Valkyrie Figurine From Hårby

Etymologically speaking, ”valkyrie” means ”chooser of the slain”. The job of these supernatural shield maidens in Norse mythology is to select who dies on the battlefield and guide their souls to Odin’s manor, where they will spend the afterlife training for the Twilight of the Gods, the final battle against the forces of chaos. After each day’s combat training, a mead-hall party with drink and reincarnated pork ensues, with the valkyries waiting the tables.

We have had very few period depictions of armed women. Instead scholars have applied the term “valkyrie” to a common Late Iron Age motif of a usually unarmed woman who offers up a mead cup or horn, sometimes standing alone, sometimes to an armed man, who is often on horseback. A more cautious term for this motif is “the greeting scene”, and there is reason to link it to beliefs about what would happen to men in the afterlife (cf. houris). But there are armed women embroidered on the tapestries from the AD 834 Oseberg ship burial, and a small group of brooches shows them in 2D relief (pictures below). Thanks to Danish amateur metal detectorists, that group is growing steadily. And now a 3D version of the motif has surfaced!

Detectorist Morten Skovsby found the first 3D valkyrie figurine late last year at Hårby on Funen. She wears a floor-length dress and has her hair in the typical knot we’ve seen for instance on the Lady of Sättuna in Kaga, and she’s armed with sword and shield. The interlace decoration on the rear of her dress should permit pretty tight dating once specialists get to see it clearly, but she’s definitely from the Vendel or Viking Periods, and I’d say probably from the 8th/9th/10th century.

See also the Lejre Lady. Thanks to Jakob Øhlenschlæger for the tip-off, to Jan Hein and Henrik Brinch Christiansen for the photographs and to Claus Feveile for additional information.

A man on a horse is greeted by a woman with a shield and a drinking horn. Brooch, Tissø, Zealand. Finder Flemming Nielsen.

Brooch depicting an armed woman. Gammel Hviding, Jutland. Finder Jens Chr. Lau. Photo Henrik Brinch Christiansen. Drawing Claus Feveile.



I found this lovely portrait on Wikipedia. 18th century portraits almost exclusively show people with European looks. But here a Russian painter has painted a Kalmyk girl in 1767. The Kalmyks are a Western Mongolian group living in south-west Russia. The girl looks just like Juniorette’s buddy whose parents are from Afghanistan and Korea! This picture presses all my dad buttons.

Her name was Annushka and she was a serf and protegée of Countess Varvara Sheremeteva (later Countess Razumovsky). In the picture, the girl is holding a portrait of the Countess. The painter, Ivan Argunov, is a major figure in the history of Russian art — and was a serf of the Countess’s father, Count Pyotr Sheremetev. One of Moscow’s airports is named for this wildly rich family.

Fornvännen’s Spring Issue On-line

Check it out in full, for free!

  • Kim von Hackwitz on miniature Middle Neolithic battle axes around Lake Mälaren
  • Roger Wikell & Jörgen Johnsson on the re-discovery of a runic inscription on a cliff side near Stockholm
  • Herman Bengtsson & Christian Lovén on indications in Medieval church art about the contents of a lost longer version of the legend of Saint Eric
  • Jens Heimdahl on the medicinal use of henbane in 12th century Nyköping
  • Magnus Källström on the re-discovery of archive documentation of two lost rune stones near Uppsala
  • And an unusually pugnacious debate section

Name That Moth

Early this morning this little guy found a really good crack in some wood where s/he could sleep during the day. Unfortunately the crack turned out to be the space between the gate to our yard and the door jamb, so all day the sleeper has been see-sawing to and fro as we have opened and closed the door. I don’t know what kind of moth it is, only that it looks lovely. Can you identify it, Dear Reader? To narrow down the possibilities, note that this moth lives on the inner margin of the Stockholm archipelago at about N 59° 18′, E 18° 15′.

Update same evening: Johan Lundgren pinpointed the moth: it’s a Yellow Line Quaker, Agrochola macilenta, or as Ansa Messner adds, lädergult backfly in Swedish. They aren’t very common in August, preferring to fly during the autumn.

Medieval Zombies: the Grateful Dead

Reading Anund & Qviberg’s new guide book on Medieval Uppland, I came across a great religious legend: “The Grateful Dead“. (The band got its name from a dictionary entry on this family of stories.) The earliest version of the legend is found in the German Cistercian prior Caesarius of Heisterbach’s 13th century book of miracle stories, the Dialogus miraculorum. This book was hugely popular for centuries, and though Caesarius is largely forgotten today, we do remember his chilling line about how to tell a Cathar from a Catholic, attributed by Caesarius to one of the Albigensian Crusade’s leaders: “Kill them all and let God sort them out”.

