice remains largely intact) will cause disruption of human settlement and activities, and also will inundate and displace wetlands (disrupting breeding and nursery activity of fish, among other outcomes) and lowlands (including many agricultural areas), erode shorelines, exacerbate coastal storm flooding, increase salinity of estuaries, and threaten freshwater aquifers. The report mentions the Baltic, with its low tidal range, as particularly vulnerable, but it’s unclear to me how other factors, including glacial rebound, might mitigate the situation. Perhaps that depends on how quickly waters rise. There will also be (for all parts of the world) an increase in the likelihood of rare and extreme weather events, and the report states that coastal areas around the North Sea will be especially vulnerable to storm surges.

It seems widely accepted now that melting snow and ice (in particular, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves) will also contribute to the rising seas, bringing levels higher than those allowed in the IPCC report. According to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Svante Axelsson, the general secretary of Swedish environmental organization Sveriges Naturskyddsföreningen or SNF, counts Göteborg (Gothenburg) among the cities that will be flooded. Many believe that the melting of certain amounts of the Greenland ice could disrupt the Gulf Stream, thrusting the North Atlantic and northern Europe, including Scandinavia, into another Ice Age. This scenario is explored in An Inconvenient Truth.

Although the IPCC report expresses some optimism around the ability of humans, with the help of science, to adapt to changing conditions, statements such as the following indicate just how many variables there are: “A northward change in temperature patterns may not necessarily correspond to a simple shift in latitude of suitable areas for unusual crops because many plants are sensitive to photoperiod and adapted to a combination of temperature and photoperiod ranges. New genotypes therefore might be necessary to meet this new agricultural frontier, provided that the available soils are suitable for the crop.” ( And, regarding fisheries: “a poleward movement of species in response to climate warming is predictable on intuitive grounds. Habitat, food supply, predators, pathogens, and competitors, however, also constrain the distributions of species. Furthermore, there must be a suitable dispersion route, not blocked by land or some property of the water such as temperature, salinity, structure, currents, or oxygen availability. Movement of animals without a natural dispersal path may require human intervention; in the absence of intervention, such movement may take hundreds or thousands of years.” ( I wonder if our politically and ideologically fractured world is up to the challenge of cooperating to implement these types of survival strategies.

If we are in denial, or, on the other hand, overwhelmed, perhaps it is due to difficulty in making our way through the IPCC report, or our tendency to see a movie as entertainment. Or the multitude of other problems that humanity faces. Or perhaps the enormity of the problem makes it too hard to grasp.

To me, the smaller scale changes hit closer to home than the large. When I think back to the beauty of my favorite childhood places, it really hurts me to imagine that they may cease to exist, or become so changed as to be unrecognizable. I remember so clearly the beautiful, marshy land on the Kungsbacka fjord with its distinctive smells, sights, and bird sounds. Will they be inundated by rising waters? What about the red-granite island covered in purple heather where we used to swim—will it become nothing but an underwater danger spot on the navigational chart? And with hotter, drier summers, will the buckets of blueberries we picked as children be reduced to handfuls? Or will the entire area revert to an Ice Age?

I don’t know how many people care about the little things. Judging from the runaway development we experience here in the U.S., perhaps not many. Of course, if your life and culture are close to the land, as is the case with farmers, fishers, hunters, etc., you will be among the first to feel the pain. Ultimately, though, we all will feel it, as will our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

Are there places that you care about? Places that you remember or places that you enjoy now? Places that you hope your children will be able to enjoy as well? If so, please take a moment to prod your elected officials, if you are lucky enough to have them. Let them know that you want to see some action. Presumably with a problem so large, there are many ways forward, and we should probably walk them all. What about Al Gore for Climate Czar?

"Extended Forecast" by Ricardo Levins Morales. Click on the image for more information.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

CD Review: Grovt och grant/Rough and Shiny by Alicia Björnsdotter Abrams and Emma Reid

I’ve only once been fortunate enough to hear these two young women perform, and, ever since, I’ve been keen to get a recording of them. I must say, it’s been worth the wait. I listened to it, candles burning, while I did all my Christmas baking, and I am still enjoying it in January.

This recording is a joy and a treasure. Most of these tunes are from masters of the Swedish fiddle, tradition-bearers who lived late and long enough to be recorded or even to participate in the folk revival of the 1970s. As in other such cases, it is remarkable good fortune to have these gems performed with such love and respect by younger players.

It is also a pleasure to hear these musicians build on the tradition in their own compositions (such as Alicia’s lovely Gröttschottis, track 7) and in their interplay with other traditions (Road to Poynton/Paul and Jenny’s Wedding, track 13 and Vals/Ville de Quebec, track 5.

Most of this recording, though, is devoted to the peculiarly Swedish polska. The polska is a dance said to have developed from Polish influences that arrived in Sweden around the end of the sixteenth century when the two countries were briefly united under one king. As it has evolved over the centuries, the polska is a dance in triple meter, although, unlike the waltz, its three beats are asymmetric—they are not organized around a stressed first beat and may even be of different lengths. Melodically, these tunes have been described as employing “blue notes,” but perhaps what we hear is better understood as either unusual (to our ears) modes or melodies that developed independently of the tempered scale. Be that as it may, it is well worth opening your ears, because this music really swings!