The Grateful Dead on a 1492 votive painting in Kołobrzeg Cathedral.

The cool thing about “The Grateful Dead” is that the story has zombies. Caesarius tells us:

There was a once a man who had the habit, when he passed a churchyard, always to stop and pray for the souls of the dead whose bodies were buried there. Once it occurred that he was pursued by armed enemies into this churchyard, and lo! all the graves in the churchyard opened and one saw all the dead bodies, armed with swords and staffs, hasten to the man’s aid. For fear of them, the terrified enemies turned back and ceased to pursue the man.

In the 15th century, this legend was a popular subject of church art across German-speaking Northern Europe. At least four churches in the Swedish province of Uppland has murals of the Grateful Dead: Biskopskulla, Roslagsbro, Rö and Yttergran. The story was lent new relevance by the Late Medieval preoccupation with Purgatory, where much of religious life became concentrated on ways to shorten the period of cleansing torture — such as indulgences. In that era’s interpretation of the legend, the dead rise to save a man who makes a habit of praying for their souls, thus shortening their stay in Purgatory.

And the imagery lives on. In early fantasy games of the Dungeons & Dragons ilk there was a trope about zombies wielding agricultural implements as weapons. I bet this came straight from Medieval art. The image below is from Jackson & Livingstone’s bestselling 1982 choose-your-own-adventure book The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

Zombies by Russ Nicholson, from The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

I’ve found two good papers on the Grateful Dead in Medieval art available on-line, by Hans Wieser 1947 in German and by Åke Nisbeth 1953 in Swedish.

The Changing Fortunes of a Labour Monument

Vår Gård in Saltsjöbaden is a conference venue and training centre whose history illustrates political trends in Sweden over the past century and more.

1892. The Thiel brothers, two of Sweden’s wealthiest art patrons, buy a property by the sea in the new fashionable resort of Saltsjöbaden and build two luxurious summer mansions. They name the place Vår Gård, “Our Farmstead”.

1899. The Swedish Cooperative Union is founded.

1924. The Cooperative Union buys Vår Gård and adds a number of buildings to the property to house its new training centre and its art collection.

1932. Sweden’s first Labour government is elected.

1944. “The Rochdale Monument”, a large gate-like stone memorial by sculptor Nils Sjögren, is placed in a peripheral spot overlooking the sea at Vår Gård to mark the centennial of the founding of the world’s first co-op at Rochdale in England.

1950. Mot framtiden, “Towards the Future”, another sculpture by Sjögren, is erected in a dominant position at the entrance to the property. This heavy larger-than-life granite social-realist piece depicts a working-class couple and their children in a typical Stalinist / Maoist fashion, gazing steadily towards the horizon.

1976. Labour loses its first election since 1932.

"Towards the Future", Nils Sjögren 1950, current placement, note dumpster

The Cooperative Union has in recent years turned Vår Gård from a training centre into a commercial conference venue, hotel and spa. It’s a very non-co-op place these days. And somewhere along the line – ten years ago perhaps? – they decided that a brutal granite Stalin family might not be the best representatives to welcome the businesspeople who come to Vår Gård for conferences and spa workovers. So they had the piece moved out of the way. It currently sits off to one side, hidden by trees from the sea it faces, next to a parking lot with a dumpster. Towards the Future, indeed. But the dedication plaque is still on the original plinth at the entryway, suggesting confusingly that what the Cooperative Union erected there in 1950 was an ornate lamp post.

This kind of life history for a piece of sculpture is a post-modern archaeologist’s wet dream. And me? Though I admire Sjögren’s technique, I think it’s a pretty damn ugly piece of work.

The sculpture's original plinth

1970s Concretist Sculpture

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This 1976 piece of public sculpture is at the playground next to my house. It’s titled Del av helhet – helhet av del, “Part of whole – whole of part”, referring to its modular makeup.

I haven’t really paid any attention to it since Juniorette became old enough to go out and play without grownups. But just now I took a walk in the sun and caught the piece with good lighting. It’s taller than I am, a sturdy climbable aluminium structure as was en vogue in the 70s. It forms a slightly narrow double portal into the playground for people approaching from outside the Boat Hill housing area. Kids from the tenements enter the park that way.

The artist is Bertil Herlov Svensson (b. 1929). A self-taught painter and sculptor, he debuted in 1967 after a career as a sailor and carpenter. These concretist aluminium works are characteristic for him, and we have at least one more in Fisksätra, the prominently placed Arkitektura Skulpturum whose silhouette is Fisksätra’s logotype.

Once while we lived in the tenements I took Junior here to play. He climbed the sculpture and came down frightened. On top of the thing, someone had written a graffito where they threatened to kill themselves. I hope they never did. I like that sculpture.