According to the brief liner notes, grovt och grant (rough and shiny) refers to the technique of playing in octaves, one fiddle above the other, in order to incorporate both the high, “shiny” voice of the fiddle and the lower, “rough/coarse” foot-stomping voice. (These are dance tunes, after all.) You can hear a lot of this octave-doubling work in Gumas Polska (track 4). But the reality is that these two fiddles saunter, swing, turn, and glide past each other not only at the octave, but at many different intervals, now closer, now farther apart, now intersecting in a passing unison. This Swedish art of stämma—creating a second part that shadows and engages the first—is richly realized here. A beautiful example of this is Trollpolskan (track 6), which the album notes describe as småpratande (small-talking or chatting). The countermelody work here is truly thrilling; it speaks its own mind quite independently, yet somehow manages to achieve unison with the melody as each phrase tapers to a close. I can see the chatting ladies, sitting forward in their chairs, coffee cups clinking, but this intricacy also brings to mind the ever-twining wood carvings at Urnes or the pattern on a tablet-woven ribbon—the ones that grace the hem or cuff of a Scandinavian folk costume.

This music is extremely evocative of landscape and of the feelings of being immersed in nature. But there is also the presence of human beings. There is Auld Swaara (track 14), a lament from the Shetlands, in a darker, more mournful version than I’ve previously heard. The Skänklåt (track 11) and Gamla Rådasin (track 3), are both weighty and declarative; the latter is paired with a lively polska that has more than a hint of the baroque in its countermelody. And are those cow horns I hear in Hedningspolska (track 6) and the Anders Södersten polska (track 4)?

I wish I knew more about Uppland fiddler Viksta Lasse (1897-1983)--I adore these versions of his tunes: the utterly gorgeous, twirling, breathing, thinking-out-loud Polska til Wik (track 9) and likewise Vendelspolskan (track 10), which recalls the strathspey with its sharp, rhythmic push-and-pull, although the melody is so Swedish!

Grovt och grant begins and ends with journeys. For me, the Himmelfärd (heaven-journey, track 1) is over the hard, glinting sea, the fiddle bow mimicking the rocking of the wave-tossed boat. Längs gamla stigar och färdevägar (track 17) takes us along winding roads through sunny pastures, cool woods, and marshy bogs, all punctuated with boulders left by glaciers--or trolls, take your pick! But however you see it, both journeys will take you, unequivocally, to Sweden.

The Swedish homeland, like the grovt och grant title, may be a place of contrast--the cold, dark winter followed by the bright flowering of summer--but this record reconciles the two, bringing to mind the shifting contrasts of shade and sunlight through fluttering birch leaves. The rough and shiny are always there, as are, always, the dark and the light, but the whole is as graceful and lively as dancers as they step, bob, and twirl around each other, balancing on an unbreaking line between two extremes.

Alicia Björnsdotter and Emma Reid will appear in an interview on WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise. It will air (via the internet) Saturday January 27, 2007, starting around 7pm EST, and I am told it will be archived for later listening.

Grovt och grant/Rough and Shiny is available from CD Baby.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

On the not-so-mythical outcomes of drinking and toasting

If you read my earlier post On the mythical origins of drinking and toasting, you might appreciate this lighter treatment in the form of a video piece entitled Dinner for One. It's also known as The 90th Birthday Party or, in German, Der 90. Geburtstag. Originally written in England in the 1920s as a theater piece, it was recorded (in English) in 1963 by German television.

This short comic skit has become a cult classic in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Finland, German-speaking Switzerland, and South Africa. In some places it has, interestingly, become a New Year's Eve television tradition. (I've been told that Swedish TV started running it on New Year's Eve in 1972.) Combining slapstick with a sort of dignified pathos, it eventually arrives at a life-affirming conclusion.

I love this piece because it's fun to watch. I also love its tragi-comic read on the human condition, which at once recognizes the absurdity of, and the heroism involved in, persevering in the face of inevitable decline and death.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Weaving, War and Womanhood

In her history of textiles, Mary Schoeser has remarked that “…textile techniques and their terms readily become analogies for the mysteries of nature and the universe.” Both sides of the analogy are clearly linked with female endeavors and power.

In Greek mythology the three Fates, female figures in control of human destinies, are depicted as spinning, measuring and cutting the threads that represent individual lives. Norse mythology employs the same analogy, with the three (female) Norns depicted spinning the thread of life for the hero Helgi in the Poetic Edda. The metaphor that compares a human life with a length of thread is clear and understandable. The fact that the Fates and the Norns are female bears witness to the reality that women have traditionally been the spinners and weavers. The metaphor works particularly well, though, because there is an even deeper identification of women with the “mysteries of nature and the universe.”

Nowadays we are so far removed from the processes of spinning and weaving that we may well wonder, what’s the big fateful deal regarding these activities? In pre-industrial societies, textile production was an enormous part of life. It was parallel to food production in that both entailed harvesting or gathering as well as processing, and both must have been constant, ongoing activities. Children have watched their mothers doing these things for eons.

Food is undoubtedly a necessity, and clothing, even if not needed for warmth, is important for other societal purposes. Other textile items, including bags, baskets, fishing nets, sails, etc., are necessary tools. Through many generations, people—primarily females--developed and perfected the technologies and processes that allowed their families and societies to survive, adapt to varying conditions and prosper. Their successes rested on their knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, both of which could provide food and fiber.

(Am I wrong to credit women with all this? Jochens writes, “Although direct proof is scarce, few scholars doubt that women bore the chief responsibility for spinning and weaving in primitive societies, a conclusion supported by cross-cultural comparisons.” In addition, let me say that, even if my husband is normally in charge of the crops and/or the animals, what happens when he goes to war? Or goes on a trading or raiding expedition? Or travels far from home to participate in some sort of governmental assembly? Or simply has to work late at the office? If I want my family to survive, I had better know my husband’s business as well as my own!)

Thus women, through the ages, have been central to many essential activities. And let’s not forget the obvious: Because of their primary roles in childbirth and child rearing they are essential to life itself in a way that men are not. History and myth abound with stories of male raiders setting out to steal the neighbors’ women; evidence that women have felt the need to abduct men is scanty at best.

Perhaps because of their traditional occupations—giving birth and feeding and clothing the next generation with the bounty of the earth-- women were thought to play a particularly large part in the natural cycle of life and in the connection of humankind with nature. In a situation where the natural world was little understood and felt to be capricious or frightening, this connection might be especially valuable. Indeed, in the historical Germanic and Norse world, this seems to have been the case.

Tacitus reminds us that among the continental Germans, women were particularly regarded as prophetesses and sages. In Snorri’s Heimskringla we continually meet with priestesses, prophetesses and wise women who move the action along with their premonitions and insightful words. In the Eirik the Red’s Saga, Thorkel, the head of a household in Greenland, wishes to know when his district will recover from a difficult season, so he engages a prophetess to provide answers. In the Voluspá the god Odin himself summons a dead prophetess from her grave to obtain information about the destiny of gods and men.

Of course, the natural cycle includes both life and death. The Fates not only spin the thread, but they also measure and cut it when life is through. So we would expect to see female figures involved in the bloody realities of both birth and death.

Norse mythology famously features valkyries, female agents of fate responsible for choosing those who will die in battle. In the Norse poem Darraðljóð, a group of twelve valkyries are depicted weaving a gruesome tapestry using warriors’ entrails as warp and weft to the refrain, “let us wind, let us wind, the web of war.” (One wonders if Dickens had this poem in mind when he created that infamous knitter of the French Revolution, Madame Defarge!) Jochens observes, “In effect, Darraðljóð pursues to a logical conclusion the image of the Norns, who were female figures in control of the thread of fate.”

Valkyries bring to mind the Greek goddess Athena, at once a goddess of war and of the “women’s arts” of spinning and weaving. She was also, incidentally, the goddess of wisdom. Athena figures into Homer’s depiction of Penelope, who uses her weaving and her wits to control her own fate. Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, delayed ten years in returning home after the Trojan War. She insists she will not remarry until she finishes her weaving. Every day she weaves, but at night she secretly unravels her work, thus keeping her many suitors at bay until she receives word of Odysseus’s return from (of course) Athena.

Textile-related stories abound in Greek mythology. Arachne was a woman who bragged that her weaving was better than Athena’s. As a punishment, the goddess turned her into a spider. Though women may not have engaged in sports or war, their competitive instinct could be strong and their anger potent! And speaking of potent anger, Medea, one of the most powerful sorceresses of Greek mythology, took revenge on her unfaithful husband and his new bride by giving the bride a beautiful, magic robe that burned her alive when she put it on. (I don’t know that Medea wove the robe herself, but she clearly masterminded and engineered its magic.)

These stories are interesting in part because they move beyond the supernatural, fleshing out real women’s activities, roles, and emotions. They attribute motives and generate narrative where there was only mute production (and reproduction). Textiles become not only a symbol but also an instrument of women’s creativity and fate. As women’s handiwork is transformed into works of mind, heart, and soul, we encounter a wonderful, telling paradox: the intangible attains immortality while the tangible is doomed to disintegrate.


Anonymous. “Eirik the Red’s Saga” (translated by Keneva Kunz) in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Anonymous. “The First Lay of Helgi the Hunding-Slayer,” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second edition, revised. Tenth paperback printing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Anonymous. “Voluspá,” in The Poetic Edda. Translated by Lee M. Hollander. Second edition, revised. Tenth paperback printing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Modern Library, 1996.

Jochens, Jenny. Women in Old Norse Society. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Translated by Richard Aldington and Delano Ames and revised by a panel of editorial advisors from the Larousse Mythologie Générale edited by Felix Guirand and first published in France by Augé, Gillon, Hollier-Larousee, Moreau et Cie, the Librairie Larousse, Paris. New Edition 1968. Ninth Impression. U.S.A.: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1974.

Schoeser, Mary. World Textiles: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Tacitus’s Germania is cited in Jochens, Jenny. Old Norse Images of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.